All my Easter needs

A few years ago about this time of year, I was driving down the street, and I was startled by a sign outside one of the big chain pharmacies. The sign said: “We have all your Easter needs.”

Well, I had to check it out. Just think of the possibilities. One stop shopping at its finest. Why, I might even be able to skip church on Easter!

So I went inside the store, and there, indeed, were chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs and jelly beans, several kinds of Peeps, many sizes and varieties of Easter baskets and stuffed animals of all description. Why they even had bags of Easter grass – you know, the dreaded shredded plastic stuff that clogs your sweeper and keeps turning up in the darndest places months later?

But I quickly learned that the sign out front was wrong. The store did not have all my Easter needs. First and foremost, it lacked any reference whatsoever to my most pressing need at Easter.

Because what I need at Easter, more than anything else, is not something you can find at any store. It’s not something that’s for sale, and it even resists our best efforts at clever packaging and marketing.

What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a risen Savior. What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a Jesus who is alive again and promises to raise a;; of us to new life as well.

This salvation that Jesus offers is not for sale, but it does come at a greEat price. It comes at the price of Jesus’ own life.

About nine on Friday morning, they nailed him to a cross to die. In unspeakable agony he hung for six hours, until the accumulated trauma of whipping and beating and other torture broke his great heart, and he breathed his last. Even then, his tormentors jabbed a spear into his chest, just to make sure. And when they were sure, they allowed him to be buried.

It had to be done quickly, because the Sabbath started at sunset. They wrapped the body in a linen shroud, carried it the body into the tomb and placed it on a stone slab.

Only one thing was left to be done. We aren’t specifically told that they did this, but it was a custom of the time, so it’s quite possible that they did. They unwrapped the shroud around his head and then placed a tiny feather, just a little bit of bird fluff, on his upper lip, right under his nostrils. Then they sat back and watched. If the feather moved in the slightest, there was hope that he was still alive.

In the cold silence of the tomb, they waited. Five minutes. Ten. The feather did not move. So they wrapped the shroud back over his head, and they rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and they went away.

On the morning after the Sabbath, bright and early, some of the women who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry return to the tomb. They hope to touch Jesus’ hands and face one last time, to anoint him with spices, to put his body, and their own spirits, at rest.

They discover that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body is gone. Inside sits a young man dressed in white. He tells them: “Don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s not here. He is risen.”

The women run away in terror, afraid at first to tell anyone what they’ve seen. But they can’t keep this to themselves very long.

Easter is the story of the love of God and the power of God revealed in a feather and a stone.

On Friday afternoon, the Son of God was powerless to move a feather. But on Sunday morning, the power of God rolls the stone away to show Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. On Friday, Jesus was dead. Incapable of the slightest movement. Incapable of moving a feather. But on Sunday morning, he is alive again.

He is alive again, and not merely resuscitated, but resurrected – raised from death in triumph and glory. He is raised in a body that is both similar to his old body and yet radically different – similar in that the marks of death are still there in his hands and his feet, and yet radically different in that he can appear to loved ones and be mistaken for someone else; similar in that he can eat and drink but radically different in that he can pass through locked doors; similar in that he is obviously human but radically different in that he is obviously more than human, at least as we usually understand being human.

The message of Easter is that God allowed Jesus to die on that cross out of love for us and God raised him from that tomb out of love for us – and out of God’s great power and great love, God promises to raise us as well, so that we may live eternally with Jesus in resurrection bodies similar to his.

The message of Easter is that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Christ so that we could encounter God face to face and see the quality of life he intends for us. We spat on him and abused him and killed him, but he refuses to take no for an answer.

The message of Easter is that Jesus died for us and was resurrected for us and lives today. That’s right. He’s still alive today. We do not serve a dead historical figure. We serve a risen Savior.

No tomb can hold him. Death can’t keep him down. He is alive today, and his live Spirit is loose in the world, and all we have to do is trust in his living presence, and we, too, can be transformed, remade in his image, born anew as the vital and loving human beings God created all of us to be.

Jesus calls us to rise with him. Jesus calls us to throw off our burial shrouds and rise from the tombs of sin and death where we are captive. Jesus calls us to throw off the illusions of this world and see reality clearly for the first time.

Jesus calls us to throw off our illusions of power and self reliance and self centeredness and see that the center of reality is the great loving heart of God, and all of creation beats in sync with that love, and all we have to do to live abundantly is get our hearts in sync with that beat.

Yet our hearts are entombed by sin. At the door of our hearts is a great stone that we are not strong enough to roll away. We’re dead, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When it comes to saving ourselves, we can’t move a feather.

But God can save us. God can roll away the stone that blocks the door of our hearts, and God can raise us to new life, to eternal life, life of such quality that it starts at this very moment and extends throughout all eternity. God can roll the stone away from our tombs and raise us, too, so that we, too, can be alive, truly alive. Just like Jesus.

That is our personal stake in the Easter story. The Resurrection is not simply a good yarn about something that happened a long time ago in a faraway place. It’s the story of what happens in us and to us today, as well. Simply stated, we participate in Jesus’ death, and because we participate in his death, we also participate in his Resurrection.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that when we are baptized into Christ, we also are baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him, and just as he is raised from the dead, so we also may walk with him in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-11).

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that death no longer has dominion over us. The Resurrection is God’s promise that, just as Jesus was resurrected, so we also will be.

God would not allow Jesus’ death to be the final answer, and God will not allow our deaths to be the final answer either. God will raise us, just as God raised Jesus, and all because of Jesus and because of God’s great love for us most fully revealed in Jesus.

Jesus himself tells us: “This is the will of my Father, that all who trust in the Son may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.40).

The Resurrection is proof that God has the power to raise the dead to new life. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise Jesus from the dead but that God has the power to raise us from the dead as well. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise us to eternal life but to transform us from the living dead to the truly living.

The first change that God works is one of relation. On the cross, Jesus takes our sin upon himself. By bearing the pain of our sin, he removes all barriers to right relation between us and God.

This change in relation produces a change of condition. When we are put in right relation with God, we are raised from living death and empowered for new life – empowered for life eternal, for life that not only goes on forever but starts right now, at the very moment we accept it, and keeps getting better, as moment by moment we are transformed into the very image of Christ, into the very likeness of the one who lived and died and was raised for us.

That is the significance of the Resurrection. God became human in Christ to show us how to live. God died in Christ to make that life possible. God lives in Christ to make that life a reality for each of us.

It is Easter morning, and Jesus is alive. And we can live with him, in love and in peace and in wholeness, in right relation with God and neighbor, if we place our trust in him.

God rolled the stone away from the tomb to show us that God has rolled away all the barriers between us and abundant life. All we have to do is trust, and we, too, will be raised to new life, in this and the next.

That’s the message of Easter. That’s what we celebrate today.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah! Praise God!

Amen.

A personal postscript: If my math and memory are correct, this is the 25th Easter morning on which I have preached about the Resurrection of Jesus. You don’t keep telling a story like this unless you not only believe it rationally but you also trust it existentially and experientially. Deep down inside, you know that it is true, and that truth and your trust in it changes everything. It is so with me, and I pray that it is so also with you.

This message was delivered April 4, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Good Friday?

Good Friday? That seems like an odd name for such a day as this. Some say it’s actually an accident of language – the German for “God” or “holy” sounding like “good” in English. It wasn’t actually a good day, but God made good use of it.

Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a leg or foot cramp?

You react to the cramp by pushing against it, and that only makes it worse, so you try not to push against it but to push with it, thinking that will ease the cramp, and that, too, seems only to make it worse.

For 30 seconds or a minute or more, you try not to cry out in pain. You can’t do anything except feel that muscle cramping. It controls everything you do. You want to roll around and beat your fists against the bed and scream.

And that’s just one muscle cramping. Try to imagine, if you can, all of your muscles cramping like that at the same time – not only your calf and foot muscles but also the muscles in your thigh, in your hip, in your lower back, all the way up your back into your shoulders and your neck and the full length of both arms and hands and your fingers, too.

Imagine every muscle in your body cramping that way, but not stopping after 30 seconds or even after a minute; instead continuing for hours – sometimes relenting briefly because your muscles are exhausted, but then seizing up again, and the pain is even worse then because your muscles are so tired.

Imagine that continuing for six hours. Now consider what is causing your muscles to cramp. Big nails have driven into the base of your hands and into your feet. The nails in your hands go right through a major nerve center.

The pain sets your whole body on fire. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before, and then you’re elevated so that the weight of your body is hanging on those nails and the only way you can relieve the pain of that weight is to push up on the nails in your feet.

You roll and writhe in agony, and every movement makes it worse, but you can’t stop moving, and you can’t stop the pain. It goes on this way until finally your body just can’t take it anymore. Your chest muscles are so tight that you can no longer breathe. Slowly, you suffocate.

Jesus suffered this way for six hours on Good Friday. It was not all his suffering that day. But it’s the part we remember the most, the six hours he hung on a cross. For us.

There are many ways of explaining how his suffering and death save us. I think it’s enough to understand that God’s purpose in the cross is to bring us into right relationship with God and neighbor and to join us in a community of faith that testifies to God’s love.

Writing hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant of God who suffers for us all. Isaiah 53 is deep and dark and mysterious, and it can’t help but remind us of Jesus. Hear how Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message.

Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God – a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried – our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him – our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we are healed.

We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence.

Justice miscarried, and he was led off – and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. The plan was that he’d give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it – life, life, and more life.

And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it. Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones,” as he himself carries the burden of their sins.

Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly – the best of everything, the highest honors – because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest. He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many. He took up the cause of all the lost sheep.

An old spiritual asks, “Were you there?” Of course not. It happened a long time ago.

But Jesus was there. God-in-person was there. And that’s what counts. It still counts for you today.

A version of this message was delivered online to Edgerton United Methodist Church on April 2, 2021,    Good Friday.

Savior 5: Jesus makes you clean

My uncle Orville was a mechanic. If he wasn’t reaching down into, or up into, a car or truck at work, he was restoring an old tractor at home. Because of his passion for all things mechanical, Orville’s hands were always dirty. They were black around the fingernails and black in the creases and whorls of his fingers and palms. As often and as hard as he washed his hands, he could never get them clean. The grease was ground in too deep.

In the Broadway version of “South Pacific,” Mary Martin sings, “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.” You feel so refreshed stepping out of the shower. It’s like making a new start in life. Don’t you wish you could take care of problems, and problem people, so easily?

When Lady Macbeth shrieks, “Out, damned spot!” she’s not talking about a ketchup stain. She’s talking about blood she has shed. The Roman governor Pilate thinks he can wash his hands of the blood of Jesus, but no whitewashing of history can erase his treachery.

We’ve all got stains that we’d like to wash away, and no amount of soap or scrubbing can remove them. Scripture tells us that only the blood of Jesus can wash us clean.

Friends, we’re in the fifth week of Lent and nearing the end of our study based on the book “Savior,” by Magrey deVega. We’re exploring various ways of understanding just how it is that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Today we’re talking about being made clean.

In Jesus’ day, it is assumed that disease is a sign of sin and alienation from God. In the gospel of Mark, we read about a man who has a skin disease similar to leprosy. He falls to his knees before Jesus and begs him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reaches out and touches him, and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!” And immediately, we’re told, the man is cured of his disease and made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

We don’t all suffer from a dread skin disease, but we all sin because of our alienation from God. Our sin stains everything we do, and we all need to be made clean. In the book of Revelation, people wear robes with colors that are symbolic of their spiritual state. Unrepentant sinners wear dirty robes, while Christian believers wear robes that are sparkling white. Why are they so white? Because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

It is very much a paradoxical image. Just about everybody knows how hard it is to get a bloodstain out of clothing. So how is it that robes washed in the blood of the Lamb are so pure white?

The gospel of John proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36). Revelation pictures him as a suckling Lamb that has been slaughtered (Revelation 5:6). That image, of course, comes from Temple sacrifice. John’s gospel makes the association clear. According to John, Jesus is crucified at the same time that Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple.

The Passover lamb was not sacrificed for anyone’s sin, but as a means of obtaining the freedom of enslaved Israel. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul calls Christ “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The book of Hebrews, meantime, says the one-time sacrifice of Christ does what the death of no amount of other lambs could ever do. It is a one-time sacrifice for all sins (Hebrews 10:12).

So it is we can say that “the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).  

So far, so good. But how exactly does that happen? Now we have to briefly drop deep into the weeds to undo several centuries of Bible abuse.

If you have an ear trained in traditional versions of the Bible, some of the Bible quotes you are hearing today will sound strikingly different from what you’re used to hearing. You may especially note the absence of two key words: “propitiation” and “expiation.” These are not words you hear in normal everyday conversation. They are the weasel words that some Bible translations use to promote a certain vile interpretation of scripture.

First up is “propitiation.” It is all about the pacification of an angry deity. Remember the movie “King Kong”? Kong is this giant gorilla, and the local population has learned that the only way to satisfy the blood lust of this monster is to sacrifice a virgin to him every now and again.

In some segments of Christian thought, Jesus is sacrificed to satisfy the wrath of his Heavenly Father against sinners. We deserve to die, Jesus takes our place, and God’s blood lust is satisfied. I think King Kong theology is despicable. God is not angry with you or eager to do you in because of your sin.

We’ve talked about this before. God’s wrath is not about zapping you with thunderbolts or flaming arrows. It is letting you go your own way and suffering the consequences of your sins. In other words, Christ sacrificing himself for you is not saving you from God’s anger. It’s saving you from your own folly.

The second weasel word you’ll often hear in these verses is “expiation.” “Expiation” is basically “propitiation” lite. It is sometimes translated as “atoning sacrifice.” What it really means is to cleanse, to forgive, to wipe out, to remove. It’s about how God deals with our sins.

It goes back to the long and complicated specifications in the book of Leviticus about how animals are to be slaughtered and their blood spattered on the altar and on the Ark of the Covenant. (By the way, cleaning those things must have been a really tough job – especially cleaning the Ark, because if you touched it, you died.) Anyway, the point is that these sacrifices remove sin. They wipe it out. And so it is with the sacrifice of Jesus.

One quick example, and we’ll move on. 1 John 2:2, from the New International Version: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Now from the Common English Bible: “He is God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world.”

Hear the difference? The key word, sometimes translated as “expiation” or “propitiation,” actually means “to be gracious to,” “to show mercy to.” That’s how God deals with our sins – by graciously showing us mercy and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.

Let’s turn to Psalm 51, the Psalm we often recite on Ash Wednesday as we begin our Lenten journey.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.

According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51: 1-2, 7, 9)

Sound familiar? That’s how God deals with our sins.

One more obscure point, for those of you reading the book by Magrey deVega. He wants to make Jesus a scapegoat, as described in Leviticus 16. The New Testament frequently refers to Jesus as the Lamb, but never as a scapegoat. There is a modern theory of atonement, taught by Rene Girard, that does make Jesus a scapegoat. We may return to it at another time. But for our purposes right now, Jesus is not a scapegoat. He is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.

For all the Sundays of Lent, I have introduced our “theme song” of “Lift High the Cross” by showing you a painting of the crucifixion. It shows Jesus in grotesque suffering, but there is something even more striking about it that you really can’t see unless you get really close to it.

The painting was done in 1513 by the German artist Mathias Grunewald. He was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the chapel at a hospital. This hospital served destitute victims of the Black Death. The disease was noted for its oozing black sores. Grunewald painted Jesus covered with sores of the black death. He wanted those in the hospital to know that Jesus shared everything with them. Dying for their sins, he even shared the plague that was killing them.

We are all dying of a plague called sin. We all are covered with sores that will not heal. We all have stains that we cannot wash away. But there is a truth greater than these. Let’s claim this truth by owning it for ourselves and putting ourselves into these phrases from scripture.

Ownership: If I confess my sins, the Lord who is faithful and just will forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Amen.

This message was delivered March 21, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from 1 John 1:5-2:2.     

Savior 4: Jesus restores relationships

What is most important to you? Is it the title of your job or the esteem in which you’re held in the community? Is it the size of your salary or your retirement account? Is it the spaciousness and elegance of your home, or the beauty and horsepower of the vehicle you drive?

Or is it none of these things at all? Isn’t what is most important to you a network of relationships, family and friends, people who mean more to you than any thing in the world?

If life and events have not warped you beyond recognition as a human being, then relationships are most important to you. Those other things are nice, but remember what everyone says when a fire destroys their home and everyone escapes unharmed: “Things can be replaced. People can’t.”

I have said this before, and I don’t think I can say it too many times. From start to finish, the clear testimony of scripture is that life is all about relationship – and when things are said and done, relationship is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.

At the conclusion of his famous “Love Chapter” in First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says that in the end only three things endure. These are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Friends, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, we continue to explore how the death of Christ saves us – what it saves us from, and what it saves us for. We’re following the outline of the book Savior by Magrey deVega. In all, we’ll look at six theories of atonement, six models, metaphors or analogies, six ways of explaining how we’re saved.

Today we’re focusing on reconciliation, the healing of relationships. I must admit from the start that of all models, this is my favorite. That’s because my theology is thoroughly relational. My thinking about God and creation starts and ends with relationship, and anything that cannot be explained in terms of relationship probably isn’t important.

God created all humans to live in relationship with God and others, but sin separates each of us from God and others. Sin is the state of separation in which we all live. Sins are those acts that create and perpetuate the separation – acts of unkindness, cruelty, hatred and violence.

Sin creates a vast divide between us and God, and others as well. This chasm is so deep and so wide that we cannot cross it on our own. We cannot repair all our broken relationships by our own efforts. We cannot repair all the damage that we’ve done. Only God can fix things, and God is eager to do it.

Here’s an illustration that states it plainly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the divide and reconciles us with God. We’ll return to this illustration momentarily.  

In the following scriptures, I invite you to listen for words about reconciliation, the overcoming of alienation, and the offering of forgiveness.

Colossians 1:20-22: Through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

Ephesians 2:1 & 5: “At one time you were like dead persons because of your sins and your offenses against God. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of our transgressions. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!”

“Christ is our peace,” Paul continues. We who once were far away from God have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. We were hostile to God, but God reconciles us through the cross. (Ephesians 2:13-16)

You will notice that nowhere is it said that God was ever our enemy, or that God was the one who created the gulf between us. No, we are the ones who moved away from God. We were enemies of God. It’s our hostility to God that put Jesus on the cross. It’s our hostility to God that is ended at the cross, through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The result is transformation. We who once were enemies of God are now allies of God. Indeed, Paul says, we become ambassadors for God. We become God’s representatives, sent out into the world to carry God’s message of reconciliation to others.

Here’s how Paul works it out in 2 Corinthians chapter 5:

“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, ‘Be reconciled to God!’ ” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-20)

Talk about a transformation! Paul maintains that Christ’s death not only changes our relationship with God, it changes us as well. We were created in God’s image, but sin has so distorted and smudged that image that we are poor reflections of God’s love to the world. When we come back to the Lord, Christ’s death renews us in the image of Christ, who is the spitting image of his heavenly Father. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 1:15)

God does this, Paul says, by causing one who knew no sin to become sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus so identifies with us that he becomes one with us in our sin, and through his identification with us and sacrifice for us, he bridges the gulf between us and God.

Reconciled with God, we are justified before God, returned to right relationship with God – in Paul’s words, made holy in God’s sight, “without blemish and free from accusation.” In fact, we represent God’s righteousness so well that we can be God’s envoys to the rest of the world that has not yet been reconciled with him.

How precisely Christ’s death accomplishes all this, Paul is not crystal clear, and maybe that’s just fine.

Some other models of how Jesus saves us involve a transaction. In the penal substitution model, we deserve to die but Jesus dies in our place. In the ransom model, Jesus’ death ransoms us from our sin.

No exchange is involved in the moral example model that we looked at last week, or the reconciliation model we’re looking at today. This model does not speculate about how Christ’s death accomplishes what it does. It simply states that God’s great power and God’s amazing grace make it happen. That may not be enough for the scholastics and academic theologians, but it’s good enough for me.

Let’s return to that illustration that I showed you earlier. It’s been around since Saint Augustine came up with it in the fourth century, though Augustine probably never drew it on a restaurant or airline napkin, as so many evangelicals are prone to do.

It states the case clearly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the gap. The cross is the means. You can devise all manner of explanations for how Christ does this, but they’re not what’s most important. What’s most important is that Christ does it.

If you think that’s too simple, or not possible, let me ask you this. How does God work in your life? How has transformation occurred in your experience? It’s unlikely that you were just sitting there praying, and God zapped you into a new way of seeing things. Most likely, you saw the power of God working first in others, and then you came to realize that this same power was available to you, too.

In other words, it’s most likely that God transformed you through your relationships with others. That’s how God does most everything, isn’t it? That’s how God saves you, too, through your relationship with God and others. Transformation always occurs through relationship.

The basic Christian assertion is that God is your primary relationship, and you need to love God with every fiber of your being, and once this primary relationship is right, you are liberated to love others as God’s ambassadors to them.

Christianity is about a new way of living that starts with a new relationship with God that is so exciting that it’s contagious – so contagious it’s even more powerful than COVID-19, so contagious we just can’t help from spreading it, and in spreading it we create a new community whose powerful witness change the world.

Let me share something I read just a day or two ago in the daily blog of Richard Rohr, the Benedictine contemplative. Everything is connected, he says.

“What you do to another, you do to yourself. How you love yourself is how you love your neighbor. How you love God is how you love yourself. How you love yourself is how you love God. How you do anything is how you do everything.”

And if our lives are anchored in relationship with God, we are ambassadors of God’s love to all the world.

Let’s own this model of reconciliation by putting ourselves into these assertions.

Once I was alienated from God, but God, who is rich in mercy, has reconciled me and brought me close through the blood of Christ and made me alive together with him (Colossians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, 4).

This message was presented March 14, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 12:28-31.

Savior 3: Jesus shows you how to live

Have you ever known someone, either personally or second-hand, and said to yourself, “That’s the kind of person I want to be” like?

We make a habit of recognizing such role models. On All Saints Sunday and Memorial Day, we bring to mind those people whose extraordinary lives helped shape our lives.

Many of these were followers of Jesus who showed us by their example how to live a Christian life. We consider others our heroes for other reasons, too many to list here. What matters is that they matter to us, and we want to be like them. Not that we necessarily want to do what they did, but something about the way they lived inspires us and makes them our mentors and exemplars.

On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue a series of messages looking at some of the ways Jesus saves us. One of those ways is by offering us an example to follow.

1 Peter 2:21 calls us to endure suffering. Why? “Because Christ also suffered, for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

Jesus himself fells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He follows that up by saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

1 John 3:16 brings it full circle. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

So there we have it. Jesus loves us enough to suffer for us, and we ought to love others enough to suffer for them. It’s not a happy vision of the Christian life, and the suffering part of it can be emphasized way too much, but the essence of it is clear. As Christians, we are called to a life of sacrifice because Christ sacrificed for us.

What besides suffering is involved in the Christian life? What are the key elements to such a life? These are among the questions we’ll glance at this morning – and only glance at, I assure you, because our focus is elsewhere.

We’re in part three of a six-part series based on a book titled Savior by Magrey deVega. One of the foundations of our faith is the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins.” But what exactly does that mean? How does Christ’s death save us?

In previous weeks we’ve looked at two explanations. Penal substitution theory says that we deserve death for our sins and Christ died in our place. Ransom theory says that sin enslaves us and Christ pays the ransom for our liberation.

Both of these explanations involve a transaction in which Christ offers himself in exchange for us. The example theory involves no transaction. We are saved because Christ died, but his death buys us nothing. Instead, it offers us an example of the right way to live. We don’t have to go to a cross, but we do need to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us. We are so influenced by knowing him that we want to follow him and be more like him. We are changed by our relationship with him.

This moral example theory stands in deliberate contrast to the substitution and ransom theories, and in fact was created as a reaction against them. Its creator was the 12th-century French philosopher Peter Abelard. Abelard says that whether Jesus dies in our place or to buy our freedom, two wrongs do not make a right; one sin cannot correct another.

After all, if salvation is about God’s forgiveness, what can payment have to do with it? No, Abelard says. Jesus’ death is all about showing us the real, relational, cost of sin, showing us what love looks like and showing us how we ought to live and love.

It all goes back to the beginning, to the book of Genesis, where it’s said that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26-27). If God is love, as 1 John 4:7 says, then we are created to be loving like God. But sin makes us unable to be good image bearers who fully reflect God’s love to others. Jesus shows how to live and love and empowers us to follow his example.

Christ took upon himself our human nature, Abelard explains, because we need a spotless exemplar to show us how to be who we are meant to be so that our hearts are set ablaze with God’s love and we live as people who are marked with God’s imprint. Salvation involves becoming more able to love the way God loves and forgive the way God forgives.

So, for Abelard, the cross alone does not make salvation possible. It is simply the clearest revelation of how far God is willing to go to show God’s love for us. In fact, for Abelard, it’s not just the cross that saves us. It’s the very incarnation of Christ, his becoming human for us and everything about his life, from Christmas to Easter and beyond. It’s the whole story of Christ, not just the cross, that’s important.

Abelard’s understanding has some real pluses. It makes it clear that discipleship is about loving God and others, and that it can be cultivated by certain practices, such as prayer, study, and service. Abelard’s theory also refutes the lie perpetuated by other theories that salvation can be achieved only through violence.

But it has some weaknesses as well. It seems a little squishy where it ought to be rock solid. How exactly are we saved by Christ’s example? Can an example ever be enough to save us? Pretty much everybody knows the difference between right and wrong. Why do we continue to do what’s wrong rather than what’s right?

Jesus has been a sterling example of faithfulness to God for 2,000 years, and for all of that time most people have not cared one bit. If Jesus is saving us by example, it’s not working.

We need more than a good example. We need a savior. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We need someone to save us. Jesus does that, and offering a moral example for us is part of that, but it’s not all of it. Of course, none of the theories of atonement that we will look at tell all of the story. We need all of them together to provide a full picture of how we are saved by Jesus’ horrible death on a cross 2,000 years ago.

We Protestants prefer an empty cross, believing that Jesus has conquered death and sin. Roman Catholics prefer a cross with an agonized figure fastened to it, to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. It is hard not to be moved by such a sight. The longer I look at it, the more moved I am. But isn’t there more to salvation than me being moved emotionally?

What is there about Jesus that changes my relationship with God? How does it reconcile me with God? And how does it change me?

I am reminded at this point of Junius Dotson, the pastor and national United Methodist leader who died less than two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer.

He is remembered as a visionary leader who had a passion for justice and full inclusion in the church and yet who knew how to work productively with those who represented other ideals. He is praised for his spiritual depth and his great capacity for love, and he is fondly recalled as a loyal friend. Though he struggled for years with burnout and depression, he modeled a path to recovery.

But as good a man as he was, as faithful a follower of Christ as he was, as close to God as he was, I could never have looked at him as a savior, and he would have been horrified by the very thought.

So many of politicians today suffer from a great delusion. They think they are God’s gift to the world. But having a Messiah complex does not make you a Messiah. We’ve got only one savior, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is a great moral example to us, but he is far more than that. His death and resurrection save us. We’ll continue wondering how that works next week.

For now, let’s own what we’ve learned today by putting ourselves into these phrases from 1 Peter 2:21.

For to this I have been called, because Christ suffered for me, leaving me an example, so that I should follow in his steps. Amen.

This message was delivered March 7, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from John 15:12-17.

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.

Amen.

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

Revealed!

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.

Amen.

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)

Amen.

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

Get up!

Linda went to start her car the other day, and the battery was dead. Apparently she hadn’t driven enough recently to keep it charged.

A few days earlier, I was walking up the three steps to our front porch, and I tripped on the top step, and down I went, face first. I guess that’s what happens when you’re trying to carry something while thinking about something else.

These days I consider it good if I can keep one thought in my head, let alone two or three at the same time. I mentioned the problem to one of our daughters, and I blamed it on creeping dementia. “No, Dad,” she said, “that’s pandementia.”

Pandementia – I think the word perfectly describes our current situation. After nearly a year of decidedly non-normal behavior, many of us have gone just a little bonkers trying to cope.

I told my chiropractor about falling, and she said, “You should have come to see me right away.” Don’t you hate it when people lecture you, and they’re right?

For weeks now, I’ve wanted to start a new exercise routine. Wanting is as far as I’ve gotten. The new routine would be on top of my regular routine of stretching and light exercise to help my back. I don’t remember the last time I did that.

I never figured that I would be one to fall into this sense of endless drifting. Not me, I’m too strong for that! But I have to admit that I have a major case of pandementia. What can I do to shake myself out of this mental quicksand? What can you do to shake yourself out of it?

Mindful that I always preach to myself as much as I do to you, let’s proceed under the jaunty title of “Seven Steps to Beat Pandementia.”

Let’s begin by reading Philippians 4:6-9 from the Common English Bible. The Apostle Paul writes:

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

For many of us, those are familiar words – almost too familiar. Let’s hear them again a different way, this time from The Message by Eugene Peterson.

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

There you have them, Paul’s seven steps to beat pandementia. Let’s count them out.

First, don’t worry. Don’t be anxious. One way or another, anxiety is always crippling. It’s a mental dis-ease that does more to harm than many physical diseases.

Henri Nouwen says that worry means our hearts are in the wrong place. We’re focused on “many things” rather than the one thing that Jesus says is necessary (Luke 10:41-42). Our lives are so fragmented that we’re “all over the place” mentally and spiritually. We’re in such spiritual crisis that we may have an address but we’re never home.

Instead of worrying, pray. That’s step two. I love this phrasing from The Message: “Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers.” Don’t hesitate to tell God all your troubles. Don’t hold back. God is a good listener. God already knows your concerns, even before you express them, but you need to put them into words to express them freely to God and to yourself. You may be surprised how much healing occurs when you hear yourself saying the words, in your head or out loud.

As you pray, always give thanks. That’s step three. As bad as some things are, other things are still good. Give thanks for the good, even if your heart is breaking over the bad.

As you praise God even in the midst of your pain, you may be surprised again at the change that can occur within you. This is step four now. As you pray, allow yourself to be filled with a sense of God’s wholeness. This is a sense that no matter how broken the world is, and how broken some parts of your life are, God is still working to mend all things. This sense is what used to be called the peace that passes all understanding. This is the peace that surpasses all we can fathom, the peace that keeps our hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

Fifth, focus on what’s good, and shun bad thoughts. A simple way to remember this is the old Johnny Mercer song that’s as true today as it was in the 1940s.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

Yeah, sometimes pop culture gets it right.

Sixth, practice what you’ve learned from role models who model Christ. You can best remember and honor those saints whom you have known by doing as they did. If you follow their good examples, the God of peace will be with you, and you will feel God’s peace within you.

The seventh and final step is a summary of all that came before. It’s a firm call to action to all of us when we feel weak and when we stumble. This message comes to us in a frequent refrain heard throughout the Bible, but especially in the New Testament.

When the Prophet Elijah falls exhausted, the messenger of the Lord comes to him and says, “Get up and eat!’’ (1 Kings 19:7)

When God commissions the prophet Jonah, God says, “Get up, and go!”  (Jonah 1:2)

When King Herod threatens the life of the infant Jesus, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Get up and go.” (Matthew 2:13)

When a crippled man is lowered through the roof to him, Jesus says, “Get up, pick up your cot, and go home.” (Matthew 9:6)

To a man at the Bethesda pool who has been unable to walk for 38 years, Jesus says, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” (John 5:8)

To the leper who returns to thank Jesus for healing him, Jesus says, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.” (Luke 17:19)

To blind Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus for mercy, people say, “Get up, Jesus is calling you.” (Mark 10:48-49)

When the daughter of Jairus the synagogue leader dies, Jesus takes her by the hand and says, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And she does. (Mark 5:41)

When Peter is called to the bedside of a stricken saint, he says, “Tabitha, get up!” And she does. (Acts 9:40)

After he is transfigured before them, Jesus tells his disciples, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 17:7)

When he awakens his sleeping disciples in Gethsemane, he says, “Get up. My time is at hand.” (Matthew 26:46)

When Jesus accosts Saul on the road to Damascus, he says, “Get up. I have plans for you.” (Acts 9:6, 22:10, 26:16)

When God calls Ananias to help Saul, God says: “Get up and go find Saul.” (Acts 9:11)

When Peter is bound in prison, an angel appears and loosens his chains and says, “Get up quickly.” (Acts 12:6-7)

Those are just some of the “get up” commands of the Bible. Notice that we’re not told simply to “get up” but to “get up” and do something. Also notice that in these commands is an implicit promise. It takes gumption and resolve to get up when you’re down. But you never act alone. God is always with you. God is always at your side. And God may provide that extra “oomph!” to lift you up.

In these long days of pandemic, it is so easy to become bed ridden, house ridden, habit ridden, self ridden. Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t let pandementia get the best of you.

Read Philippians 4:6-9 again and again for those “Seven Ways to Beat Pandementia.” Or remember just this one.

When the battery dies, get up and recharge it. When you fall on your face, get up and get going. When it’s time for your exercises, get up and get moving. Whatever happens, always get up – and keep following Jesus, who’s always there to lead you.

Amen.

This message was delivered online January 31, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgeton, Kansas, from Philippians 4:6-9.