New Names, Different Ways

Genesis 17:1-17 and Romans 4:13-15   25 February 2018  Lent 2B

New names can imply different directions, not always welcome, but often necessary.

Introduction

Yesterday Tainan Theological College celebrated becoming a “government accredited school.” There aren’t a lot of big changes, because the degrees granted by the college have been recognized as valid around the1960s. All the way around the world EXCEPT in Taiwan. Now the Master of Arts degree from the college will entitle the one who earns it to all of the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by all other Master of Arts degree holders here in the Republic of China.

A part of becoming accredited by Taiwan’s government involved changing the name of the school. Officially it is no longer Tainan Theological College, but “The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan South Divinity Theological College. Three years ago I met a woman who had taught at Christ College, a small liberal arts school in Taipei that, similarly, had not been accredited for most of it’s existence, but “went through the change” 6 years back. As happy as she was about the accreditation, she didn’t like that school’s new name, “Taipei Christian College”.

Sometimes a name change doesn’t change much other than the name. If you’ve ever flown Korean Air, it’s a company that used to be called Korean Air Lines. While under that name it had a couple of disastrous accidents over the Soviet Union. In 1984 it changed it’s name, but in 1997 another disaster, in which over 200 people died, showed that not much other than the paint job had changed.

I: Renaming to fit the new direction

We read a renaming story in the Old Testament today. Abram, who had been more or less following God’s call for decades, got his name changed. “Abram” meant, “My Father is Exalted”. As wonderful as this may be in showing respect for one’s father, if you’re the guy with the name, your “script” is basically backward looking. If you’re the father who gave that name to your son, it’s really arrogant! The new name, given by God in this story, means, “Father of many nations”. If that name had been given to a baby, it would certainly be future-oriented!

In the same story, Abram’s wife, Sarai, had her name changed to “Sarah”. Honestly, both words mean the same thing: Princess.  Some interpreters have tried to get something about “argumentative striver” out of “Sarai” and “Royal Princess” out of Sarah, but anyone who takes that seriously is stretching the evidence.

Abram and Sarai were an old married couple who had gone through several difficult experiences. Abram hadn’t been the best husband, willing to sacrifice his wife to save his own life more than once. Sarai hadn’t been the most patient of women, bossing Abram around only to change her mind when he did things according to her plan. But there was something in them that God accepted. Like us, they were far from perfect, but were “good enough” for God.

They had waited a long time, and now God was coming through for them. Their “accreditation” (if you’ll allow for the metaphor), involved name changes, and more.

We’re only in chapter 17 of Genesis, which is the first book in the Bible, the book of origins. There are 1189 chapters in the Bible. In the first 16 we find several ways that people dealt with God, These involved: conversation (2,3), sacrifice,(4), deal-making (4), tracing your family tree (5, 10,11), being good (6), obeying (7), and competing (11). None of it worked. In the Old Testament story and the New Testament verses we read today, we’re introduced to a different way.

II: A Different Way: Faith (Romans 4:13 and Genesis 15:6 )

In the bit of the New Testament that we read today, Abraham appeared again. The reference there was not to Genesis 17, but to a verse from chapter 15, where it is stated that “Abram put his trust in the Lord, … and the Lord accepted him.” (I prefer the more eloquent language of more literary translations, “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

It’s not that God changed a direction, but that Abram took a way different from that which had been handed down to him by his ancestors. Some of those previous ways of relating to God: 1) conversation, 2) sacrifice, 3) being good and 4) obeying, had merit and helped, but NOT ONE of them got to the heart of the matter for people, not then, and not ever since the whenever people began to exist and to attempt to relate to God. “Belief” was the key. In the story in Genesis 17, God announces how things will be.  If we read the order of the chapters as the order in which things happened, then Abram already had been reckoned righteous in chapter 15, but by chapter 17 he’s already began to try to make this into something about keeping rules, being different from other people, location, wealth and a family tree.

Usually I find the writers of the Old Testament to be a lot more direct than St. Paul in the Epistles, but this week I’ve got to hand it to Paul, he got it succinctly. It’s about faith, and nothing else. That was an important thing to write when and where he wrote it, because a small group of Jesus-believers in Rome was being influenced by people whom they admired, people who said, “Jesus is Lord. Faith is necessary, but so are a lot of rules.  Besides which, you’d be better off if you were in our family tree. But you’re not, so we’ll allow you to be “second class.”

For that mixed group of “Jesus believers in Rome”, and for us today, the thing that matters is faith. It’s not a matter of the rules you’ve kept or broken, or of your family tree, or of how little or how much you may have sacrificed. It’s not even a matter of “how much” you’ve believed, it’s just this: “Have you believed?” If the answer is “Yes”, then THAT is what makes you, like Abram, righteous before God.

That is, indeed, good news, so you might expect that those who followed after Abraham, the father of many nations, followed his example, believed, and left it at that. Well, no.

The other ways, the original ways: sacrifice, deal-making, rule keeping, family tree, and all of those sorts of things were and are so “practical” that Abraham’s descendants, even those who came through the “preferred family tree” traded “faith is enough” for: say your prayers, keep the rules, sacrifice, suffer and keep the race pure.

III. The different way for us

And we still do it today.

As a young kid in church, when I began to pay attention to the songs that were sung there, I learned this one:

“When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word,

what a glory he sheds on our way.

When we do his good will, he abides with us still,

and with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

        If you know and sing that song (it has a very singable 19th century tune), the message that you absorb is heavy on the “obey” side and light on the trust. You become convinced that you have to learn all the rules and obey all the rules in order to be accepted by God. If it’s not clear enough in the song’s first verse, then it gets even tighter in verses 2,3 and 4.

The way of God, shown to us in Genesis 17 and Romans 4 today, is life based on belief. The “trust” part is so strong that the “obey” part seems to have been put into the hymn just to fill out the line in the poem.

So, again, the question is: “have you believed?” If your answer is “yes”, then it is because of belief that you have been “reckoned as righteous” before God. The answer can’t be, as some would have it, “My grandmother believed.” (That’s the family tree thing.) The answer can’t be, as others would have it: “I put a lot of money in the offering bag.” (That’s the sacrifice thing.) The answer can’t be: “God and I have an arrangement,” That’s deal-making, and it’s not the way God operates.

Conclusion

If faith, nothing but faith, is the foundation upon which you find yourself accepted by God, then you’re on the way God set out for “Abraham”, the way recommended to the Jesus-believers in Rome by St. Paul.

If you’ve “added something” to faith, even something so high-sounding as: “loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself”, thinking that by doing this “IN ADDITION TO” faith to insure being accepted by God, then you’re doing a good thing, but not a necessary thing. You’re not “wrong”, but you’re “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.”

If you’ve substituted something like “be good, stay clean and pure, make your parents proud, don’t waste money or time, get a good university degree, become rich and give a lot of money away, help out at church, or have substituted ANYTHING of that sort for “believe God”, then you’re running the wrong race.

Many Christians who follow practices of self-denial during the 6 weeks before Easter Sunday are trying to remember how Jesus suffered for us. They do it by a little suffering of their own, giving up a pleasure or two (chocolate, wine, ice cream, something like that).

A different way to go through these weeks is to examine ourselves, not to add some religious practice, but possibly to let go of some unnecessary things. And if those be religious practices that led us in the wrong direction, then so much the better.

Because, from beginning to end, being acceptable to God is about faith, nothing else instead, and nothing else in addition.

Believe this good news and go forth to live in peace.  AMEN

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When in Wildernesses of our Own

Mark 1:9-15 and Psalm 25:1-10

Introduction

There are seasons of life that are just so wonderful we hope they’ll never end. These are sometimes called, “honeymoons”, when no defects are visible and everything is “on the up and up.” If you imagine the thrill of finishing a degree program and walking across the stage to receive your diploma from whoever gives it to you, and having friends crowd around with congratulations and best wishes. People say good things about you, maybe they even give you money!

This must be kind of what Jesus experienced where we met him in the gospel today. He was in the company of a prophet (John) and part of a crowd. And as he submitted to baptism, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, a kind of feathered blessing. And beyond that, a voice proclaimed that he was beloved. You can’t get much higher than that.

At times like that, it’s easy to say something like what we read this afternoon at the beginning of Psalm 25: “To you, O Lord, I offer my prayer, in you, my God, I trust.”

But, those “honeymoon” times are not ALL OF the times.

I The Dark Night of the Soul

The term “dark night of the soul” describes a spiritual crisis in the human journey toward union with God. In the 16th Century it was described by the Spanish monk John of the Cross. In the 19th Century a French nun, Therese of Liseux wrote of her own experience of the dark night, which started with a doubt of eternity. She painfully suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness. While this spiritual crisis is usually temporary, it may endure for a long time. The “dark night” of Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. The dark night of Mother Teresa of Calcutta “may be the most extensive such case on record”. It endured from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.

In going through these times of “dark night”, these saints of the church basically experienced something that we read in the gospel today, which for Jesus lasted 40 days. And it was nothing that he “fell into” by accident. We read in verse 12 that it was the same Spirit which had descended on him from heaven like a dove in verse 11 that made him go out into the wilderness. He couldn’t blame some enemy or a bad meal or a teacher with whom he didn’t get along. We can’t say that he got too high and mighty and had to be taken down a peg. His wilderness experience was laid upon him as part of his growth and formation.

It does no good at all to say to someone who is suffering that “this is for your own good.” Expressions that someone might grow from adversity, or through hard times, are of no help at all when someone is in the wilderness. Neither is it of any help to look to your own past for reasons why this might be a punishment sent upon you by God or by Heaven (there’s a difference).

A dear Christian friend from Kaohsiung experienced some difficult years in her extended family’s life in the 1990s. Her brother in law had a brain tumor, which robbed him of his musical talent. Her father, a pastor, died from cancer, her brother treated her harshly. She was asking, “What did I do, what did my family do, to cause God to punish us so dreadfully?” There is no answer to that kind of question. There is no point in asking it. We wander through our wildernesses, we experience our dark nights, because that’s how life goes sometimes. Jesus endured his 40 days in the wilderness. Other gospels say that he fasted. Other gospels tell us about the particular temptations he endured. We read from Mark today, so have few details. Maybe that frees us to think of our own situations.

Sometimes a wilderness experience comes to us, as we read in Psalm 25:2b-3 because we’ve experienced defeat by the hand of enemies or from shame over things we have done. The Psalm even allows for the possibility that we are in the wilderness because of our own rebellion. Whatever the reason, and no matter how we or anyone else may try to dress it up as “for our good” or as “growth stimulant”, wilderness time is not good time.

A friend who had worked for a mission organization in the 1970s was required to write a note to his supporters every month. Of course, if someone was having a difficult time, they tried not to admit that too directly. He said that when his colleagues were having problems with their supervisors, they would write to supporters “lately, God is teaching me about patience.”

II Wilderness a difficult time. It is not a camping trip

Jesus’ time in the wilderness was 40 days. During that time Jesus met his adversary. We’re also told that there were wild animals. Like the lack of mention of what he ate (or didn’t eat) and the temptations he overcame, we don’t know much more about his wilderness time.

We’re left to ponder who WE meet in our wildernesses. Those saints of the church, John, Paul and the two Teresas, testified to feeling alone. That’s quite a surprise, given that some of them lived in monasteries or convents, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the head of a large organization. Their loneliness and hunger, though, was likely for something more spiritual, it was for a deep communion with God through the Holy Spirit.

When we’re in that kind of wilderness, “wild animals” are not far away. They can take the form of otherwise good things which become sinful. There’s a list going back to the ancient philosophers of 7 deadly sins. It includes Pride, Envy, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed and Sloth. Some of these things are not wrong in themselves, but when they come at us in the wilderness, they can take control. We have probably all met someone who is rightfully proud of something that he or she has accomplished, and someone else who is OVERLY proud of the same thing. Similarly the way we look at and aspire to another’s good luck can turn into envy, our indignation over something may turn to anger, our natural appetite for foods and experiences to gluttony, for sex to lust, for property to greed and for rest to sloth.

In his own wilderness, Jesus was tempted by his adversary, Satan, who sought to derail him from the life to which God had called him. When we’re in our own times of wilderness, we need to pay attention to what is tempting us, to what wild animals are out there to harm us.

The writer of Psalm 25 called out for guidance and help. We find that in verse 5, “Teach me to live according to your truth, for you are my God, who saves us. I always trust in you.” You can be sure that the saints in their dark nights of the soul called out. The 19th century St. Therese (not the 20th century one from India) testified that it was in the deepening of her faith that her doubts were erased.

III Help is on the way

In Jesus’ case, we read that help came. At the end of verse 13 “Angels came to help him.” Through their aid, he was restored, and through the commission that he received in verse 14, he went on to a life of meaning for himself and for others.

There are people who look for angels to come out of the sky with feathery wings and halos around their heads. We get the “wings” from various places in the old testament, and imagine they must be there because New Testament angels sometimes are seen in the air (so they MUST have wings, right?) We get the halos because of artistic styles that put auras around holy people, and eventually thinned those out to halos.

But it’s much more likely that any angels we may encounter will look very much like us. For example, because I’ve been known to drive a bit too fast and a bit too aggressively, I’ve learned to regard anyone who gets in front of me and makes me slow down as my guardian angel.

We have the opportunity to be angels to each other, and to anyone we meet. The point here is that we are not alone. We are watched over by other people, by God, and by “angels” however you might imagine them.

And like Jesus, we have a commission. We are to be involved with, engaged with, the world around us. The 19th century St. Therese lived in a convent, where the rule was you couldn’t talk to anyone else except for a few hours a day. But she was engaged with people during those hours, choosing sisters who looked particularly downcast or “in their own wildernesses.” Through engagement with them, she walked out of her wilderness.

Jesus emerged from the wilderness to take on the duty of telling the good news to people he met. What is your commission? It may be to finish that degree, move to that different job, take up a different habit of spiritual development, or something else. Like your personal wilderness (from which you will emerge, your commission is your own personal vocation, to which you respond.

In all things, remember, as the psalm writer did, who God is. “Righteous and Good… a leader to the humble… faithful in his promises.”

Conclusion

Emerging from your wilderness, do what Jesus did, tell the good news. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

 

 

The Things We Carry

 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Mark 9:2-8

 Influenced as we are by our pasts (and our faiths’ pasts), we move into the future equipped for service to people and to God.

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INTRODUCTION

In 1968 Tim O’Brien, a young man recently graduated from college with a bachelors degree in Political Science, was called to serve in the United States Army. He was trained to fight, and sent to Vietnam, where he served in a combat unit in 1969 and 1970.  When his time as a soldier ended, he became a writer. Short stories based on his wartime experiences began to appear in magazines, and in 1990 were published as a collection. The Things They Carried is the first story in the book.

The things that they (his group of soldiers) carried included the equipment (guns and ammunition) that the infantry-men needed to do their fighting jobs, and the radios & medical things required by others who had special responsibilities. Each man also carried some things that he had brought from home to remind him of family or girlfriends, or things they took for comfort. The platoon leader carried a packet of letters from a girl he had known in college. Though she didn’t love him, he re-read the letters and fantasized about his love for her. Other soldiers carried other things: one, a Bible; one, some tranquilizers; one, some marijuana; and others, other things. The Things They Carried linked them to their pasts as lovers, believers, druggies and human beings.

Soldiers aren’t the only people who carry their pasts with them as they move through life. I was on a train in Canada 15 years ago and discovered that I hadn’t brought along enough reading material to last the entire trip. I looked around and saw that someone who had already left the train had forgotten a magazine, so I picked it up and began reading. It was Cosmo Girl, which targeted teenage girls and featured fashion and celebrities. Cosmo Girl was an adaptation of Cosmopolitan, the international fashion magazine for women. One article in the issue that I read was intended for young women headed away to college. It had a list of things that you should pack and bring for your dormitory room, and included, “anything that will remind you of HOME.” Apparently that article was written by someone who had missed home when she got to college.

In my first job after leaving graduate school in 1980, I met a couple, the Ecclestons, at a churches where I had an office. They were deeply faithful people and active in church happenings. Both had grown up in the Roman Catholic church, but each had been divorced. What moved them out of the Roman Catholic church and into the Protestant church across the street was that they had married each other, which they were not allowed to do as Roman Catholics back then. It was wonderful to learn from the Ecclestons as I moved into Christian ministry, but sometimes I noticed that the things that they carried from their Roman Catholic background were different from the ones I carried from my own Protestant religious upbringing.

Wherever we go, we all carry things with us.

I  Elijah was followed by prophets, and Elisha carried his mantle

Today We read the story of Elijah going up into heaven by a whirlwind today. Almost hidden in verse 13 is mention that he didn’t carry his cloak with him as he ascended. It “had fallen from him.” There’s a lot of stuff “left-behind” in the story… PLACES: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan; PEOPLE: a group of 50 prophets, and a successor. But there are also “things that they carried” in the story. Elisha got the cloak to carry, and the 50 prophets retained their belief in gravity. In verses 15-18, which we didn’t read, they went searching for Elijah’s body, which they were sure had dropped from the sky wherever the whirlwind dropped it.

As the stories in the next several chapters of II Kings go, Elisha became a prophet much like his teacher. He was consulted by kings and leaders. He  consorted with the poor, the diseased and the outcast of his nation, and he taught  the “school of prophets” who served the religious needs of people high and low.

Whether after striking the river with that cloak he ever used it again or not, we don’t know. BUT, he carried with him the authority of the one who had trained him, and the power of the God whom both of them had served.

The story of Elijah going up into heaven in a whirlwind was included in the Bible that Jesus used, and made its way into the new religion based on his life and work. When that religion, which is MY religion, and I hope is also yours, was preached in regions where Greek folk religion prevailed, people who became Christians focused on the chariot, and brought into their NEW religion some habits of their OLD religion. All over Southern Greece there are churches named for “Saint Elijah”. God is worshipped there. The Christian gospel is proclaimed there. These churches stand on mountaintops, where there HAD BEEN temples dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god who crossed the sky daily in a horse-drawn chariot pulling the sun.         Another story of carrying an old religion into a new was in our New Testament reading.

II Peter carried the high places Canaanite Religion (transfiguration story)

We meet Jesus today on a mountaintop, where he has led three of his friends on a little retreat. Up there, where the light is clearer and the sky nearer, he was “transfigured” in front of them. His face shined, his clothes looked bright, and two of the major prophets of his religion were seen beside him. Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah (from the Old Testament story we just read). This story links Jesus, and the religion that grew from his life and work, to the religion into which he was born and in which he grew up. But the story also shows us, in Peter, that the religion of that time also included things that had been carried along, perhaps unconsciously, from further back in his ethnic memory.

The Old Testament history is of a people who invaded and took over land that had been inhabited by other peoples for hundreds of years. Upon entering the land, they were to destroy all evidences of the “resident” religion and replace them with the religion that they brought, a religion that was still “under development” (It hadn’t yet even reached the Beta stage).

But they didn’t destroy everything. It had been the practice of the local people to worship agricultural and sky gods on the tops of mountains. These “high places” are condemned all through the history stories from Joshua through the Chronicles in the Old Testament (a history stretching over many centuries). The repeated condemnations were necessary, because not long after some king on a campaign to purify the land would have them torn down, people would build them up again. Going to the official places for sacrifice and worship, early on at the tabernacle, later on at the temple in Jerusalem, was wonderful, but it wasn’t convenient. The “ready-made” worship centers on the mountain tops were pressed into service. Even King Solomon, who had a worship center (the tabernacle) all the symbols of his religion right next door in Jerusalem, went to “the principal high place” to worship God just after being crowned.

In our gospel reading today, Peter showed himself to be a true son of his ancestors. There on the mountaintop with Jesus, seeing the vision of Moses and Elijah, he brought out what he had carried, the idea that the high place is where you ought to be to be near God. But God would have none of it. In response to this suggestion, Peter heard, “This is my son. Listen to HIM!”

TRANSITION

As Christianity spread in that part of the world (you can read about it in the Acts of the Apostles) it encountered and was changed by the religions and contexts it met. In the region just to the north of Galilee, where Jesus grew up, the folk religions included a goddess known as The Queen of Heaven. There was also a myth of the Goddess Ishtar and her son, Tammuz (who would regularly die and rise again). During the sixth century AD, some early Christians in the Middle East borrowed elements from poems of Ishtar mourning over the death of Tammuz into their own retellings of the Virgin Mary mourning over the death of her son, Jesus.

III Habits of thought and being that inform how we live as people of faith

Wherever we go, we carry with us bits of what we’ve learned in the past, and we apply them to what we do going forward. Teachers generally hope that some of the things they have tried to impart to students will remain with them. But, “Carrying things forward” can be a problem, as Peter’s inclination to high place worship was problematic. It can be an opportunity, as Elisha’s use of Elijah’s cloak gave him authority. What is almost always a problem, though, is turning to something in the past that served an oppressive purpose and declaring it to be a necessary part of life in the new religion. You might call it, “Baptizing Bad Behavior”.

Last Monday, February 5th, was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, a harmful practice that still happens all around the world and is prevalent in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. In some societies there, the practice is endorsed by religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, as being “part of what our religion teaches about proper womanhood”. But those who preach the practice and promote it are lying. Female Genital Mutilation is neither Christian, nor Islamic, nor religious at all. It is a fundamental human rights violation. It is an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls.  Medical evidence shows that Female Genital Mutilation seriously impacts many normal body functions, increases maternal and infant mortality, and can cause lifelong psychological dmage. It prevents women and girls from meaningfully participating in public life to the same extent men do.

Somebody, somewhere along the line in moving from traditional folk religion into Islam and Christianity, retroactively baptized violence against women. They were, and are, wrong.

In the story “The Things They Carry”, the platoon leader realized that daydreaming about the girl he loved (but who did not return his love) kept him from being an effective leader. His distraction led to one of the soldiers in his group dying, so he burned the letters he had carried and buried their ashes.

All of us need, from time to time, to look at our lives, to discern which of our bad habits have been “baptized into our religions,” and let go of things. Hopefully what remains will be what is useful.  God’s voice to Peter was about the new thing in front of him, “this is my son. Listen to him!”

CONCLUSION

As we do this “reflection and discernment homework” in the days, weeks, months and years to come, the standard, “listening to Jesus” can and should be a guide to us for what is loving, grace-filled, forgiving and accepting.  As we work towards becoming “Christ-like”, let us do so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

Words for When We’re Down

Mark 1:31, Isaiah 40:29, Psalm 147:6

Introduction

Some of us here have experienced life in many different cultures. We can do that without leaving home (the different cultures of different generations in a family), without leaving our communities (where people of the same ethnicity might have distinctly different cultures if the are from different social classes) and, especially, if and when we pair up with a life partner whose “family culture” is different from the one in which we grew up, (even when we’re from the same or similar ethnic or social class backgrounds).

But this isn’t about culture shock or culture conflict, it’s about the kinds of feelings that naturally come when one moves between cultures. There are times of exhilaration, and times of near or total depression that accompany it. In those times of exhilaration, we may feel that we can rule the world, but in the times when we’re feeling down, well, we need help.

A hard part of “being down” is the feeling that we’re alone. In 1978 some researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles developed and published a “loneliness scale” (it was revised in the 90s’). As it is used now, it includes 10 questions, each of which is answered by a number from 1 to 4. The average score is between 20 and 25, and any score of 30 or above indicates that someone is likely to have a “High level of loneliness.” If we add “feeling down” to an actual situation of being lonely, then we’re likely headed for problems. One thing we’re reminded of in the scriptures that we read this afternoon is that whether we’re up or down, and especially when we’re feeling down, God notices, reaches to us, and lifts us up.

I  He Sees Needs (Mark 1:31)

On the day we met Jesus in the Gospel today, he’d been busy. He had gone to synagogue and preached, had cast an evil spirit out of a man, and become famous. And all before lunch! When he took a break to have a bite to eat, a person who was “feeling down” was in the house. She was the mother-in-law of Simon, one of the guys who had chosen to leave everything and become one of the first of Jesus’ disciples. But Simon is almost beside the point. The woman who was feeling down had a fever. Like the man with the evil spirit in verses 23 through 26 (who could have had any of a number of conditions, all of which were seen as ‘evil spirit possession’ by the people who brought us this Gospel), this woman’s fever could have been almost anything that laid her low. Jesus saw her need and responded to her condition. She got up, and began to wait on them (that’s the word used in the translation we read here at Tainan International Community Church).

But the is much more meaningful in Greek (the original language of the Gospel). It is the same one used when, eventually, the church appointed deacons. She got up and began to “deacon” them. This woman, known to us only as the mother of the wife of Simon, became the first deacon in church history.

That may not mean much to some of us who come from backgrounds where in a church only the pastor matters, but in many churches, being a deacon means being on the congregation’s board of directors, and in others it is a step one takes on the way to becoming a priest. Deacons SERVE the church and God’s people. “Waiting on” is not a wrong translation of what she did, but it’s a little thin. Jesus didn’t help her to recover from her fever so that she could pour the coffee for the men and clean up after them. He healed her so that she would not be down, and he promoted her to a position of high honor in society and church. She, who never appears in the Bible story again, is the first deacon. A “member of the board of directors”, a “priest in preparation.”

She was down, Jesus noticed, and took her hand, and raised her up. We, likewise, when we are down, are precious to Jesus, whose attention to and intention for us is that we rise up.

II  They Mount Up Like Eagles (Isaiah 40:29)

In this act, Jesus showed himself to be in continuity with the words of Hebrew prophets whose work is collected together into what is known as the book of Isaiah.  Chapters 1-39 of that book are the work of one writer, identified as Isaiah, the son of Amoz. They are firmly rooted in a particular historical framework. Chapters 40-55 are from another time and another person, likewise chapters 56-66. Chapter 40, from which we read today, begins with words of comfort to discouraged people, thought to be the people of Judah still in exile in Babylon, and end with a promise that by waiting, they are in line to be lifted up. “They will rise on wings like eagles, they will run and not get weary, they will walk and not faint.”

On some extended sojourns in the United States over the past 30 years, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around talking about Taiwan. Two years ago I went there and did all of my travel by train, but previously it was mostly by airplane. On the plane there are those “in flight magazines”, with many ads aimed not a tourists, but at traveling business executives. I recall one year when, no matter which airline I was on, and no matter which month, there were a LOT of ads for a company that published posters and framed art prints with inspirational and motivational slogans to get people to imagine great things and work harder. Many of those pictures were of eagles. Maybe that’s particularly American. I don’t know. But in the context of the prophet’s words today, they could also be Biblical.

In many ways, both conscious and unconscious, Jesus conformed to the words of the prophets found in the Hebrew Bible. Since the time of Jesus, many people of faith have searched the scriptures and found even MORE of those words than even Jesus knew (misinterpreting various things that were not at ALL about him to reflect an anticipation of something about him). We can see the gospel story of Simon’s mother in law as an example of “when you’re down, Jesus cares and comes.” The words of the prophet call us to more patience, to “wait on the Lord” when we’re weak, for the Lord “will” come.

Let’s not pretend that “down time” is in any way good for us. There’s a good reason that we call it “the pits”, and a good reason for psychologists and psychiatrists to identify a condition known as “depression”. Down is down. But we can look for an “up” to come. Wait for it.  Hope for it.

III  He lifts the Humble (Psalm 147:6)

We read a bunch of promises in the Psalm, too, one of which had to do with this same kind or “down-reach and up-lift.”    “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the downtrodden….” OK, that last verse ends with, “But casts the wicked to the ground.”  It is enough, though, to be reassured of being healed and lifted up, and to hear the assurance that our wounds will be bound up.

“Literature of the wounded” emerged in China in the late 1970s, after the death of Mao Dzedong. It described the sufferings of communist party staff and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 76. It attacked official hypocrisy and corruption. In a more current context in Europe and America, the #metoo and #churchtoo writings of many women who have been sexually harassed and abused in political, business, entertainment and church organizations, exposes the woundedness of many of our sisters around the world.

Being male, I’m standing on thin ice when speaking to women and promising healing and uplift to people who have been abused. Any assurances I might give, no matter how many Bible verses might be piled on them, will ring hollow. Maybe the assurance that “the wicked will be cast to the ground” is the more resonant line in this psalm. We’ve already seen the beginnings of that in the cases of some entertainers and some pastors.

As we hope for their downfall, let’s join the women whose hearts have been broken, who have been wounded and trodden underfoot. Sometimes we hear preachers tell us that, after he ascended, “Christ has no hands but yours”. Well, if that’s so, let’s be like Jesus, reaching out to those who suffer, let’s listen without explaining, and let’s offer the hands that lift them up.

There’s no shame in being down.  And even if you forget that there is ONE who sees, approaches, reaches and lifts, there’s no shame. There is hope, so hold onto that.

Conclusion   Look to God

We may look many places for help, restitution, reconciliation, recovery, and renewal. What we’re reminded of today is that God is revealed to us in uplift, especially when we participate with others in God’s work of reaching, lifting and helping people to soar like eagles.  Wait for it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

 

Listen Up, Folks!

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

INTRODUCTION

In the 1970s and 80s, an American investment company, E. F. Hutton, (the kind of place where you put your money and ask them to invest and grow it for you) had a series of television ads in which a people in a public place, like a restaurant or on a train. They would be talking about money and investments One would ask the other what he thought was best to do. The second guy would say, “My investment company is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says…”  Then, suddenly, everyone around these guys would stop what they were doing to listen. The advert ended, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

I rarely get to feel like E. F. Hutton, but hope that I’ll be listened to tomorrow morning, when I’ll spend four hours “entertaining” and educating some high school students. Their teachers have chosen the topic, which is “star signs”, you know, the idea that if you were born at a particular time of the year, then the set of stars in the sky through which the sun rises at that time of the year controls your destiny.  For religious, scientific and practical reasons, I don’t believe in that crap. I hope, somehow, to bend any in the audience who are inclined to see something in the stars OTHER THAN just stars away from belief of supernatural powers of the sky.

Today, we’re not talking about star signs. We’re in the season of the church year when we consider how God makes God’s own self known to people like ourselves. And today we read from both the Old Testament and the New Testament about God does that through the words of people who speak for God. I hope that today, you will listen to me as if I was giving information from E. F. Hutton.

I  Words of Prophets

We heard from Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament, about people who would come and speak, declaring themselves to be “Prophets.”  Deuteronomy sits in the Old Testament near the beginning, and is traditionally credited to Moses, the ancient and highest hero of Israel. The beginning verses of Deuteronomy claim that all the words following are those spoken by Moses to the people who were about to cross the river Jordan and enter their “promised land.” I always get a bit skeptical about these claims when I read to the END of Deuteronomy, where the death and burial of Moses are recorded as happening. I wonder, “how did he write those if he was already dead?”

The verses that we read in chapter 18 immediately follow several that warned the people of Israel about following folk religion practices or listening to fortune tellers and people who looked for signs in the stars. They remind the original listeners and readers that God would speak to them through prophets, and that this is in accord with the request of the ancestors, who didn’t want to hear directly from God.  BUT, they also tell people to be careful about those who would come to them, claiming to be prophets, but not speaking God’s words. And they warn anyone who would pretend to speak for God that the penalty for lying in God’s name was death.

Deuteronomy is NOT a transcript of several sermons by Moses given to people about to enter the promised land in about 1300 BCE. Deuteronomy IS a collection of several sermons written by priests and religious professionals in Israel sometime between 620 and 500 BCE. The rules show a developed religion and a settled nation. They also reflect the nature of the “Priests vs. Prophets” conflict in the religion of the time.  Though the priests couldn’t deny the prophets, they COULD limit their influence.

In 1996 Taiwan emerged partially from the bad old days of political dictatorship and held a free and fair presidential election. In advance of that election, anti-democratic forces linked to the “old regime” tried in many ways to prevent Taiwan’s people from really exercising freedom. The Chinese military conducted live-fire drills here and there, and fired missiles to land in the sea (at pre-announced locations) off the shore south and north of this nation. Some ethnic Han “Christian prophets” from overseas (one from Los Angeles, one from Singapore, and there may have been a few others) saw visions of battles and blood.

I knew a Christian man then who sent his widowed mother, his wife, his children and his single sister on a “vacation” to Singapore. While out of the country, they may have been safe, but they could not vote for Taiwan’s future.

The prophets who spoke in 1996 were proven to be wrong. Had Taiwan in 1996 operated by the rules that we read in Deuteronomy today, they would have died for that.

People in our time who claim prophetic abilities often have ways of getting around the things they say. In preparing for tomorrow’s talk with high school students I watched a video of an American scientist, talking about being on a radio program with a woman who used “star signs” to make predictions. He repeated a claim she had made about the American president who was assassinated in 1963 and his brother, who was assassinated in 1968, and claimed that they had all died during lunar eclipses.  When he pointed out that the first one had died when the moon was “a half moon, and eclipses don’t occur during those times”, the “prophet” said that two weeks in either direction was acceptably accurate.

II  Words of Jesus

So, it’s a comfort to come to a story about Jesus, in whom the Word of God was made flesh, coming to live among us, and through whose words and actions God’s meanings are revealed to us directly.

According to the story we read today, Jesus and four other guys came to Capernaum and a few days later went to church (well, to the Synagogue, which was where the folks in that place with one of the many religions followed there met to hear religious teaching and to pray every week.) Jesus preached, and the people who heard him liked what they heard. Compared to what they regularly got, this guy was GOOD!

Then there was a surprise. A man with an evil spirit in him (make of that whatever you like… was he mentally ill, epileptic, drunk, whatever…..????) entered the synagogue and began to make a scene. Jesus took care of the situation. His way of taking care of it was like his way of preaching… He had AUTHORITY!  And people responded as to a prophet.

The old American Television advertisement that was intended to get people to entrust their money to one investment company is nothing compared to this. When E. F. Hutton talks, PEOPLE listen.  When JESUS talks, people recognize and respond to his authority, and lives are saved.

If we apply the standard of Deuteronomy 18, that a prophet’s words should be truly God’s word, or else that one should die, then Jesus comes across as a true prophet, who speaks, and liberating things happen.

III  Words of Prophets in our world Today

Some might claim prophetic power in our world today. In 1870 the first Vatican Council declared that when the Roman Catholic Pope would speak “from the chair of St. Peter” (he didn’t have to be sitting on it at the time that he spoke) his words were “infallible”. There were a lot of politics going on at the time, including the formation of a new nation, Italy, being put together from several smaller nations, including territories that had been directly governed by the church. Anyway, for political reasons, a certain portion of the words of the pope were given the potential to be considered without error. LOTS of restrictions were placed around exactly WHICH words. I grew up in a rather “anti-Catholic” home, where I learned to mock Roman Catholics as people who did not have the freedom to think for themselves. I was taught wrong.  For all the talk about the pope not being able to make a mistake, there have only been 7 times in church history when ANY pope has declared his words to be infallible, and only ONE of those (in 1950) happened after Vatican 1.

Two weeks ago, the Mormon church installed Russel Nelson as its 17th president. Among other titles, he is known in his church as “the Prophet”. Mormon scholars and church members consider him to be God’s spokesman to the entire world and the highest priesthood authority on earth. He has the exclusive right to receive revelations from God on behalf of the entire church or the entire world. I’m not a Mormon, so though Mr. Nelson is certainly to be given respect as the leader of a large organization and an example of morality, I won’t be expecting anything prophetic from him.

Similar to how the needs of the ancients drove what they saw in the stars, our needs can drive us to listen to some things, and to ignore others. But, like E. F. Hutton in the advertisements, When God talks, people listen (or, at least, we ought to).

CONCLUSION

What we need to do is pay attention, to ourselves, to the world around us, and to the word of God as we hear it through Jesus Christ who dwells among and within us. That may mean taking time each day to quiet ourselves and listen. It may mean that we participate in fellowship with other Christians, (as we have here). It may mean taking time to pray and to read spiritual literature (I can recommend the Bible, but there’s a lot more out there which is easily accessible and greatly beneficial).  God is made real to us through many ways. Words are only one of them. The important thing for us today is that we trust enough to listen when God talks.  You’d do that if it was about your money, but your life here and eternal is much, much more important.  Listen

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

 

 

The Time Has Not Yet Come 

Jonah 3:1-5 & 10, I Cor 7: 29-31, Mark 1:14-20,

 God’s self manifestation

We read more than our typical amount of scripture today. In part because the readings were rich in meaning, and in part because each of them shines a different light on how people, over the centuries, have tried to understand the ways in which God shows us who God is and what is going on in history.

There are a lot of cartoon memes that come up over and over. There’s the one with a person or two sitting on a little island with only one palm tree on it, waiting to be rescued. There’s one of two naked people under a tree, and a snake in it. Our meme today is like the one on the back of our bulletin, a guy holding or carrying a sign declaring “the end is near.”

For many people, a basic view of God showing us who God is might be printed on a T-shirt, “God’s coming back, and WOW is he PISSED!” Today I want us to look at this from the other end, that, “God has already come and invites us to a Joyful New Beginning.” If I fail to do that, please trust that at least I was trying to get there.

8 days ago, on January 13th, people all over Hawai’i got a smart phone message saying that a Nuclear-armed missile was on the way. Somebody in a public safety department had “pushed the wrong button” on a computer screen. BUT, since Hawai’i is only 15 minutes missile flying time from Korea, many people there began preparing for a sudden end. That end didn’t come. THANK GOD.

“Pushing the wrong button” about the end of civilization as we know it, or the end of human life as we know it, or the end of the world, or the end of all creation, happens frequently. As a person of religious faith, I’m embarrassed that the people pushing that wrong button are often others who have religious faith.

I: Some Get the times horribly wrong

Wikipedia’s List of Predicted Dates for the End of the World has at least 220 items in its “religious” section. They stretch back to the first century. None of them has been right, yet. Here are some recent ones.

A Korean church leader predicted the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world for October 28, 1992. Some members of the group quit their jobs, others dropped out of universities, and others had abortions to avoid the suffering that was to come. Some married men, wanting to be “pure” when the time came, stopped having sex with their wives.  Well, Jesus didn’t come and the suffering didn’t happen (except for those wives who had been deprived of sex).

In 1997, twenty upper-middle-class families from Taiwan followed their self-trained Christian minister Chen Hon-ming to Garland, a suburb of Dallas, Texas in America. Pastor Chen had predicted the return of Jesus Christ for August of that year, saying that it would be announced on American Television. He chose the town because he thought that the name, “Garland” sounded like “God-land”, so he and his followers would be safe there. They bought houses and cars, wore white clothes and cowboy hats as they drove around town. But Jesus didn’t come back, and they quietly returned to their ruined lives in Taiwan afterwards.

More recently we’ve been treated to the prediction of December 21, 2012 as the end of the world because of a Maya Calendar. And last year, the fictional planet Niburu was predicted by some “prophets” to come and destroy all of the world on September 23rd. When it didn’t happen, the guy who prophesied it apologized for his miscalculation, and changed the date to October 15.  WE’RE. STILL. HERE.

Within Christian churches, a lot of the work on predicting the date of the end of the world builds on a system called dispensationalism. It grew up out of the preaching of a British man, Darby, in the 19th century. He was building on the work of 17th and 18th century British students of the Bible. He traveled around the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America) preaching his interpretations. In America, the “cause” was promoted by a self-trained Bible scholar, Schofield, who awarded himself a Doctor of Divinity degree and edited a version of the Bible which guided people to make all kinds of “Jesus is coming back on this (or that) date predictions.”

If you hear about things like “the rapture”, “the tribulation” and “the millennium”, you’re hearing dispensationalism. It’s important to remember that this is only ONE way of reading the Bible, and that NOT all Christians are Dispensationalists. In fact, only the MINORITY of Christians use this “system” to view scripture and to say what God is doing in the world. They are a minority, but are a very noisy minority.

II: Some Get the times Not particularly right 

Religious believers who make end time predictions, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or Buddhist, stand in a proud tradition. It includes St Paul himself.  We read part of his prediction this afternoon in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. According to Paul, there was not much time left, so “married men should live as if they were not married (whatever THAT meant) and people who were sad or happy should deny their feelings. People in business should buy nothing and sell nothing, because “the end is near.”

Sisters and brothers, even though these words were written by an Apostle and got into the Bible, WE’RE. STILL. HERE. So, how do we account for them?

Paul was a man of his own culture and religious background before he became a Christian. And just as our cultures and religious backgrounds follow US wherever we go, his followed him. He was raised and educated to expect the coming of a Messiah, who would bring about great changes for his people. He came to believe that the Messiah had come as Jesus Christ. In this new faith, he believed the promises of Jesus to return. Putting all of that together, he came to expect that “the end is near.”

Up to the point where he put them all together into “the end is near”, I was with him. But a LOT has happened since then. Maybe the end is not so near. Or maybe his directions for how to deal with Jesus’ coming were incorrect.

Predictors of a “soon coming” end are found elsewhere in the Bible, too. In the story of Jonah, from which we read this afternoon, people were given 40 days. I don’t know about you, but if I knew there were 40 days, I might spend 39-and-a-half of them before making any changes. (I guess I hang around with students too much.)

III: Some discover that “the end” has been cancelled 

The story of Jonah isn’t history. It’s a parable. Written to a people whose ideas about God were very “self-centered”. God only loves us, and everyone else is not good enough for God to care about. When you have that kind of an attitude, you treat “outsiders” in ways similar to how the Burmese are treating the Rohingya Muslims. When you have that kind of an attitude, you campaign for president of your nation with promises of building a border wall, deporting refugees or banning people of other religions from getting visas. Though the story contained in Jonah is set in the 7th century BCE, it was written and spread around in the 4th century BCE, when the Jewish religion was forming, and when it was at its most exclusive stage. “God loves us, and not YOU!” Significantly, though, it is a thoroughly Jewish story. It presents an “opposing view from inside the religion.”

The Jonah story if filled with physical impossibilities and linguistic inconsistencies. But it has profound teaching about the universal mercy and care of God for all people. It is the most “Christian” message of the Old Testament. God is merciful.

We read from chapter 3 today, nothing about a fish, but about a prophet with a message. His was the word of doom. “The end is near. There remain 40 days.” The people heard and responded, and, as we read in verse 10, “God changed God’s mind”.

In the parable that is Jonah, the people of the city are no longer relevant at this point. We hear no more of them. The “end” of the city has been cancelled. We can imagine that they went back to their regular lives, but as a place of righteousness. Or, since we have no information, we can imagine that they moved on, after repenting, to a joyful new beginning.

That word, “repent” is a bit of a problem, isn’t it? It carries with it the feeling of “no more happiness.” No more parties, no more wildness, just Sunday School and Bible Study Class from now on. So it effects how we hear the words of Jesus from Mark 1, “The right time has come…. Turn from your sins and believe the Good News.”

Conclusion  For some, this is just the beginning

Jesus also believed in “the time” that had been coming. But he declared that, in him, it had already arrived. There is no need to continue counting and predicting. He brought good news of God’s universal acceptance of all people. He called on those to whom he preached to believe that good news. Yes, there’s mention of “Repent” in what he said. We don’t discount that.

We can’t put an order of human operations on God’s willingness or on God’s ability to accept anyone. Is “turn from your sin” required first, before you can believe the good news?  OR…, does belief in the good news lead us to changes in life and attitudes, one (or many) of which might be turning from sin…. One or many of which might be kindness toward strangers and neighbors…. One or many of which may involve generosity.

The time has come, but it’s not a time of a bad end. It’s a time of a joyful beginning in which we believe, in which we are transformed, in which we share, in which we care.

Jesus invited all the people of the world to that beginning. And it is our invitation today: The Time Has come. Believe the good news, and whatever God does in you after that, in whatever order things happen, follow God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

She Was Pregnant: a Christmas Meditation

Luke 2:1-7              24th December, 2017.

Introduction

We’ve arrived. After 4 weeks of scripture readings, songs and sermons putting off Christmas, we’re finally here. What is it about Christmas that pushes us to “rush the season”? What’s so important about Christmas that we make such a big deal of it? Is it the angels, or the shepherds, or the baby? Is it the wishes of peace and goodwill?

I recently read that in the English-speaking world, especially that of England and North America, the “modern” emphasis on Christmas as a generalized festival is a fairly recent thing, and that it really got “kicked into gear” with Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, “A Christmas Carol”. Commercial interests piled on, and churches (as if often the case) followed the trend.

I: Important things in Luke 2

It doesn’t matter much which gospel is being read through in the Church calendar in any year, at Christmas we converge on the second chapter of Luke, and read about the angels singing to the shepherds who go to the place where the baby is lying in a manger. This evening we read the introduction to that part of the story, just a few verses about how a bunch of men (Augustus, Quirinius, Joseph and David) conspired in such a way that Mary had to be away from home at an uncomfortable time in her life. As we read in verse 5, She Was Pregnant.

For Mary, probably being pregnant was the only thing that she had in mind then. Part of being pregnant is being bigger than typical. For example: if, in speaking, I am silent for a brief period to emphasize something I’ve said, (PAUSE), that’s a pause. But if I’m silent even longer (Long pause), THAT’S known as a Pregnant pause.

A lot of things move around the world by air freight now. For some very large things, like pieces of airplanes and such, that have to move by air, there are specially built planes which have longer wings and wider fuselages. They’re known as “pregnant guppies”.

Pregnant is also, I’ve been told, uncomfortable. Have you seen women who are soon to give birth walking anywhere, with their hands supporting their backs?

Pregnant, especially first time pregnant, is also for some women a time of uncertainty. “Can I do this? Will I be good at it? Will I fail at something?”

Yes, Mary was special, but likely not so special that she was small, comfortable and clearheaded with all that was going on around her. I’d venture that she didn’t care much about Augustus, Quirinius or David, and likely, when in pain, cared little for Joseph either.

When we think Jesus, the baby she bore, we easily forget about what Mary endured.

II: Unimportant things in Luke 2

Who the emperor, the governor, the ancestor (and maybe even the husband) were becomes relatively unimportant in this story when seen in the light of what Mary endured, and of who got born. In terms of Mary, if, for a while in the pain of childbirth, she even forgot that she was giving birth to the son of God, if all she could think of for those hours of labor and delivery was her own pain, I think she deserves a pass from us.

She was pregnant with our savior, who came to save all of creation. And because she went through with it, and because HE went through with all that lay ahead of him, we can confidently face our future.

Conclusion

Thank God for Mary, who accepted God’s call given to her through an angel messenger. Thank God for Jesus, firstborn son of Mary, who accepted his destined role to save creation. Praise God for what has been given to us.

For the rest of this afternoon, while we sing about the events of Christmas, remembering what has happened for us, we join sisters and brothers around the world in praise of God, and in hope for our future.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy S

“He Came as a Sign”  

Luke 2:22-40 and Galatians 4:4-7

 

Whatever he may have meant then, and whatever he may mean to others, it’s what he means to YOU that is most important.

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Introduction

Does anyone here have a cat or a dog living in your home?  In my immediate family, my daughter and her husband have two cats, my son and his wife have two cats, and we have one cat in our house. But, we’re not opposed to people having other kinds of animals.  My wife’s sister, Mary, has two cats, and a dog!

Her dog is special. He was not granted the greatest intelligence that God ever gave to a canine, but he is cheerful, and he has a job. A few times every month Mary takes him to the local hospital. They visit areas where patients are undergoing treatment or recuperating. The dog brings happiness.

Life has changed in Taiwan in the past 50 years. Long ago people lived in multi-generational families under a single roof. Urbanization and the move from single-family dwellings to tower blocks has changed that. Now each family has its own set of rooms, often shared with nobody else. We don’t even know our neighbors. Elderly people no longer reside with their children and grandchildren. The old and infirm are more and more moved to places where the other residents are also old and infirm, and trained professionals care for them.

There are visitors in these homes, too. Sometimes bringing a dog or other animal, but the best companion that can be brought along is a child. Since children can fear strangers or people who are disabled or disfigured, the “best” children to bring are the very young. Bringing one small child into an old-folks-home to visit one aged person can deliver cheer to many old folks who stay there. That child can represent many different things to the people who are there.

I  For Simeon, the baby was a sign that it was time to move on (Luke 2:25-32)

We read that kind of story this afternoon from the gospel. Mary and Joseph took their newborn son, on the 8th day of his life outside the womb, to the temple “to perform the ceremony of purification” according to their religion. In Taiwan folk religion that often means to shave any hair from the sides of an infant’s head. In Mary and Joseph’s religion, it meant to present the first-born male to the Lord and to offer sacrifices.

That was their purpose, and it coincided with the day that an old man, a believer, was there. Simeon saw the baby and, in HIM, perceived a sign that was personally meaningful.     This child meant to Simeon that he could move on. He didn’t have to be an old guy any more, he could die in peace.         This child meant to Simeon that God’s salvation had come for his people.  This child meant to Simeon that God’s will for the world would no longer be an ethnic secret for one nation alone, but a light to all people. This child meant to Simeon, and he told it to Mary, that many people would be seeing both destruction and salvation. The opposition of some would reveal the things that were in their hearts, and Mary also would have her heart broken.

That’s a lot of meaning for one baby to carry!

In Taiwan, babies and the succession of one generation after another have traditionally meant a lot. 20 years ago, when many of the old guys from China who had been controlling politics here had died off, the “second generation mainlanders” began to stir things up, believing that too much of the authority wielded by their fathers’ generation had bled off to people who did not love China sufficiently. Another generation has come since then, and though the issue of “loving China” is still with us, it’s not necessarily a matter of ethnicity. Now it’s money that counts.

In Taiwan, it’s not a baby that someone will lift up and value as a sign, so much as a diploma or certificate, that entitles a person to entrance into a different level of society.

What that baby meant to Simeon was personal to him. His words about Jesus may or may not have meaning for us.

An interesting parallel between our New Testament and Gospel readings today, finds each beginning with a statement about time. Galatians 4:4, where we began the other reading, states that it was a matter not just of time, but of “the right time” finally coming.

II For Anna, this baby was a sign of things to come (Luke 2: 36-38)

There was another old person in the temple that day, Anna, who lived in the temple and prayed there every day. The presence of Anna and Mary at this event leads us to believe that these events happened in the Court of Women, a “less holy” part of the real estate, a place where ANYONE could mingle. For Anna the baby was a sign, too. Not of the same things that Simeon saw, though. Anna found cause for thanks in the baby, and in him she saw the eventual freedom of Jerusalem.

Simeon’s visions were all religious, Anna’s were political. Simeon saw a messiah who would bring salvation, Anna a freedom fighter.

In some other parts of the world, people have been known to “freight” their political leaders with religious meaning, and their religious leaders with political agendas. People may support or oppose various politicians for religious reasons (as happened in the American presidential election in 2016) or choose to leave a particular religion or congregation over the political (not the religious) positions taken by a pastor. So, for Anna to see politics in the baby is neither unusual or wrong. It seems, though, that an 8-day-old infant is a bit young to be declared the one who would bring freedom to an oppressed nation. BUT, Anna is identified as a prophet, so maybe she knew.

What we’re told in Galatians is that this one who came at this time, this baby in the arms of Mary and of Simeon, and of whom Anna spoke, was the Son of God.

He “came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish law to redeem those who were under the Law, so that WE might become God’s children.”  The meanings and destiny of the baby in the temple that day were later interpreted as having essentially the meanings that the old folks proclaimed over him.

III For us now, this baby could be a sign of many things

Do we need signs in our lives? Most of us are too young to want or need a sign that we can now depart in peace. We may need signs of other things, though. Some of these may have a connection to our courses of study (here’s a sign that you will pass the course and submit the thesis on time to graduate on schedule…. Here’s a sign that you will not pass the course so you may need to plan to take another year.)

Some signs may be about our romantic lives, the smile that indicates interest, or a response of interest. The sharp word that basically says, “don’t bother me.” There are signs from employers that it’s time to look for a different job, and signs from employees that they’ve already started looking, so the boss had better go about finding a replacement.

A novel I read a couple of decades ago, set in 1950s England, involved a single woman who was romantically and sexually involved with an older married man. It had seemed like a good idea when it started, but was seeming less so as time passed. One day she saw a young mother pushing a baby in a pram, and said to herself, “I’d like one of those.” Knowing that she wasn’t going to become a married young mother with her lover, she abruptly broke things off, and made herself more available to potential marriage partners with whom to raise a family. The baby was a sign to her, as was Jesus to Simeon, that it was time to move on.

Our sister, I-ying, is leaving us to move to Taipei for a better job. She said to me a week or so ago that the time has come. Remaining in Tainan means no change in her status. She didn’t tell me the “sign”, but, apparently, there was one. What we’re brought to is the possibility of signs, whether those come as babies or stars or angel choirs. If we’re not watching, we might miss them.

        The bit we read from Galatians today tells us the outcome of Christ as the sign for us. Through what has happened at the right time, we have been made heirs of God’s promises.

Conclusion Consider, or re-consider, the meaning of Christ for your life (Lk 2:39-40)

The challenge to us is to consider or re-consider the meaning of the “Christ” sign in our own lives. There are several possibilities. Let me offer three:

First: “I didn’t know that.” Maybe Christ is just a word or a name to you, an identification of a historical figure and good teacher, but not much more. You may even be a Christian, but beyond some moral rules and “should and should not” statements, think little of the meaning of Christ. Because the sign is deeper, I encourage you to learn more about it, because, like Simeon and Anna in our story, the sign can change the way you understand yourself and your world.

Second: “I had always misunderstood”.  OK. There’s nothing wrong with misunderstanding. Going down the wrong road because your GPS failed may lead you to new adventures. For many people, whether they become house painters or university presidents, Christ, understood clearly, is a guide to security and hope. That may not be as exciting as adventures, but it may better fulfill deep needs.

Third: “There’s more than I had hoped for in that.” Promoters of products who want you to make a purchase sometimes throw in a bonus. When I go shopping for groceries each week, and reach for bottles of milk, I choose those to which several small cartons of other milk products are attached. The people who maintain the milk display at the market are saying to me, “You can buy several brands of milk, but if you buy this brand, “there’s more!”

Christmas is a season when we consider a baby born to some poor people who were being pushed around by a government. We can make it purely political. It’s a season when we hear Simeon talk about a sign of salvation. We can make it purely religious. Christmas is more than that. It is individual, corporate, religious, political, cosmic.

Let this be a sign to you, and make of it what you will.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

 

 

Under the Fig Tree   

John 1:43-51 and Psalm 139:6

We have been known, accepted, forgiven and called. Let’s DO it!

Introduction

Fake news didn’t start in 2016. It has been around for a long time.

In 1702 a French guy wanting to travel around Europe for free, stole a pilgrim’s cloak from a church and pretended to be an Irishman heading for Rome. But too many people figured him out, so he changed. He claimed to be a Japanese convert to Roman Catholicism. He wandered through Germany and the Netherlands, and eventually started to say that he was a “Formosan”. He was from Taiwan, where WE are today.

He was in the Netherlands when he met a Scottish army chaplain who “converted” him from Roman Catholicism to Protestant Christianity, then baptized him George Psalmanazar. The chaplain took him home to the UK speaking trips. Psalmanazar wrote books about Taiwan, full of made up stories and pictures of the people here, telling about the things eaten here and the languages spoken here. He was frequently challenged, but he managed to deflect criticism. He explained, for instance, that his pale skin was because upper class Formosans lived underground.

When someone tells you things that are too wonderful to be true, doubt and skepticism are good responses.

In the New Testament story that we read today, a guy named Philip told his friend Nathaniel that he had found the one of whom Moses (their religious hero) and the prophets (their favorite religious authors) had written, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel wouldn’t have it. After all, if someone that great had appeared, why in Galilee? And further, why a guy from Nazareth, a little village of no special merit. Philip invited him to “come and see”.

I like to travel by train, both here in Taiwan and in America. Over there, the tracks are owned by different companies, so a cross country train must cross from one companies line to another as it moves along. Two years ago I was talking with a friend about a particular rail line that he said was “abandoned”, but which I believed was owned and maintained by a certain company. He had lived near those tracks some years before, so his voice had some authority. I regularly rode the trains, so I thought I knew something, too. We couldn’t be sure who was right, and each doubted the other. We decided to look at a government-supplied highway map that showed the rail line and named the company that owned it, and to believe whatever the map might say. In the end, we learned that one of us had been right, and the other wrong.

Philip did something similar with Nathaniel when he invited him to come and see. Any of us, when we are told something too good to be true, beyond responding skeptically, should “Suspend our skepticism for a bit if we are to have opportunity to learn.”

I  Jesus Calls Nathaniel:  John 1: 47-48

NathanieI went to see, but before he could even ask a question, Jesus had the first word.  And, even though that word was a compliment, “Here is a real Israelite, there is nothing false in him,” Nathaniel responded as a good skeptic should. He challenged Jesus. Some of us are weak when flattered. If someone says something nice about us, we’ll believe whatever comes next. But not Nathaniel. HIS words show us that he tested both the claims of Philip and of Jesus.

Jesus responded, “I saw you when you were under the fig tree, before Philip called you.” This statement convinced Nathaniel that Jesus was who Philip claimed him to be. What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? We are never told. Was there something special about being under a FIG tree? Was Nathaniel doing something secret or shameful under there? We are never told. That hasn’t stopped people from guessing, though.

St Augustine, in the 4th Century never saw a word in scripture that didn’t mean something else to him.  He wrote that the fig tree was connected to the bush from which Adam and Eve took leaves to cover their sinfulness, therefore, Nathaniel was covering some sin. He was under the shadow what which would bring him to death. I find that a bit too far of a stretch. Whatever the reason that Nathaniel had for being under the fig tree, the fact that Jesus had already seen him was enough of an argument. Nathaniel’s the skepticism evaporated, and his discipleship began.

Today, in Psalm 139:1-3, we heard these words:

Lord, you have examined me, and you know me.

You know everything I do;

From far away you understand all my thoughts

You see me, whether I am working or resting;

You know all my actions.

Even before I speak, you already know what I will say.

Hearing Jesus mention having seen him under the fig tree, Nathaniel heard an echo of these words, from the song book of his religion.

II Nathaniel recognizes Jesus: John 1:49

When Nathaniel decided to believe, he didn’t go half way. In Jesus, he saw “The Son of God, the King of Israel.”  That was rather quick.

We like “quick conversion” stories. There’s one that was circulating in Taiwan some years ago about a Christian who ran a drug rehabilitation center. If I remember it correctly, (and you should be skeptical about my memory), it was that this man, himself, was a drug addict. He needed more drugs, but had no money to purchase them. He was also thinking of killing himself and was looking in a drawer, hoping either to find some money for drugs or a weapon with which to take his own life. He came upon a gospel tract, one of those little papers which some churches distribute. Desperate, he read the tract, came to faith in Jesus, decided not to kill himself and ended his drug habit. Eventually he came to run a drug rehabilitation center.

It’s possible that I have the story wrong, or that I’ve made it up out of stories of several people mashed together, but it is the kind of story we like. A story of sudden conversion, and we want to see the story of Nathaniel in the same light. Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree.” And Nathaniel said, “you are the son of God.”

But Nathaniel had been prepared. He was a believer in the religion of his people, he had the vocabulary to declare the one who had spoken to him as “the son of God”, not “some kind of “godly being”. He declared Jesus to be “the King of Israel”, indicating that he had a historical and organizational framework into which to put Jesus. Nathaniel’s “conversion” from skeptic to disciple was no sudden thing. He had been “on the way” since he was a child.

In Psalm 139 we also read, “You are around me on every side; You protect me with your power.” Jesus knew something about Nathaniel from whatever he had seen or whatever it meant that Nathaniel had been under a Fig tree. Nathaniel, hearing that Jesus already knew about him, was ready to recognize Jesus based on what he knew about where he had been and what he had been doing (neither of which things are explained to us.)

That’s all fine, all well and good, for them, then and there. But what about for us, now and here?

III We are known, accepted, forgiven and called: John 1:50-51

The end of the story tells us that we, now, no less than Nathaniel then, are accepted. Jesus told him that he would “see greater things than this.” We, too, will see greater things than this which is around us. Not because of anything that we have done, but because of everything that God does.

We live in the mess of our own lives. Whatever Nathaniel’s “being under the fig tree” may have meant, we’re all under the spell of our mistakes, our sin, and we’re destined to die. But Jesus has seen to our being accepted and being forgiven. That’s part of what we do every Sunday here, reminding each other of that forgiveness.

And having been accepted (by God) and forgiven (through Christ), we’re not left alone to sit and enjoy it, we’re invited to a living “work-party.” Nathaniel was called to follow Jesus, to become one of those who joined in the project that Jesus was doing to bring light and life to a world lost in itself. That world was too busy to do much else than feel the pain and burden of life.  We are called into the “Jesus Life”, seeing him now for who he was and is (the Son of God, the King,) and to greater glories yet.

Whether you’re on the road to becoming: 1) the director of the Information Technology department at Apple or Taiwan Semiconductor, or 2) the chief accountant of the Bank of Central Asia; or 3) the chief of the Pharmacology department of the largest hospital in town; or 4) the president of a university; or 5) the floor sweeper in any of the buildings where those organizations operate, you’re called to God’s project to bring healing to this world. It’s a work party. We’re engaged in a project, and while we’re at it, heaven is open and angels are ascending and descending on the son of man.

If that sounds too good to be true, you ought to be skeptical, as Nathaniel was. Pause, think, examine, and only then, decide. But once you know, …  join.

Conclusion

The Nike Swoosh trademark is usually accompanied by the phrase “Just Do it”.

Regarding joining Jesus in God’s project to bring love to the world, Nike’s slogan is my word for you this afternoon. Just do it. You’ve been set up for it, prepared through prayer and song and Word. Skepticism is one proper response. Don’t be ashamed to hesitate. But I hope that you’ll take a clue from the shoes, too, and do it. God is around you on every side, you are protected by his power. Just Do It.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

 

 

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