Ripples

Sunday Evening

Psalm 145

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

4 One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.

Every Sunday should end with a barbecue, a band of four accordions and a tuba, and the delightful laughter of a little girl in a bouncy house.

The picnic today was great fun. The Boy Scouts were selling popcorn and showing off the Eagle Scout project of a prayer labyrinth. There was a display of Los Altos in 1954, the year our congregation was organized. There were pictures of our youth ministry and confirmation pictures from those 60 years. It was a delightful celebration of our anniversary and a delightful reminder of the many dimensions of ministry that take place in and around a congregation.

The NA group set up a table to share information about the twelve step ministries that happen in our fireside room. A quartet from the community choir sang when the band went to eat, and had a display of information about their group that meets in our music room. Even the local flower club that meets in our fellowship hall brought plants and a display about their group.

The ministry of the parish is not only on Sunday morning, though that is certainly our most visible ministry. But there are also all those parts of our congregational life from Sunday school to choirs to youth group. There are friendships created that sustain people in times of trial and share times of joy. There are works of service that plant within us and within our young people the importance of giving. There are Christmas boxes for children assembled and shipped overseas, quilts made for the homeless, clothing collected for Lutheran World Relief. There are missions and schools that get supported: people making a difference in troubled parts of the world. Food is gathered for those in and near our community. Support is given to the shelter for women. If we begin to think carefully about all the ripples of kindness that have gone out from this place in the last 60 years we would be amazed.

And there are joys celebrated: weddings and baptisms and anniversaries. There is support given in times of tragedy and sorrow. There are hands held in times of anxiety, and a quiet presence as a family waits for a loved one in surgery.

A parish is ever changing as new people come and others move away. But the ripples continue to extend outward wherever people go.

Sometimes there are wounds, too; that’s the reality of human communities. We are far from perfect. But we pray that, according to his promise, God will work in such places to heal and reconcile and draw us into a walk more fully shaped by God’s own Spirit.

The fountain at the heart of all this is the story about Jesus – and the larger narrative about creation and exodus and Israel’s experience of a God determined to bless the world. The Spirit of Jesus is quickened in us by that story. That story calls us together for worship; creates in us faith, hope and love; sustains us in trial; and sends us out as agents of grace in the world. Consider every life that has been touched by everyone who has been nurtured here on the notion that life is about faithfulness to God and love of neighbor.

Emperor Julian (known as “Julian the Apostate” because he was not a Christian and tried to revive paganism in the empire) commanded the pagan temples to care for the sick and the poor in the way that the Christians did. He was unsuccessful. It was not part of the culture of the ancient temples. It is part of our culture.

The story of Jesus ripples on throughout history. We see it light the night sky now and again in a figure like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mother Teresa. The story of Jesus, percolating through South Africa, provided that nation the chance to chart a path or reconciliation rather than revenge.

But mostly the story of Jesus ripples on in simple acts of kindness and the promise that we can be better than our worst. It ripples on in persistent hope for a better world. It ripples on in the ideal of forgiveness and love of neighbor. It ripples on in the idea that the world is entrusted into our care for us to tend like Eden. It ripples on in the belief that sins can be forgiven and life can start over. It ripples on in myriad ways, great and small, towards that promised day when swords are beaten into plowshares and every tear wiped away: a good world healed and restored.

There is much more going on in a barbecue than tasty food, fun music and a nostalgic look at the past. There is a reminder that God made all things good. And he’s not done working.

Mosul

Saturday

Jonah 3

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Rembrandt, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

10When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh lie across the river from Mosul. Situated on the Tigris, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent where humans first domesticated crops and created cities and empires. It was the greatest city in the world for 50 years before it was weakened by civil war and fell in 612 BCE to the rebel forces from which emerged the Babylonian empire.

At its height, the Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Central Turkey to the Persian Gulf. We recognize the names of Assyrian kings like Shalmaneser, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal though we seldom know where or when to locate those names.

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Lamassu (Human-headed winged bull) heading left. Relief from king Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), ca. 713–716 BC

This was also the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and subjugated Judah.

While Jonah would have gladly declared God’s judgment on the city, he refused to go lest the people repent. He feared that God would forgive them if they did so.

And he was right.

At least, that is the story told in this little short story of Jonah.

Jonah wanted the city to pay for its sins; God wanted the city to come back to himself. Between these two desires is the central religious struggle. Do we really want the God of the whole earth, or just a god for ourselves. Do we really want a God of mercy, or a god who will take our side.

Few of us weep at the destruction being wrought in Mosul. Perhaps few of us even recognize that this city has been hit recently by French and U.S. airstrikes. It’s just part of that mess. Most of us celebrated when Sadam was found in his spider hole and when Bin Laden was killed and dumped into the sea. We generally share Jonah’s conviction that God should come down against our enemies.

The great mercy of God is that he does not let Jonah run away from his mission. And even when Jonah pouts, God seeks to stir Jonah’s heart to understand the true compassion of God: if Jonah can care for a mere plant, should God not care for all the inhabitants of this great city?

Just as God wanted Nineveh to repent, so he wanted Jonah to repent. He wanted Jonah to share his compassion.

And what God wants of Jonah, God wants of us.

“Living is Christ”

Friday

Philippians 1

Sunflower.medium21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

“Living is Christ.”

Paul is in prison in Rome. We do not know for sure whether, at this point, he is under a form of house arrest as described in Acts or whether he is in a more brutal custody, but he is facing the reality that he may be near his end.

He has been in prison a long time now. He was arrested in Jerusalem after a riot broke out in the temple when it was rumored he had desecrated the temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court. The arresting officer had assumed he was an insurrectionist, advocating armed rebellion against Rome, and started to flog him before Paul’s status as a Roman citizen came to light. Still, the hostility against Paul was intense. His message that we are reconciled to God in Christ Jesus by grace apart from the law was reported as teaching Judeans to abandon the Law of Moses. A plot to murder him was discovered and he was secreted out of Jerusalem by armed guard to Caesarea. There he was kept in custody for two years because his case was too incendiary to release him. Eventually, fearing that he would be sent back to Jerusalem for trial, Paul exercised his right to appeal to the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately the Emperor was Nero.

Traveling late in the shipping season against his advice, they were driven by a violent storm for many days before wrecking off the island of Malta.  It was three months before they were able to sail again for Rome.

Paul’s advocacy of Jesus had prompted communal violence and prison before, but this time, as Paul writes to Philippi, things don’t seem to be turning towards his freedom. Acts reports that he was in custody for at least two years in Rome. Though the New Testament never tells us, he is eventually beheaded in Rome – beheaded because, as a Roman citizen, he could not be tortured to death on a cross.

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

Should he be martyred, his death would unite him with Christ Jesus. After more than four years in chains, it is not hard to understand why he would see that as to his personal advantage. But “living is Christ.”

It is not just that living allows his service of Christ to continue, but “living is Christ.” Christ is present in the world in the community of believers.

Christ is present in the world in us. In our living as children of hope. In our witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. In our service of our neighbor. In our love.

“Living is Christ.”

It is common for people to say that Christ is life. Jesus the crucified and risen one is indeed the embodiment of the creator, the source of life. He is the embodiment of heaven’s mercy. He is the embodiment of the truth. He is the embodiment of forgiveness. He is the embodiment of life.

And now he is embodied in us.

“Living is Christ.”

My life. My frail, hesitant, troubled attempt to live by God’s spirit and grace, my living is Christ. My halting efforts to forgive as I have been forgiven, to love as I have been loved, to speak as Christ would speak, to serve as Christ would serve – my halting labor is Christ in the world.

Now the words of Jesus echo in my ears, “”You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world.” I know full well that Christ and Christ alone is the light of the world, but “Living is Christ.”

These hands, this mouth, these eyes and ears are the presence of Christ in the world. Christ is not present as some ethereal presence, some disembodied spirit; Christ is embodied in us. “Living is Christ.”

Such thoughts fill me with awe and shame and courage all at the same time, for I so easily discount the significance of my life. But “living is Christ.”

Slow to anger

Thursday

Psalm 145

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The prophet Jonah, Frescos in the interior of Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone. Photocredit: Mattana

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Considering that most gods were easy to enrage, this is a remarkable confession by ancient Israel. Slow to anger. In the Babylonian myth, the gods created humanity from the blood of the chaos monster (as servants) and then regretted their decision because humans were too noisy. I don’t know the myth well-enough to say whether it was the cacophony of human enterprise, the shrill cries of violence and war, or the incessant chatter of humanity’s petitions – their endless cries for daily bread – but like irritated elites, the gods sent a flood to silence them. Noah, of course, outwitted the gods – sailing for safety to the mountain of the gods – a cleverness for which he was rewarded with immortality.

Against that backdrop, the Biblical writers told a remarkably different story – of a humanity whose wickedness knew no bounds (“every imagination of the thoughts of the hearts was only evil continually”) but where God’s mercy rescued humanity, warning Noah, gathering the animals, and gently closing the door of the ark.

Slow to anger.

We have perhaps taken that mercy for granted. In a world marred by death camps and death marches and a vast improvement upon the little first-generation bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed some 100,000 people at a single stroke, and again as many in the months following – the fact that we argue such weapons were necessary to prevent even greater loss of life is only evidence for how far we have fallen from God’s vision for us. This week a friend sent me information about a home raided by authorities were the bodies of dead infants (perhaps stillborn fetuses, if the mother is to be believed) were found beneath the littered and fetid mess of unwashed children, garbage and piles of diapers. The news is preoccupied with the brutal behavior of NFL players, and the beheadings of foreign journalists in the Middle East has roused us to new levels of bombing.

Slow to anger.

Maybe God is too slow to anger. Maybe we would rather a God who would storm from the heavens and throw a few lightening bolts at our butchery and hate. Jonah is certainly enraged by God’s decision to forgive Nineveh, that great city whose empire had brought such suffering to the world, the people who had conquered and dispersed forever the ten northern tribes of Israel. Jonah can’t quite understand why God should care about such people. Jonah can’t bring himself to see them as God’s children. We don’t either, or we wouldn’t be so quick to war.

Slow to anger.

Slow to anger because God’s purpose is not to punish evil but reclaim his rebel world. Slow to anger, because God’s purpose is not to whip a recalcitrant humanity into line – fear can do that if you are willing to be ruthless enough. Slow to anger because God hopes eternally to help us recover our lost humanity.

And so Jesus on the cross doesn’t hurl invective against those evil few who have conspired against him or who have followed orders to torture him to death. He calls on no army of angels. He summons no firebolts. He speaks instead words of kindness, trust in God, and forgiveness.

God is not ignoring the evil that is done. And God is by no means excusing our evil. But he is calling to us. Calling for us to see the work of our hands.  Calling for us to change direction. Calling for us to see the enemy as people for whom God cares. Calling for us to live the steadfast love God shows.

We are grateful for such love and mercy when it is shown to us; we just have trouble understanding why God shows it to others. And until we do, we will continue to build our little arsenals of hate and fear.

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Remarkable grace

Watching for the morning of September 21

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

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Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Byzantine Gospel of 11th century, BnF, Cod. gr. 74 Paris, National Library

We have jumped to the 20th chapter in Matthew and we are now just a few verses away from Jerusalem. We skipped Jesus’ talking (again) about divorce, his embrace (again) of children, and Jesus (again) talking about wealth – this time his encounter with the rich man (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”) Now Jesus is talking once more about God’s radical grace that goes out to all people, not just those who deserve it.

The first reading, from the short story about the runaway prophet, Jonah, provides the conclusion to the narrative when God forgives the wicked city and Jonah pouts in anger. Still, by means of Jonah’s sympathy for a plant, God seeks to invite him to recognize God’s compassion for all people – even Israel’s most brutal enemies.

The psalmist sings praise to this God of mercy for his abundant goodness – perhaps, like the rest of us, without realizing the full impact of what he is saying.

And Paul, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi, as he faces the possibility of his death, invites us to live a life worthy of Christ, the incarnation of divine mercy.

It should be a Sunday full of the sweetness of God’s compassion and kindness, but “God’s ways are not our ways,” and we are often troubled by the notion that God does not deal with us according to some system of wages, but according to his own goodness.

There are times that this comes to us as great news. But sometimes we are much more like Jonah, or the workers who have borne the heat of the day, and think we deserve more than others. May God be as persistent with us as he was with Jonah.

The Prayer for September 21, 2014

God of Grace,
your mercy knows no bounds;
your salvation is offered to all.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your mercy
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 21, 2014

First Reading: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” – Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand his compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Giving voice to the Word

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Martin Luther preaching. Predella of the 1547 altar by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger in St. Mary’s, Wittenberg

Sunday Evening

Romans 10:14

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

Fifty years ago Pastor Gary was given a Bible and commissioned to preach and teach the faith of the church. A stole was laid around his neck, a symbol that the pastoral office is a servant office. Representatives of the church then laid their hands on his head and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be his guide and comfort in the task set before him.

We celebrated his fifty years of service on Sunday, in worship and in a luncheon after. It was a delightful day. It was not without some forethought that we choose this day, the feast of Holy Cross, not only because the color of the day would be red, as is the color appointed for ordinations, but because it is Christ crucified that pastors are called to proclaim.

The pastoral office used to be a greater honor than it is today. The public esteem of the church has dropped – as has the esteem of many social institutions. The church has been wounded by scandals involving its clergy. Its message has been marginalized by the media attention given to the radical fringe. The social compact that respected all religious traditions and recognized each one’s value to society has broken down in a kind of religious partisanship where the claim to truth has lost its social graces.

Our congregations, too, have been shaped by changing attitudes and our changing culture. Pastors – at least in traditional, white, mainline churches – are sometimes viewed as employees hired to administer the parish program rather than bearers of the divine message. Or they have been seen as providers of nurture and care rather than agents of God’s transformative work in our hearts and world. Congregations have sometimes looked for institution builders rather than kingdom builders. Since truth in general – and religious truth in particular – has become entirely personal, we measure sermons for how they keep our interest or meet our needs rather than for their fidelity to the ancient confessions.

On the face of it, the traditional local church seems to be going the way of local bookstores. The economy is passing them by.

But only on the face of it.

The Word of God is, by nature, a spoken word. At least in the Christian scriptures, God is not found; God reveals himself. God is not the culmination of a spiritual journey but the start of one. Moses is tending sheep when a voice speaks to him from the burning bush. Jacob is fleeing his brother’s murderous threats (well deserved) when he lays his head down upon a rock and God reveals himself in a dream. Who knows what Abraham is doing when he is told to leave his home and kindred towards a promised land.

God is not found; God finds us. God encounters us. God speaks to us. And God nearly always speaks through prophets and messengers. Even the word ‘angel’ means simply ‘messenger’ (and is used for earthly as well as heavenly messengers).

To speak, God needs to use a voice. A human voice. And human hands.

That task of speaking is given to all of us, of course, but the church also trains and commissions some to exercise this role publicly: To speak on behalf of the whole church. To speak the word that God has entrusted to us. To speak the word that lifts the burden of our sin and brokenness. The word of healing grace. The word of comfort in desolation, of hope in loss, of the true way of God in time when evil seems triumphant.

Though the form of the church changes from age to age, this task of speaking remains. The world may not recognize nor honor this work Pastor Gary does, but the heavens see.

Not to condemn

Saturday

John 3

Ryssby Church outside Longmont, Colorado.  Photocredit: dkbonde

Ryssby Church outside Longmont, Colorado. Photocredit: dkbonde

17 “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There are plenty of words of judgment in the scriptures, and images such as the Son of Man sorting the nations like sheep from the goats. The visions of the Revelation to John are graphic – horrific if taken literally – and Jesus refers to the image of the Valley of Hinnom (transcribed into Greek from the Aramiac as Gehenna) where children were sacrificed in fire until desecrated by Josiah as a metaphor for the abode of the wicked.

Such words and images easily get us in trouble, especially if we transform the faith into a system of morality – then the good and law abiding inherit bliss and the lawbreakers inherit weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But Christian faith is not about a new system of morality; it is about the dawning of God’s reign, the healing of creation, the rebirth of the human heart.

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God’s purpose is not to rescue the good and punish the wicked. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It’s hard for us to fully understand, because we want to judge. We want there to be consequences for those who beat wives or husbands or children. We want there to be consequences for those who conceive of death camps and death marches. When we imagine setting things right, we think of making the wicked pay for their sins.

And we think there must be a limit to grace. Dante placed Judas, Cassius and Brutus in the center of hell. We would probably add Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden – since we have seen deeds far worse than betrayal. It is hard for us to truly consider the possibility that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

So we turn this idea that Christ has come to save into an entrance requirement – only the saved get saved. Or we change this into a divine possibility: everyone could be saved but not everyone will choose to be saved. But that’s not what the text says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Our problem is we keep thinking about each of us individually when God is thinking about all of us together. We wonder who has a ticket on the train to the next life when God is talking about healing this life, this world, this creation: swords beaten into plowshares, bread shared, sins forgiven, tears wiped away, lives made whole, a world made whole. The Biblical images are things like a feast on Mt. Zion, a city of joy, or a new and glorious city on earth.

On this strange and wondrous word we take our stand; in this message we trust and sing; and from this gospel we live our lives: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Seventy-sevenfold mercy

Friday

Matthew 18

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Rembrandt, The Unmerciful Servant

23”For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions

1,643 years and ten months. If the servant had worked for an ordinary day’s wage, it would take him 1,643 years and ten months to pay off his debt. That, of course, presumes that he worked seven days a week without stopping and that every portion of his wage went to the master – and that there was no interest. It is an unpayable debt.

The hundred denarii, on the other hand, is a hundred days wages. It was a payable debt.

Jesus is telling a story, of course. And like a good yarn it involves hyperbole. A fish is never a fish; it is a monster fish. There is a twinkle in Jesus’ eye.

A story that involves 10,000 talents is a story about the rich elites who govern the land. Even the mightiest in a small country like Judea are bound in some form of service to another. Herod may be “Herod the Great” but he still depends upon the favor of Augustus for his title of King. If he should not please Caesar, his kingdom can always be given to another. And there were no golden parachutes in those days.

So the crowd is laughing at the image of this high and mighty prince groveling at the feet of his master. And they are laughing at the debt. They recognize the ruthlessness that can fawn for the mighty and crush the unmighty. They all know landowners like this who are forgiven great debts but merciless with the poor. The crowd cheers when this man of influence and luxury who has never labored a day in his life is handed over to the inquisitors. ‘Jailors’ is too kind a word. Torture is the standard means of examination. He is not exactly “handed over to be tortured” – he is handed over to the interrogators who question in the routine fashion: by torture. They will know how to extract the necessary information about whatever funds this man has hidden.

The crowd likes the ending of this story, just as we take a vicarious satisfaction when the mighty fall. Except that Jesus then coldcocks the crowd: 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Suddenly this is not about the 1%; it is about us. And it is not a story; it is daily life.

35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgiveness is not an option. It is the defining reality of the realm of God.

There is a reason Jesus uses this number seventy-seven when Peter asks how often he should forgive. Lamech, the father of Tubal-Cain who first devised weapons of bronze and iron, vowed seventy-seven fold revenge should anyone harm him. The world runs by the principle of revenge, getting even. The realm of God is defined by forgiveness, forgiveness born of God’s infinite mercy.

We cannot come to the king’s wedding feast and mock him by refusing to wear the wedding garment he has provided. We cannot claim the name of Jesus and refuse to forgive. This doesn’t have anything to do with tolerating abuse; it just removes the concept of harming others as we have been harmed from the table. The rule is not “Do unto others as they have done to you,” but “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” There is a big difference in those two statements, the difference between the way of the world and the way of God, between the world of Lamech and the world of Jesus.

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
–Ephesians 5:8

The word of the cross

Thursday

1 Corinthians 1

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Cross in Chariez (Franche-Comté) on the village square. Photo by Ginette Mathis

18 The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I don’t like the translator’s choice. Is it a word concerning the cross or is it the message of the cross? Is it a fact being transmitted or is it the cross being proclaimed?

The word translated ‘message’ can certainly mean message. But it is that wonderful word ‘word’ – logos – as in “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” As in “if you abide in my word you are truly my disciples.” It may mean message or teaching, it may refer to content, but it is never just message; it is that living word that is like rain watering the earth. That word from God described in Isaiah 55 is a power that accomplishes something, that lifts up and casts down nations, that wipes away sins, that makes the scarlet white as snow – since that word of the cross is “the power of God” it shouldn’t be allowed to be thought of as a mere ‘message’.

This is a word like the word of a judge that sets a man free or binds him over into prison. This is a word like “I do” that creates a lifelong union. This is a word like “I love you” that draws two lives together in ever deeper bonds of affection. It is a word of power. A word that does not return empty. A word that creates, that effects something, that changes everything.

This word of the cross, this message from the cross, is a power. It casts down and lifts up. It crucifies and raises. It declares that blood is on our hands and wipes them clean.

Blood is on our hands.  We are crucifiers. We are rebels against heaven. We slay the holy. We defy eternity. We are haters of perfect goodness. This message from the cross, this word the cross speaks, this word reveals the human heart. My human heart. It makes me see the hammer I hold.

There is a hammer in my hands. And suddenly every curt word, every taunt, every hidden hate, every overt rage, every greed and lust and fault of character is revealed to me. The word of the cross slays my pride, my inturned self.

And then the cross speaks mercy. Speaks forgiveness. Speaks of eternity’s boundless love. My sin is carried away. My sin atoned. My life redeemed. My self reborn.

The word of the cross is power. Power to heal and renew and resurrect. Power to free us from every bondage.

This word the cross speaks is power to those being saved, being healed, being made whole, being brought home to our eternal father.

But for those for whom it is folly… Is there any other word but ‘perishing’ for the heart that thinks any declaration of love or compassion or forgiveness is mere folly?

Around Edom

Wednesday

Numbers 21

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View of Eilat and Edom Mountains. Photo by Alexey Sergeev

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

Most of us just skip over place names when reading in scripture. They do not ring any bells for us. They are just strange places far away. But this simple reference to Israel’s journey around Edom is poignant. Edom blocks their way into the land of Canaan. Edom, the land of Esau, the brother from whom Jacob stole the blessing. It occupies the region south and east of the Dead Sea and they will not let the descendants of Jacob pass through. The only way to go around is to go back toward the Red Sea and then far out into the desert.

There had been another choice, of course – to go straight up through the Negev into the southern hill country. But before venturing into the promised land, they sent in spies who came back with stories of giants – powerful enemies born of the gods. All the spies except Joshua said they would never be able to overcome them, and the people refused to go forward along the path God set before them.

So although they stand at the edge of the promised land, they must now go back – back towards the Red Sea – and start over. A longer journey. A journey in which the faithless generation must die off before a new generation rises up to take possession of God’s rich promises. Forty years in the wilderness.

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

They’ve been on the road a long time, and now they are headed back the way they came. And so comes the grumbling, the murmuring, the poisonous speech against God, blaming God for their troubles. Blaming Moses. Remembering as rich and abundant their lives in the land that had kept them in bondage and sought to destroy their sons. Faithless, bitter speech that corrodes a community. Toxic speech full of death and not life. The bread of heaven has become tasteless in their mouths: “we detest this miserable food.”

Their poisonous speech comes back upon them in the form of poisonous snakes.

And what shall save them? What shall save this people who did not trust that the God who defeated pharaoh’s army and parted the sea could fulfill his promise of the land?

Once more they are asked to trust a promise. They are asked to turn their eyes to an image of their bitter poison and see there the healing work of God. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

And so we are invited to turn our eyes to the bitter fruit of our human violence and see in the cross the healing work of God who bears upon himself the sins of the world. To see there a God who does not respond to violence with violence, who does not answer hate with hate. To see there the God who chooses forgiveness and suffering love. To see and to trust this God to make us whole.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.