Sermon for May 2, 2016 – Speaking in Faith

Luke 7: 1-10

Back on December 27, John Dickerson interviewed Stephen Colbert on “Face the Nation.”  Dickerson asked him about his dream interview, and Colbert said that he would love to be able to interview Jesus.  He joked about the questions he would ask. He also had a request that he said he would voice to Jesus if he could::  “Would you put in a good word with Your Dad for me?” After all, if we wanted to ask someone to put in a good word for us, what better to ask than Jesus, right?  And who better to ask to intervene for us with God, right?  And actually, isn’t that what Jesus has done?  Right?

In fact, that is just what happens in today’s scripture reading.  There are actually two requests for help, for asking others with connections to put in a good word on behalf of someone else.  The first is this, from Luke 7: 1-3:  After Jesus had finished all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, asking Him to come and heal His slave.   Jesus had just come from two dramatic healings: the healing of a leper, and the healing of a paralyzed man, whose desperate friends had unroofed the house Jesus was staying at and lowered the paralyzed man, sleeping mat and all, down in front of Jesus.  The stories of these miraculous healings would have spread like wildfire, and gotten to the ears of this particular centurion.  His business was to know what was getting the locals excited, so he could be sure to head things off and kept things cal.  This news, however, would have held out promise – a particular slave, who mattered to the centurion was very ill.  Perhaps, the centurion reasoned, Jesus would be willing to heal even a gentile.  And so this centurion appeals to folks with good connections to Jesus, asking them, in effect, to put in a good word for him so that Jesus would respond, and come to heal this human being, this slave.  The elders the centurion approached in turn approached Jesus: 

 4When they [the elders] came to Jesus, they appealed to Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having You do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them....  Here is when the centurion revealed his trust in Jesus – when he learned that Jesus was indeed coming, this is how the centurion responded:  when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”  The centurion was willing to ask the elders to put in that good word; when it became clear that Jesus was indeed responsive, the centurion drew on his life experiences and adjusted his request.  As a righteous, or God-fearing Gentile, the centurion knew that if Jesus actually came to and entered his house, Jesus would become ritually unclean.   As a military officer in the Roman Empire, the centurion knew about giving orders.  A soldier accused of disobeying the order of a superior officer in the Roman Army would face a court-martial.  After the trial, which virtually always yielded a guilty verdict, the disobedient soldier would be stoned or beaten to death by his fellow soldier-comrades. 

 The centurion absolutely expected that any orders Jesus would care to give, any action Jesus would care to take, would be completed, whether or not Jesus was physically present.  What an incredible statement of faith!  9When Jesus heard this He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  Whether we want to call this a belief in the power structure, or faith in Jesus Himself – either way, the centurion spoke in faith.  He had no doubt that if Jesus gave the word, that slave would be healed.  This God-fearing centurion had learned the lesson that the Creator cares for all created beings, whether slave or soldier, Roman citizen or person living in the occupied territory that Judah was in those times.  He had had others put in a good word for him, and he knew Jesus had responded.  He responded in humility – Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  He trusted in the intercession others made on his behalf, and he trusted that Jesus would respond to that request for healing.   Others had received healing.  He trusted that if he asked, his servant would receive the same gracious response.

When we pray for others, those we know and those we don’t know, we are putting in a good word for others.  We know that God listens to the prayers of the righteous – but it is not because WE are so good that God listens – it is because Jesus died for us, to redeem us and save us, it is because on the third day He rose from the dead – it is because of our salvation that we can indeed intercede for others.  And when we do intercede for others – and when we pray for ourselves as well – we know that God listens, and that somehow God will respond.  We understand something that the centurion did not yet understand – we are not presuming when we come to Jesus in prayer.  No – because of our salvation Jesus welcomes us.  Jesus listens to us.  Jesus comforts and consoles us.  Jesus strengthens us.  And often Jesus empowers US to be able to work in this world to make things better for those for whom we pray.

Speaking in faith for Christians should lead to acting in faith.  The centurion acted in faith when he sent friends to Jesus saying that it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to physically come to lay hands on his slave – just say the word and my servant will be healed.  The centurion was a soldier.  We, however, are more than soldiers; we are ambassadors for Christ.  2 Corinthians 5: 17-20:  17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making His appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  We are to be ambassadors; when we are in right relationship with God, we can live into that call  Paul also addressed this question with the Colossians in chapter 1:  

19For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross. 21And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22He has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him— 23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

As people who have been reconciled to God, as people who are called to be ambassadors for Christ, I have a small challenge for us today, on Memorial Day weekend:  Memorial Day is tomorrow.  It is a day we set aside as a secular society to thank our veterans, both those who fought and returned, and those who fought and died in service to America.  So thank a vet.  Attend a parade tomorrow, or at least go to a cemetery, find a grave where a flag is planted, and put in a good word for that soldier.  Better, act on behalf of our soldiers who are here, and are struggling with what they have experienced.  There are many ways to do that:  Go with Charlie Garafano and visit vets in the VA hospital in Lyons.  Get involved with efforts to honor vets – in his May 25 column in the Star Ledger, Mark Di Ionno wrote about three people, Ted Romankow, 75,  Stephan Siara, 37, and Andrew Gallietlli, 18, none of whom are vets but all of whom worked together to refurbish Veterans Memorial Park in Berkley Heights, as a way to honor their service.  In Friday’s column Mark wrote about the combat-related death of Michael Patrick Burke, an Iraqi veteran who suffered from PTSD, who hung himself on October 21, 2015.  The psychological wounds are hard to see, and very very real.  Reach out to veterans who have come back from service who are struggling to adjust.  Call 52waystoloveavet, one of the missions we supported this year through the art auction and walk-a-thon and ask how to help, if this touches your heart.

We ARE ambassadors for Christ.  May we put in good words for others, and may we also speak in faith, knowing that God hears the prayers of the people He has made righteous through faith.  May we remember to act on our faith, doing those things that make for God’s perfect shalom, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen. 

Merriam-Webster definition of faith:

Full Definition of faith

plural faiths play \ˈfāths, sometimes ˈfāthz\

a :  allegiance to duty or a person :  loyalty
 b (1) :  fidelity to one's promises (2) :  sincerity of intentions

a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) :  belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion 
b (1) :  firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) :  complete trust

:  something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially :  a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

Full Definition of trust

a :  assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
b :  one in which confidence is placed

a :  dependence on something future or contingent :  hope
b :  reliance on future payment for property (as merchandise) delivered :  credit <bought furniture on trust>

a :  a property interest held by one person for the benefit of another
b :  a combination of firms or corporations formed by a legal agreement; especially :  one that reduces or threatens to reduce competition

 archaic :  trustworthiness

a (1) :  a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship (2) :  something committed or entrusted to one to be used or cared for in the interest of another
b :  responsible charge or office
c :  care, custody <the child committed to her trust>

May 22, 2016 – Declaring Wisdom

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

John 16: 12-15

The world is full of advice.  Just ask, and good advice rains down:
Buy low, sell high.
Many hands make light work.
From our dentists:  brush daily, and floss regularly.
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
Eat more vegetables.
Get more exercise.
Always use your seatbelt.

Y’all know that “Many hands make light work” is one of my favorites.  And any kid on any of my buses ever knows that I believe in seatbelts.  The wisdom of the world: conventional wisdom.  And those words ARE good advice.

There is another kind of wisdom however, a deeper kind of wisdom, the kind of wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit.  It’s available to all.  Listen to these words from Proverbs 8: 1-4:  Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise Her voice?

2On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads She takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals She cries out: 4“To you, O people, I call, and My cry is to all that live.  Wisdom does not take up her stand inside the city – instead She calls to everyone that passes by.  She cries out to all the world.  She says: My cry is to all that live.  My cry is to ALL that live.  God, through wisdom, reveals God’s very self to everyone. How?  Through the beauty and design of the universe.  Wisdom recognizes this.  The Jews believe that Torah, which comes directly from Wisdom, was present at the very creation of the universe.  That is the idea behind natural theology – that God does indeed reveal God’s very Self to everyone.  Psalm 8 reminds us: 1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouths of babes and infants You have founded a bulwark because of Your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established; 4what are human beings that You are mindful of them, mortals that You care for them?  5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  But we need more than the natural revelation given to us by God’s magnificent creation – we need to know that not only that God is mindful of us, but that God rejoices in us.  It is not enough for Wisdom to delight in the human race; we need for God to rejoice in us as well.  And so, in the fullness of time, God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, into the world.  And when God did that, God upset virtually everything that human beings understand through conventional wisdom.

Consider Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, who was going to divorce her quietly, since she was pregnant – and he knew HE was not the father.  Conventional wisdom demanded that he divorce her.  God’s messenger Gabriel revealed God’s wisdom to Joseph.  Consider the magi, those who came looking for a king.  Where did they go?  Where conventional wisdom said they would find the infant born King of the Jews: to the palace in Jerusalem.  They were redirected to Bethlehem by the wisdom that comes from the Word of God, from scripture, which the priests laid out for them, ironically at Herod’s request.  Consider how Joseph fled in the middle of the night to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, because of the warning from the angel.  Conventional wisdom would say wait because the baby was too young to travel; surely God would protect God’s own Son.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He really upset conventional wisdom.  Love your enemies?  Bless those who curse you?  If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other side also?  If someone demands your coat, give them your cloak too?  In today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, as Jesus is speaking to, and encouraging, His disciples shortly before He knows He will be arrested and tortured, tried, convicted and nailed to a cross, Jesus says this:  John 16: 12-15  [Jesus said,] 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own, but will speak whatever He hears, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify Me, because He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is Mine. For this reason I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”  What is Jesus’?  Everything.  All that the Father has.  Everything.  Instead of payback, we are to bless.  Instead of hatred, we are to love.

This is an amazingly attractive idea, even as it is also so counter to the wisdom of the world.  It is so incredibly attractive that non-Christians are drawn to it.  On my school bus, I drive a wide variety of kids, from a wide variety of faith backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, and no particular faith background, as well.  One of my Muslim kids is a wonderful young woman I have known for five years or so, who has been thinking pretty deep thoughts for a very long time.  She is generally upbeat, but over the past year she has made a very conscious effort to be positive, encouraging, and thankful.  One day Noor told me why: one of her BFFs is a young Roman Catholic girl.  Noor and Emily have been friends for years, and so see how each other react to different situations. Noor fairly recently made this decision: when she thinks about how to react to any given situation, she says to herself:  WWED?  What would Emily do?  And she follows Emily’s example.  Culturally it would be much more difficult for Noor to say WWJD, but that is what is on Emily’s mind when she chooses HER reactions to the things that life tosses at her over the course of a day.  Emily’s behavior shows more clearly than any learned discourse, any magnificently-delivered sermon, Who it is that she follows, Who it is that has given her her salvation.  Emily shows through her life that Jesus is her Lord and Savior.  The very first thing any Princeton Theological Seminary student learns in Preaching 101 is just that: the most important sermon any of us will ever give is how we live our lives.

So what kind of sermons are we preaching, with our lives?  What kind of wisdom is visible in our lives?  Conventional wisdom, or the wisdom that comes from God?  The wisdom that comes from the Spirit of truth testifies to the power of such wondrous love as this: God, through Jesus Christ, the Lord of bliss, paid the price for us, for our salvation.  Our charge is to share this wondrous love with the rest of creation.  We CAN choose our behavior, and love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and extend God’s love to this lost and broken world, that needs that Light in the darkness more than ever.   Declaring that wisdom, the wisdom of God, is made visible in our lives through what we do, and don’t do.  What wisdom do WE reveal?  Let us pray:  Lord God, give us hearts of love, for You alone, so we can proclaim Your wisdom, in word and in deed, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

May 8, 2016 – Who Knows?

Esther 4

 Thirty games into the National Baseball season, the leaders in the American League East are the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. Baltimore is ahead on percentage points - .586 to Boston’s .567, but while they both have won the same number of games – 17 – Boston has played one more game than Baltimore, and has one more loss – Boston has lost 13 games so far, while Baltimore has only lost 12.  The Yankees?  Last place in the American League East – 11 wins, 17 losses, and a winning percentage of .393.  In the National League East, right now the Washington Nationals are tearing it up with 19 wins and only 11 losses, .633.  The New York Mets are right behind them at 18 wins and 11 losses, .621.  My beloved Phillies are in fourth place, at 17 wins and 14 losses, and a .548 record.  The Atlanta Braves have the worst record in major league baseball, 7 and 22, with a .241 record.  I don’t know about God’s preferred future, but for the Yankees and the Braves, we can see how the mighty have fallen – NOT the preferred future their fanatical fans had anticipated!  You can be sure that scouts and coaches are scrutinizing their rookies, hoping they have some young players who may fulfill the dreams of their fans – Who knows but that you’ve come to us for such a time as this??  This is baseball!  Who knows, indeed??

Last week we thought about God’s preferred future, and how God positions people FOR that future, just as good baseball scouts and coaches try to position their young players for the good of the team in the years to come.  God placed Mordecai and his adopted niece, Esther, into positions of power in Babylon.  Mordecai was one of the members of the court’s secret police. Esther was the queen.  They seemed to have the world by the tail.  They seemed to have it all: power, fame, wealth, influence at the highest levels of the kingdom – until the enemy acted against them.  In their case it was another official, one Haman, who also had a high level position at court.  Unlike Mordecai, who had protected the king from a plot to assassinate him, Haman was most concerned about his own position of power.  When Mordecai refused to grovel and bow to him, Haman went to the king and convinced the king to act against the Jews as a people, confiscating all of their wealth and property, and murdering them all, men, women and children, at a specific point in the immediate future.  That’s where chapter 4 opens: Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.  Esther was insulated from this news, inside the palace.  She sent Hathach, the eunuch who was her attendant, out to find out what was going on. Hathach went out and spoke with Mordecai, who told him the whole sordid story.   Mordecai also send back a request – that Esther go to the king and ask him to reverse this decree.  Esther sent a message back to Mordecai - “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”   Mordecai sends back this reply:  “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  Who knows, Mordecai says.  God will send a savior – but we will die, unless you act.  Maybe you have become queen, have been put into that influential position, to be used by the Lord God to protect our people, as well as our own selves.  

         Last week, after the service, Wilma Matysek toldl me that she understood herself to be placed exactly where God wants her to be in this time and place, and that in fact, through the good times and difficult times of her life, upon reflecting on it, she can see God’s hand throughout it all.  I asked if she would be willing to share her testimony with y’all, and she said yes.  So Wilma, please come up and tell the congregation some of the ways you have realized that God has been preparing you and placing you for God’s preferred future.  (Wilma’s story)

It’s so easy to live out our lives as well-connected, privileged people – because compared with much of the world, that is what we are, even if we don’t think of ourselves that way.  Virtually all of us have at least a high school degree, or equivalency degree.  Many of us have taken college or college-level courses.  We live in safe houses with running water, flush toilets, electricity, and heat.  We have drinkable water.  We have clothes – many more than one or two outfits.  We have access to healthy food, transportation, medical care.  We have people who care about us.  And how do we respond to all of this?  Too often we take it for granted, or we act as if it’s all for our sole benefit.  We aren’t mindful of the poor among us, the need among us, the folks who don’t have what we do.  We are inclined to think in terms of “I, Me, Mine,” the song by George Harrison on the Beatles’ Let It Be album.  Harrison was writing about the selfishness he saw within the band, but it’s a song that too often applies to us.   I don’t think our preferred future is about I, me, mine, though – and I am absolutely certain that we can never get to God’s preferred future for us without setting aside our focus on ourselves.  Our situations can change, just as Esther and Mordecai’s situations changed.  How has God prepared us, equipped us, now, so we can have the courage to face those changes?

Who knows why we are here, in this place, at this time?  God knows.  And, in our hearts, so do we.  Jesus told the people in His hometown why He came.  Luke 4: 16-19:  16When He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was His custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Good news to the poor:  affordable housing, safe places to live and learn, work that pays a living wage.  Release from the addictions that tempt us all, including the desire to control and dominate others.  The ability to see that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord, important members of the Body of Christ.  To free us from racism and sexism and discrimination of all kinds.  To proclaim the good news of salvation – that Christ came into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved through Him, through His sacrifice once for all on the cross.  There is enough work in Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 58:6 and 61: 1 & 2 to keep all of the congregations around here very busy until Jesus comes again.

We are called to use our resources to further God’s kingdom on earth until Jesus returns.  May we be inspired and encouraged to do just that, so we too can reflect back on our lives and share our testimonies of how God has been active in our lives, working to position us for use in God’s preferred future.  Who knows?  God does – and so do we.  May we act on that knowledge, living and loving like Jesus, until He returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

May 1, 2016 Preparing for God’s Preferred Future

Esther 2  

Spring is a great time to think about the future.   Especially for those in school, the future and all it may hold, looms large, full of promise.  High school seniors are thinking about what they will do after they walk across the stage to receive their diploma and go – where? To work? To college? To technical school?  To boot camp?  What are their lives going to be like?  How are they going to be prepared for the future? For college seniors, it’s even more full of possibilities – and maybe worries.  Where will they get a job?  WILL they get a job?  What about graduate school?  When they close their eyes to imagine their preferred future, what does it look like?  For that matter, when we close OUR eyes, what does OUR preferred future look like?  What are OUR hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, our goals?  How do our experiences – the good ones and the ones we would prefer to not repeat – how do those things shape us, and prepare us, for our future?  And most important of all, for Christians, is this bigger question:  What does GOD’S preferred future look like?  How do we fit into that?  

The story of Esther is a story in which God allows human beings to work for good, or, by staying silent, to be complicit in allowing great evil to take place.  There are actually two different versions of the Book of Esther.  The original Hebrew text actually does not mention God at all, explicitly.  The Septuagint, the Greek translation done around 325 BCE of the Hebrew text, varies greatly from the Hebrew, by inserting several lengthy prayers by both Esther and her uncle, or cousin, Mordecai, which invoke God’s favor, guidance and protection.  The Hebrew text is clearly concerned with the choices people make.  That’s because GOD is clearly concerned with the choices people make.  But choices are never made in a vacuum.  Choices are determined by our histories.  Just as the choices we make at turning points in our lives, to attend school, to find work, to marry or not, to relocate or not, influence the choices we make further down the road, so with Esther and Mordecai.

In chapter one, the king of Persian has become very angry with his wife, Vashti.  He sends her away – to get the whole scandal-filled story you’ll have to read chapter one – and at the beginning of chapter two...  2Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem... [to] the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. 4And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”   In short, there is a beauty contest – all the fair maidens were encouraged to come to court and be trained in what it takes to be a queen, with the hopes that one of them will be the new queen.  Think of The Bachelor, on steroids. And enter Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai are Jews, living in Persia after the fall of Jerusalem.  Esther is an orphan; Mordecai has adopted her, and raises her up in the way he hopes for her to go.  She has been taught that family matters.  She has been taught to remember her roots – even if she does not speak openly about her heritage.  She and Mordecai are both immigrants, exiles.  Although they are accepted, there is no reason to draw attention to the fact that they are not ethnic Persians.  Esther has been taught good communication skills – she is easy to be around.   People like her.  She has been taught to seek good counsel – and when she hears it, she acts on good advice. So Esther also went to the palace; because she is beautiful and charming, she is befriended by the head of the harem, who gives her lots of good, practical advice.  And, 16When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace .... 17the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.  

Mordecai is now doubly-well connected.  Besides being related by marriage to the king, we also learn that although he is not a native Persian, he is trusted by the Persian officials.  In both verses 19 and 21, we learn that Mordecai “sat at the king’s gate.”  That doesn’t mean that Mordecai hung out there, loitering around.  That means that Mordecai was a trusted man who paid attention to who was coming in and going out, that he listened to what was going on around him, alert to any trouble that was brewing, or might be beginning to brew, in the main thoroughfares.  Some Jewish study bibles say that Mordecai was actually a member of the king’s secret police.  Certainly, if we read the entire book of Esther, we learn that Mordecai had an incredible amount of access to the king.  And  21In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate...., two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai.  Mordecai, in his role as a member of the secret police, acted quickly to protect the king. Mordecai told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai.  By entrusting Esther with this crucial information, Mordecai didn’t have to worry about any other possible conspirators blocking the warning.  The king acts on this information. The two men were arrested and executed.  At that time, Mordecai was not recognized in any way for his quick action in saving the king’s life.  Although it may have felt like a slight at the time, this too worked in Mordecai’s favor as the story continued to unfold.

In fact, God has positioned both of them to be the salvation of the Jews of Persia.  They don’t know that yet; it will take a bit more time for events to unfold, events in which they have to make tough choices, to act or not to act.  Their futures become tightly bound up in God’s preferred future for the Jewish exiles living in Persia.  But at this point they are just living out their lives, as well-connected, privileged people, seemingly safe and secure.  They are not thinking about God, or God’s preferred future at all.

Esther and Mordecai had made a good life – a great life – an incredible life – for themselves by working hard, by being reliable, teachable, honest, kind, all of those things we also strive for.  These things are good things.  But living incredible lives, by themselves, are not God’s preferred future.  God positions us, just as He positioned Esther and Mordecai, for God’s preferred future.  And in our hearts, we know this.  We are made for more than just ourselves.  We are made to make a difference in this place that God loves so very much, through what we do for those outside ourselves.

So what has God been positioning you, preparing you, for? What has God been positioning us, preparing us for?  What does God’s preferred future for us look like?   Think about what we have been given, and how God is positioning us for the unique task God has designed for us.  We will find out more about Esther and Mordecai’s unique task next Sunday.  For now, consider what God is preparing US for.  We can learn from Esther and Mordecai, when we look at the similarities between their situation and our own.  It starts with considering what God has already done to prepare us, as we move into God’s preferred future.  What has God been doing in your live, in our lives together?  As we come to this table, prepared for us with love by the Lord our God, consider God’s future for you, and for us.  May God open the eyes of our hearts, so we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste not only God’s presence here in this bread and in this juice but so we can also catch some glimpse of God’s preferred future, a future bright with hope, and promise.  Lord God, fill us with Your vision, and sustain us with Your promise, until Jesus returns again.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

April 17, 2016 – Do Not Fear or Be Dismayed

2 Chronicles 20: 2-26 

So, what do we fear?  

 I looked at a number of different lists, by googling “Top Ten Things People Fear.”  This is my list, after looking for common factors.  Many of these are cross-cultural:  10. Commitment/intimacy.  9. Isolation.  8. Enclosed spaces.  7. Spiders, bugs, mice and rats.  6. The dark.  5. Rejection.  4. Failure.  3. Snakes.  2. Death.  1. Public speaking.

Sometimes, though, our fears become very immediate.  Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah became very fearful when they heard that a great multitude was coming against them, an army from Edom, from Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who were assembling against them at En-gedi – an oasis south and west of Jerusalem, next to the Dead Sea, near Masada.  And 3Jehoshaphat was afraid; he set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the towns of Judah they came to seek the LORD.   Jehoshaphat spoke to the people, who assembled in front of the Temple, in Jerusalem.  He reminded God of their history as Chosen People, and the protection God had given to them as they made their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  [partway through v. 12]: For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” 13Meanwhile all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.

14Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the middle of the assembly. 15He said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you: ‘Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s. 16Tomorrow go down against them; they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, before the wilderness of Jeruel. 17This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”   And the Levites assembled the Temple singers, to lead and encourage the people with SONG and HYMNS of PRAISE.  20They rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the LORD your God and you will be established; believe His prophets.”  And, 22As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 

Well.  With all due respect to Layton – I am not sure we would respond well to that kind of advice today. We like guns, and surveillance cameras, and body searches and concealed carry.  We like attack drones, character assassinations, and focusing on our differences instead of our similarities.  We like control.  We like power.  We like action. Physical action, duking it out, slugging it out, shooting it out.  Too often we forget that actually our battle is not with flesh and blood.  Instead, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 6:11:  11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  This is not just mystical mumbo-jumbo here: Paul is talking about the real deal.  We ARE in a battle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Because we know how the battle ends doesn’t mean that the battle is over.  After all, World War II was effectively decided with the successful invasion of France on D-Day – but don’t ever tell a veteran of World War II that the war was over on June 6, 1944.  The Battle of the Bulge was horrendous – the war in Africa was too, and the war to take Italy.  And remember the war in the Pacific.  

So what are we supposed to do?  We could start where Jehoshaphat started: with prayer and fasting and seeking the will of the Lord.  We know what we are called to do: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Concerned about Waypointe?  Go knock on the doors and ask to talk with people there instead of listening to rumors and fear.  Concerned about the direction the township is moving in?  Attend council meetings.  Look at the candidates running, and talk directly with them about what their vision is for the community.  Concerned about violence here?  Think about how to present a future with hope to those who live here.  When people have a vision of hope, it is possible to work for that common goal.  Concerned about the future of this church?  Pray for guidance as to what God is calling us to do here in this place to serve now, in this time and place.  Concerned about the denomination?  Read the materials on the website.  Talk to our classis reps.  Come to a classis meeting – you can’t vote but you can be granted the privilege of the floor, and listen and ask questions.  Concerned about the future of America?  Maybe we need to start with the vision of how God calls us to be witnesses to God’s grace, love and mercy.  How do we care for the widows and orphans and – yes – refugees among us?  How do we need to shift our vision?  Too many times we think that life is a pie, our existence is a pie, and we have to fight one another to get our slice or two or five or ten.  But if our life is grounded in Jesus, we have to wake up to this fact: the metaphor is all wrong.  Jesus is not a pie.  Jesus is the light of the world.  When we light a candle from a candle, we do not diminish the light – instead, we spread the light, and diminish the darkness – remember, one of those things most humans fear the most!  Jesus, the light of the world, will bless us by arming us with the full armor of GOD, not of humans.  In this battle with this present darkness, we need not to fight fire with fire, but with love, the fierce, wild love of Jesus for this lost and broken world.

So what am I the most afraid of?  That when I stand in front of my Lord and Savior, that I will see disappointment instead of love in His eyes, because I have not done what I can, where I am, with what I have.  May I be able – may we ALL be able – to keep our eyes on the cross, and through the cross, to the Lord our God.  Remember Paul’s letter to the Romans 8: 37-39:  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

April 10, 2016 – Telling the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, So Help Me, God

2 Chronicles 18: 3-34

Some game shows seem to last forever.  

The Price is Right.  Let’s Make a Deal.  And, To Tell the Truth.  I watched that show with my parents and sisters back in the late 50s and early sixties, watching host Bud Collyer and especially Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle, two of the very long-term panelists, grow older together.  The point of the show was figuring out who, out of three contestants all saying they were the same person, was telling the truth.  The actual person whose story was being told had to answer all questions honestly; the other two were supposed to do all they could to persuade the panelists, and the audience watching, that THEY were the person whose life was being talked about.  To Tell the Truth still pops up on television, both in reruns and in new iterations, because the premise is so fun: trying to tell who is telling us the truth, when two of them are being paid to be deceptive. 

Today’s story is about that core issue of telling the truth, even when others around us are not.  King Ahab – yes, THAT King, who also had significant conflict with Elijah, was pondering going to war against the Arameans, bringing along King Jehoshapat – the king of Judah – the Southern Kingdom, as help.  “3King Ahab of Israel said to King Jehoshaphat of Judah, ‘Will you go with me to Ramoth-gilead?’ He answered him, ‘I am with you, my people are your people. We will be with you in the war.’ 4 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, ‘Inquire first for the word of the Lord.’ 5Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them, and said to them, ‘Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?’ They said, ‘Go up; for God will give it into the hand of the king.’ 6But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?’ 7The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.’ Jehoshaphat said, ‘Let the king not say such a thing.’ 8Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, ‘Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.’”   

Micaiah has a reputation as telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – and as we might be able to predict from Ahab’s words, and from what we also know of Ahab’s rule from scripture, Ahab might have been considered to be wise in the way of the world – the House of Omri was held in high regard by the surrounding kingdoms – but the prophets, the true prophets in Israel, did not think much of him.  Ahab did not appreciate those true prophets.  Remember his behavior toward Elijah – and so the messenger who went to get him tried to coach Micaiah about what to say.  You know, go along to get along.  That’s not what happened.   Micaiah’s response to the messenger was this:  13But Micaiah said, ‘As the LORD lives, whatever my God says, that I will speak.’  14 When he had come to the king, the king said to him, ‘Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?’ He answered, ‘Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand.’ 15But the king said to him, ‘How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?’ 16Then Micaiah said, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd; and the LORD said, “These have no master; let each one go home in peace.” ’ 17The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?’  18 Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing to the right and to the left of him. 19And the LORD said, “Who will entice King Ahab of Israel, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, 20until a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him.” The LORD asked him, “How?” 21He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the LORD said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” 22So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you.’

Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned and put on reduced rations of bread and water, until the kings returned.  Then off they went, Ahab and Jehoshaphat and their armies.  But Ahab made a tactical decision: 29The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.’ So the king of Israel disguised himself, and they went into battle. 30Now the king of Aram had commanded the captains of his chariots, ‘Fight with no one small or great, but only with the king of Israel.’ 31When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, ‘It is the king of Israel.’ So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him. God drew them away from him, 32for when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 33But a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate; so he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around, and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.’ 34The battle grew hot that day, and the king of Israel propped himself up in his chariot facing the Arameans until evening; then at sunset he died.  He died, just as Elijah had prophesized, and when they washed down Ahab’s bloody chariot, just as Elijah had predicted, the dogs in the courtyard lapped up Ahab’s blood.

Micaiah and Elijah both told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in more stringent ways than we are likely to ever be called to do.  And yet, we too ARE called to tell the truth, as Christians, and especially when it comes to following the will of God.  How do we do this?  Through prayer, and with love.  Paul said this to the Philippians in chapter 1:  3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Paul says that we can be confident of God’s faithfulness, as the good works God has begun through us will come to completion.  Paul says he knows they hold him in their hearts – they pray for him.  Paul says they are all in this together: he may be the one in prison, but they also share in God’s grace, doing what they can, where they are, with what they have.  And Paul’s prayer for them is that they can grow in love, out of which will come knowledge and full insight, so they can discern God’s will.

This is what our brothers and sisters are doing in Turkey, and throughout the world.  They behave with faithfulness and in truth, looking not to please the people who live around them, but to be faithful to God’s calling.  They work quietly, persistently, faithfully, using what they have, where they are, with what they have, trusting that God will send them the resources: the people, the “stuff,” and the funds they need to continue to serve as God’s hands and feet.  The first thing every pastor told me they needed, when I asked how we could help, was this: they need laborers, since the field is white with harvest.  They need people who are willing to come for two weeks or three months, since that is the length of time for a tourist visa, to help – to be the very presence of Christ.  They need our prayers.  They need our encouragement.  They need us to tell their stories.  They need us to bear witness, here, in this safe and often insular place, where we worry more about the latest and greatest whatever, while they go to worship protected, on Easter Sunday, by armor plated vehicles and soldiers armed with submachine guns, outside the Dutch Chapel, housed in the embassy of the Netherlands, in Istanbul.  They need us to act as conduits for God’s supplying of their material needs, showing God’s faithfulness as messengers of God.  They need for us to hold them in our hearts – to pray for those on the front lines of the proclamation of the gospel.  They need for us to remember and act on the knowledge that we are all in this together: they may be the ones serving in far-off places, but that we also share in God’s grace, doing what we can, where we are, with what we have.  They need for us to grow in love, out of which will come knowledge and full insight, so we can discern God’s will.  We already know God’s overarching will: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That involves telling the truth about God’s love for the world, made manifest above all in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension.  

It’s both simple to say, and tough to do.  But may we set that as our goal, as we work together doing that which is pleasing to God, in truth, with love and grace, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen. 

© Readington Reformed Church  2015