Sunday, June 24, 2018

Gospel Heat: Malachi 3:1-4 - Festival of John the Baptist

1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (NRSV)
Rolling Mill with Coil Box by Mouser Williams.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last week at Vacation Bible School, our young people were accompanied on their journey into God’s Word by five Bible Buddies: Hope Jaguar, Beacon Toucan, Rae Manta Ray, Guac Iguana, and (my personal favorite) Moe Sloth.  Each of these fun and friendly characters introduced a Gospel promise complete with a memory verse:

When you’re lonely, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 27:10)
When you worry, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 34:19)
When you struggle, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 46:10)
When you do wrong, Jesus rescues (John 16:33)
When you’re powerless, Jesus rescues (Ephesians 1:19-20).

John the Baptist was a “Bible buddy” or sorts.  He was a man with a message; proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  But what we are foretold about John in the Old Testament book of Malachi hardly casts him as a fascinating, friendly character that everyone will love.  He cries: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…” God’s people have sinned—and God is coming to clean them up.  The process is not going to be pleasant.  Anyone who’s ever worked in a steel mill knows that the ore isn’t purified without intense heat.  And fullers’ soap isn’t exactly Johnson’s No More Tears.  It was lye—used to clean garments and make them sparkling white, like our modern-day bleach.  Incidentally, fulling was also done on a mill.  So, the language here conveys that the baptism of repentance is painfully difficult and life-changing.

This is what Malachi means when he asks, “Who can stand when he appears?”    

We all prefer to embrace our own righteousness rather than God’s righteousness—because God’s righteousness hits us right where it hurts.  It reveals the evil motives that drive our desires and ambitions.  It exposes the evil we commit against the neighbor in securing and maintaining what we want.  It shatters every notion that we have it all together, and that we’re worthy to sit in judgment of other, lesser people who are morally, spiritually, or humanly inferior. 

John the Baptist died a brutal death because he spoke God’s truth to power.  King Herod was a murderer and an adulterer.  John publicly condemned him for his sins, and Herod silenced him for good.  We do the very same to Jesus—and to his Gospel—by resisting repentance.  And there are far too many Christians out there who believe they have ono need for repentance.

When the Lutheran Book of Worship was published in the late seventies, there was a man who was outraged that the public order for confession read: “I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.”  He shamelessly insisted before his pastor and his fellow Christians: “I am not a sinner!”  And when no one was looking, he took a magic marker and blacked those words out of every single hymnal in his church.

When you think of a sinner, you will naturally think of the people who are most different from yourself.  They don’t believe what you believe about God. They don’t conform to your standards of morality.  They speak and act and dress in ways you find offensive.  They seem to take more from society than they contribute.  They don’t care about anyone but themselves.  They are a menace to society.  They are the ones who need to repent.

Who doesn’t want to believe that you’re righteous—and that you can stand righteous before on your own merits?  I want to I believe I’m a good person.  I believe that all my beliefs are right.  I don’t want to believe that I’m sinning when I buy coffee in a Styrofoam cup that I’ll use once and throw away.  I don’t want to believe I’m sinning when I refuse to help a child of God in need when I have things to get done.  I don’t want to believe that I’m doing anything wrong as I strive for comfort, safety, and esteem.

Trouble is, when you get people together who share a sense of self-righteousness and a common enemy, you get violence committed against people and the earth on a horrific scale.  This is why slavery, genocide, and all the ugly “isms” exist.  In trying to create heaven on earth for yourself, you make hell on earth for someone else.  This was the world John the Baptist and Jesus were born into.  This is the world we live in today.

God’s righteousness reveals the most devastating truths about yourself.  But, it also reveals the most fundamental truth about God: while you were still sinners, Christ died for you. 

Repentance isn’t something you do as much as it is something that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you.  It is the destruction and the crucifixion of the old self that lived for sin and self, so that a new person can be reborn who lives for God and neighbor.  Death itself is purged from your being so that love can reign supreme.  This is why repentance hurts.  This is why it’s difficult.

There’s an invitation to life in the call to repentance—and God will be appearing to you, throughout the week, calling you to serve someone you may otherwise pass by.  Before you lash out at someone who who offends you, you’ll be invited to redirect that energy towards someone who can be built up who cannot simply help themselves. A simple change to your stewardship of time, talents, and God’s creation will poem up new possibilities for witnessing God’s abundance.  To be humbled before the Lord is to be lifted up in due time. 

It’s a great thing to feel the Gospel heat—because God’s love is in it. And you are becoming a new creation.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mighty Mustard: Mark 4:26-34 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

26[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)
Field of Mustard by Harold Litwiler.  CC BY 2.0 on flickr
When I was a teenager, I earned money mowing lawns for my neighbors.  The bane of my existence was a weed called crown vetch.  There was a large embankment in the backyards on our street, and someone planted this stuff, probably to prevent soil erosion. 

That’s fine—except that the stuff grows and spreads rapidly.  It’s thick, it tangles, and it makes it nearly impossible to grow regular grass anywhere near it.  It’s also great cover for snakes, spiders, and mice.  The only way to clear it up is with a Weed Eater—and clearing a space of just a thousand square feet can take hours.

Gardeners in Palestine probably feel the same way about the mustard plant.  Granted, you can make mustard out of the mustard seed.  BUT—it isn’t pretty.  Some would say it’s a weed.  Like all weeds, they grow, flourish, and take over the soil—totally on their own.

So it’s quite bizarre, then, that Jesus would compare God’s kingdom to a weed.  A more fitting metaphor would be a tree—particularly the cedar trees of Lebanon. 

In Jesus’ day, these were the most valuable of all trees.  They can reach a height of one hundred feet.  The wood has a beautiful golden color and it smells good.  It’s extremely durable and immune to pests.  King Solomon built the Jerusalem temple out of it.  And as much as they may have wanted them to, cedars don’t grow in Palestine.  They’re stuck with mustard.

But Jesus isn’t talking crazy when he speaks so lavishly about something so pedestrian.  He wants you and me to imagine God’s kingdom in a completely different way.

That’s useful for us, because as I look at the world today, it’s hard to believe God’s kingdom is nearer—or that it’s not a complete pipe dream. 

Let’s face it: we have all these people on our prayer list who are fighting life-threatening illnesses.  The economy isn’t getting any better around here, despite what’s happening on Wall Street.  Here in our church, attendance and offerings are down; the unairconditioned sanctuary is hot and miserable; we’re all stressed out and exhausted with work and family and everything demanded of us. 

Wouldn’t be great to witness miraculous healings and people giving their lives to Christ at every service?  Wouldn’t it be great to meet the budget for a change?  Imagine our church growing quickly into a mighty cedar, where all the weary world could come and take refuge.  Wouldn’t that be a great break from all the decline and decay we see every day?  Where is this great Kingdom we hear so much about?

Part of the reason why we don’t see God’s kingdom is that we don’t know what to look for. 

We are culturally conditioned to crave and strive for the bigger, better, faster, and cheaper.  I actually wrote this sermon while sitting in an Apple Store, which struck me as a temple full of worshippers (including me), making sacrifices to the colossus of cool, the great white Apple.  But does God only reveal himself in the bigger, better, faster, cheaper?  Are we spending too much looking for God atop cedars that aren’t there, instead of looking among the mustard vines growing among the struggles and challenges of life as we know it today?

Fact is, God didn’t bring salvation into the world through some epic, Hollywood-style conquest of good over evil.  God conquered death by helplessly suffering and dying on a cross.  This isn’t exciting or pretty.  But it’s who God is and how God works.  The world has its ways, God has God’s.  Your salvation is not an achievement but a free gift of grace.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  Believing that, we know where we’re supposed to be looking for God’s kingdom—and it’s down here, with us—very present among the decline and decay.

It’s the life and forgiveness you receive in a small piece of bread and tiny sip of wine.  It’s the in the peace and comfort you receive when you come before God in prayer.  It’s the Gospel that assures you of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness; a wide welcome for all people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. 

God’s kingdom is within you.  It’s the hunger and hope that brings you into this hot and humid sanctuary this morning when there’s so much else you could be doing.  It’s in every card and note you send. It’s the compassion that poured out the doors yesterday at the clothing closet; it’s the resolve that kept us on the track at last weekend’s Relay when practically no one else was there.  It’s the love that binds us together and makes us a family. 

You may not see yourself—or others may not see you—as some extraordinary human being, like a Cedar Tree among plants.  But the kingdom of God is bearing fruit in the world through ordinary folks like you; just as through a church that would appear to have its best days behind it.

The works you do are the mustard seeds.  Small and insignificant they may seem; but that’s how God works a new creation where all the earth can come and find shelter in God’s love. The mustard seeds are being sown and God’s future is sprouting.  Who needs those seeds? Are you bold and brave enough to get into all that dirt and be the one who brings God’s presence into focus?

And can you turn your attention away from the anxiety of the times and the restless desire for the bigger, better, faster, cheaper, and more glamorous?  Look not for lofty cedars, but for the simple, unremarkable, yet eternally significant acts of God, bearing fruit like the mustard seed?  Do you trust that God the seeds of God’s grace are pouring down upon you like rain—and are you thankful?

Here and now, there is more than enough grace for everyone to take refuge in the love of God—because of the mighty mustard seeds are sown, and God’s future is happening now.