Old Testament

Children, Make Room

1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.


This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.

John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “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.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.

Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIn my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.

A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.

About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.

The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian.  When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.

Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.

In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.

There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”

A Matter of Space

How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, and asked if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

The Church’s Call

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.

The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.

John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.

It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

 

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Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.


The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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.

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.

 

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

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

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.