My travels to the Holy Lands prepared my heart and mind in so many ways for this season of Lent. Walking the places Jesus walked and visualizing the terrain, showed me many physical obstacles that made it tough for Jesus to meet people on their own turf and to try and show by personal example the intense love God had for all of them and for all of us at this time, in this place. Standing on Mt. Nebo where Moses viewed the “Promised Land,” the destination he had been seeking for forty years, I saw a huge staff erected with a serpent entwined as a reminder of the obstacles experienced by God’s people in the desert when they refused to believe and trust God (Numbers 21:5-9).
Nicodemus was one of six thousand Pharisees, the religious elite and one of seventy that constituted the Sanhedrin, the council of authorities empowered to make judgments in Jewish religious and legal disputes. He was not required to officiate at daily Temple services, but he had the exclusive right and duty to perform certain services: Day of Atonement, Passover, Succoth and others. The Pharisees worked with the consent ofthe Roman government, sharing in the rule of their country. He was a renowned teacher, referred to for decisions requiring extra wisdom or breadth of experience, and he was master of a great fortune; yet, he walked the street, covering his face in his robe, which served for more than sheltering himself from the cold weather–the possible cold reception of his peers for meeting with the controversial teacher, Jesus. He battled with his conscience, what he had been taught through the years of going to temple services, studying God’s Laws and going through the familiar rituals of worship, but now he was suspicious about Jesus’ power to heal, do miraculous deeds and interpret God’s Word. If Jesus could enlighten him in the darkness of his struggle, it was almost worth coming but that confusing statement about the wind was a definite obstacle to his faith understanding. Nicodemus was in deep in this chess game. He had grown old physically and spiritually. The continued Roman occupation had diminished his hope for a free Israel. Serving on the Sanhedrin, hearing endless disputes over possessions and power, had pretty much stifled his love for people. His compassion for the less fortunate had died as his earthly fortune had grown. His wife and mother of his children had died, and her bones were waiting in the tomb to be joined by Nicodemus. How could he start over this late in life? How had he missed something as important as a religious leader at the center of Israel’s law, the middle of God’s revelation to the Hebrews? Was the Pharisee’s minute and careful observing of the Law God’s goal for everyone? Was his life’s commitment on the trail to God’s Kingdom or had he come to a dead-end? Checkmate. Could Jesus show him a new way? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Nicodemus had lost the game as he was overpowered by Jesus’ authority. God had fulfilled his promises in this Son. Nicodemus was slow to walk, slow to change, but he left his meeting with Jesus that night, having met a greatness that was disorienting and uncompromising and sensing the certainty of God’s love. The blowing wind of the Holy Spirit held much in store for Nicodemus. He later defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin and helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in a tomb, the place where Jesus would be set free at his glorious resurrection. It is the same old story, presented in yet one more way to help us re-light the flame of our faith in Jesus’ saving power to set us free from our sin and to prepare us for the day we will be with God in glory, forever. Checkmate! Can we feel the Spirit blowing amongst us in this familiar place?
I remember back to my childhood when parents of some of my friends at Sunday school would drop them off for Sunday school and return to pick them up after church…but..they never came in the door. From a child’s understanding I wondered if they had faith in God, and what had happened in their lives that they wanted their kids to have religious training. Hopefully, they would develop faith in God. Unfortunately, that is still happening today but it is opening the gate to young people to meet God at work in their lives–and that is a good thing!
There are a few good reasons to quit the church. Top on some people’s lists are hypocrisy, violence, and intolerance. Other people leave the church because they find it irrelevant to their lifestyle, mediocre or boring. A further comment might be, “If only we could go back to what the church was like thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.” Well, folks, that just cannot happen as the world has been changing all around us and there are changes we need to make. Paul taught at Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:11) and he knew the people well. In his letters to the believers at Corinth, Paul addressed numerous ugly issues: sectarian divisions in which each side claimed to be more spiritual than the other, boasting about incest (I Corinthians 5:1), lawsuits between fellow Christians, eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, disarray in worship services and even predatory pseudo-preachers who masqueraded as super-apostles. The most realistic way to deal with the church’s faults and failures is to name them, own up to them, repent of them, and do what we can to correct them. Losing our illusions about the church ( or disillusionment) is necessary and good. It is easy to take incredible things for granted, but after the extraordinary is accepted and expected as the “norm,” what happens next?
Think about flying. The airplane envisioned by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina has evolved into multiple daily flights–more than 30,000 per day in the United States alone! Some folks love flying and others could produce a long list of complaints about customer services: lack of food services on flights, cancelled flights or my favorite, over ticketing, late arrivals, and on and on. Could it be that flying is less fun and more frustrating than it used to be? Do we need to be reminded that planes fly at 550mph and reduce ground travel time considerably? It is a long swim to Europe and other places we might want to experience. Things could be whole lot worse.
If we surveyed the church in Corinth, we would confirm that people were fighting for power, abusing the sacrament, endorsing false teachers and their marriages were melting down (marriages are still not made in heaven). The church of Jesus Christ is made up of people saved by, and yet still desperately in need of Jesus. The truth is that the church in Corinth is not all that different from every church today. There will be immorality that comes to light, politics at play, messy marriages and a mission that misses the mark. There are definitely rumors generating discouragement.
Before attempting to correct the mistakes being made in the church, Paul made it clear that despite all that was broken in the church he was still deeply and truly satisfied with what God was accomplishing in the church. He said, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” In spite of the immorality, gossip, immaturity and selfishness exhibited by people in the church, Paul was overjoyed at the miracle that is the church.
It would be so much more healthy if folks would pause from lamenting and complaining about God’s people and how much they are missing the mark, and recapture the perspective of being the church. There is a reason to be satisfied with the church. We need to be thankful and satisfied with the church body because we have grace, gifts and a guarantee. John Calvin wrote about guilt, grace and gratitude but I enjoy Paul’s understanding of how God works in our lives.
Grace is what makes a body of believers realize that it is not the great things done by them, but the great mercy shown to them. Paul was elated with the church at Corinth because of their gift of faith and the flood of forgiveness that had washed over them. The promise of the gospel is that no matter how messed up we were prior to meeting Jesus, once we are connected to the work of the cross, through belief and baptism we are adopted as sons and daughters and made heirs of God’s kingdom. We deserve death and destruction but God sentences us to life and love. What a sentence!
Not only did the church at Corinth have grace but it had gifts–it was equipped to be the church by the power of the Spirit. It was not without hope because it was promised a reservoir of gifts and talents that needed to be identified, encouraged and utilized. What gifts do you acknowledge that God has clearly given to this congregation? I would offer to you Spirit filled worship with uplifting music shared by our organist, pianist, choir directors (chancel, youth and handbell) and all the folks who participate in the various choirs. Think about the ministries we share in serving: the Agua Fria Food Bank (some of the poorest people in Maricopa reside in the Avondale/Goodyear area and would go hungry if we did not take hundreds of pounds of food, plus money, school uniforms and school supplies, clothing and other needed items), the Peoria Youth Pantry which provides food to high school kids at risk (who would not eat on the weekends or during holidays) New Life Shelter and Eve’s Place (working in partnership with us to meet the needs of Kellis High School youth, provide jobs for some and offer assistance in other ways). God is meeting the needs of people through our collective family of believers.
Paul found great joy in the Corinthian church because of the bright and glorious future guaranteed to each and every person waiting for the revealing of Jesus Christ, who will sustain us all to the end. Corinthian Christians had imperfections and so do we but our future is secure because Christ has promised that in the end, he will return, resurrected and find us faultless. He will establish his kingdom and until that time, he will keep his church alive. The church will endure. There is reason to rejoice in spite of the struggles, the church has a lot going for her. Not because of what we bring to the church, but because of what God has done to us and through us in Christ. Occasionally, we might experience some turbulence on the ride, but Jesus is still our pilot, keeping us on the correct flight route.
Every year the Sunday after Epiphany we remember our Lord Jesus’ baptism. His words to us in Matthew 28:19-20, the “Great Commission,” are “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” What a leap of faith in only three weeks; from the birth of a savior to his words to us to carry on in the mission of winning souls for Christ.
The command seems simple enough when we read it but holds a lot of responsibility for us and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in a culture that focuses on personal needs–what’s in it for me and how can I gain more material possessions to satisfy my longings–instant gratification? Jesus taught us to seek righteousness, to work at being in a right relationship with God and others; to aim to be with God in eternity in everlasting life. In the balance on the scale of life, we have instant gratification versus the long term goal of meeting God face to face and basking in God’s glory forever. It is difficult to battle human nature which leans toward self-interest. Part of our inner working prefers that God be partial to you and me. We want to reap the benefit of being singled out, first in line toward a heavenly reward and we do not want to have to move over and lose our place in line.
The account in Acts recalls a dream that Peter had telling him that he should not call anyone profane, unclean, or unacceptable to God. As he pondered his dream, soldiers came to him as messengers from a Gentile, a centurion in the Roman army named Cornelius. He claimed that God had spoken to him in a dream. The emissaries asked that Peter allow the centurion to come to listen to him. What a challenge for Peter! Peter reminded the men that it was unlawful for Jewish folk to talk to Gentiles, but he had just had a dream from God telling him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” Could God be telling him that God provides and cares for all people? Could it be that Jesus’ message was not exclusively for the Jewish people, but for all people? Jesus is the Savior of all and now it was time to expand the reach of the message. In the company of Jews, Cornelius, and many other non-Jewish people, Peter professed that “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (v.36).
Peter boldly expanded the message preaching that “Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (v.38b). Peter’s followers must have been overwhelmed by these words. Peter had been a witness to Jesus’ ministry; he was there when Jesus died and after the resurrection when Jesus came to the disciples and commissioned them to “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Peter finally heard the message himself, God is for everyone: hypocrites, pretenders, liars, every day saints–no partiality. Retirees, single parents, traditional families, youths, children, care-center residents, blended families–no partiality. Wheelchair users, cane users, dog guide users, hearing device users, scooter users, motorcyclists, minivan drivers, long distance truckers and e-mail users–no partiality. God wants us to include people from all lands, races, religious persuasions, city streets, mansions and condominiums.
God raises no eyebrows, shows no partiality, favoritism or exclusivity. “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” (v. 35). The family, the realm of God, is all encompassing. Family are people to whom we matter. From the outside, people might look at the Sacrament of Baptism given to us by Jesus as a rite of inclusion into an exclusive organization. Does baptism say to outsiders, “Welcome to the holy club, the in-group church?” Is the mark of baptism a sign of exclusivity or inclusivity?
Baptism sets us apart for God. At baptism, we acknowledge whose we are. Baptism is an act of sharing one’s child when the child is presented by a parent or guardian, placed into the arms of the minister–a symbolic letting go that is a precursor to future separations. The child becomes more than an extension of parental being. The child belongs to two families: the family of nurture and the family of God. Does the family pedigree passed down genetically take precedence over adoption into the family of God, where all are united in the body of Christ?
To become a Christian requires no surrender of part of one’s given identity but the taking on of a wider identity. When a child is presented for baptism, I ask: “Do you desire (for yourself or your child) to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?” It is your choice to renounce the evil in the world, to profess faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and to commit your life and the life of your child to know Jesus, love Jesus and serve Jesus. We promise to live as best we can according to the way Jesus lived. We promise God, ourselves, and the surrounding witnesses to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and in the way we live our lives to reflect and point to Christ.
We promise the faith community which has welcomed us with open arms, adopting us to share in ministry by faithful attendance, to celebrate Christ’s presence and to further the mission of Christ in all the world as part of a church that draws others toward growth in their own faith. Baptism may be a few drops of water but it is a reminder of God’s presence bringing the holy into the now. A few drops of water here in the midst of things awakens, creates and offers holy encouragement; it is a piece of affirmation that reminds us that God is for all of us. Praise God!
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, the story of Christ’s birth, is full of sacred interruptions. Mary and Joseph’s lives were interrupted in a way that they had never imagined or anticipated before. The shepherds had to have been shocked by the angels who came to call on them. Zechariah, a temple priest, Elizabeth, his wife (John the Baptist’s parents), Simeon and Anna were all intentionally waiting for the Messiah and they were surprised by their providential encounters. Zechariah had spent his life and work waiting for the Redeemer. His initial reaction to the news of a coming savior had left him silenced in disbelief for months. God has a way of interrupting our ordinary lives with something extraordinary. Perhaps one of our greatest personal challenges is to allow ourselves to be interrupted. There is a nameless participant in this account of Jesus’ birth whose very ordinary gesture allowed the sacred a place to enter the world.
Luke speaks of hurried, anxious parents, whose lives have been interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, who need to make a long journey at the worst time. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census was a little less than seventy miles, but it would have been a treacherous journey by donkey or on foot, especially for Mary in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Have you ever looked for a motel at night on a trip? Maybe you made a reservation but by the time you arrived, your room had been sold to someone else. The journey was even more complicated when you add the detail that Mary and Joseph would find no lodging when they arrived at their destination. After a lengthy period of searching and probably at the point of near desperation, a nameless innkeeper allowed the young couple to spend the night in his stable with all the animals, since there were no available rooms. We have no other information about the innkeeper and yet, he has been portrayed many times in Christmas pageants. Sometimes he is a heartless man, so concerned with the needs of his other guests that he turns the poor couple away. Most often, he is depicted as a sympathetic businessman who wishes he had available space to make the extra money during the census but is so moved with compassion for the young couple that he allows them to find shelter in his stable. No cost is ever mentioned. Really NO one knows who he was or what he was like. We only know that he allowed himself and his routine during the busy season to be interrupted. His inn was full. The “no vacancy” sign might have been on display. That is all that needed to be communicated to Mary and Joseph. Yet the innkeeper did more. He found a spot, or I should say, made a spot in order to serve the young couple. We do not even know if he was aware that a baby was born in his stable that busy night. Was he alerted to the arrival of a band of excited shepherds who happened to appear? What about the unusually bright star gleaming in the night sky?
The innkeeper’s part of the story ends abruptly in v.7 after describing that there was no place for the “beyond capacity” guests. The innkeeper had a small but important part in the Savior’s birth, which in so many ways foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus. The innkeeper allowed himself to be interrupted, moved to compassion, to sow love and grace, even when he had no obligation to do so. Jesus was on a mission. God had a plan for him. Jesus was intentional in what he taught and did in his ministry, and constantly allowed himself to be interrupted. He had compassion for all he encountered, whether grieving fathers, hurting women, hungry crowds, or even his own doubt-filled disciples. On many occasions Jesus could have just thrown up his arms in frustration at all he was attempting to do for humanity, but he still stopped and helped people in need.