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Archive for the ‘The Story’ Category

Preached May 12, 2013

Text:  Revelation 21:1-7, 22-27; 22:1-5

The Story, Ch. 31

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Ah, the strange and curious book of Revelation!  We end our 9-month journey through Scripture with the other-worldly symbols and images of John’s vision.

My husband, Rob, and I draw the line between “fun” and “frightening” in different places.  I love a good roller coaster, for example.  Rob, on the other hand, wants his feet planted firmly on the ground.  He will happily sit on a bench munching on a funnel cake while I ride my coasters, but he’s not going to strap himself into that seat with me.

But take those twists and turns of the roller coaster and put them up on the big screen – now he’s on board.  He loves a good action flick.  And I have nightmares after just walking through the room when a scary movie is playing.  I close my eyes when the tension mounts.  As suspense builds, I take a deep breath and repeat to myself, “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie”.

If I know the main character survives until the end of the movie, though, then it is easier to get through the scary parts.  I know, then, that in the end it’s going to be okay.  However hopeless the situation seems, there must be an escape clause; after all, they won’t kill off the star of the show.  I can peek at the screen again.  I can handle the suspense for awhile, knowing that the movie won’t end there.

The book of Revelation tells us the end of the story.  It reassures us that whatever else goes on – however alarming the news headlines become or overwhelming our lives feel – whatever else goes on in this world, the story ends well.  It ends with all things made new, sparkling in the light of God’s presence.  The story ends with the passing away of death and tears and pain.

That’s the end of the story.  We will be with God!  All things will be made new.  What joy!  What reason to celebrate!

But today, I feel a bit like I’m in still stuck in the suspense-filled middle of the story.  We hear alarming stories about bombs exploding in the middle of our cities and CO2 levels rising to unprecedented levels in our atmosphere.  While we wait for the earth to be made new, there are kidnappings and cancer and killings.

If we only pay attention to the nightly news, it is easy to feel as if the economy, the environment and the everyday lives of people all around the globe are spiraling out of control.  In the middle of the story, sin and anger and greed rule the day – and if we are honest, they rule our hearts.  In the middle of the story, the tension can feel almost too much to bear.  We want to close our eyes and imagine it away.

John, the author of Revelations, would understand that sentiment.  He writes from the middle of the story, while he is imprisoned on the island of Patmos.  He describes “the persecution…and the patience endurance…” he feels (Rev 1:9).

But John also lives in anticipation and joy, even in the middle of the story.  He doesn’t seek to escape, but to keep moving, to live each new day in hope of the last day when God’s presence will shine brighter and stronger than any memory of pain along the way.

In the book of Revelation, John allows the Spirit of God to capture his imagination and show him the end of the story.  The images are foreign to us, but the message of hope and promise comes through.

The end of the story, as John sees it, is not an escape – it isn’t as if we just squeeze our eyes closed and banish all the bad things from life.  The story doesn’t end with God whisking us away – but with God coming to us, right here in this world, and making all things new.

The story ends with a transformation of what is, a renewal and restoration of the very best for us and our world.  God doesn’t start over with a brand new story, with a new cast and crew.  God heals the brokenness, brings light to all the dark places, and makes all things new again!  In Revelation, our lives and this earth are the locus of salvation.

That is good news, because it means that however much we may mess up our lives and our world, we are not discarded and replaced.  God loves us enough to write us back into the story even when we try to write ourselves out!

Knowing the end of the story transforms how we live in the middle of the story.  In the imagery of Revelation, John describes churches as the lampstands, Jesus as the lamp, and God as the light that shines from that lamp (Rev 1:20, 21:23).  In other words, “church people” are to be the ones who lift up Jesus (the lamp) so that the light of God’s love might shine through him and us into the darkness of the world around us.

So while we yearn for the end of the story, we also have work to do in the middle of the story.  We have a story to lift up – a story of a Jesus who lived simply and served others, who ate with sinners and welcomed the vulnerable and unclean, who died and who rose again.  We have a Savior to follow in loving, welcoming and serving others.

As the lampstand, we lift Jesus up so that others might see the light that shines from him.  We build relationships with the people in our community, so that others might begin to see God through us.  We live in ways that bring healing and wholeness, so that people might be ready to hear God when God speaks.

It isn’t our job to save the world, this neighborhood or even this church.  It is our job to prepare the way for others to encounter Jesus.

Three years ago, on July 4, 2010 – my first Sunday preaching to this congregation – I preached on this same text from Revelation.  I reread the sermon this week while I was preparing for today.  I could not have known three years ago how true these words would be for us as a congregation!  I end with the same words today:

Fulfilling our mission as light-bearers for God will take courage.  The next chapter of the story may not include all the comforts we’ve become accustomed to.  Some of the familiar faces who have journeyed with us to this point won’t be with us, or at least not physically present.  We may have to rely more on the hospitality of others than we would like.  We will probably feel vulnerable, unprepared, uncertain.

But we know enough of the end of the story to give us courage.  So I hope you will step out in courage with me.  I hope we will have courage to meet the unknown head-on, trusting God’s Spirit to guide us on our way.

There are many things that I hope and pray for as we write the next chapter of Coraopolis United Methodist Church.  Among them:

  • I hope we will have courage to love one another even when loving means risking the pain of saying good-bye yet again.
  • I hope we will have the courage to forgive one another, even if it means risking being hurt again.
  • I hope we will be honest and authentic with one another, even when that requires an uncomfortable vulnerability.
  • I hope we will have the courage to stay by one another’s side through failing health, even when it would be easier not to watch.
  • I hope we will have the courage to go out into a changing neighborhood, even when it feels foreign and unfamiliar, and the courage to reach out to new neighbors when we’d rather stay in the relative comfort of home.
  • I hope we will have the courage to give generously, and to dream big even when we’re not sure where the resources to fulfill those dreams will come from.

There are a lot of things that I hope and pray for.  And I look forward to the end of the story, when we will recall with joy the things that God has done in and among and through us.

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Preached April 21, 2013

Text:  Acts 1:1-8

The Story, Ch. 28

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We are back to The Story today…almost done!  Just three chapters left…

We tend to read the Bible as if Easter is the end of the story…as if Jesus’ resurrection is the last really important part of Scripture, the “happily ever after” of the Bible, or at the very least, of the Gospels.

And it is…sort of.  The resurrection is the event that shows us the end of the story and reassures us that there is a “happily ever after” coming.  But the author of Luke and Acts – they are written by the same person, a two-volume set – the author insists that the resurrection is not the end.  It is, in fact, the start of a new chapter in this story of God and God’s people – the same story that begins clear back in Genesis, culminates in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now ripples outward across the world and through the ages.

In the opening verses of Acts, the disciples have figured out that the story isn’t over yet.  They have figured out, even, that a new chapter is about to begin.  But they don’t yet know the twists and turns the plot will take!

They think they know, though.  Or at least, they think they know the general direction of the storyline.  From the start, their hopes were that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring about political independence for Israel.

That had been their hope.  But then they had lived through the roller coaster ride of recent events:  the shock and confusion when one of their own – someone they thought they knew – betrayed Jesus; the terror and violence of the cross; the anger at the ones who would do such a thing to an innocent man; the fear that they themselves might be the next target.

Then there was the confusion when some reported that Jesus had been seen alive again – the disbelief at the idle tale that some seemed to share so irresponsibly.

Only – in time they came to know that those tales were actually true, and imagine the joy and relief that swept over them then!  Oh, the elation they felt when it became clear that the enemy had not won!

And that is where we find the disciples today.  They have ridden this roller coaster ride of emotions up and down and around the curves, and here in the first chapter of Acts, they are trying to make sense of the whirlwind ride they’ve been on.

One thing they know:  Jesus was dead and is now alive again!  And so their hopes of a Messiah have been renewed.  Now, surely, Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel as they had hoped! (Acts 1:6)

And Jesus answers:  “Whoa, not so fast.”  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

And he continues:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The disciples may not realize it, but Jesus has just given them “the rest of the story” – and they are the main characters!

The story doesn’t end with the resurrection, as we may assume, or even with the ascension of Jesus, when Jesus takes his place with the Father.  The story continues with the disciples carrying the love and grace of God to their neighbors across the street, and across town, and clear around the world, all the way out to the ends of the earth!  (And it doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to think that “ends of the earth” might mean in time as well as in space.)

In the book of Acts, Jesus passes the baton off to his disciples and tells them to run with abandon, to share the good news of God’s love.  The story of God’s work in this world continues, in other words, with them – and, today, the story continues with us who are part of this thing called the Church.

We are the ones empowered them to share the story of God with others, and to be the Body of Christ for them.

But after the roller coaster ride of events this week – we aren’t quite ready to run with that baton, are we?  We feel more like we are hiding behind closed doors with the disciples asking:  “Is it time yet, Lord?  Is it time for you to fix this messed up world we live in?  Is it time yet for you to restore the Kingdom?

Jesus’ answer to his disciples extends to us too:  it is not for us to know the time or the date.  It is enough to know that God’s promises continue.  That God promises to wipe away every tear (Revelations 21:4).  Promises of restoration, of hope, of peace.  Promises that people from all nations will gather together as God’s people without hatred or mistrust (Revelations 21:3, 24-26).  We believe God’s promises.

We believe, but when weeks like this one come along, we begin to wonder if we misunderstood.  Did we hear God wrong, somehow?  Has God really defeated death?  Did God’s goodness really win over the darkness of this world we live in?  So we stare up into heaven, wondering where God seems to have disappeared to when we need him so badly down here.

Ah, but then the angels’ words call us back to earth:  “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11).

Like the disciples, it is our tendency to look back at what was (will you restore the kingdom?) or to look up toward some otherworldly place “over the rainbow” that we wish for but don’t really believe in.

But Jesus pushes the disciples – and us – to look forward, at the world we are handing our children and our grandchildren.  We have work to do, empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread God’s love.  We should be working, Jesus says, for peace in our own backyards (Jerusalem) – in our region (Judea & Samaria) and around the world.  We are now the Body of Christ – the ones who preach good news, heal the sick, feed the hungry in Jesus’ name.  We are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth!

We’ve been talking a lot about the future in recent weeks…our plans as a congregation to expand our ministry presence into the surrounding communities…

Some of you would like more information.  We’ll give as much as we can – please come to a home group meeting!  Or ask us questions along the way.  But we might not be able to answer all the questions, because in some ways, we are in the “waiting” time like the disciples were, waiting for the promises of God in this time and place to be revealed. (Acts 1:4)  We know something of what God is calling us to, but we’re also waiting for God to continue to open doors and lead us on…

But waiting doesn’t mean we aren’t working.  In fact, as descendants of the church animated by the Holy Spirit, we are already living out the promise that Jesus gives, sharing God’s love in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  (Acts 1:8).  It is worth remembering what we are about…

  • In “Jerusalem” – Locally
    • West Hills and Coraopolis Cooperative Food Pantries
    • Coraopolis Community Development Foundation
    • Celebrate Coraopolis
    • Choices Pregnancy Center
    • Network of Hope
    • Coraopolis Youth Network
    • AA & NA
    • Car Check (May 11)
    • Tot Lot clean up
  • In “Judea & Samaria” – Regionally
    • 8th Avenue Place
    • Meals on Wheels
  • To the ends of the earth – Globally
    • UMCOR
    • 30 Hr Famine
    • Imagine No Malaria

Always, but especially after a week like this one…we need to live as witnesses in our neighborhoods, our region, and throughout the world…because, as Theresa of Avila wrote in the 1500s…

Christ has no body now on earth but ours;

No hands but ours; No feet but ours;

Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.

Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.

Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Ours is a call to go from gazing into the clouds wishing for God to whisk us away to some otherworldly place where pain and grief and fear are gone – to gazing at the needs of the world, and reaching out as the hands, feet and voice of Jesus to meet those needs.  We are the Body of Christ for the world – the ones through God’s Story continues in this time and place.

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Prodigal…Father?

Preached March 10, 2013 (Lent IV)

Text:  Luke 15:1-32

The Story, Ch. 23 & 24

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Some years ago, in another congregation, I was at a choir party at the home of the choir director.  The party had ended and I – and some others – were gathering dishes and helping to straighten the kitchen.  Standing at the kitchen sink, I noticed a small strip of paper, water-spotted and yellowed around the edges, taped onto the windowsill above the sink.  The faded blue ink read:

Let’s have a feast and celebrate!

It obviously mattered, because someone had taken care to put it there.  But it wasn’t immediately clear to me why it matter.

Pat must have seen me glance at the paper, because she leaned over and said:  “Luke 15:23”

“Huh?”  I heard her well enough, but I didn’t catch the context.

“Luke 15:23.  The prodigal son comes home, and dad throws a party.  I’m still waiting to throw my party.  That verse gives me hope that my daughter will come back to us someday, and I’ll get to throw a party too.”

That’s what I think of when I hear this story:  A water-stained, crinkled up piece of paper taped to a kitchen windowsill.  A mother, doing dishes at the end of a another long day, holding out hope that she will get to throw her party someday.  A mother’s heart, full to overflowing with love for a child who is running the other way.

The parable of the prodigal son is so familiar that I’m sure most of us have our own set of memories and emotions attached to it.  For some of us, the image that springs to mind is our own moment of ‘coming to our senses,’ like the younger son.  For others, it is the longing of the father, straining to see down the path.  Or maybe it is the frustration of “all these years” that we did what was asked and expected of us, without recognition or reward.  Most of us have lived all three of these roles, in one way or another, during our lifetime.

This is a story, though, in which the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.  It is a story about more than a son coming home, or a father’s joyful welcome.  It is a story about a community restored, and the extravagant, abundant joy that flows from such a community.

We call this story “The Prodigal Son” because of the younger son’s lavish lifestyle.  He spent his inheritance going after self pursuits and immediate gratification.  He was ‘prodigal’ in every sense of the word – extravagant, reckless, luxurious to the point of being wasteful.

The result of his lavish lifestyle was more than just personal ruin.  By demanding his inheritance while his father was still living, the son brought shame on the father.  He also left his brother with all of the responsibilities of home, denying him the help he would need to carry on the family business.  He left his mother – silent in this story – without a son to care for her in her old age.  He tore at the fabric of community by flaunting its customs and rules.  The younger son’s prodigal lifestyle left a whole host of casualties in its wake.

But he isn’t the only one who might be described as a ‘prodigal’ in this story.  The father’s love, we learn, extends far enough not only to receive his son back, but to repair family ties and restore the whole community.

In mid-eastern culture at the time of the this story, a son who brought shame on his family would have been banished from town.  The people would gather for a formal ceremony in which they cursed his name and declared him as good as dead.

The only way for such a man to return would be to restore all that he had lost – and then some.  If he came back at all, he would be expected to host a banquet for the whole town to prove his wealth and restore his family’s dignity.  He must honor them as extravagantly as he shamed them.

We know, of course, that isn’t what happens to the young son in our story.  He comes back not with riches but with rags.  He would never be welcome in the community again, and his mere appearance, in his current state, would bring further disgrace to his already shamed family.

But the father – the prodigal father! – would not allow it to be so.  We call this parable the prodigal son because of the boy’s lavish lifestyle, but it is the father who really goes to extremes here.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes the father’s response in her sermon, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family”:

If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.

Then he turns to his slaves and tells them to bring his son the best robe in the house (which would be his own robe), to put a ring on his finger (a signet ring, perhaps?) and sandals on his feet (only slaves go barefoot). Next he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—not a goat, or a lamb, or a dozen chickens, but a calf–a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast of roast veal for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.

The power of the father’s love here is not only the affection with which he welcomes his son home – but his willingness to take on himself the debts of the son.  He throws the banquet his son cannot.  He restores the son’s honor – and in the process, the well-being of the whole community – when the son is absolutely powerless to do so.

The Father cared so much about being in relationship that neither being comfortable (the younger son’s goal) nor being right (the older son’s goal) mattered.

In this sense, the parable of the prodigal son foreshadows the cross.  It is a story of God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – taking on himself the shame and pain of our sin, and restoring us to wholeness and relationship.  It is a story of reunion and renewal of community.

We read this parable today in the middle of the season of Lent.  Lent is a time to take stock of our excesses, and reign them in.  We give up chocolate or caffeine; we restrain our eating or our TV watching or whatever else it is we consume in excess.

This parable invites us to go further:  not just to restrain ourselves for the sake of self-discipline, but to trade our excesses of comfort and conveniences for excesses of love and relationship.

What would it look like to lavish attention on those we love during lent?  What would it look like to open ourselves to receive such lavish love and grace from God this season?  What would it look like to rejoice in God’s lavish love and grace for another person – even if we don’t think they deserve it!

That’s the invitation of this parable in Lent – not to avoid excess, but to receive it with grateful hearts and revel in restored relationship with God and one another.

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Family Tree

Preached February 24, 2013 (Lent II)

Text:  Matthew 1:1-17

The Story, Ch. 22

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Well, Merry Christmas!  I think we just jumped backwards a few weeks…time warp…some of us may wish we could rewind the days that easily…

In another sense, though, it is more like fast forward.  Last we knew, the people of Israel had arrived back in Jerusalem, and found the city only a shadow of its former self.  They were rebuilding the Temple and the city walls; they were starting over again.  Only, as we saw last week, their new start fell rather flat.

When I was in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor summarized the Old Testament with three words:  people, place and presence.  At the start – in Genesis – God’s people (Adam & Eve, the ones God created and called “very good”) were in God’s place (the garden, overflowing with all the goodness of creation) and enjoyed God’s presence (God walked and talked with them, Genesis 3:8).

Of course, we know that didn’t last.  The results of human sin was that people turned on one another; they were cast out of the place of nurture and provision; and they were separated from the presence of God.  People, place and presence were all distorted by sin.

In the remainder of the Old Testament, we see glimpses of restoration; God calls to himself a new people, beginning with the family of Abraham and continuing with the nation of Israel.  God provides them with a place – the promised land, and the Temple courts.  And God’s presence returns – separated from the people by mountains and clouds and curtains and Temple walls – but still there, still present.

Ah, but sin continues to distort and disrupt people, place and presence.  The people are scattered in exile; the place is destroyed when the Temple is torn down; God’s presence fades from their memories.

And that is where the Old Testament story ends:  with a scattered group of exiles longing to be God’s people again, trying to rebuild their sacred places (the Temple and city of Jerusalem), wondering if the presence of God might someday return.

And then, we fast forward some 400 years, and the book of Matthew falls open before us.  (Actually, the Gospel of Mark was probably the first Gospel written, though Matthew is first in our ordering.)  And he begins:  “An account of the origins of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1).

All of a sudden, heads jerk up, conversations stop mid-sentence, eyes pop open.  Did he say Messiah?  Messiah, as in the anointed one? In the history of God’s people, it was kings who were anointed.  Is Matthew talking about the promised king, the long-awaited deliverer who would make the people into a nation again, and bring them back to their own place?  Does this, could this, mean that the presence of God has returned to them?

We know it does, of course, though not at all in the way that the people expected.

Let’s look a little closer at Matthew’s opening words.

This first chapter of Matthew isn’t usually included in our Christmas readings.  The colorful imagery of Luke’s narrative makes a much better children’s pageant than the long list of names that begins Matthew’s gospel!

Genealogies are funny things. Long lists of names might seem rather tedious and boring to us under normal circumstances – but when we see our name on the list, when we learn that we belong to these people and they to us – genealogies become much more interesting.  Suddenly the lengthy list of names goes from yawn-inducing to fascinating.  We can whittle away hours at the computer reaching farther and farther back the genealogical line.

The genealogy of Jesus that opens Matthew’s Gospel is no different.  It seems rather irrelevant to most of us; an ancient record that might have some interest to historians, but means little to the rest of us.

But when we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New, feeling the longing of God’s people to experience God’s presence in a holy place – then this genealogy might become our own.  When we long for purpose or meaning in our lives, we are longing for a restored identity as people of God.  When we look at the beauty of this window and remember all the moments of our lives lived out before it – we are longing for the place of God.  And when life feels rushed and hectic, or empty and frail, we are longing for the presence of God to return to us.

And those longings – those longings tell us that this is our family tree!  Because this list of names tells us exactly how God has been at work in human history – and how God’s work continues in and among us.  Matthew’s genealogy shows us how Jesus continues the story that began in Genesis – the story of God’s people encountering the presence of God in a holy place.  People, place and presence are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed one – and Matthew’s going to make sure we see it.

Matthew begins by identifying Jesus as Abraham’s son.  You will remember, perhaps, that Abraham’s son (Isaac) was to be sacrificed.  God provided a ram to take his place for a time, but Jesus – as Abraham’s son – will finish that sacrifice himself.  Jesus takes Isaac’s place as the true son of Abraham, the one through whom God will fulfill the promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  God’s people!

Matthew’s genealogy also makes clear that Jesus expands the people of God beyond Israel.  Did you notice the women included in the geneaology?  Tamar and Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.  Women did not belong in Israelite genealogies, but in the new people of God, called into being by Jesus, there “is no male or female, slave or free, Greek or Jew, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28).  Matthew names these women – each somehow an outsider to Israel – to claim them as people of God.  In Jesus, the people of God includes anyone who would be his follower!

Then there is Jesus identity as David’s son:  David, the man after God’s own heart, whose own son Solomon built the Temple as a dwelling place for God among the people.  Jesus takes Solomon’s place as the true son of David, building not a temple of stone but of flesh.  Jesus himself becomes the Temple of God, the place where we encounter God.  At the same time, we are called out of our familiar places to “Go into all the world, making disciples…”  For Matthew, Jesus is the place where we meet God, and we can take him to any and every place we live!

Then, there is Jesus’ name.  It is a form of the name Joshua – meaning “God saves.”  In the Old Testament, it was Joshua who saved God’s people from their enemies and brought them into the promised land, where God would dwell with God’s people.  In the same way, Jesus saves us from our enemies – the enemies within, the sins and brokenness that tear us down – and brings us into God’s presence.  In Jesus, Emmanuel, God dwells with us!

When we get to the end of the genealogy, we might notice something else.  Matthew divides the list of names into thirds:  14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and then 13 generations of those who return from exile, culminating in Jesus.  Why aren’t there 14 generations in the final list, like the first two?  Well, because the 14th generation is the one that Jesus will form – not biological descendants, but disciples who choose to follow him.  Jesus calls into being the 14th generation – us, the church, the people who will carry his presence into the world!  This is our family tree after all!

Matthew’s genealogy isn’t as sentimental as the Christmas pageant, but in Matthew’s gospel, we see that God offers a new beginning, beginning with God’s presence, inviting us to be God’s people, carrying God’s presence into the world – that the whole world becomes the place of God.  That’s a pretty compelling genealogy!

During the remaining weeks of Lent, we will be looking at the ways that Jesus brings God’s presence to us…and how we are changed by that presence into the people of God…and then the ways in which we might carry that presence with us into the world, that wherever we go might become the place of God.

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These Days…

Preached February 17, 2013 (Lent I)

Text:  Nehemiah 8:1-3, 6, 8-12 & Malachi 3:1-4

The Story, Ch. 21

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Whew – you MADE it!  If you are following along in The Story, you read the final scenes of the Old Testament this week.  Congratulations!  An accomplishment…

This week the lights fade at the end of the first act of the ongoing drama of God’s relationship with human beings throughout history.

Ezra and Nehemiah are leaders of a generation of Israelites who returned from exile to the city of Jerusalem.  The Israelites remain under foreign rule; there is no return to the glory days of David and his heirs.  But they do have some autonomy, ruled by a Jewish governor who reports to the ruler of the Persian Empire.

It is, as the prophet Zechariah describes it, a “day of small things” (Zech 4:10).  Their return to the city occurs gradually, with none of the drama of the Exodus or the pomp and circumstance of the kings.  The Temple is rebuilt, but without the extravagance of King Solomon’s Temple.  The city walls are repaired with little fanfare.

It is, nevertheless, a day of hope.  Their return to the promised land is a reminder to the Israelites that God has not forgotten them.  They again have a Temple in which to worship (although the text never again says that the Spirit of the Lord dwells in the Temple as it did before the exile).  Ezra and Nehemiah may live in “a day of small things,” but it is also a quietly hopeful day.

The task of the leaders in that day was to help the people reclaim their identity as God’s chosen people.  The Temple and the city walls had been rebuilt; now it was time to rebuild faith and community.

So it is that we find the people assembling in Nehemiah, chapter 8, to hear the reading of the Law.  They gather not at the Temple – where only the ritually pure men could go – but in the town square, where everyone is welcome.  Men, women and children come together to hear the Word of God.  It is the first sign of a new identity taking shape – in continuity with the past, but appropriate to their time and place.  They hear the Word spoken out into the streets, in a new context.

There is another sign of changes:  Ezra, the priest and scribe, reads the law – but he does so at the request of the people, and with the help of lay persons who read alongside him.  It’s the first lay readers, right here in Nehemiah!

They read, the text says, paragraph by paragraph, pausing so that the scholars – the Levites – could interpret and apply the law.  Hearing the Word elicited respect – the people stood in reverence!  They knew this was important, that it mattered, this story of faith they were hearing.  It is like the tradition in some African American churches, where members of the congregation will stand when the preacher says something that rings true.  We know when something sounds like truth, even if we don’t fully understand it.  So the people stood to say, “yes!  There is truth here!”

Understanding that truth required some more explanation, though.  Nehemiah 8:8 says that the priests “made it clear and gave it meaning, so that the people could understand what was being read.”  It was the teaching and application of the story to their own time that led to understanding.   The Law called them back to God and provided continuity with their ancestors; but in a new day and a new context, it needed fresh interpretation.

When they people understand what they are hearing, they are moved to tears.  Standing in respect gives way to weeping and lying prostrate on the ground.

It’s hard to say why, exactly.  Were they crying tears of regret as they realized how far they had strayed from the ways of God?  Were they fearful tears, anticipating what judgment awaited them?  Or were they tears of joy at the rediscovery of God’s Word and the reminder of God’s abiding presence and provision?  Those details are left to our imaginations.  Perhaps they were all mixed together.

Regardless of the source of the tears, Ezra urges the people to set them aside – to replace weeping with celebration!  He reminds them that they have met God anew in the hearing and understanding of God’s Word – and experiencing God’s presence is always cause for rejoicing!  “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9).

So they dry their tears and go on to their homes to prepare a feast for the celebration.  They make plenty to share – especially with those who don’t have the means or the foresight to prepare their own meals.  This isn’t a time to be stingy!  God’s goodness overflows to the whole community.

It is only now, at the end of the story, that we know that the people have truly understood the divine Word that they heard.  We know they understood because we can see that they lived it out.  They responded to God’s extravagant grace by sharing with others.  They passed on God’s blessing to those who had done nothing to prepare themselves for receiving it, who had not even bothered to attend the town-wide worship.  It didn’t matter, right then; the gift of God’s presence was shared with the whole community.  They had rediscovered their identity as God’s people who were “blessed to be a blessing.”

I like that the reading ends here.  I’d like to just bask in the joy for awhile!  And the people of Israel do – their celebration continues for 7 days, with Ezra continuing to read the word of God and the people continuing to celebrate God’s faithfulness.

And then, on the 8th day, they gather again for worship.  They confess their sins before God, remember God’s mercy, and recommit themselves to obedience.  They take an oath to obey the laws of God.  (Nehemiah 9-10)  The Word of God has led to great revival among God’s people!

In Nehemiah 11-12, the people return to their homes in Jerusalem and the surrounding suburbs.  They settle into a routine of work and rest and worship and play.  Life feels normal again.  It is, again, “a day of small things.”

And by chapter 13, the memory of that great revival has faded.  Nehemiah returns from a long business trip to find that the people had filled the Sabbath day with work and play, and were neglecting worship.  They used their money for many things, but forgot to bring their offerings to the Temple treasuries.

God is faithful, but we human beings are not – at least not when left to our own devices.  Apathy and self-absorption creep back into their lives – and ours.

It is into those days that the prophet Malachi speaks.

Malachi.  If you’re like me, the only thing you really know about Malachi is that it is the last book of the Old Testament.  Appropriately, somehow, Malachi ends the first act of God’s drama with more questions than answers.  There are 22 questions in just 55 verses.  It is as if the prophet speaks the questions into the emptiness of our broken world, and lets them echo through the ages:

Does God really love us?  (Mal 1:2)

Will God accept us?  (Mal 1:9)

Have we not one Creator?  Then why do we…break faith with one another? (Mal 2:10)

Where is the God of justice? (Mal 2:17)

How are we to return to God?  (Mal 3:7)

Why? (Mal 2:14)

With the questions hanging in the air, and God’s people turning away, the prophet declares:

The day is coming when the messenger of God will come.  “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify [the people] and refine them like gold and silver. Then…the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD” (Malachi 3:3-4).

It is a word of both judgment and promise; the refiner’s fire consumes but also purifies and strengthens.  A silversmith uses fire to remove impurities and also to bring out the sheen of the metal, continuing to burn until he can see his image reflected back in the shine of the silver.

It was this image that stayed with the people of God through the next four hundred years of apparent silence, as generations waited for God to be revealed anew.  What would be consumed by the refiner’s fire?  What needed to be purified or strengthened?  How long would the fire burn before the image of God again shone in human hearts?

This image is appropriate for us at the beginning of Lent, too, as we wait for God to be revealed anew at Easter.  What impurities in us need to be consumed?  What might be strengthened by the fire?  How might we be purified so that we reflect the image of God in our lives?

Invite you to a time of prayer at the altar…inviting God to show you what needs to be removed and what needs to polished to a shine in your life during this Lenten journey…

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