Where Heaven and Earth Come Together John 1:43-51

These days I think it is really difficult to not have preconceived opinions about others. This past summer BLM put before us the challenge of how we look at each other and the prejudice we carry toward those of a different race. We have had to look at how justice or injustice is being served on the same criteria. Mention someone of a different political persuasion and automatically the label “liberal” or “radical,” is attached. In the Gospel of John, Jesus had invited Philip to follow him. Philip went to tell Nathaniel that he had found the one they had all been looking for, “Jesus of Nazareth.” How did Nathaniel respond, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Obviously, Nathaniel had some preconceived ideas about the value of people out of Nazareth. The same affliction plagued the people of that day and today as well.

Jesus said that Nathaniel was a person without “deceit,” and that he had seen Nathaniel under a fig tree before Jesus called out to him. Apparently, this was enough for Nathaniel to declare,

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

John 1:49

How did Nathaniel jump from doubting Jesus, a person from Nazareth, to calling him “King of Israel?” Nathaniel’s reasoning isn’t described fully. However as a person without deceit, Nathaniel was a person who likely called reality as presented to him: a fact was a fact, truth was truth, etc. His encounter with Jesus caused his vision of reality to change in a dramatic way.

The reading from John concludes with Jesus saying,

Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

John 1:50-51

Jesus was telling that upon him heaven and earth have come together. He cited Jacob from the book of Genesis. Jacob was on the run from his past. Tired and exhausted, he laid down with a rock for a pillow and he saw the vision Jesus referenced. Jacob said,

“Surely the Lord was in this place but I did not know it”

Genesis 28:16

This is the indictment against us all. The Lord has come to us but we didn’t see the reality of it. Why? We have our preconceived ideas and prejudices that distort our reality. We are too busy with our politics. We are too set in our ways of understanding of how the world should work and the Lord’s involvement – toward my advantage. We are so busy with spin that we can no longer look at the facts for what they are. Yet, the Lord was and is in this place.

So how will we be able to recognize where heaven and earth come together? Follow the invitation that was given to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” Look at the things Jesus did: he invited the outcast, he brought healing to the sick, he lifted up those downtrodden and poor, he announced God’s favour to those hardly considered blessed by our standards. When and where grace has triumphed over power, look to see the Lord has come in that place.

The invitation to, “Come and See” is all that any of us can offer to others. All we do is invite others to do is come and see where heaven and earth come together.

Peace

A Word We Need Hear John 1:1-18

I love the snow. Folks look at me as though this is strange. The answer I usually give to their question “WHY?” is a simple “No allergies and no mosquitoes.” This response generally satisfies their question. This morning my love for the snow grows deeper for what it tells us. Where I live, the morning was greeted with a fresh covering of snow. The drab brown of dead grass and bare branches gave way to to a coating of white. The vision out the widow was simply, beautiful. A nice, fresh coating to start a new 2021 from a death filled and compassion barren 2020 was welcomed.

The opening verses from the Gospel of John are high Christology which tell us so much about Jesus Christ. Last week his birth was celebrated and today the reality of his coming has been described to us. The Word, the powerful expression of God has come to be with us. The living Word who brought creation into existence and to whom we owe our life has come to us. If we have any doubts about the nature of God, all we need to do is look upon Jesus and we’ll know the answer. The birth of Jesus means we are blessed in ways we truly cannot fully understand. God has come to be with us. This is grace upon grace.

The sadness of the reading is that we have been so blessed and we reject it. God has come to make beauty known and we refuse to see it. This is our darkness. Those who deny Christ are not those with a different political perspective. They aren’t those we condemn to make ourselves feel better or look more spiritual. The reading says the world did not recognize him and that means all of us. Grace and beauty have come in revealing God to us all and we collectively say, “No thanks.” We have chosen to live in the darkness we have made.

The reading from the Gospel of John isn’t about us. It is about the Word of God having come to live with us. We have been and continue to be blessed because of Jesus Christ. A new year began with the beauty of snow covering the drab brown of last year. The year, 2021, begins with the blessing of light that shines in our darkness. God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the Word, Jesus. Seeing the light for the blessing that it is, means we have the honour to be called a child of God. The year, 2020, was a difficult year but look at Jesus Christ and know that you have been blessed. Grace has come to 2021.

Peace.

Mary And The Call From God Luke 1:26-38

We have all heard the warning that if something is too good to be true it likely is untrue. Who hasn’t received an unsolicited email that immediately causes our doubts to flare up about its honesty? When greeted with, “Now, aren’t you the lucky one,” the desire is to head off in the other direction because we know that such greetings have a catch to them. Now don’t get me wrong, hearing good news is fabulous. However, the experience of life is that this good news doesn’t always come easily.

The angel, Gabriel, came to Mary with the announcement

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

Luke 1:28

The idea of being looked upon with favour in the eyes of God would be a blessing for anyone. Unfortunately, we assume that this will mean blessings as determined by this world: riches, power, success in business, celebrity status, etc. The prophets were favoured by God and they spoke with tears of sadness telling the people what was to come upon them. They were despised and killed by those not liking their message. The favoured of God needed to leave everything behind to travel to a land they did not know beforehand. The favoured of God wandered in a wilderness facing thirst and hunger for forty years. Being favoured by God is to know that the kingdom of heaven is on its way to us from the Lord. We need to remember that this kingdom that is coming from God is not of this world.

Mary was called by Gabriel as the favoured one of God and that the Lord was with her. She was invited to be a participant in the Lord establishing the kingdom. This was absolutely a reason to be blessed. Yet, her pregnancy would invite the shame of her community and culture. How would Joseph respond? Mary was told,

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Luke 1:33

This means that a revolution was about to take place and they are bloody affairs. Mary heard the message that she was ‘favoured’ and that the Lord was with her. This was not going to be easy. Her response was to count her in,

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

Luke 1:38

This is the last Sunday in Advent and we are blessed to hear with anticipation the amazing news of what God was doing through the birth of Jesus to bring his kingdom to us. We are invited to welcome and participate in this blessing. The world is dealing with the politicization of a pandemic and people are dying. The land is facing power grabs with law suits and disinformation (lies). This is not how the kingdom of heaven functions over which Christ will reign without end. May we all have the courage to join with Mary as the blessed of the Lord saying, “let it be with me according to your word.”

Peace.

A Voice Crying Out In Our Wilderness Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark starts out with these words,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:1

I like that it starts with those words. The good news of Jesus Christ isn’t reserved for some time in the past. The good news of Jesus Christ isn’t being set aside for some day in the future. We are told that the good news begins with Jesus Christ and that it continues on making it relevant for today as well. This year of 2020 is a year that we would all like to put behind us. The political turmoil, a raging pandemic and environmental impacts leave us with an urgent plea for good news to ring out, calling us to hope for today.

The reading cites Isaiah speaking of a voice calling out from the wilderness. The voice urges one and all to make the way for the coming of the Lord to be straight: take out the potholes and other obstacles in life that get in way. John the Baptist is presented as that voice. He wears clothing made from camel hair to bring to mind the prophet Elijah. He also ate a diet of honey and locusts which left him independent from others, except for his dependence upon God.

John the Baptist spoke from the wilderness and the people gathered from all around to hear him. The wilderness was a place considered inhospitable for people to live. Wild animals lived there and so did thieves and criminals. Demons dwelt there too. So why go out to such a place? The people had heard the speeches before from those living in mansions and places of political power but there was no good news to be heard, just the same old lines that kept the status quo. John the Baptist spoke in the wilderness news that was different. He told of the coming of one who will baptize not with mere water but with the Holy Spirit. The result is that we would be guided not by the edicts of the powerful but by God. Jesus was the one to whom John the Baptist pointed.

Jesus came preaching a word of liberation to those held unjustly in bondage by political systems. He fed the hungry and healed the sick: he paid special attention to the weakest of society. Jesus welcomed those cast aside by society. He spoke truth in the face of power. John the Baptist was that voice but he was pointing out to a greater voice; Jesus was and is the Word of God en-fleshed calling out to us in 2020’s wilderness which is good news to hear.

So what is John the Baptist telling us to do? He is telling us to repent. Repentance is more than simply saying that we are sorry. Repentance means to turns our lives around and take life in a different direction that Jesus lived out for us to see. Yes, we are living in 2020’s wilderness but a voice is calling out for us to take life on a new path. If we are willing to listen, then we’ll begin on a new journey that is good news for all in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Peace

Jesus and Taxes Matthew 22:15-22

Does anybody really enjoy paying taxes? As mid-April approaches, do any of us celebrate writing out a check to send off to the treasury? Are any of us filled with joy as another tax form needs to be filled out? Taxes are a part of life. So when Jesus is asked about paying taxes in the reading, the answer he gives is unexpected because he flips the narrative. Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in a political trap. In the end, Jesus exposes them for their own hypocrisy.

Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Pharisees were against the Roman occupation and paying taxes was the equivalent of being considered a traitor. Herodians, as the name suggests, supported Herod who served at the leisure of Rome. So lets say a liberal Democrat and conservative Republican join forces to take someone down politically. Yeah, you get the picture. Something is about to happen and it doesn’t pass the smell test. A trap was being set.

Jesus was asked about the legality of paying taxes to Rome. If he said, “yes,” Jesus would be charged with betraying Israel and God. If he said, “no,” Jesus would be charged with sedition against Rome. How was Jesus going to respond? He trapped them in their hypocrisy.

Jesus asked for a coin. They had one readily available engraved with the image of the emperor. Owning the coin proved that they were fully involved with the economic realities of living in the Roman empire. Therefore, paying taxes was acceptable. However, God’s authority has a moral claim over our lives that cannot be negated by Rome. The answer Jesus gave was not the simple “yes” or “no” that they were hoping to hear and serve their political agenda. Life as a person of faith in this world is far more complicated than we imagine.

We live in a time where there is confusion over God and country. Do we merge the two together or keep them strictly separate? If we aren’t careful, then we are living out what the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to do with Jesus when he flipped the trap on them saying,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:21

There is a political claim that is made upon us because we live in this world. Yet, there is a claim that God has placed upon us as well. If we try to merge the two, we end up making the country into an idol. If we try to separate them, then one is chosen at the expense of the other. The answer Jesus gave about taxes seems to leave us in tension between the two.

The life of faith is not an easy one – nothing shocking here. So we are left with the great challenge of discernment. Where does the claim of politics begin and end? Where does God’s claim (as the One who gave us life) fit in? How we draw the lines is the way faith is lived.

Peace.

A Scandalous God Matthew 22:1-14

Have you ever thought of the Gospel as something that is scandalous? Normally, we call the Gospel “Good News.” It is because of what Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection. The Gospel is for us, salvation. So how can something that is so good for us be a scandal? It is scandalous for us to hear because God doesn’t follow our understanding of value, worth or importance. Instead, the Gospel destroys our false claims.

A king is throwing a wedding party (a symbol for salvation) for his son. Nobody responds. A second invitation is sent out but some of the invited guests were too busy with the farm or their business. They were too busy doing the things which we define as bestowing worth to a person. The king’s invitation is what graciously declared their importance in the kingdom but they refused. The other invited guests abused and killed the king’s messengers. They violently snubbed the king’s gracious invite. So what does a king do to those who snub his kindness? Naturally, he destroys them.

There needs to be a word of caution given here. If we aren’t careful, we end up taking one of Jesus’ parables about God’s kingdom and make them about supporting our claims for worthiness and power. The actions of the king can be used to justify violence (in God’s name) and anti-Semitic beliefs. Jesus was using this parable to illustrate the nature of God’s kingdom. He wasn’t reducing God to a tyrannical human king seeking vengeance for being snubbed.

Since none of the first invitees were willing to attend the party, the king sent out more servants to invite who ever they could find, good or bad. In the end, these folk had a valued place in the kingdom which exceeded those busy with farm, business or direct opposition could never attain. The kingdom of God is about and will always be about grace.

A curious point was made about a guest present at the party without a wedding robe. When asked, the guest gave no answer to why they were at the party and were then thrown out. The person didn’t comprehend the kindness and grace given by the king’s invitation.

So what do we do with this parable? We live in a crucial time when we are divided and the value of human worth is being debated. Black Lives Matter, immigration policy, suburb vs. inner city, rich vs. poor are all being played out as to who is worthy and who is not to be a part of this country and world. The violence being lived out today and as shown in the parable is how we choose to define our own value and worth.

Jesus told this parable as a way of describing the kingdom of God. We are important not because of our wealth or stubborn ideology. Value in the kingdom of God comes by God’s invitation. The invitation is sent out to all people. Therefore, all are the same.

So will we finally get this through our heads? Will we abandon our efforts to define ourselves by tyrannical force? Are we really going to let ourselves be on the outside looking in at the salvation God has invited us to in Christ? Or, are we going to let God be the one who defines us by that gracious and wonderful invitation to salvation?

Peace

Actions Not Words Matthew 21:23-32

I think that we have all heard the phrase, “actions speak louder than words.” Most likely we have more than heard the phrase, the words have impacted us directly. Who hasn’t been disappointed when promises have gone unfulfilled? We have all been burned at one time or another when trusting in words that have left us betrayed. Every election cycle words are spoken of peace, security, justice, unity. Yet, the disunity, fear, anger and corruption continue. The challenge from the reading for those of us who call upon Jesus is to do more than say words but to repent and do the actions that Jesus did and lived.

Chief priest and elders of the people were demanding to know by whose or what authority Jesus overturned the money changing tables and called the Temple a “den of robbers.” Jesus would only respond to them if they decided on John the Baptist’s authority for calling the people to repent and prepare for the coming reign of God. Was it of human or Divine authority? After a brief discussion, they chose the politically astute answer – they punted. The chief priests and elders may have had leadership roles but they were not “of” the people. They served by Roman permission and lived lives of privilege that the people couldn’t relate. Sure they spoke the words from God but their actions were empty.

Jesus then challenged them with a parable of a father who sent his two sons out to work in the fields. One said, “no” but later went. The other said, “yes” but never showed up. Which did the will of the father? The answer was obvious. Jesus then gave the stinging rebuttal that prostitutes and tax collectors would proceed them into the kingdom of heaven. Tax collectors took in the revenue to help finance the Roman occupation and so they were considered traitors. Prostitutes and traitors would enter the kingdom of heaven first. Why? They heeded John the Baptist’s words and changed their lives to welcome the reign of God. Actions the chief priests and elders of the people wouldn’t take.

So will we be people of words only? Or, will we take the risk to change the lives we live to make those words come alive? This is the challenge for those of us who call upon Jesus. Will we simply say the words or will we personally change to follow what he did and lived?

Peace

Reconciliation in a Call Out Culture Matthew 18:15-20

The reading is a tough one to comment on. The reason isn’t because of some deep theological analysis. The reason is because of its simplicity. Jesus is very straight forward regarding the importance of seeking reconciliation and its implications in the kingdom of heaven. His words (if we are willing to take them seriously) put a mirror up for us to take a look at ourselves. The reflection is not pretty. This is why the reading is tough.

We live in a “Call Out” culture. If someone disagrees, we slam them. We attack them on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Peaceful protests are being met with armed groups (both on the right and the left) to enforce their version of law and order. Division and appealing to your base may be a successful strategy in human politics. However, this political approach runs in direct contradiction to what Jesus is teaching. What Jesus is showing us is a culture that doesn’t call each other out but calls one another into relationship.

“If another member of the church sins against you…

Matthew 18:15

This is how Jesus’ teaching began. What should we do when we are offended? First of all, we don’t ignore it and allow the offence to fester. Instead, first go to the person (in private) and resolve the issue. If this doesn’t work (or is safe to do) then pursue the other channels available. The goal is to restore the relationship if at all possible. After all, what is life in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God supposed to be like? A life bound by our sins, anger and violence? Or, a life where there is freedom to live with each other in peace? Furthermore, if we come together with the purpose to reconcile as Jesus taught, then he promises to be present. If we pray for God’s blessing in this work, then the Father will work for it to happen in his kingdom.

Now some may argue that Jesus was referring to the church and how it should resolve conflicts. As is usually the case, Jesus won’t allow us to hide behind self imposed boundaries.

…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…

Matthew 18:17

How did Jesus treat the Gentile and tax collector? He extended the grace of God to bring healing and acceptance to those sinful Gentiles. He enjoyed the company of tax collectors and dined with them. Jesus carried the work of reconciling to all, insiders and outsiders alike.

Jesus’ words today are tough. They hold up a mirror for us to examine just how far we have moved from the ways of God. Yet, his words provide an opportunity for grace to come. Imagine what life could be if…

-instead of grabbing a gun to enforce our version of law and order, we sought to resolve the grievances behind the protest

-instead of dividing the land for personal and political gain, we sought to unite and work toward the benefit of all

-instead of calling people out because they disagree, we call them into relationship.

Jesus invites us to live a different way that brings grace and healing to everyone. This new way is defined by the kingdom of heaven. This new way is going to be tough but we have his promised presence. Peace and blessing are possible in a “Call Out” world.

Peace.

What Is Life Worth? Matthew 16:21-28

The struggle for the worth of human life is going on before our eyes. Opponents to abortion emphasize the value of the unborn. Black Lives Matter seeks justice for lives that have been denied worth. The immigrant poor are labelled to deny their human dignity and rights. The list goes on and on. It seems the more the struggle goes on to lift up the value of life, the more brutal the opposition works to strip it all away.

So what is your life worth? You knew this question was going to come. The answer comes quickly in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Yet we are fast to forget this truth for ourselves and for others. Our actions show how easily we sell out life for the cheap.

Jesus said in the reading from Matthew,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Matthew 16: 24-26

What is life worth? It is priceless. No amount of money is going to buy back a life that has been forfeited on the cheap. So remember that your life has value. This is what Jesus is telling us and so where we invest our lives is critical. The reality is that we have no choice. We are either giving ourselves over to the world or to being a follower of Jesus. Only one will give value to life that God intends for all peoples (creation too).

Jesus has just told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer, be killed and raised up to life on the third day. Peter (who had correctly named Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God) challenged Jesus saying that this must never happen. Jesus’ response was to call Peter’s words satanic. Obviously Peter didn’t fully grasp the consequences and purpose for which Jesus was speaking (this understanding would come later). However, Peter’s response showed where his life was currently invested. His life was focused on the traditions and the power structures which rewarded a few and denied others their value. This is why Peter’s response was called from Satan. His words spoke to a way of life that opposed what Jesus taught, did, died and was raised to accomplish.

Remember that your life is priceless. Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection prove that value. So where are you going to put that valuable gift of life that God has given to you? Will you sell out on the cheap for traditions, power structures and labels that reward the few while taking away the value and dignity of others? Or, will you give your life over to a life defined by Jesus?

The fight to define the value of life is going on in protests on the street and over the Internet. The question that each of us has no option but to answer is this, “What is life worth?”

Peace

Allegiance to Jesus Matthew 16:13-20

The politics of the election are starting to really heat up. What this means in practice, is that the name of Jesus is getting tossed about by those claiming to have the “correct” defining statement of his identity. Some claim to have the special insight as to which political party Jesus is present and where he is absent. Political mudslinging tries to label the opposition as against God or hurting God. Yes, politics is heating up and Jesus is being dragged into the middle of it to serve our purposes.

So the reading from Matthew is fitting for these days. Jesus asked the disciples what others were saying about him. The response was John the Baptist or a prophet. Then Jesus personalized the question to what the disciples had to say. Peter announced, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus didn’t praise Peter for coming up with the answer but the Father for revealing this to Peter. The reading ends with Jesus giving strict orders for this revelation to be kept quiet which seems strange. Why? Peter had the correct title but there was much more for him and the other disciples to learn. You see, Jesus’ question wasn’t a test to get the answers right. This was about allegiance to Jesus.

Caesarea Philippi was a town that was near a cave which housed a spring feeding the Jordan River. The cave had also served as a place where the Greek god, Pan had been worshipped. Herod had built a temple to honor Caesar Augustus there. At the time Matthew was written, Roman soldiers had destroyed the great temple in Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was now the administrative center for Philip the tetrarch (Herod’s son). This was a reality not ignored by Matthew’s readers. So when Jesus asked about what was being said of him, he was really asking about allegiance…which God do you worship…what leaders do you revere…to what political power do you surrender your allegiance.

Peter had the right answer but not the understanding of what his response meant for life. If your allegiance is to Jesus, then you do the things he did. Jesus set people free as he announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He set people free from their illness. He celebrated with those despised “sinners.” He received the outcast and unwanted. He was and continues to be the way death’s power is destroyed.

Peter and the disciples had still much to learn about Jesus and following him. The church today still struggles in the same way. Jesus gave the amazing job description that is concerned with setting people free for the kingdom of heaven. What we do will either set people free or keep them in bondage. In following Jesus are we keeping people in bondage to ideology, race, division, fear, hatred, poverty, sickness? Or, are we working for people to be set free for the kingdom of heaven?

Another election is drawing near, meaning those seeking office are tripping over each other in the race to say who Jesus is to serve their purposes. Jesus is asking who we say he is to serve his purposes for the kingdom of heaven. Who do we worship…who will we give honor and praise…what power will we in the end serve? The difference is as big as freedom and bondage. How will we live out our answer to Jesus’ question?

Peace.