Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sometimes It Takes Snakes: Numbers 21:4-9 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

4From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (NRSV)
via Twitter
It felt like I'd just been given a ticket to food paradise...

My former employer was sending me out of state for two weeks to help open a new store.  One of the perks was that I was given a $50 per day food allowance, to spend on whatever I wanted (except for alcoholic beverages).

This meant that I could go to just about any restaurant and order the most expensive item on the menu—and I did: prime rib, filet mignon, barbecue ribs.  Even better, when the server offered me dessert, I said yes: cheesecake and triple-chocolate brownies.

It was pure bliss—for about four days.  By that point, I didn't want to eat anything.  The mere thought of any restaurant food was nauseating.  Even a switch to soup and salad didn't help.  By the time I got home, I was glad to be eating cereal and pineapple chunks out of the can.  And my boss was surprised by how little of my food allowance I actually spent.

There's something about food—the taste, the texture, and the freedom to eat what you want, when you want it.

For the Israelites forty-year journey through the desert, they ate the same two things: manna and quail.  Manna was a fine, flaky substance they would find on the ground every morning—and they would gather it up and bake bread with it.  Quails were clumsy birds that you could literally pick up off the ground, which probably tasted like chicken.  Since the Israelites would not have had sugar, salt, or spices—the food would've been bland and tasteless.

As they had done many times before, the people grew impatient—and spoke against God and Moses. They complain that they’d rather be slaves in Egypt.  “We detest this miserable food,” they protest.

God then sends poisonous snakes who bite the people, and many die. 

For a long time, I assumed that God sent the snakes as punishment for their complaining.  They should be thanking God that that they have food in a place where food and water are deathly scarce.  They should be thanking God that they aren’t slaves anymore.  They should be thanking God for their miraculous deliverance. 

But—the desert is a dangerous place.  Death surrounds them at every moment.  The Promised Land is just that: a promise.  Otherwise, it’s nowhere in sight.  And the food is miserable.

It’s not wrong to complain when times are tough.  The people complain a lot during their 40 years in the wilderness—yet God never lets them die.  God is patient.  God is faithful.  God always provides.

But sometimes, it takes snakes for the people to realize their complete dependence on God.  The snakes, then, aren’t necessarily a punishment—but they are discipline.  Without them, the Israelites would’ve perished in the wilderness at worst—or returned to slavery at best—for rejecting the faithfulness of God and going about it their own way.  Ironically, it was a bronze snake wrapped around a pole that Moses lifted up in the wilderness—that the people looked upon and lived.  It takes snakes for God’s people to be reminded and experience again God’s faithful deliverance.

Everyone faces a wilderness experience at one point or another in their lives; a time of trial and temptation—that can come in many ways, including illness, unemployment, grief, depression, anxiety, you name it.  Our congregation is going through a time of trial—spiritually, missionally, financially. 

Please understand that trials aren’t necessarily punishments, though sometimes we do bring trials upon ourselves by sinful actions and poor decisions.  The real danger, though is that your heart can grow hard—and you reject God’s faithfulness by going your own way.  You embrace rage.  You embrace unforgiveness.  You embrace despair.  You push away anything or anyone God provides to help you.  You want it your way.

Churches die because their members preferred death to change.  They die when personal preferences take precedence to the mission.  Perhaps you know someone who was plainly ill—but refused medical treatment, all the while insisting that nothing was wrong with them or that no treatments would work?  Or relationships that break apart because conflict and disagreement boil over into bitterness, resentment, and raw hatred?  The most miserable people you’ll ever meet are those who are most determined to get their own way and who can never admit they’re wrong.

You need God’s discipline.  Our church needs God’s discipline.  Sometimes, it takes snakes to keep you from perishing to your own anger, fear, and pride. 

When it comes to a fallen creation and sinful humanity, it takes a crucified Savior lifted up on a cross for life and love to be victorious over death and the devil.  Jesus suffered the very worst of human pain and the very worst of human evil, but triumphed.  The promise for you is that there is healing when the pain is at its worst.  Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy.  God’s discipline keeps you where you need to be to see God’s promises fulfilled. 

The grace of God’s discipline begins by owning the truth: the wilderness is deadly.  Trials are painful.  Sickness, grief, unemployment, depression, and anxiety are all terrible.  It’s terrible that there’s so many empty pews in this church and that there are people all around us who don’t know the love of Jesus Christ.  In the stress and pain of these trials, we can easily lose our way.  But as soon as you own the truth, you reach a turning point—and see the savior who was there all along.  Even if you lost your way, Jesus never loses you. 

It’s not a sin to be miserable; it’s not a sin to complain—if you present it to God.  You only sin if you insist on going your own way.

When the trials never seem to end and the snakes bite, look to Jesus and live.  Embrace the cross that destroys death and evil.  Be certain that God’s deliverance is happening right now.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Church Turned Inside-Out: John 2:13-22 - Third Sunday in Lent

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (NRSV)
Open by Hernán Piñera.  CC BY-SA 2.0 on flickr

Last month, a picture began circulating on social media of Pope Francis addressing a crowd of people—while holding the hand of a little girl with Down’s syndrome who walked up onto the dais and sat down right beside him.

Her parents frantically tried to call her to come back, but she stayed at his side—smiling the whole time.
Via twitter

I truly believe Jesus would’ve done exactly as the pope did.  However, the Church hasn’t been so kind to children.  The unspoken rule has been that “children are to be seen and not heard”—and unless they’re in the Christmas pageant, they shouldn’t be on the dais. 

But in our zeal to maintain an orderly and the sacred atmosphere in worship, have we barricaded the Gospel behind our own interests?

We can see Jesus’ reaction to this tragic error in today’s Gospel. 

It’s Passover, and Jesus is at the Jerusalem temple—where he sees people selling cattle, sheep, and doves.  Money changers are sitting at tables, exchanging Roman currency into Jewish currency.

Jesus fashions a whip of cords, and begins scattering the animals and overturning the money changers’ tables.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he shouts.

I need to be clear here that the sale of sacrificial animals and the currency exchanges are mandated in the Law of Moses—and exist out of practical necessity.  Unless you live in Jerusalem, would you want to drag a lamb for hundreds of miles?  And Roman currency contained graven images of emperors who were worshipped as gods. 

Jesus, in his zeal, is certainly responding to the price gouging and profiteering that would’ve been occurring here.  But in a larger sense, Jesus is inaugurating a new era where God’s presence isn’t walled up in the temple, with access restricted to certain people on certain days.  No longer will you have to buy your way in with animal sacrifices and proper currency.  God’s presence is now embodied in Jesus himself.  As it is so beautifully written in John’s Gospel, “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.”  In Jesus, God can be known, loved, and honored in human flesh. 

But how do we, as people of God, steward the presence of Jesus?

We are the Body of Christ—but we worship him in this temple built of concrete, brick, and stone.  So much of what we do feels sacred because “we’ve always done it that way.”  And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it is our sinful inclination to build up temples around ourselves, where Jesus exists only to serve our needs and wants, and reinforce the rightness of what we believe and do.  “My church” leads to “my Jesus,” with music, liturgies, buildings, furnishings, programs, and ministries built around my preferences.  Jesus and the Church become commodities—things that exist for “what I get out of it.” 

When you make a commodity out of Jesus, you make commodities out of people.  We treat fellow servants as servants of my church and my Jesus.  All the time, we ask, “what can we do to attract more people?”  Why do we ask?  Because we want to share Jesus with them—or for what we get out of them?

In churches all across the nation, there are unspoken rules, like “if you have children, they’d better be on their best behavior at all times.  They’d better not spill Cheerios on the carpet.”  If you’re a youth, you’re a free labor force to do things the adults don’t want to do in exchange for pizza.  If you’re a new volunteer, you must do things our way, but don’t ask too many questions.  Don’t try and change anything.

The same thing going on in the Temple two thousand years ago is still happening—we become so entrenched in our own rules and practices that we suffocate his presence.  Jesus is not our possession.  His Church is not our possession. 

But Jesus announces that he is breaking out of the temples we’re so apt to build up around him.  He is breaking out of the stale doldrums of the status quo.  Not for our sake—but because God so loves the world. 

There is no greater gift than to belong to the Body of Christ as Jesus takes on our human flesh and dwells among us.  You are here for Jesus to draw near to you within this Body.  Jesus will take on flesh in the people you meet and in the transformed life you share.  There is no denying be no denying the presence of Christ when you see him in a neighbor who embraces the truth that they are loved by God; when they eat the food of God’s goodness; when they embrace their belonging in the Body of Christ. 

Last Sunday, twelve people in ages ranging from ninety to unborn gathered in our parlor to dream with Jesus about how we as Christ’s Body can more effectively invite others into the resurrected life we have received.  Like it or not, the world has changed.  People’s needs have changed.  Many of the old ways of doing church don’t work anymore.  But as the Church of yesterday dies, a new one rises—because Jesus is dying to be known and loved.  He is dying to make his presence known as people live their lives. 

We seek to grow this church not so that it can survive, but so that the presence of Christ can be magnified to us who are part of the church—and to the neighbor who is not.  Jesus takes on flesh in the lives we share.  We are the Body of Christ to bring God’s love and promises to life—and there is no better way to experience Christ’s presence for yourself than to help someone else do the very same.