Courageously Stepping Out into Uncertainty

Ivan Aivazovsky / Public domain

Synopsis: We are living in uncertain times as we move through this pandemic storm. We don’t know what the future holds. How can the stories of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water help us face the unknown with courage and step out into uncertainty with faith?

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Scriptures: Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

We can all relate to these gospel stories for today, and I believe they hold important messages for us in these times when we are faced with many overwhelming challenges – so many challenges – both individually and collectively – that we may have found ourselves doubting God’s love for us.

Deep down, we may think that if we believe in God, go to church every Sunday, say our prayers every day, and try our best to do good, we won’t have to deal with any troubles. But that’s not how life is. We’re all in this together. As Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 5:45, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. People who are sick with COVID-19 are uncertain about whether they will fully recover. People who have lost loved ones are uncertain about how they will carry on without them. People who have been laid off from work are uncertain about when they will be called back to work – if ever. Many are uncertain about how the struggling economy will affect their assets.

There’s one thing we’re all uncertain about, and that’s the future. We have no idea what the future holds. We never did, really, but now, we really don’t. We can’t assume that anything about our life before coronavirus will go back to the way it was. The rug has literally been pulled out from underneath us, and there’s absolutely nothing out there to hold onto.

We’re experiencing quite a storm. The old boat we’ve been in is getting beat up, it’s starting to sink, and we’re terrified! Surely, the Lord must be asleep! How can he be sleeping at a time like this?

Lord, wake up! Save us!

In our first gospel story, the disciples were experiencing a quite a storm on the sea. Their boat was getting beat up, and they were terrified, but Jesus was asleep. After they woke him up, he commented on their lack of faith, rebuked the wind and the waves, and all of a sudden, it was completely calm. The disciples were amazed. Who is this man that even the wind and waves obey him?

Jesus could have answered that question directly saying, “I AM the Christ,” but he didn’t operate that way. He more or less let the disciples draw that conclusion for themselves. It wasn’t until almost the end of Jesus’ ministry when Peter would declare, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

But at this point, Jesus knew himself as the Christ, and if Christ is one with God and all of Life, then Christ is in the wind and waves. We identify with this helpless human form, so we can’t help but feel terrified when we perceive such awesome forces of Nature out there, separate from us, opposing us.

What if the truth is that there’s nothing out there opposing us? What if everything that occurs in Life somehow mysteriously supports Life – and therefore us – as part of Life?

Speaking of something to hold onto, we humans didn’t invent gravity to keep us from flying out into space, did we? No, we did not. Yet gravity exists and never fails. We humans also didn’t create the sun and command it to rise and set, did we? No, we did not. Yet it does – every single day. In so many countless ways beyond our ability to comprehend, Life supports itself.

Yet we scream, “Lord, wake up! Save us!”

Do we now see what little faith we have? Life doesn’t oppose us; we oppose life. That’s the problem. Instead of choosing to see Life as the enemy, how about choosing to trust that somehow Life has brought us this storm to support us as part of Itself – even though we can’t comprehend how? How might that shift in perspective help calm the wind and waves?

Our next gospel story takes place closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry after the death of John the Baptist. This time, Jesus is not in the boat with his disciples when the boat starts getting battered by the waves. They are on their own this time because Jesus went up a mountain to pray – way, way over on the other side of the lake – separated from them by what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle: the water.

The same is true with us: Jesus isn’t physically here in this boat with us because he left to commune with the Father. We may feel as if the Lord is far, far away – unable to help us. Like the disciples, we may feel totally helpless and hopeless in our little boat – in the pitch dark – tossed around by the strong winds and heavy waves of this pandemic.

But there are no obstacles that can come between us and the Lord. Jesus, walking on the water, came to the disciples. Now, I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain how, but I do believe it’s possible. After all, if who we really are is something like light projecting forms onto the screen of Life, then why not?

When the disciples saw him, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” and screamed with fear. Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In all fairness to the disciples, if we saw a human figure walking on water, we’d probably respond the same way, wouldn’t we?

We fear things we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We fear it so much that we want to know – everything. In fact, we’re so addicted to knowing that we often pretend we know when we really don’t. We can’t handle not knowing; it makes us feel too vulnerable.

What if we gave up the notion that we need to know everything because we can trust Life to give us what we need in perfect timing – just as the Lord showed up at the perfect time to say, “Have courage! It’s not the boogie man! It is Life here to support you exactly when you need it.”

Peter’s options were scary. If he stayed in the boat, it might capsize or sink. If he got out, would he be able to keep his head above water in the tumultuous sea? With either choice, he could drown. After all, he didn’t have a lifeboat, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. He had nothing to keep him afloat.

He had nothing to hold onto.

But by this time, Peter had been Jesus’ disciple for a while. Only hours before, he had witnessed Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He had witnessed Jesus calm storms, cast out demons, heal the sick – even raise the dead. And wow! What if he could walk on water too? What if he had abilities he didn’t even know he had?

He said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” There was no way that he was going to step out of that old boat until he knew for sure that it was the Lord. He trusted the Lord. He knew the Lord wouldn’t let him drown. He knew the Lord would support him. If we trust life, we’ll be fearless – like Peter.

So, Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus. What a miracle! But then, the wind and waves distracted him. Instead of keeping his eyes on the Lord, he focused on the wind and waves. He became afraid, and he began to sink.

The apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

Peter was frightened by what we saw out there, so he started to doubt, and then sink. How many of us, when we read or hear the news, get scared, and then get this sinking feeling in our gut? It’s the same problem Peter had. When we’re frightened, we make the mistake of looking for something out there to grab onto to make us feel better when the Lord’s right here, reaching out to us.

Now, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. We’re only human. But it doesn’t have to keep us stuck in old ways of thinking and behaving that might not work anymore. What if that old boat is sinking – but what if we can walk on water? What if we have abilities we didn’t know we had? Perhaps this story is what we all need to help us to courageously step out of that old boat into uncertainty.

It’s scary, yes, but there are also infinite possibilities – and that’s exciting.

Because it is through challenges like this that we awaken the sleeping Christ within us to calm the storm and to give us the courage to step out of old boats and really live. And it is through these journeys that the Lord within us is glorified and our faith and trust is developed until we can exclaim with Peter and rest of the disciples: “Lord – you really are the Son of God.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust that you are within us, reaching out to give us help whenever we need it. May this confidence give us the courage to step out into the uncertainty, letting go of our old ways of thinking and behaving, so that we might really live. Amen.

The Way to the Father

Leonard DiVinci | Public Domain

Synopsis: When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” what did he mean? Did he mean that people must believe in him (Jesus) to be saved, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

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Today’s message is entitled, “The Way to the Father.” You might be thinking, “That’s easy. Jesus is the way to the Father. Didn’t he say, ‘I AM the way the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me?’” Yes, he did say that, but is that what he meant, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

Let’s take a look at that passage found in John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

In these times, we can easily relate to Jesus’ disciples in this scripture reading. Since 2016, America has been embroiled in political strife. We’ve been hoping for political salvation: to make America great again. We weren’t envisioning a global pandemic for 2020. Now, our hopes and dreams for our country and for our personal lives are completely uncertain.

We’re justifiably troubled and in need of comfort.

Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover meal in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Jesus had just predicted not only his betrayal but also Peter’s denial. Rather than talking about his defeating the Romans and being crowned king, Jesus spoke about his upcoming betrayal and crucifixion.

This was certainly not the future his disciples had envisioned; it was the one they feared the most. The terrible reality of what was about to happen to Jesus was finally beginning to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples, and they were justifiably troubled.

Jesus tries his best to comfort and encourage his disciples before he goes away. At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to a place where “you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36).

Jesus’ disciples did not understand what he meant when he said that he was going to the Father because they did not yet know who they really are, so how could they follow him? Jesus knew that later on, they would follow him, so he assured them that he would save a place for them.

This, my friends, is the main reason we created time. Jesus had no more need of time at this point. His journey back to God was almost complete, but the disciples needed time. Like the story of the prodigal son who needed time to realize that he would be far better off returning to his father’s house instead of feeding pigs and starving to death, we prodigal children need time to remember who we are and to make the return journey back to God.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” When Jesus first said these words, his disciples misunderstood him. That’s understandable. Jesus was speaking about a great mystery that no words can describe.

We too misunderstand what he meant by these words. Many Christians assume Jesus was speaking about himself personally; therefore, people must believe in Jesus to be saved. When we don’t know who we really are, this mistake is understandable.

When Jesus said, “I am,” he wasn’t speaking about himself personally. He wasn’t speaking from his human nature; he was speaking from his divine nature. He was saying “I AM” with all capital letters. He was referring to who he is beyond the human form called “Jesus.”

He was referring to the state John wrote about in the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was crucified because he claimed equality with God. Certainly, if he had made this claim about himself personally, about his human nature, it would have been a preposterous boast at least and blasphemous at most. How can this crude, finite matter be God? God is eternal, and this ain’t.

Yet back in the mid-80’s, at the beginning of the New Age movement, in her autobiographical book entitled, “Out on a Limb,” Shirley McLain boldly declared “I AM God!”

This shocking declaration got us all thinking rationally not only about our own nature but also about the nature of God. Is God a who or more of a what? Since then, humanity’s concept of God as an entity separate from us, looking down on us from on high and judging us, has lost its appeal.

Now, I think most people conceive of God as more as a what. If we could see and feel this great mystery called “God,” what would we see? What would we feel? Since all we have is our human senses, it would help to have some sensory pointers.

You might have heard people describe God as Light. In fact, in John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world.” Again, he’s not speaking about his human nature; he’s speaking about his divine nature – his IAM nature in union with God.

If we could see God, we might perceive Light. Because of our medical advances, many people have died and lived to tell about it. Many described walking toward a dazzling, loving Light. So now, many think of God not as an entity who lives somewhere apart from us, but as a kind of energy that is all around us – not only all around us, but somehow also mysteriously within us.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” And maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Just as God is the Light, we are the Light. Who we really are is not like this form; it’s more like an energy – like light. And doesn’t light project many different forms on a screen, and yet, it’s all the same? Why can’t that be the truth for us too – that even though we appear in many different forms projected onto this screen called “life,” we are exactly the same – made of the same stuff.

God is like the Sun, and we are like sunbeams – an extension of God – an expression of God on this earth. Without the sun’s light, there would be no life on earth. Likewise, without God, who we really are would not exist.

This body with this ego – this personal self – is like how the moon sometimes gets between the sun and the earth and causes an eclipse. We know there’s no way on God’s green earth that that little moon could ever totally block out the majestic sun. Imagine if the moon thought it could do that.

How arrogant!

When we identify with this personal self, we’re like the moon with that level of arrogance. We think that we’ve successfully blocked out God and ceased to be who we are. That’s impossible. This personal self seems powerful, but all it can really do is create … shadows.

An effective way to imagine our true nature visually is to repeat the mantra, “I am the Light,” and image God’s Light entering into the top of the head, filling every cell of the body, and then pouring out from every cell, but mainly from the heart. These bodies are powerful lighthouses when they aren’t being used to create shadows.

You might have heard people describe God as Love. In his first letter, John the evangelist writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-9).

So, we can visualize God and therefore who we really are as an energy like light. We can also think of God and therefore who we really are as love. That gives us a feeling sense – an idea of what it feels like to be who we really are. It feels like love.

We humans have a hard time understanding this because our idea of love is not the same as God’s. God’s Love is mysterious – just like everything else about God. We can’t describe it in words. 

But we can say for sure that it’s not like human love. Human love is exclusive. We love things in an exclusive way. I love ice cream, but I hate liver. We love people in this exclusive way too. We love certain people, and certain people we … don’t.

Our human love is also a gushy, giddy kind of love. It’s so dramatic. Humans love drama, and our human love is – of course – our idea of it – so there you go.

God’s Love isn’t like that. God’s love is inclusive. How can it exclude anything when God is all there is? God is therefore in an eternal relationship with everything he created, so how could he not love any part it? That would be like rejecting part of himself. That would be insane, and God is not insane.

We might come closer to understanding God’s Love a bit more after we’re married. Because suddenly, we are in a relationship “until death do us part.” That’s as close to the idea of eternity as we can imagine. At some point, the “honeymoon phase” – that gushy, giddy love – goes away. I don’t know about you other married folks, but I was sure glad when it did. It’s exhausting!

Yes, after a while, that gushy, giddy kind of love is replaced by something a lot less dramatic, but a lot more real, and that’s when the meaning of “I do” becomes clearer.

You see, love is more than just a feeling. It’s a choice. It’s an active thing. It’s a choice to actively be in a relationship. If we must share a place and our life with someone, isn’t it a whole lot easier when we get along and care for one another? Wouldn’t it be insane not to – unless, of course, we’re into PAIN?

Are we not in an eternal relationship with God, with our fellow human beings, and with all of Life on this planet? Of course we are! In that case, wouldn’t it be insane to reject anyone or anything that shows up in our life?

The sun gives its light and warmth to every living thing unconditionally. It doesn’t say, “Oh, I think that one’s evil, so I’m not giving that one any light. Plants give its oxygen to every living thing unconditionally. They don’t say, “Oh, I don’t like the color of that one, so I’m not giving that one any oxygen.

If something or someone is here, if it exists, then it automatically and unconditionally receives respect and care. That’s God’s idea of love.

Why are we so insane? Why do we eclipse the light on purpose, why do we cast shadows, why do we reject parts of ourselves? And why does God let us do that if it only leads to suffering?

Because we wanted to learn the value of love. When love is all there is, how can one experience its value? As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you got til its gone.” But if love is all there is, how can its opposite exist? It can’t in reality, but it can in our imaginations.

We humans are the only beings on this planet who have the opportunity to learn the value of love because we’re the only living things with the free will to choose to believe our own fantasies over the Truth. It’s up to each and every one of us to learn the value of love and to ultimately decide that nothing in this world is more valuable – because truly, there is nothing else.

How can we experience ourselves as God’s Love? Well, it’s simple but not easy. We practice gratitude for everyone and everything that’s showing up in our lives. Because that is how God feels about every person, every plant, every animal, and every single living thing on this planet.

God loves the unfolding of life on this earth, including everything that happens here. It’s all good because it’s all God, and it’s all teaching us the value of love. Think about the power of this pandemic to teach us all the value of love. Can you see all the people pouring out love in compassionate action?

Jesus tells his disciples, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Love is the way to the Father. Because Christ is alive within us, we can now go to the Father though Love, but we must choose Love. We must value love more than anything else. So from this moment on, let us say, “I do” to Life.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to follow you to the place you have prepared for us. Help us to choose gratitude for all that is showing up in our lives that we may be the beacon of Light and the reservoir of Love that we were created to be. Amen.

Look with the Eyes of Faith

James Tissot/no known copyright restrictions

Synopsis: When we look with the eyes of fear, we naturally interpret everything fearfully. But we have another choice. We can look with the eyes of faith! When we look with the eyes of faith, we recognize the Christ, and we realize how deeply cared for we are.

Please click here to watch the Saint Paul’s Community Church Easter Sunday Virtual Service in which this message is contained. You are welcome to enjoy and participate in the service, which contains communion. The Opening Hymn did not play in the service video. Please click here to view the Opening Hymn and sing along!

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:1-10

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine for a moment an entirely different resurrection story from the one we just read, maybe a Charles Dickens type story, where Jesus appears hauntingly to the High Priest Caiaphas, or to Pontius Pilate, or to Tiberius Caesar, saying, “I am the ghost of the Son of God!” Wouldn’t it serve them right to have been proven wrong and shown the error of their ways?

We might think so! But our Father God is different from us and has different priorities. Yes, His Only Son was treated cruelly at the hands of these unbelievers, and yes, God allowed that to happen, but God used their evil deeds to redeem the world. In that way, they too were part of God’s plan, and they played their part.

We can tell where God’s true priorities lie in the real resurrection story. We read that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. We know Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest followers – as well as the other Mary.

But who was the other Mary? We know it wasn’t Jesus’ mother because she is always clearly named in the Gospels along with Mary Magdalene. The other Mary was probably Matthew’s mother. Matthew (a.k.a Levi) was the tax collector Jesus called to be his disciple.

It’s also possible that the other Mary was Jesus’ aunt – his mother’s sister or half-sister. Matthew’s mother Mary, his father Cleopas, and his brothers James the Less and Joseph were all Jesus’ followers – and perhaps part of his family.

These two Marys were standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross with Jesus’ mother Mary. Didn’t it serve these two faithful and fearless followers of the Lord right to be the first to behold his resurrection? God thought so.

A 19th Century Irish poet by the name of Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote a wonderful poem that pays tribute to the loyalty and courage of these two women:

Not she with trait’rous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could danger brave,
Last at His cross, and earliest at His grave.

Imagine these two Marys wanting nothing more than to be able to lovingly minister once more to the body of Jesus, perhaps doubting that the guards would even allow them to come near the tomb and doubting that they would be able to get into the tomb with that big stone rolled in front of it.

But just as these two Marys arrive at the tomb, there is suddenly an earthquake. There is an earthquake because an angel of the Lord appears fast as lightening, rolls back the stone, and sits on it.

Why did God send an angel? Did the angel need somewhere to sit? Probably not. Was Jesus knocking on the stone from inside the tomb saying, “Helloooo! It’s Easter Sunday. Time for me to bust out of here!” No – the angel tells the two Marys, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

Why did God send an angel, whose lightning-fast appearance and white-as-snow garments frightened the tomb guards so much that they literally shook and fell to the ground, appearing like dead men?

I wonder how many bodies were lying around? How many Roman Soldiers do you think Pilate might have had guarding that tomb to prevent Jesus’ disciples from stealing his body – along with the Temple guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees just to be sure? There could have been as many as fifty men!

Why did God send an angel to roll the stone away and knock out the guards, and then, after creating this scene of mayhem and seeming carnage, says to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid!” Why weren’t they scared half to death like the guards?

Well, God didn’t send the angel because he wanted the two Marys to be sacred; he sent the angel because He cared – about them. God had a message for them, and he sent the angel to deliver that message.

God lovingly attended to their needs. Imagine the heart-rending pain they might have experienced if they came upon this scene without the benefit of the angel’s message? They would have misinterpreted it because they would have naturally looked with the eyes of fear. They would have thought there was some kind of fight at the tomb, and all the guards were killed, and someone stole Jesus’ body.

But that wasn’t what happened at all. God wanted to spare these two women whom he loved that horrible pain when there was nothing to be afraid of and no reason for despair. In fact, there was cause for great, great joy! Jesus had risen as he said. The angel told them, “Come and see the place where he lay.” Look with eyes of faith!

God wasn’t concerned only for these two women because the angel assigned the two Marys a messenger mission of their own. After having the honors of being the first to witness the empty tomb, they were to go and tell the disciples the good news: that Jesus had risen and that he will see them in Galilee.

In Mark’s gospel, the angel says, “Tell the disciples and Peter ….” Mark’s gospel makes a point to signal out Peter. Why? Well, Peter denied Jesus three times. Did the angel want Peter to be haunted by his denial? No – the angel was making it clear that even though he denied God’s Son, he was still dear to God.

The disciples were not perfect. Their faith wasn’t perfect. Their trust wasn’t perfect. Peter may have denied Jesus three times, but most of them ran away after Jesus was arrested. No one asked Jesus for forgiveness, but clearly, God still cared for them all. God wanted them to know the good news so that their despair could be exchanged for joy!

We read the two Marys leave the tomb with both fear and great joy. That’s an impossible combination of emotions, isn’t it? How can one experience fear and great joy at the same time?

In the Bible, the word “fear” can mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, it means “anxiety,” but other times, it means, “awe.” It makes more sense in this context that they leave the tomb in awe – or amazement – and great joy.

As they are leaving and running to tell Jesus disciples, lo and behold, they are greeted by the resurrected Lord. Not only are these fearless, loyal women the first to witness the empty tomb, but they are also the first to see the resurrected Lord. Doesn’t it serve them right?

There he is, standing in front of them, needing nothing more to say or do than to give them a simple greeting – like an ordinary guy or an ordinary day. If they were not looking with the eyes of faith, they might have overlooked him. But they do recognize the risen Lord, and all they can do – in their state of awe – is fall down and worship him.

Jesus tells the Marys, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” He calls the disciples “my brothers.” I think that is a testament as to whether the Lord has forgiven them for their fear and doubt. They are still as dear to him as they are to God.

He’s saying to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid and despairing any longer. Rejoice! I am alive! Now go and proclaim the good news!”

How many of us feel as if our faith and trust in God hasn’t exactly been perfect lately? I’m with you on that one. The world scene is a scary one – kind of like the scene of violence, and mayhem, and death that the two Marys saw after the earthquake.

When we look with the eyes of fear, we – of course – interpret everything fearfully. Then all we can do is despair because it appears as if the Lord is truly dead, and God has abandoned us. Evil has prevailed; it’s the end of the world.

Even though we feel that way at times, God still cares for us, and we are still joined with Christ. We are having a human experience, and fear and doubt and despair naturally go along with that territory.

While we can expect to feel this way at times, we do have another choice besides the eyes of fear when it comes to looking at the world. We can look with eyes of faith.

Because only by looking with eyes of faith will we recognize the risen Christ operating within our brothers and sisters and also within ourselves.

When we look out into the world with eyes of faith, what do we see? Let’s look together. I see mind-boggling ingenuity. People are finding ways to stay connected, to hold up and inspire one another, and to come up with ways to provide things that are in short supply, such as hand sanitizer, ventilators, and face masks.

I see abundant compassion. Most people have put aside their differences and have taken on genuine concern for one another. Everywhere, people are telling each other, even perfect strangers, “Be safe and be well.”

People are finding ways to help each other in whatever ways they can, like buying groceries for those who are in quarantine or for those who are vulnerable or donating money and giving provisions to those in need.

I see more unity than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Nations are cooperating with one another to save as many lives as possible – no matter where those lives are – because as long as anyone is suffering from this disease, everyone is at risk.

And my friends, it has always been that way. Whenever anyone in the world suffers dis-ease – whether it be because of poverty, or inadequate healthcare, or educational deficiencies, or injustice – everyone is at risk. We ARE in this together: This situation makes that fact so obvious that it is undeniable.

Who is it that is pouring out all this ingenuity, compassion, and solidarity? It certainly can’t be our human egos – no, our human egos are all about taking care of #1. So, it must be coming from some other place within us.

It is the living Christ. He’s not dead. He’s here within all of us, and all around us, He’s making his appearance, saying, “Greetings!” like an ordinary person on an ordinary day, and we can recognize him if we look with the eyes of faith.

Just this week, someone knocked on our door. I looked through the peep hole, and I saw someone I did not know – a woman with two kids. My first reaction was, “Ahhh Zombies!” Yeah, I think I’ve seen too many Zombie Apocalypse movie previews.

Anyway, I shook off that initial reaction, and opened the door. The woman said, “There’s a package around the corner with this address on it. I just wanted you to know. I didn’t touch it or anything.”

So, I went around the corner of the house and found the package that had literally blown off our porch. It was a very windy day. I thanked the woman from the bottom of my heart.

Here was this woman with small children, taking the risk to knock on a stranger’s door during a pandemic just to make sure we got a package. It wasn’t a zombie after all; it was the living Christ letting us know not to be afraid but be joyful because we are deeply loved.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we are willing to look with eyes of faith. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, send your angelic messengers to us when we are fearful and despairing to encourage us to look with the eyes of faith so that we may recognize the living Christ all around us. Amen.

Resources:

Cole-Rous, Jim. “Mary – the Other Mary.” Global Christian Center, 2010, globalchristiancenter.com/christian-living/lesser-known-bible-people/31268-mary-the-other-mary  

“Lesson 67: Making the Resurrection Story Your Own (Matthew 28:1-15).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-67-making-resurrection-story-your-own-matthew-281-15

Riding Triumphantly

Benjamin R. Haydon| Public Domain

Synopsis: Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem despite his knowing that suffering and death awaited him. How can we learn from him and ride triumphantly through this pandemic?

Scripture: Matthew 21: 1-11

Click here to watch a YouTube video service for Palm Sunday, in which this message is contained. The scripture reading can be found at around 6:25, followed by this message.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the biggest fears we humans have is the fear of the unknown. This fear causes us to keep asking ourselves, “what if …?” That can be a dangerous question. The human mind is very creative, so we can always imagine an infinite number of scenarios – especially scary ones – and endlessly occupy ourselves with disaster planning.

How many of us might wish we knew beforehand that this pandemic was coming? If we knew, how might we have prepared ourselves? Those who have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives – how might they have prepared themselves if they had known?

Perhaps they would have told their family and friends about their premonition, hoping they would do all they could to help prevent disaster from striking.

We can’t imagine someone telling their loved ones, “This is what is going to happen. I just want you to be prepared. I don’t want you to do anything to stop it.” What kind of person, knowing that tragedy was about to strike, would so calmly and willingly accept it?

Someone like Jesus. Jesus had an advantage most of us don’t have. He knew what was going to happen. He told his disciples several times that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be turned over to the authorities, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified, and on the third day, rise from the dead. He knew this in advance, yet he did nothing to stop it, and he didn’t want his disciples to do anything to stop it.

We read in Matthew 16:21-23, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem: that he would suffer and die in the cruelest ways imaginable. Not only did he do nothing to stop it, but he also rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.

How is it that Jesus was able to ride triumphantly – to face a difficult trial with such poise and confidence? And how can we ride triumphantly through these challenging times?

First and foremost, Jesus trusted God. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Well, I’m going into Jerusalem, where I’ll probably be crucified, and maybe rise from the dead in a few days.” He knew God’s plan of salvation, and he fully accepted his role in it.

Jesus completely trusted that if he did his part, God would do His Part. He needed a donkey and a colt, and they were there for him. You know, in those days, wealth was measured by how much livestock you had. A donkey and a colt were worth a lot of money, yet the owner gave them to Jesus’ disciples because they said, “the Lord needs them.”

These days, that would be like someone giving a stranger the keys to their BMW because he said to them, “the Lord needs it.” Can you imagine what a miracle that would be? That was the lesson for Jesus’ disciples. If we are in God’s Will, God provides. That’s His Part. Our part is to relax and trust Him.

In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

So if we’re worried about not being able to get what we need in the grocery store – like toilet paper – or we’re worried that we won’t be able to afford what we need because of job loss, or we’re worried that we’re losing our nest egg in the plunging stock market, let these fears be a sobering reminder that we are looking for security where it can’t be found.

It can be found in trusting God.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he trusted God, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” and he prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus was a human being, so of course, he was afraid – and sad. Any normal human being would feel afraid and sad in his situation. Nevertheless, he submitted his will to God’s Will.

Any normal human being on this earth right now would feel afraid and sad. People are suffering; some are suffering terribly – so terribly that they are taking their own lives. It’s frightening, and it’s sad.

We can pray to God to cleanse the earth of this disease, heal all those who are ill, and provide for those in need. We can pray for the protection and sustenance of our family and friends. We can pray our own protection and sustenance. We can do all we can reasonably do to help others, and to stay safe and well. But then, we must let go and leave the rest up to God’s Will for the good of all.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he placed his faith in Christ, not in his personal self. Jesus of Nazareth would soon be no more. The life of that individual – of that character in this great play called Life – was about to end. Jesus didn’t identify with that small self as much as with the Christ. He knew that small self was a false, temporary self that paled in comparison to his glorious True Self – his eternal Self – in Christ.

The people shouting “Hosanna” in the streets were not celebrating the Christ and the spiritual salvation that was coming to them. They were not anticipating a suffering, dying Messiah. They were hoping for something else entirely. They were looking for political salvation. They were seeing a political hero in Jesus of Nazareth, someone who would rise up and defeat the Romans.

How many people today are hoping for a political savior? We’ve been suffering a great deal lately because of politics. Many are hoping for a political savior, someone to finally rise up and make things right in this country and in the world, whether it be our current President or someone else. I think like the people of Jesus’ time, those who are hoping for a political savior are in for a big disappointment.

The more we place our faith in another human being, or try to handle things on our own, the more anxious we become. This pandemic is making that even more apparent. Do we really think we limited, helpless human beings have the strength, wisdom, and compassion to handle this apart from God?

No way.

The good news is that there’s far more to us than our human nature. There is something within us that is all-powerful – the Christ – and the Christ has all the strength, all the wisdom, and all the compassion needed to handle this situation – if we would just stop looking for a hero where one can’t be found.

This pandemic is a cross for us personally. It is a cross for us collectively. Our personal and collective lives will never be the same. Who we were before, both personally and collectively, is dying right now.

We’re losing the life we’ve grown accustomed to, whether it be the life we had with a job, or the life we had in our community, or the life with shared with a loved one. We’re losing the self that moved through the life we once knew. We don’t know who we’re going to be, or what life is going to be like after we emerge from this tomb.

But if we have faith in Christ, we do know that the tomb of the small self is the womb of Christ. And, my friends, in this unprecedented time, the small self of not just one individual, but of all humanity, is in the tomb together, and if we have faith in Christ, if we’ve been anticipating his coming and bringing God’s Kingdom to earth, then we can ride triumphantly through these challenging times with more hope than we’ve ever had at any other time in human history!

Ponder for a moment what a blessing it is for you to be here at this time.

So, we don’t need to know what’s going to happen if we trust God, submit to God’s Will, and place our hope in Christ. We can, like the Lord, ride triumphantly through this challenging time.

And just as his riding in on a donkey suggested, we can ride through it in peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust God, submit to His Will, and place our hope in Christ. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of our misplaced faith so that we can place our faith where it belongs and be at peace in these times and always. Amen.

What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

Synopsis: Many Christians claim to be “born again.” The term comes from the scene of Jesus’ visit with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When we Christians say we are “born again,” do we understand what Jesus meant, or have we created our own meaning?

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: John 3: 1-17

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine if a great preacher and healer came into our world at this time, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation about whether this person is the second coming of Christ. Now, imagine if Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham or any of today’s famous Christian evangelists came to visit this person, confessed their faith, and they were told, “Your belief isn’t enough to save you.”

Imagine how flabbergasted they would feel, and you can begin to imagine how Nicodemus might have felt in our scripture reading for today.

First, let’s look at the setting of this event, which might explain why Nicodemus visited with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the powerful Jewish council. He was one of the most prominent religious teachers of his day, and the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing got his attention.

Jesus astonished his audiences with the depth of his Scriptural understanding from the time he was twelve years old and continuing into his ministry as an adult. At the end of Matthew chapter 7:28-29, after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds, we read, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Not only did Jesus astound the crowds with his teaching, but also with his healing. We read in Luke 5:17 “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

At this point, the religious leaders were hard-pressed to criticize Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have any trouble criticizing them. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus taught the people that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he said in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If that wasn’t enough to get Nicodemus’ attention, then perhaps Jesus’ cleansing the temple was. Nicodemus’ visit is placed immediately after this event in John’s gospel. When the religious leaders asked Jesus to produce a sign to prove his authority to cleanse the temple, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Nicodemus was one of the most renowned Torah teachers of his day, yet when Jesus preached, he captivated audiences in ways that Nicodemus never could, and when Jesus preached, he answered questions that had puzzled Nicodemus for years. Jesus also performed many miracles, yet Nicodemus himself had yet to perform one.

Jesus made the Jewish teachers of the law look like amateurs – even ones as great as Nicodemus. Blinded by pride, most of them refused to believe that he came from God despite the obvious power of his preaching and healing abilities, and most of them would eventually join together to find ways to discredit Jesus and have him arrested.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night – alone. The Pharisees normally operated during the day – and in packs. Why is Nicodemus acting so unlike the other Pharisees?

Well … because Nicodemus was indeed unlike the other Pharisees. The first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus shows Jesus great respect by calling him “Rabbi,” a title reserved for teachers of the law like himself. But notice that Nicodemus doesn’t say, “I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for all the Pharisees?

The majority of the Pharisees ultimately rejected Jesus, so he must not be saying, “All we Pharisees believe in you, Jesus!” I think he’s saying, “Based on the way we Pharisees judge things like miraculous signs, the evidence suggests that your power must come from God.” He was drawing a logical conclusion based on the evidence according to his Pharisaic training.

At this point, I’m sure Nicodemus was looking forward to hearing Jesus talk all about himself and his divinely-inspired mission. I’m sure he had a lot of questions he would have liked Jesus to answer.

Instead, Jesus makes a statement that totally confounds Nicodemus. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He’s essentially telling Nicodemus, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but your belief is not enough to save you.”

I’m sure Nicodemus was shocked by this statement. He probably thought, “Wait just a minute here! I don’t need to be born again! I was born a Son of Abraham – an heir to the Kingdom of God. I follow Torah Law and teach others to do the same. How is that not enough?”

I’m sure today’s biggest Christian evangelists would be just as shocked. They might think, “Wait just a minute here! I was baptized a Christian, I say the Apostle’s Creed, I administer and partake in the sacraments, and I preach the gospel. How is that not enough?”

Nicodemus was not afraid to express his confusion and ignorance: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We Christians got the term “born again” from this story, so our Christian evangelists might say, “Oh, yes, Lord! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a born-again Christian.” When we call ourselves “born again,” what do we mean? Have we adopted Jesus’ meaning or our own?

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves two things: The first is water. I believe Jesus’ use of the word “water” relates to John’s baptism. Remember that John’s baptism wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins. It was a sign of God’s blessing on those who had repented and made a commitment to God.

Jesus liked using parables to make a point, and I’d like to do the same using one of his parables – the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. The younger son brazenly asks his father for his inheritance – basically expressing a wish for his father to die. In response, the father divides his inheritance between his two sons.

The younger son cashes in all his assets and goes to a “distant country.” When a famine strikes, he comes to his senses, repents, and begins to return home to his father. Along the way, he makes plans to ask his father to be accepted as a hired hand, but his father runs to meet him with open arms and throws a feast to celebrate his return.

The elder son becomes jealous and complains to his father saying in essence, “Here I’ve served you all these years, and you never rewarded me!” Now, it was the elder son’s duty to keep the family together, yet he gladly took his share of the inheritance and said “see ya!” to his younger brother.

Clearly, the elder son didn’t serve his father out of love; he served him for profit. He saw his father more as a boss whom he served only for a paycheck – for what he could get in return – not out of love – not out of gratitude – and with zero concern for him or his brother.

Rather than joining with his father and his brother, the elder brother exiled himself because he resented the fact that he couldn’t use his family for his own personal gain. He shook his finger at his younger brother while he himself despised his family and while he himself desired to be on his own every bit as much as his younger brother had – but without repentance.

The elder son was even more lost than his younger brother. We Christians can be deceived just like the elder son when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another. We can’t have a right relationship with God and with one another if our heart is in the wrong place.

In the wilderness, Satan tried everything in his power to get Jesus to abandon his commitment to God. Satan does the same thing to us – every single day.

I once said that I believe Satan is the ego. I’ve changed my mind. Satan is a fallen angel and the Prince of Darkness. He is real, but we don’t need to fear him. We do need to be aware of how he deceives us. His favorite way to deceive us to tempt us by appealing to our greatest weakness – the ego – our desire to be separate and to serve only ourselves.

Satan has no problem with people being religious. He can easily tempt people to use religion to profit themselves – to acquire more power, pleasure, prestige, or material possessions. Satan has no problem with religious belief at the shallow level of the mind. He can easily tempt people to mask their sins – their apathy, their arrogance, their greed, and their hatred – behind “religious beliefs.”

Satan has a major problem with people joining with Christ. Because once all of humanity joins with Christ, the Light of the World, the Prince of Darkness will have no more power over us.

Being “reborn of water” means a lot more than just admission into “Club Christian” through baptism. Our heart must be in the right place. We must be willing for the Holy Spirit to show us if it isn’t so that we can repent and make a new commitment to join with Christ.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves not only being reborn of water but also being reborn of Spirit.

Nicodemus responds to this idea with, “How can these things be?” Jesus gently rebukes him saying, “Eeeeya! And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” We Christians should have some compassion for Nicodemus because we too are deeply ignorant when it comes to our true nature.

If we believe that we were born and will someday die; then, we believe we are of the flesh. But the flesh hardly scratches the surface of who we really are. The flesh is like the tip of an iceberg so vast under the surface that we can’t even begin to imagine how big it is, or how deep it goes.

We’ve focused for so long on the tip of the iceberg that we’ve lost awareness of the vastness of our Being beneath the surface, and now we wonder like Nicodemus, “Really? How can it be that we are more these individuals?”

Think about this: When winter comes, many things in the natural world die. We aren’t horrified by this at all because we know spring is coming. We love spring because life returns to the Earth. Everything is reborn. We accept that the natural world is all part of this cycle of Life, and Life never dies; it continues on in ever-changing forms.

Isn’t that glorious? Well guess what? We’re part the natural world and therefore part of this glorious cycle of life. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was speaking as the Christ, and he was speaking quite literally. In Christ, we are the Life! We are literally Life itself!

That’s how God created us, but we humans refuse to believe that. We’d rather believe we’re separate – maybe because we’d like to think we’re superior to the rest of the natural world. We’d rather believe that we are this individual that dies than simply take our humble place alongside the rest of Life.

We’d rather believe that we can be separate and exploit the rest of Life and keep all the goodies to ourselves. Of course, keeping all the goodies to ourselves is meaningless unless we can somehow figure out how to make this individual live forever. Since that is “mission impossible,” we live in constant fear.

We choose to believe in this illusion of separation and experience fear, suffering, and death rather than to believe in who we are as God created us, as One with Him and All of Life, and to gratefully accept our inheritance: peace, joy, and eternal life.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He’s saying that the only way we can see the Kingdom of God is to join with Christ because Christ was born from above, not this thing (body).

Why in the world would we choose to believe we are these individuals and accept fear, suffering, and death when we have a far better choice? Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we can now draw a logical conclusion based on the evidence: We humans are spiritually insane.

Thankfully, God does not condemn us for our insanity. The insane can’t exercise their free will, so God had to intervene to save us. Jesus said, “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.”

This verse sums up the Gospel, but it is usually taken out of context. Because of that, the word “so” is often mistakenly interpreted as “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son ….” But in the Bible, the word “so” is often used to mean “in the same way.”

A better translation would be “For God in the same way loved the world that he gave his only Son ….” In what same way? In the same way as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is using the word “so” to point Nicodemus back to an event in Israel’s history.

This event takes place in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites were still wondering in the wilderness at this time, but they were growing impatient. They spoke out against God and Moses, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many Israelites who were bitten by the snakes died, so the people cried out to Moses, asking him to pray to God to remove the snakes.

God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he instructed Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God has a plan to heal humanity in the same way he healed the Israelites in the wilderness. I believe the serpents represent this false idol (the body), and the poison is our belief in it. God in his love for us sent Jesus to take this false idol to the cross to prove to us that it is nothing and to show us who we really are in Christ. Those who look up to the Christ and believe will be healed of the poison that has caused our spiritual insanity.

To be born again requires more of us than a simple confession of belief on the level of the mind. First, our heart must be in the right place. Therefore, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and help us come to our senses if we are living in the filth of fear, suffering, and death – or feeling a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

Next, if our heart is in the wrong place, we must repent and turn our faces back toward home, never again to turn them back toward that “distant country.” We must make the journey back to God step-by-step, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, as we wait for God to run to greet us and enfold us in His Arms.

It is only then that we will truly know what it means to be “born again.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be born from above – to be reborn of water and the Spirit. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, bring to our awareness what is in our hearts that may need to be cleansed with the water of repentance so that we can turn our face up toward Christ once again and continue our journey Home. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “8. Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with your from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/

Becoming Fishers of Humanity

Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain]

Synopsis: There is a difference between a job and a calling – between what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. Jesus called these Galilean men because they were empty of the three things that keep us all from becoming fishers of humanity.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:12-23

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you have had a job that paid the bills and gave you plenty of security, but deep down, you felt unfulfilled? Now how many of you have done work that was so deeply fulfilling that you did it even though it didn’t pay the bills or offer you any security?

That’s the difference between a job and a calling: what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. That’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. He hadn’t preached or performed any miracles. We’ve been given Jesus’ genealogy, and the accounts of his supernatural birth, the visit by the magi, the family’s flight to Egypt, and their eventual settling in Nazareth in the province of Galilee. 

Matthew then fast-forwards through Jesus’ childhood to the story of his baptism by John, where the Spirit’s proclaims that Jesus is indeed the one that God has chosen to carry out his plan of salvation. After this, Jesus enters the wilderness, where his commitment to God is tested. He passes the test and puts on the mantle of the Savior.

All along, Matthew quotes Scriptures to prove that Jesus fits the description of the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. This is essentially the goal of Matthew’s gospel.

Most people don’t realize that about a year passes between Jesus’ temptation and his withdrawal to Galilee. Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened in Jesus’ life during that year, but according to John’s gospel, he was quite busy: He called his first disciples, changed water into wine at Cana, drove the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, visited Nicodemus, and spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Capernaum, where Jesus settled according to our scripture reading, was located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. After John was arrested, Capernaum became Jesus’ home base, rather than his hometown of Nazareth.

There are several callings recorded in the New Testament, which can be a bit confusing. It seems that shortly after Jesus’ baptism, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and Philip, began following Jesus. Andrew recruited his brother Peter, and Philip recruited his brother Nathaniel.

Our scripture reading includes Andrew and Simon (or Peter) and another set of brothers, James and John. It’s possible that these brothers had been following Jesus already, but not full time. We read Jesus said, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they immediately “left their nets and followed him.” At this point, they became his disciples.

Most of Jesus’ ministry occurred in Galilee, and Matthew gives us an overview of his ministry in Galilee in verses 23 -25. Basically, it was an instant success. He ministered to large crowds of people, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people of many ailments.

An example of Jesus’ ministry is given to us in Matthew chapter 8 verses 14-17: “When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.”

“That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”

We all know how quickly word spreads in a small town. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at some time during the day, and by that evening, many were being brought to Jesus to be healed. In those days, I’m sure there were many incurable diseases and desperate people who had been suffering for a long time.

We can imagine how fast word would travel if someone with this kind of healing power showed up today. People with cancer, mental illness, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome – all the diseases modern medicine can’t seem to cure – would come to be healed.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry small. The province of Galilee was a little larger than the size of Texas, with 204 total cities and villages, each populated with no less than 15,000 people. The historian Josephus estimated Galilee’s population to be about three million. It would have taken at least a few months, visiting a couple of towns per day, with no time off, to cover it all.

But why would Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee, not in Judea or even in the City of Jerusalem? Galilee was a weird place for Jesus to start his ministry. It was located at the northernmost tier of Palestine, with Samaria sandwiched in between it and Judea, where Jerusalem was located.

It was pretty far from Jerusalem, not only geographically, but also politically. A couple of years before Jesus was born, Judas of Galilee led Sephoris, the capital city of Galilee, into a revolt against the Romans. The Galileans were shamefully crushed.

Jesus was Galilean, his disciples were Galilean, and most of his followers were Galilean, including the women who followed Jesus full time.

Matthew explains that Jesus’ choice was not a mistake; he was fulfilling a prophecy found in Isaiah chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” These Galileans, these spiritual derelicts and troublemakers, were being given a bright light through Jesus’ presence.

I personally don’t believe Jesus chose Galilee to begin his ministry just to fulfill a prophecy. I think he was looking for followers and disciples, and he knew that Galilee was the right place to find them. He was in a province known for its militancy, but he didn’t recruit these Galileans because he thought they’d be good soldiers.

He recruited them because he believed they would become great “fishers of humanity.”

The work Jesus was calling these men into didn’t have anything to do with doing. It was all about being – being in relationship – being in relationship with Jesus, with God, with one another, and ultimately with all of humanity – catching people in the Net of God’s Love.

Jesus called these Galilean men to be “fishers of humanity” mainly because they were empty. Empty of what? First, they were empty of pride. They were empty of pride because they were men of Galilee, and Galileans were generally looked down upon. People viewed Galileans like people today view those who come from the “wrong side of town.”

The fact that Jesus was a Galilean caused many to doubt that he could possibly be the Messiah. When Philip recruited his brother Nathanial, he said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Even Nathanael had his doubts about this man from Galilee, and Nathanael was a Galilean!

The people of Galilee walked in darkness – so did the people of Judea. The difference is that the people of Galilee knew they walked in darkness; the people of Judea didn’t. I think that’s why Jesus chose Galilee to start his ministry. He knew Galilee was ripe with followers and disciples.

Pride separates us from others because it causes us to see ourselves as superior to those who are different from us. So we say, “I’m not going to associate with those kinds of people.”

Our human nature doesn’t like dealing with people who are different. When people lived in small, tight-knit communities, that wasn’t a problem because people rarely came in contact with outsiders.

In this day and age, with modern technology making long-distance travel and communication quick and easy, we are increasingly coming into contact with a large variety of people who are different from us.

We must get over our aversion to people who are different if we want to become fishers of humanity; otherwise, we won’t be able to extend the Net of God’s love freely.

I recently came across a BBC article and video entitled, “We can get along because that’s America.” The Reverend Shayna Appel (a Democrat) and Nick Desautels (a Republican) met each other at a rally for a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire.

The video begins with Reverend Appel saying, “a queer clergy, non-gender normative individual and a big hairy Trump guy, and here we are getting along because that’s America.” Nick, the big, hairy Trump guy, replied, “It’s sad that people on either side have such a terrible vision of what the other side is about.” Then he talked about how he and the reverend, just by having a five-minute conversation, found out that they actually have a lot in common.

That conversation wouldn’t have happened if the two of them had not been empty of pride.  

Second, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of religion. Galilee was not only far from Jerusalem geographically and politically; it was also far from Jerusalem spiritually. Galilee was the most pagan of Jewish provinces, and those who followed Torah Law followed it loosely.

The people of Judea were the opposite. In John chapter 7, when Jesus taught in the Temple during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, we read, “When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’”

When those in authority considered arresting Jesus, we read “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’”

The Messiah was standing right in front of them, but their religion was blocking their view. They were attached to their way of interpreting the Torah. That’s why Matthew wrote this gospel – to try to help them view their Scriptures from a different perspective.

If we want to become fishers of humanity, we must be willing to loosen our grip on our religion, especially the literal interpretation of Scripture. We need to learn to view the Scriptures from different perspectives.

I feel sorry for those who are waiting for the world to end catastrophically as described in the Book of Revelations. Some are so afraid of being “left behind” that they won’t relate to anyone outside of their own religious communities. Others try to relate, but it’s coming from a place of fear and judgment.

How many of you have heard of Joseph Campbell? He is the “Matthew” of today. Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College; he worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion.

He wrote many books designed to helps us view stories in Holy Scriptures from a mythical perspective. When he calls these stories “myths,” he doesn’t mean they are lies. He means that they point to a truth beyond the literal meaning – a truth about the great mystery of being – a truth that we can’t even begin to grasp without the story as a handle.

In Joseph Campbell’s book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, the editor writes, “In a true sense, we might say that Joseph Campbell preaches the End of the World, that great metaphor of spirituality that has been so explosively employed by those who have taken its denotative skin and thrown aside its connotative meat.”

“For, as Campbell explains, the End of the World is not a cataclysmic event to whose final judgmental terror we draw ever closer. The End of the World comes every day for those whose spiritual insight allows them to see the world as it is, transparent to transcendence, a sacrament of mystery, or, as the poet William Blake wrote, ‘infinite.’”

Finally, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of fear. When Jesus called them, they immediately left their nets. They didn’t consider what they were getting themselves into or how they would support themselves without their fishing income. They knew deep down that catching fish wasn’t what they were made to do.

Our human nature seeks security through the four P’s: power, prestige, pleasure, and possessions – but no matter how much of these worldly things we have, we never feel secure. That’s because we’re seeking security in all the wrong places.

The key to ultimate security lies in being who we are and in doing what we were made to do. A net’s purpose is to catch fish. That’s what it was made for. We are an extension of God’s Love, so we were made to extend. We are the Net of God’s Love, so by extending Love, we become fishers of humanity, and we step into the purpose for which we were created.

When we step into the purpose for which we were created, God supports us. Think about it: Why wouldn’t he if we are doing exactly what he created us to do? We’ll get exactly what we need when we need it, so we don’t have to worry so much about security.

When we relax and go with the flow of life instead of anxiously trying to survive, we become more aware of what Life is bringing to us and what Life is asking of us. We can clearly see the resources offered to us – but also the opportunities and connections that come our way.

The Reverend David Lose writes, “Jesus issues the same call to us – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.”

“Sometimes that call – to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others – will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve persons – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.”

Think about all the people in your net – all the people you “relate” to in some way – whether it be family, friends, or coworkers. Are any of them carrying a burden? How can you help? Also think about the people who are not in your net. Has the Lord been calling you to cast your net and haul anyone in? Is pride, religion, or fear getting in the way?

Let us all think of ourselves as fishers of humanity – because that’s what we are. God created us for that purpose, and the Lord has been calling us and will keep calling us all our lives to extend the Net of God’s Love to all those He has sent our way.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we have answered your call to be fishers of humanity. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, may we be made aware of any fullness within us so that we can become empty and free to obey the promptings Spirit gives us to cast our net around those in need. Amen.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Book 4) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Joseph Campbell Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/8-commencement-jesus-ministry-matthew-412-25

Hunt, Janet H. “Following Jesus” That For Which We Were Made.” 15 Jan. 2017, dancingwiththeword.com, dancingwiththeword.com/following-jesus-that-for-which-we-are-made/

Lose, David. “Fishers of People.” Workingpreacher.org, 20 Jan. 2014, www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018

“We Can Get Along Because That’s America.” BBC News, 17 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-51158038/we-can-get-along-because-that-s-america?fbclid=IwAR1sMbMJ7vJu6nid9Eu_N5gMsYl49RpK1s_Wj5KT7PIt0drdGNJritEhsvU

Junk News Causes Spiritual Indigestion

GoodManPL (pixabay.com)

If you feel angry, anxious, or depressed while watching, reading, or listening to the news, you might be suffering from spiritual indigestion. Just as consuming junk food is bad for our physical health, junk news is bad for our spiritual health. Therefore, we must develop a more refined taste for the news.

Junk news contains artificial ingredients. The first one is bias. Not all media companies care to uphold the journalistic objectivity standard. Some companies slant the news any way they can to conform as closely as possible to the worldview of their audiences.

Those who watch Fox News and MSNBC are presented with very different versions of the same news. This has helped to fan the flames of discord in our country because viewers of both networks insist that their notion of what’s happening in the world is correct because they heard it on the news.

But it wasn’t really the news; it was their news. It was news spun to correspond to the perceptions of a certain crowd, not to correspond with reality. We love junk news as much as we love junk food. It tastes so good! That’s because the ego loves to be right. The truth is that the clear lines drawn between the villains and the heroes are – in reality – not that clear.

This truth makes us very uncomfortable, but we must face the discomfort. We must insist upon news that is presented as objectively as possible not only to avoid spiritual indigestion, but also to decrease disunity and to increase our ability to make informed, rational decisions in our democracy.

The second artificial ingredient in junk news is melodrama. Melodrama adds emotional “spice” to news stories to keep people tuning in. The most popular spice is fear. Fear not only boosts ratings by keeping us tuned in, but it also keeps us stressed out, which makes us far easier to manipulate and control.

The constant bombardment of melodramatic news has unfortunately trained us well to apply spice to the events of our own lives, creating a society filled with Drama Kings and Drama Queens.

How do we refine our news consumption? First, we can consume more unbiased news. To indulge the ego’s desire for biased news causes it to become inflated, and we certainly don’t need more inflated egos in our society.

While complete objectivity is impossible, that’s no reason to throw objectivity to the wind. Fortunately, there are news outlets that do their best to uphold journalistic objectivity, such as the Washington Post and BBC.

Second, if we’re feeling angry, anxious, or depressed, the news might be too spicy. I find that a good way to avoid the spice is to simply read the headlines. I get enough information from just the headlines to keep informed well enough to praise God for the good news and to pray about the bad news and for those who are suffering.

Junk news isn’t all we have to be concerned about. These days, there’s also fake news, which is even worse for our spiritual health. The spread of fake news makes refining our tastes even more important.

Fortunately, people are getting sick and tired of their spirits being sick and tired. People are becoming more aware of junk news and fake news, and they are choosing spiritually healthier news, which can only lead to a spiritually healthier society in the future.  

Sharing Christ’s Baptism

Michael Angelo Immenraet [Public domain]

Synopsis: The answer to the perplexing question, “Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?” can be answered by considering how first-century Jews viewed baptism. We can learn how to share in Christ’s baptism by pondering some snapshots from the scene of Jesus’ baptism.

Scripture: Matthew 3: 13-17

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you were baptized when you were a child? I was baptized the first time when I was only a couple months old. I had no idea was I was getting myself into. That’s how many Christians were baptized – as infants or young children – we had no choice and no idea what it meant.

Some adults choose to get baptized for a variety of reasons: to become members of a church and participate in communion, in response to an inspiring preacher or church service, or because someone tells them that they must be baptized if they want to be saved.

Why did Jesus choose to come to John the Baptist to be baptized? That’s a puzzling question for many – even John the Baptist. Some say he must have repented of his sins; after all, John’s baptism is commonly understood to be a baptism of repentance.

Other say, no – Jesus was the sinless Son of God. So then, why did he ask John to baptize him? The answer lies in how this event in Jesus’ life might have been interpreted by those who were there and saw it all happen: first century Jews.

The Gospel of Matthew opens with a description of John the Baptist. We read that John had a strange diet – locusts and wild honey – and that he wore strange clothing – camel’s hair with a belt around his waist. Matthew points to a prophecy in Isaiah about him: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

John spent every day of his life in the wilderness until he was revealed to Israel. He lived a rugged life in the mountainous area of Judea, between the city of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John’s fiery preaching about holiness and the consequences of sin inspired droves come to him to be baptized. 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls might give us some insight into how John saw baptism. The scrolls tell us that there was a community of Jews at Qumran near where John was baptizing that had very strict entry requirements.

To become part of this community people had to go through rigorous testing to prove themselves “sons of light.” They had to abandon their worldly lives, surrender all their possessions to the community, and live according to Torah Law as interpreted by the community. After they had proven themselves to be pure in heart, they were then baptized by ritual immersion and formally admitted into the community.

According to the Qumran community’s view of baptism, a person’s heart had to be pure before he or she was baptized. The baptism was designed to cleanse or purify the body of an already cleansed or purified soul. Afterwards, you’re clean through-and-through – inside and out.

John probably wasn’t a member of this Qumran community because he didn’t require people to give up their worldly lives and possessions. But he was influenced by their view of baptism. He did require purity of heart as a prerequisite. That’s why he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” They taught Torah Law and urged others to follow it, but they didn’t practice what they preached.  

John’s baptism didn’t purify the heart, only the body of men and women who had already turned from sin – who were already pure of heart. John’s Baptism wasn’t a way to earn pardon for sins; it was a way of acknowledging God’s favor on those who were living righteous lives – those who would escape the ax.

So then, why did John hesitate to baptize Jesus? if John’s baptism was not a way to earn pardon for sin, it doesn’t make sense that he refused because Jesus was sinless. I think John was acknowledging that the level of purity of Jesus’ heart far exceeded his own, so Jesus should be baptizing him.

In the gospels of Luke and John, we read that John said to those coming to be baptized that someone was coming whose level of holiness was so great that he was not worthy to perform the lowliest task of a servant – to untie the straps of his sandals.

What did Jesus mean when he responded to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” I think he was saying to John, “Let’s stick to God’s Plan. God’s Plan is for you to be the Baptist and for me to be the Messiah.”

We read that when Jesus came out of the water, a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This “Voice from Heaven” would not have been an unusual occurrence for first-century Jews. The Voice of God was often thought to be heard in the chirping of a bird or in the cooing of a dove.

At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, we read “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Rabbi Simeon b. Zoma imagined the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, like a dove gracefully hovers over its nest. Isaiah 11:2 reads, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” in reference to the Messiah. The Sprit of God would rest upon the Messiah and empower him to fulfill his mission.

We can now understand that if a dove suddenly hovered gracefully over the head of Jesus at the time of his baptism, people would have interpreted that as Messianic sign, and some related Scripture verses might have come to mind.

The voice quotes two verses from Scripture. The first is Psalms 2:7; “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The second is Isaiah 42:1; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

The use of the word “Son” relates to the word used in Psalms, and the word “beloved” to the words “my chosen” from Isaiah. I believe Moffatt’s translation combines the two ideas nicely: “You are my son, the chosen; today, I have brought you forth.”

So, to the first-century Jews who witnessed this event, God was saying through the appearance of this dove, “Here he is! Here is my anointed one, the one I have chosen, and the one I am empowering to carry out my plan of salvation.”

Jesus chose to be baptized by John because he was a human being along with everyone else at this special time when God was enacting his plan of salvation. From the time he was born, Jesus had dedicated his life to God, so he was a perfect candidate for John’s baptism.

And it was part of God’s plan that Jesus be baptized to introduce him to the people as His chosen one and to empower him to fulfill his mission.

How can we share Christ’s baptism? Obviously, Jesus had a very difficult mission. He did and said a lot of things that offended and opposed people in high places. You might remember that after Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, several religious leaders asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?”

Jesus responded by asking them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not?” Jesus’ point was that John’s baptism was indeed from heaven, and that’s why he’s doing these things. He’s speaking the Truth and serving humanity because the Holy Spirit is empowering him to do these things, so he must do them – even if it means death on a cross.

Don’t worry; we don’t have to “go and do likewise” to share Christ’s baptism. Jesus already completed the suffering and dying part. He did all of that to set us free from the ignorance about our true nature that leads to sin and suffering. Through his suffering and death, he showed us who we really are, he united with the Christ, and he provided a path for all to follow. 

We made a commitment to follow that path and consciously unite with Christ when we came to the baptismal font or river. If our parents brought us as young children, it was because they acknowledged that we belonged to God. We were too young to make a conscious commitment, so as stewards of God’s child, it was their responsibility to make that commitment for us and to provide the training we needed to keep it.

So, while our missions may be different from that of Jesus, we can still take some snapshots from the scene of his baptism and use them to inform us about how we can share Christ’s baptism.

First, John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Isn’t that ironic? God created John to be the Baptist. He was fashioned from the womb for that job. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, we read of his miraculous birth to elderly parents who were barren. God’s messenger, the archangel Gabriel, announced to John’s father, the Levitical Priest Zachariah, that he would have a son that he was to name John.

In verses 14-17, Gabriel tells Zachariah that John will be great in the Lord’s sight. He must never drink wine or strong drink, for he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will turn people’s hearts back to the Lord to prepare them for the coming of the Savior.

That’s a calling!

So, if God has called us to fulfill a role, we are worthy. We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, or let the world tell us we’re not worthy. No one else can fulfill our role. We are unique. There is no one like us in the entire universe, yet we were chosen for a specific purpose, and who knows us better than God?

I was thirteen years old on a religious retreat when God called me to serve as a minister. I doubted that call because as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, I had been taught that it was not proper for a female to be a minister. I doubted it even more when I realized that I am gay. I figured I couldn’t be both gay and Christian, and I couldn’t stop being gay, so I stopped being Christian. I stopped believing in God.

But God didn’t stop believing in me. He kept calling me. I was working at Burger King one day when I noticed a newspaper article about a church run by a gay couple: Pastor Brian, who led the worship services, and his partner, Tom, who was the music director.

Their mission was to help other gay people view God and the Scriptures as non-condemning and to provide a safe place to worship. Their mission certainly wasn’t without risk. Pastor Brian showed up for church one Sunday morning with bruises all over his face after having been “gay bashed” the night before.

I was baptized the second time by Pastor Brian, by immersion in the Lehigh River. It was my way of saying, “OK, God. I’m back, and I’m ready to do what you’ve called me to do.” If Pastor Brian and Tom had doubted God’s call to them, if they had listened to people telling them that they weren’t worthy, I doubt I’d be standing here today.

God has fashioned you in the womb for a purpose. You certainly don’t have to be an ordained minister. You might be a secretary whom people confide in for your wisdom and compassion. You might be a cashier whose smile brightens people’s day. Maybe you’re the kind of person who radiates kindness and compassion wherever you go. That’s your mission. God made you for that.

We should be confident about our calling, but not cocky. Jesus was very humble. He didn’t say, “I’m too holy to be baptized.” He didn’t set himself apart; he joined with his people Israel and with all humanity. He had a very pure heart, but he didn’t compare himself to others, and he strongly criticized the self-righteous Pharisees who did compare themselves to others. Jesus wanted his light to shine to turn people’s hearts back to God, not to draw attention to himself.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So, as we go out our missions for God, let us remember that we’re not doing what we’re doing so that people will see what a “good person” we are and give us glory. We’re doing what we’re doing so that people will see God’s glory in human beings who have transcended the typical ego-centric “what’s in it for me” attitudes and behaviors.

What a wonderful world it will be when we’re finally free of all that.

Finally, after his baptism, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve. That’s how he was able to accomplish the difficult task set before him. God didn’t give him that difficult task and say, “Good luck with that.” He gave him His Holy Spirit to guide him and give him strength.

So, we can trust that the Holy Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms to empower us to complete whatever mission God has given us to fulfill, no matter how difficult. It’s up to us whether to follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings, which may at times be hard. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit will prompt us to speak the Truth and to serve others in ways that might offend or provoke people, and we could be hurt.

But when it comes to living out our baptism, as the Rev. Brett Younger writes, “The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.”

Getting baptized is like getting married. We really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we take the plunge, and we find that the meaning becomes clearer as we travel through life with our beloved, experiencing triumphs and tribulations, and somehow along the way, our love and commitment deepens, and we become truly One.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we have committed ourselves to God as servants of the Light. Help us to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the guidance and strength we need to live out our baptisms so that all may be united with You in Christ.

No Greater Love

Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_Shephard
Bernhard Plockhorst [Public domain]
No Greater Love: A parable by Reverend Joan M. Kistler

Once upon the Timeless, the Source of Being said, “Let there be Life.”

And there was Life.

Source: “It is good. Let us create a world that reflects our Perfect Love, Peace, and Joy.”

Life: “I am here, my Source!”

Source: “Yes – you are here – but you are not all here. Where are the rest?”

Life: “They sleep and will not wake.”

Source: “Why will they not wake?”

Life: “Their minds are overthrown, my Source. Hatred has replaced Your Love, guilt has replaced Your Peace, and suffering has replaced Your Joy.”

Source: “How did this happen?”

Life: “They have listened to the Voice of Lies. It told them that You did not give them everything – that You were holding something back.”

Source: “Do they not know that they have everything in life because they are Life?”

Life: “The Lie has replaced that truth, my Source. They dream of a life separate from You to find that which they believe they lack.”

Source: “Do they not know that our Perfect Oneness can never be fragmented?”

Life: “Their minds are deceived by the dream. They believe that they have destroyed Your Perfect Oneness and put it asunder. Their minds are overcome by guilt and fear of Your wrath. They wait for Your punishment in time.”

Source: “Oh – do they not know that there is only Present and Eternal Love?”

Life: “They have projected their guilt onto bodies that decay and die, and so they believe that they are these bodies. They fear death, yet do they hope for it, thinking that it will appease Your wrath.”

Source: “I have created them as Eternal Life. How can they believe that they can die?”

Life: “They have forgotten who they are.”

Source: “I will speak to them and remind them that they are the very Light of my Being.”

Life: “They cannot hear Your Voice, my Source. They have made ears that cannot hear You, mouths that cannot speak Your Truth, and eyes that cannot see the Life that You have given them.”

Source: “It is not my will that any be lost. They shall remember me; they shall remember who they are. They shall hear My Voice and remember the Truth.”

With these words, The Voice of Truth was created.

Source: “But how – how can My Voice penetrate into their illusory world and heal their deluded minds?”

Life: “I will take it to them, my Source. I will enter into the dream, take on a body, and allow the Voice of Truth to enter into it. Thus will it have eyes to see their suffering, ears to hear their cries for help, a mouth to speak of Your Love for them, and hands with which to touch and heal them.”

Life: “This is a dangerous mission. You will be tempted as they are to listen to the Voice of Lies: to forget who you are and believe that you are a body, to use the body’s eyes to see your brother as an enemy, its ears and its mouth to listen to and speak only lies about him, and its hands to hurt him.”

Life: “I will listen to Your Voice, and I will be lead not into temptation. Your Voice, My Source, will deliver me from evil.”

Source: “If they hate themselves, they will project their self-hatred onto you. If they fear me and believe that they deserve death, they will project their desire for death onto you and seek your death. You will become their scapegoat.”

Life: “Yes – I will be their scapegoat, my Source. They will project all their guilt and hatred onto me, and I will take it from them and be the sacrifice that they think You require. All who accept my sacrifice for their atonement shall be freed from their guilt and fear. They will remember who they are. They will remember You, and they will choose Life instead of death.”

Source: “Your suffering will be terrible. Are you certain you wish to do this?”

Life: “It is not Your Will that any be lost. Your Will is my will, my Source. May Your Will be done on Earth as is it is here in Your Kingdom.”

Source: “Oh Heart of My Heart – Go and bring them Home.”

And so Life entered into the womb of a woman, and she gave birth to a son and named him Jesus.