The Woman at the Well

Reading: John 4:1-41

If you remember, I shared a few thoughts on the woman at the well the first year I was here at Raysville; today, I hope to expand on those thoughts. I know it is not easy to remember a sermon from over 3 years ago, so I will give a brief summary.

When I last talked about the woman at the well, I told you that the Samaritans were what remained of Israel after the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. I really focused on a single argument between the two groups: who owned the proper place to worship God. I mentioned that the Samaritans built a temple to God on Mt. Gerizm, and that the Jews destroyed their temple in the 2nd century B.C. The Jews made a holiday to celebrate the destruction of the Samaritan temple; and the Samaritans, near the time Jesus was born, defiled the temple by bringing bones into it. As a whole, I focused on the relationship between the first century Jews and their Samaritan cousins, and how Jesus’ act of ministering in Samaria was significant because it was reaching out and showing compassion for His culture’s most hated enemy.

My conclusion was:

As I walk with Christ, I must remember that sometimes good news is hard to accept. The offer of salvation to a Samaritan is offensive to Jesus’ Jewish disciples. C.S. Lewis tells us that there is no Christian teaching more offensive than that of forgiveness — because forgiveness offends our sense of fairness. Sometimes people want to look down on somebody, to feel more righteous; forgiveness offends the self-righteous. Grace is given to those who need it, and there is enough good news for everybody; friends and enemies alike. The good news that is hard to swallow is that God’s love is greater than the human capacity for hate and anger — and God tears down walls and makes enemies into good neighbors.

I really do think that this is still an important message. We need to remember that forgiveness is one of the most important parts of Christianity. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had much to forgive, and this polite exchange stands out to me as remarkable. Jesus was in the very community where his people destroyed the temple. When the Samaritan woman said: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain”, she could have pointed to the mountain. Not only did Jesus reach out to the enemies of his people, but the community that was most hurt by Jesus’ people came to him and listened to him. Forgiveness is possible.

While I talked about the relationships between the two communities, I didn’t talk about the woman herself.Not only did Jesus reach out to the enemies of his people, but the community that was most hurt by Jesus’ people came to him and listened to him. Forgiveness is possible.

While I talked about the relationships between the two communities, I didn’t talk about the woman herself — I focused on the conflict between two communities, and how Jesus is the one that tears down the dividing walls that our culture builds. This is important, because it addresses a common way that we think when we meet people we don’t know. The simplest way I can put it is that the same person complains when other people judge him for this his group did to another group, because he didn’t personally do it — but sees no problem blaming people in other (perceived) groups for what they didn’t do. It would be trivial to come up with examples because this is as common as it is irrational.

The point is, Jesus wasn’t even alive 150 years earlier to destroy the temple on “this Holy Mountain”. It is extremely unlikely that the woman at the well traveled to Judea to harass Jews or took part in taking human bones into the temple. Neither person in this conversation was part of the centuries old feud between Judah and Samaria. There were social reasons why it was odd for a Jewish teacher to travel through the Samaritan equivalent of Jerusalem, and one could not expect a warm reception.

When Jesus’ disciples go to buy some lunch, Jesus is resting at Jacob’s well and when a woman comes to draw water he asks for a drink. The woman, knowing cultural norms knows that seeing a Jew at Jacob’s well and hearing him ask for a glass of water is highly unusual; she is of course confused by the request. Jesus mentions living water that quenches thirst forever, and she asks for that water. Jesus replies “Go call your husband”, the woman says she has none, and Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and the man she currently has is not her husband.

This is the part of the passage that I’ve heard the most sermons about. It is easy to see that the woman would not be respected by society. Basically, this is given as another example of Jesus approaching a sinner and offering her new life. The message of salvation for sinners is a good message, but there is one flaw with this sermon; it assumes that the woman’s bad behavior was responsible for her undesirable situation. Women had very little power in society; she was either a widow or she suffered a string of divorces. Either way, she likely had no choice in the situation. Jesus challenges the idea that bad things happen because we deserve them in other places, and we assume too much when we blame the woman for her situation. Of course, we are not the only people who assume, the people in her community would assume and whisper as well.

This encounter does something amazing — it brings the community to listen to Jesus teach, because they are convinced that he is a prophet of God. Jesus stays there for two days teaching those who come to him and many believe and accept him as the savior of the world. People find salvation by putting the argument aside and listening and learning.

What is the important lesson here that tears down the dividing wall? The core of the argument between Samaria and Judah was “Who owns the place where we go to worship God?” This argument dated back to the time when Israel and Judah became separate kingdoms and Israel set up its own place to worship so that the people of Israel would not need to go to Judah to worship at David’s temple. The argument intensified at the time when Jews returned from the captivity and told the remnant that Jerusalem and the new temple was not for them, and it intensified even more when people from the two sides vandalized and defiled one another’s temples.

The center of this argument is the idea that one of these groups controls access to God. It is an argument about whether the true gatekeeper that all must go through are the Jews or the Samaritans. Jesus addresses this argument saying:
“The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

The core argument about who controls access to God falls apart when we realize that God is too big for that. Can you imagine if the whole world had to go to a specific place and go through human gatekeepers who could keep your from God and salvation? While many in at a holy site might see it as bad news to hear they are not God’s gatekeepers, it is good news that those at a competing Holy site are not God’s gatekeepers either.

This is a message that we need to repeat over and over again. The problem is that it is very human to rebuild those walls, and go back to being gatekeepers. We like power; Jesus might have torn them down, but it didn’t take too long for Christians to fight over who got to be the gatekeepers just like the Samaritans and the Jews fought when Jesus was alive. One thing that stands out to me is that the message George Fox taught was “Christ has come to teach us Himself”. When Fox preached, the Puritans and the High Church Anglicans were at war to determine who could be the gatekeeper, and hold the power that the church had over people. Fox sidestepped both of these in the same way Jesus did by saying that we could meet with Jesus without human gatekeepers. We need to keep learning this lesson. The temptation to become a gatekeeper is great, because it gives us divine power — but that power is not real, it flies in the face of the Gospel.

The message of the incarnation is that God came to humanity, and he came to bring light to the whole world. Through the incarnation, God tore down the wall. This message is good news to all of us who are kept out by the gatekeepers — a gate without a wall is no barrier. This is good news for all of us who need to meet our savior.

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John 3:16-21

Reading:  John 3:16-21

Introduction

Last week, I said it was good that we stopped reading before we got to John 3:16, because otherwise we’d be talking about that passage and miss the person of Nicodemus, and Nicodemus deserves a little bit of attention — so this week we are going over what Jesus said to Nicodemus starting with John 3:16, and finishing with 3:21. John 3:16, and to a lesser extent the following verses, are some of the most memorized passages of scripture for a reason — these words are rich in meaning, and because of this we will take this slowly and reflect on each phrase.

Commentary

For God so loved the World

Our reading starts with a declaration that God so loved the world, then it tells what God did. Now, we all know that great love isn’t defined by a single grand gesture, but we do have to admit that the incarnation is a grand gesture.

Lets think about ways that God shows love for us: Scripture tells us that God planted a garden for our first parents and placed them there with all that they needed. When they could no longer live in the garden, God clothed them. God gathered communities and gave the Law and Prophets to teach how to live together in a just society.

He gave his only Begotten Son

Of course, there was a grand gesture. My Greek professor told us that the word μονογενής means unique or one of a kind. Chrysostom points out that God had a great many angels at hand, and could have sent a servant instead of the Divine Son.  God didn’t send angels but someone unique; someone who had the power to show us who God was, and someone who had the power to save us.

That any who believe might be saved

When we read that Christ came to save those who believe, one question that comes to mind is “why do we need saved?” Sometimes it is not obviously clear what we need saved from. Scripture speaks of Christ saving us from our sins, many preachers I’ve heard have talked about Christ saving us from the consequences of our sins. Augustine tells us that Jesus came to heal the sick, and thus salvation is curative. Augustine was talking about the sickness of sin, but reading the gospels we know that Jesus did save people from physical illness as well.

The older I get, the more I realize that we need saved from many things. If we look at Jesus talking with Nicodemus and we think about what Nicodemus needed saved from, we see that it is not at all simple. Judea, and the world in general needed saved from the attitudes of Rome that made life cheap. Nicodemus was seeking salvation from corruption in his local government.

I know the world I live in needs healing and salvation. Some of the relationships I am in need healing and salvation. I need saved and the world that I observe needs saved. Jesus came for our salvation, and I believe this is much bigger than one little thing. I really believe that salvation is not only about eternity, but what we need today.

Did not send to condemn

It is interesting that John talks about Jesus not coming to condemn the world, because while Jesus forgives much, Jesus also condemns quite a few people and things. In John’s gospel, Jesus condemns the merchants in the temple and he calls the Pharisees liars, and children of the Devil. It is clear that he is willing to condemn, though the purpose is not condemnation.

Sent so the world might be saved

Remember how I said that I believe that Jesus came to save the world that we live in too? I observed that those that Jesus condemned tended to be the people in power. Jesus condemned the religious leaders, the wealthy, and the government officials. Jesus was kind to the marginalized instead of pointing out all the ways that their behaviors made their own positions worse.

I believe that Jesus was harsh with the people who had power because He wanted to offer needed salvation to the world. The people of Judea didn’t only need Rome to be less oppressive, they needed their own leaders to lead a better society. Sometimes condemnation isn’t about punishment, or revenge, but about protecting other people.

Those who believe are not condemned. Those who do not believe are already condemned

John Chrysostom writes:

If He “came not to judge the world,” how is “he that believes not judged already,” if the time of “judgment” has not yet arrived? He either means this, that the very fact of disbelieving without repentance is a punishment, (for to be without the light, contains in itself a very severe punishment,) or he announces beforehand what shall be. For as the murderer, though he be not as yet condemned by the decision of the judge, is still condemned by the nature of the thing, so is it with the unbeliever.

This is the Judgment

The Light has come into the world

This passage should remind us of the first chapter of John’s Gospel where it specifically tells us that the Word that Became flesh is Light that shines throughout the world and gives light to the whole world. One thing that Light does is that it shows everything that is hidden in darkness — so there is a reason that we might be afraid of the light, we don’t want to see what the light will show.

The people loved darkness rather than light

Fear of what the light might expose is one thing that would cause us to love the darkness. One thing that I’ve learned is that sometimes people don’t want the Light, because they just don’t want to know. I never understood why, but I’ve learned that people would rather live with corruption, suffering and injustice than to know about it and see it corrected.

Part of Jesus’ ministry was to shine light in a way that exposed the injustice of those who society trusted to bring justice to the community. Think of how shocking it would have been for people to learn about corruption in the party that was supposed to root out corruption. Imagine how shocking it would be to learn that those who insisted on the letter of the law ignored its spirit in their own lives. Sometimes when we see what the Light exposes, it is easy to become disillusioned, and we wish we didn’t know any more. One does not have to have anything to hide in order to wish things would stay hidden.

Those who do evil

Hate the light.

While a good person might love the darkness because it is too uncomfortable to see what the light exposes, the evil person really does have something to hide. If you’ve got something to hide that the light will expose, you have a real reason to hate the light. They have a real reason to avoid the light.

They do not come to the Light

They do not come into the Light because what they want to hidden will be exposed. They are already condemned for both reasons Chrysostom mentions: Both because they live in darkness, which is bad enough in itself, and because they face condemnation in the future when all things are brought to like whether we like it or not.

Those who do what is True

Come to the light.

As I said before, some hate the light because they are evil, and some love the darkness because it is too difficult to look at what the light exposes. Jesus is the Light that comes into the world, and that can be frightening; but those of us who come to Jesus for Salvation must come into the light.

The light shows that their deeds come from God.

The good news is the light exposes everything that is hidden by the darkness, both what is good and what is bad. The light exposes both greed and generosity; it exposes both hatred and love. It exposes both what is good and what is evil. Those who love the Light, and the Truth will also be exposed.

Conclusion

I find it remarkable that the biggest, grandest gesture of God’s love is to come into the world as Light and Truth. I find it remarkable, because it is something that the world desperately needs, but it is a gift that few of us ask for. It is so easy for us to lie to ourselves, close our eyes to the Truth, and to love the darkness. Our culture calls us to be independent, and if we have to be independent it is shameful for us to admit that we need saved from anything.

When we are brought into the light, we see that we need saved from so much; we need saved from ourselves, and we need saved from the sin that is so common in our society. As frightening as it is to see things brought into the Light, this really is the first step for things to get better; 12 step programs get it right when they say that the first step is admitting we have a problem.

If Jesus only showed us the Truth, and left us to deal with it ourselves, we wouldn’t have much hope. Knowing that we need saved without a way to gain salvation is not good news. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to live in the world so that the world, through Him might be saved. I believe Jesus saves us by example, by connecting the Human with the Divine, through the forgiveness of Sin, by winning those battles that we are unable to fight ourselves and by walking with us throughout our lives. Jesus came to show us what we needed, be what we need, and then to be with us every step of the way. This is good news, that “God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him might be saved.”

John 3:1-15 — Nicodemus

Reading: John 3:1-15

When I saw that the author of our Sunday School lesson decided to split John 3 into two lessons when this covers a single conversation, I wondered why he would do this. I looked close, and saw that the first section ends with John 3:15. John 3:16 is one of the often memorized verses in scripture and when something is so familiar it is overpowering; if the author did not split this into two lessons, our attention would be drawn to John 3:16, and we’d miss talking about things such as the man who visited Jesus, what it means to be born again, or even about what must happen to the Son of Man.

Who was Nicodemus?

Chapter 3 starts by telling us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a leader of the Jews. While calling him a leader of the Jews suggests that he is a man of authority, later in John’s gospel (chapter 7) it is strongly suggested that he is a member of the Sanhedrin.

We all know that Jesus was quite harsh to the leaders; what he said about the Pharisees was harsh enough that people now use the term as an insult. The term did not have a negative connotation at the time; Pharisees were respected in the community and were the main opposition party working to reform the government.

If I were to bring the argument between the ruling party of the Sadducees and the Pharisees down to a single issue, the Sadducees wanted the priests to hold both secular and religious power, while the Pharisees wanted to re-establish David’s throne. Other issues were the concerns such as the Sadducees compromised with Rome too much, and there were some significant religious differences as well — the Sadducees only read the Torah while the Pharisees held to a significant oral tradition; the Pharisees were far more interested in the afterlife than the Sadducees; and while the Sadducees compromised to maintain power, the Pharisees wanted to live a life that was more closely connected with Torah.

Basically, when you looked at a Pharisee, you saw a respectable member of the community. They were very conscientious of the kind of Justice required by law, and were careful to give what the law required of them, even down to a tithe on their spice gardens. They wanted everything to be done the right way; and while they wanted reform, they wanted reform in a way that didn’t compromise their beliefs or identity — they wanted to remain Jewish, even while they were ruled by gentiles.

I see Nicodemus, and I see a guy who is not quite what one would expect. When you usually see Pharisees talking with Jesus, they are hoping to win an argument — Nicodemus goes alone to ask questions, listen and learn. There is nothing for him to gain — because when other members of the Sanhedrin noticed Jesus, it was not a positive thing at all.

This one encounter isn’t the only thing that catches my eyes about Nicodemus. I notice that he is a Pharisee who has a Greek name. If I were to name the most important issue about the Pharisee party, it is about preserving their people’s culture instead of becoming Greeks. While most of us don’t choose our own names — it does suggest that this man had different views than the people who named him.

And this difference is something that continues to be part of his character. When the Pharisee agree with the Sadducees that Jesus would be a good scapegoat to appease the Romans and show that the Sanhedrin wanted to keep the peace by any means necessary — Nicodemus disagreed with his colleagues and called for things to be done properly, and by the book. If any action were to be taken, it needed to be a fair and regular trial. He stood up for Justice, even against members of his own party who decided to put pragmatism above their beliefs.

He stands out even more after Jesus was taken down from the cross, because he brings 100 pounds of valuable and exotic embalming spices for use in Jesus’ burial. If one of us wanted to acquire such spices today it would cost over $150,000. He sacrificially gave to remember Jesus when he was crucified. After this the Biblical record is silent.

There has been some speculation about what Nicodemus did after Jesus was raised from the dead, but he has been recognized as a Christian saint since the time the Church was unified and he is believed to be a martyr.

What does it mean to be born again?

When Nicodemus comes to learn from Jesus, alone, at night, Jesus tells him that one must be born from above in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nicodemus responds by asking how this is possible, taking what is pretty obviously a metaphor literally, and Jesus replies that he’s talking about a “spiritual” birth, to which Nicodemus reply’s: “How?”

Somehow, I think Jesus really meant it when he asked: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?” The metaphor of being born anew when entering a new, life changing, phase of life is well known to Jews. When a gentile becomes a Jew, he is reborn. When a man is married, he is reborn. The second Psalm mentions rebirth by saying: “I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘you are My son; today I have become your Father.” (Psalm 2:7) This idea should not have been fully unfamiliar to Nicodemus.

Of course, one thing about metaphors is that when they sound familiar, it is easy to miss the point, or to apply them incorrectly. Nicodemus was in the highest position he was likely to hold. He was faithful, he was devoted to justice, it is unlikely that he expected any life transitions that would be like a new birth. Somebody else needed born again; not him — but, he asked anyways.

The Son of Man

While John calling people who were already Jews to repent and be baptized, and thus show that they willingly converted to something that they already nominally believed was similar to Jesus calling Nicodemus to be born again, there was one major difference. Jesus was calling people to something new. John said he was nobody but a man — Jesus said that he was the key, the one who came from heaven, the one that would be lifted up.

I don’t want to get to far into this, because anything I say will anticipate next week’s study — but, I want to say this, Nicodemus needed to be born again because Jesus was something new that changes everything. When a world that had been in darkness is suddenly enlightened, a world full of people has to adapt to the new reality. Everything was going to change. Jesus called on Nicodemus and others to believe in the Son of Man, and to be born again and live in the new reality.

Conclusion

The major point that I want to make is that Jesus represented something new. Nobody was good enough that he didn’t have to start a new life, because this was a disruptive time. Nicodemus represented the best that any of us could hope for. He was a person of faith, he was sacrificially generous, he cared about justice and would not do something unjust but politically convenient, he was an incorruptible politician. If such a man as Nicodemus needed to be born again, everybody needed it.

One of the hard lessons about Christianity is that we are all in the same boat. It is too easy to find somebody who I can compare myself favorably to and to comfort myself as being better than my neighbor. Granted, this is as terrible a strategy as it is a common strategy. If I were to compare myself to somebody who behaved badly, I’d be like the child who responds to being scolded for his bad behavior by tattling on another, and complaining that it is not fair that he was caught. Like that naughty child, I’d be competing for the position of second worst person in the room; this isn’t the competition that we want to have.

The point is, the natural reaction that transformation, growth and new life is for somebody else, and I am fine, because I see somebody else who is not is not what Christians believe. Jesus only has something to offer for those of us who need a new life — who need to be born again, and even the best and most respected people of Jesus time found that somehow, they needed what Jesus was offering. We are here today because we know we are not perfect — the gospel has nothing to offer perfect people, it is for those of us who need saved. The gospel is good news for the poor, for the broken, for the sinner, and for the desperate. It is good news for those who are perishing, those who need saved. Nicodemus was the rich, respectable, righteous man who came to Christ and still received good news; I don’t know what he needed saved from, but Jesus was there to offer him salvation — and this is good news for us; Christ is able to offer salvation even to a wealthy Pharisee.

John 1:1-9

Reading: John 1:1-9

How do you tell the story of Jesus — where do you start the story? What are the important points to cover? This question has been considered more times than any of us can count. It has been explored in books, in movies (such as The Greatest Story ever told), in music (such as Hadel’s Messiah), in Christmas and Easter pageants, in plays, and of course in sermons. In scripture, we have four gospels which each try to tell the story of Jesus in their own way; three of them are remarkably similar, and the other one is John, which we will study.

Matthew begins with listing Jesus’ ancestors while Mark and John do not find this necessary. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, and every Gospel, including John, follows this pattern. Luke begins with the prediction that John the Baptist will be born, and John begins with a statement that the Word was there from the time of creation, is God, and then goes on to make it clear that this “Word” is Jesus.

The opening of John’s gospel makes sure that the reader knows that Jesus is eternal, Divine, and had a hand in creation while John the Baptist was a divinely called prophet, but while his mission was divine, he was a mere human. Before John begins his narrative with John the Baptist preaching and Baptizing, he thinks it is important to clarify that John the Baptist isn’t the main character, but merely introduces and reflects the main character.

Whenever I begin to read the gospels, John the Baptist’s place right at the start of the story always stands out to me. Every gospel introduces the adult John before they introduce the adult Jesus. Luke’s gospel goes so far as to giving John’s birth narrative before Jesus’ birth narrative; and while John’s birth narrative is quite abstract, and less than a narrative, it does talk about the man sent from God named John before it mentions the Word becoming flesh. You might know that John’s gospel is different than the others; Matthew and Luke closely follow Mark with their own additions, while John makes no apparent attempt to follow the others — whenever John feels it is important to say something in a similar way to the other gospels, it must be important.

One likely reason for this was suggested by my friend and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom who said:

I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.

Jesus’ message was in many ways counter-intuitive and counter cultural. What Jesus taught challenged the way people saw the world, and it even challenged the way that the most religious people worshiped God. It was important that Jesus and his ideas be introduced because otherwise he would be dismissed right away as a madman. Jesus continued with many of the same themes as John the Baptist when John’s ministry ended. As hard as Jesus’ teachings were, they were not without precedent — John the Baptist prepared the crowds to receive Jesus’ teachings — and when John endorsed Jesus, those who understood that John was a reliable prophet knew that John regarded Jesus as his superior.

While this makes it clear why John the Baptist was important, it does not quite tell me why every gospel writer finds this to be important to introduce John first. Even if I say that the point of introducing John is so that we can see the divinity of Jesus at the time John Baptizes Jesus; as John’s gospel starts by explicitly stating that Jesus is divine, the narrative no longer demonstrates Christ’s nature to the reader; there must be another reason.

Recently, I thought about how I respond to stories — I tend to identify with a character; most often the most important character in the story. While I read or listen to the story, I empathize with that one character above all others, and that character is a lens to the rest of the story. Storytellers know that people do this, and they often choose which character this will be. I think it is possible that John is introduced before Jesus because he is a better character for us to identify with.

Jesus is unique. John’s gospel starts by telling us that Jesus is eternal and the God of creation. I might have a good imagination, but I cannot imagine nor identify with the Eternal. John 1 contrasts John the Baptist with Jesus by telling us that one is the Light that enlightens the world, the other bears witness to the Light. I cannot aspire to be the Light, but I can aspire to bear witness to that Light.

I like the idea of John as a positive example; the disciples are not so much positive examples as they are dunderheads. They have a great deal of passion, but it takes an act of God to get even the simplest of Jesus’ teachings through their think skulls. John God the core of Jesus’ teachings before Jesus even started teaching — if Jesus were merely a great teacher, he would be John the Baptist’s disciple; but the point is that Jesus is something greater. John is what, with God’s help, one of us mortals could aspire to be; as far as I can tell, John was as perfect as humanly possible.

One thing I learned when I was worshiping with Arab Christians is that John the Baptist is, in Eastern Icons, depicted with angel wings and is described as the “Angel of the desert”. This is because John was announced Jesus — he did the work of an angel. The remarkable thing is that if we follow what Jesus teaches his disciples to the very end, they are also called to do the work of angels — to announce God’s message to the world. John was, as Jesus said, the best of humanity.

If John the Baptist is an example for me as a witness to the Light, and as to the relationship I should have with Jesus, then this tells me something about the Christian life and the life of a minister. John pointed people to Jesus, and when people followed Jesus and paid less attention to John, he simply said: “He must increase, I must decrease.” As much as I like to be recognized, my job is to point to Jesus and to hope that people see Christ; my highest goal should be to never get in the way.

Of course, another possibility is that this has always been about Christology. Many people focus on the teaching of Jesus, and not the uniqueness nature of Jesus. It is, of course, right to pay attention to what Jesus taught, we are, as Christians, to obey Jesus, but, Christianity is not just about following a teacher, it is about the incarnation of God, and God living among us as a human being. John taught the same things Jesus taught, before Jesus taught them, but John was not divine, merely a prophet. Perhaps the gospels introduce John to show us there is something special about Jesus beyond what he taught. Perhaps we were introduced to a good teacher to show that Jesus was far more than the Good Teacher; if you will, John serves as a contrast between the best of Humanity and the Word made flesh.

James 3: Words lead to actions

Reading: James 3

This morning I was asked to say a few words about this weekend’s shootings.  I prepared a message related to our Sunday school passage, however, I will honor this request.

I don’t know the reason for the shooting in Ohio, but we do know what motivated the El Paso shooter who drove 9 hours in order to shoot up a Wall Mart. We know because people have read his statements on social media, and he shared his motivations with the world. He attacked the people of El Paso in response to what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

The word invasion shouldn’t be a surprise, we heard it before when speaking of Hispanic immigrants.  We have heard terms of invasion, we have heard the word infestation used along with complaints that they are breeding in our cities. We have heard it said: “They are not people, but animals,” and we have heard the whole group, based purely on their ancestry, called a danger to our nation, our democracy, and our way of life.

These words name a people group as a problem, and they describe the problem in a way that suggests the solution is extermination.  Invasions are fought and killed, breeding infestations are exterminated.  Enemies of our nation and our way of life are fought and destroyed.  When people are described in such a way, these words lead to the action of killings.  If these words continue to be used, the killings will continue.

It would be easier if we could name one source of all these words, and suggest that one person is responsible for radicalizing the El Paso murderer, and that same  individual would also be responsible for radicalizing the man who shot up Tree of Life synagogue last year.  Unfortunately, it was not one man.  One man, no matter how well known, cannot do this.  If it were one man, his dehumanizing words would be heard as the ravings of a lunatic.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

It is not one person who is guilty, but at least 30 million people.  The El Paso murderer was not the first young man radicalized through social media, and he will not be the last.  One does not need to go to the darkest places on the web to find people talking in these dehumanizing terms, or terms that suggest violence as a solution.  I can find this language if I read the facebook pages of people I went to school with, nice church people, and even fellow pastors.  We don’t need neo-Nazis to radicalize a young domestic terrorist; our own language is bad enough and there is blood on all our hands.

There is a reason why James warns us of the power and danger of words.  With our words we can destroy a person’s reputation.  With our words we can make somebody seen as dangerous and less than human.  With our words we can motivate others to murder.

I know it seems like there is nothing we can do to change the behavior of 30 million people — but, we can change our own behavior.  We all need to pray that God will help guard our tongues, and we need to be careful about what we say.

One of the biggest dangers is social media.  It is too easy to share something  and not think about what you are saying.  It is too easy to hit `share’, without thinking about what you said — it is too easy to spread slanderous lies, or even words that suggest genocide as the solution to a problem without thinking about the impact of our words.  We all need to stop and think carefully before hitting share. We need to research what is behind that meme.  Too many of us have blood on our hands.  Nice, ordinary people, careless with the share button on Facebook have worked to radicalize people to domestic terrorism.

I know if everybody in this room is careful going forward, and we make sure that our words are guided by Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise”  we are still just a drop in the bucket.  The thing is that this bucket is full of drops, and just because we cannot change others does not mean we should not change ourselves.  If we want the killings to stop — we must change ourselves.

The good news is that there are very few who are glad when these shootings happen.  Most of the drops in the bucket are people just like us — nice people who repeated things without thinking about the consequences of their actions.  We can repent of our sin, pray that God heals our hearts and our tongues.  We can take responsibility for our actions and work to change.  All those other drops in the bucket can do the same, and things can get better.

God is more stubborn than we are

Reading: Exodus 6-13

In my life, I’ve heard two competing pieces of advice: “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” and “The sign of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Last week, we talked about Moses approaching Pharaoh to say: “Let my people sacrifice to their God,” and how Pharaoh reacted by not only saying “no,” but also increasing their workload and creating excuses to beat them. The result of Moses making a request from Pharaoh was things got worse for the people, and everybody blamed Moses for it.

Moses kept going back to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh kept saying “no.” It would have been easy for Moses to decide that approaching Pharaoh was a completely pointless action, but he kept doing it; was he crazy, or was he trying and trying again until he succeeded? I can say that it didn’t take long before Moses wanted to give up, and it only took one try before the people of Israel didn’t want Moses’ help. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to go back — then again, after losing an argument with God, I don’t know if I could do anything else; God seems pretty convincing, and God is much more stubborn than those who want to argue.

Anyways, Moses asked Pharaoh, he said no. Moses turned a rod into a snake, Pharaoh’s magicians did the same, and Pharaoh said no. Moses turned the water of the Nile, and all the water people had stored into containers into blood, the court magicians also made water into blood, and Pharaoh said no. Moses called down a plague of frogs, Pharaoh’s magicians called more frogs, but the frogs somehow got to Pharaoh

Pharaoh called Moses to tell him that if he got rid of the frogs, he would let the people of Israel go and sacrifice to God. Moses asks: “when should I pray for God to get rid of the frogs,” and Pharaoh answers: “Tomorrow.” I really don’t understand this man; he has his magicians bring more snakes, more blood, and more frogs. If I were him, I’d ask if they can get rid of them — and, if I were so annoyed with the frogs that I was ready to capitulate, I’d not say “tomorrow,” I would say “now” so that I could finally get a good night’s sleep that is not interrupted by all those frogs in my bedroom.

As soon as the frogs are dead, and everybody is cleaning up the dead frogs, Pharaoh changes his mind — so, Moses sends gnats, and the magicians tell Pharaoh that they are not able to summon more of them, but Pharaoh would not listen. Moses comes again, and God sends flies — Pharaoh tells Moses again that if if he prays to God to remove the flies, the Israelites may sacrifice to their God; Moses prays, God takes the flies away, and Pharaoh changes his mind and says they must stay.

This is followed by an illness that kills all of the livestock of Egypt, but leaves the livestock of Israel untouched; Pharaoh still does not let the people of Israel go sacrifice. Next, an illness touches the people, and they break out in boils, when Pharaoh still won’t let them go, Moses warns that the next plague will be a severe hail storm that will kill and destroy everything and everyone that is outside. Many, seeing the other plagues, believe this and take shelter, but those who do not die and all crops are destroyed — and the hail destroyed everything in Egypt, except the land of Goshen where the people of Israel lived. Pharaoh called Moses, told him he’d let the Israelites go and sacrifice, but after the hail stopped, he changed his mind again;

Now the hail only destroyed the crops that were near harvest — the wheat was planted recently enough that it would grow back and there would be a wheat harvest, however the next plague was locusts — and the locusts ate everything that the hail did not destroy, making it so that this year would be a total loss. Again, Pharaoh called Moses to ask him to get rid of the swarm of Locusts, again Moses prayed and God blew them away on a wind, and again Pharaoh changed his mind and would not let the people of Israel go.

Next all of Egypt, except Goshen, was covered in darkness for three days — again, Pharaoh called Moses, told him that the people could worship, and then again changed his mind; and he told Moses that the next time they saw each other, Moses would die. After this, the firstborn of every Egyptian family died. Pharaoh called Moses at night, and he ordered that they all leave, and not come back; Moses did not die, and Pharaoh was ready to give up.

Earlier I pointed out that Moses argued with God, Moses did not want to be a messenger, but God is far more stubborn than we are. Moses might not had it within himself to win an argument with Pharaoh, but Moses was just the messenger, it was God who argued with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh lost that argument. By the time Pharaoh said Israel could leave, all of Egypt wanted them gone.

Arguing with God is futile — I don’t know if we receive this as good news or bad news. If we are in the place of Egypt, it is very bad news. If we are in the place of Israel, and God is working to free us from our chains, it is good news. Abraham Lincoln once said: “My concern is not whether God is on my side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

I must say, this is a hard thing — we want God to be on our side against somebody else, but too often no matter how much we want God on our side, God is on the side of those caught in the middle. We know who’s side God is on, because scripture tells us multiple times. God is on the side of the slaves, of the poor, of the hungry, of the orphan, and of the oppressed. God is on the side of the desperate who need God’s help. Is this good news for us? It is if we are on God’s side, otherwise it is bad news because we know God wins in the end.
But whether we are on God’s side or not — we need patience. I don’t envy the prophets; they suffer quite a by repeating God’s message to those who don’t want to listen. I certainly don’t envy those who are held captive; though God will release them, for too long, they are bound and they are suffering. Too often, things get worse before they get better. If God works for a person’s freedom, there is a time when that person was a captive. No matter if we are on God’s side or not, if there is a struggle it is hard. Moses, Pharaoh, the Israelites, and the Egyptians all faced difficulties.

No matter what, we need to make sure we are on God’s side — if we are, we have hope and hope is good news.

 

Exodus 1-3: God’s long game

Reading: Exodus 1-3

The story of Exodus is the story of the birth of Israel as a nation. When Jacob and his children sought refuge in Egypt, they were a single family. They came to Egypt as guests, and they lived there for generations. Even the first generation that settled married Egyptians, they became tied to the land, at the time approaching the Exodus, they were in almost every sense Egyptians.

There was one sense in which they were not Egyptians; somebody rose to power who forgot who Joseph was to Egypt. Egypt was a literate society, if it was worth writing down forgetting about something often involved destroying the writing. Joseph was forgotten, and the people who he welcomed to live in Egypt were reduced to slavery in hopes that they would not be a threat.

It turned out that reducing the family of a former leader to slavery was not enough; Pharaoh decided that it was necessary to completely exterminate the male bloodline; so he ordered the midwives that served clan of Israel to kill every boy as soon as he was born. The midwives, of course, did not obey this order; their decision changed everything.

A man and woman had a baby boy, and they did their best to hide him; they managed to hide him for three months. When they could no longer hide the baby, the mother sealed a basket, put the baby in the basket, and put the baby in the river; Miriam, the boy’s sister, watched to see what would happen.

Pharaoh’s daughter was out for a swim, and she found the baby and named him Moses. She assumed that this baby in the river must be one of those Hebrew children that her father ordered killed — but she responded by hiring a Hebrew wet-nurse, and adopting the baby as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter, no less than the midwives, decided not to obey her father’s government. In order for Israel to become a nation instead of only a clan, a number of people, from the midwives to Pharaoh’s daughter had to commit acts of civil disobedience.

Now, I don’t know how the Pharaoh’s grandson, Moses learned that he was adopted. I know even less about how he came to know who his brother and sister were. What I do know is that somehow, the man who grew up as part of the royal family learned that he was the son of slaves and that the person he knew of as his grandfather ordered his death before he was even born. He knew that he was personally saved from a genocide, and that his family were all slaves. Moses knew this and he reacted by killing an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew slave; when he realized that people knew what happened he ran away from Egypt and started a new life with the Midianites; he married and he worked for his father-in-law as a nomadic herdsman.

One day when he’s watching the flocks he sees something strange — a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. If that were not strange enough, an angel speaks to Moses from the bush telling him to return to Egypt and lead the people of Israel back to Canaan.

Moses of course was skeptical. He needed to know which God favored Israel, and how he was to convince the people of Israel to follow him. It might seem strange that Moses would need to convince the slaves that God sent him and that they should follow him to freedom, but this is the hard work that needs done. Creating a nation and moving the nation to a new place is a lot of work, and requires the cooperation of the population — on the Egyptian side, only Pharaoh needed to be convinced and God had the means to convince him.

God’s promise was that when the people of Israel left, the Egyptians would willingly give them treasure to take with them. We know at least 10 reasons why the people of Egypt felt this way. I am sure that the people of Egypt didn’t need 10 reasons even though their ruler would.

Looking at the first few chapters of Exodus several things stand out to me — the first is that without Civil Disobedience, there would be no Moses, no Torah, and no Israel. The midwives, Moses’s mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter all had to knowingly break the law and work against the will of their rulers in order for any of this to take place.

It seems that God honored this lawlessness. God saw the suffering of the people of Israel and raised up their salvation. The law of the land is what caused their suffering, and their salvation came through illegal means. What this tells me is that there are things more important than laws — such as not committing genocide when the authorities order a genocide.

Another thing that stands out to me is that Moses’s life truly prepared him for what he needed to do. Moses grew up in the royal court as a member of the royal family. With that background, he would have the best education in the world and he would know how to speak to people of power.

Moses somehow learned about his birth family, he able to identify with them. When he was 40, he decided to visit them; he saw an overseer abusing the slaves and he killed the overseer. Moses then went into exile. He assimilated into nomadic culture, married, and lived with his flocks in the wilderness. Moses lived the life that he was leading Israel into as they would travel into their promised land for 40 years. Finally Moses was able to have a conversation with God, and God was able to convince Moses of his calling in life. Most of us expect to find our vocation before we turn 80, but Moses went back to Egypt with 40 years of experience as a prince of Egypt, and another 40 years experience as a nomadic herdsman living in the wilderness.

God worked with Moses from the start, and much to the surprise of everybody, God sided with the slaves rather than with the powerful. It is easy to assume that the people with power and wealth have it because God favors them, and the people who suffer or are oppressed have it because God is against them. Exodus makes it clear that our power does not gain God’s favor, and our suffering does not drive God’s favor away.

Another thing that stands out is that God worked very slowly. Over 80 years passed between the time that Pharaoh ordered the death of all Hebrew males and when God called Moses to free the Hebrews and lead them to Canaan. Moses was well prepared when his time came.  Moses knew Pharaoh’s court and he knew the wilderness that he and the nation of Israel would travel through.

God not only prepared Moses, but God prepared Israel. Harsh taskmasters made living in Egypt unbearable. An attempted genocide took away any desire to obey the Egyptian government. The harshness of Egypt created the conditions that birthed a new nation. If things were not unbearable, Clan Israel would have been an Egyptian family. Mass migration is rare. Few people want to leave home unless they are desperate. Slavery and an order to kill babies is enough to cause desperation.

It is hard for me to find good news early in the book of Exodus. While I see God preserving life, I also see an entire people living in despair. I know what is coming, but it has not come yet — and things will get worse before they get better. I do know one thing; for some people this is very good news.

In the early 19th century, there was a special edition of the Bible created, specifically for Negro slaves. This Bible was different than the ones we have because it was missing most of the Old Testament, including all of Exodus, and about half the New Testament. The missing passages were those that suggested that slaves could hope for freedom or Justice; it was missing passages that let those who were suffering know that God saw them and had compassion for them. It was missing those passages that offered any sort of hope.

The good news is that even while those in power were trying to commit genocide, God was working with those who were in open rebellion to preserve the lives of the oppressed. The good news is even while the people of Israel were enslaved, God was working for their freedom, and to prepare them for a new home. The good news for those who suffer is that God is on the side of the oppressed. This gives hope to those who seek to escape killings, this gives hope to the enslaved, this gives hope to the exploited. This give hope to those who desperately need hope and have none for themselves.