A Universal Work

First in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 (NRSV)

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

For thousands of years, God has been visibly at work to save us from sin and restore us to holiness. During this Advent season, we’re going to use prophecies from Isaiah to understand that work a little better.

To me, the key word in today’s text is Zion. Until we grasp Zion in full, we cannot see the magnitude of what God promised through this great prophet.

At its simplest, Zion might be seen as a synonym for Jerusalem, the center of worship and governance in ancient Israel. There is nothing simple about the concept of Zion, however. When we say “Zion,” we capture all the promise and potential of God’s work.

Somehow, Zion is raised high. Somehow, Zion becomes a place of instruction for all the world, a means for the word of the Lord to spread globally. Somehow, that word is so powerful that even war is brought to an end.

It is a beautiful idea, isn’t it? God’s truth becomes so clear that people of all cultures stream to it. It is forced on no one; people simply are drawn to it, look at each other and say, “Come, let us go.” Such truth would have to be intensely attractive, it would seem, if it were to reach people from all cultures, languages and places.

From a human, modern perspective, Zion in its fullest frankly can also seem impossible. Division is our norm; world peace has never seemed remotely possible.

Even modern-day Jerusalem is divided. The temple mount that once was the center of worship for the Jews is now occupied by a Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock. If there is no unity in Jerusalem, how can we trust Isaiah’s words? How can such a divided place be the basis of Zion and bring unity to all of creation?

To answer these questions, it helps to understand the deeply symbolic nature of Zion, and to remember God works in very surprising ways. Despite the seeming impossibility of it all, we Christians continue to share this vision that dates back more than 700 years before Christ. We share it because we know that Jesus Christ shared it, taught it, and ultimately lived it. He showed us the path toward what seems impossible.

Keeping the idea of Zion in mind, look at some of the stories of Jesus and how he ministered. For example, whenever Jesus went to a mountain, it was as if he created around him a bubble of holiness, a place freed from worldly division, set apart even from the ongoing effects of sin. We know the people were drawn to him to learn; this is obvious in Matthew 5-7, the account of the Sermon on the Mount.

More happened at these mountain gatherings, too. The sick were healed. Ultimately, in Matthew 15, the hungry were fed. The miracle was broader than the feeding of the 4,000 men and their families, however. On that mountain, in the presence of God’s pure word, there was no room for pain or hunger of any kind.

Our great Christian hope is simple, and fully aligned with Isaiah’s vision. As God’s word spreads—as person after person and nation after nation seeks God’s word—these mountain miracles of teaching and healing continue. Jesus lived among us to affirm the promise of Zion.

Yes, complete fulfillment of the promise remains to be seen. There is some waiting involved. It is expectant, active waiting, like a mother who knows a child will arrive any day. Preparations are made. People begin to live as if the great change has already happened.

In contemplating Zion, I will first go this far: Christ is Zion, the fulfillment of that great promise made centuries before his birth. On the cross, he was lifted so high that the world continues to see him. In his death he exposed a truth about God’s love that continues to attract people of all kinds from all points around the globe.

And I will go further: In his resurrection and ascension, Christ resumed his place as part of the Godhead, but God also continues to reside in us through the Holy Spirit. The universal church also is Zion, meaning we as its members are already citizens of a timeless, holy realm.

Do you live as such? Do you understand God’s truth as revealed in Scripture? Do you carry God’s word to those who need it? Do you do all that is humanly possible to let God’s truth create those bubbles of holiness and unity around you?

Don’t wait for Zion. Be Zion, live Zion, until the day we find ourselves visibly in Zion. Oh house of Christ, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

The featured image is “The Prophet Isaiah,” Lorenzo Monaco (circa 1370–circa 1425) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


A Lost Generation

Go looking for God, and you may get an unexpected result. There’s a good chance you will find your real identity.

The conquered, beaten-down Jews of Nehemiah’s day certainly had lost all sense of who they were. Their once-great city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, abandoned with no wall to protect it. Nehemiah had been living in exile as cupbearer to the conquering king.

It was a role of trust, a role that eventually allowed him to gain permission from the king to rebuild Jerusalem and restore some sense of belonging for the scattered people of God. The best of the Jews had been carried away to distant capitals; the rest had been left defenseless among their enemies, people who despised and abused them.

To get the full story, I would suggest you read all of the book of Nehemiah. Suffice it to say his task was a difficult one. Over time, he managed to organize the Jews there, overcoming intimidation, murder plots, and the constant threat of attack by surrounding tribes who hated the Jews of old and did not want to see them re-establish a foothold in Jerusalem.

As Nehemiah and those who rallied around him rebuilt Jerusalem’s destroyed wall and its gates, they often had to work with swords strapped to sides or a weapon in one hand. And yet, they rebuilt the wall in 52 days, an accomplishment even their enemies considered miraculous. Nearly 50,000 Jews and their livestock poured into the city.

It was not too much later that the process of discovery began. The people gathered to hear the word of God, and they were distraught at what had been forgotten over the long captivity. That moment of discovery is recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10. Over a day, it is likely they heard the story of creation; they once again learned of the fall. They heard how God established them as a separate, chosen, holy people through Abraham.

They heard what God had done for their ancestors through Moses after the Israelites had fallen into captivity in Egypt. There were stories of miracles, all evidence of God’s great love. And there were detailed explanations of God’s covenant with them and God’s law for them, and they realized how far they had strayed, how godless they had become. Exploring God’s word that day proved to be a life-changing journey for them.

From God’s word, they remembered how to worship, and began to do so again, celebrating forgotten festivals and re-telling forgotten stories. They confessed their sins to God and sought mercy.

As different as we are today, it is a pattern we can follow. It can be a bit of a shock to discover how far we’ve strayed from God, but as we become Bible-exploring people, we find our true selves. Like Nehemiah’s Jews, one of the first lessons we learn in Genesis is that we are made in our creator’s image, meaning we were designed to reflect God’s nature and God’s will. Know God and we know what should come natural for us.

Knowing God and consequently knowing ourselves seems difficult for one reason alone. Sin remains in the world and in us. Upon hearing what God’s word had to say about God’s expectations of them, Nehemiah’s Jews realized they had suffered mightily because they had stopped acting as God would have them act. They had fallen into sin, and they wept. A sense of brokenness and loss always precedes redemption.

The interpreters of the word, knowing God’s word, had an interesting response, however. They told the people not to weep. The Jews of Jerusalem once again saw God for who God is, and they were in worship! The priest Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s grace would once again shine through their darkness, and joy would be restored.

We see them understanding and experiencing the same kind of forgiving, loving grace ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ, God among us in flesh. Christ came to bring us face-to-face with our need for God.

When we look to Christ, we sometimes don’t like what we see in ourselves. But I tell you today, do not weep, but rejoice—in turning to Christ, you find eternal life and take important steps toward holiness in this life. In Christ God offers us new hope and a new identity.

We become the people we would have been had sin never entered the world.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Thursday’s Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Somber as it was, I really enjoyed being with the folks of Cassidy UMC at the Ash Wednesday service. It is a very powerful, personal experience for me to place ashes on the foreheads of adults and children as we remember our mortality and dependence on God. I pray that Lent will be a deeply reflective time for all, and that we will draw closer to God.

We showed a brief video during the service, and in it there was a phrase that startled me. I don’t remember the lead-in exactly, but the video was listing things we should give up. One was “false relief.” At first, I thought it was a typo, that it was supposed to say “false belief.” But false relief makes perfect sense—think of all those things not of God that we do to escape the brokenness of our lives. When we give up false relief, we are left with nothing but true relief, the redemption and renewal Christ has brought into the world.

May we worship well throughout Lent and rejoice at the message of Easter.

Peace Be with You

John 20:19-29

If you’ve been a regular the past few weeks, you’re aware we’ve been focusing this Easter season on some of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. I’ve not been concerned about keeping them in any kind of order; we’ve seen the risen Jesus at the tomb, on a beach, traveling a road, and in all his glory in heaven.

This is the last Sunday of Easter, and I want us to go back to the Gospel of John, looking at one more of those early resurrection appearances. We should hear a message similar to what we’ve heard in previous weeks, but it’s time to also talk seriously about whether we’re going to respond to what we’ve heard.

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, Jesus appears to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene has told them Christ has risen from the dead, but the news has given them little comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews and Romans who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do.

The door to the room where they huddle is locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appears and tells them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

All of Jesus’ key disciples are present except Thomas, who refuses to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appears to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invites Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believes.

“Peace be with you.” There is so much of importance in this story, from the nature of the resurrection to the need for the Holy Spirit to the importance of faith. But that simple assurance from Christ, “Peace be with you,” is the church’s rallying cry.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job, a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, tells them they are first and foremost children of God, and again, the peace of Christ is present.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only fear or smirk at the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; as Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery in John 8, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a faithful relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the substance abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. To all of them, the true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say, “Peace be with you.”

Do you know what happened to Thomas after he saw and believed? Early church writings indicate he traveled as far as India telling people about the risen Christ. That would mean he traveled farther than any other apostle.

When your doubts are replaced by the peace Christ brings, incredible things happen. We are not to “rest in peace” while in this life. Peace is a gift to be shared with others.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Prayers

To move more swiftly as a church, we need to better understand the commitments we made when joining Cassidy UMC. You may recall pledging your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and, if you joined in recent years, your witness.

Think of a five-masted sailing ship. Each mast represents one part of our pledge, and we don’t want to let the sails on any of those masts go slack through inattention. If we do, we miss our opportunity to catch the wind that is always blowing, the Holy Spirit.

This week, I want us to focus on our pledge to pray. Few Christians would openly decline to call prayer important, but I’m also very aware of the large number of Christians who struggle with what prayer really means, how it works, or why it’s important.

Jesus, of course, taught us to pray. The classic example is where he said, “Pray then in this way,” and then taught us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus also showed us how to pray while he was in more difficult situations, and I think it would be instructive for us to look at what may have been his lowest moment on earth.

I’m working from Mark 14:32-36; there are similar passages in Matthew and Luke. I say Jesus was at his lowest point here because the full reality of his impending torture and crucifixion had settled on him, but he had yet to find solace and strength from God the Father.

“In effect, Jesus stepped beyond the circle of light cast by God’s presence into pitch blackness in the jungle of evil,” writes biblical scholar and preacher David L. McKenna. “Before this moment, He had theoretically accepted the responsibility for bearing the sins of the whole world. Now, terror tells Him what it really means.”

Jesus’ humanity was on full display; he described himself to his disciples as “deeply grieved, even to death.” With no alternate routes around the cross visible, Jesus threw himself on the ground and began to pray, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Even in his perfection Jesus did not want to face his terrible suffering to come. He prayed earnestly and in very personal terms to Father God, using the Aramaic word for “Dad,” the same word Jewish children might use in speaking in a familiar way to their fathers.

It was Jesus’ hope that God the Father, who retained full divine knowledge and understanding, perhaps knew a less painful solution hidden from the Son, who also was fully God but limited in knowledge by his temporal flesh.

In the prayer, however, there also was recognition that the cross very likely was the only way for the Father’s will to come to fruition. God’s will ultimately is a positive, wonderful result for all humanity. God wills that we do not suffer for our sins.

Only Jesus in his suffering and death could make fulfillment of God’s will possible, however, and his “not what I want, but what you want” shows us the deepest goal of prayer. Prayer should lead us to put aside our will, our desires, and replace all of that with God’s will in every circumstance.

This is a very Methodist concept. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wanted people to understand the need for “sanctification,” that process Christians undergo after turning their lives over to Christ. It largely is a process of becoming more Christlike in our thoughts and actions, learning to love others as Christ has loved the world.

When we love in such a way, our will becomes more and more conformed to God’s will.

For those of you who want to pursue sanctification by deepening your prayer lives, I’ll offer just a couple of brief ideas. We can better develop these ideas in other settings, such as Sunday school or in prayer groups.

There are lots of ways to pray, ranging from highly formal to very informal. As we’re a supposedly busy people, I’ll group them broadly according to time commitments.

It is very healthy for any Christian to learn to commit a block of time to prayer each day. If you’re just starting to pray in an organized, committed way, it may be that 15 minutes will seem like a long time to you. Commit at least to that; in that time, find how you best commune with God, remembering that the goal is to understand and follow God’s will. If you want to discuss the “hows” of such prayer further, I’m always happy to have that conversation.

I also find it useful to try to lift up little prayers throughout the day. For example, if you see a person in need of prayer, pray then and there, even if it is with your eyes open, going about your business. Such prayers, I think, keep us constantly seeking the will of God in our everyday lives—we become more conscious of how God is working in the world and remember to seek God’s will in every moment.

Next week, we’ll talk about filling the sails on our second mast, presence.