Luke 4:1-13 — The temptation of Christ

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

The temptation of Christ is a rather interesting passage. I am never quite sure how it got into the Gospel narrative because there was nobody (except of course Jesus and the devil) there to see it happen. In spite of this being entirely hidden, it is the first thing you see in the life of Jesus following John’s Baptism. The temptation of Christ is part of the story of Jesus to the point that it is not only part of Mark’s gospel, but Matthew and Luke tell an expanded version rather than simply using the short version we find in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t know how much you know about how Matthew Mark and Luke were written, and I don’t really want to give a lecture on it today, but I do want to give enough of a summary to make a point. Mark is the oldest of the written Gospels. Mark is also the shortest and it tells a story. If we were to listen to Mark recited, in full it would take about an hour and a half. I believe that Mark was originally used in exactly this way — it was read out loud or recited by a story-teller in a single setting. As you might know, a storyteller convinced me of this as I listened to him reciting Mark.

Mark is wonderful for giving an engaging narrative that can be told in less time than we spend watching a movie, but Mark leaves a lot of important things out; specifically what Jesus taught and any stories about Jesus before John Baptized him. Basically Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark’s gospel; both of them add sayings and teachings of Jesus, along with some stories that are not found in Mark — but, they generally follow Mark’s narrative structure. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke had a shared “sayings” source that they call “Q”, and they believe that each had sources unique to themselves that scholars call “M” and “L”.

What is important here is that Luke and Matthew both have similar expansions to the temptation narration in Mark. The Temptation of Christ is both part of that short essential narrative that tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is also found in those sayings of Jesus that people remembered. When we read how Christ was tempted in Luke 4, we are reading a blending of both the story of what Jesus did, and an account of what Jesus taught.

The first thing I’m going to do is respond to what it means that Jesus was tempted as an important part of the story. The account of the temptation of Christ in two verses in the first chapter of Mark:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV)

That is all there is in the essential story of Jesus, simply a couple sentences saying that right after the voice in the clouds said of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, I am well pleased with you,” Jesus felt compelled to spend about 6 weeks in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. Mark does not talk about what the temptations are, only that there was temptation.

The biggest lesson that I learn from the couple sentences that we find in Mark is that temptation is not fatal. It is easy for a person to see himself as a fraud because he has internal struggles. This is so common that it was given a name: “Impostor syndrome”. Syndrome, of course implies that it is a mental illness, but psychologist say that it is not; the problem with diagnosing these feelings of self-doubt is that most of humanity would be crazy.

Why do people feel self-doubt? We feel it because we know our own struggles and failures, but we don’t know those of others. There is a proverb that says: “a master has failed more times than a beginner has tried.” The thing is, even after we are competent, we remember our failures while not seeing the failures of others with similar skill. When our success is recognized we remember our failure.

When it comes to our spiritual life, it is even harder. We don’t know our neighbor’s struggles. I don’t know how the people I respected the most have struggled — because our struggles are often internal and not visible — it is so easy to think that we are the only one.

Seeing that Jesus faced a period of temptation, even if we don’t know the nature of the temptation, tells us that internal struggles are universal. We shouldn’t lose heart if we face one of the same things Jesus faced. C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that Jesus struggled with temptation more than anybody because he never gave into temptation. The thing about temptation is that the only people who don’t struggle with it are those who give into it without a struggle. There is nothing wrong with struggling to do right — if one did not struggle, one would not do right.

Luke (and Matthew) have added material which, our best guess, says comes from Jesus’ teaching. If we assume that Jesus told the story of how he was tempted — we see that Jesus named three ways he was tempted — following the order that we find in Luke:

  1. Tempted by hunger
  2. Tempted by power
  3. Tempted by fame

I guess that the reason Jesus would tell this story would be to help people realize their own motives for things, and to see things that can get in the way. If this is the purpose, then we can assume that all of these are common temptations and something that might endanger us as well.

First, let us consider the first temptation: Hunger. Jesus tells the story where near the end of his fast, Satan suggests that he turn stones into bread. While hunger can be a metaphor for anything that we need and a metaphor for what desperation can do to a person, it also can be taken quite literally. Worldwide 1 out of every 9 people went to bed last night without supper and 1 out of 3 suffers malnutrition. Unfortunately, while the United States is wealthy, in 2017 our ratio of people who face “food insecurity” was 1 out of every 8 people. I’m not sure how these statistics compare, but I do know that hunger makes a person desperate, and this is quite a few desperate people.

Now, the Proverbs 6:30 teaches us that we are not supposed to despise somebody who steals food to eat; yet the Proverb also observes that the thief will be punished for theft. Hunger can drive people to do what they would not normally do; it can lead us to turn away from our principles and to make decisions based on desperation.

Now — I completely understand when a hungry person is selfish. Somebody who is desperate for his or her next meal, perhaps cannot afford to do volunteer work, but instead always wonders “what is in it for me”, although, when I’ve worked with people distributing food from food pantries, I’ve noticed that a number of the people who came and worked passing out the food also received from the food pantry. When I’ve worked with the Salvation Army — I learned that a number of people who rang bells did so because they were grateful that they had received help. In my life, I’ve met a number of people who never have quite enough, yet always finds ways of helping others.

Here is the thing; if we let ourselves fall into the habit of asking: “What is in it for me?” and always acting in desperation, then we fall into temptation — as Jesus said, we do not live on bread alone. Yes, we need to eat, but we also need to see beyond the needs of our own stomach. Christianity is about the whole community — and if we get caught up on our personal needs, we miss everything else.

In Luke’s account, the second temptation is when Satan takes Jesus to a mountain and shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Jesus that if He worships Satan, he will be given rule over all the nations. Now, this is both pretty obvious, and yet it is also hard to see how it applied directly to Jesus.

We’ve had about 17 centuries of significant influence in the political system. From chiefs of state who attended a publicly significant church to Christian kingdoms that are Christian by law, to political parties in democracies fighting for the Christian vote, political power is a reality.

Now, I am happy to see Christianity have a positive influence on the world; but I’m not happy to see the world’s influence on the church. I’m not happy when I see what churches preach change according to what is politically inconvenient; that people will ignore those parts of the Bible that challenge their favorite leaders. I’m not happy to see people make exceptions for clear teachings in scripture, because they challenge the behaviors of a political party, and I’m deeply concerned about the tendency we have to seek a political messiah.

Perhaps this last part is exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about his temptation. Several of his disciples wanted a political messiah who would sit on David’s throne after expelling the Romans. Acts 1 even has an unnamed disciple asking Jesus if, now that he is raised from the dead, he will drive out the Roman occupiers and establish His kingdom in Judah. The temptation to seek political power has been going on since the beginning. Once there has been an opportunity, Church leaders have failed many times; and while I won’t enumerate these times, I will point out that secular politics, not faith was the cause of “anti-Popes” (where more than one person was made bishop of Rome, based on which secular European king each “Pope” would support), and ultimately corruption would cause a number of Christian leaders to rebel against Rome. The earliest extant group of Protestants, the Waldensians formed communities in the 12th century. By the 15th century Martin Luther would leave the church starting the Lutheran (or Evangelical) Church, and soon after, John Calvin would form the Reformed Church. At the same time that Luther and Calvin were trying to rebuild Christian nations, there was also a radical reformation that sought a level of reform that would include tearing down the barrier between clergy and laity and building a barrier between church and state.

Both the attempts to reform the institutional state church, and the attempt to form a free church that was separate from the state was a response to corruption, manipulative fundraising and preaching, and inappropriate relationships between kings and bishops. Even our word Nepotism came from a practice of several popes, starting in the 11th century, appointing relatives to positions of influence and power. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, this practice was so common that there was competition between the Borgia dynasty and the Medici family for both political and ecclesiastical power — both of these families produced 2 popes in the 15th-16th centuries. The condition was so bad that when Luther visited Rome, he learned that those who had the highest positions in the church were not pastors, nor theologians but politicians and opportunists. The Church had worldly power, so those who wanted worldly power worked their way into positions of power within the church.

The third temptation was when Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to publicly throw himself down so that he would be saved by an angel. The temptation was a spectacular public reveal that would bring much attention. It is quite tempting to seek attention; many people want fame — they want people to be talking about them.

While John does not talk about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, John does talk about when Jesus’ brothers noticed that Jesus was preaching and healing in small villages, and they advised him to go to Jerusalem for a major holiday, and very publicly reveal Himself to the nation. It is really tempting to seek a bigger venue.

The gospel, however, isn’t about putting on a show, nor is it about ratings, or poll numbers. The gospel isn’t a competition for the biggest crowd — the gospel is simply good news for those who can accept it. Boiled down to as few words as possible, I believe that the good news is the news that Jesus is God with us, that Jesus came to where we are and invited us to walk with Him. I believe that the good news is that Jesus forgives sins, heals broken hearts and souls, and teaches us to forgive as well. I believe that the good news is that the grave could not keep Jesus and that we live in an Easter community where God is a real and present part of our lives. I believe that the good news is that if we walk with Jesus, we end up where Jesus is.

This is good news, but it is not the kind of thing that brings fame; and when Jesus preached, eventually the crowds even left Jesus — but his disciples stayed. When the crowds left, Peter said of Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life” — and this is the good news, crowds or no crowds. Christianity isn’t about fame — it is about being a community that walks with Jesus and has faith that Jesus leads us into the kingdom of Heaven.

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Luke 3: John’s ministry

Reading: Luke 3:1-20

John the Baptist is a rather amazing figure. The people of Judah believe that he is a prophet, and crowds come to him, they repent, and they are baptized. The people who come to hear him preach are of every social class, they are not only of every social class, but they are diverse politically: Herod’s brother Philip comes, Pharisees come, even soldiers and tax collectors come to hear John preach and to be baptized by John. If we jump forward to Luke 20, Jesus answers a question about his authority to preach with a question about John’s baptism, asking whether John’s baptism was of God or a personal whim. Those who asked him this question refused to answer because that question was just as much a trap as the question they asked Jesus — even though John had been executed, the people remembered him as God’s prophet.

There is something about John’s story that is difficult for me to understand — why was John popular? Why did people listen to him preach, why did they seek his advice on how to live their lives? Why did they repent and seek to be baptized? Why did both the leaders of society and the people at the bottom both go to hear him? Why did not only Jews but also Roman soldiers seek his advice?

This is even more confusing when you consider his ministry model; he went out to the wilderness to preach. John preached where the people were not, and where they would have to make a special effort to come to him. None of the gospel accounts gives me a hint as to how people even knew to go out into the wilderness to hear John. When people came to hear his preaching, he wasn’t exactly welcoming, but basically said: “Who invited you?” and proceeded to insult the people who came to him.

Add to this that he was a popular prophet, seen in the same light as the Old Testament prophets, even though when Tax collectors asked him what they should do, he did not suggest they stop collecting taxes, only that they don’t cheat by collecting extra and stealing it for themselves. Not only that, he advised Roman soldiers, the occupying army, not to seek bribes; but he did not condemn them for occupying Judea. John was far more generous to his people’s enemies than he was to the people themselves, yet they still came, listened to him preaching, sought his advice, repented and were Baptized.

To understand why this is confusing to me, imagine if we want to plant a church. Would we choose the strategy of sending a single person to go to Hoosier National forest, send him deep into the trees, have him eating bugs and do nothing to promote his message? If people came to hear him preach, would we suggest that instead of giving a welcome and a blessing, that he say: “who invited you?” as if new people are unwelcome? Would we have him insult the local population? Would we have him treating our national enemies if they could keep their affiliations, and would still be just as acceptable as the rest of us?

If somebody tried that strategy, my first expectation is that nobody would know where to find him; he would preach to the trees. Even if people knew where to find him, and there was a great number of people eager to go and see the forest madman, it is hard to imagine that he could keep a following when he makes the people who come feel unwelcome. “Who invited you?” isn’t something that I would dare say if we found new people sitting in the pews.

As little as this model makes sense, the thing is, it worked. A great crowd of people went to John, and many were baptized. John recognized Jesus, and he introduced Jesus to the crowds. Even though none of the things he did make any sense in my eyes, people heard God’s message, people repented, and people were pointed to Jesus. John accomplished his ministry to the point that we still speak of him even today. How can you get lasting results when you do everything wrong?

Now, I don’t know much about John’s ministry; I really only know what scripture tells me. John didn’t write a spiritual autobiography, and there are many details that the Gospels do not choose to tell us. As much as we remember John, he isn’t exactly the main character; he’s one of the characters who’s role ends in Act 1. If I speculate about John’s prayer life, or I speak of a mystical experience he might have had — I am merely speculating. I know he preached repentance, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and the coming of Someone bigger than himself; but any question of John’s motivation is pure speculation.

Instead of completely blind speculation, I will do the best I can, and tell the story of a preacher who did something that made absolutely no sense, and yet somehow what he did worked.

How many of you know who Stephen Grellet was? Grellet was born in France in 1773, he was a member of the French Royal guard, but at the time of the French revolution, he was sentenced to death. Grellet became a refugee and immigrated to the United States in 1795.

In 1796, Grellet joined with the Society of Friends and would become one of our most prominent ministers. He preached throughout America, and he also traveled to most of the countries in Europe. He became so well known that he was granted a personal audience with a number of foreign dignitaries including Czar Alexander I and Pope Pius VII. Unlike John the Baptist, his Grellet’s journals were edited together to form an account of his life and ministry after he died; we do have a window into his motivations and life.

Now, the one part of Grellet’s ministry that makes no sense was when he felt that God called him to preach at a logging camp in Pennsylvania. This logging camp was a three-day journey away from him, but he felt God had a message for that place, so he traveled for three days. When he got to the place where he felt God called him nobody was there. There were no tents, only a single log cabin and it appeared that the workers had not used the building for several days. Grellet, after making this journey just to find nobody was there prayed and asked God what he should do. He felt that God told him to preach in the empty building, that it was God’s message and not his.

Grellet responded by walking into the building, and according to the memoir of his ministry, he spoke to the empty room as if there were 200 people in there to hear his message. The sermon was about how sin is a wall, but Jesus tears down that wall and has come to be with us. He then prayed for the lumberjacks, and when he was finished he emotionally collapsed. He looked around, saw that he preached a sermon to an empty room. He saw the dishes that the lumberjacks left behind, and felt like a complete idiot because he traveled three days, one way, to give a sermon to an empty room. He knew what he did made no sense, and was a complete waste of a week, but he took comfort in that he was obedient.

Six years later Stephen Grellet was on a trip to London, and he had a chance meeting with an American out in the streets of London. This American recognized Stephen Grellet as somebody who was influential in his life, even though Stephen didn’t recognize the man. It turns out that this man was a lumberjack, and had gone back to the camp for a tool. When he got there, there was this crazy guy preaching to an empty room. The lumberjack waited until the crazy man had gone before fetching his tool, but while he waited he heard the sermon. He heard about sin’s wall and how Jesus tears it down. Something about this sermon worked on his heart, and he got a Bible. When he got the Bible, he read, and he read about Jesus coming for the one lost sheep and he felt that he was that one sheep. This lumberjack shared his testimony with his lumber-camp, and the whole lumber-camp heard the message that the one lumberjack brought them, and many were inspired by this message.

There were a number of things about Grellet’s journey that makes little sense: he made no appointment, he just spent a week traveling to and from a camp that might not bother to listen to him; when he got there, he found the camp empty and he preached anyways. This seems like a waste of time and energy. It seems a poor strategy. There is a reason that Stephen Grellet felt a fool after preaching his sermon but the important thing is that he was obedient and God worked in ways that Stephen could not see. Somehow God brought the message and the person who needed to hear the message together.

Now, after this story, I still can’t do much more than speculate on John’s motivation, but I have a direction in which to speculate. Our God is a God of miracles. Our best plans will never be as good as obedience. Our best strategies will never succeed better than God’s providence. Sermons in the wilderness can have a very real audience and exactly the audience that needs to hear. John’s sermon is one that we still hear today, “repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”

John the Miricle-Baby: Luke 1:5-25

Reading: Luke 1:5-25

The first thought I had when I looked at this passage was: “The gospels always start with John the Baptist;” so, I decided to look through old sermons and I saw that I focused on that about a year ago. Reading my old sermon, I see that I observed that John’s life has some parallels to Jesus’ life, and thus we get hints about where the Jesus story is going by remembering John’s story. I also quoted my fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom, who pointed out that you can’t have a completely original teacher, somebody needs to say it first; as she said: “Standing on your own is suspect, even today.”

I think that this is important enough to mention again; we need John, because without John we wouldn’t be ready to hear Jesus. We not only needed John, but we also needed the law, and generations of prophets who interpreted the law. God had been working in the world for hundreds of generations before the time was right for Jesus; God not only sent John, but God also sent Moses and Isaiah and others.

This is one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about this year — how there are a number of tropes in scripture. When we were going through Genesis, we heard similar stories told generation after generation. Abraham called his wife sister, and his son Isaac did the same with Rebekah. Abraham favored Isaac, Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob, and Jacob favored Joseph over all his other sons. Brothers fought; Cain and Abel fought, Esau and Jacob fought, and Joseph and his brothers fought.

The trope I see here that is repeated in scripture is the story of a woman who has given up on the hope of having a child. We see this happening with Sarah. Sarah goes so far as to try to get a son through her servant Hagar. Rachel, when she can’t have a child tries to get one through Bilhah, of course, another woman having a child really isn’t a successful strategy, and it is not the strategy that Elizabeth used.

There are a number of women in scripture who were concerned that they didn’t have children, and either prayed for a child or just gave up on the possibility. Isaac prayed that Rebekah would have children, because she had none — and Rebekah had twins. Manoah’s wife was barren, and an angel Manoah and his wife and told them that they would have a son — that son’s name would be Sampson. Hannah prayed for years that she would have a son — her prayers eventually became so desperate that she was thrown out of the place of worship for being drunk, but she shared with the priest Eli why she was praying and he blessed her saying: “may God grant you what you asked.” She gave birth to the prophet Samuel, the prophet who anointed both king Saul and King David. There are a number of miracle babies throughout scripture. Elizabeth and Zechariah were one of many who had a miracle baby.

Why is there a trope of miracle babies? In the case of Abraham, he needed a miracle because without one, everything that he had and worked for would go to one of his employees and his family line would die with him. With everything that was promised, and apparently everything that was expected of him (Abram, meaning exalted father, implies that something was expected of him); clearly a miracle was needed. In the case of Rebekah, Isaac prayed on behalf of his wife. In the case of Manoah and his wife, Sampson was a bit of a savior to the people of Israel — he saved them from the Philistines. In the case of Hannah, her son was one of the greatest prophets — the prophet who made messiah-kings; the prophet who created David’s royal line.

One reason for this is that having babies is important, especially in ancient societies. Even ordinary farmers with a bit of land and migrant herdsmen need somebody who will inherit and take on the work. There is a sense that through children, our place in the world is bigger than ourselves and the world will grow.

Another reason is as simple as shame. Women were expected to marry and have children. When things don’t go as expected – especially when it is an expectation of society, people do suffer shame. Unfortunately, it can go beyond personal shame, people say things. I once spoke with a woman who miscarried, and the idea of where to place blame came up. Even though there was nobody to blame, it is how we often react when things don’t go as expected.

In a case such as Elizabeth and Zechariah, there was another thing that was a bit significant. Zechariah was a temple priest; he served in the Holy place. You know that priests are Levites, and the inheritance of the Levites is positions between the religious and government bureaucracies. Priests were not just Levites — they were a single family within the Levite tribe. Not having a child meant that Zechariah would know that when he retired from his position, it would be given to a nephew or a younger cousin. His name would never be mentioned when people listed their male ancestors from their father all the way to Aaron the brother of Moses.

With all these social pressures, it is no doubt that Elizabeth would be absolutely devastated when she admitted to herself that there would be no son. But, like all these other stories, before there is a miracle baby, an angel makes a special visit — in this case Gabriel appears to Zechariah. When Elizabeth is pregnant, she says: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25 NRSV)

The older story that this is most similar to is that of Hannah, where the priest Eli blesses her at the place of worship, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. It is similar, not only because it included a message from God at a place of worship, but because John and Samuel are similar. Samuel is special, because it is Samuel who creates the monarchy, and establishes David as king. Samuel is the man who introduces David to the world. John is special, because he preaches the gospel of repentance before Jesus appears on the scene — John baptizes Jesus and announces what Jesus is to the world.

The most important thing though is that David and Jesus established a kingdom; a kingdom that is supposed to be something different, something righteous. A kingdom where the people try to follow God’s law, and are governed by God’s principles. David’s kingdom of course failed in many ways; he is honored because he built something great, but he didn’t quite live up to the standard of Righteousness found in the Torah. David’s descendants, with a precious few exceptions didn’t even try. For all the good intentions to for a nation where God is God, and the people live in righteousness, Judah and Israel became very much kingdoms of the Earth.

Jesus said that he was here to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, or in some passages the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom is different — it is not one of the Earthly kingdoms ruled by corruptible human leaders. One thing that I’ve learned from history is that theocracies don’t seem to go well. They start with good intentions, but eventually someone who abuses power gains power. What started as a light shining in the darkness becomes just as dark as everything around it. God’s kingdom is different — it isn’t a kingdom of the world, and it won’t become a kingdom of the world. Samuel introduced a king that would produce a dynasty lasting for about four centuries, but John introduces a King who’s rein lasts for eternity.

Matthew 3:2 has the adult John saying: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John preaches that God will overthrow the current systems, and that there is one that will baptize with the Holy Spirit — and then John baptizes Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is as near as Jesus is. This is the good news that starts with John’s message — the kingdom of Heaven is coming, and it came with Jesus and through Jesus we are given a place in the eternal kingdom. This message starts with Zechariah in the temple meeting an angel who tells him about his miracle baby.

Genesis 50: Sin has consequences

Reading: Genesis 50

It is very hard to know the way other people feel and think. The most natural thing to do is to assume that other people are just like you are; to walk a mile in their shoes and consider what you would do in their place. One thing that you quickly observe is that what you think you would have done is usually different than what the person you are trying to understand did. Fortunately, most of us have complex motivations, and if we understand ourselves, we can use our own complexity to help us have empathy with those who made hard choices.

Of course, not all of our motivations are complex. Sometimes people are motivated by greed, and generosity is never a consideration. A truly greedy man is left guessing at the motivations of a true philanthropist. A grifter sees an honest man as a rube; but if he needs to trust somebody he can’t believe that somebody would be honest, just stupid. Sometimes people carry a grudge and would consider forgiveness unthinkable, and thus they cannot accept that somebody might forgive them.

Last week, I talked about how forgiveness can fix what sin breaks; but unfortunately, when people have sin in their hearts, sin keeps breaking things down. Many looked at Esau and Jacob and speculated that even when Esau told Jacob that he had enough, Jacob could not believe that his brother forgave him. Scripture does not directly tell me whether or not this is true; but, it does hint that Jacob took a bit longer than necessary to go home to his father — it could be because he didn’t trust anybody.

Unlike Jacob’s response when Esau forgave him, we know what Joseph’s brothers were thinking. All this time in Egypt they were under Joseph’s power, and there was something in their mind that knew what they did was not forgivable. When Jacob died, Genesis tells us that Jacob’s children suspected that Joseph was waiting for his revenge out of respect for his father.

I see Joseph’s brothers acting in fear, and responding to their father’s death by telling Joseph that his last wish was that Joseph would forgive them. Joseph responded the same way he did when his brothers were there and their father did not: “I’m not in God’s place — even though you intended evil, God’s ends were good. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Joseph was able to forgive his brothers, but the brothers were not able to accept Joseph’s forgiveness.

This is a pretty significant problem that we face; even when we do the right things, sometimes things do not turn out correct. Joseph forgave his brothers, but they never really believed he forgave them. This is the kind of thing that makes holiday dinners uncomfortable; no matter what you do, you can’t make other people’s decisions for them, nor can you repent of their sinfulness. All of us have agency, but our influence is limited. We can choose for ourselves, but we cannot choose for others.

Remember when we talked about Psalm 73 — I said that this Psalm dealt with the difficult question; “Why do good things happen to bad people? Why are they wealthy, and powerful?” The Psalm pointed out that their wealth and power is not exactly safe — they are not on stable footing and could slip and fall at any time. This Psalm really sticks in my mind — because, imagine if you were greedy, and could not accept that other people might be generous. Imagine if you remembered every grievance no matter how petty, and could not accept that there were people who might forgive. Imagine if you saw every one of your friends as connections in a network meant to build your professional life, and could not accept that somebody might have a friend purely for the sake of the friendship. If you are in a place like that, and you slip up, what do you have? If you slip, you need a real friend that will help you with no thought of personal gain.

Joseph’s brothers lived in fear because they could not accept that Joseph would be able to forgive them. Joseph forgave, so there was no grudge acting as a weight on Joseph; but there was a shadow of fear on every one of the brothers. In order for the relationship to heal, three things would be necessary; Joseph had to forgive the offense, the brothers had to truly repent and change, and everybody had to accept that change is a real possibility.

Nothing good comes from holding onto a grudge. Whenever we recite grievance lists to ourselves all we do is make ourselves angry. The person who hurt us likely neither knows nor cares what happens. Even if the other person repents, truly apologizes, works to make amends and to make things right again, this is not enough to undo a grudge. Grudges are the exact opposite of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a central aspect to Christianity, without forgiveness we have no hope for salvation. We make much of God’s radical forgiveness and how our salvation depends on how God forgives us, but Jesus made it clear that we are expected to be just as forgiving with each other as God is with us. Holding a grudge is an act of disobedience — it is, in a Biblical sense, a mortal sin because if we do not forgive, we cannot expect God to forgive us either. Now, I don’t know exactly what judgment day will be like — but I know that there is no place for grudges in heaven. We all have to be together.

Repentance is also central to Christianity. When scripture talks about salvation, we are called to repent of our sins. The Greek word that is translated as repent literally means `to think again’; so, on those nights when I lay in bed and think about that stupid thing that I said — and what I should have said instead, I am repenting of my words. I am rethinking my actions, and hopefully because I rethought my words and actions I will be able to speak differently the next time I am in that situation.

Forgiveness and repentance are not only central to our hope to enter heaven, but they are our only hope to preserve healthy relationships on Earth. If one person carries a grudge, the relationship cannot be healed until there is forgiveness. If one person refuses to take responsibility, never gives a second thought to his actions, nor a thought of changing his sinful behavior, a healthy relationship is still impossible. Both sides must take a step in order for reconciliation to be possible.

The thing is, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, the brothers repented. The brothers clearly repented before the first time that they visited Egypt. Remember the conversation the brothers had with each other? They spoke of punishment coming on them for their sin. Now, they never confessed what they did to their father — but they very much rethought their actions, regretted their actions, and wished they never sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph, Chancellor of Egypt, forgave his bothers. He was able to see that what they did put him exactly where he needed to be, when he needed to be there, irregardless of their motivation. Holding a grudge against them would be wishing that he never became one of the most powerful people on the planet and that he never saved Egypt from certain ruin. Both Joseph and his brothers seem to have done what they needed to do — yet their relationship was not yet restored.

Something was missing — there is obviously something that was needed that goes beyond forgiveness and repentance. I suggest that what was missing was faith. Joseph’s brothers could not trust Joseph. They had no faith in his power to forgive. They repented, Joseph forgave, but they could not trust him to forgive.

Fixing those things that were destroyed requires us to take a risk. We have to take a chance that the repentance is genuine and the person is truly working to change. We have to take a chance that forgiveness is genuine, and that the person who forgave us isn’t laying in wait to take revenge. We have to trust that everybody is truly working together to rebuild a relationship. You know something — this is a real risk, but if we don’t take the third step, have faith, and take a risk we cannot hope that the relationships sin destroyed will be restored.

Genesis 44-45: Forgiveness again

Reading:  Genesis 44-45

I’ve mentioned before that Genesis tells the same stories about Abraham and his descendants. Last time I talked about this, I talked about some of the rather negative stories that seem to occur, such as Abraham and his son Isaac’s behavior when they were shown hospitality, or Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s extreme favoritism for one child to the point that the unfavored child was neglected or harmed.

This story is different, this is a second story of radical forgiveness. If you recall, Esau forgave Jacob for various grievances related to who would be the family patriarch when their father died. I mentioned that that Esau forgave, the family was reunited, and Torah law commands that the children of Israel never hate the children of Esau, because they are family. This is remarkable, because there is no similar command for Lot’s descendants, nor the Ismaelites, nor the Middionites. Esau’s radical forgiveness changed everything — even when they did fight, Torah reminded them to remember that they are family.

The story with Joseph and his brothers is somewhat different. Esau’s grievance against Jacob concerned who would be favored in their father’s will. What Jacob did was the type of thing that makes brothers never speak again. It is somewhat worse, and more personal that if somebody challenged my grandfather’s will. It is beyond what I consider an unthinkable offense, but Joseph’s brother found an offense even more unthinkable.

If you recall, Joseph’s brothers discussed killing him, threw him in a pit and argued about what they should do, and they finally decided that it would be better to sell him into slavery, because they would be rid of him and profit from it. They sold him to their merchant cousins, who took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to one of the Egyptian elite as a slave. Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father, (though, Joseph had no way of knowing this detail) and with the exception of Rubin they had no consideration for his feelings.

Our last Sunday School lesson covered Joseph the prisoner being raised to Chancellor of Egypt. If you recall, it is because he interpreted a dream and predicted an upcoming famine, and along with the prediction he gave a plan of action that would save Egypt from the collapse that such a natural disastrous decade might otherwise cause.

Today’s lesson started with Joseph’s brother’s second journey to Egypt. The first time they traveled, they received quite the scare: Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize Joseph. Even though Joseph knew the language of Canaan, he spoke through an interpreter to hide his identity. Joseph accused them of spying on Egypt, he threatened them, he held one Simeon captive unless they brought their youngest brother to prove that they told the truth. Just as they didn’t know Joseph, Joseph had no way of knowing what happened to his little brother Benjamin who, as son of Jacob’s favorite wife was almost certainly the new favorite son. When ten brothers who went to Egypt came back as nine, reported that they were threatened, and not only that they came back with money in the grain sacks, showing that they might be thieves Jacob was distressed. He didn’t want them to go to Egypt, he didn’t want them to bring his favorite son Benjamin. The thing is with a seven year famine, those bags of grain did not last. There came a moment of desperation where the brothers had to go back and take Benjamin with them — it was either take this risk or all would die.

When they go back, they take the price of the grain the bought the last time, the price of the grain they were going to buy, and various gifts from Canaan. Jacob rightly observed that he lost 2 sons already, and that he was sending his sons into danger. He protested that if he lost Benjamin he’d die of grief, so Judah promised to be responsible for his brother and even to die if necessary, so they take Benjamin and Jacob resigns to the fact that there is no other way.

When they get there and try to pay for the grain they already used up, they are told that the records show that they paid, and given the suggestion that God must have put the money in their sacks. Joseph throws a state dinner for them, and they are surprised when they are seated in birth order, and they watch as Benjamin is given the place of honor and served extra food.

After they eat, they buy grain again, and now Joseph’s silver divination cup is placed in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers are rather surprised when they are on their way back home, and they are chased down by officials and accused of theft. The brothers of course protest that they are innocent, and even offer to surrender the person who is found with Joseph’s cup to Egyptian justice. When they find it in Benjamin’s sack, the brothers are rather upset. They know that their father’s heart will be broken and Judah who promised to protect Benjamin with his life offered his body as a substitute to ransom his brother Benjamin.

At this point, Joseph said, for the first time speaking the language of Canaan, “I am your brother Joseph — yes, what you did was terrible, but God brought good out of it. Tell me about my father; all of you should move to Egypt where you will be safe and not starve to death; you think its bad now, there are 5 years of famine remaining — things will only get worse in Canaan. Joseph sent carts with his brothers to their father so that they could move back and settle in Egypt — and, we know that Jacob, his children, and his grandchildren all settled in Egypt.

Joseph and Esau had much in common — they both forgave unthinkable things that their brothers did to them, and this forgiveness in both cases re-united the family while their fathers were still alive. Joseph however was not exactly like his uncle Esau. Esau was a simple man who wore his heart on his sleeve. Esau fell for Jacob’s trickery because he had no trickery in his heart. When Esau heard Jacob was coming home — he traveled to meet Jacob on the way; when he met him he ran to hug his brother and asked to be introduced to his sisters in law and nephews.

When Joseph met his brothers, he hid his identity. He tested them to see if they were still consumed by jealousy. He did not tell them who he was until Judah offered himself as a ransom for his brother Benjamin; Joseph did not trust his brothers — and he had reason not to trust them. He had to see that his brother was alive, and that they would not treat Benjamin the way he was treated. I don’t know what he would do if they did not pass the tests — we never know what might have been, but what we do know is that the story ended the same way that it ended with the fight between Jacob and Esau — the family was reunited before father died.

Remember when I mentioned that Torah law said not to despise Edom, because they are family? When I read that part of the law, I did not read the words right next to them — I saved that part for now. Today I will read the whole of Deuteronomy 23:7: “You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.”

The result of Joseph’s forgiveness is the same as Esau’s forgiveness. Because Esau forgave Jacob and welcomed him back home Edom is remembered as Israel’s family — and Israel is commanded not to hate them, but even to welcome them into Israel as family. Next to Edom, Egypt is remembered for their hospitality, and like Edom Israel is commanded to welcome Egyptians into Israel. We know that Israel fought with both Edom and Egypt; Israel’s entire existence they have a fairly severe grievance against Egypt; but Torah commands them to remember hospitality.

Forgiveness is powerful — forgiveness can turn enemies into friends, and those who are estranged back into family. This is good news because without forgiveness there is little hope for our future. In our lives and society many relationships are broken. Sometimes family acts as enemies to one another. Sometimes we fight with our neighbors. The things that make us fight are sometimes petty, but often they are quite substantial. Many of us have something that we are holding on to that we should forgive. When we remember Esau and Joseph, let us remember how powerful forgiveness is — and may God bring the power of forgiveness into our lives and our relationships.

Genesis 33:1-11 — Forgiveness

Reading: Genesis 33:1-11

Last week, the lesson was about Esau and Jacob. If you recall, they were twin brothers, but Esau was the older, and thus would become the family Patriarch when their father died — and along with that position he would gain the bulk of the inheritance. Rebekah, their mother, favored Jacob and encouraged him to try to cheat his brother out of his position. Esau, who despised his birthright sold it for a meal; and Jacob tricked his father Isaac into blessing him with becoming the authority in the family, to the point that Issac said that Jacob’s brother would be his servant.

Now, the first thing that I’ll observe is that I would also despise my inheritance. Let us ignore that my family does not have land, or livestock, or huge piles of money to inherit; When I got a lawyer letter asking if I would contest my grandfather’s will, I, of course, signed that I wouldn’t — and I wondered why anybody would do that. My cousins and I would have much rather play chess with our grandfather at the next Christmas gathering than receive what was left after his final medical bills. I’d like to think this would still be true if there were billions to inherit. You can’t look forward to inheriting without looking forward to a family member’s death — I’d despise my inheritance too.

The thing is, you might not care to fight over your family’s wealth while they are alive — but, when you have got a greedy family member who tries to grab everything, that causes more than a little resentment. When Isaac sent Jacob to his father in law so he could marry one of his cousins, there is a reason that Jacob didn’t return home as soon as he paid the bride price; he knew that he earned quite a bit of resentment — when he left his brother was angry enough to kill him, so Jacob stayed where it was safe for decades.

The thing is that Laban cheated Jacob in the same sort of way that Jacob cheated his brother. When Jacob went to Laban, he had no bride price. For those who don’t know, a bride price is kind of like life insurance, but it is held by the bride’s family. If something happens to the husband, the bride price belongs to the bride. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, and they negotiated a bride price of 7 years of labor.

Jacob somehow went through the wedding without noticing that he was marrying Rachel’s sister Leah. Since this was not the girl that he had in mind, he agreed to work an additional 7 years, so that there would be a 7-year bride price for each one of them. Jacob thus worked for 14 years. After these 14 years were over, Jacob, not really wanting to face the deserved wrath of his brother, stayed and worked for wages. Laban offered to pay Jacob in livestock, so Jacob worked another 6 years and was paid in sheep and goats.

After 20 years had passed, a family situation formed that would make holidays quite uncomfortable. Laban’s son’s, or Jacob’s in-laws felt that Jacob was overpaid and that they were cheated out of what should be their inheritance. The daughters, Jacob’s wives, realize that when their brothers take their inheritance, the bride price will simply vanish; their father did nothing to protect their money so they are left unprotected if anything should happen to their husband. This fight between siblings and in-laws grows to the point where Jacob and his family are not safe, and Jacob has a dream where God apparently warns him to run away to somewhere safe, so Jacob gathers what he has and prepares to flee.

When he is explaining what he has to do to his wives, Rachel and Leah say, according to Genesis 31:14:

“Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? 15 Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners? He not only sold us, but completely wasted the money paid for us!”

While Jacob and his family are preparing to take all they have and leave secretly, Rachel goes to her father’s house and steals her father’s idols. Now, there are several theories about why she does this, such as she stole the idols because she prays to them, or she stole the idols because the head of the family is the keeper of the idols, and this symbolically takes the patriarchy of the family away from the greedy and envious brothers. The theory I subscribe to is that Rachel is trying to take back what is stolen from Leah and her. Laban took the bride price in labor, but instead of setting apart the bride price, he cheated his daughters — when he died, his sons would inherit the money intended to support the women; the sons who are eager to steal Jacob’s wages are not likely to protect their sister’s property. My guess is that the idols were something that could easily be sold — and Rachel saw them as something she could hold on to, in place of the stolen bride price.

Laban, of course, notices that he was robbed and that Jacob, his daughters, and his grandchildren are gone — so Laban chases down Jacob to complain. Jacob has some complaints of his own, such as Laban changing his promised wages 10 times and trying to cheat him. Jacob further complains that whenever something happened to one of the animals, he had to eat the loss himself — even though the wages kept changing, Laban put the risk to Jacob while he reaped the reward.

Jacob, not knowing what Rachel did tells Laban to look for his property and put to death whoever stole it — Rachel sits on the gods and tells her father that she’s having her period, so she can’t stand; Laban, embarrassed apologizes and lets him go. They make a covenant with each other, Jacob agreeing to take care of his wives, and both of them agreeing not to harm the other as long as each stayed on their own side of a pile of rocks; needless to say, when Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, this was the last goodbye.

When Jacob returned, the first thing he did was sent messengers to his brother Esau, and he was quite scared when the response was that Esau and 400 of Esau’s men started moving to meet Jacob. Jacob was convinced, after the way he acted, that Esau nursed a grudge and was coming to take revenge. Jacob responded to this by splitting into two camps, so that half of his family, flocks, and servants could escape. Jacob ordered his servants to take a tribute of livestock to his brother, and offer them as a gift, suing for peace between them.

Esau went to Jacob’s camp, and Jacob bowed to Esau — and Esau responded by giving his brother a hug, and asking “Why did you send me livestock?”, Esau told his brother that he didn’t need anything more than he had, and then asked about Jacob’s family; so Jacob introduced his wives and his children to his brother.

When Esau returned home, he left some of his men with Jacob as a guard, letting Jacob travel at more comfortable pace for the children — so they both went to their homes, and Jacob settled and made a home for himself back in Canaan.

Sometimes family is a tricky thing. Jacob deserved his brother’s wrath — but, as soon as Esau learned Jacob was coming home, he went to greet his brother and meet his sisters in law and nephews. Jacob’s in-laws should have nothing but gratitude for him, as he worked with his father’s livestock — and if Jacob prospered, Laban prospered as well; but they became jealous that Jacob also prospered. Esau had much to forgive, but after 20 years it seems clear he didn’t hold a grudge. In spite all the drama that came over Isaac and Rebekah fighting over who’s favorite twin would become the head of the family, in the end, both sons were in Canaan when Isaac died; both were there to mourn and bury their father.

Jacob, played the trickster and cheated his brother making his brother into an enemy. Esau forgave his brother and brought him back into the family. Our sinful behavior breaks relationships. Forgiveness can go a long way to repair what was broken. If Esau kept that grudge going, the family would have never been reunited. Isaac would have never met his grandchildren, the two brothers would not be together to bury their father. It is hard, but family is family. When we are Jacob, and sin breaks our family, we have to repent and grow up. When we are Esau, sometimes we have to forgive and trust that repentance is sincere and that they can change. Forgiveness is a big part of the Gospel — and, not only are we shown God’s radical forgiveness, but we are to forgive as well. When I read the story of Esau and Jacob, I see the good news that repentance and forgiveness can repair what sin destroys.

Economic Justice: James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure! 4 Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, although he does not resist you.  James 5:1-6 (NET)

Just like in James’ day, we tend to honor those with wealth more than we honor the poor. It’s an age-old problem, and that is, I think, why James brings it up so frequently. He calls the wealthy to humility (James 1:9-11); tells the people at a meeting for worship that if they favor the wealthy worshiper over the poor worshiper, they discriminate and become judges with evil thoughts; and James points out that the poor do no harm, but it is the wealthy who use the law to oppress (James 2:1-7).

When we get to James 5, we read a direct condemnation of the rich: James says that the wages they didn’t pay are calling out against them. James says they have hoarded wealth. James says, “You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (5:5). These are strong words.

Some have read James as a revolutionary text, but I think James is trying to get people to recognize one fact that should be common sense: the powerless are not to blame for society’s problems; they cannot be because they have no power.

Jesus taught us that the way we treat those who society casts away is the way we treat Jesus himself. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). This is why the New Testament again and again calls us to view each other with God’s eyes of love. We must allow the Holy Spirit to break down the barriers between us.

Hymn: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love

Prayer suggestion: Jesus, make my heart sensitive to the needs of people. Teach me to see people with your eyes of love.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine