Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You Were There

Did you know that you were at the Red Sea?  Did you know that you were freed from slavery in Egypt?  Did you know that you stood at the mountain and heard the voice of God giving you the words of the law, the law of freedom?  If your eyebrows are raised quizzically right now as you read this, I don’t blame you.  “Pastor Amy,” you might reply, “I certainly remember going to Sweden two summers ago but I don’t remember going anywhere in the Middle East!”  And yet, consider the Jewish feast of Passover.  At that celebration those who are gathered speak of how “God took us from the iron furnace of Egypt,” how “He took us through the Red Sea on dry ground.”  Moreover at Passover one can say to the Lord God, “You saved me at the Red Sea and gave me the law to free me from sin and death at the mountain.”  Are the Jewish people who say such things at the Passover simply dreaming?  On the contrary.  They were most certainly there at the Red Sea and at the mountain.  Why?  Because God has said so.  In Deuteronomy, God speaks to the children of the children of Israel, many of whom were not even born at the time that God said to Pharaoh, “let my people go,”  but nevertheless God says to them, “not to your fathers but to you I gave my covenant, it was to you that I spoke with, face to face, at the mountain, to you.” (see Deut. 5) This is why each generation says to the Lord, “You took me out of the iron furnace of Egypt and set me free.”  At this point you might say, “Pastor Amy, that is just for the Jews, not for me, a Gentile believer.”  Here again I would reply to you, “On the contrary.”  The apostle Paul tells us that we Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel.  We partake in all its riches. (Romans 11:17f) In Jesus, we Gentiles can now say with the Jewish people, “I was there.”  With the Jewish people, we Gentiles can now say, “the Lord spoke with us, face to face, at the mountain.”  We of the nations thank God that he rescued us too from Egypt and gave us too the law of freedom and life at the mountain and put us too into his congregation formed there in the wilderness, but even more we Jews and Gentile believers thank God for the even greater rescue that he gave each of us at Calvary.  Can we even imagine a rescue, a deliverance that could top the Red Sea?  Yet, there is one, the rescue at Calvary, the “Exodus at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31) that puts the Exodus out of Egypt in the shade; there at Calvary God freed us not from the Egyptians but from the even greater foes of sin and death.  It was there at Calvary that God raised us up, not from out of slavery, but from out of sin and death, transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved son, waking us up from the dead, and giving us the new covenant, written in our hearts, so that without being under the law of Moses, or being obliged to obey even one of its commands, we fulfill it, for God not only supports us and carries all the way, at Calvary, he gives us hearts like his, hearts of faith and love. (Isaiah 55:3)

Friday, August 01, 2014

Good Advice

      Recently my friend Mary told me about some good advice she had received from a fellow Presbyterian.  As Mary was growing up sometimes she did not have enough to eat; like many families, Mary’s family faced challenges.  Mary’s background did not embitter her.  On the contrary, she learned about how God provides even through the rough times, especially in the rough times.  Moreover when neighbors came to the door with food, she and her family learned first hand about God’s angels, people who became instruments of his peace.  Today Mary and her husband and children have plenty of food.  But often as she is driving home from shopping for the week, she looks back and sees her bags of groceries and feels guilty.  She confided in a fellow church member and this is what he said.  He knew of course that Mary and her family gave to others and to the church generously and many times even sacrificially but his advice was about what NOT to do.  He said, “don’t try to justify yourself.”  “What do you mean?” Mary asked. He answered, “Don’t say to yourself something like, “Well, I worked hard for my money, so I shouldn’t feel bad. Don’t say, ‘I deserve this.‘  Don’t justify yourself.  Instead, just remember that Jesus justifies.  We are clothed in his righteousness alone.”
     I was glad my friend shared this story with me the other day.  It reminded me of what we learn in First Corinthians, chapter one: “ God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.  God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.  And the base things of the world and the things which are despised...and the things that are nothing, to bring to nothing the things that are.”  God did not choose me because I was wise, he chose me because I am foolish.  God did not choose me and you because we were strong, he chose us because we are weak. When we go out into the wide world we mentally arm ourselves, “gotta be strong,” we say to ourselves, “gotta be smart.”  But in truth our most valuable and most sure possession is not our street smarts or our strength, the possession that we have that is most sure, is the Lord’s wisdom and his strength.  That’s what we can count on.  We stand before the throne today dressed in his righteousness, his strength, his wisdom.  Beautiful and lasting garments indeed, our boast is in him alone.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Cry?

We read in John chapter 20,“Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying.  As she wept she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.  They asked her, Woman, why are you crying?” Later, Jesus will ask the same question again. Let’s look more closely at this.  When go back to the original language of this passage, we see that, really, the angels and Jesus are asking something much less solemn sounding than, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Actually, they say, “Woman, why weep?”  Repeat this question with a Brooklyn or Yiddish accent and you get an even stronger hint that something happy is going on here!
    There is a story in Nehemiah 8 that helps us to understand this joy.  A remnant of the people of Israel have come back to Jerusalem and are rebuilding the city and the temple.   One day they assemble as a congregation at the entrance to the city.  The Bible is read and explained to them; when they hear it they begin to weep.  Why are they weeping? They are thinking of all the trouble they had caused for God; they had been so disobedient and awful. God had had to slave in their sins like a janitor cleaning up muck in a church basement. So the people were weeping but Nehemiah and the priests say, “Don’t weep.” In fact, they say, “go and get some good stuff to eat and drink and if there is a neighbor that doesn’t have good food on hand, send some of yours to their house!”  Nehemiah explains further, he says, “the joy of the Lord will be your strength.” The people had been telling themselves, “We’ve been such a burden to God” but God replies, “No, trouble at all!”  “My pleasure!”   That’s the secret here and at the tomb. Mary is weeping, but Jesus and the angels say, “Why cry?”  In effect, God says to Mary and to us, “It was no trouble at all; it was my pleasure!”  It was his joy to give his only begotten son, the son whom he loved, even to die on a cross and be put in a tomb and be raised on the third day--that we might be freed from our sins and live and have a living savior who will never fail or forsake us.  As the Bible tells us, “the people shall live in Zion and you shall cry no more.” (Isaiah 30) God will wipe away every tear from the eye. So, “Why cry?”  Remember instead, the joy of the Lord over what he has done in Jesus.  This will be your strength.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Littlest One

In the famous musical, “The Sound of Music,” the littlest of the Von Trapp children (Gretl) asks why her name is always last on the list of concert playbills.  Her stepmother Maria lovingly replies, “It is because you are most important!”   Man too is the last on the playbill of creation. First came the light, then the firmament, then the dry land, then the plants, then the sun and moon and stars, then the sea creatures and birds and sea monsters, then the animals and finally man. He is the littlest, the youngest, the one created last of all when God made the heavens and the earth.   Yet God has exalted us on high.  As the apostle Paul says, we will even judge the angels. (I Cor. 6:3) It is, however, good to remember that we are not exalted in this way because we are smarter or somehow better than the rest of creation.  We are lifted up and have dominion over the plants and animals because of the love of God, because of his plan of grace.   David asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him,” crowning him “with glory and honor,” giving him the care over “the sheep and the oxen...the birds in the air...the fish in the sea.” (Psalm 8).  On the very last day of creation God made a being in his own image, someone who would be a living, breathing, walking, talking statuette, depicting the Lord God.  God made man; God’s glory.  Then God makes the woman, who is the glory of the man, “glory squared” as I have said in some of my sermons.  God makes the last, first!  The above is a simple enough thing to notice about the Bible, but it changes the way we think of creation and it changes the way we think about ourselves.  The animals and the plants are no longer “lesser beings” but as the Bible puts it “living souls,” like ourselves.  Moreover they are elder brothers over which God has given us the dominion.    Will we be the good gardeners and farmers that God means us to be?  I hope so.  In light of Genesis we also think of ourselves differently. The philosopher Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.”  But as we ponder the creation story we see that Descartes was wrong.  Our ability to reason is not what lifts us up to the skies, rather it is as theologian Karl Barth said, correcting Descartes, “I am thought on by God therefore I am.” 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

How to Study The Bible

When Martin Luther King Jr. intoned the magnificent words, “I have a dream” in his 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was speaking of his vision for the future, but he was also alluding to the Bible, specifically to Joel 2:28, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.”  Pastor King was not only predicting freedom but predicting that freedom that comes from Jesus alone.  His words go deep.  Jesus’ words are deep in the same way; they contain Biblical allusions that open them up to understanding.  Consider what Jesus has to say to the Pharisees in Matthew 12.  He asks them, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath will not lay hold of it and lift it out.”  For so long I thought Jesus was simply giving an example from life, a sheep fallen into a pit, but Jesus is alluding to 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him the story of the rich man and the poor man and how the poor man had but one ewe lamb  whom he had bought and nourished up; “it grew up together with his own children; it ate of his own bread and drank of his own cup and lay in his bosom and was like a daughter to him.”  You see Jesus is talking not just about any old sheep, but rather a sheep that is loved just like that one little ewe lamb of Nathan’s story.  Jesus is explaining why he has healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath day.  It is because we are to him as precious as that little ewe lamb was to the poor man.  Now, I ask, did we know this?  Did we know that God loves us like that poor man loved his one little lamb?  Allusions like this are in almost every line of the New Testament, just waiting to be discovered.  John Calvin gave us the clue long ago when he said, “Scripture interprets Scripture.   The Bible is “God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” ( 2 Timothy 3:16); those who “go forth with tears, bearing the seed for sowing, will come home with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126).