Sunday, June 24, 2012

Forgiveness is Divine ~ Luke 1:57-80 ~ John the Baptist ~ June 24, 2012

Take a long look at our world today...  There is an awful lot of un-forgiveness. 

Just consider how angry some people get when they’re faced with minor inconveniences; such as their fast food order being wrong, or being cut off in traffic. 

And there is the kind of un-forgiveness that can last for years—and even decades—when we hurt people in more serious ways... 

We’re all sinners—and as such, we do hurt other people.  Sometimes intentionally; sometimes by accident; or sometimes as the unintended consequence of some bad decisions. 

And when we realize that we’ve hurt someone, the pain of guilt can be excruciating.  Guilt tempts us into believing that we are the worst person in the world.  It is as if you cease to be a person—and you become your worst sin. 

(Someone who believes that they could never need someone else’s forgiveness would have no knowledge of this.)

It is very painful to admit to being responsible for someone else’s suffering.

Then when the people we hurt refuse to forgive us, our pain is multiplied.  Guilt can have us feeling as though we’ve ruined their life. 

At the same time, the person who refuses to forgive will never be fully healed of the wrong they’ve suffered.

If there does happen to be any forgiveness, it comes only after we “make amends” with the person we hurt.  We must apologize, we must restore or compensate them for what we caused them to suffer.  And we must do that on their terms—and to their satisfaction.

Yet even then, there is no guarantee that we will receive forgiveness.

Sometimes, the hardest forgiveness to get is forgiving from ourselves.

Yet God’s forgiveness is not incumbent on us making amends with God or striving (with all our might) to achieve some lofty level of holiness to become fit for heaven. 

God’s forgiveness is without conditions.  We don’t have to earn it; in fact, we don’t even have to ask for it.  Forgiveness is a gift God gives to you.

This was the good news that John the Baptist was born to proclaim.  Over and over again in the Gospels, we hear of John proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Baptism is all about God’s forgiveness.  When you are baptized, your sins are no longer part of you.  Your past is no longer a part of you.  God wipes the slate clean.  And you are born again as a whole new person.  You can approach the throne of God totally unafraid—because God has acted to make you clean.  You can live your life with total confidence that you are saved.

The life that God intends for you is to experience God’s unconditional love with each new day.  And though we sin every day, God is always calling us back to the baptismal waters where God will again make us clean, never tiring to forgive us. 

Baptism is the sure sign that God is not holding our sins against us.

In baptism, everything changes.  Our hearts are changed, our minds are changed, our destiny is changed...

What a delight it is to love a God who gives so much for us.  What a delight it is to lay our lives in the hands of a God who gave his only Son for our redeeming.  What a delight to obey a God who desires only good things for us.

God’s ways are certainly higher than humanity’s ways when it comes to forgiveness.  Yet, when we receive forgiveness from someone else, we experience God’s forgiveness for ourselves.  What a healing that forgiveness brings.  What a healing that comes when the person we hurt can look at us with compassion and say “I don’t hate you.  I wish you no ill.  I will not hold against you the debt you owe me.”  God’s forgiveness heals us just the same.  Why should we live in a hell of fear and shame and regret?  Jesus died to save us from hell.  And Jesus saves us just the same from our sins and our bad choices. 

Forgiveness truly is divine—for when we receive forgiveness, or when we give it, we are experiencing the gracious love of God for the world.  And what a great witness to an unbelieving world—when we forgive unconditionally those who sin against us...

So go in peace today—because you are forgiven.  Your sins have been washed away in a tidal wave of grace.  You are freed from the past to walk with God into the future. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's Power in a Mustard Seed ~ Mark 4:26-34 ~ Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ June 17, 2012

There’s a scourge growing along the shores of the Kiski River:

The scourge is Japanese Knotweed.
Japanese Knotweed grows in stalks that can reach a height of nearly nine feet.  Its leaves can be as large as elephants’ ears.  It has heads that contain hundreds of small seeds that even the slightest breeze can spread upon the soil.  If a stalk breaks off, it can grow roots and start a new plant.  All told, Japanese Knotweed spreads rapidly—and wherever it grows, it literally takes over the soil so that nothing else can grow there.

In spite of our neighbors’ best efforts to eradicate the weed, some environmentalists say that its spread is unstoppable...
And the mustard shrub that Jesus talks about today (for better or worse) is much like the Japanese Knotweed.  Even though mustard seeds were used to season food (like we do today), the mustard shrub was a weed. 

Unlike most flowers and food crops, weeds thrive totally on their own.  They don’t need anyone to water them or fertilize them or prune them.  Weeds spread and thrive in spite of our best efforts to eradicate them. 
That’s exactly what happens in Jesus’ parable.

Some seeds are scattered on the soil.  In time, the seeds sprout, grow up, and spread totally on their own.  The person who scattered the seeds didn’t do anything to make that happen... 
So it is with God’s Kingdom.  Jesus says that God’s Kingdom comes as a tiny mustard seed that grows and spreads on its own, so that it puts forth large branches where the birds make nests in its shade.  God’s Kingdom grows and thrives totally on its own.

Now anytime you hear Jesus speaking of God’s Kingdom, do not be thinking strictly in terms of a place. 
When Jesus speaks of God’s Kingdom, he’s speaking of God’s ruling power that is being established over all the cosmos.  So he’s not so much speaking of a place as he is speaking of a reality..

Yet God’s power comes as something as small as a mustard seed—something so small and so insignificant as to be completely unnoticed.  And in the same way that seeds do not immediately sprout up and grow, so, too, must we wait for God’s power to take hold.
That’s the real challenge this parable presents to us today.

And when times are tough, this really isn’t good news.
When I pray, I don’t want God to me answer me in mustard seeds!  If answers to prayer were to be likened to plant life, I want God to tear open the heavens and plant a huge California Redwood right in my front yard!

And considering the state of our world today, we need more from God than just mustard seeds...  We need God to come down and do big things; like eradicating hunger; wiping out diseases and natural disasters; ending wars and violence; reviving the economy; and bringing the unbelieving to faith. 
All told, we want a God who operates according to our expectations—and our timetables.  We want a God whose power we can see, so that, in turn, we would believe.

Yet God’s power comes as a tiny mustard seed—and it takes great faith and great patience to wait upon a God who comes in this way. 
But small and invisible does not equate to powerless and insignificant when it comes to God.  The seeds of God’s power are being sown as we speak—which means that God’s power is around us, working in ways that can’t see or comprehend.  The fact that we’re hearing the good news of God’s Kingdom today is proof that God’s power is taking root in our lives. 

God has sown the seeds of redemption in everything and everyone he created.  And those seeds are coming to life.
Soon and very soon, God’s power will bring to an end all that is broken and evil in our world—and the peace and security we long for so much today will become a reality.  New life will come to everyone and everything.

And as sin and suffering continue to infect our world, remember: the coming of God’s Kingdom is unstoppable—because God is unstoppable. The devil and all the powers that defy God are trying their hardest to uproot the Kingdom of God.  And they are going to fail.  God’s will shall be done on earth as in heaven.
So as God sows his mustard seeds, let us sow ours. 

So often, our acts of faith can so often seem as insignificant as mustard seeds.  Our prayers, our coming to church, our reading the Bible, our acts of charity—when no good seems to be coming out of them, we wonder, “what’s the use?”  “Why bother?”
But God can take these little, insignificant offerings of mustard seeds and accomplish things more awesome than we could ever ask or imagine. 

We never know how God will work or when—and that is not for us to know.  And we cannot force onto our timetables.  God’s power is not at our command.  But we can act on the simple faith that our Jesus loves us—and that he will bring us his strength and his healing, and ultimately, his deliverance. 
So we sow our seeds in hopeful expectation.  God’s power will come upon us and we shall be saved.  We will be swept up into amazing grace; we will be swept up into redemption.  

God’s Kingdom is on its way.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Safe in Jesus' Hands ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1 ~ Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ June 10, 2012

It started out as headaches...
Just minor inconveniences that made Jean a little bit uncomfortable during the workday...
But as time passed, the headaches became more frequent—and more severe... 
In time, the headaches caused her to be dizzy—and unable to keep her head up... 
After three trips to the ER, her doctors became concerned enough to order some tests-- including a biopsy...
Finally, her doctor walked into the exam room, looked her in the eye, and said “Jean, you have cancer.”
Most of us (if not all of us) know what it’s like to be in Jean’s shoes...  We know what it’s like to hear this diagnosis...  We know what it’s like to journey with someone we love through a life-threatening illness.  Many of us are making this journey on this very day...
When that diagnosis comes, it turns our lives completely upside-down. 
The sickness steals its way into every aspect of our lives, so that life itself is no longer about living, but just trying to cope with the pain.
And there is no knowing of what tomorrow will bring...
With every illness comes a great crisis in our faith: where is God in all of this?  Why did this happen to me?  Will God answer my prayers?
These were questions that the Apostle Paul surely pondered throughout his life—because he is one who was certainly no stranger to pain and hardship.
In the time since God had called him into the ministry of the Gospel, he’s suffered shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. 
At no point in his writings does he make reference to suffering any illness.  Yet, many times, he has been face-to-face with death.  But in spite of all that he has suffered—and that he knows he will suffer—he persists undeterred. 
So how can this be?  How is it that Paul does not lose heart?
Paul was able to endure his suffering by the reality of God’s presence in his life.  As he suffered, the very power that raised Jesus from the dead was at work within him.  His faith and his hope were the gifts of a God who was renewing from within; making him a whole new creation.  As his outer self wasted away, this new self, this new being endured by God’s grace.  
And so it is for us. 
When we suffer, the work of the Holy Spirit is to make God’s presence real to you.  God will not stand idly by when you suffer.  And God will not stand idly by while the devil to use your suffering to destroy your faith.
God is more powerful than death and the devil.  God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  And God is determined to display this power to you and to all who suffer. 
While sickness and suffering tear away at our bodies, God creates a new person within ourselves that is untouchable to every evil.  God is making you alive so that you may see God’s grace happening in your life—and believe.  God is glorified in the faith and hope we receive from him.
So in those times when we feel as we are dead, God’s will is for us to be alive in with the life Christ.
That was something I’ll always remember about Jean.  She was a woman who suffered so much in her life.  But at death’s door, she spoke as someone who was filled with the peaceful presence of Jesus Christ.  There was no denying that she was already seeing into paradise.
So when sickness and the troubles of life have you feeling as though you are free-falling into darkness, with no hope for a brighter tomorrow; remember: you are falling into the hands of Jesus, your merciful and compassionate savior. 
Regardless of what may happen in this life, God will hold you safely in his hands.  If the earthly tent you live in is destroyed, you have an eternal home from God that is indestructible and ever-lasting.  In life and in death, you are safe in God’s care.
And in the same way that Christ abides with us in our suffering, let us abide with our neighbors in their suffering.  Let us let reach out to them in love, let us stay with them...  When darkness closes in, let us keep watch and pray.