Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.


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Walking on Water

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33; Matthew 8:23-27

            The question I have about this story is not whether Jesus could walk on water.  If Jesus can heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, he can certainly walk on water.  The question I have is why.  Why would Jesus do something like this?  If Jesus needed to get across the lake, why didn’t he ask the disciples to wait for him and go with them in the boat, like he did all the other times they crossed the lake?  Or if Jesus really wanted time by himself, he could have sent the disciples ahead and later walked around the shore.  That is how the crowd got to where Jesus was in the prior story.  Matthew 14 says that Jesus and his disciples came to this deserted place on the lake by boat, but the crowd followed him around the shore and beat him there.

            All the other miracles that Jesus performs have a humanitarian purpose: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind and comfort to the bereaved.  But this—walking on water—doesn’t that seem like showboating?  (Excuse the pun.)  It reminds of the temptation story when Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, just to show off.  If Jesus refused to do something like that earlier, why would he do it now?

            Clearly, this miracle has a different purpose than the other miracle stories.  In this case Jesus performs a miracle not to accomplish something but to teach something.  This story is an acted-out parable.

            Let’s review the situation.  Verse 22 says, “Immediately he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.”  Once out on the lake, the disciples are hit with a storm that threatens to swamp their boat.  It is not the first time this has happened to the disciples.  In our first scripture reading we heard about an earlier episode when the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up threatening to swamp their boat.  But in that case Jesus was with them in the boat.  They could wake him up and say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  And Jesus could stand up in the boat and rebuke the wind, and it would stop.

            But this time, Jesus is not around.  This time the disciples are on their own, and they are in trouble.  What are they going to do?

            This is a relevant question to us here today.  We are, so to speak, in the same boat as the disciples.  Jesus has sent us off to be his witnesses in the world, while he has gone off to heaven.  We are on our own here, or so it feels.  Like the disciples, we must face the storm on our own.

            But then comes the miracle.  Jesus comes walking to them on the water.  Now again, let’s ask why Jesus does that?  After all, Jesus could have calmed the storm from the shore, couldn’t he?  Couldn’t Jesus have stood on the shore and rebuked the wind, just like he did before, and it would have stopped?  But this time Jesus comes walking to them on the water.  Why?

            Because this time, Jesus wants to show us something crucial.  By walking to the disciples on the water, Jesus shows that he can come to us wherever we are.  Nothing, not even storms, can separate us from his love.  Jesus can come to us wherever we are, and—here’s the crucial point—Jesus comes to us on the very waves that threaten to swamp us.  The very storm that seems so ominous can be the highway by which Jesus reaches us.

            William Barclay, a famous British Bible scholar, once preached a sermon on this passage on the BBC radio.  After the broadcast, a listener wrote in and asked, “Dr. Barclay, what do you believe really happened historically in that episode?”  Barclay responded, “I have tried to understand what happened historically.  I have tried to look at the text and its history, and I have many unanswered questions.  But this I know: when my young daughter died a tragic death, this Jesus came across the sea and stilled the troubled waters of my soul.”

            That’s what this story is about.  No distance, no barrier, no storm can stop Jesus from reaching you.  And in fact Jesus can reach you on the very storm, on the very waves that threaten to swamp you.  The very things that threaten to take you down can be the road on which Jesus comes into your life.

            Unfortunately, Peter did not seem to understand that.  To me, Peter seems kind of cheeky in this story: “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.”  Peter assumes that if Jesus can walk on water, so can he.  If Jesus never sinks from discouragement or fear, neither should we.  If Jesus is always on top of things, always self-confident and in control, then shouldn’t we be the same way?

            I have known Christians who thought that, who even preached that.  Positive thinking!  Victorious living!  If you have enough faith, you will claim all of God’s promises and never have a bad day in your life.  That’s what Peter thinking.  But he sinks.

            Friends, we are not Christians because we can walk on water.  We are Christians because Jesus can walk on water.  We are not Christians because we can brave any storm.  We are Christians because Jesus can come to us on the storm, reach out, grab us, and get us back in the boat.  And if you see the boat as the community of disciples, then getting us back in the boat is one of the ways Jesus rescues us and brings us to the promised shore.

            Some years ago there was a best-selling book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  It was written by Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi, whose young son Aaron died of a disease called progeria, or “rapid aging.”  Basically Aaron got old quickly, losing his hair, becoming shriveled and weak, and finally dying two days before his 14th birthday.

            Out of that experience, Rabbi Kushner learned that many of the things we say to people going through something like this are actually damaging: like “God meant it for good,” or “God will make you strong because of this,” or “God needed an angel, so he took Aaron home.”  Maybe that helps some people, but it did not help Rabbi Kushner.  In fact the whole experience made him question his belief in God, until he began to look at it in a different way.  He writes,

Where do you get the strength to go on, when you have used up all your own strength?  Where do you turn for patience when you have run out of patience, when you have been more patient for more years than anyone should be asked to be, and the end is nowhere in sight?  I believe that God gives us strength and patience and hope, renewing our spiritual resources when they run dry.  How else do sick people manage to find more strength and more good humor over the course of prolonged illness than any one person could possibly have, unless God was constantly replenishing their souls?  How else do widows find the courage to pick up the pieces of their lives and go out to face the world alone, when on the day of their husband’s funeral, they did not have that courage?  How else do parents of a retarded or brain-damaged youngster wake up every morning and turn again to their responsibilities, unless they are able to lean on God when they grow weak? … One of the things that constantly reassures me that God is real, and not just an idea that religious leaders made up, is the fact that people who pray for strength, hope, and courage so often find resources of strength, hope, and courage that they did not have before they prayed (pp. 127-128).

            The miracle is not that Christians can walk on water but that Jesus can walk on water, and that Jesus can reach us on the very storm that threaten to overwhelm us.

Job Opening

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 10:5-23

Cast:  Interviewer, Applicant

[The Applicant knocks]

Interviewer:  Come in.

Applicant:  Hello.  I'm here in response to your ad on Craig’s list.  It says, "Job Opening: Field representative for a multinational concern.  No previous experience necessary."  Are you still looking for someone?

Interviewer:  Oh yes.  We are always looking for people.

Applicant (sitting down by the desk):  Good.  I would like to give it a try.  What's your product line?

Interviewer:  Let's just say we deal in securities and long-term investments.

Applicant:  Stock and bonds, huh?  Well, I don't have a lot of experience in that area, but I'm quick to learn.  What are the educational requirements?

Interviewer:  We provide on-the-job training.

Applicant:  Oh.  Well, what other qualifications are you looking for?  Must I take some kind of test?

Interviewer:  Oh you will be tested, all right, but not by us.  We ask only that you be gifted.

Applicant:  Gifted?  You mean like a talented athlete or musician?  Sorry, I am neither.

Interviewer:  Has your heart ever gone out to someone having a rough time?  Have you ever wanted to do something for someone without expecting anything in return?  Have you ever been so excited about something you couldn't wait to tell people?

Applicant:  Yes, I guess so.

Interviewer:  Then you are gifted.

Applicant:  Well, what exactly am I supposed to do?

Interviewer [standing]:  Not much really.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead--a few things like that.

Applicant:  You're kidding, right?  Raise the dead?  Cast out demons?!  I can't even get rid of my warts.

Interviewer:  Actually, the Owner does the healing and raising from the dead.  You are just the Owner's representative.

Applicant:  What exactly do I represent?

Interviewer:  You represent hope, fulfillment, new and everlasting life.  You are a demonstration model for the power that can transform humanity into a new creation.

Applicant:  Me?  I'm not a new creation.  I'm the same old person I have always been.

Interviewer (chuckling):  You won't be if you take this job.

Applicant:  Why?  What's going to happen to me?

Interviewer:  You are about to become part of the biggest enterprise the world has ever seen--bigger than the pyramids, bigger than the invasion of Normandy, bigger than landing a human being on the moon.  We're after nothing less than the transformation of the world, and we want you to be part of it. [Sits]

Applicant:  You sound like an army recruiter.  Is that what this is?  Defend your country and see the world?

Interviewer:  Not exactly.  For one thing you won't be carrying any weapons, and for another you will be sent first to your own home and community.

Applicant [Stands]:  Well that's no fun.  I was hoping for a little travel.  Why don't you open a branch office in some place like Belize or Tahiti?  Surely they need field reps, too.

Interviewer:  Of course they do.  But that's not where you will be sent.  If you are going to represent new life, the Owner wants you to start by representing it to the people you already know.

Applicant:  What do I tell them?

Interviewer:  Don't worry about what to say.  The Owner will give you instructions when the time comes.

Applicant:  But can't you give me some idea of what I am supposed to say.

Interviewer:  Basically your message is that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Applicant:  The Kingdom of heaven?!  You’ve got to be kidding.  You want me to be a salesman for heaven?  You don't just sell heaven like a used car.  Besides, people aren't interested in heaven any more.  People want to know what will make their lives better here and now, not in some "pie-in-the-sky" future.

Interviewer [Standing]:  That's just the point.  The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!  It is beginning right now, like a seed growing in the ground or some yeast causing bread dough to rise.  Right now the Kingdom is visible only in glimpses here and there--in the healing of a body, the reconciliation of a relationship, in the unexpected courage to go on through difficult circumstances.  All these are signs of heaven's power already at work in our lives, preparing for the day when the Owner's Kingdom will come and the Owner's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Your job is to help people see what is going on.

Applicant:  And what if they don't want to see it?  What if they want no part of it?

Interviewer (thoughtfully):  Unfortunately that is a distinct possibility.  The Owner never forces things on people, even if it is for their own good.  Some people just don't want to pay the price.

Applicant:  What is the price?

Interviewer:  Actually nothing.  The new life we offer was paid for long ago by the Owner.   We give it as a free gift.  Unfortunately, for many people it is still too expensive.

Applicant:  How can something be too expensive if it is free?

Interviewer:  Because of the price one must pay for accepting it.  It's like the gift of a pet.  The pet is free, but accepting it involves responsibility: feeding it, caring for it, cleaning up after it.  The same is true of the new life offered by the Owner.  It's free; but accepting it has certain consequences.  It means giving up your old self.  It means giving up your pride, your independence, your self-centeredness, your control over other people.  Not everyone is willing to pay such a price, even for something as good as eternal life.

Applicant:  So what do I do if they aren't interested?  What if I give them my pitch and they slam the door?

Interviewer (shrugging):  Then brush off your shoes and go to the next door.  If one person rejects you, try another and another.

Applicant [Sitting]:  I don't know.  I don't take rejection very well.

Interviewer (laughing):  Don't worry.  That will be the least of your problems.  Not only will people reject you, they will attack you.  Some people not only refuse the Owner's gifts, they beat, jail, and execute those who offer them.

Applicant:  Great.  I hope you provide workman's compensation.

Interviewer:  He who would save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for the Owner will find it.  [Sits]

Applicant:  Yes, well maybe this is a good time to talk about salary.  I assume you offer compensation for the risks in this job.

Interviewer:  More than you ever dreamed.

Applicant:  Good.  Then let's get down to specifics.  I'd like a base salary in seven figures.  Surely this job is at least as important as a football player.

Interviewer:  Sorry, we can't do that.

Applicant:  So your resources are a little thin, eh?  Okay, I'll settle for six figures with bonuses and good benefits.

Interviewer:  Sorry.

Applicant:  You can't be offering a salary in five figures.  What do you think this is?  McDonald's?

Interviewer:  There is no salary.

Applicant:  No salary!  Oh, I get it.  I'm on commission.  Okay, what's my percentage?

Interviewer:  Your percentage can be as high as you want, but as you know we don't charge anything for our product.

Applicant:  Oh yeah.  Well, what am I supposed to live on?  My expense account?

Interviewer:  The Owner has many ways of supporting people.  A few of our representatives work full-time.  They are supported by the people they serve.  But most of our representatives have other jobs.  They work in homes, offices, businesses, schools, hospitals, factories, stores--you name it.  But wherever they work they are really our agents, infiltrating their environment with the Good News of new life.

Applicant:  You sound less like a business and more like the CIA.

Interviewer [Standing]:  You might say that.  We are certainly concerned about intelligence, but we are not very good at keeping secrets.  Our job is to let out the secret, to let people know that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  But to do that you must have intelligence.  The message has to be tailored to each person's situation.  Some people need to be confronted; others need to be left alone.  Some are looking for intellectual explanations; some for emotional support.  Some need to have their pride and self-confidence shaken; others need a renewed sense of confidence and hope.  There is no one way to represent the Owner to all people.  Each person's needs must be figured out before the Owner's gifts can be shared.  That's what makes it fun.

Applicant:  I'm sure it's a riot.  [Pausing and standing]  Okay, let’s see if I’ve got this straight.  You want me to offer a free product to people who don't want it or are violently opposed to it.  You want me to offer this product first to the people who already know me and are most likely to think I'm nuts.  In return I will receive no salary, no commission, no benefits, not even a health club membership--nothing at all except rejection, frustration, and the remote possibility that one day I can say, "I told you so."  Is that what you are offering?

Interviewer [Sitting]:  I guess that is one way of putting it.

Applicant:  Why am I even listening to this?

Interviewer:  I don't know.  Why are you?

Applicant:  Maybe because it is just crazy enough to make sense.  A lot of things in the world are crazy.  The whole world is crazy.  Maybe this job is crazy enough to be sane.

Interviewer:  Then you will take it.

Applicant (pause):  Oh, why not?  It can’t be any worse than the cost-benefit ratio of having children.

Interviewer [Standing]:  You won't regret it.  This job will take everything you have to offer, and give you more than you put in.  Nothing you do for it will ever be forgotten or wasted.

Applicant:  You think so, huh?  Well, there is one way to find out. [Shakes hands with the interviewer]

Touching and Healing

 

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 8:1-13, James 5:13-16

            Even though both stories I just read are healing stories, there are two striking differences between them, and the differences tell us a lot about how Jesus works.

            Difference #1:  In the first case the person with leprosy asks healing for himself, and in the second case the centurion asks healing for someone else.  This is significant because in the first case the leper was healed because of his own faith, but in the second case the servant was healed because of the centurion’s faith.

            There is a story in the next chapter, Matthew chapter 9, of a paralyzed man brought to Jesus on a stretcher.  Matthew 9:2 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’”  The paralyzed man never says a word.  But when Jesus saw their faith—meaning the faith of his friends, Jesus gave the man both forgiveness and healing.  In the same way Jesus gives the centurion healing for his servant, not because of the servant’s faith—we know nothing about the servant—but because the centurion’s faith.

            I hope this gives you encouragement, because a lot of people in this room have prayed for loved ones who may not have been interested in praying for themselves.  I think of all of you who have asked us to pray for family members battling addiction or making bad decisions.  The family member may not have been praying about these things.  The family member may not even acknowledge their need help.  But we prayed for them, because Jesus does not always need the faith of the people we are praying for to do something.  Sometimes Jesus can do amazing things because of our faith.

            That’s why in our first scripture reading James says, “Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Sometimes the community of faith can hold us up in prayer, when we have neither the will nor the wherewithal to pray for ourselves.

            And that brings me to Difference #2: In the case of the person with leprosy Jesus physically touches him, but in the case of the centurion’s servant he does not need to.

            Jesus demonstrates both kinds of healing on numerous occasions.  In Matthew chapter 9 he goes to the home of a synagogue official to heal his sick daughter.  He does not heal her long distance; he goes to her home, takes her by the hand, and the girl, whom everyone thought was dead, gets up.

            But then in Matthew chapter 15 a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus asking healing for her daughter, and Jesus says to her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish,” and the daughter is healed, like the centurion’s servant, without Jesus taking a single step toward her house.

            One time I was scrolling through the channels on television, and I landed on a Christian channel showing an evangelist with slicked-back hair conducting a healing service in a large auditorium.  People from all over the auditorium were streaming down the aisles.  When they got to the stage the minister would sweep his arms at them and say something I could not understand, and suddenly they would all fall down like bowling pins, each row collapsing on the ones behind them.  How this healed people, I could not figure out, but all over the auditorium people were raising their hands and singing and crying for joy as the ushers began collecting their money.

            I could tell they weren’t Presbyterians.  Presbyterians have always been a little suspicious of that kind of thing.  The emotionalism, the extravagance, and the almost magical reliance on certain words and rituals, not to mention in some cases outright fraud—all these things have made Presbyterians cautious and reluctant to use any kind of rituals for healing, even anointing with oil, fearing that it might take our eyes off of Jesus, causing us to put our trust in magic rituals instead of Jesus’ promise.

             It is clear from the example of the centurion and the Canaanite woman, that Jesus does not need anointing with oil, let alone a slick televangelist, to heal people.  We are healed by faith in Jesus’ promise.  Even when James talks about anointing with oil, he says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.”  It is not our ritual but our faith in Jesus’ word that saves us.

            And yet in some cases Jesus actually touches people to heal them.  Why?  It is not necessary for Jesus to touch people in order to heal them, so why does he do it?

            There is an interesting pattern in this.  The people Jesus actually touches in the gospel of Matthew are often people who would have been considered unclean, ritually defiled, not allowed to be touched by other people.  Who is the first person Jesus touches in the gospel of Matthew?  A person with leprosy!  That’s about as unclean as you can get.  People avoided lepers like the plague, because they thought it was a plague.  But not Jesus.

            Likewise Jesus touched the girl whom everyone thought had died, because dead people were unclean.  You were defiled when you touched a dead body.  But not Jesus.  In both case Jesus touches the leper and the supposedly dead girl as a sign that Jesus makes people clean.  In other words, Jesus came not only to heal our bodies but to make us holy.

            That’s why James talks about anointing people with oil.  The practice of anointing with oil actually goes back to the Old Testament.  In Exodus chapter 30 God tells Moses to make a sacred anointing oil and anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant and all the furnishings of the tabernacle.  Then God says, “You shall consecrate them so they may be most holy.”

           The practice of anointing with oil is not some mysterious ritual or potion by which God heals people.  It is a statement about our holiness to God.  It is just like Jesus touching the man with leprosy or the girl presumed dead.  When Jesus touches people, they are not only healed, they are made holy.  And when we anoint people with oil, we are not doing this just to heal their bodies; we are doing it as a sign that God has consecrated this person, made this person a holy vessel for God’s love, just as Jesus did when he touched people who were considered untouchable.

           So that is why we are having a service of healing and anointing with oil.  There is no magic in the oil, even less in the people applying it to your forehead.  We are doing symbolically what Moses did: consecrating imperfect human vessels, making them holy.  Anointing with oil is nothing more and nothing less than a gesture of faith, but God uses it as a sign of God’s power to make us holy, not just to heal us or the people we pray for, but to make us instruments of God’s love in ways we may not have yet imagined.

 

A New Definition of Blessed

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 5:1-12; Isaiah 61:1-4

            To show the strangeness of Jesus’ beatitudes, I want to take the first four and compare them to their opposite [Slide 1].  Sometimes the best way to understand what Jesus calls blessed is to imagine the reverse.  Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” [Click 1] The Greek word Jesus uses means not just economically disadvantaged but utterly destitute.  It’s the Greek word for beggars, people who have no possible means of support except panhandling.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he means, “Blessed are spiritual beggars; blessed are people totally dependent on God’s help.”  So what is the opposite?  The opposite of “poor in spirit” is self-reliant, [Click 2] to be dependent on no one but yourself.

            Next Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” [Click 3] Jesus is not just talking about those who grieve the death of a loved one.  He is talking about those who grieve the pain and sadness of a broken world, people who watch the news and weep, or at least wince.  So what is the opposite?  The opposite are those who are upbeat and positive, [Click 4] people undaunted and unaffected by the pain and tragedy around them.

            Then Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” [Click 5] The meek are the lowly, the unassuming.  So the opposite of the meek are those who are powerful and know it—the self-confident, [Click 6] those who are self-assured.

            Finally, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” [Click 7]  This is the positive side of the second beatitude.  Those who mourn for the world as it is will hunger and thirst for a better one.  They yearn for God’s kingdom.  So what is the opposite?  Those who feel fulfilled [Click 8] with the world as it is, those who feel satisfied and content.

            Now look at this list.  If you were hiring someone, or even just looking for someone to hang out with, whom would you pick?  Would you be drawn to someone poor, sad, meek, and dissatisfied?  Or someone who is self-reliant, upbeat, self-confident, and fulfilled?

            Jesus’ definition of blessed makes no sense, until you realize one thing: this world as it is will not last.  So the things we usually consider blessed in this world are not the most important things.

            Jesus makes that point repeatedly.  His very first sermon in the gospel of Matthew consists of one line: [Slide 2, click 1] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Later in chapter 4, right before the beatitudes, Matthew says, [Click 2] “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23).  In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God 50 times—50 times in 28 chapters!  Jesus came to inaugurate a new reign of God, not just in Israel but throughout the world.  Admittedly at present this new kingdom is a hidden kingdom.  It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground, Jesus says.  Or like yeast mixed into bread dough.  You may not see it yet, but the seed of a new world has been planted by Jesus.  This world as it is will not last; it is destined for a complete transformation—the very thing we pray for when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

            So why are the poor in spirit blessed? [Slide 3, Click 1] Precisely because they are not self-reliant.  They are not counting on themselves to set everything right in the world; they are counting on God.  And they will not be disappointed, Jesus says.  Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            And why are they blessed who mourn and grieve over the world as it is? [Click 2]  Because a new world is coming—the very world for which they yearn.  And why are the meek blessed? [Click 3]  Because this world that leaves them feeling so discouraged and depressed is passing away.  The bullies and oppressors of this world are headed for the trash heap of history.  Which is why they are blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness? [Click 4] Their hunger will be satisfied.  Those who mourn the injustice and suffering of the world, those who feel depressed by it, those who yearn for a world of peace and blessing for all people—you are blessed Jesus says, because you will not be disappointed.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

            So if that is the kind of world that is coming, if that is what we pray for when we say the Lord’s Prayer, then how do we get ready for it?  The first four beatitudes describe the attitudes of people yearning for a new kingdom, and the last four describe the practices of people getting ready for it.  So Jesus says, [Slide 4, Click 1] “Blessed are the merciful.”  Being merciful to others helps us get ready for a kingdom built on mercy; not on conquest, not on vengeance, not punishment, but on mercy.  [Click 2] “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  Being pure heart helps us get ready for a kingdom based on love rather than lust, on giving rather than greed, on serving rather than dominating. [Click 3] “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Being peacemakers helps us get ready for a kingdom built on peace rather than power, on love rather than domination.

            And sometimes that may mean suffering for righteousness’ sake, being persecuted for doing what’s right. [Click 4] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says.  I know that sounds counterintuitive.  Can you really make the world better by doing what’s right and suffering for it?  Well, look at Jesus.  That’s what Jesus showed on the cross.  The kingdom comes not to the powerful, not to the vengeful, not to the controlling or manipulative, but to the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who would rather love their enemies than destroy them. [Slide 5: Blank]

            A while back Presbyterians Today magazine had a story about Jacky Dorleans, the principal of a mission school in Haiti, serving 600 children in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince.  Her husband, Pastor Leon Dorleans, founded the school in 1998 with support from U. S. Presbyterians.  Some of our church offerings go through Witness in Action to support Presbyterian World Mission, including mission schools in places like Haiti.

            One morning on her way to the school Jacky was stopped by two gunmen, forced into their car, blindfolded, and driven to an unknown site.  There they told her she would be held captive until a half-million dollar ransom was paid.  The kidnappers knew that Jacky and her husband did not have that kind of money, but they were hoping to extort it from the churches in America who were funding the school.  Now I am quoting from the story:

            Clutching her only possession, the worn backpack she used as a combination purse and briefcase, she rode in darkness and silence.  But when the kidnappers attempted to throw her backpack away, she broke the silence.  She quietly told them they would be discarding children’s report cards.  “Do you have children that you love?” she asked them.  “Children must have their report cards.  Please don’t take them.”

            Actually, I have known children who would have been glad to lose their report cards, but apparently this touched a soft spot in her captors.  They let her keep the backpack.  Continuing with the story:

            As the day wore on, Jacky’s guard brought her the lunch and bottled water that had been tucked in her backpack. At the end of the day, he acknowledged another need.  “I’m going to get you a towel, some soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste,” he said.

            But Jacky remembered that her school had just received health care kits from a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, like the hygiene packs we assembled for the Dominican Republic: Ziploc bags containing towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.  Jacky had one of them in her backpack.  So smiling, she told her guard that he would not need to get those things for her; God had already provided them.  “God knew that I was to come to you on this day,” she said.  “Look in my backpack.”  When the guard dug through the report cards, there in in the bottom of the backpack was a plastic bag with a towel, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste.  “God knew and prepared me for this time with you,” Jacky told the guard.

            The guard was totally unnerved.  He began talking to Jacky and told her that he hated this business of kidnapping people and demanding ransom, but he said it was the only way he knew to feed his family.  Jacky listened and then said to him, “May I pray with you?” He nodded, and she prayed with him for a way out of the life he was leading.  When she finished, the guard said to her, “Please give me your address.  I do not know how, but I am going to get myself out of this work.  I want to be able to write to you and tell you when I have done that.”

            Later the guard allowed Jacky to phone her husband.  On the phone she told her husband, “Do not worry about me.  God is with me, and the man who is guarding me is like my own brother.”  The guard, who was listening to this conversation, wept.

            Later the man who had ordered the kidnapping came to Jacky and said, “I have made an investigation and now understand that your husband is not one that we should target.  I must apologize to you, as I did to him.”

            Jacky was released that evening, and when her husband picked her up at the drop point, his cell phone rang with a message from her captor.  The kidnapper said, “Make sure you take your wife to church tomorrow morning. … I would like her to pray for us in church” (Presbyterians Today, May 2005, pp. 25-26).

            Is it possible to be poor, grieving, fearful, hungering for freedom, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and still be blessed?  Yes, because God is going to win, and when we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, all the other things in our lives will become more manageable, including our anger, hurt, helplessness, grief, and despair.

Why Baptism for Jesus?

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-17

            I once taught a class called “The Theology of Calvin… and Hobbes,” basically using the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip to teach theology.  It worked surprisingly well.  In one comic strip that appeared just after New Year’s, the young boy Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “Everybody makes the wrong kind of New Year’s Resolution.  All they do is promise to stop bad habits and start good habits.”  Hobbes says, “What’s wrong with that?”  Calvin says, “It’s not enough to change a few little habits!  Everybody I know needs a complete personality overhaul.”  Then he says, “That’s why I’ll be spending the remaining days of this year telling people what I hate about them and how they should change.”  Hobbes says, “Some of us would be happy to reciprocate.”

            In this comic strip Calvin reminds me of John the Baptist.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  To repent means literally to turn your life around, to change the whole direction you are headed.  According to John the Baptist, it’s not enough to change a few little habits.  We need a complete personality overhaul, even religious people like Pharisees and Sadducees.  According to John we all need to repent, even people who go to church, maybe especially people who go to church.

            John the Baptist is like step 1 in the twelve step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Step 1 says, “We admitted we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.”  Most of think we just need a few little adjustments: lose a little weight, exercise a little more, get a little more sleep, don’t spend money impulsively, have a little more patience with other people.  That’s the stuff of New Year’s resolutions—a few little tweaks to our personality.

            Jesus did not need to die on the cross for stuff like that.  If all we needed was a little more sleep, a little more patience, a little lower cholesterol, a little more financial discipline—if that was all we needed, God would not have bothered sending Jesus.  He would have sent Oprah.  God sent Jesus because we have a serious problem.  We are in open or not-so-open rebellion against God.  Even those of us who go to church.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees we often see religion as something to meet our needs, to satisfy our desires, to provide us with peace, security, and comfort.  That’s backwards.  God does not exists to meet our needs; we exist to serve God’s purposes.  That’s why John the Baptist says, “Repent, turn your life around.  You are headed in the wrong direction.”

            Like the boy Calvin in the comic strip, John the Baptist is quite ready to tell people what is wrong with them.  But as he himself admits, he does not have the solution to the problem.  He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John acknowledges that he can show us the problem, but he can’t fix it.  He is like a doctor who says you have a terminal illness, but there is nothing he can do about it.  So he refers you to someone else, and in this case that someone else is Jesus.

            Jesus is step 2 of the twelve step process.  Step 1 says, “We admitted that we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.”  That is the message of John the Baptist.  Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  For Christians that Power is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who can restore us to sanity.  Jesus is the one who can turn us around and bring us back into the relationship with God we were supposed to have all along.

            But how does Jesus do that?  Remember, we are not talking here about a self-help program—a diet to help you lose weight or a plan to better manage your finances or advice on how to improve your marriage.  Those are good things, but they are not why Jesus came.  Jesus came to work in us a complete overhaul of our souls, to turn us around and bring us back to the relationship with God we were meant to have.  How does Jesus do that?

            Now we come to the strangest part of the story.  Listen again to verses 13-15:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

            What is going on here?  John is baptizing people because they are sinners, because they need to turn their lives around.  But Jesus is the one who is supposed to save us from sin.  How can Jesus save us from sin if he needs baptism, if he needs forgiveness of sin, just like we do?

            The key is in Jesus’ reply.  He says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  When Jesus talks about fulfilling all righteousness, he is not talking only about his righteousness; he is talking about all righteousness, meaning the right relationship to God that all people are supposed to have.

            Instead of wagging his finger at us, like John the Baptist, instead of spending his days telling people what is wrong with them, like the young boy Calvin, Jesus gets down in the river with the rest of us sinners.  By being baptized, Jesus accepts the label of sinner for himself, even though he did not need to.  In his baptism Jesus identified with us in our sin, so that when we are baptized we can identify with him in his righteousness.

            Later in the New Testament there is a verse where the apostle Paul explains this.  In II Corinthians 5:21 the apostle Paul says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the gospel reveals the significance of Jesus’ death at the end of the gospel.  Jesus was baptized as a sinner in the Jordan River for the same reason he was condemned as a sinner on the cross.  Jesus identified with us in our sin, in our separation from God, so that we could be joined with him in his righteousness, in his reunion with God.

            Basically, Jesus was baptized with us, so that we can be baptized with him.  When we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we are given the same gifts Jesus received at his baptism.  When we are baptized, we too are given the Holy Spirit.  When we are baptized, we too are declared to be God’s beloved children.  When we are baptized, we too are given a new eternal life with God, the life for which God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to raise us up to be with him.

            But you cannot understand or appreciate what that means without John the Baptist.  John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus by helping us see why we need him.  John the Baptist is the doctor who informs us we are terminally ill.  Until you understand that, you cannot appreciate the doctor who comes and offers us a cure.

Paying Attention

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

            Have you ever wondered why out of all the people in the world the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to some shepherds in the Gospel of Luke and some foreign astrologers in the Gospel of Matthew?  That’s it.  As far as we know they are the only two groups to get an announcement of Jesus’ birth.  Why them?

            This question makes me wonder.  Maybe the shepherds and the wise men weren’t the only ones to get the birth announcement.  Think about this a minute.  A star is something up in the sky that anyone could have seen.  If God used a star to announce Jesus’ birth, then the announcement went out to everybody, but only these magi—these foreign astrologers—made the effort to look into it, to understand what it meant, and to follow where it led.

            How did the magi know that the star represented the birth of a new king of the Jews?  We don’t know.  But we do know that when King Herod hears their report, he is shaken, and all Jerusalem with him.  Something about the magi’s story has a disturbing creditability.

            Now we come to one of the interesting twists in the story.  If you noticed the wise men did not follow the star directly to Bethlehem.  When they saw the star they went to Jerusalem.  Why?  Because Jerusalem was the capital.  Jerusalem was home to the palace of King Herod, and the wise men assumed that any new king of the Jews would be born in the palace of the reigning king.  When Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her son George, who became the fourth in line to the British throne, no one went looking for the new child in Liverpool.  The reporters all camped outside the palace in London.  So with the wise men.  The star may have been shining over Bethlehem, but they went looking for the baby in Jerusalem because that’s where they expected a new king of the Jews to be born.  It was the Jewish scribes studying the Old Testament who told them to look in Bethlehem.

            I think this part of the story has a lesson for us.  Nature, in the form of a star, can bring you only so close to God.  Nature can give you certain clues about God.  Looking at the stars, looking at the mountains, looking at nature, you get some idea of God’s majesty and power.  But to find God, to really meet God in person, you need the help of the Bible.

            So it was for the wise men.  The star brought them only so far.  To find Jesus they needed the help of the scriptures.

            But here is the point of today’s sermon.  In Matthew’s gospel, the magi are the only ones to meet the baby Jesus, because they are the only ones who bother to look.  Herod does not look, even though he has been told where to look by the scribes.  And the scribes don’t bother to look, even though they have been told where to look by the scriptures.  The truth is that Herod and the scribes don’t want a new king of the Jews.  They don’t want someone coming along to shake up their lives and threaten their positions of power and privilege.  Only the magi bother to follow the star and the scriptures to see where they lead.

            Now we turn to the shepherds in Luke’s gospel.  Out of all the people in the region around Bethlehem, why were the shepherds the only ones chosen to hear the news?

            Maybe they weren’t.  Luke says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”  That would be hard to miss.  Like a star.  Their song may have echoed over the hills for anyone to hear.  But only the shepherds paid attention.  Only the shepherds bothered to go and look.

            For me this raises a question: Where might Jesus show up in our lives today, if we only paid attention?  Where might we see Jesus born among us today, if we only bothered to look?

            During my last several years in Spokane I went down every Wednesday morning with a small group of men to lead a Bible study at the House of Charity, the homeless shelter downtown.  We would get their early and have coffee with people who came in to have breakfast at the House of Charity and we would invited them to come to the Bible study and prayer meeting we had in the chapel.

          One week I sat down at a table with a couple of younger guys I had not seen before.  I introduced myself as Pastor Ken and told them about our Bible study and prayer meeting.  Then I asked them if they had anything they would like us to pray for.  One of the young men said no, he wasn’t interested in religion.  But the other young man began talking in a string of incomprehensible sentences.  I don’t know if he was mentally ill or on drugs or both, but I couldn’t understand a word he said.  Sometimes I understood individual words, but together the words made no sense.  Finally, I asked him if he would like to come our Bible study and share his prayer request in person.  He said sure.  So he followed me into the chapel for the Bible study.

            At that point I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  At the prayer meetings we not only each shared our prayer requests with each other, but we went around the circle and each person prayed for the person on his or her right.  Everyone said a short prayer out loud for the need expressed by the next person in the circle.  Sometimes new people were reluctant to do this, but I encourage them to try.  It is powerful to have someone else praying for you, but it is even more powerful if you are the person praying for someone else, especially when your self-esteem is at a low point.  I encouraged everyone in the Bible study to pray out loud for the person next to them, and when they realized that the person next to them might not get prayed for if they did not step up, they usually did.

            Well, we came to the prayer time, and as we went around the circle each person shared a prayer request.  About half way around the circle we came to the young man.  He paused, and then said, “I need a place to live.”  It was the clearest sentence he had said all morning.  “I need a place to live.”  Then the person on his right, an older man, offered his prayer concern.  He asked prayer for his son.  His son had left home and wasn’t doing very well.  He was worried about his son’s health, his son’s choices, and how his son was going to support himself.  Finally we started around the circle, each person praying for the person on his or her right.  We came to the young man, and I held my breath.  Then he started praying.  I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Lord, you got to help this man’s son.  You got to help this boy.  Please, Lord, don’t let him mess up his life.  His dad loves him.  So do you.  Don’t let him give up on himself.  Amen.”

            It was the most eloquent prayer I had ever heard.  And I realized that I was witnessing the Holy Spirit.  It was more dramatic than if he had spoken in tongues.  Actually speaking in tongues would have been more like what he did earlier when we were talking at the table.  But this was an embodiment of that verse in Romans 8 where Paul says, “Sometimes we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words.”  I didn’t know what was going on in that young man, but I had the feeling I was standing on holy ground.

            And that’s what I see in the story of the wise men and the shepherds.  The star is still shining today.  The song of the angels still echoes among us today.  There are signs of Jesus’ presence in our world even now.  But you see them only if you pay attention, only if you bother to go looking, sometimes in unlikely places among unlikely people.

            In a moment we will sing an old familiar Christmas carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”  Many of you know the first verse by heart,

            It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

            From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

 

The first verse is about when the angels come to the shepherds long ago.  But notice the second verse:

            Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,

            And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

            Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

            And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

 

            You can still hear the angels, you can still see the star, if you only pay attention.

Why God Became Human: A Christmas Eve Meditation

Ken Onstot

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11

The original sin was the desire to be God.

Why do you think Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit?

The apples weren’t good enough at Costco?

The serpent told them they would be like God, knowing good and evil.

But Adam and Eve already knew what was good and evil.

They already knew what was right and wrong.

God had told them not to eat the forbidden fruit.

But they did it anyway.

They did not want only to know good and evil.

They wanted to decide for themselves what was good and evil.

Adam and Eve wanted to be their own gods.

It’s a story repeated throughout history.

Why do you think people worship idols?

Why do you think people worship gods of wood and stone?

Because statues of wood and stone don’t talk back to you.

An idol cannot tell you what to do.

Which is nice when you want to be your own god.

But here is the problem:

When we try to become God, we become less than human.

Remember what happened to Adam and Eve?

They tried to become like God, and ended up ashamed of being human.

They were embarrassed and hid from God.

When leaders try to become dictators,

are they more human or less human?

When bosses exploit people or try to make them do something wrong,

Are they more human or less human?

When family members try to control each other with threats or violence,

Are they more human or less human?

When you try to become God,

when you try to control everyone and everything,

you become less than human.

But Christmas is the opposite of that.

At Christmas we meet not a human being who tries to be God,

but a God who becomes human.

The Bible says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did nor regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.”

Christmas is not about us becoming like God,

it’s about God helping us to be human.

It’s about God helping us to be like Jesus,

God helping us to be loving, giving, sacrificing, and serving.

Jesus gave his life on the cross to save us.

That’s how much Jesus loves us.

Now he wants us to love one another.

Jesus not only helps us know God,

he helps us understand what it means to be human.

People are the most human, not when trying to be God,

but when worshiping God.

People are the most human, not when dominating others,

but when serving them.

People are the most human, not when defeating others,

but when helping them.

People are the most human, not when they are trying to be perfect,

but when trying to be forgiving,

the way Jesus has forgiven us.

Personally, I am glad I am not God.

It is hard enough to be a pastor.

But in Jesus we have a God who knows what it is like to be human.

And by accepting him as Lord,

we also can be more human.

The Co-opted Father

by Ken Onstot

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Narrator: In Luke’s Christmas story, the focus of attention is on Mary.  Joseph is almost completely ignored.  But in Matthew’s gospel the angel’s message comes not to Mary, but to Joseph, and it is up to Joseph to respond.  How might he have reacted? Let’s find out.

-----

Angel: Joseph.  JOSEPH!  WAKE UP!

Joseph (sleepy and grouchy): Go away.  Don’t bother me.  I don’t want to wake up.

Angel: Don’t you brush me off, Joseph son of David.  I’m talking to you.  You hear me?  I’ve been sent to you from God.

Joseph (coming awake): What?  Who are you?  Look, I don’t appreciate getting wakened up.  I don’t get much sleep these days.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  I’ve watched.

Joseph: You have watched?  Who you are?

Angel: I’m an angel.  I’ve been sent to you from God with a message.

Joseph: Well I hope it has some answers, because I’ve got a mess on my hands.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  You’ve got a big problem with Mary.

Joseph: How do you know about that?

Angel: I told you: I’m an angel.  We make it our business to know stuff.

Joseph: Okay, so what am I supposed to do?  I fall in love with this girl.  But do I shack up with her, like other guys?  No.  I offer to marry her.  I even ask her parents.  We get engaged.  We set the date.  But do I touch her?  No.  We agree not to have sex until after we are married.  Now this!  She gets pregnant with someone else!  Is that how God rewards people for trying to do the right thing?

Angel: In your case, yes.

Joseph: What?

Angel: A guy like you who wants to do the right thing—you’re just the kind of guy we need for this situation.

Joseph: Great.  So what am I supposed to do?

Angel: What does the Bible tell you to do?

Joseph: It so happens I looked it up: Deuteronomy chapter 22.  It says, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”  Is that what I am supposed to do?  Turn Mary in so she and her lover can be executed?

Angel: Is that what you think God wants you to do?

Joseph: I don’t know.  I have always tried to obey God’s law.  But this?  I can’t do this.  I love Mary.  I know we can’t be together, not after this, but I could never hurt her.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  That’s why we picked you.

Joseph: Picked me?  What are you talking about?

Angel: That’s what I am trying to tell you, Joseph. You have been chosen by God for a mission.

Joseph: What mission?

Angel: A mission to care for Mary and her child.

Joseph: But it is not my child!  Wouldn’t it be better if I quietly broke our engagement and let her marry this other guy?  Maybe if they did it right away, no one would know.

Angel: And who do you think is the other guy?

Joseph: I don’t know.

Angel: Are you sure there is another guy?

Joseph: How else did she get pregnant?

Angel: Joseph, Joseph, Mary hasn’t been shacking up with some other guy.  The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph: Mary’s been having sex with the Holy Spirit?

Angel: Oh for heaven’s sake.  Are you crazy?  You don’t have sex with the Holy Spirit.  That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.

Joseph: So how did she get pregnant?

Angel: Don’t you ever read the Bible?  Who was there when God created the world?  What hovered over the water when God said, “Let there be light”?

Joseph:  Well, the Bible says that the ruach of God hovered over the water at creation.  Ruach means wind … or …. Spirit.

Angel: Ah, very good.  The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, was God’s agent at the creation of the world.  Well now the Holy Spirit is God’s agent at the beginning of a new creation.  Don’t you get it?  Mary’s child is not your child or someone else’s child.  He’s God’s child.  He is a work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb.  He is the beginning of a new creation, a new work of God to save a world that has been damaged by sin.

Joseph (pausing): Well, if he’s God’s child, why do you need me?

Angel: Because you are a descendant of Abraham and David.  God promised to bring blessing to the world through the descendants of Abraham.  And through the descendants of David, God promised to give us a righteous king who would bring God’s peace to the world.  You, Joseph, are a descendant of Abraham and David.  Your son will be the one to fulfill those promises.

Joseph: But he’s not my son!  How can he be my descendant if I am not his father?

Angel: Because you are going to claim him when you take Mary to be your wife.  When you take Mary into your home, the child born of her will become your legal heir.  Through you he will become the inheritor of God’s promises to Abraham and David.

Joseph (thinking this through): So I am supposed to be the custodial parent for a child I did not father, so that God can use this child to fulfill promises made to Abraham and David?  Is that it?

Angel: Pretty much.  By the way, you shall name him Jesus.

Joseph: You mean I don’t even get to pick his name?

Angel:  No.  This is God’s child, remember.  And his name is important.  It means “the Lord saves.”  He is the fulfillment of a promise given long ago to the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

Joseph: I thought you said his name was Jesus.

Angel: Oh for heaven’s sake.  The name Emmanuel is symbolic.  It means that God will be present in this child.  But you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.

Joseph: Save us from our sins?  I thought the Messiah was going to save us from our enemies.

Angel: First, you need someone to save you from yourself.  You may think you are a righteous man, Joseph, but you suffer from the same pride, the same self-centeredness, the same alienation from God as everyone else.  This child comes for you as much as for anybody. 

Joseph: So why don’t you choose someone else?  There are plenty of descendants of Abraham and David.  Why pick me?

Angel: Actually, that is a good question.  You know, most of the descendants of Abraham and David were losers, like Abraham’s grandson Jacob.  Jacob tricked his own blind father to steal an inheritance from his brother.  And still God blessed him.  Then we come to King David.  David had an affair with the wife of one of his soldiers and got her pregnant.  Then to cover it up he arranged to have the soldier killed in battle so he could marry his wife.  Talk about sexual misconduct.  And he was one of the better kings!  Most of his descendants were hopelessly corrupt.  They cared less about God and more about holding on to power.  There is no biological descendant of Abraham or David who could possibly be the Savior of the world.

Joseph: So the true Messiah has to be a descendant without really being a descendant?

Angel: Ah, you are catching on.  The Savior of the world cannot be just another descendant of David, like the others.  None of them came even close to establishing God’s kingdom in this world.  The true Messiah must be a new work of God—a new creation—someone born … of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph: And yet, in order to fulfill God’s promises he must also be a descendant of Abraham and David.

Angel: Yep, and that’s where you come in.  You represent Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament.  In you Jesus is connected to the story of Israel—the people through whom God wanted to bring blessing to the world.  But the people of Israel never succeeded at that mission.  So God needed a new approach.  God needed a new creation of the Holy Spirit.  That is what Mary’s child represents.

Joseph: So I couldn’t be the child’s father, because I am just as messed up as everyone else?

Angel: That’s one way to put it.  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  God chose you, remember?  God chose you because if the Holy Spirit can work a miracle in Mary, the Holy Spirit can also work a miracle in you.

Joseph: Yeah, well that raises another question: What if Mary doesn’t want to marry me?  I mean, if she’s got this thing going with the Holy Spirit, what will she want with me?

Angel: The same thing she has always wanted: a life with you, a life of faithfulness and compassion.  Look, Joseph, Mary is as confused as you are, but she still wants to marry you.  Ask her, and she will accept.  But you must not touch her until after Jesus is born.  There must be no doubt in anyone’s mind to whom this child belongs.

Joseph: So I am supposed to be Mary’s husband, but I am never allowed to have sex with her?

Angel: I didn’t say that.  I said not until after Jesus is born.  Jesus belongs to God, but you and Mary—you two belong to each other.  And to raise this child you will need each other … more than you realize.

-----

Narrator: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

Jesus @ Ancestry.com

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 1:1-21

Surely there is a better way

Matthew could have found to display

His Messianic theology,

Than with an interminable genealogy.

 

Forty-two generations

One unpronounceable name after another,

Some famous, some obscure,

And occasionally mentioning the mother.

 

But there is a story in this list of names,

And insights to be learned about the one it proclaims.

 

First is Abraham, whom you may recall

Nearly sacrificed his only son,

Almost ending the entire line

Before it had hardly begun.

 

Next came Isaac, who fearful for his life

Readily handed over his wife

To the foreign king Abimelech

Hoping, thereby, to save his neck.

 

Then there was Jacob

Who committed a deceitful sin

By stealing from his own blind father

The inheritance meant for his twin.

 

Jacob produced Judah,

Who in effect committed incest

With his own daughter-in-law

Presumably at Tamar’s behest!

 

And later there was Salmon

Who becomes God’s next recruit,

Fathering a child by Rahab,

A Canaanite prostitute.

 

These are the descendants of Abraham;

This is God’s gene pool,

Progenitors of the Promised one

Who brings us God’s rule.

 

You wonder what God was thinking.

 

Some were actual kings: like David

Who took for himself Uriah’s wife,

Then arranged in battle

To snuff out his life.

 

Their child was Solomon,

who built the temple’s steeple

on the backs of forced labor

From his very own people.

 

Some of the kings were good,

Like Hezekiah and Josiah.

But others can only be described

As corrupt and godless pariahs.

 

These are the people who gave us Jesus,

The progenitors of divine DNA.

It sort of makes you wonder

What Matthew was trying to say.

 

But then comes the irony.

 

All the names on this list,

The good and the bad,

Are ancestors of someone

Who was not Jesus’ dad.

 

Jesus was not a product of sex,

But of a different kind of relation;

The in-breaking of the Holy Spirit,

The beginning of a new creation.

 

The genealogy is meant to recall

God’s promises for us all,

That through Abraham and his relations

Would come blessing to all nations.

 

And that’s where the mothers come in,

The reason for their mention;

These mothers anticipate

God’s world-wide intervention.

 

Tamar was a Canaanite,

As was true for Rahab,

Bathsheba was joined to a Hittite

And Ruth was from Moab.

 

All these women were signs of something new:

The inclusion of Gentiles in what God wanted to do.

 

For God did not choose Abraham

Only for the sake of the Jews,

But so that families of all lands

Might hear the good news.

 

And that’s the story in this long family tree:

That Jesus has come to set all of us free,

Free from history’s constant refrain

Of greed and lust and deep human pain.

Free from the past that binds us in sin,

So that God’s new work in Jesus can finally begin.

 

The ancestry of Joseph reminds us

Of all the promises of God,

But the virgin birth introduces

Something new and strange and odd.

 

It’s a new intervention defying convention,

God setting us free from our own family tree.

 

In this story of Jesus’ birth

Our past no longer determines our worth

Because in Jesus something new has begun

A virgin has given birth to a Son.

 

And that work of the Spirit in Mary

Is a sign of what God yet can do

In all of us who trust in his Son,

Who count on God to bring us through

To the new life God has in mind

For races and nations of all humankind.

 

But there is one more piece of theology

To learn from this genealogy:

That people are still key,

And that God gives life through a family.

 

As God worked through Israel,

When faithful or not,

So God works through the church

In the stories it’s taught.

 

Jesus is an amazing gift of God

That comes through a family story,

To people who in spite of their flaws

Still believe in proclaiming God’s glory.

 

And that’s where we come in.

 

Faith is a virgin birth, a miracle

Given by God through the Spirit,

But like Joseph it comes through a family

Allowing future generations to hear it.

 

People passing on faith

To children they don’t deserve

Holding to values

They want to conserve.

Maintaining hope

When others despair

Or when brokenness seems

Beyond our repair.

Living for a future

Yet to be seen

Where people are healed

And creation made clean.

Believing the news

Of God’s shocking grace,

And passing it on

To the whole human race.

 

The people of gave us Jesus

Were not models of virtue,

But still they were vessels

That God’s love could flow through.

 

So it is with us.

 

You may not be ideal parents

Or a perfect daughter or son,

But the Holy Spirit can still work in you

To see that God’s will is done.

 

A Tale of Three Holidays

Yesterday I noticed a headline that read: “Winning at Black Friday.” The biggest day of retail sales in our country is hard to miss. Each year it encroaches more and more on our national day of Thanksgiving, coupling a day of thanks to ever more consumerism. Hidden amongst these days of high retail and intentional gratitude rests a hidden gem in our church calendar: Christ the King Sunday. It’s not a high holy-day like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but rightly observed it can frame our thankfulness and guard us from consumerism. Join us this Sunday for a celebration of Christ’s Reign, true riches, and meaningful thanks.

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To Be Continued

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 50:15-26; Jeremiah 29:4-14

            I wonder how many of you remember an old 1960s television show called Lost in Space.  Or maybe you have seen reruns of it.  Its most memorable character was a robot that went around waving its arms saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!”  If you’ve never seen it, you are not missing anything.  It had bad acting, stupid plots, and ridiculous special effects, but my 10 year old friends and I watched it every week because of the way it ended.  Each week this family marooned on a distant planet faced some new crisis: lack of food or water, attack by aliens, or a disastrous mistake by one of the crew members, and each week the crisis was solved or averted.  But that was never the end of the episode.  Each week after the crisis passed, the show went on for another 2 or 3 minutes, and suddenly a new crisis enveloped the family.  Then the action froze, and a caption appeared on the screen that said, “To be continued,” and we were left hanging for another week.

            The ending of Genesis has written over it “To Be Continued.”  We see this first in the story of Joseph.  When the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed to Egypt, they assumed that the story of Joseph was over, that they were rid of Joseph once and for all.  So you can imagine their consternation when decades later they go to Egypt to buy food during a famine and discover that the Egyptian official selling them the food is none other than Joseph.  They thought the story of Joseph was over, but it wasn’t.  It had a sequel.

            Some of you have told me about some painful experiences in your past, times when you experienced neglect, abuse, harassment, or grossly unfair treatment.  In the news recently this has taken the form of sexual harassment and assault against women and in some cases against men, perpetrated by people in positions of power.  Maybe that has happened to you.  Or maybe you have had other experiences of mistreatment that have left a scar on your life.  Like Joseph you know how injustice feels.

            For you the ending of Genesis has good news.  Because injustice, abuse, and suffering do not have the last word in Joseph’s life, nor in yours.  Others may have intended you harm, but God has a plan for your good that will not be thwarted.

            But now at the end of Genesis, after their father Jacob dies, the brothers think that maybe their story is over, that their past is about to catch up to them.  They say to one another, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

            But Joseph says, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

            When Joseph discovered that injustice and abuse did not have the last word over his life, he was empowered to forgive his brothers.  And when his brothers discovered that guilt did not have the last word over their lives, they were empowered to face the future with hope.

            As I said, some of you have shared with me painful experiences of mistreatment and abuse in your past; but some of you have also shared with me painful memories of being the one who did the mistreating, the one who did things for which you now feel shame, remorse, and guilt.  And even if you don’t have some dark deed in your past, I’ll bet all of you have felt guilt over something, if not something you did then something you didn’t do—the time you didn’t help when someone needed it, the time you did not speak up when someone was being mistreated, the time your silence or inaction contributed to someone’s downfall.  There are all kinds of ways for us to feel guilty.

            But for us, too, the story of Joseph is good news.  Just as the wrongs done to us are not the end of the story, neither are the wrongs we have done to others.  Just as God brought good out of the injustice done to Joseph, so also God brought forgiveness and blessing into the lives of his guilty brothers.  Guilt is not the end of the story.  There is a “To Be Continued” written by God into the script of our lives, a sequel where God can still work to make us a blessing, if we only give God the chance.

            But there is one more “To Be Continued” at the end of Genesis.  As he approaches his own death, Joseph says to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

            Interestingly, when Joseph delivers this promise, the people of Israel were not yet slaves in Egypt.  That would not happen for several generations.  At the time Joseph spoke these words, his brothers and their families were quite prosperous.  They were living in one of the most fertile places in the land of Egypt.  Their population was growing.  Eventually they would become so numerous and prosperous that the king of Egypt would fear them.  When Joseph said to his brothers, “God will surely bring you up out of this land,” they did not yet know how bad things would get.  They did not yet know that they would become slaves.  They did not yet know that Pharaoh would take their male babies and throw them in the Nile River.  That was still years away.  But Joseph knows that whatever happens in the future, God still has a future for his people.  And not even death, neither Joseph’s death nor ours, can thwart God’s purpose for us or derail the future God wants for God’s people.

            While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I got to know a retired mill-worker named Fritz.  Fritz was not a member of our church, but I visited him because I heard his wife Alice was seriously ill.  Fritz was terrified at the prospect of losing Alice.  They were so close and did so many things together, he couldn't imagine life without her, and when Alice died, he was devastated.  He looked and acted like someone whose life was over.

            Fritz had never been a churchgoer, but after Alice died he was so lonely, he started coming to our church.  He always got there about 45 minutes hour early.  He said he didn't want to be late, but he lived only five minutes away.  I think he got there early because it meant less time being alone.  Since he was always there early, I put him in charge of folding the bulletins.  In Potlatch we did not have a church secretary; we didn’t even have a folding machine.  So I had Fritz fold the bulletins while he was waiting for church to start.  And while he was at it, we had him recruit ushers to take up the offering.  That made him the he ad usher.  Since he was the head usher, he thought he should join the church, which he did, and eventually he was elected to the session.

            Meanwhile, Fritz discovered the Boy Scout troop our church sponsored.  Since he had always been an avid outdoorsman, Fritz got involved with the troop on a regular basis helping some of the boys with their requirements.  Soon he was going to every meeting, and he became such an important part of the program he was given a distinguished service award by the Lewis and Clark Council of the Boy Scouts of America.  All of which happened in the six years following Alice’s death.

            I won't say that these were the happiest years of Fritz's life.  They weren’t.  Fritz still missed Alice and was terribly lonely.  But Fritz discovered that after Alice’s death there was a “To Be Continued” written over his life.  After Alice’s death Fritz discovered a new life he had not experienced before, and in the process he became a blessing to people in ways he never would have imagined.

            Six years after Alice’s death Fritz died, and we had a funeral service for him at the church.  The church was filled to overflowing with people, many of whom were there because they had gotten to know Fritz in the last six years of his life.  Included in the service that day were a whole row of Boy Scouts in full uniform who spontaneously stood at attention and saluted as Fritz's coffin was carried out of the church.

            There is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, even after we have lost a job, even after we have been passed over for a promotion, even after we or a loved one has been diagnosed with a fatal disease.  Even after the loved one dies, even after we die, there is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, a work of God yet to be completed that no past injustice, no present guilt, and no future tragedy can ever thwart.

Thanks and Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 14:17-20; 28:18-22

            I have a confession.  I hate stewardship sermons, sermons about giving and pledging.  Partly because they seems so self-serving.  For a pastor to preach a sermon about giving is like the ultimate a conflict of interest.

            But my real problem with stewardship sermons is how bad many of them are.  This week I read message about giving on the website for Joel Osteen Ministries.  Now I know that some of you like Joel Osteen, and I have seen some good stuff that he has written.  But this message on his website, written by Lisa Comes, is really bad.  She starts out with a story:

One time God spoke to my parents to give a $5,000 offering. They always tithed, but this was an offering over and above their tithe. And it was a lot of money! My brothers and sisters were young at this time. I remember Daddy gathered all of us around him and said, “Kids, God spoke to us to give this offering, and we are going to pray over it. I just want you to know that God is going to bless us in return.” He wanted us to see how God works.  Well, a few weeks later, a lady from another state called my dad’s office. She said she was going to fly her own private plane to Houston because she had something to give him. Daddy met her at the airport, and she hand delivered a check to him for $5,000. She told him that God spoke to her to give him that money. She got back on that plane and went home.

            I want to know what kind of stewardship it is to fly a private plane across the country just to give someone a $5,000 check. The plane trip could have cost that much.  But that is not the lesson Lisa drew from the story.  Here is what Lisa said about the story:

God wants to bless you and prosper you in your finances and in all areas of your life, but there is a spiritual principle that we must follow in obeying and giving that unleashes God’s supernatural provision! …  Tithing is the key to financial blessings. Oftentimes, we want to receive the latter part, the overflowing part! And God wants us to! But we have to be faithful and obedient with the first part, giving.

            Did you notice how similar that is to Jacob in our first scripture reading?  Jacob says to God, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

             For Jacob, as for Lisa Comes, giving is a way of making a deal with God.  If you give to God, God will give to you.

            Friends, that is not stewardship; it’s bribery, it’s manipulation—the same kind of manipulation Jacob tries throughout the book of Genesis: manipulating his father to give him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, then later trying to buy off his brother’s anger with waves of presents.  Jacob is always trying to manipulate people, and he does the same thing with God.  But he has missed the point.  God blessed Jacob, not because Jacob made a deal with God, but because God chose to bless Jacob even before he was born.  Jacob cannot and does not need to buy God’s favor.  He has already received it as a gift of God’s grace.

            And that brings me to Abraham.  Genesis 14 is a remarkable story of how Abraham organizes an army of 318 troops to defeat the armies of four kings and rescue his nephew Lot. On this Veterans Day weekend here is another little reminder that freedom does not come cheap.  It requires courage and sacrifice.  But then Abraham on his way back from this victory meets a mysterious priest/king named Melchizedek.  This is the first appearance of Melchizedek in the Bible, and also the last.  We are told nothing about him except that he is a priest of God Most High and that he comes from Salem, which is probably an abbreviation for Jerusalem.  It may be that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure, who anticipates the later priesthood that served God at the temple in Jerusalem.  The New Testament also suggests that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure anticipating the future priesthood of Jesus.  But none of that is mentioned in Genesis.  In Genesis, Melchizedek shows up, provides a meal for Abraham, and blesses him.

            But here is the part of the story I find interesting.  Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe, one-tenth, of everything.  Abraham does not give this offering—for that is what this is, a kind of offering to God—in order to gain blessing for himself.  He gives it because he has already been blessed by God.  God blessed Abraham with an incredible victory including the safe rescue of his nephew.  Unlike Jacob, and unlike Lisa Comes, Abraham does not give a tithe to God in order to obtain God’s blessing but to give thanks for it.

            And that, I believe, is the proper understanding of stewardship.  We don’t give to God in order to get God’s blessing.  We give in thanks for all the blessings God has already given us.

            If you give for the reasons Lisa Comes suggests, you are not experiencing gratitude, you are experiencing greed.   Giving money to God in order to get more back does nothing to help us overcome greed in our hearts; it only reinforces it.  And if you give for the reasons Jacob gave, out of anxiety or fear, your gift will not help you overcomes those fears and anxieties.  Jacob continued to be plagued by anxiety and fear throughout the rest of the story.  Giving out of anxiety or fear does not remove those emotions from your heart, it only reinforce them, because you are still depending on yourself, on your own strength and resources.  People who give out of guilt, anxiety, or greed will never experience blessing.  Because they will always be experiencing more guilt, more anxiety, and the desire for even more money.

            The antidote to greed is gratitude.  The antidote for guilt is gratitude.  The antidote for anger and resentment is gratitude.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the restless desire for always wanting more.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the fear and guilt of never being good enough for God.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside our jealousy and resentment over what others have, replacing it with thankfulness for what we have.  Gratitude is the channel on which God’s blessing flows to us, and giving, rightly understood, is no more and no less than the practice of gratitude.

            So this year, as you make your pledge for the coming year, don’t give just to support the church budget.  Don’t get me wrong.  I care about the church budget as much as anyone.  But don’t give for the sake of the church budget.  Don’t give out of fear or guilt or even less out of a back-handed desire to wring a blessing out of God.  Give because God has already blessed you.  Give because you have a heart pumping blood through your body and it is bursting with gratitude.  Give because you know where your next meal is coming from and want to help those who don’t.  Give because of all the important people in your life on your cell phone contact list or because of those precious dependents that you list on your tax return as a deduction.  Give because you have both the strength and the freedom to be here this morning.  Give because when the day comes that everything in your life has changed—when the day comes that your job is over and your house is sold and your friends are gone and neither your body nor your mind work the way they once did—on that day your life will still be in the hands of a loving God who will never let you go, and that is the reason to give.

            The only true reason for giving is gratitude, and gratitude is itself part of the blessing that God wants to give us.

Wrestling with God

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 32:9-12 and 22-32

Introduction to Scripture Readings

Before we hear our scripture readings, we need a brief review of the story of Jacob.  Jacob is the grandson of Abraham who tricked his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that Isaac had intended for Jacob’s twin brother Esau.  When Esau found out about this, he vowed to kill Jacob.  So Jacob fled across the Jordan River to the east to live with his uncle Laban.  He lived with Laban for many years, working for him, marrying both of his daughters, and becoming quite prosperous.  But then God told Jacob to return to the land of his parents, the land that God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants.  There is just one problem: to return to the promised land, Jacob has to face Esau.  So Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming home, and word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.  And that is where our first scripture begins.

[Read scriptures]

Sermon

[Slide 1] The story of Jacob’s wrestling match poses numerous questions:

1)      Who is the wrestler? [Click 1]

2)      Why are they wrestling? [Click 2]

3)      What’s with the stalemate? [Click 3] What does it mean that neither quite wins?

4)      Why are they obsessed with each other’s names? [Click 4]

5)      Why is daybreak so important? [Click 5]

Let’s take these questions one at a time:

Who is the wrestler? [Slide 2] The Bible says only that Jacob was alone, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  The man comes out of nowhere and is totally unidentified.  One interpretation is that Jacob is having a dream about wrestling with Esau. [Click 1] That might explain why they are wrestling.  They have been wrestling with each other since they were born.  It might also explain the stalemate.  But why are they asking each other’s names?  And why would Esau have the authority to give Jacob a new name?

The better answer is that Jacob is wrestling with God. [Click 2]  In verse 28 the wrestler says to Jacob,[Click 3]  “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  Later in verse 30 Jacob confirms this when he says, [Click 4] “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

But that interpretation makes the other questions harder to answer. [Slide 3] Why are they wrestling?  And what’s with the stalemate?  What kind of God can be wrestled to a draw?  And what is important about daybreak?  Why does God have to ask Jacob to let him go before sunrise?  Does God have a curfew?

The key to this story is Question 2: [Slide 4] Why are they wrestling?  The answer becomes clear in verse 26: [Click 1: v. 26] “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’  But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”

The whole conflict with Esau started over blessing.  Jacob tried to wrestle away the blessing his father intended for Esau, and now Jacob tries to wrestle blessing from God.

We see this in two of Jacob’s prayers. [Slide 5]  In Genesis 28 when Jacob flees from his brother Esau, he has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven with angels of God ascending and descending the ladder.  After this encounter Jacob utters his first recorded prayer—Genesis 28:20: [Click 1] ”If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”  To me this is not a prayer; this is a negotiation.  Jacob is bargaining with God.  Even here Jacob is trying to wrestle a blessing from God.

Jacob’s next prayer, [Slide 6] comes in Genesis 32 in the scripture Edina read for us. Jacob journeys home and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, so he prays.  This time Jacob admits that he is not worthy of God’s blessing, but then he says to God in verse 9: [Click 1] “Lord, you said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred and I will do you good.’”  Then Jacob repeats that point at the end of the prayer in verse 12: [Click 2] “Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  In this case Jacob is trying to force God’s hand by holding God to the promises God made to him.  In other words, Jacob is still wrestling with God.

By the way, earlier in Genesis, God did not say to Jacob, “I will do you good.”  God said to Jacob, “I will be with you.”  There is a difference, and that is where the stalemate comes in. [Slide 6] What’s with the stalemate? It means that God will allow us to hold God to God’s promises.  God agrees to be held by us, but not always in the way we think or want.

Now we come to Question 4: [Slide 7] “Why are they obsessed with each other’s names?” [Click 1] First, why does Jacob want to know God’s name?  Answer: So that Jacob can summon God.  So that Jacob can call on God’s name, knowing that God has to answer.  But God doesn’t work that way.  The wrestler refuses to reveal his name.  Even later, when Moses asks God’s name, God says, “I am who I am.”  We are not given a name by which to summon God.

And yet, even though we cannot control God, God offers to be with us. [Click 2] And that is why God asks Jacob’s name.  The name Jacob means “usurper.”  Of course God already knows this.  But when Jacob admits his name, he admits that he is a usurper, trying to take God’s blessing into his own hands.  When Jacob admits his name, it is a kind of confession.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel, which means “God will strive or persevere.” Jacob thinks he has to wrestle a blessing from God, but actually God is striving for Jacob.  God has been striving all along to bring Jacob to the place and the life God wants for him.

But morning comes when Jacob must let go of God and turn to face Esau.  That is the meaning of Question 5: [Slide 8] Why is daybreak important?  Daybreak is when we must get up from prayer and face the challenges of the day.  But still God promises to go with us, even when we limp. [Slide 9: Blank]

When rightly understood this scripture describes a profound reality.  I have seen people wrestle with God.  I have seen it at the Bible studies I have done at Praisealujah.  Before the Bible studies at Praisealujah there is singing, and during the singing I have seen numerous people go up to the front, drop to their knees and in some cases prostrate themselves on the front steps begging God’s help to make it through another day.  They are wrestling with God.

I have seen at the City of Glory worship services.  At the end of their worship service people come up to the front for prayer.  This is not a casual prayer like we usually offer.  Pastor Lauden lays hands on them, and even though it is in Swahili, I can tell it is intense.  Pastor Lauden sweats when he prays.  When he prays he has to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief.  Pastor Lauden wrestles with God.

You may not have been that intense, but I know many of you have also wrestled with God.  You have wrestled with God over a loved one with cancer or a child with special needs or a grandchild with addictions.  You have wrestled with God over your job, or lack of one.  You have wrestled with God, sometimes in anguish, over things that have happened in your family or in our community or in our country.  I know people in this church who have wrestled with God.  God allows you to wrestle a blessing from God if you hold on.

But be warned: when you wrestle with God, you will not come away unscathed or unchanged.  You may in fact come away limping, but you will also come away with a new name, a new identity marked not by your power but by God’s.

Blessings to Go Around

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 26:1-33

            As I said in the eNews this week, all conflict is based on a zero-sum view of reality: if I gain, you lose; if you win, I lose.

            This starts early.  Lately I have the chance to watch my two older grandchildren—ages 4 and 2—interact with each other.  It is not always pretty.  The four year-old will gather up all the toy planes we have, take them over to a chair, and protect them with his body so the two year-old cannot take any of them.  Of course there is plenty of toy planes for both of them, and they are intended to be shared, but not in that four year-olds mind.  The two year-old, for his part, will bide his time playing with other toys until the four year-old gets distracted by something.  Then the two year-old runs in, grab one of the planes, and runs away.  I don’t think he even wants it.  He just wants to establish his right to it.  Or maybe he just wants to hear his brother scream.  I don’t know.

            We saw the same thing two weeks ago in our scripture reading about Sarah.  Sarah says to Abraham, “The son of this slave woman [Hagar] shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  There was actually plenty of inheritance for both of them.  God had promised to bless both of these sons of Abraham, but in Sarah’s mind there was not enough blessing to go around.

            So now we come to the story of Isaac.  The conflict between Isaac and the Philistines is over water, which is a big deal in the Middle East.  But as in the case of my grandchildren the conflict is really over something else.  It’s over dominance.  Verse 14 says, “He [Isaac] had possessions of flocks and herds, so that the Philistines envied him.”  So the Philistines tried to drive him away.

            But look at how Isaac reacts to this situation.  When Isaac’s servants dig a well and find water, the Philistines come and claim it.  What does Isaac do?  He moves on and digs another well.  Talk about spineless!  Doesn’t Isaac have the backbone to stand up for his rights?  Apparently not.  So he moves on and digs another well, the Philistines come and claim that one, too.  So Isaac and his servants move on to dig a third well.

            Talk about appeasement.  Doesn’t Isaac know that letting your enemies get away with stuff like that emboldens them to become even more greedy and oppressive?

            But here is the surprise: when Isaac and his servants dig the third well, there is no more conflict.  Verse 22: “He [Isaac] moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth saying, ‘Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’”  And sure enough, Isaac prospered, so much so that in the next paragraph Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, and Phicol, his army commander, make a peace treaty with Isaac.

            At this point Isaac is the more powerful; Isaac has the upper hand.  At this point any smart geopolitical strategist would say to Isaac, “Don’t make a treaty with these Philistines.  Remember what they did to your father? They filled up his wells with dirt.”  The smart advisors would tell Isaac to make no any treaty with the likes of Abimelech.

            But Isaac does.  Why?  We aren’t told, but maybe he remembers the words God spoke to him in our first scripture reading—the same promise God made to his father Abraham:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring.

            For God it is not a zero-sum game.  God is capable of blessing Isaac abundantly and at the same time blessing all the other nations through him.

            So Isaac makes the treaty, and here is the next surprise.  It works.  Despite the conflict in the past, this time the peace agreement works.  After this peace treaty is concluded, there is peace between the Israelites and the Philistines for 700 years.  There is no more mention of conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines anywhere in the rest of Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible until we come to the time of the Judges 700 years later.

            But this scripture is not just about foreign relations; it is about any conflict there may be in your life.  When my own children were young, they argued with each other just like my grandchildren do.  One day my two older children were arguing about who got to sit in the back seat of my brother-in-law’s new Volvo station wagon.  His new Volvo had a rear-facing seat in the back, and my children thought that was so cool, they both wanted to sit there, but there was room only for one.  So they fought over who got to be one sitting in the rear-facing seat.  Finally my brother-in-law said he would flip a coin.  Unfortunately flipping a coin reinforces the zero-sum view of reality.  It may settle a dispute, but it reinforces the sense that one person wins and the other loses, thereby sowing the seeds of resentment.  But my brother-in-law gave it a new twist.  He took out a quarter and said to my daughter, “Call it heads or tail.  If you are right you get to sit in the seat, but your brother gets the coin.  And if you are wrong, he gets to sit in the seat, and you get the coin.”

            Suddenly it was no longer a zero-sum situation.  They both could win.

            The lesson in our scripture this morning is that God has enough blessing to go around, if you search for it.  There was enough water for everyone, if they searched for it.  It was possible for both sides to prosper on the land, if they let go of their fears and resentments long enough to work at it.

            Whatever the conflict you are having in your life, there may be a way for both of you to win, if you look hard enough for it.

            This is where counselors can sometimes help.  If people are having conflict, and they can’t see a way out of it, I encourage them to work with a counselor.  Because a good well-trained counselor can help you reframe a situation, looking at it from a new angle that does not add up to a zero-sum, that does not end up with a winner and a loser but helps both people grow in the process.  Sometimes the very act of making concessions, as Isaac did, can help both parties end up with more than they had before.

            There is an old middle-eastern story about an Arab sheik dying and leaving his camel herd to his three children.  The eldest was to get half the herd, the middle child was to get one-third of the herd, and the youngest was to get one-ninth of the herd.  That in itself sounds unfair, and you might think that such an uneven distribution between the children would itself cause conflict.  But that was not the problem.  In that culture the children accepted the division specified by their father.  The problem was that the sheik left only 17 camels, which could not be divided according to the sheik’s percentages: one-half, one-third, and one ninth.  So the children quarreled with each other over who got an extra camel, and their conflict affected the whole village.  Finally, an elderly woman brought her one camel to the children and said, “Here, take my one camel and add it to the herd.  That will make 18 camels.”  So she gave them camel, which meant that the camels could now be divided.  The oldest child got nine camels, which was half.  The middle child got six, which was one-third, and the youngest got two camels, which was one-ninth.  That totaled 17.  Then elderly woman came and got her camel and went home.

            Sometimes it does not have to be a zero-sum game.  Sometimes there is enough blessing to go around, if we only work hard enough to figure it out.

The Sacrifice

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-14

What was God thinking?

Isaac was the child of the promise,

The one giving Abraham descendants,

Who would become a great nation

And inherit a promised land,

Who would bring blessing

To all the families of the earth.

“Through Isaac your descendants

will be named,” God said.

 

Isaac was the key to the promise,

Abraham’s only son

Now that Ishmael was gone.

Abraham was over a hundred,

Sarah over ninety.

No more children in that womb.

 

And now God wanted Abraham

To sacrifice him.

A whole burnt offering,

With nothing left of Isaac

Or of the promise.

 

What was God thinking?

Jesus was the child of the promise,

The hope of the prophets,

The descendant of King David,

To deliver Israel from its enemies,

And establish God’s kingdom,

To cast down the proud

And lift up the lowly,

To give sight to the blind

And food to the hungry,

To bring peace on earth

And goodwill to all people.

 

Jesus was God’s last best hope,

God’s only Son.

“Unto you a Savior is born,”

Said the angels.

“You are the Messiah,”

Said Peter.

“You are the Son of God,”

Said Nathanael.

Even the demons knew who he was,

And trembled.

 

And now God wanted to sacrifice him

On the altar of Pilate’s tyranny,

Watching the dreams of the prophets,

And the disciples, and Mary,

Bleed to death, or suffocate

On a Roman cross.

 

Abraham’s son, his only son,

Himself carried the wood of the sacrifice

To an altar on Mt. Moriah.

Not far from the spot

Where Solomon would build the temple,

And future generations of Israelites

Would sacrifice bulls and sheep.

 

God’s son, his only Son,

Himself carried the wood of his sacrifice

To a hill called Golgotha,

Not far from Mt. Moriah.

Not far from the temple

Where Solomon offered bulls and sheep.

 

Abraham’s son, his only son,

Was bound and lifted onto an altar,

Stretched out on the wood,

Ready to be pierced

By Abraham’s knife.

 

God’s son, his only Son,

Was bound and lifted onto a cross,

Stretched out on the wood,

Ready to be pierced

By the soldiers’ nails.

 

At the last second an angel intervened,

Halting Abraham’s knife

In mid-air.

A voice from heaven cried,

“Abraham, Abraham,

Do not hurt the boy!”

 

But on that second altar,

No angel intervened,

No voice from heaven

Told them to stop.

The only voice came

From the victim:

“My God, my God,

Why have you forsaken me?”

 

In the end Abraham’s son

Was taken off the altar

And restored to his father,

A ram offered in his place.

 

In the end God’s son

Was taken off the cross

And laid in a tomb.

No one offered to take his place.

 

Now it is true that on the third day,

God’s Son was raised.

The tomb was emptied,

The wounds healed,

The disciples rejoiced,

And the story had a happy ending,

Just like for Isaac.

 

But what do we do with the suffering

That happened along the way?

What do we do with those agonizing steps

By which Abraham dragged himself

To Moriah, step by step,

Carrying the fire and the knife,

Watching his son carry the wood,

Getting closer and closer

Day after day,

Pausing only while his son said,

“Father, where’s the lamb

for the sacrifice?”

 

We are told this is a test?

But of what?  Abraham’s faith?

Abraham shows no sign of wavering,

Even when he gets to the spot,

Even as he builds the altar,

Stone by stone,

Even as he binds his son,

Lays him on the altar,

On top of the wood

And stretches out his hand,

And takes the knife,

And raises it to plunge into his Son.

 

There is no question that Abraham

Intends to obey.

The question is what God

Intends to do.

How far will God let this go?

 

This is not the last time Abraham’s children

Wondered about this.

When they were slaves in Egypt,

Pharaoh drowning their sons in the Nile,

Their cries rose up to God,

“How long, O Lord, will you let this go on?

 

And later when the Israel was defeated,

Slaughtered by Babylonians,

Homes destroyed, children killed,

People bound and taken away as slaves,

They too asked, “How long, O Lord?

How far will you let this go?

When will you intervene to save

The promises to your people?”

 

And what about that other Son,

God’s only Son?

What was it like for him,

Day after day,

Heading for Jerusalem,

Knowing what lies ahead?

What was it like for him,

Sitting at supper with his disciples,

Knowing it was his last?

Or praying in that garden

Waiting for his betrayer to show up?

What was it like being bound

And led away by the authorities

Knowing that his fate was sealed?

He never asked,

“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’

He knew.

 

I know that both of these stories

Have a happy ending.

But along the way there is a depth

Of suffering, understood

Only by those who have been there.

 

And maybe that is the point,

Or at least part of it.

God does not ask of Abraham,

What God would not also do.

If Abraham was asked to sacrifice

His only son,

Then so was God.

And if you understand the Trinity,

If you believe that Father, Son, and Spirit

Are one,

Then the lamb for the sacrifice

Was God Himself.

 

The Bible never explains the suffering

We must go through

On the way to resurrection.

The Bible never offers an excuse

For God putting Abraham

Through that trial

Or Jesus through his.

The Bible never glosses over

The anguish of a parent for a child

Or of God for God’s children.

 

But one thing is clear:

God is not aloof from this anguish.

Where is God in these stories?

Lying on that altar,

Hanging on that cross.

God is the lamb for the sacrifice,

And far from destroying the promise,

The sacrifice fulfills it.

 

The Other Son

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21; 16:1-11

            Between our first and second scripture readings, two things happen: 1) Hagar gives birth to a child fathered by Abraham named Ishmael, and 2) Sarah, Abraham’s wife, finally gives birth to her own promised child named Isaac, which brings us to the second scripture reading: Genesis 21:8-21.  [Read]

            I read this story in Presbyterians Today the magazine of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

While visiting a country where he did not know the language, the American visitor attended a church service.  Not familiar with the order of worship and unable to understand the pastor’s instructions, the visitor watched the man next to him and did as the man did: standing, clapping, praying, etc.  It worked fine until late in the service, when the man stood, and the visitor followed suit.  This time, however, only he and the man were standing. …

Later the pastor greeted the visitor and said in English, “I take it you don’t speak our language.”  “No, I don’t.  It’s that obvious?” replied the visitor.  “Well, yes,” the preacher said.  “I announced that the Acosta family had a newborn baby boy, and I asked the proud father to please stand up” (June, 2009, p. 11).

            In our scripture for today, the problem is not two fathers; it’s two mothers.

            There are several sermons I could preach about this story.  I could, for example, talk about Sarah’s needless jealousy.  Sarah had already been promised, more than once, that her child would be the chosen one.  She did not have to fear that Ishmael would take away God’s blessing from her son Isaac.  But she worried about it anyway, to the point that she was determined to get rid of Ishmael.  Sarah believed that God has only so much blessing to pass around, and that if you share some of that blessing with others, you will lose it for yourself.  I could preach a sermon about that: Sarah’s ungrounded fear that there is not enough blessing to go around.

            I could also preach a sermon about Abraham.  Abraham, after all, is the one who sent Hagar and her child into the wilderness with no more provisions than she could carry on her back, and she had to carry her child, too.  Did you notice that?  Abraham did not even send a donkey with her to help carry extra provisions.  I could preach a sermon about that, but that’s not the sermon I want to preach this morning.

            The sermon I want to preach this morning is not about Sarah or Abraham; it’s about God, because God is the one who tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s demand.  I don’t know about you, but I find that terribly disturbing.  It is one thing for Abraham to send Hagar and her small child into the wilderness with only the provisions that Hagar could carry on her back.  But God seems to go along with this.  Why?

            I find this particularly puzzling because of the promises God makes about Ishmael that are almost as significant as the promises God made about Isaac.  [Slide 1: God’s Promises about Ishmael] In our first scripture from Genesis 16 God says to Hagar, [Click 1] “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude.”  Notice how similar this is to the promises God gave to Abraham and Sarah: that they would have offspring like the sand of the sea and the stars in the sky.  In chapter 17 God gives an even greater promise to Ishmael.  God says to Abraham, [Click 2] “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”  Notice how similar this is to the promise God gave to Abraham back in Genesis 12—to make his descendants a great nation that would be blessed.  But now God is endangering all of these promises to Ishmael by encouraging Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.

            Hagar and Ishmael are not the only ones God treats this way.  Now I want to show you some parallels between the story I just read today from Genesis 21 and the story we will read next week from Genesis 22. [Slide 2: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22]

[Click 1] In Genesis 21:12, God says to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy [Ishmael] and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.”

            God puts all the promises about Ishmael at risk by telling Abraham to send Hagar away.  But then in the next chapter …

[Click 2] In Genesis 22:2, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

            Ishmael is not the only child of the promise God puts at risk.  God also puts Isaac at risk.  Both are children of the promise but their lives are threatened by God’s own actions.

            But that is not the end of the story. [Slide 3: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22]  Here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 21:

[Click 1] Genesis 21:19-20: “Then God opened [Hagar’s] eyes and she saw a well of water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.”

And here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 22:

[Click 2] Genesis 22:12-13: God said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy [Isaac] or do anything to him….”  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.  Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

            There is still a question here: If God intended to save both children, why did God put them at risk in the first place.  That is a good question which I will talk about next week.  You will have to come back next week for that one.

            But here is the sermon for this week: God is watching over both children.  Sarah may care more about her own child than Hagar’s child, but God cares about them both.  In the end God saves both children, because in both cases God has a purpose for them that is not yet finished. [Slide 4: Blank]

            By the way, there is a sequel to this story.  When Abraham dies in Genesis 25, both Isaac and Ishmael come back together to bury their father in the family burial plot in Hebron.

            This is significant because Isaac eventually became the ancestor of the Israelites, the Jews, and Ishmael is considered the ancestor of the Arabs.  In 2013 I visited the Holy Land and saw the wall [Slide 5] that separates the Israelis from the Palestinians on the West Bank. The wall was put up to keep them apart, like Sarah telling Abraham to send away the son of Hagar.

            Unfortunately this extends even to Abraham’s tomb.  On the same trip we also visited Abraham’s tomb in Hebron and discovered that the building itself is divided: one side is for Jews, the other for Muslims. [Slide 6] Both must look at Abraham’s tomb from different sides through bullet proof plate glass windows.

            I understand that this has been done to reduce the opportunity for violence.  But that is not how God intended things.  In the town of Ibillin near Nazareth we visited a Christian school. [Slide 7] In this school Israeli children and Palestinian children learn together.  Jewish, Islamic, and Christian children take classes together not only to learn about academics, but to learn about relationships and God’s purpose for human life.

            That’s where Jesus comes in.  After the resurrection Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” [Slide 8]  This is a picture of a painting over the door of the Christian church in Ibillin.  We may want to send some people away like Sarah wanted to do with Hagar, but God is determined to work both sides of the fence.  Whatever group of people you would like to send away: maybe it’s immigrants, maybe it’s Republicans, maybe it’s Democrats, maybe it’s your in-laws—whatever people you might want to send away, God is determined to work in their lives just as much as yours, and we will only fulfill God’s purpose for us when we become a blessing to all the families of the earth, and not just our own.

The Promise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-12

            I had an English professor at Whitworth University who spoke at a chapel service and said, “Faith is the courage to step out knowing there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.”

            That’s the story of Abraham in our scriptures this morning.  Notice what Abraham is asked to leave behind:

Now the Lord said to Abram [his name before it was changed to Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

            Abraham was asked to leave behind family, friends, community, and country to set off for a land that God was going to show him.  God did not even tell him where he was going. God just told him to set out.  All he could do was hold on to the promise.

            Now about that promise.  I have said before in a sermon and I said it again last Sunday in the adult Sunday School class: the first three verses of Genesis 12 are the most important verses in the entire Old Testament.  Abraham is given three promises in these three verses:

-          Land: “Go to a land that I will show you.”

-          Descendants: “I will make of you a great nations.”

-          Blessing: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Land, descendants, and blessing.  The next 900 pages of the Old Testament, and much of the New Testament, is the story of what happens to those three promises.

            For his part Abraham is one of the least likely people to succeed at these promises.

-          Land: Abraham is promised a land, but he spends his whole life as a wandering migrant, moving his sheep and cattle from place to place searching for pasture and water.  The only piece of the promised land he ever owns is the cemetery plot for his wife Sarah. 

-          Descendants: Abraham is promised descendants who will become a great nation, but he and Sarah have no children and they are getting old.  How will Abraham become the father of a great nation, if he dies childless?

-          Blessing: Abraham and his descendants are to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, but Abraham spends his entire life just trying to survive in a parched land with sometimes hostile neighbors.  How will a life like that ever be a blessing to others?

The only asset Abraham has, the only thing Abraham has going for him, is faith—the courage to take that first step and set out for the promised land, even though he does not know where it is.

            Having said that, I must note that Abraham’s faith wavers all through the story.  In the very next story, Genesis 12:10-21, there is a famine in the promised land.  What does Abraham do?  Does he trust God’s promise?  No, he bails on the promised land and heads to Egypt.  Then he lies to Pharaoh about Sarah, claiming she is his sister instead of his wife.  He does this so that Pharaoh can take her into his harem without having to kill Abraham first in order to claim her.  Basically he throws Sarah under the bus to save his neck.  So much for having descendants with her.  And because of this God brings plagues on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, which means that far from becoming a blessing to other nations, Abraham has become a curse.  No sooner does Abraham receive the promise of God than he endangers it because he tries to take matters into his own hands instead of trusting God.

            And yet, God keeps saving the promise.  Because of the plagues, Pharaoh restores Sarah to her husband Abraham, and later they are able to have children.  Every time God’s people endanger the promise with their unfaithfulness, God saves it.  That is the story of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.  God keeps saving Abraham and his descendants until finally the descendant comes who can fulfill the promise—the descendant of Abraham who finally brings blessing to all the families of the earth.

            And that is where we get Jesus.  The very first thing the Bible tells us about Jesus, the very first verse of the New Testament, tells us that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham.  He is the one in whom the promises to Abraham are finally fulfilled.

            But that does not happen in Abraham’s lifetime.  Instead Abraham must take a step into the unknown, knowing that there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.

            In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott writes,

A memory came to me then, of our pastor Veronica telling us just the week before how she gets direction from God in prayer; she said that when she prays for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step.  She moved away from the pulpit to demonstrate, stepping forward shyly—this big-boned African-American woman tramping like Charlie Chaplin into an imagined spotlight, and then, after standing there looking puzzled, she moved another step forward to where the light had gone, two feet ahead of where she had been standing, and then again.  “We in our faith work,” she said, “stumble along toward where we think we’re supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing—we end up getting exactly where we’re supposed to be” (p. 84).

            For Abraham inheriting the land was not an event but a journey.  This is exactly the point made about Abraham in our first scripture reading from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “By faith Abraham set out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”  For Abraham inheriting the promise was not an event but a journey, and the same is true for us.  Faith in God does not mean you have arrived as a parent, a spouse, a neighbor, a coworker, or even a fully mature follower of Christ.  Faith does not mean you have arrived.  It means you are willing to take the next step God wants you to take, trusting that God knows where you are going and will be there every step of the way.

Scattered and Gathered: Babel's Blessing

It is easy to read the story of Babel as a dire warning against human unity, but what if that’s not the real point? What if this is a story about God’s continuing work of creation? When God mixes up humanity’s language, God dissolved the monoculture of Babel and created diversity. From Babel humanity proceeded to fulfill God’s desire for the children of Noah to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” On World Communion Sunday it is especially poignant that we celebrate not only the diversity given to us at Babel, but the unity we experience in Christ. Join us as we worship a God who scatters and gathers.

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Testimony of a Tempter

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-13

Introduction

As I said in the eNews this week, one of my favorite short novels is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.  Screwtape is like an under-secretary in the devil’s department of temptation.  His letters are advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people, how to draw people away from a relationship to God and from the life God wants us to have.  Lewis uses these letters in a kind of backward way to tell us how to avoid temptation and how to nurture a relationship to God.

So for today’s sermon I have written my own Screwtape letter based on the story we just heard in Genesis 3.  This is “Testimony of a Tempter.”

Letter

Dear Nephew Wormwood:

Your letter came as a surprise.  It’s been a long time since I heard from you.  I was beginning to think you had forgotten your old uncle Screwtape, especially after all the help I have given you.  You have come a long way down in the organization, Wormwood, but you will never reach bottom if you forget those who helped you along the way.

Now to your question.  You asked about my greatest temptation.  Naturally, many come to mind.  Your uncle has had a fairly illustrious career, if I say so myself.  But the greatest temptation—that would have to be the first one.

You young tempters have it so easy.  Centuries of lust, greed, exploitation, and violence have given you so much to work with.  At the beginning we had nothing to work with.  Everything was good: happy marriage, clean environment, plenty of food, fulfilling work.  It was disgusting.

A lesser tempter might have given up, but I saw possibilities.  You see, Wormwood, even good things can be twisted if you know how to do it.  That is the key to temptation.  Almost nothing is evil in itself.  It becomes evil only when it is twisted from its intended purpose.

Take sex, for example.  Sex might have been a disaster for us.  God gave it tremendous power for drawing people together and uniting them in a family.  Sex could have been awful for us.  To be useful, sex had to be twisted.  We did it by separating sex from its most important component: commitment.  Once we separated sex from commitment, we produced one of our greatest emotional triumphs: jealousy.  And with jealousy we created many other delightful experiences: suspicion, mistrust, fear, anger, resentment, and vengeance.  We’ve done such a good job with sex hardly anyone associates it with something holy.

Yes, Wormwood, anything good can be twisted into something bad, if you know how to do it.  That is what I did at the first temptation.  In the Garden of Eden the only thing had I to work with was freedom.  Now freedom is another of those nauseatingly good things that God concocted.  Imagine giving those funny little human beings a freewill.  What was God thinking?  Didn’t God know that humans could use their freedom to reject God just as easily as to love God?

That gave me my opening.  I approached the woman first.  No particular reason.  The man was just as gullible.  It did not matter whom I approached first, the key was to approach them one at a time.  People are far more likely to do something stupid if they don’t first stop and talk it over with others in their family.

So I approached the woman and said, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  Of course I knew that was not true.  So did the woman.  Immediately she answered, “What are you talking about?  We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.”

Suddenly the woman was defending God.  Now you may think that is a bad thing for us, but it isn’t.  Because in the very act of defending God the woman discovered that God could be questioned.  She realized, perhaps for the first time, that her freedom to enjoy God was also a freedom to put herself over God, in effect to become God’s judge.

I did not even mention the forbidden fruit.  I didn’t have to.  The woman brought it up herself.  She said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, except for this one tree…”

Isn’t it delightful how the human mind works?  You put two children in a room full of toys, and the only toy they want is the one held by the other child.  God had given the woman a whole world of fruit to enjoy, but suddenly she is thinking only of the one God prohibited.

Do you know why people are like that, Wormwood?  I hope they are teaching you something in that school.  People crave power.  It irked her that God would restrict her freedom by prohibiting this one tree.  I played on this by suggesting that God might be jealous.  I said to her, “Perhaps God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Actually, this was partly true.  Half-truths are always better at deceiving people than outright lies.  What I said was partly true.  Eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil meant taking into their own hands the power to decide good and evil.  Rather than listening to God, they would in a sense become God, deciding for themselves what is good and evil, right and wrong.

I never actually suggested eating the forbidden fruit.  The woman thought of that on her own.  You know, Wormwood, we do not have the power to make people do evil.  The decision must come from the people themselves.  But I could see that already in her mind the woman was rationalizing the decision.  She looked at the fruit and saw that it was good.  Of course it was good.  Everything God made was good.  The question was whether the humans would use the good things God made according to God’s intended purpose.

The ending was delightful.  The man and woman ate the fruit to become like God, and they ended up ashamed of being human.  They hid from God in the bushes, like a snake.  Having tried to rise above their humanness, they sank below it.  Having tried to assert their freedom, they now scrambled to avoid responsibility.  The man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed me.  I can still hear her: “The devil made me do it.”

Well, Wormwood, I hope you have learned something from this story.  You will never succeed at creating evil.  We do not have that power.  We must take things that God created and use them for our purposes, making them more important to people than God.  When sex becomes a person’s god, we get lust.  When achievement becomes their god, we get pride.  When possessions become their god, we get greed.  And when a person or relationship becomes their god, we get idolatry.  See how it works, Wormwood.  Don’t try to make something evil.  Try to make something good into something people want more than God.  Then stand back and watch what happens.

I have always had success with this approach, except that one time it did not seem to work.  I still have not figured out why.  We offered that guy from Nazareth everything: wealth, power, prestige—everything.  But he turned it all down so he could go out and get himself nailed to a cross.  I never figured it out.  Sometimes I think that failure may come back to haunt us.

But let us think of happier things.  The world is still full of gullible people, just like Adam and Eve.  The possibilities for temptation are endless.  So carry on, Wormwood.  You have nothing to lose but your soul.

The Reason You Are Here

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-4

            I want to begin this morning with a scene from the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond.  In this episode Raymond’s young daughter Ally asks him, “Why are there babies?”  Thinking that she is asking about sex, Raymond has a sneezing attack and has to leave the room.  But his wife prods him to go back and answer her question.  So armed with several books about sex he goes in to have “the talk” with his daughter.  And that’s where our scene begins.

[Show 4 minutes from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j4iMm4yz8I]

[Description of the scene if the video does not work out: He comes into Ally’s room and says, “I guess you have some questions about babies.”  “Yeah,” she says, “why are there babies?”  He says, “Well, when a man and woman love each other they get married, and then sometimes they decide to make a baby.”  His daughter interrupts and says, “I already know where babies come from.  I was wondering why they are here at all.  Why did God put us here?”  Raymond looks at her and says, “What?”  She says, “Why are we here?”  He says, “Don’t you want to talk about sex?”  She says, “No, I’m wondering why God put us here.”  Raymond looks at her and then starts sneezing.]

            The Bible, I am glad to say, is not afraid to discuss why we are here.  In fact the answer to that question begins in the very first chapter.

            I am going to spend the next several minutes in a rather intense Bible study, so stay with me.  This may seem a little dry and academic, but it gets to the heart of why we are here.

            First, let’s look at Genesis 1:26-27 [Slide 1]

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; …. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.

            What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God?  It can’t mean we look like God.  The Bible is adamantly opposed to making any image that claims to look like God or be God.  So what does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God?

            Well, there is another place in Genesis where these same two words are used: Genesis 5:3 [Slide 2]; “When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”  Here we have the same Hebrew words as in Genesis 1.  Adam became the father of a child in his image and likeness.  Did that mean the child looked exactly like Adam or represented Adam?  No, it meant that they belonged to the same species.  There was a relationship between Adam and his son unlike the relationship Adam had with other animals—a relationship that allowed them to be a family.

            So what does it mean that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God? It means we are created capable of a relationship to God.  We are created to be part of God’s family.

            God demonstrates this in Genesis 1:29 [Slide 3]: “And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”  At this point I am not interested in the dietary issues posed by this verse.  That is another subject.  What interests me is the way God speaks directly to humans in this verse.  God speaks to humans in a different way than God speaks to other parts of creation.  Earlier in chapter 1 God says things like, “Let there be light … let the waters be gathered together into one place … let the earth bring forth living creatures.”  Elsewhere in Genesis 1 God speaks the world into existence; but here God speaks personally to the man and woman as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  God does this all through the rest of the Bible.  Unlike other creatures God addresses humans personally as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  That’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God: God can talk to us, and we can talk back.

            Which brings me to another astonishing detail in verse 26: how God uses the plural. [Slide 4]. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.”  Who is “us”?  We are not told.  Many Bible scholars suggest it refers to the heavenly host, the angels.  Others say it is a plural of deliberation, like a Presidential candidate saying, “We are taking our message across the country.”  The candidate means, “I am taking my message across the country,” but the candidate uses “we” and “our” makes it sound like the candidate is part of something bigger.

            Of course a classic Christian answer is that God refers here to the Trinity.  When God says, “Let us make humans in our image,” God is referring to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I cannot prove which of these interpretations is correct, but they all assume that God is not a solo act.  From the very beginning God is a relational God, and in creation God invites human beings into that relationship. [Slide 5: Blank]

            And that brings me to one final peculiarity about this chapter.  Why does it describe creation as happening in seven days?  Some take this literally.  They say the Bible describes creation happening in seven days because that’s how it happened.  God created everything in seven 24-hour periods.  Of course science disagrees, and those who take this chapter literally are forced into some bizarre explanations of why some fossils appear millions of years older than other fossils.

            But that debate misses the point.  The Bible is not talking here about seven 24-hour periods.  That is obvious when you look at verse 14 [Slide 6]: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons and for days and years.”  Here in verse 14 God creates the sun and the moon, specifically to be markers of time.  But here is the strange thing: verse 14 is the fourth day of creation.  God does not created the sun until the fourth day!  So what does a day mean if the sun has not yet been created? [Slide 7: Blank]

            It has to have a symbolic meaning.  The seven days of creation mean that the creation is headed toward a climax—a destination—which is the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.  The whole point of creation is so that we can rest in God’s love and celebrate our life with God forever.   Or as the Presbyterian Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “The chief end of people is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

            That’s the Bible’s answer to Ally’s question.  Why are we here?  We are not put here because there is overcrowding in heaven.  Nor is our purpose to accomplish something before we die.  Our purpose is relational: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s why we are here, not to accomplish something, not to prove something, but to love someone beginning with our Creator, and in the process to let our Creator love us.

            A few months before she died, I had a conversation with Beverly Klose, one of our members at Wesley Gardens.  Beverly was fairly discouraged that day.  Her eyesight had gotten so bad she could no longer read, which she loved to do.  In fact it had gotten so bad she could hardly see to get around her apartment, and she was beginning to trip on things and fall, which made her feel even more helpless.  But it wasn’t feeling helpless that really got her down.  It was feeling useless.  She said to me, “I don’t know why I’m still around; I’m not good for anything anymore.”  Actually I have known numerous people in the later years of their lives who said something like that to me.  “I don’t know why I’m still here; I’m not good for anything anymore.”

            So I said to Beverly, “Can you still pray?”  She said, “Of course.  I pray every day.”  I said, “Then keep praying, because there is no better gift you can give to God or to us.”

            That’s what it means to be created in the image of God.  You are here for a purpose: not to accomplish something but to love someone—to love God with all your heart and to love the other people God puts in your life.  That is your purpose, a purpose so great not even an eternity will make you obsolete.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7