Sunday, October 29, 2017

Is Christ Divided? 1 Corinthians 1:4-17

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA
October 29, 2017

In the Fall of 1986, Annie and I moved into Philadelphia so I could begin my studies at Westminster Theological Seminary. At the time, I was thinking that we would go back overseas after I finished my program, and I really didn't have much interest in pastoral ministry. But I applied for financial aid from our denomination, because we had a strong connection there, and because I was interested in working with their mission organization. In the end, I didn't receive any aid, mainly because of a shortage of funds and because the money was primarily intended for those preparing to become pastors. But in the letter I received, explaining the situation, I found this note: "It would be good to note also that if funds were available the selection of seminary would be problematic to the church. At least there would need to be discussion about the focus of a Reformed seminary (I should say a seminary with a reformed theology) and how that can fit with the Brethren in Christ."

We're living in a divided Church, a Church where we're often more aware of the things that divide us than those things that bind us together in Christ. It's not just that the Brethren in Christ are uncomfortable with Reformed theology (the system of theology associated with John Calvin and his followers); reformed churches are very critical of churches like the Brethren in Christ. When I was worshiping in a Presbyterian church, I used to hear things like, "Arminians believe they can save themselves" (Arminians are those who disagree with the main theological distinctives of Reformed theology). It's not true, of course, but making that kind of statement helped Presbyterians feel more secure about their theological system. The tendency to tell lies about each other is so strong that the only safe place to find out what any particular group of Christians believes is in their own writings.

Divisiveness is nothing new in the Church, and it goes back much further than the 16th century. The church at Corinth seems to have had a particularly strong bent in this direction. Paul probably wrote this letter in the mid-50's, and he's received reports about their divisions: "each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,' or ‘I belong to Apollos,' or ‘I belong to Cephas,' or ‘I belong to Christ'" (v. 12). But the problem didn't end there. Near the end of the same century, Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians: "Why is there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another.... Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow. And yet your rebellion still continues!" (46:7, 9). The tensions and divisiveness were still there in Corinth, 40 years or so after Paul wrote this letter.

Divisiveness in the Church is not new, but it is a serious problem. It's not the sort of thing we should get used to, just because it's been around for a long time. I sometimes hear people say things like: "you know, I think denominations are a good thing; they provide outlets for different personalities." I've heard people go so far as to suggest that denominations are God's way of providing churches for all different kinds of people. When we talk like this, we've become too comfortable with our divisions. We've forgotten Jesus' desire for the Church expressed in His prayer in John 17: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (vv. 20-21). Since Jesus' desire is for the Church to be one, we have no business justifying our divisions.

That's why Paul speaks so firmly to the Corinthians. That's why Clement rebukes them 40 years later with such strong words. Division in the Church is a scandal. It's not something we should try to justify. We should be praying for the healing of our divisions, because, as Paul makes clear in these verses, when the Church is divided our witness is crippled. We can't bear witness to the oneness of Christ, because we're no longer one. The condition of the Church contradicts our message. Because we're divided, we can't bear consistent witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, even though in other areas there may be unmistakable signs of grace in our lives. As Clement said to the Corinthians: "Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow."

Notice, first, that God is at work in the church at Corinth. Paul begins by affirming the evidence of God's grace among them. These are not nominal Christians (people who are Christian in name only). Listen to verses 4-9 in The Message: "Every time I think of you – and I think of you often! – I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There's no end to what has happened to you – it's beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think – you don't need a thing, you've got it all! All God's gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that." This is a church with serious, persistent problems, but it's also a church of which Paul can say, "the evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives."

It's easier when we can write people off, when we can say, "oh, look at that; obviously these people are not genuine believers." Sometimes it's true, a person's life is so much in conflict with the message of the gospel that we legitimately doubt whether the person has faith at all. But Eugene Peterson wisely says, in his introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Message: "Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn't automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals." I'm currently reading the "Sword of Honor" trilogy by the Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh. By all accounts he was a very difficult person to be around. Once, at a party, a woman asked him how he, a well-known Catholic convert, could be so rude. She was saying, "you're not much of a witness." He replied: "Madame, were it not for the Faith, I should scarcely be human" (quoted by George Weigel, in Letters to a Young Catholic, p. 102). He wasn't being flippant. He was saying, "you're right, but I'd be a lot worse if I weren't a Christian." He said almost the same thing in a letter to a friend: "I always think to myself: ‘I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith'" (p. 103). For some people, for a variety of reasons, the journey to "impeccable manners and suitable morals" is an especially long one. We can't know how far they've traveled unless we know where they began.

Corinth was a notorious place in the ancient world, and the "people of Corinth had a reputation... as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people" (Peterson, The Message). All these tendencies didn't just go away when they turned to Christ (as becomes clear in reading through this letter). This is a church with very serious problems, problems which had the potential to tear the church apart at the seams. And yet, Paul says to them, "the evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives."

The second thing to notice is that their disunity is connected, in some sense, to their desire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Their disunity is a spiritual defect, but it's not an indication of spiritual indifference. They've gotten things mixed up, but these are not people who are lukewarm about the Church. These aren't people who say, "I don't care about all that theological stuff; I don't care about the details, all that matters to me is that my needs are met." Self-centered indifference can lead to disunity, but that's not the problem at Corinth. These people care deeply about what is happening in the church. Not only that, they care deeply about being faithful to Jesus Christ; they're people who "eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed."

It's those who care about following Jesus Christ who are more likely to be led astray in one way or another. I remember being startled when I first heard this from A.W. Tozer: "Strange as it may seem, the danger today is greater for the fervent Christian than for the lukewarm and the self-satisfied. The seeker after God's best things is eager to hear anyone who offers a way by which he can obtain them. He longs for some new experience, some elevated view of truth, some operation of the Spirit that will raise him above the dead level of religious mediocrity that he sees all around him, and for this reason he is ready to give a sympathetic ear to the new and the wonderful in religion, particularly if it is presented by someone with an attractive personality and a reputation for superior godliness" (Man: the Dwelling Place of God, p. 119). Those who are lukewarm and self-satisfied can't be bothered with such things. It's those who are hungry for more of God who are in danger. The danger is that we become attached to one particular teacher, or movement, in a way that cuts us off from others in the Church. That's what was happening in Corinth: "‘I'm on Paul's side,' or ‘I'm for Apollos,' or ‘Peter is my man,' or ‘I'm in the Messiah group.'"

The third thing is that, despite the work of God that is going on among them, and despite their concern about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, their divisions are undermining their witness to the truth. Here's The Message again: "I ask you, ‘Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul's name?'" Their factions are obscuring the truth that Christ is not divided. Their divisions are contradicting the message of the gospel.

Remember what Jesus said in His prayer. He prayed for the Church to be one, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Our witness is tied to our unity. Our calling is not only to speak about the truth, but to bear witness to the truth in our lives, not only in our personal lives, but in the life of the Church body. That's why our divisions are such a scandal. That's what Clement was talking about when he wrote to the Corinthian church: "Your schism has perverted many; it has brought many to despair, plunged many into doubt, and caused all of us to sorrow."

Division, alienation from others who belong to Jesus Christ, is just the opposite of what God is doing in Christ. His purpose is "to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). It's Satan who promotes division. One of the best illustrations of this is C.S. Lewis' description of Hell (in The Great Divorce) as a sprawling, dingy town, where people are constantly squabbling: "As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he's been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he's quarreled so badly that he decides to move....' ‘And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.' ‘That's right. There are. They've been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They're so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There's a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those olds ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That's one of the disappointments. I thought you'd meet interesting historical characters. But you don't: they're too far away'" (pp. 18-20). Alienation from God alienates us from one another. His purpose in redemption is "to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth." Our divisions are a scandal to the world and they're displeasing to God; they're in conflict with our prayers when we say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." God's will is to bring healing in Christ, and the Church is to be a model of unity and healing in this fragmented world.

But the truth is that we live in a divided Church. The Eastern and Western Churches have been in schism for nearly 1,000 years, and the Western Churches have been divided for 500 years. A lot has happened over the centuries to drive us further apart, and within Protestantism new schisms have developed at a truly alarming rate. A few years ago I talked with a friend who'd left his denomination and had joined a group of people he'd discovered on the Internet. These people, he said, were really serious about the faith.

We live in a divided Church, and it's beyond our power to restore unity. But that doesn't mean we should just accept the way things are. Before I close, here are some things that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, can do to promote unity. 1) Speak the truth about each other. Many of our denominational conflicts are complicated by the false things we say about one another. If we don't want to take the trouble to find out what people in other churches really believe, we shouldn't presume to talk about it. We all have some mixture of truth and error in our theological understanding, and in those areas where God's people have had centuries of disagreement, we need to allow people the freedom to think differently than we do. The temptation is to present their ideas in the worst possible light and then to think, "how could anyone believe such things?" We don't achieve anything by telling lies about each other, and we dishonor the name of Christ.

2) Related to the first point, seek to learn from the best people in other denominations. Most of us are unbalanced in some ways, and we can be genuinely helped by people who look at things differently. I first learned how to pray the Scriptures from a Lutheran (who was taught by Benedictine monks). Over the past twenty years, I've received much help from writers on Catholic spirituality. I use the Liturgy of the Hours in my personal devotions, and I listen often to the music of John Michael Talbot, a Franciscan. I once spent a week at his monastery in Arkansas. I've also been helped immensely by Reformed writers. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, more than any one person, formed my idea about what preaching ought to be. J.I. Packer convinced me that theology could help me learn to worship, and Jonathan Edwards has helped me think about how to distinguish between true and false experiences. And some of the most godly people I've met have been Pentecostals. I became a Christian in an Assembly of God church and one of my favorite Bible professors in college was a Pentecostal. The main commentary that I've used in 1 Corinthians is by Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal. Recognizing that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and being willing to learn from one another, can be a great help in our spiritual lives, and it has the added benefit of promoting unity. We're not going to speak harshly against those who've helped us grow closer to Jesus.

3) Remind yourself often that all who follow Jesus Christ will one day be together in His presence. That's one of the things Jesus mentions in His prayer in John 17: "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory" (v. 24). I don't want to act and speak in ways that I'll be ashamed of on that day. When we are there in His presence, all our denominational differences will be irrelevant. Even if it doesn't happen here on earth, in eternity there will be no more denominations. This should help put our differences into perspective.

Together with all God's people scattered throughout the earth in various kinds of churches, we look forward to this time described near the end of the book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'" (Revelation 21:1-4). Since we will all be gathered together in God's presence for eternity, let's begin now cultivating a sense of our oneness in Christ. Let's be praying for the healing of our divisions, so that the Church can bear witness, in both word and action, to God's work of gathering up all things in Christ. I don't know about you, but on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this is what I want to celebrate.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl, Matthew 13:44-46

When one of our sons was three, we took him to the store so he could buy a toy he'd been saving for. He knew exactly what he wanted and had saved enough money. So we walked in, got the toy, and took it to the cash register. Everything seemed to be going well until the cashier took his carefully-saved money. Then he fell apart, and started yelling "she took my money!" We had explained, in advance, how it was going to work and he had agreed, but when the moment arrived, it was a very difficult choice to make. He really did want the toy, and in the end he paid for it; but for awhile it wasn't clear what was going to happen.

This is often a difficult lesson to learn: that in order to get something we want, we have to give up something else. Even accepting a free gift involves letting go of whatever is in our hands at the moment to make room for the gift. I've known many people who say they want to follow Jesus Christ, but when it comes to Sunday morning aren't willing to give up the extra sleep they want, or the opportunity to spend the whole day in recreation. "I have to go back to work on Monday; I really need this time for myself." As I talk to pastors, I get the impression that this is a growing problem in our culture; a significant number of people in our churches, who think of themselves as serious believers, only attend corporate worship an average of one or two Sundays a month. And, for the most part, these people never grow to spiritual maturity, because they're not willing to give up very much for the sake of God's kingdom. Others maybe attend worship regularly but aren't willing to set aside any time to cultivate God's presence. They wish, at times, that they had a stronger relationship with God, but when it comes down to it they're not willing to give up any of their time to bring that about. This is a hard lesson, that in order to get something we want, we have to give up something else. It's one thing to struggle with this problem when we're three years old; at that point it's a simple issue of development and maturity. But if we go on year after year holding tenaciously to the things we already have, unwilling to part with any of our treasures (things like time, recreation, or work), there's something more serious going on.

These two parables point us in the right direction. They both make the same point: when we see the value of God's kingdom, we will joyfully lay aside everything that stands in the way of possessing it. In the first parable, a man stumbles across a treasure buried in a field. It was common in the ancient world to hide money and other valuables in this way. There weren't any banks, and with bandits as well as frequent enemy invasions, it wasn't safe to hide anything with significant value in the house. Many treasures were lost in this way; maybe the people died or were taken into exile by invaders before they could dig it up. No doubt over time some just lost track of the exact spot and were unable to ever recover their treasure. Even today, some are being dug up in Palestine (Robert Mounce, Matthew, pp. 134-35).

So this man finds one of these lost buried treasures in a field, and because he doesn't own the field, he immediately hides it again then goes out and sells all he has and buys the field (which, then, makes the treasure his). Some people get bogged down at this point by the question of whether what this man did was ethical or not, and they're so bothered by that problem that they miss the whole point of the parable. A parable is a story that makes a particular point; it's not saying, "go out and do this," but rather "here is a picture that tells us something important about the kingdom of heaven." If we get stuck on the ethical problem of whether this man should have done things differently or not, we're likely to miss what the parable is saying. The point of the parable is that this man was so pleased with this treasure he had found that he joyfully parted with everything he had in order to possess it. The second parable says the same thing in a different way. A merchant is traveling from place to place, looking for fine pearls, and in his travels he discovers one of such value that he sells everything he has in order to buy it. These parables are saying, the kingdom of heaven is of such worth that when we see the truth about it we'll gladly part with anything that stands in the way of possessing it.

The first thing to notice is that the motivation for this sacrifice is not guilt, or a sense of duty, but a realization of the exceeding value of the treasure. Notice the phrase, in verse 44, "in his joy." This isn't a picture of someone who says, "I don't like this one bit, but I'm going to do it anyway because it's the right thing to do." I talked to one man, several years ago, who was just as concerned as I was about the current trend of sporadic church attendance. "My mother taught me to be in church every Sunday," he said. That was a good thing, to learn the habit of dragging himself to church whether he felt like it or not. But there was something lacking. He wasn't able to get beyond the idea of doing the right thing, doing his duty. There was no joy in it, and in the end he wasn't any more spiritually mature than the people who only attended half the time.

Neither of these parables is about the benefits of sacrifice. The point is not, "it's good for you to give up something; it'll make you into a better person." They're not laying down a legal obligation, saying, "if you do this you'll be saved." Neither of the characters in these parables is being dragged kicking and screaming; they are joyfully parting with everything they have because they're so taken with the wonder of this treasure they've discovered. They're like the apostle Paul, when he tells the Philippians, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3:7-8). Not, "I've come to see the worthlessness of everything I previously valued." He's making a comparison. Everything now seems insignificant compared to "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." We have a hymn chorus that says the same thing: "turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace." It's not that the things of earth are worthless; it's that the wonder of who Jesus is causes them to fade by comparison: "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

The second thing is that not everyone discovers the value of God's kingdom in the same way. We need to be careful about making too much of the details of a parable. Usually a parable makes one major point, and the surrounding details may or may not be applicable. It's usually a mistake to look for a hidden meaning in every aspect of the story; but it's also a mistake to go to the other extreme and say, "every parable is only saying one thing." The New Oxford Annotated Bible has a good balance: "In general the teaching of a parable relates to a single point, and apart from this the details may, or may not, have a particular meaning" (note on Matthew 13:1-52).

Having said that, there's an instructive difference in these two stories: the first man stumbles across a treasure he wasn't seeking, while the second man finds something he's been diligently looking for. The important thing is not how we discover the treasure of God's kingdom but how we respond to that discovery. The characters in these two parables make their discoveries in very different ways, but they both make exactly the same response. People come into God's kingdom in a wonderful variety of ways, sometimes in ways that make no sense at all to us.

One of my favorite evangelism stories is about one of the leaders in Operation Mobilization, a man with an exceptional gift in evangelism. One day, when he was still a student in Bible College, he was out with a group of friends witnessing to people in Chicago. At the end of the day they were traveling in a van on their way back to their dormitory and he saw a man standing at a bus stop. Something about the man caught his attention and as the van went by he leaned out of the window, yelled "read this, it's really important," and threw him a booklet. Six months later, he was visiting a church in Chicago and a man stood up to give his testimony about how he came to Christ. The man began, "well, it's really a strange story; about six months ago I was standing at a bus stop, deeply depressed, when a guy threw me a booklet from a van...." St. Augustine was converted by a voice coming over the wall saying, "take up and read." He never knew where the voice came from, whether it was the voice of God or of an angel, or if it was someone speaking words intended for someone else. But God spoke to Augustine through those words; he knew beyond any doubt that God was calling to him and he picked up his Bible, read, and was converted to Christ. People come into God's kingdom frequently in surprising ways; we need to allow them to follow a path that's different from the one we've followed. The important thing is not how we come to the realization that God's kingdom is a treasure that exceeds everything else we have; the important thing is how we respond to that realization.

The third thing is that receiving God's kingdom means, of necessity, laying aside all the other things that are competing for first place in our affections. You may ask, "but isn't salvation a free gift?" Yes, it is, but we can't receive it if our hands are full. We can't receive the gift if there's no room for it in our lives. We need to be careful about taking those passages that stress that salvation is a free gift and separating them from their context in the New Testament. Jesus says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19, 21). Just a little later, He goes on: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (v. 24). God offers us, freely, an unspeakable treasure in the gospel; but in order to receive it, we need to lay aside our other treasures to make room for it. If we grasp for everything, like our popular culture encourages us to do, we'll end up with nothing in the end. That's the point of Jesus' words: "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). Listen to this verse in The Message: "If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me."

St. Augustine spent his early life running from God. His mother was a Christian, and she prayed fervently for him. But he was over thirty by the time he turned to Christ. Looking back on his life, he didn't say, "thank God I had all that time to myself before I became a Christian, before I had to give up so many things that I enjoyed." He didn't say, "well, you know, it's not so bad; I was able to do all those things I wanted to do when I was young, so now I can lay that all aside and diligently follow the path of duty." When he looked back, he saw that the loss was not in turning to Christ, but in persisting so long in resisting Him. He was grieved, not in what he had to give up, but that he had lived so many years in alienation from God, the source of all good.

Here's what he says, looking back: "Too late have I loved you, O Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, You were within, but I was outside, searching for You there - plunging, deformed amid those fair forms which You had made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Things held me far from You, which, unless they were in You did not exist at all. You called and shouted, and burst my deafness. You gleamed and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors on me, and I held back my breath, but now I pant for You. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me, and now I yearn for Your peace" (The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Hal M. Helms, Book X, 27). In Christ, he found a treasure that exceeded his wildest imaginations, and he looked back with sorrow on the years he'd wasted fleeing from Eternal Beauty. When he saw the truth, he gladly parted with all his treasures and spent the rest of his life making room to welcome Christ into every area of his life.

Why do we grasp so tenaciously for our treasures? Why are we so unwilling to part with them (and I'm not thinking here only of material possessions, but also of things like time, work and recreation)? St. Augustine gives us a good answer at the beginning of his Confessions: "You awake us to delight in Your praise; for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You" (Book I, 1). God had made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless, filled with longing and a sense of incompleteness. So we try to fill our hearts with the things of this world; it feels threatening to think of letting go of them. But when we use created things in this way, they dull our hearts and keep us from seeing the beauty of Christ. And they never quite do what we're hoping for. They always disappoint us on some level.

The answer is to cultivate an awareness of the "unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8). We're not called to give up things just for the sake of doing without. The two men in these parables didn't sell all their possessions because they wanted to be free from the constraints of earthly life or because they had decided to wander the world in search of the divine. They sold all they had because they had found a treasure that exceeded their wildest imaginations. They had found a treasure which led them to joyfully part with everything they had. The emphasis is not on what they gave up, but on what they found. Our need is not to empty our lives for the sake of being empty, but to make room for Christ. If we do that, we won't look back years from now and say, "Oh, I wish I hadn't parted with all my treasures." We'll find ourselves saying, with St. Augustine, "You gleamed and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors on me, and I held back my breath, but now I pant for You. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst for You." Or with the Apostle Paul: "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Kingdom of Priests, Exodus 19:2-8

When I was in college I attended my first congregational council meeting. I didn't grow up in the church, so this kind of thing was completely unfamiliar to me. This church was part of a small denomination, and many of the people in the meeting were voicing concerns about all the new people coming into the church, because people coming in from the outside would inevitably bring some unwelcome changes. Not necessarily bad changes, but unfamiliar changes, things that would affect the culture of the church. They were worried that the church they'd lived in all their lives would become an uncomfortable place because of the influence of these “outsiders.” And, to be honest, I was one of these outsiders and, like many others, had been welcomed with open arms into the church and was glad to be part of the community; these, on the whole, were good people who were just worried about what was going to happen in the future, about the church they'd known all their lives becoming a place where they no longer belonged.

But the apostle Paul had a very different experience with people who had a similar concern. In Acts 22, he's been arrested by the Romans in Jerusalem (because the Jews were trying to kill him) and as he's being taken to the barracks, he asks to be allowed to speak. When the crowd hears him speaking in Hebrew they become attentive and everything goes well at first. But then he says “After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, 'Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.' Then he said to me, 'Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles'” (Acts 22:19-22).

They had been listening attentively, but when he mentioned reaching out to the Gentiles they started shouting “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” Why did they react so violently to these words? Why was this so repellant to them? They saw themselves as God's chosen people, with everyone else in the world on the outside, to be despised and avoided. “God has chosen us, not them, and He wants us to remain pure and not be contaminated by outsiders.”

The thing is that their concerns are rooted in truth; Israel had often gotten into trouble because of their contact with other nations, but they got into trouble because they allowed these nations to influence them and pull them away from worshiping God. God's intention was not that Israel be completely isolated and apart from other nations. He wanted them to influence, rather than being influenced. Israel's calling was to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Being a kingdom of priests means that they are to do for the world what we see Moses doing for them in these verses. The world is in trouble because of its rebellion against God, but that doesn't mean that He's no longer concerned about all these people who've rebelled against Him. As He says in these verses, “all the world is mine.” The people listening to Paul have lost sight of this reality.

So what does Moses' priesthood involve? First, it involves receiving a message from God. The message is not primarily addressed to Moses himself. He'll certainly benefit from listening to the message, but the message is not primarily addressed to him; it's a message that he is called to deliver to the people of Israel. Receiving a message and being attentive to what God wants to say to His people is a part of his priestly calling.

His priestly calling involves receiving a message, but since this message is not addressed primarily to him, he needs to go on to deliver this message to God's people. But delivering messages from God to people in rebellion against Him is very often not a positive experience. Several years ago, a pastor said to me, “preaching is the easiest thing I do all week.” This man loved talking about himself and his vision for the church, and he didn't feel bound by the need of discerning a message from God's Word. Delivering a message from God is a stewardship, not an opportunity to talk about whatever one finds appealing or “sharing what's on my heart.”. And doing this, listening to God's Word and delivering a message from Him, is not always a positive, easy thing.

Jeremiah didn't want to be a prophet at all, but God called him to that work anyway. And after years of faithfully delivering the messages God gave him, Jeremiah said to the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened” (25:3). In human terms, his ministry was a failure, and he felt like he was not achieving anything most of the time.

Then Moses, after receiving a message from God and delivering that message to the people, is also called, as a priest, to stand before God on behalf of the people, to represent them before God: “So Moses came and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do.' And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.” Part of this priestly ministry involves intercession, standing before God on behalf of others. So these three things: receiving a message from God, delivering that message to the people, and then speaking to God and representing the people before Him, are all part of what it means to be a priest. And connected with this is also being not only to be a kingdom of priests, but a holy nation, which means a people set apart for God and His purposes. This is what the people listening to Paul got wrong. They thought they were people called to belong to God apart from and above others, when they were called to belong to God and represent Him on behalf of others.

God says these things to Israel, but many centuries later, Peter says this to the Church: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). Peter was a strict Jew. When he received a vision with all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds, along with a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat,” he responded by saying “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:13-14). God repeated the vision three times, to prepare Peter to go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, something that was simply unthinkable to his first-century Jewish sensibilities. But now, years later, he addresses the Church, including its Gentile members, in terms that had previously belonged only to Israel. Our calling, as the Church, is to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

But this kind of thing doesn't just happen automatically. I like listening to Jeff Brown in the morning on 93.7 The Bus, and he has a bit about stuff he's found while he was looking for other stuff. It's one of my favorite things to listen to in the morning next to Boneheads in the News. But becoming people who act as priests to the people around us is not the sort of thing we stumble into while we're going about other things. We need to be intentional in cultivating a life that is consistent with our calling to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

One of the first things we need is an awareness of what God has done for us. God says to Israel, in Exodus, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself” (v. 4). We need to cultivate an awareness of the great things God has done in bringing us to Himself. Especially when we've been going to church all our lives, hearing these things over and over again, they can seem commonplace. We start taking them for granted and forgetting what it cost for us to be reconciled to God. When that happens, we need to take ourselves in hand and meditate on God's Word; take a short passage (rather than trying to read several chapters) and read it over and over, letting it sink in. And as it starts to sink in, respond to God with prayer and thanksgiving. Sing a hymn or a worship song if you want, but take time to allow your heart to be warmed in God's presence, to remember what God has done to reconcile you to Himself.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican, the Pharisee is unfit to fulfill a priestly ministry because he's unaware of what God has done for him. He's too occupied with what he has done, and is doing, for God: “Lord, I thank you that I'm not like others.” There's no room left in his heart for gratitude over the things God has done. I've probably mentioned these words by John Newton before. He was a slave trader early in his life, but then God had taken hold of him. He became a wonderful pastor, but he never lost sight of what he had been before he experienced God's grace. He wrote the hymn Amazing Grace: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” and he was intensely aware of what God had done to redeem him from his former way of life. Near the end of his life, he said “my memory is almost gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great Savior.” The apostle Paul, early in his ministry, said he was the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9). A little later in his life, he said he was the “least of the saints,” the least of God's people (Ephesians 3:8). And then, nearing the end of his life, he called himself the “foremost of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The more we see of God, the more aware we are of our sinfulness. Paul was equipped to carry out his priestly ministry as an apostle, because he was intensely aware of what God had done for him.

Then we need to “go up to God,” as we see Moses doing in this passage. A pastor friend of mine was out fishing once and the guy he was with said, “I don't need to go to church; God speaks to me right here.” He responded, very wisely, I think, “really; what does He say to you?” Of course, the guy didn't know what to say. God can speak to us anywhere, but the reality is that He usually doesn't speak to us unless we make a definite effort to seek Him in the places where He makes Himself known.

Moses is going up to God to receive a message for God's people. But if he went up into the mountain and then distracted himself with all kinds of entertaining things to pass the time, to make the experience easier, it's likely that he would not hear from God. Going up to God, in the way that Moses does here, involves attentiveness to Him, paying attention to His Word. There are so many distractions in our culture right now, and it's difficult for us to pay attention to anything for any length of time. But if we want to hear from God we need to cultivate an attentive spirit and be willing to ignore the distractions that clamor for our attention. As God says to Jeremiah, “When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Being a kingdom of priests, entering into the priesthood of God's people, requires sustained attentiveness to God and His Word.

Make a plan to spend time with God in prayer and in His Word regularly. There are lots of good devotional guides out there that can give you a good start. Follow this with reading a chapter or so in the Bible, maybe pray a Psalm, and then use a book of written prayers to help guide your prayer time (A Diary of Private Prayer, by John Baillie, is a good place to start, but there are lots of others out there). Have a definite structure for the time; you can always change it when you want, but if you have a structure in place you don't have to make a decision at the time about what you're going to do. You just enter into the time and offer your prayers to God. Sometimes He will meet with you and you'll feel refreshed, and other times you'll just go through the things you have in place. But in both cases what you're doing is of value and you are preparing yourself to enter into the priestly ministry of God's people.

And then, as people who are pursuing God and are attentive to His Word, we also need to make an effort to order our lives in obedience to His Word. The words, “you shall be my treasured possession” are connected to the condition “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant.” God's desire is that His people respond to Him in loving obedience. Jesus says the same thing in the New Testament: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:15-16). If we understand truly what God has done for us, we will want to show our love and gratitude by increasingly living under His Lordship.

I spent a few years in the ELCA, and I found that they were very nervous about words like “discipleship” and “obedience,” because they thought these ideas would undermine justification by faith alone. The bishop of the Allegheny Synod at that time admitted this to me. He took exception to some things I had said about discipleship in a sermon and said “we Lutherans get uneasy when we hear the word 'discipleship,' because we worry that it will undermine the gospel of free grace.” But Jesus is clearly concerned that His followers respond to Him with loving obedience; this loving obedience is not the foundation of our acceptance before Him, but it grows out of that acceptance. And that growing obedience, rooted in our gratitude for what God has done in redeeming us and granting us free access into His presence, is part of what it means to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

We who by God's grace and mercy have been called into the Church of Jesus Christ are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that [we] may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9,10). May God, in His infinite mercy, enable us to increasingly live in the light of the priesthood to which He has called us.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Living as Exiles, 1 Peter 1:17-21

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College PA
Third Sunday of Easter, 2017

On Wednesday morning this past week, I was in a training session at work. It lasted all morning, and about halfway through I thought “what is the point of this? Why are we sitting through this training when we could be making much better use of our time?” I was, at the time, bored and frustrated. I truly had more pressing things to do. But even so, this is a good question to ask ourselves from time to time, especially as Christians. We become comfortable with the gospel, and it begins to seem commonplace; we think we understand all we need to know to get safely to heaven, and we begin to drift spiritually. There are so many urgent things calling for our attention. When that begins to happen, it’s a good thing to stop and ask ourselves, “what am I doing here; what is the point of this?” And this passage in 1 Peter is a good place to go for answers.

First, consider what it took to redeem us. Peter says we were redeemed “from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.” They were redeemed from idolatry, from a life in which they worshiped idols, empty gods that had no power to save them. Their worship was empty and vain, and since we were created as worshiping beings, the quality of our worship affects our whole life. Idolatry permeates every part of our being, so that our lives become empty and vain, like our worship. William Barclay quotes one ancient writer: “Suns can rise and set again; but once our brief light is dead, there is nothing left but one long night from which we never shall awake.” (The Letters of James and Peter, p. 187). This is the background to our redemption, and it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of it. We’ve been redeemed from an “empty way of life,” a life of alienation from God, separated from the very purpose of our creation, a life lived under the shadow of death.

The word “redemption” refers to the freeing of slaves by paying a ransom price. In the ancient world, when people were reduced to poverty they would often sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts. But in Israel there was a provision for slaves to be set free if someone paid the full price to the owner and then, in an act of kindness, gave them the gift of freedom. So when Peter says that we’ve been redeemed, he’s saying that God has set us free from our old slavery by paying the ransom price. And he tells us, in verse 19, what that ransom price was: not silver or gold, but “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” This says something about the depth to which we had fallen, the extent of our lostness. In order for us to be redeemed, it was necessary for Christ to shed His blood. But it also says something about how much God loves us. He values us so highly that He was willing to pay this incredible price to redeem us from our slavery to sin. In order to redeem us from our slavery under the shadow of death, the futile way of life inherited from our ancestors, Jesus endured a shameful death and then rose victorious.

Next, consider what this redemption has accomplished. God’s purpose of redemption is not a last-minute effort to fix a problem that’s gotten out of control. Jesus was “chosen before the creation of the world.” God’s purpose of redemption is rooted in eternity. It’s certain and stable; He’s not going to change His mind about it. It’s rooted in eternity and “revealed in these last times for your sake.” And what this redemption has accomplished is reconciliation with God. Once we were separated from Him; there was an impassable gulf between us, which we were powerless to cross over. When Paul says, in Ephesians, that we were “without hope and without God in the world,” he means this in the strongest sense. We were hopelessly lost, lost without any hope of recovery. And now, our “faith and hope are in God.”

This is at the very center of what it means to be the Church. I've often read advertisements from churches, promising all sorts of things to people: that they won’t be subjected to a boring sermon, that they won’t have to look at stained glass windows or sing any hymns, that they’ll be given something they can put to immediate use in the coming week, that they’ll go away feeling refreshed and uplifted by the positive, practical sermon they’re going to hear. These churches are appealing to peoples' felt needs, trying to get them in the door. But our primary calling, as part of the Church of Jesus Christ, is not to make people feel good, to shield them from the horror of seeing a stained glass window, or even to offer them what they think they need. We don’t know what we need, much of the time, and getting what we want is often the worst thing that can happen to us. Read, sometime, about how winning the lottery has affected the lives of those who've suddenly acquired large amounts of money. What we need is to be reconciled to God and then to learn how to live our lives under His lordship, as people who’ve been redeemed from the empty way of life we’ve inherited from our culture.

The reason our old way of life is empty is because it goes against the very purpose of our creation. We were created by God, in His image, with an innate longing for His fellowship. As St. Augustine said: “You awake us to delight in Your praise; for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, a modern English version by Hal M. Helms, p. 7). Or the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism on the “chief end of man”: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We live in His world, which was created to reveal His glory. Everything around and within us points to Him. But when we’re alienated from Him, we ourselves, and everything around us, are out of sync, disconnected from the purpose of our existence. There’s something missing, something that we know, in the depths of our hearts, ought to be there. Things just aren’t what they should be.

That’s the whole point of the book of Ecclesiastes: this world is empty and meaningless without God. Here’s how the book begins: “Smoke, nothing but smoke.... There’s nothing to anything–it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone? One generation goes its way, the next one arrives, but nothing changes–it’s business as usual for old planet earth. The sun comes up and the sun goes down, then does it again, and again–the same old round.... Everything’s boring, utterly boring–no one can find any meaning in it. Boring to the eye, boring to the ear. What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing” (1:2-5, 8, The Message).

In the introduction to Ecclesiastes in The Message, Eugene Peterson makes this observation: “Everything we try is so promising at first! But nothing ever seems to amount to very much. We intensify our efforts–but the harder we work at it, the less we get out of it. Some people give up early and settle for a humdrum life. Others never seem to learn, and so they flail away through a lifetime, becoming less and less human by the year, until by the time they die there is hardly enough humanity left to compose a corpse.” One group resigns itself to the meaninglessness of existence, and just goes through the routine. The other group fights against the sense of meaninglessness but never arrives at anything better, and they end up destroying themselves in the process.

The problem is that we’re alienated from God, disconnected from the purpose of our existence. No matter what we do, no matter where we turn, we keep coming back to it. I think one of the reasons we live at such a frantic pace in America today is that our busyness is a way of avoiding this realization as much as possible. If we can just keep busy enough, maybe we won’t have to face the truth. And when this spirit comes into the church, as it very often does, it’s because we’ve forgotten who we are and who God is. It doesn’t much matter whether we’re keeping frantically busy with our work, our recreation, or our church activities. We’ve forgotten what it means to have been “redeemed from the empty way of life handed down” to us.

We need to stop and remember what Peter says in verse 21: “Through him [through Christ, who was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake] you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” What was once true of us is true no longer. We’ve been reconciled to God. We’ve been reconnected with God, who raised Jesus from the dead and glorified Him; we’re no longer “without hope and without God in the world;” our faith and our hope are in God. We’ve been restored to the original purpose of our existence, which is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We don’t need to keep going at a frantic pace to drown out the meaninglessness of our existence; we need to slow down and cultivate the presence of this One with whom we will share eternity.

This leads to the third point, which is to consider what it means to live in this world as people who’ve been redeemed by the “precious blood of Christ.” Does it mean that everything in our lives suddenly falls into place? That all friction is removed from our relationships and that our financial struggles suddenly disappear? That our difficulties at work or school go away? That, as the hymn refrain goes, “at the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away; it was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the day”? No, and it also doesn’t mean that we’ve entered a training program which will eventually lead to all these things. It’s a good thing to cultivate wisdom in how we order our lives in this world, but even when we do this, the difficulties will still be there. The primary mission of the Church is not to teach us how to live successful lives in this world (contrary to much of the literature in self-help Evangelicalism).

Listen to what Peter tells his readers at the beginning of this passage: “live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” Or, “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (NRSV). Our primary need is not to know how to fix all the details of our lives, but to know who we are and who God is. Our lives are quickly passing by and soon we’ll be in the Lord’s presence. We may continue to struggle in many areas until the end of our days. The people Peter is writing to were suffering persecution; their daily lives were difficult and painful. Living as people who’ve been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ means: 1) living reverently in the light of the fact that we’ll soon be standing in God’s presence; and 2) remembering that we are strangers, people who don’t fully belong to this world. Our true home is elsewhere. Our hearts long to experience the fullness of our redemption, and this longing motivates us to live reverently, because we don’t want to be ashamed when we’re standing in God’s presence.

Living as people who’ve been redeemed “by the precious blood of Christ” means recognizing that we are “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” as the author of Hebrews says, “for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (11:13b-16). We cultivate this reverence, during our time of exile on this earth, primarily in worship and prayer. As we offer worship to God and seek Him in our daily lives, we find ourselves longing for the day when we will see Him face to face.

That’s what we’re celebrating during this Easter season. Jesus is risen from the dead, and because of Him our “faith and hope are in God.” We’re no longer strangers and aliens to the kingdom of heaven. Heaven is our true home. We’re living in exile, longing for our homeland. Does this mean that we find no pleasure, no enjoyment at all in the things of this world? No, not at all. God gives us good gifts here to enjoy, and He wants us to receive them thankfully. But these good gifts lead us to God, not away from Him. They're meant to lead us to worship and praise.

The singer-songwriter Steve Earle starts out one of his songs with the line, “There ain't a lot that you can do in this town; drive up to the lake and then you turn back around.” It's a boring place. There's nothing to do here. It would be so much better to live somewhere else, someplace with better entertainment, more diversions, more exciting ways to fill up the time. Life is boring unless you can find exciting things to do.

Some forms of Christian spirituality deliberately turn away from, or minimize, these kinds of diversions, not because they're bad in themselves but because they can so fill our minds that there's no room left for God. This is a valid approach; but it's not the only one. Some Christians, like G.K. Chesterton, have cultivated the ability to find delight in simple, everyday things, knowing that the whole creation points to God and is a sacrament of His presence. When we learn to experience God through His creation—which includes the people He's placed in our lives—we're able to live in anticipation of the hope God has given us when we will see Him face to face and will experience all His blessings in their fullness.

And the reason we have such a glorious hope for the future is because Jesus, our risen Savior, has paid the price for our redemption and has set us free from the “empty way of life” we received from this fallen world. “Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in.... It’s because of this sacrificed Messiah, whom God then raised from the dead and glorified, that you trust God, that you know you have a future hope in God” (The Message).

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed are the Meek, Matthew 5:5

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA

We're going to focus on the third beatitude this morning, “blessed are the meek,” but we need to know that all the beatitudes belong together. They're not intended to describe different kinds of people, but taken together they describe what a Christian is intended to look like. Christians recognize their poverty of spirit, that they have nothing to bring into God's presence. This leads them to mourn their sinfulness, and in this way seeing the truth about themselves, they become meek both in their attitude toward God and in their treatment of others. But they're not content with where they are spiritually, so they hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because they've received mercy, they are merciful toward others, are in the process of being purified before God, and seek to make peace between their fellow humans and between people and God. And because they are seriously out of step with the world, they experience persecution. So these beatitudes all belong together, but this morning we're going to focus on meekness.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a good description of meekness in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: “Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitudes and conduct with respect to others. It is therefore two things. It is my attitude towards myself; and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others.... The meek man is not proud of himself, he does not in any sense glory in himself. He feels that there is nothing in himself of which he can boast. It also means that he does not assert himself. You see, it is a negation of the popular psychology of the day which says ‘assert yourself’, ‘express your personality’.... The meek man likewise does not demand anything for himself. He does not take all his rights as claims. He does not make demands for his position, his privileges, his possessions, his status in life. No, he is like the man depicted by Paul in Philippians 2. ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ Christ did not assert that right to equality with God; He deliberately did not. And that is the point to which you and I have to come” (pp. 72-73). So this word in Matthew 5 includes both our inner disposition–meekness–and, flowing from that, gentleness in the ways that we act toward other people. We’ll be looking at both of these things this morning.

The primary thing implied by meekness is submissiveness to God’s will. It doesn’t have anything to do with weakness or lack of assertiveness. It’s not about “niceness,” or being an agreeable, easy-going person. It doesn’t mean living as a doormat, just letting other people do whatever they want to us without protest. It’s not about being passive, resigning ourselves to endure whatever happens. These things come to mind when we use the word meek, but that’s not what the biblical writers have in mind. A meek person is, above all, someone who has submitted to God’s will. This implies a number of things.

First of all, saying that we are submitting to God’s will implies that we are living in repentance, because this is not our natural state as sinners in a fallen world. Ever since Adam and Eve gave in to the temptation to “be like God,” the human race as a whole has been headed in the wrong direction. As Isaiah said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6a). In our natural condition, we go our own way; we want to run our own lives. We’d like God’s help when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want to submit our wills to Him. Israel is described over and over again as a “stiff-necked people,” people who consistently put their own desires ahead of God’s will. To be stiff-necked is the opposite of being meek, and this is our natural condition. We’re stiff-necked and rebellious, going our own way. Repentance is a change of mind, a realization that we’ve been headed in the wrong direction and a determination to turn around and go the other way.

This also implies that we’ve been humbled before God. The problem is not just that we’re headed in the wrong direction. If you take a wrong turn on the road, all you need to do is turn around and go the other way. But what happens if you’re too proud to admit that you’ve made a mistake? You keep on driving, getting further and further from your destination. Admitting that we’re headed in the wrong direction implies that we’ve been humbled. We’re not just saying that we’ve made a mistake along the way; we’re saying that our whole way of life is under God’s judgment and needs to be rejected. We’re confessing not only that we’ve done wrong, but that we are wrong. We’re confessing that in our flesh there is no good thing, nothing that can become pleasing to God. We’re “dead in trespasses and sins,” incapable of doing anything to remedy our situation. All we can do is humble ourselves before God and cry out for mercy: “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”

Being submissive to God’s will also implies that we’ve denied ourselves. This is more than practicing isolated acts of self denial. We may practice rigid self-discipline in order to get something we really want. It’s a good thing to be able to do this, to not be ruled by our own desires and whims, to be able to lay aside our immediate impulses to accomplish our long-term goals. But self-interest can motivate us to do this sort of thing, simply calculating that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But denying ourselves in the context of repentance means laying aside our right to be at the center of things. It means surrendering the control of our lives, giving up our right to call the shots. It means recognizing that much of our problem is our self. We spend too much time thinking about ourselves, watching ourselves, thinking about what others think of us. It’s one thing to cry out to God and say, “O God, you know that I’m a miserable sinner, that I’m self-centered, egotistical, insensitive, that everything I do revolves around my own desires.” But what if you overheard someone else praying for you in that way? Would you be grateful for their prayers? Becoming meek means that we’ve accepted the truth about ourselves and that we don’t feel the need to defend ourselves when we hear that truth from other people. We’ve denied ourselves, and we don’t feel the need to protect ourselves any longer. Our self has been dethroned. We’re not touchy and defensive about ourselves.

Alexander the Great succeeded in conquering much of the known world during his lifetime. He had been tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and was gifted in many areas, besides being a great military leader. During a drinking party, his best friend, the son of his nurse, reproached him for taking all the glory for the things his soldiers had done. Alexander became enraged at this, and he grabbed a spear from one of the guards and killed him. He was immediately overcome with remorse, but it was too late to go back. His self-importance–his lack of meekness–led him, in a moment of anger, to kill his best friend.

Something similar happened in Numbers 12: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ They asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And the Lord heard this” (Numbers 12:1-2). This is very similar to what happened with Alexander the Great. Miriam and Aaron were Moses’ older siblings, and they began to criticize him for claiming too much authority. But notice the difference in what followed: “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth)” (v. 3). Some translations use the word “meek” here, but the point is that Moses wasn’t concerned with defending his territory. Aaron and Miriam were rebuked by God for their presumption, and then they were able to carry on. Moses didn’t fly into a rage and order them to be killed. He was meek and humble; he didn’t need to defend his honor.

Being submissive to God’s will also implies that we have a teachable spirit. We admit that we don’t know everything, and we’re willing to submit ourselves to God’s Word. When I was a new Christian I remember talking about small group Bible studies to my aunt, who had been a churchgoer for many years. She agreed that this could be a good thing as long as there wasn’t anyone teaching, “telling us what it means.” She preferred, she said, groups where everyone could just say what it means to them. That spirit had led her to reject virtually all the major doctrines of orthodox Christianity: things like the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, sin and judgment, justification by faith. She didn’t have a teachable spirit. She was willing to talk about what the Bible meant to her, but she wasn’t willing to submit her will and her opinions to the authority of Scripture.

That’s the first thing. Meekness implies submission to God’s will. We’ve repented of our sinful attitude in wanting to go our own way, and we’ve determined to bring every area of our lives under God’s lordship. We’ve humbled ourselves before God and accepted His verdict about ourselves, which has led us to lay aside our desire to be first, to have our own way. We’ve repented of our self-centeredness and are asking God to occupy the throne of our lives. And we’re sitting at His feet, submitting ourselves to the authority of His Word.

But when we see ourselves in this way, it affects the way we act toward others. The way we think about ourselves, the way we perceive ourselves, will have an impact on the way we treat other people. What we think affects the way we act. The 19th Century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was the son of a Protestant pastor, but he grew to hate Christianity. He said it led to a slave morality, and he despised the ideas of repentance, denial of self, and redemption through God’s mercy and grace. Here’s something he said: “What is it that we combat in Christianity? That it aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and conscience-trouble; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inwards, against themselves–until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self-immolation: that gruesome way of perishing, of which Pascal is the most famous example” (quoted by Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, p. 766). Nietzsche exalted the will to power and said that the ideal ruler would recognize the importance and value and usefulness of cruelty and wouldn’t hesitate to crush others in his exercise of power. Adolph Hitler was an admirer of Nietzsche, and his cruelty was consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy.

In the same way, following Jesus will lead us to become like Him. Jesus is the supreme example of meekness in laying aside His rights as the eternal Second Person of the Trinity and submitting Himself to a shameful death in our place. And He expresses His gentleness toward others in His invitation at the end of Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). He is both meek and gentle.

George Verwer is the founder of Operation Mobilization, the mission group Anne and I worked with in the 70's and 80's. George, by nature, is a very driven person. He’s a strong leader, the sort of person who can lead others to do things they never would have attempted on their own. But he’s not, by nature, a gentle or meek person. He’s intent on getting things done, and he’s full of vision for reaching the world with the gospel. People like this often end up hurting other people in the process of pursuing their goals, but as George has followed Christ he’s become a very meek and gentle person. One of the mechanics I knew in Nepal was very difficult to work with. Alan had some severe emotional problems, and he often came into conflict with others. Very few people in OM were willing to work with him for any length of time. But he told me several times about George’s attempts to reach out to him and minister to him. George had heavy responsibilities for leading the work of OM, but he went out of his way to cultivate a relationship with Alan, who was often difficult and abrasive.

This emphasis on meekness and gentleness presents us with a choice between two alternatives. We either bow our wills before God’s lordship or we continue seeking to assert our own will. Nietzsche’s ideas are simply a logical result of refusing to bow before God’s authority, of proudly seeking to live as if there were no God. Nietzsche was a brilliant thinker, but he refused, over the course of a lifetime, to accept the limitations of his existence as a creature made in the image of the Creator. In January of 1889, he collapsed in the street in northern Italy and was taken to an asylum, totally insane. A short time later he was released to the care of his family and spent the last 11 years of his life needing constant help from others (who, presumably, didn’t buy into his ideas about the will to power). He never recovered his sanity. We don’t know what happened to him; it seems likely that his insanity was brought on by a syphilitic infection, but the point is that he was powerless to do anything about it. He who had made so much of the will to power spent the last 11 years of his life in a powerless condition. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them” (Psalm 49:12-14).

Saul of Tarsus was also a proud man. He was born a Roman citizen and was a Pharisee with a strong family heritage. He had the best education available in his day and was diligent in seeking to follow the Law. As a Pharisee, he deeply resented the teachings of these followers of Jesus, and he committed his life to exterminating them from the face of the earth. But then he met Jesus face to face, and he turned around and went in the other direction. And, near the end of his life he was able to look back and say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The world’s wisdom says that we need to assert ourselves and grasp for all we can. If we don’t take care of ourselves, nobody else will. Meekness and gentleness will only cause us to be run over in the real world. But the reality is that when we assert our own will and seek to live for ourselves, we lose the very thing we’re trying to get. The truth is that we are powerless. We weren’t created with the ability to live that way, and when we try, it destroys us. Those who are gentle and meek may be run over in this world, but that’s not the end of the story. As Jesus says in the second half of this verse, it is the meek who will inherit the earth.

Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matthew 16:24-26). Here’s how Jim Elliot, who died as a martyr at the age of 29, expressed this idea: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.” Which direction are you headed? Are you living for yourself, trying to get everything you can, insisting on your own way no matter what? Or are you seeking each day to lay your life before the foot of the cross, submitting your will to God? If you’re crying out to God each day for grace and mercy, you may be discouraged with the lack of meekness and gentleness in your spirit, but God is at work in ways you’re not aware of, transforming you into His image. Don’t worry about the amount of progress you’ve made; just be sure you’re headed in the right direction. As we continue to seek Jesus, spending time in His presence, we are being transformed into His image, whether we realize it or not. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Purpose of the Law, Galatians 3:15-29

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College PA
January 1, 2017

At one point in Jesus’ ministry, the people asked Him a question that was very important to them: “what must we do to perform the works of God?” “What do we need to do to become people who are pleasing to God?” And Jesus gave them a surprising answer: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). It wasn’t what they expected; it wasn’t what they were looking for, and as the discussion continued, many of His own disciples turned away and no longer followed Him. They wanted something more tangible, something they could do, that everyone could see and know that they were people who performed the works of God.

The Galatians were asking a similar question, and they were receiving a very definite answer from some teachers who had come into the area. They were asking, “what must we do to perform the works of God,” and these teachers were telling them: “be circumcised and submit to the law of Moses.” The people who questioned Jesus were looking for this sort of answer; it’s just the kind of thing they were hoping for: “If you want to perform the works of God, do this and everything will be fine.”

This question doesn’t seem as urgent to us, living in the 21st Century. We live in a very different kind of society, and “doing the works of God” is not as high on our agenda. But here’s a question we do ask: “how can I be successful?” “What do I need to do to become a success?” It really doesn’t matter what kind of success we’re concerned about: financial prosperity, personal happiness, a fulfilling career, a good reputation, or a leadership position in the church. We want to be successful; we don’t want to be failures. We want to know that our lives have counted for something. And when we come into God’s presence, very often the most pressing question on our minds is this: “what do I need to do to become successful?” That’s one reason there are so many self-help books in Christian bookstores. We want to know how to succeed in life.

Eugene Peterson makes this interesting observation: “Among the apostles, the one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: he was successful both financially and politically. He cleverly arranged to control the money of the apostolic band; he skillfully manipulated the political forces of the day to accomplish his goal. And Peter was a failure in ways that we most dread: he was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of Jesus he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate things. He was not the companion we would want with us in time of danger, and he was not the kind of person we would feel comfortable with at a social occasion” (Traveling Light, p. 95).

The teachers at Galatia are telling the churches there how to become successful before God, but they’re off track because they don’t really understand the purpose of the law in God’s plan of redemption. They’re telling the Galatians how to become successful by using the law, when the purpose of the law is to show them their failure. The law has a place in God’s work of redemption, but it’s different than they’ve been assuming. The law, in God’s purposes, is not the main thing. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise; the purpose of the law is to show us our neediness. The purpose of the law is not to give us the secrets of success; the purpose of the law is to underscore our failure and show us our need.

Paul points out, in verses 15-18, that the promise was given long before the law. Paul was being accused of starting a new sect. The false teachers were accusing him of departing from the teaching of the Old Testament, of laying aside God’s revelation in the past. So Paul wants the Galatians to know that this is not true at all. God dealt with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, on the basis of promise, not law. And God not only made a promise to Abraham, but to his descendants as well. The law, which was given more than 400 years later, can’t override God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The Judaizers who were teaching in Galatia were assuming that law is God’s primary way of dealing with His people. They had made obedience to the letter of the law the fundamental thing that defined their relationship with God. So Paul shows here that they’re off track. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise. The law can’t be the primary thing, since it was added so much later. God is faithful to His Word; when He gave the law to Moses, He wasn’t canceling out His promises to Abraham.

Why do we have binding contracts drawn up by lawyers who exercise great care trying to eliminate loopholes and escape routes? Why are so many marriages disintegrating in our society (which means that people who’ve taken a solemn vow to remain together ‘till death do us part’ have decided to lay aside their promises)? Why are so many children embittered toward their parents for promises they’ve made, but haven’t kept? We’re not faithful to our promises. We say we’re going to do something, but then we find that it’s not as easy as we expected, so we change our minds. Sometimes we fail to keep our promises though simple human weakness; we find that we’ve promised to do something that we’re unable to do. But much of the time we’re just unfaithful. God isn’t like this. He is true to His word. He’s not going to change His mind in the future, and He’s not going to be hindered by weakness in the way we are. God began His work of redemption with a promise to Abraham and his descendants. When He gave the law, 400 years later, it wasn’t that He said to Himself, “well, I can see that this isn’t working; I’d better try something else.” The law doesn’t cancel out the promise in that way. God’s fundamental way of dealing with people in this fallen world is through the promise.

There’s a reason God doesn’t deal with us through the law. Paul makes this point in verses 19-22: “if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” The problem is that the law can’t impart life. But the problem is not with the law. The problem is with us: “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions.... But the scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” The law can’t give us life, because we are sinners; we’re people who are guilty of violating the law. The law can’t save us, because we’ve broken it.

Suppose we could take hold of ourselves and begin faithfully obeying the law from now on until the end of our lives. That’s the idea of legalism: we save ourselves by faithfully observing the law, without any lapses, until we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Well, suppose we could do that. Would it do any good? We’ve already broken the law, so what we’re hoping is that our obedience in the future will outweigh our disobedience in the past. But the law doesn’t give us that hope. The law condemns us as sinners. The law shows us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Even if we obey more than we disobey over the course of a lifetime, the law calls us to account for our disobedience. There’s no provision in the law that says “five acts of obedience cancel out one sin.” And, of course, the problem is not only with past sins. No matter how hard we try, we continue to fail in our attempts to obey the law. When we try to save ourselves by obeying the law, we only lead ourselves into deeper condemnation. The law is always there to show us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Martin Luther discovered this; he was diligent in trying to do everything he could to live in obedience, but he ended up coming to the point where he said he hated God and saw Him as an impossible taskmaster.

So, what is the purpose of the law? If it was given so much later than the promise, and if it’s unable to rescue us from our sinful condition, why did God give it at all? Paul explains this in verses 23-25: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ.

Paul uses an interesting word to describe the law’s function: “He calls the law a custodian: ‘The law was our custodian until Christ came.’ The meaning of the Greek word paidagogos that lies behind the English word custodian often loses something in translation. Greek families that were well enough off to have slaves chose one of them, usually an old and trusted slave, to be in charge of their child or children from the ages of six to sixteen. This custodian went with the child to school to see that no harm or mischief came to him. He was not the schoolmaster. He had nothing to do with the actual teaching of the child. It was only his duty to take him safely to the school and deliver him to the teacher. That, says Paul, is how the law works: it delivers us to the place of faith, to Christ” (Peterson, Traveling Light, pp. 104-105). This idea comes across clearly in The Message: “Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.” The purpose of the law is to keep us oriented to God, and to point out our need, our failure, which points us to our need of grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. The purpose of the law is to lead us to faith in Christ.

Maybe you’re not asking the question, “what must I do to work the works of God.” If you’re like many today, you’re far more interested in learning how to live successfully. Here are some phrases from church advertisements I’ve seen: “What if there was a church... where... real life issues are discussed?” “Real life issues,” not all that religious stuff that most churches talk about. “At [our church] we believe that finding real answers for life’s toughest problems is important” (and the context of this phrase makes it clear that they’re talking about the practical “how-to's” of ordering our lives successfully). This same church advertised a new sermon series: “How to Succeed at the Speed of Life.”

The message of the gospel is not “how to succeed.” The message of the gospel is “you’ve already failed in more ways than you know, and you’re going to fail again in the future (and you’ll fail even more if you try to do anything worthwhile), but God in His mercy has provided for this. Listen to the law, and acknowledge the truth about yourself, then come to Jesus Christ to receive mercy and grace. Trying to pretend that you’re a success (either at obeying the law or at having all of life figured out) will lead only to bondage.” The Galatians were being told how to be successful in God’s sight, and it was leading them into bondage. The free life of the gospel is a life lived in recognition of the truth about ourselves.

Eugene Peterson sums it up like this: “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom. We do not live successfully. Success imprisons. Success is an unbiblical burden stupidly assumed by prideful persons who reject the risks and perils of faith, preferring to appear right rather than to be human” (p. 106). People who are obsessed with success are also inordinately concerned with appearances. Too often how we appear is more important than the truth of what we are.

In the middle of the 20th century, A.W. Tozer made this observation: “Much that passes for Christianity today is the brief bright effort of the severed branch to bring forth its fruit in its season. But the deep laws of life are against it. Preoccupation with appearances and a corresponding neglect of the out-of-sight root of the true spiritual life are prophetic signs which go unheeded. Immediate ‘results’ are all that matter, quick proofs of present success without a thought of next week or next year. Religious pragmatism is running wild among the orthodox. Truth is whatever works. If it gets results it is good. There is but one test for the religious leader: success. Everything is forgiven him except failure” (The Root of the Righteous, pp. 8-9).

The Corinthian church was full of pride. They were a “successful” church. So Paul decided to remind them of the truth: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have – right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start – comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, ‘If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31, The Message). We’re not successes, and when we pretend otherwise we dishonor God. God is glorified when we acknowledge the truth. God’s way of redemption is to lead us to salvation in Jesus Christ by first showing us our failure to keep the law.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom.” The law brings us into bondage, whether it’s the Mosaic law or a current Evangelical law about how to live a successful and happy middle class American life. Life in this world is full of sorrow and failure. Our vision of the Christian life needs to be in touch with this reality, and the foundation of our Christian lives is this: God has dealt with us, not as successes, but as failures. God knows all the truth about us. We don’t need to pretend. The law condemns us, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of condemnation; it leads us to a life of freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s the most fundamental reality of our lives as Christians. It’s not that we’ve learned the secret of living successfully. It’s that we’ve been reconciled to God and are in a relationship with Him which begins in this life and will continue throughout eternity.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finding God in Our Disappointments, Matthew 1:18-21

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Second Sunday of Advent, 2016

In the late 80's, we lived for a few months with a family in Lancaster County. I was, at the time, working with a mission organization in Villanova in addition to my graduate studies at Temple University, so I spent a lot of time traveling. One day, as I was leaving, I heard that we were having chicken pot pie for dinner. I spent the whole day looking forward to that, expecting to arrive home and enjoy chicken pot pie in a crust; after all, when I was growing up and put a chicken pot pie in the oven to bake, this is what it was. But when I got home, what we had for dinner was soup, not pie. There were noodles, or pieces of dough, in the soup, and somehow this justified the name “chicken pot pie.” By my understanding it wasn't pie at all, and I've had a grudge against Lancaster County ever since that day. We really ate very well during the time we stayed with this family, so I can't complain, but this experience stuck in my mind because I was expecting something different from what actually happened, and that's what disappointment is. Disappointment doesn't necessarily result from bad experiences; disappointment results from things not turning out the way we expected or hoped. Sometimes disappointments are bad experiences, but not always. Often they're just different than what we were expecting.

The first thing I want to take note of, in our passage, is the discovery of Mary's pregnancy in verse 18. The discovery is made, but no one apart from Mary knows the cause of her pregnancy. She was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her what was going to happen. It was a wonderful thing, the announcement that she was going to experience something utterly unique. So she knew that her pregnancy was miraculous, but no one else had any reason to believe that. We're not given any details into the discovery of Mary's pregnancy, but we do know that everyone, including Joseph, assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Jewish marriages at the time involved three steps: first the engagement, followed by betrothal, which usually lasted about a year during which the couple did not live together. But this was a binding arrangement, and a divorce was required if either one decided not to go ahead with the marriage. The third step was the marriage itself. Mary's pregnancy is discovered in the second step, after she is betrothed to Joseph.

Here's the thing: Mary has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God, as a virgin. What is happening in her body has never happened in the history of the world. So wouldn't you expect God to make some kind of public announcement to this effect? Wouldn't you expect Him to tell someone else what is going on, especially since all the people around her are going to assume the worst? But He doesn't, and even Joseph, at this point, is in the dark, and no one is going to believe it when she tells them about Gabriel's words, even if she has the courage, or even the opportunity, to tell them.

Everyone knows that Mary has been unfaithful. There's no other explanation for her condition. Women don't become pregnant for no reason. But they don't know the whole story; their assessment of the situation is wrong. And we often get things wrong because we don't know the whole story. Anne and I, in the early 80's, spent two years on a ship called the Logos, which was run by Operation Mobilization. There were many Americans on OM from very conservative Evangelical backgrounds who believed that drinking alcohol was completely off-limits for Christians. There were even some books written during that time arguing that Jesus, at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, turned water into grape juice, not wine, because it was unthinkable that He would actually do a miracle involving alcohol. I read two of them, but neither is really worth reading, because all the evidence in Scripture is against what they're trying to prove.

The ship we lived on had previously been owned by a shipping company but had been renovated for our purposes. But one day the captain decided to do a thorough cleaning in his cabin, and way back inside the bulkhead (or wall) he found a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He didn't want it in his cabin, so he took it to the chief steward, who was in charge of all the food, and said “I just found this in my cabin; I thought you might be able to use it for cooking or something, but in any case I don't want it in my cabin.” And he left. While the chief steward was standing there with the bottle in his hand wondering what to do with it (and thinking that he also didn't want it in his cabin), there was a knock on the door. So he put the bottle down on the table and answered the door. The zealous young person who was at the door saw the bottle and came to an obvious conclusion. Being chief steward is a stressful job and he's coping with it by drinking. Why else would he have this bottle sitting on his table? “I probably interrupted him just as he was taking a swig.” We need to know that there's often more to the story than what is apparent to us on the surface. This was certainly the case with Mary, but it's also often true in our daily lives, and we need to be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.

The second thing to take note of is Joseph's response to the news of Mary's pregnancy in verse 19. Here it is in The Message: “Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” His duty, as he understood it under the Old Testament law, is to divorce her. Deuteronomy 24:1 allows for divorce if “something indecent” is found in a wife, and in Joseph's understanding this is certainly true of Mary. But he wants to do so in a way that at least shows some mercy. That will mean divorcing her with the minimum number of witnesses (only two) and not pressing charges against her. The fact is that she is going to be disgraced no matter what he does, but he's trying to do all he can to protect her from shame. But he's disappointed in her. He thought she was a godly woman, and she's been unfaithful to him, something he never would have expected of her. He wants to do the right thing, but he's not willing any more to spend his life with a woman like her.

Imagine being Mary in this situation. Her pregnancy is unlike any other in human history, so who is ever going to believe her if she reports the words of Gabriel? We don't know how long this situation continued after Joseph received the news and then deliberated about what he was going to do. But even a day or two of this kind of suffering would be overwhelming, knowing that she is innocent while everyone else is certain of her guilt. Mary was visited by an angel and given the most wonderful news imaginable, but then her life had been plunged into shame and suspicion as a direct result of God's work. God's interventions often lead to things we never expected or wanted. Joseph is disappointed in Mary, and I don't doubt that Mary is disappointed in Joseph's response; but I also suspect that Mary is tempted to be disappointed in God. Why hasn't He told someone else what is going on? It's a great thing that He sent Gabriel to announce Jesus' birth to her, but what's going to happen now? Is God just going to leave her hanging like this?

The last thing is that God intervenes, in verses 20-21. In the end, God lets Joseph in on what is happening by speaking to him in a dream: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” So Joseph now knows that there is something extraordinary going on, that Mary's pregnancy is not the result of unfaithfulness and that God is at work in a way that has never happened. “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God is bringing a Redeemer into the world. But despite God's extraordinary work in their lives, Joseph and Mary will continue to live under the shadow of misunderstanding and suspicion. God intervenes to let them know what He is doing, but others will continue to suspect Mary of unfaithfulness, and they're not going to believe it if Joseph tells them about his dream.

When I was a young Christian, I was enamored with the importance of miracles. I and my friends thought that if we really had faith we would be doing things that made people take notice of God's presence among us. But I've since learned that God more often works in a hidden way, as He is doing here with Mary and Joseph. Mary's pregnancy is miraculous, but not in a public, demonstrative way. No one around her can tell that there's anything out-of-the-ordinary about her pregnancy. And Joseph's dream is also only given to him; it's not the sort of public thing that causes everyone around him to sit back and take notice. But in this time when everyone around them is whispering about Mary's unfaithfulness and maybe wondering whether Joseph himself is the father of the child or whether he is just going ahead with the marriage to protect her, both Mary and Joseph experience God in a truly extraordinary way. No matter what everyone around them thinks, they are both faithful to God and continue to trust Him, and He makes Himself known to them, even though He does so in a hidden way.

So how can we learn to experience God in our disappointments, when things aren't turning out the way we hoped or expected? I think the first thing is to stop. Don't act in haste, and don't start drawing premature conclusions. Joseph didn't fly off the handle when he learned about Mary's pregnancy; he didn't do anything right away. He took time to deliberate about what he should do and how he could, despite his disappointment in her, still preserve her dignity as much as possible. He waited, and when God did intervene Joseph hadn't acted in a way that he came to regret.

The next thing is to bring our disappointments into God's presence in prayer. The temptation is to allow them to drive us away from God, to become bitter and turned in on ourselves. “God hasn't held up His end of the bargain, so why should I continue listening to Him?” What happens then is that we shut ourselves off from whatever God is planning to do in our lives. Things we experience as disappointment could be a step toward something better that God has in mind, but if we allow our disappointment to drive us away from Him we'll likely miss whatever God is doing.

How do we bring our disappointments into God's presence? Partly by abandoning pious notions about prayer. Too often we express things in prayer that we think should reflect our feelings but really don't. But listen to Jeremiah: “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (15:10); or “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7). Jeremiah is not living a life he would have chosen for himself. He doesn't enjoy pronouncing judgment and being at odds with the people. But he copes by telling God how he feels about it, bringing his complaints to God. That's one of the great things about praying the Psalms; the Psalms help us give voice to things we might not otherwise know how to pray about. God is able to handle our truthful words in prayer; and when we cry out to Him in anger or disappointment, He is able to hear the cry of our hearts and then continue molding us into His image. He is not threatened by our anger and is able to transform it once we bring it into His presence in prayer.

But we need to know that encountering God will not necessarily change the situation that we're disappointed about. The only direct intervention from God in this passage is His appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him what is going on. This enables Joseph to accept the situation and go ahead with his plan to get married. But both Mary and Joseph are still surrounded by gossip about her pregnancy. Most of the time we really don't know what God is doing, and the most important thing is to come into His presence and cry out to Him for help. He knows what we need to keep going, and He will come to us and give us strength, even though it may not be evident until later, when we look back and see that He was with us in a hidden way.

Listen to these words by St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they have pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty” (The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 1, p. 169). During this season of Advent we look back on Jesus' first coming as we anticipate the celebration of His Incarnation in the Christmas season; we look forward to His return in glory and majesty; and we pray that He will come to us both individually and as a church as we wait on Him and bring all our concerns into His presence.