Savior – 2: Jesus sets you free

Have you ever gotten stuck in the snow or mud, spun your tries endlessly and concluded that you were never going to get out without help?

Have you ever been in debt so deep that you thought you could never get out unless some stranger died and left you a fortune?

Have you ever been enslaved by an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or smoking and knew that nothing short of a full-scale intervention could help you out?

Have you ever known someone who was falsely accused of a crime, spent years in prison and finally was freed when the real offender was identified?

Do you know anyone who is falsely accused of a crime and is still yearning for freedom from the charge?

If any of these things are true, then you can identify with today’s message. Today we are talking about freedom and redemption, or what we commonly call salvation.

We know that salvation comes from Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, we read that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” It is one of the basic affirmations of our faith. But scripture gives us several ways to understand it.

We call these “theories of atonement” because they help explain what Christ did on the cross to reconcile us with God. None of these ways of understanding it explains it fully, and none alone is universally accepted by the church. That’s why we’re looking at several of them during Lent, as a spiritual discipline to prepare ourselves for what follows.

We’re following the outline of a book titled Savior by Magrey deVega. Last week we looked at the theory called substitutionary atonement. This week we look at ransom.

Jesus himself tells us that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

That’s affirmed in the first letter of Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all … (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

When we think of ransom today, we normally think of money demanded by kidnappers. That’s probably far from our personal experience, but it’s a standard plot in crime fiction and TV dramas.

It’s also a standard form of international extortion. The rogue leaders of Iran are notorious for kidnapping people and holding them hostage, not for money but for political capital. Even now Iran holds at least one Iranian-American as a lever to get what it wants in negotiations over nuclear limitations.

Debtors prisons are not common today, but they have been around for thousands of years. The idea is that if you owe somebody money, they can get you tossed in jail. There you’ll stay until you work off the debt somehow, or someone pays it for you, or you sell yourself into slavery. If it’s suspected that you’re not as poor as you say you are, you might be tortured until you reveal where you’ve hidden your treasure.

Jesus knew all about debtors prisons, as he reveals in parables in Matthew 5 and 18, and Luke 12 (Matthew 5:25-26, Matthew 18:23-24, Luke 12:51-59). In Matthew 25 he encourages his followers to visit those in prison. And of course in his inaugural mission statement in Luke 4, he says that God has anointed him to proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18).

Those captives might be debtors, or they might be slaves. When Jesus talks about giving himself as a ransom for many, he’s speaking primarily about liberating those who are enslaved.

And to what are most of us enslaved? Sin, of course. When we speak of liberation from it, we think of sin as something that holds us captive, something that prevents us from living the way God intends us to live. Jesus sets us free from captivity and enables us to live in freedom and joy.

Romans 3:23-24: All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.

John 8: 34 & 36: I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. … Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free.”

Galatians 3:22: The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Galatians 5:1: For freedom Christ has set us free.

And of course Paul, in Romans 8:1-2: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

It’s clear, then, that Christ frees us by paying a ransom for our freedom. Now comes a tricky question. To whom does Christ pay the ransom? This is where the ransom theory can go off the rails and crash and burn. In fact, we need to understand that all the atonement theories are metaphors, idea pictures, images. If you take them literally or legalistically, you destroy them.

For example, some early Christian thinkers figured that if Christ paid a ransom for us for sin, he must have paid it to Satan. We were imprisoned by Satan because of sin, so Christ must have paid Satan to set us free. This notion may make a certain amount of sense, but at the same time it veers into coarse superstition. It devalues the whole idea of God.

Satan may have us bound, as the song says, but God owes Satan nothing for our freedom. God is God, and God alone. Satan is far from God’s equal. God owes Satan nothing! God pays Satan nothing! When we say that Jesus “pays the ransom” or “pays the price” of our freedom, that’s an expression of the cost to him, not the price paid to any other. No actual transaction takes place. No money or favor changes hands.

But, as Paul says in Romans 8:3, Jesus deals with sin personally by condemning it in his flesh. In that passage from Romans 7 and 8 that we read earlier, Paul lays bare the truth of the human condition as he wrestles with himself.

He says: I do not understand myself. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t do it. My spirit wants to soar, but my body is a slave to sin. Who can rescue me from this servitude? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord! Christ set me free!

When Christ pays the ransom for us, what occurs on our end is a relational transformation, an act of freedom inspired by God’s love. Christ sets us free indeed!

Truth is that all of us, to one degree or another, are captive to some sort of sin. If we are honest with ourselves, each of us can identify some force, some influence, some thing that is holding us down.

Something is keeping us from living the way God intends us to live. Like the snow or mud that grips the tires of our car, something is keeping our wheels spinning; something is keeping us from gaining traction.

Like the load of debt that hounds us by day and keeps us awake at night, something is cutting us off from the joy of living.

Like the drug or drink or weed that controls our body and rules our mind, something evil occupies the center of our attention.

Like the false accusation that won’t go away, something keeps us imprisoned.

We all need a savior. We all need to be set free.

What holds you captive? What chains do you want to see fall away? From what do you need to be freed? For what do you wish to be freed? Once you are freed, what will you do with your freedom?

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come, O Israel.

Immanuel is here. You are no longer captive. You are free!

If we claim this truth, it’s time to own it by putting ourselves into these phrases from scripture.

Once I was a slave of sin, but Christ Jesus has paid the ransom price to set me free, and I am a child of God through faith.  (John 8:34, Romans 3:23, Galatians 3:26)

Aren’t you glad Jesus lifted you?

This message was delivered February 28, 2021 to Edgerton United Methodist Church. The text was Romans 7:15, 18b, 22-25a, 8:1-2.

Savior – 1 : Jesus takes your place

Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.

That is one of the basic affirmations of the Christian faith. It’s one of the things “of first importance” in the Gospel that the Apostle Paul proclaims to the church at Corinth and to all succeeding generations of believers.

Christ died for our sins.

The statement has a ring certainty to it, a ring of finality that is reassuring but also a bit puzzling. What exactly does it mean to say that Christ died “for our sins”?

How does this work? What does the death of Christ have to do with anybody’s sins, let alone mine? When I call Jesus “savior,” what am I trying to say? What is Jesus saving me from? What is he saving me for? How does his death actually save me from or for anything?

Those are some of the questions we will look at over the next six weeks, during the season of Lent. We explore these questions as a Lenten discipline, a way of preparing ourselves for the joy of Easter.

It’s one thing to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But even a child at some point will ask, “Why did he die?” Cross and empty tomb are firmly linked. Good Friday means nothing without Easter. Easter means nothing without Good Friday. To understand one, we have to understand the other.

So before we proclaim “Christ is risen!” we have to ask, “Why did he die?” We won’t be looking at the historical factors that led Jesus to the cross. Instead, we’ll look at the varied theological explanations that believers have proposed over the ages. We have varied theological explanations because scripture is not definitively clear here. Scripture offers not one but several explanations for how Christ’s death saves us.

The technical name for this kind of theology is soteriology. The name comes from two Greek words: sotēria, meaning salvation; and logos meaning study or word. I want to emphasize that New Testament soteriology offers several differing explanations for how the death of Jesus saves us.

Some faith traditions say there is only one way to understand this question, and of course that is their way. This stance involves a grievous misunderstanding of scripture. As a matter of fact, scripture offers several ways to understand what’s going on when we say, “Christ died for my sins.” We call them theories of atonement, explanations for how Christ’s death saves us from sin and reconciles us to God.

Throughout this series of messages, we’ll be following the outline of two books: primarily Savior by Magrey deVega, but also Dying to Live by James Harnish. They are the current and former pastors, respectively, of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida.

The first theory of atonement that we are going to look at is the one that’s especially popular in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. It is called substitutionary atonement.

The idea is that Christ literally died in my place. I deserve death because of my sin, but God accepts Jesus as a substitute. Jesus died so that I would not have to die. Jesus suffered punishment for my wrongdoing.

You can see hints of this explanation throughout the New Testament. Today and on following Sundays, you’ll find some of these scriptural citations on the handout that came with your Weekly Update.

Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

2 Corinthians 5:21: For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

1 Peter 2:24: He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 

That quotation hearkens back to Isaiah 53:5, one of the passages where the prophet talks about a Suffering Servant who suffers for all: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

Perhaps the clearest versions of this theory come in narrative form, most notably in the story of Barabbas. He was the leader of a failed insurrection against Rome, and he was scheduled to die that day. Pilate, the Roman governor, offered the crowd a choice: “Shall I release Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” (Matthew 27:17 and parallels)

The crowd yelled for Barabbas, so he was released from custody. The cross that Jesus carried had Barabbas’ name on it. Similarly, the cross of Jesus had our names on it. We deserve to die for our sins, for, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”

Eleventh century theologian Anselm of Canterbury explains it this way. We are sinners. Sin is a violation of God’s intention for us, God’s order, God’s law. Such violations incur a deep debt to our holy God. The debt is so deep that only our death can erase it. Christ pays the debt, thus freeing us from sin and death.

It’s a powerful argument that has moved many over the centuries. But it has some powerful holes in it. Topmost is fairness. Jesus is innocent of any wrongdoing. How can God punish him for acts that other people have committed? Where is the justice in that? Even if Jesus agrees with this and offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of others, how can any form of substitution, forced or voluntary, be just?

Let’s go back to Romans 6:23 and read the full citation: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It may appear to be a free gift to us, but it represents a ton of suffering for Jesus.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or – more to the point here – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Why should God expect us to forgive anyone anything when God is so unforgiving? Why should we be forgiving if God requires blood – especially the blood of God’s own Son?

I cannot tell you how many awful sermons I have heard that go like this: “Would you offer your son as a substitute for sinners? I wouldn’t either. But God did! How much God must love us!”

On the internet you can find the French film titled “The Bridge” and similar accounts. They’re all based on an old story about a railroad switchman who faces a terrible choice. A fast-approaching passenger train is carrying hundreds of people. The switchman must switch the train to another track so it can safely continue on its way. But to his horror he sees that his young son is walking on that very track. If he doesn’t divert the train, it will crash and everyone on board will die. If he does divert the train, his son will die. What must he do?

This is presented as the dilemma God faces. God must sacrifice his Son to save passengers on the train. It makes for some powerful cinema, but theologically it’s thoroughly bogus. The dilemma is full of false equivalences, things that just don’t add up, logically or scripturally.

I have similar complaints against the C.S. Lewis tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The idea is that a “deep magic” from the past demands that the Lion Aslan must die to save young Edmund from his sins. But after the White Witch kills Aslan, an even “deeper magic” restores him to life. I’m sorry, there’s entirely too much talk of magic here to suit me.

Both the railroad story and the Aslan story rely on the idea that God is forced by circumstance or some basic law of the universe to sacrifice Jesus. This is utter nonsense. God is the ruler of the universe. There is no “higher law” or “deeper magic” than God. There is no higher force than God. God is not “forced” to do anything.

Whether God offers the Son or the Son offers himself as a substitute, it is a totally voluntary act. God is under no compulsion, not even some imaginary compulsion to satisfy God’s honor or an imaginary rule of justice that actually perverts justice.

Then there’s the whole legalistic flair of this theory. One illustration goes like this: The judge finds the defendant guilty and worthy of the death penalty. Then the judge steps down from his bench and says, “I will take the punishment for this defendant.” That sounds noble, but where’s the justice in that?

And where precisely do we get the idea that our sins require our death? Sure, Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death.” Paul makes that statement in the midst of a complicated argument about the differences between law and grace. He may be arguing that following the law leads you to death but following Jesus leads to life eternal.

In coming weeks we’ll look at other explanations of Christ’s death that have similar problems as this one. That is, they rely on courtroom metaphors. That should not be too surprising, because some key theologians, including John Calvin, also were trained as lawyers. Courtroom analogies came natural to them. That doesn’t make them true.

Substitutionary atonement can be expressed in some fairly sophisticated ways, but it is most effective when it’s expressed crudely. Let me show you. This little ball represents the world. This hammer represents God’s wrath. God wants to smash you because of your sin. But – bang! – Jesus jumps between you and God to save you! That’s substitutionary atonement at its most crude and basic. And at its most crude and basic, it is very problematic for anyone who believes in a loving and just God.

At its most sublime however, remember what Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

A quick review of substitutionary atonement: Sin is a violation of God’s law. We deserve punishment. Jesus dies in our place.

Now let’s own it, by repeating 1 Peter 2.24, putting ourselves into it.

Jesus bore my sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, I might live for righteousness. By his wounds I have been healed.

That’s gospel. Jesus died for my sins, so that I might live for righteousness.


This message was delivered February 21, 2021, the first Sunday of Lent, to Edgerton United Methodist Church, from 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.   


For United Methodists and many other Protestants, Transfiguration Sunday always concludes the season of Epiphany. That’s because Epiphany is a season of revelation, and perhaps only the Resurrection reveals more about who Jesus is than the Transfiguration.

So let’s look closely at what the Transfiguration tells us. We’ll be following the story as told in Mark 9:2-9. Mark begins, “Six days later…”

Mark’s narration may appear rushed, but it is not casual or sloppy. He must have a good reason to link this story to the one just before it. So we have to ask, what happened six days earlier that is so important that Mark wants to remind us about it now?

Six days earlier, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him the gossip they’ve heard, and then Jesus makes it more personal. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter blurts out, “You’re the Messiah!” Jesus then sternly warns them not to tell anyone who he is, because he is going to be rejected and suffer and die, and on the third day rise again. “No, no,” Peter objects. “The Messiah can’t die!” And Jesus shuts him down, hard.

If you still think Jesus is all sweetness and light, hear what the tells Peter. He says, “Get behind me, you Satan!” A little later, to everyone in earshot, he says: “If you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:27-38)

Jesus often speaks in memorable metaphor and colorful exaggeration, but he does not appear to be exaggerating here. There is a note of chilling reality in what he says. When he says “take up your cross,” he may not be speaking literally, but he’s clearly saying that there’s a huge personal cost involved in following him.

Six days later, it must be a subdued group that Jesus leads up a high mountain, off by themselves. With him are Peter and James and John, the inner circle of his group of 12.

Without warning, something happens. He is transfigured before them. He is transformed. He is transmogrified. He is changed in ways that can barely be described. His face shines like the sun, another account tell us, and his clothes become dazzling white, whiter than any known substance could bleach them.

Two figures appear with him. Apparently they are transfigured as well, yet they are easily enough identified as Moses and Elijah, and they are talking with Jesus. These two figures represent so much. Specifically, they represent the testimony of scripture. Moses represents Torah, the basic teaching of Judaism found in the first five books of our Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Elijah represents the rest of scripture. First, he represents the books of the prophets – that is, first all the books that we think of as history, Joshua and Kings and all the others – though they’re not straight history at all; they’re history written from a prophetic point of view, interpretive history, history with a definite slant that the writers think mirrors the mind of God.  

He also represents the words of the written prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and the 12 prophets who are called “minor” only because their books are so short. And he represents the rest of the Bible, too, what Jesus once refers to as “the Psalms” (Luke 24.44), meaning all the other writings in what we today call the Old Testament.

Even more, Moses alone represents the full testimony of God. For Moses is the greatest prophet ever, Deuteronomy declares, because God spoke to Moses as a friend, face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10) Elijah’s stature is great, but it shrinks by comparison to that of Moses.

Now the disciples see both Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. We aren’t told what they say, or whether the disciples can hear or understand what is said. But perhaps hearing their words is not necessary. Their presence alone is a clear endorsement of Jesus. Just by being there, they are saying, “Jesus completes our work. He’s the One we saw coming.”

Naturally, the disciples are terrified by what they see. Naturally, only Peter is bold enough to say anything out loud. He tells Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Right, Peter. Don’t you think that’s why Jesus brought you here? Of course, it’s good for you to be here.

But Peter babbles on. “Let us make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He is probably thinking of temporary structures, like the flimsy booths erected during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Or maybe he’s thinking of some kind of permanent shrine where the faithful could come on pilgrimage to see the places where these three great figures once stood, and vendors could set up kiosks to sell dried fish and falafel, and maybe souvenirs of some kind.

Who knows what he’s thinking? The point is, he’s so frightened that he isn’t thinking. He’s just chattering to keep the fear at bay. That’s why everybody loves Peter. He’s so much like all of us so much of the time.

Now a cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Jesus has heard similar words before, at his baptism. Maybe some others who were present heard those words as well, but as far as we know Peter and James and John were not there and they didn’t hear God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

So this may be a reaffirmation for Jesus, but it’s a totally new revelation for these three disciples. Peter has declared Jesus to be God’s Messiah, and he knows there is some intimate connection between God and God’s Messiah, but none of the prophets, not even Moses, is ever clear what this connection is.

Now it seems crystal clear. That voice has to be God’s voice, and God’s voice clearly says that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. That’s an astounding claim, but what it means to be God’s Son still has to be determined. Indeed, Christians will spend centuries more trying to figure it out, and the way some babble about it today, it’s clear we’re still not all on the same page.

Even more, what should you do in the presence of God’s Son? Bow before him? Worship and adore him? Maybe, but one specific command of God ought to be crystal clear. “Listen to him!”

I am here to tell you that listening is not a passive experience. Listening is an active experience. Listening involves taking in, processing and acting on what you heard. You don’t just hear it and shrug. If you don’t act on what you’ve heard, you haven’t actually been listening, have you?

So when God says, “Listen to him!” it’s like God saying, “Hey, people, drop whatever you’re doing and listen up because what you’re about to hear is vital to your understanding of the universe and vital to your grasp of the very act of living, and it’s vital for how you will act every moment of every day for the rest of your life, not to mention your life beyond this life. Got it? That means, LISTEN!”

The rest is anticlimax. Suddenly, the vision is over. The disciples gape, but now they see that Jesus stands alone, and he looks pretty much how he looked before. So now they head back down the mountain, and he tells them not to tell anyone about what they saw until he’s risen from the dead.

“Risen from the dead?” The three try to avoid eye contact with him as they steal wide-eyed glances and little head shakes that say, “Whatever he means, this is not the time to ask.”

So down the mountain they go. Ever been mountain climbing – even on a small mountain? Coming down is always – well, it’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? You’ve been to the top. You’ve had that fabled mountaintop experience. No matter how many times you climb a mountain, even the same mountain again and again, it’s always an experience worth remembering.

And though you may cherish that memory and have a great sense of accomplishment, now you’re going back to the world that you left behind, the normal world, the real world. You feel like you ought to be changed somehow, transformed yourself by the experience back up there, but you’re still so caught up in the experience, in the realness of it and the unreality of it, that you’re still uncertain what’s changed and what hasn’t.

There’s not much you can say about it. Anything you tried to say would sound just like Peter’s babbling. You’re still trying to figure out what happened. You know you ought to feel different somehow, but your feelings haven’t caught up with your brain – or any other part of your body, for that matter. Someday, perhaps soon, it will make sense. You’ll think you know what it meant. But at the moment it’s all a blur.

All you can say for sure is that you saw something fantastic, something wonderful. You saw Jesus, and no matter how normal he looks now, you will never see him the same way as you saw him before, because now you’ve had a glimpse of his glory. You’ve had a glimpse of his greatness, his divinity, his marvelous and infinite capacity to be who he is, the Great I AM.

You’ve seen Jesus in an entirely new way, and now it’s not just Jesus that’s been transformed. It’s everything you see now after you’ve seen Jesus transformed. Everything is different now. Everything is new now. And now you realize that you also are different now. You also are new now. You may look the same and talk the same and act the same, but you also have been transformed, too – even if you still can’t explain it or fully feel it.

You’ve peeked beyond the veil of illusion that this world presents, and behind that veil you’ve seen the face of God. And you survived! And you have this crazy confidence that everything is going to be all right. As wrong as so much of the world still is, everything is going to be all right.

That’s part of what the Transfiguration of Jesus is all about. That’s not all of it, but it’s part of it. It’s enough to keep you going, enough to keep you following Jesus all the way to that bitter end he talked about – all the way to the end, and beyond the end; moving with him from Transfiguration to Resurrection.

Ah, but in between Transfiguration and Resurrection there’s that matter of the cross, that bitter end that’s really not the end. That’s what we’ll talk about for the six Sundays of Lent, starting next Sunday. It’s a long and deep valley, but once you’ve been transfigured, you know that Resurrection must be ahead.


This message was delivered February 14, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 9:2-9. 

Pray hard

Every memorial service I do includes these words from a prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship.

Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Every time I say those words, I wonder: Are the people who hear those words living as those who are prepared to die? Am I?

What does it mean to live as one who is prepared to die? In the Broadway musical Zorba, Zorba the Greek recounts the time he encountered a very old man planting an almond tree, and the man explained, “I live every minute as if I would never die.” In wonder, Zorba exclaims, “I live as if I would die any minute!”

I’m not sure I know how to live that way, but I am sure that Jesus did, and part of learning to follow Jesus may be learning to live that way. It’s not a matter of living for the moment but of living in the moment – being fully present, fully committed to acting faithfully and bravely in the situation and being as loving as possible to all the people around you.

None of our anxiety can add a single moment to our lives, Jesus says. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:27, 34).

I have been musing about living in the moment and related things for the last week or so, ever since I heard that Junius Dotson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Junius is head of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church. He is one of the people who crafted the plan for a peaceable separation of the church over sexuality issues. He is one of the leaders our church sorely needs to guide us to a better future.

As well as esteemed colleague, I consider him a friend. Not that we know each other well. He was going to write a jacket blurb for my Christmas book, until the publishing deadline got moved, and the last time I saw him, he signed my copy of his book, Soul Reset.

A year living under the cloud of pandemic has not led me to think about dying any more than I did before. But his diagnosis surely has. Pancreatic cancer is especially deadly because it’s sneaky as well as nasty. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s usually too late to do much about it.

I hate this disease. A beloved aunt and two friends of mine have died from it. Chuck Davis’ friend Marc Jacobs has it; he’s been on and off our prayer list for months. You also may know someone who had it, or someone with a loved one who had it. I encourage you to include them in your prayers every day. While I’m at it, I encourage you keep your Weekly Update handy so you can pray for each of those persons on our prayer list by name at least once every day.

What good does prayer do? Understand that we are not trying to change God’s mind. God did not say, “Today I’m going to give so-and-so cancer,” so that it becomes our job to change God’s mind about that. God does not run around “giving” people cancer, OK?

I know that some people believe that God micromanages our lives, so that everything that happens is God’s will. Let me state this clearly. That is an obscene and blasphemous view of God. I really like Twila Paris’ song “God Is in Control.” But you cannot take it literally in many circumstances.

God is in charge, certainly, but God is not in control. You are not a robot or a marionette, and God is not a puppeteer twitching your strings to control your movements. Many forces – good and bad – influence you, but no force – the power of God included – determines your every move. If God’s will actually were done on earth as it is in heaven, why would we pray for that to happen whenever we recite Jesus’ model prayer?

We pray for the welfare of others because God tells us to do that. Sometimes when we pray, we are roused to action that makes the prayer come true – and that may be one of the highest forms of prayer there is. But when someone’s health is concerned, or we are separated by distance, prayer may be the most we can do because we are not in control any more than God is. Still, God has assured us that our prayers mean something. They’re not a waste of breath. In ways we can’t understand, our prayers help God act.

It’s not that we have to encourage God to act. Rather, as John Wesley once said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” I am not sure of the full implications of that statement. But at least one of the implications is that we ought to be continually praying, “pray without ceasing,” as the Apostle Paul says. (1 Thessalonians 5:17, Romans 12:12)

We are never encouraged to pray for halfway measures. A teen-ager in one of my churches once suffered a serious eye injury. His mother asked me if I thought she should pray for a full recovery. “Go for it,” I said. He eventually lost sight in that eye, but his mother and others who prayed with her knew that they did all they could for him at the time.

In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, we find a story that begins this way:

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

And Jesus heals the man. (John 9:1-3)

The first time I preached from this text, there sat in the very front row of the church, not 10 feet from where I stood, a married couple and their son who was born blind. They were faithful Christians, and they had probably heard the story before, but they had no fear that I would use the text against them. They knew they were in a church where the gospel of Jesus Christ was respected, not used as a launching pad for culture-pleasing nonsense.

Not even the words of Jesus have been able to eradicate many thousands of years of superstition that masquerades as religion. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, people tend to assume that if something bad happens, God is behind it somehow; God must be punishing someone for something. This is terrible, destructive thinking.

Some behaviors do have terrible consequences, but in general bad things don’t happen to you because you’re a worse sinner than your neighbor. Jesus says this most clearly in the opening story of Luke 13. There’s a political context here. Jews have been killed in conflicts with Roman soldiers. They were no worse sinners than any of you, Jesus says, but if you do what they did, you could die just as they did. Forty years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews would die in a disastrous revolt against Rome.

As I said earlier, you might as well go whole hog in your prayer requests. When in doubt, go for the miracle! We know almost nothing about how God processes such requests, or acts on them.

There are some obvious limits imposed by logic and propriety. Here’s a classic, listed by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his notable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. If you’re out driving and you see a fire truck roaring into your neighborhood, you should not pray, “Please God, don’t let it be my house.” Think about what you’re asking. The fire is already burning. God can’t change whose house it is. Do you really wish this calamity on a neighbor?

A more appropriate prayer might be, “God, support the firefighters and the homeowners, whoever they are.”

Kushner concludes that there are situations where God’s hands are tied by circumstances. God can’t change some things no matter how much God might want to change them. That doesn’t mean you don’t wish that God could, or would.

About two and a half years ago, our granddaughter Rosie suffered an unavoidable brain trauma during birth. Doctors could not determine the extent of the damage for several days. For a week, we stroked her little arms and smoothed her hair and prayed for a miracle. On the seventh day of her life, she died.

I do not believe that our prayers were in vain. I do not believe that God in some way engineered the tragedy, or that God wanted Rosie to die, or refused to hear our prayers because we were worse sinners than others, or because we lacked enough faith. All of those explanations are superstitious claptrap, and any religious leader who mouths them is not speaking for God but for another spiritual force altogether.

I do not know why God could not or did not heal Rosie, or why God could not or did not heal many others I have prayed for over the years, or why so many people today are dying from COVID-19. January was the deadliest month yet in America, more than 95,000 deaths. The last time I checked, the total was more than 460,000, and it has probably jumped since then.

This, too, is not God’s doing, no matter what the obnoxious flakes on TV and radio say. It’s not God’s punishment for this or for that, whatever the political persuasion of the false prophet who claims to know God’s mind – and isn’t it surprising that God’s mind so exactly mirrors the false prophet’s mind?

The coronavirus is not God’s punishment for sin. God simply does not work that way. Still, we may be reaping the consequences of our sinful lack of preparation for such events, which scientists have been warning about for decades. God is not mocked, Paul says. You reap what you sow. (Galatians 6:7). As a society, we can act stupidly only so long before it catches up to us.

Our task today is to live wisely and to live fully and to pray. Pray for the health and welfare of others, as well as your own health and welfare. Pray for the leaders of this and other countries as well, because we’re all making this up as we go along. As has been wisely said, we make the road by walking it.

So, as the song says, walk on. Walk on, and pray every step of the way. Pray boldly. Don’t hold back. Pray hard. Give it your all. Above all, trust God. Not that you will necessarily get what you want, but trust that God hears you and that God stands with you, whatever the result.

While you’re praying, include this thought:

God, help me to live as one who is prepared to die. And when my days here are accomplished, enable me to die as one who goes forth to live, so that living or dying, my life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate me from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-9)


This message was delivered February 7, 2021, for Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Romans 8:38-39 and other scriptures.