March 2014 Sermons:
People who live on the Jersey shore, like to vacation in the Poconos. I think it’s ironic that eastern Pennsylvanians take their families to the Jersey shore. Those of us who have lived by the shore, year-round, know the run-down resort areas. We know what the boardwalks look like in the dirty snow of February. I really appreciate the mountains of Pennsylvania because I’ve lived in Lakewood and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.
We’ve all had “mountaintop experiences.” The happiest times—weddings, births, reunions and great vacations—make the memories that keep us going during our down times. The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was a peak experience for Jesus’ followers. The vision of God, speaking from a cloud over the mountain peak, strengthened their faith, as they trudged through the valleys of their ordinary lives.
Mountains are important in the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus is tempted to worship the devil, and to receive all the kingdoms of the world in return for sinning, His temptation takes place on a mountain. Jesus sits at a high elevation when He preaches the Sermon on the Mount. The gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus giving the disciples the Great Commission from another mountaintop. Today we’ve heard this story of the transfiguration, which happened on a mountain, too. Remember that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians. For the Jews, mountains were God’s holy dwellings. In the book of Judges, the Hebrews had won their decisive battles on mountains. Moses had received the Ten Commandments from the top of Mount Sinai. In the Old Testament, all the glory, magnificence and power of God had resided on the summits of mountains.
If the gospels were a lot longer than they are, we would be able to read blow by blow accounts of Jesus’ life and work. There would be some boring moments in those three years, I’m sure. Days of walking and more walking, and the disciples asking, “Are we there yet?” You get the idea. But the ancients didn’t record history the way we do. Because the stories of Jesus were passed on by word of mouth, the mountaintop experiences—and the valleys at the end of His earthly life-- were the only stories to end up in the gospels.
In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain to pray. On the solitary slopes, Jesus realizes that He has come to a turning point in His life and ministry. His enemies are pressing in on Him. Jesus must decide whether to retreat to Galilee, or to go on to Jerusalem and confront those who want to kill Him.
Jesus goes to the mountaintop to meet God. As Peter and the others follow Him up the mountain, they are still trying to understand what Jesus is all about. Only six days earlier, Peter had expressed a wonderful insight about Jesus: "You are the Messiah." But when Jesus had begun to talk about how He would have to suffer and die, Peter had refused to listen. Peter had hoped that the Messiah would be a military hero. Consequently, it had been difficult for Peter to accept His teacher as "Suffering Servant."
Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus had turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
As Jesus and His followers pray together on the mountain, Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the popular prophet, appear. We can almost hear these great heroes of the Hebrew Bible, affirming what Jesus has already said to Peter: "He’s right! ... Listen to Him! Go with Him to Jerusalem despite the risk."
When someone sees God on a mountaintop, it’s not easy to describe in words. Matthew tells us there was a cloud. The imagery of a cloud was an ancient way of describing the appearance of God. Have you seen or heard God? God comes to us in a hundred different ways, but there is none more important than a one-on-one encounter with God. Jesus and Peter and James and John had climbed the mountain in order to be in God’s presence.
In our own lives, we need times of prayer to clarify God’s calling and purpose for us. Many people ask, "Why haven’t I had that kind of direct experience of God?" Or "Why don’t I have it more often?" Some say, "I will accept the fact that other people can have this experience but it will never happen for me. I’m not put together that way."
I believe that God intends for every one of us to experience this greatest event in life. But are you willing to climb the mountain? Are you willing to block everything else out and be alone with God? Are you willing to raise your spirit high enough to soar right into God’s presence? Yet there is another side to the coin. You not only have to climb the mountain in order to experience the presence of God, but also you must be willing to return to the valley in order to reflect God’s love, for others to see its glory. This is beautifully illustrated in the Transfiguration story. And that’s why it is important for us to have these mountaintop experiences from time to time—to prepare us for the long and sometimes difficult road ahead. Peter would prefer to stay on the mountaintop, to build shelters for his biblical heroes. He’s afraid of the journey they will be making together, to the cross. But Jesus ignores Peter’s suggestion and leads His followers back to the valley. And there, they find a family in need. A father is waiting there to plead for his son: "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly."
There are plenty of people in this congregation whose spiritual gift is prayer, and that’s good! We need more of that gift to be activated in the life of our church. But we need to follow our prayers by going with Jesus, down from the mountaintop and into the valley of human need.
Jesus criticized the crowds because they wanted nothing but signs and wonders. He refused to be a magician. Between the great miracles there were long, dusty, hungry days. There are days that seem dull, gloomy and depressing for us, too. Thank God for the mountaintop experiences! As we move down the mountain, let us thank God for Jesus, who says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” As we approach Lent, I pray that we will remember the transfiguration story. We will be journeying together, toward a cross we would prefer never to see. But we are not alone.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Bad news can turn out to be GOOD news, and vice versa. What about the English family that waited to book their passage on the Titanic until it was too late? The great ship left the harbor without them. And, as we know now, that was good news! What about the person who worked at her office during her vacation, at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, so she could impress her boss? That ended up being terrible news for her and her family.
There’s a Chinese folk tale you may have heard, and it goes like this. A poor farmer owned a single horse. The old man depended on that horse for everything—for plowing, for pulling the wagon, and for carrying wood, tools and water. One day a bee stung the horse, and it got so frightened, it ran away into the mountains. The old farmer searched for his horse, but couldn’t find it. His neighbors came and said, “We’re sorry to hear your bad news, about losing your horse.”
“Bad news, good news, who’s to say?” the farmer responded.
A week later, his horse came back, accompanied by twelve wild horses that had followed the farmer’s horse back from the mountains. Getting a dozen more horses was a happy surprise for the farmer. Excitement spread through the village. The neighbors came over to congratulate the farmer on his good news.
“Good news, bad news, who’s to say?” the farmer said.
The farmer had one son. The son decided to break the wild horses so they would be sold at the village market. But while he was trying to break one of the horses, he fell off and broke his leg. The neighbors came by and said, “Bad news, your son getting hurt.”
You can guess what the farmer’s response was: “Bad news, good news, who’s to say?”
Two weeks later, a war broke out between two warlords. Soldiers swept through the town and called up every able-bodied man under fifty to fight on their side in a battle. But because the son had a broken leg, he didn’t have to go. That probably saved his life. Every other young man in the village who had been drafted by the warlords, got killed. So, the point of this story is that good news and bad news can be both sides of the same coin.
Joel was one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament, who was born around 800 BC. He wrote one of those short books at the very end of the Hebrew Bible. Minor prophets are called that, not because they aren’t important, but just because their books are short. That’s the only reason.
The minor prophets were known for giving bad news from the mouth of God Himself. One of the most famous passages from Joel reads like this: “The day of the LORD is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains.” That sounds like really BAD news for the Hebrew people.
But then Joel gives the people some GOOD news and I quote: “ Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” There you have it—an assurance of pardon that we have all heard many times. As a prophet, Joel presents a double sided coin. Good and bad news! He speaks for God, and he is realistic. We must answer to God. But God is merciful.
The fact is, you and I will be judged. All of us will eventually have to answer to God. And we are guilty. Take the Ten Commandments. We need these laws for Godly living.- But do we always obey them? No. Have you always honored your father and mother? Have you always kept the Sabbath holy? Have you never, ever, taken the name of the Lord in vain? Have you never told a lie?
If you’re perfect, please raise your hand. I DON’T SEE MANY HANDS! We’re all guilty of breaking God’s commandments. When we betray our relationship with God and each other, we destroy our community. We break ourselves, too. The bad news is that God can’t overlook sin.
But for us Christians, the good news can be found in the gospels—even if we don’t find much in the book of Joel. As you may know, the word, “gospel,” in Greek, means “good news.” The good news is that God overcame sin and death in His Son, Jesus Christ. God has done, for you and me, what we aren’t able to do for ourselves. God has acted to save us. Did you know that, in Hebrew, the name, “Jesus,” means, “God Saves”?
Our salvation came at a high price. It cost Christ His life, on the cross. We call the day He died, “Good Friday.” But it was a bad day for Him, as you know. Crucifixion was the worst form of torture. A crucified person was stretched out, defenseless, exposed to the burning sun. The person on the cross died of slow suffocation. Sometimes it took as long as three days.
Bad news for Jesus was good news for us. Do you remember what Jesus said when He died? His first word from the cross was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He experienced the worst that human beings can do to each other. He looked at sinners and He was able to forgive! Jesus our judge is also our Savior, and that is very good news.
Jesus can see beloved children of God under the guilt and sin on the surface of our lives. He knows the worst about us, but He loves us still. How should we respond to God’s love?
Three hundred years ago, a young German nobleman pondered the cross of Christ. Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf knelt before the altar in a country chapel, and poured out his heart to God. Before him, he saw a crucifix, a cross with Christ on it. Underneath the cross, he saw these words inscribed: “All this I did for you. What have you done for me?” He pondered these words, and then committed his life to Christ. He gave up a huge fortune and a good job in the diplomatic service, and began a life of Christian service.. He supported and protected the Moravian Church, which was being persecuted in Germany. He composed more than two thousand hymns. He helped to establish the Moravian faith here in the Lehigh Valley. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ became the focus of his life. For him, Jesus was all in all.
Good news, bad news, who’s to say? Life is a mixture of good and bad, but for us Christians, the good news outweighs the bad. The power of sin is strong, but God’s love for humankind is stronger still. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “In the end, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more. The bad news is that judgment is real. But here is the good news: for those who cling to the cross of Christ, judgment is swallowed up in love. Thanks be to God!
Think about it. There were no witnesses to Jesus’ temptation, other than Satan. So how did this story get into the Bible? Jesus must have told it to the disciples Himself, because He hoped that they would remember. We need to remember this story of Jesus in the wilderness, not just during Lent, but every day.
Why is this story so important? Most of the time, we do what we want to do. Sin is a weak approach to decision making; it’s not just bad behavior. Deciding to do more than what others expect us to do, hardly ever occurs to us when we make day-to-day decisions. Should I run this red light? Should I cut and paste this research paper from the Internet instead of writing my own words? Should I copy my friend’s homework? Time-saving seems to justify everything. And yet, Jesus preached, “Go the extra mile.” He never suggested that the disciples should cut corners, and He Himself never did.
Just before the story of the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus is baptized in the muddy water of the Jordan River. The voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my child, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Then Jesus goes to the middle of nowhere to decide what kind of child He’s really going to be. The wilderness is hot and barren. The rocks are jagged. The wind howls at night. Jesus is so weighed down with the burden of choosing the direction for His life that He doesn’t even think about food. It’s been days, even weeks since He’s eaten.
The silence is broken when, from somewhere, there comes a voice. Imagine that voice as a screaming whisper: “If you are God’s child, command this stone, so that it becomes bread.” Jesus remembers John the Baptist, the River Jordan, the sky opening and the voice saying, “You are my child, the beloved.”
Now it’s a different voice that sneers, “If you are God’s child.” Satan is clever, smooth and crafty. He tempts Jesus with fast food. Just imagine a rounded stone becoming a loaf of bread; a flat rock becoming a tortilla. What difference will it make, if Jesus turns a stone into bread and eats it? If Jesus is God’s child, then why shouldn’t He get what He wants?
We struggle with the attraction of doing the easiest thing, the quickest thing. We make too many of our decisions on the basis of what requires the least effort. Our struggle is between the okay choices and the best choice. Temptation to do really wrong things doesn’t come to us very often. Instead, temptation comes disguised as a reasonably good, or at least okay, choice. Don’t volunteer for the service project you led for the past three years--you deserve a rest, and someone else should step up and do it. If you’re a teacher and you see a student cheating, don’t say anything; his parents might get angry. Don’t admit you made a mistake to your spouse. Instead, make up a story to explain what happened, so she won’t be disappointed in you. Never underestimate the power of temptation. Never overestimate your own strength to resist it.
So many of commercials, the songs we grew up with, are self-serving: “Make it easy on yourself.” “You deserve a break today!” That’s how advertisers sell products. We like to hear messages like that. It’s harder to forgive the guilty, to listen to the lonely, and to share what we have with the poor. We turn away from sacrifices that make life a little harder. If we’re feeling comfortable most of the time, we’re not living as Christians.
Jesus understands the temptation of the easy way. He resists. “One cannot live by bread alone,” He says. Satan challenges Jesus for the second time: “If you are God’s child, throw yourself down. You know that the Bible says, ‘God will protect you.’ ”
The first-century Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the temple roof. The tempter is reminding Jesus that He can be the Messiah the people want by showing off. He can be a great religious teacher and skip the hard parts. Jesus could have modified His ministry ever so slightly and made Himself a miracle worker. That is what the people in the crowds wanted him to be.
We can keep up appearances, and lower our expectations, pretty easily. We can look religious without truly seeking God. We know how to pretend that we are living as God’s children. The screaming whisper of Satan returns with an offer of palaces and kingdoms, “Compromise with me, and it’s all yours.” To worship Satan is to choose success. Everyone wants success. The evil one doesn’t appear for us in a red suit with a pitchfork. The tempter appears as reasonableness. Evil’s nagging voice is the desire for a little bigger house, a little more in savings, and a little better job. Only God will know that we took the easier route.
Have you ever learned that someone who does the same job you do, makes more money than you make? Or that someone who has constantly cheated in school, won an award you deserved? It doesn’t do us any good to obsess over those things, but we do. We keep thinking about how unfair it is. We resent that person and the people who think that person is better than we are. We whine, and, all the while, we ignore the needs of the world that matter more than money or status. What sins do we commit regularly? Here are just a few: Thinking too highly of ourselves, using others for selfish ends, and not taking responsibility for others.
Someone once said, “You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity.” By that standard, most of us have a long way to go. Through cracked and bleeding lips, Jesus answers the third temptation of Satan, “Bow down to God alone; worship only God.” The devil retreats temporarily in this story, but I’m sure that, in His life Jesus was tempted a few more times to make safe decisions, instead of taking worthwhile risks.
We choose every day between what seems to be “pretty much okay” and what’s true to the gospel. Sometimes we do nothing because that’s safer than taking a Christian stand—but doing nothing is a choice too. People in Nazi Germany chose to do nothing when Hitler came to power. Doing nothing was a bad choice.
Jesus was smart enough to understand all the ways He could keep Himself out of trouble. He always chose the right, even if it would cost Him His life, and ultimately it did. There is evil in the world, and we’re in danger of being caught up in it, but we aren’t alone in our struggle. Remember that we are God’s beloved children. As temptations come our way, we should try to see them as opportunities to say YES to becoming the people that God has created us to be.
Adults, do you still have scary high school dreams? You are a day or two from graduating, and the principal grabs you in the hallway. He reminds you about a math class you signed up for and forgot to attend. You have to pass that class to graduate and you have to take the final exam to pass. Guess what? The exam starts in five minutes. There’s not a minute to spare. You run to find the classroom and slide into your seat at the very last minute. The professor hands you the exam, and you look at it. It makes no sense to you. It might as well be Advanced Placement Chinese. You see all the other students laughing at you. Your chest heaves, your heart pounds, and you feel terrified . . . and then you wake up. It’s a dream. WHEW! Those dreams are called night terrors, and almost everyone has them.
The middle of the night can be the scariest time of all, especially when you wake up from a bad dream. Loneliness is worst at 3 a.m. Those of us who believe in God are fortunate, indeed. The support of family and friends doesn’t hurt, either. Remember how Jesus pleaded with His disciples to stay awake with Him at the Garden of Gethsemane, as He thought about what lay ahead of Him in Jerusalem? They let Him down and fell asleep. Jesus stayed up all night and prayed. Later, His best friend, Peter, even denied knowing Him. But God was there with Jesus, all the time. When we feel alone, at the most terrifying times of our lives, God is there. God created time and space. He goes wherever we go. That’s the message of the 121st psalm.
God is our good parent, our model for comforting our children. Like most parents, John and I always tried to protect our daughter from the terrors of the night. Some Native American tribes have a tradition of doing just the opposite—giving their sons a very rough initiation to adulthood. Several American Indian tribes carry out an ancient coming-of-age ceremony. It’s a test of courage. As a mom, I wouldn’t want any part of this one! I can imagine the fears of the American Indian mothers. On the evening of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, he is blindfolded and taken away into a dense forest. And then for the first time, the boy is left entirely alone in the wild to face the terrors of the night. The howling of animals, the clatter of branches, the whisperings of the woods all sound like predators and haunted spirits. The boy is terrified. But in this crucible of darkness, the young man begins to grow up. Finally in the dim light of dawn he is released from his fear. As the sun rises, the sounds and shadows and spirits become ordinary rocks and trees and bushes. And then, in astonishment the teenager looks and sees another man, standing just a few feet away, armed with bow and arrow. It is the boy’s father, who has been there all night, keeping watch so the boy will be safe. I like to think that God watches over us that way.
Psalm 121 seems to be about a trip into strange territory. The traveler looks to Mount Zion, God’s holy mountain and the place of the Jerusalem temple. Apparently he isn’t on an easy journey. Getting older isn’t an easy journey, in fact, I think it’s harder, even, than adolescence. Every step we take seems to be uphill. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?” Three more steps to the top of the stairway, and we’ll be there. Don’t look down. Lift up your eyes. This psalm is a great gift to us aging orphans, in my opinion. God never slumbers or sleeps. God will preserve our lives, our “going out” as well as our “coming in.” Are your parents gone now? Perhaps your spouse or significant other has passed away, too. Who can we count on, to preserve our going out, but God?
The psalmist looks to the mountains, where the God of the Old Testament dwells. And even as he lifts his eyes, the answer comes back, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” God is there for us. Where else can we look for help when we are afraid? We look to the scriptures. We look to the good people of our congregation. And most of all, we turn to the Son of God. The promise of the gospel of John is that God gives support to every Christian in the person of Jesus Christ.
It can be hard for some people to trust a three thousand year-old psalm, written in a primitive period of history. But God travels with us, just as He did with those ancient Hebrews. Human beings of all ages are vulnerable: toddlers fall down as they are learning to walk; young adults feel self-conscious as they start college; middle-aged adults feel clumsy and frightened in new jobs; and us older folks have a harder time seeing, hearing and remembering things, not to mention climbing hills. The theme of our Vacation Bible School for the past two years has been: TRUST GOD! And that’s the theme of this psalm, too.
We are dust and to dust we shall return. Only with a deepened sense of our own mortality can we appreciate God’s power. Entire industries—such as life insurance and cosmetic surgery—profit from our fears of aging. A strong faith is the best traveling companion we can have, when we experience the inevitable losses of aging, or when tragedies happen, far better than savings bonds or botox. There is comfort in knowing that God holds us close through every struggle. There is so much comfort in being a member of a congregation that embodies God’s love.
Today we heard the famous Bible story of Nicodemus from the gospel of John. Do you really believe Jesus’ words, that God loves the world? Do you believe in your heart of hearts that you were created in the image of God? Do you believe that all people also carry that image? If each of us can come to the place where we can confidently say yes to those three things, then we find we cannot do other than love the world as God does. When we do, it changes how we live. If we can’t believe those three basic things, then we are condemned as a human race to continue to dwell in a world full of pain and grief and evil. Let your heart and your feelings guide you into a deeper relationship with God. Pray constantly. Practice your faith every day. Feel God’s arms around you.
Don’t try to make sense of God. Just revel in the wonder and mystery of His love. Know that the promises of God are for you: the promise of life and the promise of love. Both are eternal. Know that God’s promises will be fulfilled in ways far beyond our wildest expectations, both on earth and in heaven. We have a long journey ahead of us. We won’t wake up tomorrow and find a way to turn the clock back. And yet, from here we can lift up our eyes to a holy hill, and as we look around we see there that a stone has been rolled aside, next to a tomb that lies empty.
Our congregation is Christ’s living body gathered here today. As we journey together, may we find the strength to face the storms and be born again to see a better day. Jesus promises rebirth to Nicodemus. This powerful Pharisee grows in his faith, and later travels with Jesus on his final earthly journey to the hill of Golgotha.
Because of the cross, there is no experience so frightening that God cannot be at work in it. There is no crisis so terrifying that God cannot bend it to His good purposes. There is no death from which God cannot transform life. The Lord is our keeper because we are the Lord’s. The Lord is our keeper because we belong to God. God makes us, God calls us, God sends us and God keeps us. Thanks be to God!
I don’t preach from the Letter to the Romans very often. It’s not easy to understand. Paul writes in a rhetorical style popular in the ancient world. Many Christians today don’t respond well to his compressed logic. But the fifth chapter of Romans is personal and comforting. Its message is that God is all about loving relationships. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s love.
Christians of Paul’s day were really up against it. It was hard to be a Christian in Rome, and Paul knew this—even though he hadn’t made it to Rome yet. Paul wrote because he wanted to strengthen the Christian community there. He’d heard that the people of that church had been struggling to pay high taxes and to obey the oppressive Roman military, but the worst hardship for them was the religious pressure. They were forced to worship the emperor----at least to appear to worship the emperor. Paul faced that dilemma squarely, in this letter, by reminding the Roman Christians that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Pressure produces fortitude, he wrote. The Greek word he used for “fortitude” is hupomone, which means more than endurance. It’s a resilience the Holy Spirit gives us—the ability to overcome virtually any suffering. We are justified. That means that we are made right with God by our faith, and by the sacrifice His Son, Jesus Christ, made on the cross for us.
Paul reminded the Romans that their Lord is Jesus, rather than the emperor. Paul was writing to ordinary people, who knew very little theology. Paul’s letters were read as sermons in the churches. They give advice on how to live as a disciple.
The character of those of us who want to follow Jesus, should come down to one thing: self-giving love, Paul wrote. What does self-giving love look like? Here’s a modern example. Leadership and Self-Deception is a popular management guide that was published a few years ago. In it, there’s a story about a lawyer who made an unintentional mistake early in his career. He had been given an assignment that he completed carefully. With a great deal of pride in his work, he forwarded his brief to his boss, and she sent it to their client right away. Shortly after she sent it out, his boss asked a question about his research, and they both realized he had made a huge mistake – one that might cost their client, and possibly their own firm, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When his boss realized the error, she immediately got on the phone and warned their client of the mistake. The man who had made that mistake was in the room at the time. He expected the phone call to end with a stern lecture and maybe even a request for his resignation. But in the phone call to the client, she took the blame. His boss apologized for her mistake and promised to make it right as soon as she could. The man telling the story admitted that he would have tried to blame the person making the error, if he had been the boss. But she took the fall instead. After that incident, he said, he was willing to do anything for that boss. Her commitment to him, as an employee, became the foundation of his own lifelong loyalty to his law firm.
That boss’ sacrifice is very small compared to the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us. In the ultimate gesture of self-giving love, Jesus died for us and took the punishment for our sins. The gospel stories show that Jesus’ life was about love. If we follow Him faithfully, our lives will be about love too. Our fruitfulness will be judged on just one thing: how well we have loved. Jesus tells us that over and over.
Jesus’s character is love, pure and simple. We exhibit divinity to the extent that we exhibit love, to the extent that it is our character. What does that mean for us today? What wisdom does this letter have to offer you when you turn on the computer, when you have to cover for a less-than perfect employee, when you discover that your son or daughter has broken the law, when you receive scary results of medical tests, or when you pick up the phone to hear that a parent has died?
Paul tells us that we don’t need to be afraid; we simply need to love. But love requires stamina; it is an endurance sport like running marathons. And, even if we practice on a treadmill every day, and even if we understand everything there is to understand about pacing and rhythm, we can’t run a marathon without practicing running on the road.
Equally, we grow in loving by practicing love. Paul tells us that our practice starts with suffering, suffering willingly, patiently, without counting the cost. Love suffers whenever it is in the presence of injustice or pain or abuse or prejudice or hunger or need. Love suffers when a child is in danger of addiction, when a spouse has reached the end of his or her rope, when a parent’s mind or health is slipping away. God uses sufferings to transform us into the people we were meant to be.
Paul suffered a great deal in his own life. He’s clearly speaking from experience when he writes that, if our suffering turns us to God, we haven’t wasted all that pain. Since Roman times, Christians have learned that being persecuted makes us take our faith more seriously. In fact, Paul writes, our suffering becomes an opportunity to share in the suffering of God. Love endures suffering with eyes and heart wide open. It doesn’t deny or ignore it. With daily practice, love forms our character. It even BECOMES our character, through and through.
I don’t know what the practice of love means specifically right now to each of you. I do know that right now you have an opportunity to practice. It isn’t easy; love will test you. It calls for courage. It will require you to stretch your mind, your muscles and your heart. Jesus showed us how to love without holding back. I am willing to bet that Jesus learned it from his mother. Mary was willing to love with all her heart, with all her mind, and with all her strength.
God loves us, even though we have sinned. In fact, God loves us so much that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God’s love for us is the very reason He sent His Son to die. God’s love is nothing like anything we have ever experienced. Christian life isn’t a do-it-yourself project. It’s a do-it-together project for us, the people of the new Covenant. Picture our church being fully confident that God has removed all the guilt of every person in our congregation. Facing the challenges of our lives is an opportunity to build endurance. We are God’s friends, forever, and His Son has already done the hardest part of that project for us. Let us give thanks for God’s unconditional love. It’s not a payback for anything. It’s a free gift!
Spiritually speaking, there are different ways of seeing things. A person can see perfectly well and still have vision problems. There is danger when we think we see, the way the Pharisees thought they saw. Lent is a time to go into God’s presence for a spiritual eye exam. You don’t need to have a referral from your primary care physician. You don’t need to call ahead for an appointment. Walk-ins are welcome, twenty-four hours a day. All you need to do is to admit that even though you see, the bottom lines on the spiritual eye chart are a bit fuzzy. Then Jesus will touch your eyes. Jesus is the one who makes the blind see. He comes to fill our field of vision so that we can see nothing else.
In the first chapter of his gospel, John says of Jesus, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of the world.” But "the world knew Him not," he writes. There was a handful of believers, in that first century of Christianity, who saw Jesus very clearly. They received power to become children of God. But for them, life was not easy.
That’s really where this story of the man born blind begins and ends. The man who was healed, was faithful. The people of John’s own church in those early years were faithful, too. They suffered abuse from synagogue officials for their faithfulness to Jesus. They were shunned by their families and friends. In other words, they were in the same boat as the man that Jesus had healed. Like this man, they stuck their guns. Again and again they witnessed to the saving grace they had experienced in Christ. In the face of so many threats, they needed to hear stories of signs and wonders from God, in order to keep up their hope of Jesus’ second coming.
We must invite Jesus to come to us. He doesn’t just show up uninvited and force Himself on us. He will let us know that He’s there and waiting, if we choose to invite Him to come to us. After all, He healed the blind man without being asked to do so.
The formerly blind man came to accept Christ and let the full strength of Jesus’ light into his own life. He became a disciple of his healer. The Pharisees, who considered themselves the people of God, had the same opportunity. Yet they refused to see that which was really from God. They stayed trapped in their own blindness.
Does that sound like anybody you know? Doesn’t it seem easier sometimes to stay in darkness—a darkness we know-- than to venture out into the light? I’m sure each one of us here has a memory or two from our past that we don’t want the light to shine on! There are some things we would like to hide, even from God. That’s a battle we have to fight ourselves. But somewhere along the way, we find out that Jesus Christ brings healing light, rather than threatening glare.
After we have decided to welcome His light into our lives, it may not come right away, and it may not come all at once. For some people, it happens suddenly, and their lives are permanently changed. Think about the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus: One moment he’s out traveling around, persecuting Christians, and the next moment, boom! Paul is a Christian himself. For others, being born again is a slow, lifelong process.
The man born blind has elevated his view of Jesus in seven stages. First he had been physically healed of his blindness. Then, when he first spoke with the Pharisees, he began to understand what had happened, and said, "This man healed me, so He must be a prophet." The second time he went before the religious leaders, he went a little further. He said, "This man is from God." And finally, when he saw Jesus again, his heart had caught up with his head, and he worshipped Christ. Then he offered himself as a disciple. For the formerly blind man, Jesus had, at first, taught him God’s message. Then, Jesus WAS God’s message. And so it is for us. When we invite the Light into our lives, it may not come like the sudden switching-on of a fluorescent light. It may be a slower process.
There’s another interesting thing that happens at the beginning of this story about the blind man. Blindness was viewed in ancient times as punishment for sin. Jesus’ disciples see the man, and they ask Jesus, "Why was this man born blind? Is it because he sinned, or because his parents sinned?" And Jesus says to them, that’s not the point. What matters is that the works of God will be made manifest in him. The same thing is true for each of us. It doesn’t matter how each of us became blind. Jesus is saying that we are all blind. We can ask for, and receive, the healing light.
That is important, because it’s very easy to get hung up on the problem of evil. Is evil the absence of good, or is it a force in and of itself? If it is a separate -force, did God create it? If we say that God didn’t create it, then there is something in the universe that God DIDN’T create! That’s a problem. But if we say that God DID create evil, that calls into question our faith. If God is love, God could not have made anything evil. There are no satisfactory answers to these questions.
In this story, the Pharisees are hung up on evil, and their obsession blinds them. None of them can see beyond the stereotype that they’ve believed all their lives—that is, that sickness means that the sick person is sinful. Darkness and blindness are part of us. And whether it’s because we sinned, or our parents sinned, or our society sinned, isn’t important. Because no matter how we got where we are, the light is available to us. All we have to do is invite the light to come in and chase away darkness. The blind man does receive his sight. He reports what has happened. And he starts to teach theology to the trained theology teachers. In doing this, he gets in trouble enough for the Pharisees to put him out of the synagogue. People who do see the light, whom Jesus blesses with understanding, tend to get into trouble. Good news has enemies in this world. When the formerly blind man gets cast out, Jesus—who has been absent from the last few scenes—comes back and finds him. He brings this new disciple into the fold. The man joins the flock for which Jesus will lay down His life.
Even though it may sometimes seem that the darkness has won out, the victory belongs to Christ, the light of the world. When He was crucified, it looked like the powers of darkness had won. But when He rose again, God showed us that light is stronger than darkness, stronger even than death. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who walks with us in the darkness, who makes us to lie down in green pastures, who leads us beside still waters. God calls us to be light in this world. The darkness exists. Some of it we can change. Some of it we can’t. But to all of it, we can bring the light of Jesus.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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