Fire, Angels and the Great Beginning


"Angel of Revelation," William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Angel of Revelation,” William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

When you read the explanation provided by Jesus, “The Parable of the Weeds” is pretty straightforward. Question is, do we live as if his teachings are true?

In the parable, there is good and evil—Jesus vs. the devil—and we as human beings choose sides. For a time, good and evil are allowed to co-exist, so the good can spread and grow to its fullest. But only for a time.

Ultimately, we’re told, evil will be separated from good and cast away to a place where it seems there will be something of a paradox, total destruction and ongoing anguish. Dare we call it hell?

Such concepts used to inspire people to a deeper consideration of how they lived. Certainly, Christians took such teachings very seriously, using them as a vision of the future to shape their lives in the present. But I wonder how serious we are now about rooting our lives in these ancient teachings telling us where the world is headed.

Here’s the basic problem for a Christian who doesn’t let this particular teaching shape his or her life. Such a person is paying no more than lip service to our faith. Jesus is talking about the core of Christianity, the very reason he came to die on the cross—to end evil’s reign in this world, making possible for us a glorious, holy, eternal life with God.

Maybe it’s all that picturesque language that makes some people uncomfortable. The language I’m talking about is not in the parable itself, but in Jesus’ explanation of the parable. The parable is a simple agrarian story, very familiar to its audience. But when Jesus explained the parable to his disciples, it became a story of angels gathering “all causes of sin and all evildoers” and casting them into what must be a very large “furnace of fire,” language designed to evoke the stories and end-time prophecies in the Book of Daniel.

Try to imagine it; huge angels roaming the planet, gathering up everything and every person opposed to the will of God. I think of the angel in the 10th chapter of Revelation, “coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded.”

It all can seem far-fetched to modern ears. We make ourselves more comfortable by saying, “It’s somehow symbolic.” But even if it is symbolism, we have to remember an important point about symbols. They stand for something larger, something harder to grasp.

In other words, if you take Jesus’ explanation literally, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil. And if you take Jesus’ explanation symbolically, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil.

Either way, we want ourselves aligned with God. We may not be perfect, but we want to be certain our sins have been forgiven through a belief in the work Jesus Christ did on the cross. We want the Holy Spirit to continue working in our lives day after day.

We want to be sure that we’re not so entangled with evil that the reapers will have difficulty distinguishing us from what must be burned. As we heard last week, we want to be sure we’re producing the kind of fruit that benefits the coming kingdom of heaven.

And of course, we should be enthralled by the upside, the Good News. This opportunity for us and those we love to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father is the underlying desire of all our prayers. Again, we can look to Revelation, this time in the 21st chapter, for an expansion of what we can expect: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Or this, in the 22nd chapter: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be their foreheads.”

For those who stand with God, the time of reaping and sorting is not an end, it is a great beginning. When evil is vanquished, Paradise is regained. If you have ears, listen to Jesus’ words.


Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.

Job’s Story, Our Story

The Book of Job

I developed this sermon in the first person—that is, in Job’s voice—while in seminary. For various reasons, I did not preach it in the first person today, but the ideas in what is written below were the core of the sermon. I also should note that we baptized Alexandra Paige Price this Sunday in response to her profession of faith. Job had a vision; so did Alex, of what her baptism should be like. She was baptized by pouring, an option we have in the United Methodist Church, albeit one seldom selected. Like Job, Alex has faith in her Redeemer, known to us now as Jesus Christ. He will return one day to make the restoration of the world complete.

I recently found an interesting book called “The Holy Bible.” Imagine how surprised I was to find my story in this book—it’s about a third of the way from the beginning, with the simple title, “Job.”

I have to say, I’m relieved at how the written version begins. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It’s good to see that this book affirms my righteousness. A lot of people questioned my character.

For a long time, my life was just about perfect. I had a beautiful wife, seven sons and three daughters, and frankly, I was rich beyond belief. I had sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys grazing for as far as the eye could see, and I had servants taking care of them. To my utter bewilderment, it all fell apart on me in a single day.

First, thieves made off with my livestock, slaughtering most of my servants in the process. Then, out of nowhere, a great windstorm knocked down my oldest son’s house, crushing to death all my children as they feasted.

Not too much later, I began to get sick. I developed these nasty, oozing sores from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. And folks, that means they were on everything in between, too. I felt like God’s garbage, so I went and sat down on the ash pile. There, at least, I could use a piece of pottery to scrape the festering mess off of myself.

That’s when my friends showed up. They did really well at first—they just sat quietly with me for a whole week. I was in misery, but at least I had company. But as soon as I remarked that I wished I had never been born, Eliphaz felt the need to speak up. Then the others joined in.

Their arguments were quite elaborate, even poetic, but they all boiled down to this: “Job, you must’ve done something to offend God.” I told them I couldn’t imagine what it might be, but they just went on and on.

I should mention one surprise I learned from this book. One of God’s angels, the one known as Satan, “The Accuser,” was the actual cause of my troubles. He thought my righteousness resulted from my easy life, and that he could make me curse God.

To be honest, knowing that God let an accusing angel do so much evil to me leaves me even more confused.

I suppose I’ll just have to rely on what God told my friends and me: The Creator cannot be fully understood. At least God gave me a new family and restored my wealth in the end.

Still, I would like to better understand God. In the midst of my sickness, I did have a vision. I poured out some powerfully strange words, so powerful that I longed for someone to engrave the words in stone. Maybe a fever accompanied the sores—I don’t know.

Those words are recorded in the 19th chapter of my story: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

It’s a strange hope to have. Who is this Redeemer? And how could I ever hope to stand in the flesh before God after my body has been destroyed? It all sounds a little crazy.

Perhaps as I read the rest of this “Holy Bible,” I’ll find some answers.

Satan in Our Septic Tank

Normally on a Sunday or Monday, I use this blog to provide a synopsis of the sermon delivered at Cassidy UMC. The last several days have been odd, however, and I’m in a reflective mood.

As you can see from the previous posting in this blog, we had some plumbing problems develop late Friday. The clogged septic system could not be fixed on Saturday, so our normal worship schedule was basically canceled—it’s hard to have 170 people or so in a building where you cannot flush toilets or run water.  (Apparently the problem has been repaired; as I write this, I can hear the septic pump truck driving away. I also just heard multiple flushes down the hallway, and a man cry out, “Boy, they’re flowing now!”)

This sudden infrastructure problem was in many ways a major letdown, considering what a wonderful week we had experienced otherwise. Dozens of volunteers helped put on a great Vacation Bible School Monday through Friday. We had far more children than we had expected show up (76 on our peak evening), to the point that additional supplies had to be procured mid-week.

And more importantly, this VBS was full of good, holy teaching. We used the Babylon Holy Land Adventure materials this year, and the children spent the week learning the story of Daniel living in exile. The Cassidy folks basically turned the church building and grounds into a miniature version of ancient Babylon, including Daniel’s room and a marketplace. An important Bible story really came to life for a few days in our church.

The children experienced the importance of worshiping and trusting the One True God. They learned to let go of their fears, and they learned to see God as their savior in difficult times, a message that will help them better understand Jesus as Savior for all time. The lessons, played out in drama and ongoing conversations with “Babylonians” in the marketplace, became very real for many of these kids. (At one point, the sound of lions roaring as Daniel was led away became scary enough that we had to show some of the younger children it was a recording.)

By the time of our closing VBS program on Friday, I was talking with parents who came up to me to ask about becoming involved at Cassidy UMC, saying they had no church home. All pastors love having those conversations. And of course, it was about an hour after the last of these conversations that the floor drains began to bubble up whenever a sink or toilet emptied.

It didn’t take me long to make a connection between our clogged main drain and the key point I was planning to preach Sunday. I had spent all week in the Gospel lectionary text, Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus stilling the storm. Ironically, I had even entitled the sermon “Swamped.”

The key point: The evil forces that remain in this world mess with us, particularly when Christ’s kingdom is expanding in some dramatic way. The point is fairly obvious in the story, if you read carefully. When Jesus calms the storm, he uses exorcism-type language, rebuking the wind and commanding the sea to be still. This fits our big-picture understanding of a world tainted by sin; we know from Scripture that all of creation is broken and susceptible to the influence of evil. Only Christ, through his sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection, is overcoming and will fully overcome the powers and principalities of this world.

This lesson caused me to ask myself a question: Is Satan messing with Cassidy’s plumbing? As so-called modern, enlightened people, most of us find such an idea medieval. And as a former p.r. guy for a utility company, I’ll be the first to admit that infrastructure tends to collapse during a peak usage event—in this case, more than 100 people in the church on a nightly basis for five days.

If Satan were trying to interfere, however, the timing couldn’t be better. Lots of excitement about what just happened in VBS? Well, shut them down for a Sunday and see how long that excitement lasts.

That’s why I’m proud of the 33 folks who turned out to worship in the front parking lot Sunday. It was simple worship, and surprisingly pleasant in the shade.

Some of us also went visiting in Cassidy’s neighborhoods afterward, talking with folks we found at home during the traditional church hour. We didn’t use our building Sunday, but we took a taste of church to people who perhaps needed to know God was thinking of them. I in particular treasure the 10 minutes one of our youth and I were able to spend with a lady in need of prayer, a lady who invited us into her home.

The work of the kingdom continued, even if only in a small way. And if Satan wants to hang out in our septic tank, it’s an appropriate place for him to be.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Presence

Mark 14:37-42

Today we’re going to try to better understand how to fill the sails on the second mast of our five-masted ship, which carries us toward the resurrection we celebrate at Easter.

Last week, we looked at the mast of prayer; this week, we’ll see how the mast of presence helps drive us along.

As far as today’s Scripture is concerned, we’re picking up in Mark where we left off last Sunday. Jesus was praying for the strength to follow Father God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the midst of that intense process, he went to check on the three disciples he took along, Peter, James and John. Jesus found them asleep—even Simon Peter, the assertive disciple who only recently had pledged to stand by Jesus even unto death.

“Simon, are you asleep?” Jesus asked, his rhetorical question capturing the irony of the moment. “Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Two more times Jesus returned to find them similarly asleep, suffering from a drowsiness that seems to me more the work of the devil than the result of any physical exhaustion.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners,” Jesus said. “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Jesus then was arrested and taken down the rocky, thorn-strewn path toward crucifixion.

I have no doubt that Jesus’ followers had many moments they would have handled differently if “do overs” were possible. They would have been by Jesus’ side as he prayed in anguish. They certainly would have stayed with Jesus and spoken up for him at his trial and crucifixion rather than denying knowing him and hiding. Nearly all of those do overs would be tied to their level of presence in both a physical and spiritual sense.

I am sympathetic to their situation. We, of course, are blessed with a full understanding of the story. The disciples were struggling with the collapse of their high expectations as their teacher faced torture and ultimately murder on a cross.

They could not comprehend what Christians now declare, that this death was only temporary. The core of our belief system is this: Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, remade, inaugurating God’s remaking of all creation, rescuing us from sin.

Even knowing what we know, however, our biggest problem may be the failure of many of our own church members to be fully present. There are many in the American church who call Jesus “Savior,” perhaps even attending church regularly, but who are for all practical purposes asleep in the garden at a critical time.

It’s not a new problem. In the 18th century, Methodism became a British religious movement as a response to the lukewarm, Laodicean behavior of the Anglican church.

In one of John Wesley’s more famous sermons, “Awake Thou That Sleepest,” the founder of Methodism expressed his deep concern for those content with this life, particularly if they were outwardly religious but not particularly engaged with God or with the work God is doing in this world through the resurrection.

“Awake, thou everlasting spirit, out of thy dream of worldly happiness!” Wesley said. “Did not God create thee for himself? Then, thou canst not rest till thou restest in him. Return, thou wanderer!”

In modern times, the problem is similar, but worse, I think. We have more to distract us, more to keep us feeling content until our time in this world is all used up.

We are tired because we do too much that is not really of God’s will. And when it comes to worship (loving God) and active engagement in Christian ministry (loving our neighbors), we treat those activities as just more items on a troublesome to-do list rather than the priorities they are.

In short, we fail to be present. We stop being present spiritually, simply going through the motions, acting like what Wesley called an “Almost Christian.” Once there, we’re not far from reducing or ending our physical presence, withdrawing from church and ministry, and quietly hoping we bought enough fire insurance with our baptism to cover our eternal souls.

If any of this is sounding uncomfortably true, the answer is to engage in a little spiritual warfare. I am convinced that this problem goes beyond simple apathy. We are under attack, and the best weapon Satan has found in the 21st century may be distraction.

Distract them with material wants, and they’ll miss seeing the needs of others. Distract them with entertainment—sports, television, sports on television—and they’ll think they’re much busier than they actually are, lacking time to worship God.

Fire these weapons accurately and often, and one day these Almost Christians wake up to realize their best years are behind them, even if they are surrounded by lots of stuff. All they have left is a longing for Christ and no way to make up lost time.

I sincerely believe Christ’s grace remains available even to those who learn only late in life the value of being present in Christ’s church both spiritually and physically. We are saved by the grace of God, not by our works.

It’s still good to say thanks for eternal life, however, to respond to such a tremendous gift from God with all the loving presence we can muster.

Actively loving God and our neighbors from the day of our baptism until the day our bodies give out is one of the best ways I know to offer such thanks, particularly when you consider it is how God asks us to respond.