Wednesday, January 28, 2015

second chances

Jonah 3:1-10

I have a tendency to be a control freak!  There I’ve said it.  I also know most of you well enough to know that I am not alone in this.  There is no shame in it- it is just the way we are.  I may be biased but think most people can relate.   We want to know what to expect and what our future looks like.  We plan vacations with the perfect itinerary.  We have 5 and 10 year plans for school, career, family, money and retirement.  We research, prepare, and execute.  We have it all worked out. 

But, then, life happens.  Situations change, plans fall through, other people don’t cooperate with these plans.  People get sick, storms happen, we win the lottery or lose a job, we don’t like these moments of flux because it reminds us that our sense of control is a delusion.   Being the control freak that I am, when I am not in control, I really want God to be. I want God to be predictable and to fall into my sense of understanding who God is.  But God’s idea of being in control doesn’t always make sense to me and I struggle to figure God out. 

On one hand, because I like to have a plan, I want God to have a steady and fixed plan too.  I want this especially when my own life seems out of control.  But on the other hand I want God to listen to my prayers, respond when I am in need.  When I see the chaos of the world around me I really want God to be flexible and do something to change the course of the world.    There are some people in this world who believe that God has a very strict plan that cannot and will not be altered.  They believe that the days of earth’s existence are numbered and even that God has planned out the number of each of our days.

They trust that God is all knowing and everywhere.  We don’t do anything without God’s permission and God already knows what we will say and do. They even believe that God already knows who is saved and who is damned.  They believe that God’s plan is in motion and we are just along for the ride.  They believe that we are kind of like Jonah- You can run but you can’t hide from God.  Like it or not you will do what God wants. 

You see, God had already called Jonah to go to Nineveh once and the first time he took off running for the hills.  He ran to the farthest place away from Nineveh he could find…. A port city on the coast of Israel.  Nineveh is thought to be near current day Iraq so this was no short distance, especially on foot or horseback.  Jonah was serious about getting away.  But God pursued Jonah and will not allow him to have a peaceful life until he submits to God’s will. 
I honestly don’t mind this perspective because it means God has a plan- I just need to figure out what it is and do it.  But is this really the way the world works?  Do we not have any say about our lives and our future?  Is our willingness to play along the only thing we have control over?
No!  I can’t believe that.  Too many other things happen in life to believe that.  Scripture tells us that even though God has the final say- we do have to contribute and we do have some control over our destiny. 

Consider our story today about Nineveh.  Jonah begs God to save him, concedes to God’s will and walks all the way back from current day Tel Aviv to Bagdad to perform his job as a prophet.  I imagine he does it a little begrudgingly too, tired from travel and still peeved at God for chasing him down and making him do this.  So, he walks 1/3 of the way into town, yells out once “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Then he turns around, walks out of town.  “Alright God,  I did what you told me to do, now I am going to go up here on the side of this little hill and watch as you do your thing-  This should be worth my trouble to watch you destroy this city.

But then the strangest thing happens.  Nineveh doesn’t respond the way Jonah expects with apathy and hostility.  In fact, people who don’t even know God actually respond to this crazy man screaming on the street corner.   They immediately begin to repent of their sins.  They take off their nice clothes and put away their rich foods and beg for mercy.  And God changes God’s mind.  

Wow!  How does this happen?  God is God and the God Jonah thought he knew wouldn’t change his mind.  God had a plan right? This seems like a lot of trouble if God knew they were going to change their ways anyway- why not just make them do what God wants without Jonah?  Why not just snap your fingers and fix Nineveh and let Jonah get his destiny at the bottom of the sea?  This all knowing, all seeing, in control of everything God changes his mind just because a people say they are sorry? 

Yes, that is exactly what happened--God is not a puppet master.  We aren’t simply characters in God’s eternity long screen play.   We have a say and we have control.  This isn’t the only time that God changes God’s mind.  God can be reasoned with- Moses convinces God to not destroy the Israelites after they built the golden calf to worship. Abraham pleads with God to not destroy any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah and God relents allowing Lot and his family to escape. 

The New Testament tells us to pray, ask God for what we need and to be persistent in our prayers.  We know these stories- it is why we pray.  We believe that when we pray something happens, God hears, and God considers our needs.  We don’t always get what we think we want but we get a voice.  God gives us free will.  God has not written all the pages to the book of our lives. 

Nineveh knew that their destruction was well deserved.  God had every right to do as God pleased.  But, they felt the convicting grace of God on their hearts and not only one or two people but the whole city repented and turned their lives around.  In fact, the city was overthrown, not because of God’s wrath but because they accepted personal responsibility for their actions and begged God for mercy. 

The reason God relented and the reason God rescued Jonah from the raging storm is because God is a God of second chances.  Jonah got a second chance because in the depth of his despair he cried out to God and God heard his prayers.  Nineveh got a second chance because it cried out and God heard their prayers.  And God is ready and willing to give you a second chance too and for most of us we are asking God not for a second chance but a third or fourth or tenth chance.  It won’t always be fun. 

Jonah endured the troubled stormy waters of the sea and days of darkness and uncertainty.  Nineveh spent time in rough sackcloth and ashes, fasting and praying in fear and uncertainty if Jonah’s prophecy would come true.  Your opportunity for another chance may not be pleasant either but you will come out the other side better because of it. 
There is a balance of power between us and God.  We aren’t in control of everything but we are also not at the mercy of a God who is inflexible and unforgiving.  God is in control but we have a role to play.  We get to decide how we will respond to God and to the circumstances of the life that surrounds us.  We can seek to be in a relationship with God or not.  We can live through the troubles of life without the calming, loving and peaceful presence of God or we can wallow in our suffering.
But God always wants us to choose God.  God wants us to ask for another chance.  God is pursuing us, seeking to be in a relationship with us and is willing to go to the ends of the earth to bring us back to that relationship.  
What kind of second chance do you need? For what do we as individuals, as a church, as a community need to repent?  Are you willing to do what it takes to change your life around?  God is willing to do God’s part; offering you love and forgiveness many times over. 
Maybe you are being called to offer a second chance to someone else.  Maybe you see the circumstances of life that surround you and you are being called to help others begin again.  God is calling you to leave the fear and anxiety behind, accept a life full of the peace of Christ and share that with others.  Everyone deserves a second chance even Jonah, even Nineveh, even you. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rhythm of Life

Luke 2: 21-40     Rhythm of life

Life is full of ups and downs.  Like the rise and fall of ocean waves, life never seems to stand still.  As I read this passage I got that feeling for each of the people participating in this part of the story of the early days of Jesus’ life. 
Jesus was born under the least ideal conditions.  Joseph and the pregnant Mary had traveled 80 miles, from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the only place to rest and deliver the baby was among the foul smelling residents of the barn.  They must have felt really horrible in these immediate moments after his birth.  What kind of life can I offer this child if I can’t even manage to find a suitable place for him to be born?  
Their minds are full of the questions and insecurities many parents consider as they bring children into the world.  They won’t even be able to afford the traditional sacrifice of a Lamb at his dedication to God at the Temple.  They will only be able to offer the cheaper alternative of doves or pigeons.  What kind of life will we have?  This may have been an emotional low for them as they ponder a future as a family.
Then the shepherds came and reminded them of just how special this child is.  They may not have material blessings but they have been blessed beyond measure with a child that is special and destined for greatness.
Jesus is now 8 days old.  He is proving to be strong and healthy.   Mary has recovered well from the delivery and they are able to travel the 6 miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for his dedication and Mary’s ritual cleansing. 
The words of the shepherds have reminded them of the message of the angel they saw 9 months earlier; that this child is God’s and name him according to the angel’s instruction.   Things are beginning to look up.
Then in walks Simeon.  He isn’t a priest.  He is just an ordinary man who is faithful to God.  He has watched as the Roman government has occupied his homeland and hijacked his faith. 
He sits near the temple observing how it seems people are becoming less and less committed to their faith and to God.  People aren’t coming to worship like they used to.  People aren’t performing the religious rituals anymore.  His world seems to be falling apart around him.  He struggles to find hope in his circumstances. 
Then the Holy Spirit rests on him and tells him he has not lived his life in vein.  He will be rewarded for his dedication to his faith and to God.  The Holy Spirit tells him that he can have hope because the messiah has come.  Even though he is getting old, he will not die without hope. 
So, he too joins the rising of joy in the life of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.  But in the midst of his exuberant prophecy about the greatness of Jesus we again sense the rise and fall of the rhythm of life.  
Jesus will be a savior to many but will also be opposed by many.  He will bring light to the darkness but there will be those who don’t want light to shine on the darkness of their hearts.  Jesus is destined for greatness but also for pain and heartache.  And despite the joy of the moment he reminds Mary that there will come a time when her heart will break too. 

We see this same pattern in Anna’s life too.  At one point in her life, all seemed to be going as planned.  She had married as a young woman, just as she should.  But life quickly fell apart.  She was not only unable to conceive a child but she became a widow only 7 years after her marriage.  With no son and no husband, her future became bleak.  Her only real option then was to work for the temple. 
She cooked and cleaned, hosted and welcomed people to the temple, helped care for the worshipers and offered hospitality to all who came.  She dedicated her life to God fasting and praying night and day, reliant on the generosity of the worshipers and dependent on their tithes and sacrifices for her support. 
It wasn’t an easy life for Anna.  But she is rewarded for her dedication.  After probably 60 years of dedication and service her prayers for a messiah have been answered.  She sees for herself the face of her Lord.  She is so overjoyed with this revelation from God that she can’t contain her excitement.  She tells everyone she sees about the redemption of Jerusalem. 
Christmas season always reminds me of this rhythm of life too.  The joy of decorating comes to an end and the tree and all the lights need to come down.  We spend so much time, energy and money on shopping for just the right gift and wrapping it perfectly with no torn edges and perfect bows only to have them ripped open in seconds and put aside in moments as people eagerly await their next gift or place their gifts on a shelf. 
There is joy in spending time with family and friends; the laughter of children, reminiscing, sharing meals and old stories, catching up and getting updates about the lives of those whom we care so deeply.  
It is a special part of the holiday season.  But then, the dinner is over, wrapping paper to be recycled, dishes to wash and the house now sits empty and quiet all over again. 
The memories flood in of Christmases past, old traditions no longer celebrated, loved ones who are unable to be there this year; those who have died or distanced themselves from the family.  The worries of paying the credit card bills begin again and all the concerns that had been buried under the noise of the holiday find their way back to the surface.
It is the up and down, rise and fall of the rhythm of life.  We know that there will be joy and there will be sorrow, it is all a part of life.  It is what gives us hope when times are difficult and causes us to live cautiously when times are good. 
But our scripture today and the life of Jesus reminds us that we actually have it backwards.  Our scripture states that the rhythm we experience is not the rise and fall but is instead the fall and rise.  We have it backwards.
 Mary and Joseph may have had their low moments but this moment ends with Joy.  Simeon may have felt despair as he saw the world has he knew it crumble around him but he exclaims that because of Jesus, he can die in peace.  Anna may have been depressed because her life didn’t turn out the way she had envisioned as a youth but because of Jesus, she has found joy in her old age. 
Even Jesus himself will face the waves of life the lows and highs but we know that not even the low of the cross, the excruciating death he will face will be the end of his story or ours. 
Through Jesus, Simeon, Anna, and all the saints that go before us, we know that even in the darkest moments, there is light.  Even the loneliest nights will be followed by day.  Even when we fall we believe in a God who will raise us up.  When we hit rock bottom we know of the grace, mercy and forgiveness of Christ.  Even in death we find life. 
The rhythm of life is not the rise and fall but the fall and rise.  The lows will always be followed by the highs.  Life is not ruled by Newton’s law of gravity, and the idea that what goes up must come down.  But instead is ruled by the law of the Lord and the forces of love, peace, compassion, and Jesus Christ who risked participating in our ebb and flow to prove God’s love for us so that we might find hope and joy in spite of the challenges we face.  Jesus is not just an example of a life for us to imitate.  He is life and through him we can see the hope and promise of a future better than we can ever imagine and this allows us to experience joy in the face of all life’s circumstances.

For this we give thanks at Christmas and always:  Christ was born, Christ died, but Christ rose again so that we may have life and a hope that this is not the end of our story.   

be moved

Mark 1:4-11
John seems to appear out of nowhere in Mark.  There is no sweet story of Elizabeth and no introduction of who this person is.  He just appears in the wilderness.  Preaching to anyone and everyone who will listen and it seems people were responding. 
Our scripture says: all of Judea and Jerusalem were there.  Now I am sure this is an exaggeration to some extent but he was getting enough attention that the other gospels tell us that Herod has him arrested and killed. 
People are desperate for an answer to their problems.  John stands in the wilderness.  In the middle of the same river their ancestors crossed to reach the Promised Land.  But time has changed all that.  What once was serene countryside flowing with milk and honey is now a bustling city surrounded by poor peasants trying to make ends meet. 
It is dirty and dusty, and the freedom they anticipated has been co-opted by Roman soldiers.  They are forced to pay taxes to Creaser and the tax collectors often took advantage of them, forcing them to pay more than they really owed.  The Roman guards are taking their cut too- taking bribes and harassing people in the streets just for the fun of it.    This was not the paradise they envisioned.
The world we live in isn’t exactly what people envisioned either.  Where is the easy life the people at the turn of the 20th century imagined we’d accomplish by now?  We don’t have robot maids to clean our homes, personal helicopters to take us to work, or food in pill form.  While many of what was predicted has come true like frozen dinners and microwaves life isn’t the dream land many envisioned. 
Instead we are facing our own wilderness in many ways- fears of the future invade our thoughts: planes disappear without warning, race riots break out in the streets while people of color and police alike fear for their lives.  Newspapers and marathon runners are targets of religious zealots. Children often don’t even feel safe at school.  This is not the promised land we imagined. 
But here John is, standing in the in between- standing between the past, the wilderness and our future and our hope.  John reminds us that the promises of God, unlike the promises and predictions of man, are steadfast and true. 
John is offering the world a reminder that there are second chances.  There is repentance and forgiveness.   There is an opportunity to be right with God.  With God’s help we can turn our lives around, we can leave our old lives behind and seek a new life with Christ.  There is reason to hope and yet this future isn’t exactly what it seems.
Jesus enters the picture and we see this beautiful image of promise.  Jesus rises up out of the waters of baptism and he is greeted by the heavens opening, the dove lighting on his shoulder and the gentle voice of God saying “You are my son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness!”  We have imagined this moment to be so perfectly serene, artists have painted it and maybe that is exactly what those who were there saw that day? 
We like this sweet image of Jesus at his baptism because we want our experiences of the Holy Spirit to be the same.  We want baptism to be this awe inspiring, up lifting and joyous occasion.  We want to have our sins forgiven, our slate wiped clean and all the negative things we have thought and done to be washed away. 
We believe that the baptism of Jesus and our baptism binds us with God and that God claims us as God’s children just as God claimed Jesus that day in the Jordan River.  We want to be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and rest in the promises of God.  We want the beauty of this moment to fill our lives and last forever so that we can live in joyous harmony as a friend of Jesus and a child of God.
(turn) But, is this vision really what Jesus saw and felt?  The heavens were split open, torn, separated in an instant.  It isn’t slow and gradual like a cloud passing in the sky- it is fast and furious!  The voice of God in the Old Testament was always booming and awe inspiring; forcing people to turn away.
The spirit came flying down on him bringing the message of God; like a dove swooping down to grasp a morsel of food than gently floating down from the heavens!  More like a roar of thunder and a clap of lightening than the sweet sunny beautiful day the artists envision. 
This seems more likely because as soon as the voice of God ends- Mark tells us the spirit forced Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. This doesn’t sound so peaceful and sweet to me! 
When the Spirit comes upon you it is impossible to stay where you are.  Even Jesus is forced to move to enter into a life of service and ministry.  We don’t know much about the life of Jesus up until this point other than his birth and that he is growing in wisdom and favor but after this- there is no denying that Jesus has a mission and this is only the beginning.  As soon as he is baptized his life is changed forever!

No longer is he just the son of a carpenter but he is the son of God!  No longer is he learning at the feet of Rabbis and helping Joseph build things, he is now the teacher and he will be tearing down the earthly kingdom and rebuilding God’s kingdom! 
This is not a cushy promotion… Yes he will be the light of the world.  He will show love to those who have never experienced his type of unconditional love.  Yes, he will heal the broken hearted and sick.  Yes, he will show us a life like we have never seen before. 
But, it isn’t that the baptism of Jesus puts an end to the wilderness.  Instead, Jesus enters the wilderness. He will be tempted by Satan, rejected by his own community, chased out of church, chastised for loving those in need, forced to live off the generosity of a few dedicated people, followed by throngs of people yet only able to trust a few-----
He will be betrayed and denied by his best friends, put on trial by those religious leaders who should have recognized him, sentenced by a hasty and unjust mob and murdered in a gruesome, humiliating and painful way.   This was what followed the baptism of Jesus: the highs and lows of being in ministry for God and this is what our baptism is all about too. 
We say we want to be like Jesus but this is what it means to be like Jesus; to be a child of God.  It means we don’t take refuge from the wilderness.  We follow Christ into the wilderness. It means we love the lost, even if it means we get taken advantage of.  It means we trust, even when we know we could be betrayed.  It means we give everything we have, not just our extras to those who have nothing.  It means loving God with not just our minds but our whole body, our whole heart and all our strength.  It isn’t about what is in it for us.  Jesus didn’t just accept his title of the Son of God and go home- back to life as he knew it.  God announced that Jesus was already loved and the happiness of God before he ever did anything.  Jesus and God were good- but the Holy Spirit motivated and moved Jesus and Jesus refused to let his relationship with God be enough. 
The Holy Spirit called, forced Jesus to go and do what needed to be done for us to truly share in this brotherhood and fellowship with Christ.  Baptism was only the beginning. 
John tells us that Jesus will baptize us in the Holy Spirit but in Acts the Holy Spirit is seen as flames of fire!  Baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not just a beautiful moment between you and God.  It is not just recognition that you are a child of God.  It isn’t just membership into the family of believers.  It isn’t just God forgiving you of your sins.
It is this but it is also the beginning of your ministry.  It is the acknowledgement that you are part of a family that is bigger than just you or even this church.  It is a promise to seek the welfare of others before you look out for your own best interest.  It means loving until it hurts. 
It is allowing the fire of the Holy Spirit to move you into places that might be uncomfortable.  It is about moving outside of our comfort zone so that we can do the ministry of Jesus.  It is about being the hands and feet of Jesus even when our own feet are tired and our hands are blistered. 

Is that what you really want?  Is that what you intended at your baptism; to experience the holy movement of the Spirit?  Are you willing to follow where the Holy Spirit is leading you?  Is this church willing to follow in the footsteps of Christ and put the baptisms of the people here into action? 
This isn’t a question I can answer for you.  The Holy Spirit moves in each of us in different ways and it is up to us to listen and respond in faith.  We as Christians profess to put our faith, hope and trust in God but are we willing to live into that? 
I ask you this morning to begin praying about what the Holy Spirit is leading you and this church to be.  How is God leading you to introduce others to Christ?  How is God calling you to make a difference in this community or in this world? 
Jesus was never alone as he lived into his baptism.  Although he went to scary places and faced frightening obstacles he knew he was never in this by himself.  He had the encouragement of his disciples, the support of people who loved him and were willing to follow him.  He had his relationship with God that allowed him to see each new day no matter the challenges and he had the hope of a future kingdom not yet seen on this earth. 
God promises to provide us with the same as we live into our baptisms.  We have the support and encouragement of our local church and our denomination that will help us follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We are surrounded by people who love us and who want to go with us on our journey.  And we have our relationship with Jesus who has been there, knows our hearts, our gifts and our struggles and is willing to walk beside and go with us as we follow wherever the Spirit leads. 

How is the Holy Spirit is leading you to express your faith, hope and love for Jesus and the world through your actions?  Allow yourself to be overcome and washed with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and allow it to lead you in new and exciting directions.