A Simple Act of Faith

John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

In the midst of much talk about Christian discipline in the season of Lent, perhaps today’s Scripture will be a bit of comfort. This salvation thing is shockingly easy.

Jesus said these words after talking to Nicodemus the Pharisee rather cryptically about being “born from above” and “born from the Spirit,” leaving this leader of the Jews confused and asking questions. Jesus would ultimately make a life-changing impression on Nicodemus, however.

Three years later, the Pharisee, at great personal risk, would help Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus’ body. Nicodemus is credited in the Gospel of John with bringing the costly mixture of oils and spices needed to properly anoint the body.

Perhaps it was Jesus’ reference to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness that aided Nicodemus’ understanding. The idea of salvation being linked to a bronze serpent on a pole can confuse us, but Nicodemus, being a good teacher of the Jews, would have immediately recognized the story for what it was, an illustration of faith.

The story is found in Numbers 21:4-9, which recounts God giving the Israelites a vivid lesson in sin and the way out of sin. Having grumbled against God in a most irrational way, they found themselves beset by poisonous snakes. Eventually, they admitted to Moses they had sinned against God, and God told Moses the way out: Make a metal image of a serpent, put it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten could simply lift up their eyes to the serpent and live.

Some modern people struggle with the story because the imagery seems so primitive. When reading the Old Testament, we have to remember that for the Israelites to learn about their God, the lessons had to be given in ways people barely out of the Bronze Age could understand.

There is an underlying pattern to the story, however, one that carries into today:

  • First, a rejection of God and his plan is sin.
  • Second, the results of sinning are painfully brutal, carrying the strong possibility of death.
  • Third, when we confess our sins, God will provide a way out, a path to restoration.
  • Fourth, God will make the way out so easy a child can understand.

Jesus was able to link his great work on the cross, his “lifting up,” to the bronze serpent incident because salvation through Christ follows the same underlying pattern. We have all rejected God in some way, and we have all experienced the sad effects of sin.

At some point, if we are to survive, we must wake up to our circumstances and confess we have turned our backs on God. From there, it’s simply a matter of believing there is an easy way out.

We believe the story of Jesus—who he is and what he did on the cross—and trust that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign sin and death are truly defeated. Faith is as easy as lifting our eyes to the cross and holding in our hearts the story it tells.

There is more to Christian living, of course. We should quickly move into the lifelong practice of the Christian disciplines. In short, we don’t continue to stand among the snakes (duh!), and we learn to rely on a relationship with Jesus Christ, who gives us the power to escape the snakes.

But never forget, the very beginning of salvation is so simple. If you’ve never completed this pattern to the point of salvation, you can do so right now, today. If the reading of this blog has helped you to believe for the first time, e-mail me or call me at (865) 376-7040, and I will try to take you further. It doesn’t matter where you are. The United Methodist Church has good people all over the planet.

Don’t worry too much about the discipleship and holiness stuff right now. The community we call the “church” will walk with you as you grow in your understanding and practice of your faith.


The Temple Most Real

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The Passover of the Jews was near … “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The story of the cleansing of the temple is so important that we hear versions of it in all four gospels. In John, this cleansing happens early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he has performed his first miracle, changing water into wine. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes late, and is seen as one important trigger bringing about Jesus’ execution.

The scene in John is a crowded one. People came from all over Israel for the Jewish Passover, and just like today, where there was a crowd, there was money to be made. For Jesus, the problem was that business had spilled into the outer precincts of the temple itself, which of course served as the home of God among his people.

Two basic commercial acts were going on. First, animals needed for sacrifice were for sale. Most travelers did not bring animals with them for the journey. Second, Roman and other foreign coins had to be exchanged for Jewish coins if they were to be used in the temple, along the lines of how we might exchange dollars for euros or yen when traveling today.

We can assume that with high demand came high prices and inflated exchange rates, although that may have been a mere side issue for Jesus in this version of the story. The very presence of commercialism in this holy place was what ultimately disturbed him.

Jesus’ response was certainly aggressive. People sometimes cite this passage as evidence of God acting in anger, but as I read it, it seems Jesus took his time to devise a calculated plan. We’re told he made a whip of cords to aid driving the larger animals—fashioning such a device would have taken a few minutes, at least.

There’s also no evidence humans were endangered in this dramatic cleansing, although I do imagine the moneychangers bruising their knees as they scrambled to recover their coins bouncing and rolling across the pavement. It’s an ironic posture for people who were being irreverent before God just a few minutes earlier.

This story of cleansing raises an interesting question for us. Do we ever go too far in letting worldly desires, passions, and objects enter into our sacred spaces? What about worldly ideas? What is among us as we worship that might keep us from properly revering God?

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus was a good Jew, and the temple represented the primary way God had related to the “chosen people,” the Israelites, for thousands of years. Because of sin, even the people of Israel had difficulty with the idea of being in God’s direct presence, preferring instead to have him symbolically housed in some way, with God’s permission and according to God’s instruction, of course. (This is another example of God meeting us where we are.)

Early in their history, while escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had seen and heard from God more directly, experiencing him in the form of fire and smoke, earthquakes, terrifying trumpet sounds and a thunderous voice. God had spoken his commandments out loud to them, but the people then asked for an intermediary, telling Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

Later in Exodus, this need for separation led to an elaborate tabernacle, a portable holy place where God could be among his people and yet separated from them enough for their comfort. Centuries after taking and occupying the Holy Land, the Israelites established a temple in Jerusalem as a more resilient expression of God’s house, replacing the portable tabernacle. (The first link details King David’s desire for a temple and God’s response. You also might want to take time to read the account in 2 Chronicles 3 of the construction begun by David’s son, King Solomon.)

By Jesus’ day, the Israelites were on their second temple, the first one having been destroyed in an invasion. Like the tabernacle before it, the temple became holier and holier as one moved deeper into it, until one finally reached the Holy of Holies, considered the abode of God, a place where only the high priest could enter once a year.

The “zeal” quote is a reference to Psalm 69:9, a prophetic statement about the Jewish messiah. Obviously, Jesus cared deeply for this great expression of God’s holiness in the midst of the humans he was trying to save from sin.

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

As much as Jesus cared for the temple as a Jew, he also knew his very presence marked a change in how humanity would relate to God. Where the tabernacle and temples had symbolically represented God’s presence, Jesus, God in flesh, literally existed to be God’s direct contact with his unholy creation.

Of course, for the relationship to be maintained, a path to holiness for all people had to be created. The Gospel of John indicates that even early in his ministry, Jesus knew where he was headed.

The Jewish leaders, in ways they could never imagine, did tear down the temple, with help from Pontius Pilate and the Roman guards’ whips, nails and cross. And crucified Jesus, working with the authority of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, did rebuild the temple most real in three days, through the act we now call the resurrection, making the temple of his body indestructible.

This is the great work of history, the path to eternal life and holiness for all of us no matter how sinful we are. We hear this story of tearing down and rebuilding, we understand how much God loves us, and we believe, making salvation our own.

Eternity is ours, and from the temple now in heaven, God’s Spirit flows forth on his redeemed, sustaining us until we see God’s glory in full.

The featured image is Luca Giordano’s “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple,” circa 1675.

Get on Mission!

Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

If you were in 11 a.m. worship at Luminary UMC last week, you heard me express despair during the prayer time. Something stirred in me as I made several rat-a-tat observations: poor attendance in worship of late, our average age, and our general lack of success in reaching the many people around us who need to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Several of you nodded in agreement.

That low moment in my heart did turn into a good week of prayerful learning. I was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., most of the week, at a continuing education program we call Ministers’ Convocation. The theme was most appropriate, centered on how we establish the appropriate church culture in difficult circumstances. And let me tell you, folks, our circumstances aren’t nearly as difficult as some.

I also had today’s text in mind, and all sorts of concepts seemed to come together as I considered the words of my colleagues, this story of Jesus and his followers, and plans we have for our near future.

We could sum our text up this way: Peter got off mission, and Jesus let Peter have it. Then Jesus proceeded to unload on the disciples and the crowd tagging along behind them, just in case they also were not understanding the hard work and sacrifices that must be made, first by Jesus and then by his followers.

At the time Jesus was speaking, there was immediate work to be done to make the arrival of the Kingdom of God possible. He had to suffer, be killed by his own people’s leaders, and then rise from the dead.

It seems Peter thought Jesus needed to tone down the frank, negative-sounding talk. Jesus called him Satan, indicating how far Peter was from God’s plan.

Beyond the immediate mission, Jesus also indicated there would be long-term work to be done by his followers. And it would get messy for them, too.

We have to stand up for the truth. We have to tell the story. If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, we are going to have to make some sacrifices in finances, in pride, in reputation and even in our sense of safety as we reach out to those around us.

Some of us may even be called to sacrifice our lives. In the soft kind of Christianity we so often practice in America, martyrdom seldom happens, and we forget just how many Christians sacrifice their lives for their faith on a daily basis.

Martyrdom is how far we might be called to go, however. The phrase “take up your cross” certainly has connotations of impending death. If that bothers you, at least try to cling to another of Jesus’ prominent teachings, “Fear not.”

It’s not a great message for the church brochure or the sign out front, is it? “Hey, come suffer and maybe even die with us!” But out of such intense commitment to the mission of the church comes a kind of greatness we struggle now to imagine.

I’ll tell you two ways your Luminary church leaders have decided you can individually dive back into the church’s mission this year. If we do these two things right, with God’s blessing, we may not be feeling so much despair in a few months. And there’s an extremely good chance you won’t have to die to do these things.

First, we are forming Life Groups at Luminary, details of which we have already heard. The risk here is making ourselves vulnerable to people we don’t know as we invite them to these groups. While we certainly will benefit from the experience ourselves, these groups are in many ways for people who are not yet part of our church.

Second is an idea new to many of you. Just last week, our Church Leadership Council approved what we’re currently calling the Summer Music Program.

Again, it’s great if our children and grandchildren attend, but what we’re really hoping to do is reach unchurched people around us by offering the gift of music, a gift we love so dearly here. For two weeks, children will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus through different kinds of music, regardless of how much singing or instrumental ability they may have.

Again, for us the risk is opening ourselves to people we don’t know, people who may be very different from us. There also are rewards to being on mission, however, even before the whole eternal life thing kicks in.

We will make friends and draw in people who will bring new spiritual gifts, making our community more dynamic. We will develop a sense that what we have now as a church will continue after we have passed on. And we will take joy in knowing we have done what we said we would do when we took on the title, “Christian.”

I conclude today with a modern parable. In short, it tells the story of a seacoast lifesaving station that evolved into a club, ultimately leaving people to drown. If you haven’t heard this story, take time to experience it here.

We exist for one reason, folks. We save people from eternal death. It is the only reason we exist; we are not a club.

People are drowning all around us in a sea of pain, pain from drug abuse, from broken homes and damaged relationships, and from the general, pervasive presence of evil that remains in the world.

Find your boat and start rowing!

The featured image is James Tissot’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” circa 1890.

One of Us

Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.


Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Disregarding the Rules

Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This story begins on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.* This much is made clear in the preceding story in Mark. If we are to understand anything, we must first understand what the sabbath day means.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the desert on Mt. Sinai says this:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The reason for this commandment then is given in detail: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8-11.)

By Jesus’ day, this commandment had been defined even more narrowly, to the point where nothing that looked like real action was permitted. My favorite example is a rule promulgated by the Pharisees. It said you had to be careful on the sabbath not to drag your chair on a dirt floor. The tiny furrow looked too much like plowing to these very restrictive Jewish leaders.

In this story, everyone is, from a strict Jewish perspective, breaking the sabbath rules. Healing is not allowed, but Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She then gets up and begins to “serve” him. Implicit here is that she does what women of her day normally do six days of the week, acting as a host, cooking and performing other kinds of work. She does it all without a hint of reprimand from the teacher who is present.

People who don’t follow Christ often criticize Christianity as being rule-bound, but in many ways we worship a rule breaker. At the same time, Jesus, being God in flesh, is holy; that is, his thoughts and actions in these stories are perfectly aligned with the Father’s will.

So, why does Jesus break rules that seem rooted in God-given law? There can be only one explanation. Human understanding of what God intended through the law has become corrupted, and must be corrected.

Look back to the words in Exodus about the sabbath. It is a blessed day; it is a holy time. When does a blessing ever weigh us down? A sabbath day is not a burden, it is an opportunity to rest in the presence of God, to commune with him without the distractions of day-to-day survival.

In other words, the sabbath is a time to experience the God who is love, the one who lovingly created and who paused to gaze lovingly upon what he had made. And never forget, that aspect of God that took on flesh, the logos, the Word, was fully involved in the creative act.

As Jesus gazed upon that woman bedridden with illness, he saw a part of his creation that was broken. He saw someone incapable of enjoying the true meaning of the sabbath. So he lovingly fixed her.

Her response, by the way, was very appropriate, despite what the Pharisees and others might say. The word we translate as “serve” is a Greek word associated with the work of disciples, the people who pledge their lives to follow Jesus.

She may have been going through the same motions that had always defined her work, but she now performed her tasks with a new purpose. Clearly, the man who had healed her was tied to God somehow and was going to change everything, and she would serve him not as an affront to sabbath, but in the true spirit of sabbath.

As the story continues, Jesus goes on healing on sabbath days and regular days. He drives out demons. But most importantly, he preaches his message: The kingdom of God has arrived.

The kingdom continues to dawn in our lives now, and once it is here in full, we will see the kingdom of God is an eternal sabbath, a continuing, joyous rest in the love of God. How much you allow the kingdom to shine into your lives is up to you.

*I do not have time today to explore how Christians came to see Sunday as the Sabbath, or for that matter, how American Christians have come to treat the concept of Sabbath so poorly. If you are looking for a focus for your small group or Sunday school, those are certainly topics worthy of study.


The Low Places

John 1:43-51 (NRSV)

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “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.”

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Well, yeah, good things can come from Nazareth, and places like it. Nazareth is an excellent example of how grace can pour forth from society’s lowest places. God’s grace—the love we don’t deserve but receive anyway—has a funny habit of flowing uphill.

In some ways, we covered this with the Christmas story, when we talked about how Jesus came from poor members of a downtrodden people, living in what seemed like nowhere. The idea seems worth revisiting this week. Arrogant Roman leaders would have considered Nazareth one of the outhouses of the empire.

We can tell from Nathanael’s words that even Jews didn’t have a very high opinion of Nazareth. It was no metropolis; modern archaeologists estimate less than 500 people lived there in Jesus’ day. And yet, in the story, here comes Jesus, straight out of Nazareth, bearing down on his next disciple with revealing perception.

The Eternal Gift

As Jesus walked from Nazareth into full-fledged ministry, he carried with him all sorts of gifts we still barely comprehend today. As the story plays out, there is the greatest gift of all, eternal life.

Jesus’ ministry, rooted in the truth of who he is and the love he wants to share with the world, got him nailed to a cross. We now understand it had to be that way, that the death of a holy, sinless, perfect savior was necessary for us to escape the shackles of our own sins. We know the resurrection of this same savior, fully God and fully human, proves that death has been defeated. We believe, and we are saved.

What a gift to come out of Nazareth! There is more, though. The grace poured out upon us is not just something for the next life. It is for this life now.


This story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds us of what I call the gift of astonishment. What? You had a vision of me under a fig tree, before we ever met? We can tell Nathanael was astonished because he jumped straight from cynicism to declaring Jesus the Son of God.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like to be astonished from time to time, so long as God is the one doing the astonishing. I discover that life is about more than mundane, day-to-day events.

My big astonishment in life is that God would give me the same experience twice, once as a child and again as a young adult, so I would get back on track with him. And there are little astonishments that keep coming, too.

I like it when I see a vision for how something might be, and then discover someone else, perhaps one of you, has seen the same possibility or dreamed the same idea. I sense the Holy Spirit is at work in those moments, and I know we’re really a church.

I like it when God shows me how people are not what I expected them to be. I’ll give you a simple example. Where I was raised, I did not know a lot of black people, and the few I did know seemed to be trying to blend in and not be noticed. What I thought I knew about black culture came from one black karate instructor who grew up in Jonesborough, Tenn., and too much 1970s television.

Then I moved to the Atlanta area, where I lived for 13 years, working downtown most of the time.

I’ll not claim to be any expert on what was going on before my eyes; I often didn’t understand actions or attitudes unfamiliar to me. But I was regularly astonished by how tightly knit inner-city black communities could be, and how the culture could be quite matriarchal, with older women commanding a kind of respect that in many ways held their sometimes difficult world together. Many of those authoritative women, by the way, were not shy about speaking openly of their love for Jesus.

Beyond the dominant black culture, I also think of a Vietnamese friend I made in Atlanta, a former refugee who barely made it alive to Hong Kong on a rickety boat, and then eventually made his way to the United States. I learned a lot about perseverance just being near him.

The World Is Our Parish

I  continue to expect to see God’s astonishing grace at work in people very different from me. One of the nice things about being United Methodist is that we are from everywhere, from Africa, from Asia, from Central America, from Haiti* and other Caribbean islands. As we have struggled with the issue of biblical authority in the UMC in recent years, words of encouragement from our African brothers and sisters have particularly inspired me.

What unites us globally, regardless of whether worldly people consider our particular home “high” or “low,” is the larger vision Jesus described as he recruited Nathanael to his little team that would change everything. For there is astounding grace, jaw-dropping, weeping-with-joy grace still to come.

Heaven and earth will be remade and reunited through Christ’s work. The walls that divide us will be torn down. Racism, poverty and political ideologies will give way to the uniting truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.

With God working in such powerful, unpredictable ways, a man would have to be a fool to show disdain for people from low places.

*On a personal note, I am particularly conscious of a very good thing to come out of Haiti, a nephew, adopted from an orphanage there by my brother and his wife. My nephew’s name is Nathaniel, by the way.