Friday, February 16, 2018

Matthew 5:12, Ash Wednesday Meditation

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA


A few years ago I was talking to a woman on my case load about her financial situation and she informed me that she owed more than $27,000 in fines. She didn't have a job, and her sole income was from Social Security Disability, which was less than $1,000 per month. During the time I worked with her, she wasn't paying anything toward her fines; all the money she received each month was needed to pay for her housing and food. She told me, more than once, that she knew she'd spend the rest of her life in debt, that there was no possibility of paying off her fines.

The Lord's Prayer assumes that we are always in debt because of our wrongdoing. Although we usually pray "forgive us our trespasses," "forgive us our debts" is the correct translation of this passage. It's OK to pray the prayer as we do, but when we come to this verse in Matthew we need to translate it as "debts." Our sins have put us in a position where we are in debt to God, a debt we can never repay from our own resources. But this prayer also assumes that others are in need or our forgiveness. Pope Benedict, in the first volume of his series Jesus of Nazareth, says that this petition "presupposes a world in which there is trespass" (p. 157), a world in which we commit sins against God and against one another, a world in which debts because of wrongdoing are part of daily life.

A friend of mine who grew up in a very conservative church felt guilty for growing a beard, and periodically, when the guilt became too much for him, he would shave it off. Often we feel guilty for no good reason. But our basic guilt before God is an objective reality whether we feel guilty or not. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. We stand before God in the position of debtors, people who are guilty of violating His law. And we are also guilty of sins against one another; we need to receive forgiveness from others and others need to receive forgiveness from us. We live in a world "in which there is trespass," against God and against one another.

But this prayer also assumes that God is concerned about our guilt and wants to forgive us. Not only us, He also wants to forgive some of the people we might wish He wouldn't forgive, like those who have betrayed us, or those who have brought suffering into our lives. Or those with whom we disagree politically. Or those who have set themselves up as our enemies in the workplace. No matter how serious and inexcusable our guilt, God's desire is to offer forgiveness and admit us into His kingdom.

And the third, and most distressing, thing this prayer tells us is that God wants us to imitate Him in offering forgiveness to others. Sometimes this is relatively easy, but often forgiving others is a process. If someone has deeply wronged us we probably won't be able to forgive all at once. If we try to offer forgiveness too quickly and lightly, we may end up deceiving ourselves and accepting a counterfeit, something that looks like the real thing but isn't.. The question is how to get from where we are to where we know we should be. And this begins with a recognition of the truth about ourselves. If we're angry and bitter, if we just can't let go of the wrong, we need to begin by admitting this in God's presence. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that making use of the Vengeance Psalms, these Psalms that Christians often struggle with because of their anger and violence, can, surprisingly, be the first step toward learning forgiveness: "The articulation of vengeance leads us to a new awareness about ourselves.… John Calvin describes the Psalms as ‘An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul.' And so they are. They tell us about us. The Psalms provide space for full linguistic freedom in which nothing is censored or precluded" (Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 58). He suggests that instead or censoring these Psalms we bring them into God's presence and admit that they reflect the truth about how we feel.

Praying the Psalms, including those psalms where the authors are crying out for vengeance, provides a context for facing the truth about what is in our hearts. As much as we want to be like Jesus in asking forgiveness for those who hate us, we can't get there without acknowledging what we really feel. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, says the same thing; praying these difficult Psalms can actually point us in the direction of forgiveness: "For those who are troubled about the psalms of vengeance, there is a way beyond them. But that way is not easy or ‘natural.' It is not the way of careless religious goodwill. It is not the way of moral indifference or flippancy. It is, rather, the way of crucifixion, of accepting the rage and grief and terror of evil in ourselves in order to be liberated for compassion toward others.... My hunch is that there is a way beyond the psalms of vengeance, but it is a way through them and not around them. And that is so because of what in fact goes on with us. Willy nilly, we are vengeful creatures. Thus these harsh psalms must be fully embraced as our own. Our rage and indignation must be fully owned and fully expressed. Then (and only then) can our rage and indignation be yielded to the mercy of God. In taking this route through the Psalms, we take the route God has gone. We are not permitted a cheaper, easier, more ‘enlightened' way" (Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, p. 68). We bring our unforgiving thoughts into God's presence and allow Him to heal us, to enable us to forgive as He does.

But we need to ask one more question. When we pray "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," does this imply that God only forgives us to the extent that we forgive others? We really don't know fully what is in our hearts. We may think that we've forgiven someone, only to find anger and resentment welling up that we didn't know was there. If we say that we are forgiven only to the extent that we fully and completely forgive others, we're essentially saying that we can't be forgiven; we're setting an impossible standard. In this case, we're not justified by faith through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; we're forgiven by exercising forgiveness. Our forgiveness of others becomes the primary thing, the condition upon which God forgives us. But really the movement goes in the opposite direction. God forgives us fully and freely, and then we are called to forgive others in the same way. If we refuse to forgive we're showing that we haven't truly understood what it means for God to forgive our sins.

But struggling, and often failing, to forgive those who have wronged us is not the same thing as refusing to forgive. We're called to cultivate forgiveness, to cry out to God for grace to forgive, to take steps in the direction of forgiving from our hearts those who've wronged us; but our forgiveness at its best is an imperfect imitation of the forgiveness that God has granted us. Here's how Paul says it in Colossians: "Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (3:13). The Gospel of Jesus Christ first brings healing to our relationship with God, but then it also begins healing our relationships with one another. And this begins when we show others mercy because God has shown us mercy.

The truth about us, as fallen human beings, is that we are debtors and can never, even if we had all eternity to do it, pay off our debt. Paul says that by nature we have "no hope and [are] without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). Our condition, as fallen human beings, is absolutely hopeless; but Paul continues after this with one of his great phrases: "But now…." This was once true of you, but now everything has changed because of God's mercy and grace. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:13). We can pray these words from the Lord's Prayer in confidence because Jesus has paid in full the debt for our sins, a debt that we were incapable of ever paying. The Christian music group, Glad, has a wonderful song about this: "Be ye glad, oh, be ye glad, every debt that you ever had has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord, be ye glad be ye glad be ye glad." Every debt has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord. Surely this is a reason for gladness. John Newton, that notorious slave trader who experienced God's mercy, said near the end of his life, "Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior." It would be a good thing, during this Lenten season, to meditate on the price Jesus paid to relieve us of our overwhelming debt; the more aware we are of God's mercy toward us, the better-able we will be to show mercy toward one another.

A Glimpse of Jesus' Glory, Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, State College PA


When I was in graduate school at Temple University, I worked part time in the continuing education department of a mission organization. The man I worked for was intensely concerned about people's perceptions. He told me that whenever he was going into a new setting he would try to figure out what the people wanted and then he'd adapt himself to fit their expectations. He functioned in ministry more-or-less like a chameleon. The problem was that I was never sure who he was, because he was so successful at changing himself. It always seemed like he was putting on a show, that he had no real convictions of his own. The longer I worked with him, the less I respected him, and I wondered in the end whether he even remembered who he was. I was more impressed when we first met than I was after I got to know him. A few years later, I was talking to the man who had been my pastor at Messiah College about a man we knew who had been very successful at planting Spanish-speaking churches in Florida. He said, "with many people, as you get to know them you find that there's less than appears on the surface; but he's not that way; the more you get to know him the more you see of his depth and character." This man is quiet and unassuming, but as you talk to him, even for a short time, you find that there is a lot hidden beneath the surface.

Peter, James, and John, at the Transfiguration, are given a glimpse into the hidden depths of Jesus' glory. They're finding that there's more to Him than what they've been able to see on the surface. It's not that they haven't known before now who He is. Just six days earlier, Peter had made his great confession: "You are the Messiah" (8:9). The disciples have grasped something of the truth, but now they're enabled to see the truth in a way, and with a depth, that they haven't before. The Transfiguration is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); Peter refers to it in his second letter: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain" (vv. 16-18). John may be referring to this event in his gospel when he says, "we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). This event stayed with them; it had a major impact on them that remained for the rest of their lives. The disciples are given, in this event, a brief glimpse into the fathomless depths of Jesus' glory.

The first thing to notice in these verses is the continuity of Jesus' ministry with the Old Testament: "And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus." Moses represents the Old Testament law, and Elijah is there as the representative of the prophets. The presence of these two stresses Jesus' continuity with their ministries. Jesus isn't doing something novel; He is doing something new, but what He's doing is connected with what has gone before.

It's important for us to keep coming back to this, because our contemporary society has an attitude of arrogant superiority toward the past. The gospel is rooted in God's revelation in the Old Testament; our faith is strongly rooted in things God has said and done in the past. I often hear Protestants, especially Evangelical Protestants, speak disdainfully about tradition, but often what they're talking about is the way things have been done in a particular church. Those things often need to change, sometimes because they're connected to cultural trends that have passed, and sometimes because they were just wrongheaded to begin with. God often calls us to make changes in these kinds of things.

But there's another way of thinking about tradition that involves stepping back and considering not just our own church or our own denomination, but the Church throughout history. The early Church spoke about the apostolic tradition, some of which was written down and some of which was embodied in the corporate worship of the Church. As they encountered false teachings which required some response, they formulated creeds, authoritative statements of some of the central teachings of Scripture. And they sought, looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance, to determine the limits of the Canon, which books belonged as part of Scripture. Every time we open our Bibles we're relying on the Tradition of the Church, we're trusting that Christians of the past have gotten it right. We're trusting that God led the Church in the past to make the right decision about which books were part of His permanent, authoritative revelation and which ones were not. Christianity is inherently traditional. That doesn't mean that we only sing old hymns. It means that we respect what has been handed to us from the past. It means that every time we read Scripture we are making present things that happened in history thousands of years ago. And it means recognizing that we're able to read Scripture because of the diligent efforts of millions of other believers throughout history; we're connected with these people as part of the body of Christ, and we owe them an immense debt of gratitude.

Over the next several months, these disciples are going to experience things that will turn their worlds upside down. They're going to have to unlearn all the assumptions they've grown up with about contact with the Gentile world, because Jesus is going to lead them to take the gospel to all nations. They're going to have to make radical changes about things that have been very important to them, but these changes are rooted firmly in God's revelation in the past. The thing that's absolutely essential for them at this point is to know the truth about Jesus. So they're given this brief glimpse of His glory, a glimpse that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

The second thing to notice is the superiority of Jesus' ministry. His ministry is in continuity with the Old Testament, but He's not just one prophet among many (which is how Muslims understand Him). When Peter sees what is happening, he blurts out, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." The problem is that he's thinking of Jesus as part of the group, he's putting these three on more-or-less equal footing. So a bright cloud envelops them and a voice from the cloud says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" The voice of God sets Jesus apart and says, "This is the One I want you to listen to."

Jesus' ministry is connected with that of Moses and Elijah, but it's not on the same level. He's the fulfillment of their ministries, the One they were pointing to and looking forward to. As the author of Hebrews says, "So, my dear Christian friends, companions in following this call to the heights, take a good hard look at Jesus. He's the centerpiece of everything we believe, faithful in everything God gave him to do. Moses was also faithful, but Jesus gets far more honor. A builder is more valuable than a building any day. Every house has a builder, but the builder behind them all is God. Moses did a good job in God's house, but it was all servant work, getting things ready for what was to come. Christ as Son is in charge of the house" (3:1-6, The Message).

These things that they see and hear are overwhelming. In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, he says: "When the disciples heard this, they fell face down, terrified." I enjoy looking at icons, paintings of Jesus and the saints that originate in Eastern Orthodox churches. They often help me see things about biblical events that I would have missed otherwise. The icon of the transfiguration has Jesus, standing on the pinnacle of a mountain, in a background of light (called a mandorla, a device intended to show the reality of heaven breaking into the world). Moses and Elijah are on either side, bowed toward Him to show their submission. And Peter, James and John have fallen backward further down the mountain, overcome by the glory of Jesus. Looking at that icon gives me a glimpse of what it might have been like to have been there on that day.

The third thing to notice is that this revelation of His glory is directly connected with Jesus' predictions of the rejection and suffering He is going to endure. Seeing the glory of Jesus revealed in this way, knowing that this is the truth of who He is, we might expect that He'd allow this to be seen in His public ministry. After all, wouldn't people be more likely to believe if they saw what the disciples are seeing on the top of the mountain? But He doesn't do that; He tells the disciples, "As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." After this brief glimpse, His glory becomes hidden again, and He continues on the way to the cross. He "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8).

In many ways, the disciples are being stretched to the breaking point. Just a few days earlier, after Peter had made his great confession, saying "You are the Messiah," Jesus had begun "to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again: (8:31). This is too much for Peter, knowing what he does about Jesus. If Jesus is "the Messiah," how can He possibly be talking about suffering and death? "And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" (v. 32). All their expectations for the Messiah are being shattered. They've seen this overwhelming revelation of Jesus' glory on the mountain, and yet He's still talking about dying and rising from the dead.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has a wonderful series of meditations on the icons of Christ. In his meditation on the transfiguration icon, he makes this observation: "It is surely not an accident that it is Peter and James and John who are also with Jesus in Gethsemane: the extreme mental and spiritual agony that appears there is the test of what has been seen in the transfiguration. We are shown that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror" (The Dwelling of the Light, p. 12).

He goes on: "This is an icon of quite violent force, explosive quality; it shows an extreme experience. We may find it difficult to relate to it at first for that reason: we may be struck and impressed by it, yet feel also that nothing in our own experience corresponds to this. We weren't there; we haven't seen the skies opening, the light suffusing the lonely figure on the rock, the weight of divine presence forcing us back, bowing us down. But the point of this, as of any icon, is not either to depict or to produce some kind of special experience in that sense: it is to open our eyes to what is true about Jesus and the saints. And what is true about Jesus is – if we really encounter it in its fullness – shocking, devastating: that this human life is sustained from the depths of God without interruption and without obstacle, that it translates into human terms what and who God the Son eternally is. The shock comes from realizing this means that God's life is compatible with every bit of human life, including the inner terrors of Gethsemane (fear and doubt) and the outer terrors of Calvary (torment and death).... The point of this image of the transfiguration is to reinforce how the truth about Christ interrupts and overthrows our assumptions about God and about humanity" (pp. 11-12). That's what is happening to the disciples, and it's what happens to us when we encounter God in truth: He interrupts and overthrows our assumptions.

We're especially conscious right now, with Lent beginning in a few days, that Jesus is headed toward Gethsemane and the cross. It doesn't shock us that Jesus reveals His glory in such a powerful way and then continues on His journey toward Jerusalem. But part of the purpose of the Lenten season is to seek to enter into the experience of these disciples, to accompany Jesus on His journey toward the suffering of Holy Week, so that we'll also be able to taste something of the wonder and joy these same disciples experienced on Easter Sunday. I often think we hinder ourselves from this by jumping too quickly to the Resurrection, telling ourselves, "yes, but of course Jesus is risen from the dead now; all that is over."

Our experience is different than that of the apostles. But we're dealing with the same God, and if we think about it at all it might give us some pause when we realize what a shattering experience it was for them to encounter the reality of God's purposes. Their lives were turned upside down; all their assumptions were overthrown; they were called to make changes they never in their wildest dreams imagined making. Often our carefully protected assumptions are ways of protecting ourselves from God's interruptions. But from time to time we get glimpses of the fact that God has something very different in mind (something better, but, at the same time, threatening). Williams, reflecting on the disciples' experience at the Transfiguration, says "Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long. The apostles in the icon are shielding their eyes, because what they see is not easily manageable in their existing world" (p. 13). When we encounter God, He often calls us to make changes, both in our thinking and in our daily lives, that are not easily manageable in our existing worlds.

But the purpose of the Lenten season is to make space for Jesus, for Jesus as He is, not as we imagine Him to be. So let's cry out to Him, asking Him to make Himself known to us in truth. The wonderful thing in the Transfiguration is the realization "that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror." We can enter into the depths of human experience and find that God is there with us, that Jesus Himself knows what our darkest times are like from the inside. When the disciples are overcome by terror, Jesus comes to them, touches them and says "Get up and do not be afraid." In the same way, this One who revealed His great glory on the Mount of Transfiguration will walk with us in all the experiences of life until we arrive safely in His presence. He shatters our illusions out of kindness, so that we'll be able to perceive Him when He comes to us, so that we'll be able to hear Him when He says, "do not be afraid."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Waiting for God's Promise, Luke 2:25-38

In the early 1980's, Annie and I worked with Operation Mobilization, on the ship Logos. We joined the ship in Sri Lanka, then traveled up the west coast of India, then to Pakistan and Dubai, and then into the Red Sea, visiting Sudan and Jordan. In each port, we sold books (both Christian and secular) and had conferences for local Christians on various subjects. In some of these countries our programs were restricted, but we were at least able to minister to local churches, and in most places we had evangelistic programs as well.

The Middle East was difficult. We were in Dubai and Sudan during Ramadan, and the local people were grouchy and impatient, because they couldn't eat during the day. In Jordan, we had a large book exhibition in the capital city of Amman and sold lots of books, but it was a tense, difficult time. We always had the sense of being watched, and one of the political officials was determined to coerce us into giving him as many free books as possible. By the time we left Jordan, many of us were exhausted and fed up with the Middle East.

From Jordan, we sailed through the Suez Canal and into Alexandria, Egypt, to begin our scheduled program there. But as soon as we lowered the gangway, armed guards boarded the ship and wouldn't let anyone leave. The next day, we were sent out to anchor while the line-up team talked to officials, trying to find out what was happening. All the necessary permissions had been obtained well in advance, and local churches were looking forward to the visit. We sat at anchor for a week, within sight of the city but unable to reenter the port. The line-up team finally learned that the Islamic Brotherhood had made terroristic threats against the ship, and that the Egyptian government was unwilling to take the risk of letting us carry on in the light of these threats.

During that week, while we sat at anchor, we had days of prayer and fasting, asking God to reopen this door that had closed. Some of the ship people were really enthusiastic, rebuking Satan and claiming victory, perfectly assured that God would reverse the Egyptian government's position so that we could carry on our program there. But some of us were so fed up with the Middle East that we didn't want to go back into port. We didn't really care that the program in Alexandria had been canceled. We were happy to go somewhere else and found it impossible to pray fervently for the doors to reopen. We were emotionally and spiritually drained. But none of us–those who were claiming victory or we who were cynically pleased for a temporary reprieve from the tensions of ministry in the Islamic world–had any idea what God was going to do. Our ministry–carefully planned and prepared in advance–had come to a stop, and it soon became apparent that God had something else in mind.

After a week, we sailed to Cyprus, and then to Lebanon, just north of Beirut, where God had miraculously opened a door. A week before our arrival in Lebanon, a ship had been sunk at the very place where Logos sat at anchor, and it wouldn't have been safe for us to be there. A week after we left, the president had been assassinated and conditions in the country deteriorated. This was probably the only week during that decade when we could have visited. But God provided, in a surprising way, this brief period, during which we were able to openly and boldly proclaim the gospel.

Christianity is not just a system of ideas or a code of morality. We have to do with the Living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The Christian life is not primarily about what we do for God. It's about what God is doing. This is exciting, but it can also be unsettling, because He will often lay aside our plans and programs because He has something better in mind. We usually have very definite ideas about what He should be doing, but He doesn't consult with us. He doesn't submit to our careful planning. Following Him is unsettling, because we are not in control.

When we arrived in Lebanon, we were startled by the peoples' outlook on life. They had no sense of hope for the future. They had been living constantly in the presence of violence and death, and they had come to expect the worst. They were amazed, they told us, that someone had been willing to come from the outside world to minister to them, and they spent money like people who had no thought of the future. They were intent on grasping any joy they could find in the present, because they had no assurance that they would still be alive the next week.

The lives of the people in Jerusalem when Jesus was born were similar, in many ways, to the lives of these people in Lebanon. They lived under foreign occupation, ruled by people who didn't understand or sympathize with their religious practices. There had been repeated attempts to seize power from the Romans, but these had been crushed mercilessly. The Roman governors maintained order, so things didn't become chaotic like they were in Lebanon. But the people of Israel hated being ruled by an idolatrous nation, and violence and death were a regular part of their lives, especially the lives of the poorer people (which those in Luke 2 seem to have been).

The thing that stands out when we read this passage in Luke 2, is that these people were full of hope. They were waiting in anticipation on this One who would come to deliver them. Many things had happened over the past centuries to crush their hope. There had been a brief time, under the Maccabeans, when it looked like they had won their independence as a nation again. But it didn't last long, and soon they had once again been conquered. From time to time, their conquerors had committed atrocities in Jerusalem. During this period, Roman rule was very strong and rebellion was crushed immediately.

But the people in Luke 2 are full of hope. Their experience of violence and death and poverty, and the failures of the nation to achieve independence, had not crushed their hopes for the future. They stand out from the people we met in Lebanon, who were intent on grasping whatever joy they could in the present. But they also stand out from some other groups who lived in Palestine during this time. There was a group called the Zealots, who opposed paying taxes to a pagan emperor, and who placed their hopes for the future in armed revolt. The Zealots believed God would enable them to overthrow the idolatrous people who were ruling them, and they actively looked for ways to carry out their mission.

Simeon and Anna, and the others at the Temple on that day, didn't put their hopes in armed rebellion against the Romans. Barclay describes them as the "Quiet in the Land." "They had no dreams of violence and of power and of armies with banners; they believed in a life of constant prayer and quiet watchfulness until God should come. All their lives they waited quietly and patiently upon God" (p. 21). They were full of hope, not because of their own abilities and plans. They were full of hope because they knew God and they trusted Him to intervene and come to their rescue. They weren't just religiously going through the motions of worship; they weren't just following a system of theology or morality. They knew that they were dealing with the living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Because they knew God, their lives were marked by a sense of expectation and anticipation.

Look, first of all, at Luke's description of Simeon in these verses. He "was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him." He was seeking to live in a right relationship with God, submitting himself to God's lordship. That's the general idea behind the words "righteous and devout." J.B. Phillips translates: "He was an upright man, devoted to the service of God." He made it his aim to live in obedience to God's Word. But the Pharisees also sought to do this. Their aim in life was to be obedient to the Law, but there was something lacking in their spirituality. They were proud of their obedience, and they looked down on everyone else. They were so obsessed with their own accomplishments that they weren't attentive to God.

Simeon was obedient, but he didn't celebrate his own obedience. His focus was on God, not on himself. He was "a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel" (The Message). He didn't spend his life looking at himself, saying "Lord, I thank you that I'm not like other people." He lived in anticipation of God's faithfulness to His promises. He was attentive to God. The Holy Spirit was upon him, and he'd been given this special revelation that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Christ. Why would God give him a promise like that? He doesn't seem to have been a religious leader. This is the only time we encounter him in Scripture. We know nothing about his accomplishments. But he was a man who walked with God for a lifetime, "righteous and devout.... waiting for the consolation of Israel." As he walked with God, praying for the good of the nation, God spoke to him and gave him this special promise. Because he was walking with God, he was attentive to God's leading and went into the Temple at just the right time and because the Holy Spirit was upon him, he recognized the child for who he was, when all the leaders of the nation were oblivious. The most important event in the history of the Temple was taking place, and all those who spent their lives ministering in the Temple missed it completely. But Simeon recognized what was happening, because he walked with God and lived in anticipation of His promises.

When Simeon saw the baby, he took him in his arms and praised God. In verse 29, he says that he is now ready to die: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace." The fulfillment of God's promise means that his life here on earth is nearly over. But this doesn't seem to bother him. He's ready to die. His whole life is caught up in what God is doing for His people. He's engrossed in something much bigger than himself, and his life–even in the face of death–overflows with praise and wonder.

In verses 30 & 31, he elaborates: "For my eyes have seen your salvation." We don't know much about Simeon, whether or not he had family members still living, what sorts of things he enjoyed doing, whether he had any unfinished projects. There may have been things he still wanted to accomplish, or people he wanted to spend more time with. But at this point in his life the central thing, the thing that mattered more than anything else, was God and His purposes. Having seen God's salvation, he was ready to let go of everything else. Simeon's emphasis here is not on the great things he's been able to accomplish for God's glory. He's lived a long life and has been faithful; he has a vibrant, lively relationship with God. It seems safe to assume that he's been a blessing to many people over the years. But that's not the thing in focus here. The thing that stands out is his realization of what God is doing. And God is doing something greater than anyone ever could have anticipated. This little child before them is: "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

Simeon's hope for the future is firmly rooted in the past, and it's strongly tied to the community of God's people. It's important for us to take note of this, because our culture is highly individualistic and thinks the past is irrelevant. Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism, said: "A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future" (p. 26). An autonomous individual, with no strong ties to community, and also cut off from the past, can only live for the present. What Lasch observes about our society is also true for individuals. "A denial of the past... proves... to embody the despair of a [person who] cannot face the future." I believe part of the explanation for the superficiality in much of American Christianity is that we've been infected by the excessive individualism of our culture. Too much of our focus is on "Jesus and me," with no sense of being involved in a community that includes all those who call on the name of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in heaven. We've also accepted our culture's opinion about the past and have lost the sense of our great heritage as part of a body that stretches back to the beginning of time. Our picture of the Church is too small, and our worship and prayer are impoverished. Simeon had a strong hope for the future. He'd spent his life "waiting for the consolation of Israel." But his hope was tied to the community of God's people–it was "the consolation of Israel" that he was looking for–and his hope was firmly rooted in God's promises, given hundreds of years before. It wasn't just "what God is doing for me." It was "God is fulfilling His promise to His people, and He's graciously included me."

While all this is going on, Anna approaches them, and she also immediately recognizes what is happening. These aren't the only other people in the Temple. There would have been priests there, carrying on their regular ministry. Joseph and Mary would have dealt with the priests in making offerings to fulfill the requirements of the Law. These were people whose whole life revolved around the Temple and the Law, but we don't hear anything about them. The One who is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament sacrificial system is present. And the priests–all of them–miss the whole thing. And what is even more remarkable, given the status of women at that time–one of the two people who recognizes what is happening at that moment is a woman.

Anna was a widow whose life revolved around worship and prayer. She may have been 84-years-old, as most translations render verse 37, or she may have been a widow for 84 years, making her over 100. In any case, she had been widowed while she was still a young woman. Life for widows was difficult in that culture. But she hadn't grown bitter over the years. Suffering can affect us in two different ways. It can make us bitter and resentful, closed in upon ourselves. Or it can open us up to God with a strong sense of need. The difficulties that Anna had faced early in her life drew her closer to God. Rather than diminishing over the years (as happens when we become bitter), she was known to others as a prophetess, a woman who knew God and spoke in His name. And when this great moment took place, she was attentive to the Spirit and recognized what was happening, even though all the leaders of the nation and Temple were oblivious.

Anna did two things when she came up to them. She gave thanks to God. She was like Simeon. She recognized that the most important thing going on at that moment was not all the great schemes of the political and religious leaders. The most important thing going on was God's work of redemption. She expected Him to fulfill His promises, and she was waiting with anticipation. So the first thing she did was to give thanks to Him for the great things He was doing. The other thing she did was speak about what she saw: she "spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." Notice how these people are described. They're not just people who believe and do the right things. They're people who are waiting expectantly for God's intervention in the lives of His people.

All this happened a long time ago in a completely different culture. What difference does it make for us? Simeon stresses, in his words to Mary in verses 34 & 35, the importance of our response to this child who was being presented in the Temple on that day: "This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others. Thus, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (NLT). Those who reject Him do so to their own undoing. Our eternal well-being is tied to the question of how we respond to Jesus Christ. So where are you in relation to Him? Are you submitting to His lordship? Have you given up all hope of saving yourself, of pleasing God through your own efforts? Have you committed your life to Him and cried out to Him for mercy, and are you seeking each day to live in ways that are pleasing to Him? Does the thought of seeing Jesus face to face fill you with joy, or dread? Where are you in relation to Him?

This brief Christmas season is a gift, an opportunity to remember that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that God appeared in our world as a man. Set aside time to spend in His presence, and cultivate an expectant attitude in worship. We're not just going through the motions when we worship Him. We have to do with the Living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Be attentive to what He is doing. We never know when He is going to intervene in an extraordinary way. When that happens, may He find us waiting expectantly.

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).