Bittersweet Parade, Matthew 21:1-11

Cross palms

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)

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A young boy on the outskirts of Jerusalem stands in the barn with a shovel, doing his morning cleanup of the stables. Flies buzz  around him, and as he swats them away, at the gate of his field, he sees a group of men gathering, and making way to enter the gate.

The creaking gate opens, and they bolt for the stable–the one the boy is shoveling in. Confused by the odd intrusion, the boy leans on the shovel and watches as the men dash towards him. When they make it to the boy, panting for breath, they start to unhitch a donkey and a colt. The boy’s father’s donkey and colt. As they untie the hitch it dawns on the boy–they’re stealing the livestock.

The boy yells and says, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?! That’s not yours, that’s my dad’s! You can’t take them!”

The strange men, finishing their crime, push the boy away and say “Don’t worry! The Lord has need of it!”

This gives the farm boy pause. A lord? Why would a lord need a donkey and a colt? Wouldn’t a lord have horses already, and much better ones than these? Then again, if it is a lord that needs them, then he’s really in no position to protest, now is he?  So he lets them go.

As they leave, the farm boy hopes that this lord will return the donkey and colt later. Then again, any lord he’s ever met wouldn’t think twice about keeping them. This knowledge left a bit of a sting in his heart. At the same time, he couldn’t help but think that if a lord needed those animals, maybe it was truly out of need, and he did a good thing. Yeah, that’s it. He helped out someone in need. That’s what he needs to focus on, the farm boy decided. God’s going to remember this, and think fondly on the good deed.

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A Parade Long Foretold

palm sunday art 1

Art by Hanna-Cheriyan Varghese

Palm Sunday is, on its surface, a simple kind of day. It’s the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. It’s a day of triumph, celebration and joy. But, it’s also a day that is bittersweet.

After all, this is the high point of Jesus’ ministry. He was never more popular in his life than on Palm Sunday. As soon as he entered Jerusalem, the problems began. Immediately after his arrival, he went to the temple and drove out the money changers and vendors selling sacrificial animals. He repeatedly confronted the temple officials, pharisees and sadducees. And most dangerously of all, he did this on the Passover festival.

Why is it dangerous that he did so at Passover? Let’s think about that. Passover is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It’s the day that they celebrate their escape from Egypt, their liberation from slavery. People came from all over Israel to make sacrifices at the temple and celebrate the Passover feast, the Seder.

The city of Jerusalem is then crowded over capacity…which makes the Romans, the guys who run the government of Jerusalem, nervous. Their security is heightened, and on high alert. Jerusalem is then an overcrowded city with lots of people from all over and soldiers guarding every street to watch for trouble.

That’s the situation in Jerusalem when Jesus and his parade enters into the city. Starting on the Mount of Olives, riding a colt and a donkey, Jesus comes to the city with throngs of people around him, making a lot of noise and commotion in a city on high alert. You can see why the authorities didn’t like him. He was a threat. A threat to the peace. A threat to the people of Jerusalem. Tensions were boiling over, and he was not making things better for those in power.

Now, why is it important that he was at the mount of olives, riding a colt and a donkey? Because that was a sign, a prophecy from the scriptures that many, if not most Jews, would have known.

It was prophesied that the messiah on his victory march would enter the city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives riding on a donkey. People would have seen this and immediately made the conclusion that this Jesus is posturing himself to fulfill this prophecy. And for them, this was a declaration of intent to conquer the city and usher in a new age.

The age they were looking for, though, was not the kind of age Jesus was bringing in,. He was entering as a messiah, but the messiah that God had in mind is not what the people thought.

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A voice from the crowd exclaims, “It’s him! It’s him! He’s coming, quick come and see him!” The merchant lazily lifts her head to see what all the commotion was. There was a lull in the action, you see. People hadn’t been coming by her fruit stand for a while, so she closed her eyes to rest for a moment before more customers came.

As she opened her eyes, she saw that on the next street over, something indeed was going on. Her curiosity piqued, she leaves the stand unattended to go and see the commotion. If someone stole from her stand while she was away, that was a risk she was willing to take. Something interesting was happening. That doesn’t happen all the time. She’d been coming to Passover all of her life, and it was the same each year. Same crowds, same soldiers, same everything. But this was different. In all her life, she hadn’t seen as packed and as excited a crowd as this one.

As she made her way to the road where everyone was gathered, she saw in their hands palm branches cut down from nearby trees. Was a noble coming by? And if he was, why was he coming this way? And why weren’t there as many roman guards lining the road? This was very odd indeed.

Finally, as the crowd’s noise rose, she saw who was actually coming. He didn’t look like a noble. He just looked like a guy, like one of the people who picked the fruit in her husband’s grove. But all these people were around him? Why? And yet, there was a magnetism to him. Was it just the energy of the crowd? Or was there truly something different about this person? Is he really as important as everyone sees him to be? Who is he?

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palm-sunday iconThe Messiah the God Has in Mind

The Messiah God had in mind was very different from what we expected.

The Messiah God had in mind, the one we find in Jesus, may have come riding on what was foretold, a colt and a donkey, but that in and of itself is a statement. He didn’t ride a horse. He didn’t ride a camel, or elephant, or anything exotic. He rode on normal, barnyard animals. He didn’t ride anything exotic because he wasn’t exotic. As extraordinary as Jesus is, being both God and Man, he didn’t portray himself as such. He wore clothes common people wore. He rode common ordinary animals. He worked miracles with ordinary things, like mud, and water, and bread and fish. He didn’t have a magic cupboard of potions, but rather a few words, open hands, and a loving heart. His miracles were extraordinary, but in ordinary ways.

He was a healer, but he didn’t charge for his healing. He gave it away freely, the only requirement almost always being a show of good faith. He wandered the streets, hung out with lepers, scoundrels and prostitutes. He had a heart for the common person, the people on the lower rung of society. And so he was a messiah, an anointed one, one chosen to liberate the people, and to do that he got to know the people, love the people, and care for the people.

So this unexpected, ordinary messiah comes to town, and upsets everything. And It goes great at first. But soon the parade ends, and the bitterness invades the sweetness of the day.

This week, we observe the rest of his journey. Today is the triumph of the ordinary messiah. Thursday will be his final meal. Thursday night will be the night of his betrayal. Friday will be the day that he is tried, tortured, and put to death. He will die the death of a traitorous criminal, though he was still the ordinary messiah from today. Saturday, he will lie dead in a tomb. The week will add bitterness to this day, but that doesn’t stop us from singing hosannas. That shouldn’t stop us from praising him as he is fit to be praised: as our king, our triumphant ordinary Messiah.

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The soldier watched it all from outside the temple as the man walked inside the gates. Odd, the soldier thought. Why would this man be causing such a ruckus? Why the parade? And why did he cause such a mess inside the temple? As he wrestled the rowdier of his disciples away, and as the man’s group followed him back into the city, the soldier looked into the temple. What a mess. Why does Passover always bring out the crazies?

As he helped the merchants set their tables back up, he overheard the conversations between the temple officials. Their voices suddenly hushed. They were talking about this troublemaker, saying they needed to put in a few calls to the governor. Words like “for the good of the nation” and “he must be dealt with” were uttered.

The soldier tried to mind his business, but the conversation was too interesting to ignore. What were they up to? This guy just seemed to be your average troublemaker. He may have messed up the temple, but do they really need the governor involved? That seems a bit extreme, he thought. But, his job was not to ask questions. His job was to obey orders. His job was to protect the people, to provide security, by any means necessary. If that meant he needed to get rough, to shed blood, or even kill? Then that was what he needed to do. He was there to do what needed to be done, just like every soldier. That doesn’t make sleeping any easier though.

He thought about he man who had the parade. He seemed rather ordinary. But he obviously wasn’t. He sighed. We’ll just have wait and see what becomes of him.

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A Moment of Rest, Psalm 23

A Moment of Rest promo
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.[g

 

 

pond-0How often have I said these words at times of need? How often have I uttered this poem in the depths of my heart so that I, in a moment of conflict and despair, may have a word of comfort, rest, and Sabbath?

There is little to be said about Psalm 23 as an introduction. It is by far in the rankings of the top five works of scripture of all time. Everyone has heard it before. Language, nation, and lifestyle, I doubt there is someone who has not heard this poem at some point in their lives. If nothing else, you’ve heard it at a funeral, in King James English. It has been etched on stone, embroidered in cross stitch, and emblazoned on billboards.

Why? Why this psalm? Why this poem? I cannot say. It is however one of the most powerful pieces of scripture in the canon, though, because it speaks deeply to human need, human faith, and the human condition.

Why read this in Lent? Because we are in the middle of it all.

Lent is, after all, a season of fasting, repentance, and preparation. Lent is a journey, a journey to a difficult end, a daunting finale, one of supreme grief, but also overwhelming joy. In every journey, though, one must take time tor rest. That is what this psalm offers us today. A moment of rest.

trust father and childA Moment of Trust

Essential to understanding psalm 23 is an virtue that is sorely needed in this world, and that the notion of trust.

This psalm is one of a particular kind, known a “song of trust.” There are others in the psalms like it: psalm 4, 11, 27, 16, 62, and 131. What makes a song of trust is that it has within it a sense of impending disaster, calamity, or danger. Something bad is about to happen, or several bad things are going to happen. Coupled with this sense of danger, though, is a sense of trust that the disaster will pass. All will be well.

In this psalm we see this clearly. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death? That is a clear and present disaster waiting to happen. It’s like walking though a dark forest at night, and seeing the glint of moonlight in two small eyes inside of a bush. You don’t know what’s inside that bush, but you know it’s something you don’t want to see. Calamity may fall upon you, but you trust that you’re going to make it back to camp safely. You trust that God will protect you.

Trust is hard to come by these days.

We live in an age of conflicting sources and alternative facts. We can’t even agree what facts are anymore. If we can’t do that, how on earth are we going to trust each other? Direct contradiction and barely concealed hostility between each other is no way to live, and yet it is our present and very dangerous reality. We have never been more divided than we are now. So how is it that we are asked to trust?

The fact is, trust takes time and care. You must take time to walk alongside someone to gain trust. A child trusts their mother because that mother (hopefully) has been with that child through everything. A person trusts their spouse because they have spent a lot of time together, for richer for poorer and in sickness and health. You don’t instantly trust someone. It takes time. Not everyone has the patience for trust, but if you do, trust is a great asset and resource to draw on, especially in moments of impending disaster.

Which is why this psalm is so important, and frequently quoted. It speaks of deep trust between a you and your God. It says that though you walk through that dark valley, you’re not afraid. God is going to protect you. God will lead you through it. But the only way to get that kind of trust is with time. Time, prayer, faith–this is what leads us to say with full confidence, “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.”

Why-You-Still-Probably-Need-More-Rest-FinalMake Me Rest

As God comforts us, we must also take seriously our own state, and our need for rest.

We’re halfway through Lent after all, and as anyone knows, you can’t walk a journey of a thousand miles without taking some time to stop and regain your strength after a while. Jesus Christ took many opportunities to go off by himself to pray, to regain strength, focus, and courage for the days ahead.

We are commanded in the great laws, the Ten Commandments, to take a rest, a Sabbath, and keep it holy. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation, and if God needs time to rest, to relax, and take stock in all that he’s done, then why are we so loathe to do so? Why do we resist rest? It’s obviously necessary, so why don’t we do it?

There are many reasons for us to not rest, to skip Sabbath and soldier on, tired and in need of respite.

Sometimes our work will swamp us. We overschedule our work and activity without paying attention to our needs for rest. And so we grind ourselves to death. Our work, our family, our obligations–we have an overwhelming desire to get it all done, and only then can we rest.

There’s some history to this. We in the US have a strong history of the Protestant Work Ethic. This is the belief that only in our work do we glorify God the best. That when we fail to work, we allow the devil to take over. “Idle Hands are the devil’s plaything,” as the saying goes. So we work. We work the fields. We work the mines. We work the factories. We work the cubicle and the office. We work the classroom. We work at home. We work and work and work, and drown ourselves out of a deep-seated cultural agreement that time is money, and only when you have enough may you rest.

But that has been exploited. Working overtime without rest is not good for anyone. A car needs to refuel. A field needs a season to lie fallow to regain its nutrients. A computer needs to reboot. And a human needs to rest. We need sleep. We need leisure and play. We need it not only for our bodies, but also for our souls.

This past week has been a week where I have experienced this deep spiritual need for rest, but also have seen it in others.

At a meeting this week with several of my brothers and sisters in ministry, one of the over-arching things we talked about in our check-in time was that we were tired. Down the line, our ministries were overwhelmingly successful and growing, but at the same time, we had spent so much time working and stressing that at the end of the day, we were just…tired. Drained. Our souls were positive, but depleted. We needed time to rest in the Lord.

One of my colleagues said that as he was preaching about Psalm 23 this week, what came to him most clearly was the phrase “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me lie down. He doesn’t ask me. He doesn’t suggest it. He makes me. He makes it so that I can do no others. And this is the moment the psalmist speaks of. When we are tired, dry, emotionally and spiritually depleted, we need to trust God enough to listen when he makes us to lie down, to rest.

This is something that only someone we trust can make us do.

A mother makes her child rest for a nap because she knows they are only cranky because they are tired. A good boss knows when their teams are past the saturation point and need some time off. A good military leader knows when their squad is tired and in need of R&R. And so a good God knows when we need to rest.

It is a deep sense of knowing and trust that allows rest. And so we must allow ourselves to rest in God from time to time. To lay by still waters. To restore our souls.

refreshed1Courage to Fear No Evil

Through rest, through trust, we are drawn closer to this good Shepherd. And through this trust, we are given courage to face what is ahead, to stand up, and keep moving.

In the end, this moment of rest and this assurance of trust has made it so that the psalmist claims that he will fear no evil. That his trust in God is so great that God can invite all of his worst enemies to dinner and wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Most of all, the poet is assured that as long as he lives, he will have a home at rest in the house of the Lord forever.

This takes great trust. It takes a willingness to let your guard down and rest. But above all, it takes courage. Courage to have faith. Courage to put your heart in God’s hands. Courage to breathe in the breath of God once in a while and be restored.

We are beset at all sides by challenges, fear and doubt. But in the middle of this season of Lent, take time to rest. Take time to find that quite meadow and allow yourself to be restored by God. For some this is easy. For some this may take monumental effort and will. But trust in God. Fear no evil. Take time to rest. And have courage, for God will be with you forever. Amen.

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The First Evangelist, John 4.5-42

 the first evangelist promo

He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”[a]

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

 

 

excited-woman-440-650x479

It’s exhilarating to be able to give good news, isn’t it?

I mean, we have whole traditions around giving good news now. Making announcements are now just as important as the actual thing they are meant to announce. We love sharing good news. From Wedding announcements–greeting cards with engagement pictures on them saying “She said yes!” on them, posing in adorable ways–to gender reveal parties for babies–parties huddled around boxes of gender-coded balloons to reveal to friends and family that you’ll have a boy or a girl–the biggest moments in our lives are telegraphed in exciting and creative ways. Graduation parties do much the same thing. Even the heart pounding anticipation of opening a letter from a university, potentially holding good news that you have been accepted into your dream university, as small as it may be, is enough of a tradition to be codified in the modern human experience.

Getting good news feels amazing. Being able to give good news? Even more so. Because you get to see someone else receive something wonderful, that makes it a blessed experience. So to see the birth of a grand tradition like being able to get to share the good news of Jesus should be a much more important story than I think it is.

There’s a lot to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

There are a lot of story aspects, and details, it’s easy to get distracted from the end result–that this woman became the first evangelist. Before the disciples and the apostles, an unnamed non Jewish woman became the pioneer of a grand Christian tradition. To experience her story is to experience the first of an important part of our own Christian lives, the witness to salvation, and sharing that witness to others.

SamaritanWomanAtTheWell-HeQi

Samaritan Woman At the Well, by He Qi

A Misunderstood Meeting

I feel like there’s a lot to be misunderstood about this meeting between Christ and the woman at the well. Because of this, there needs to be some clarification to understand why this meeting means so much.

First, we probably should talk about the well. I know, that’s what everyone comes to church for, right? A history of obscure middle eastern water sources? Seriously, though, this well is important despite appearances. It means something to both Jesus and the woman, and to the story itself.

First of all, the Well of Jacob isn’t actually mentioned in the bible before or after this. This is the only time it’s mentioned. It is a real well, though, in the city of Sychar in Samaria. There is some reference to it in Genesis, but only obliquely:

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel. Genesis 33.18-20

On this ground the well was built, and for hundreds of years, Samaritans revered it as a holy and important place connecting them to the past and to their heritage.

Now, who were the Samaritans, you might be wondering? Samaria is a region in Central Israel/Palestine that used to be a part of Israel, but during the great wars in the times of the kings, they allied not with Israel but with the Assyrians. In this, they became traitors to the Israelites. History did not look kindly upon them. Henceforth, Jews didn’t associate with them, and thought them beneath them, as traitors and villains.

And yet, they shared in common the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This well was an enduring sign that they believed they belonged to God, even though they may have betrayed the Israelites. This well was important to the Samaritans, and thus to this Samaritan woman.

Let’s talk about this Samaritan woman a bit too, because there is much misunderstood about her as well.

Don’t get me wrong, there was much I was mistaken about as well. It’s something so often preached about that we don’t even think about it. As Jesus converses with her, he reveals that he knows something that was rather intimate–that she has had 5 husbands, and the man she lives with is not her husband. Immediately, good Christians for centuries have come to the conclusion that she had a licentious past. Rather, there is honestly a far more innocent reason for this. See, women didn’t really have the agency to be divorced back then. So more than likely? She’s a widower, being passed from husband to husband through levirate marriage laws, betrothed to the next brother or next of kin in line. She probably had nothing to do with the fact that she was married five times, but trapped in an arcane system that we have no modern context for.

Yet we still can’t get rid of our preconceptions. And because of that, we miss a lot of what was really important here. It’s not that Jesus forgave her, or shamed her, or anything negative. It’s that he knew her. Knew her before she knew him. It’s that he had foreknowledge of her life, it’s ups and downs, and approached her as a friend without even meeting her before. Because he recognized her as a friend, we ought to as well, and not look on her with pity or with shame. She is no more shameful or sinful than we. She was a person, and an important one at that, as we would go on to emulate her example as fellow witnesses of Jesus Christ.

samaritan woman iconReceiving the Good News

So now that we’ve gotten some of the background on this story, there isn’t all that much to the story.

Much like with Nicodemus, this isn’t as much a story as it is a conversation. Jesus rolls up into a Samaritan town. He’s thirsty. He asks a woman for some water at a well.

Already, though, he’s broken some boundaries. Unless you are family or married, you don’t just roll up and approach a woman like that back then. And yet, as I said, he greets her as a friend. Not only that, despite him being a Jew and her a Samaritan, two groups that don’t mix, he greets her as a friend. Despite whatever boundaries may have been there, Jesus didn’t care. He came to that well not to ask for water, but to have a conversation.

From there, the conversation goes from Jesus asking for some water, to her challenging him, his status against hers, and his impropriety.

I actually admire this woman, because she has the courage to call Jesus on his somewhat baffling behavior. Not even his own disciples were able to do so as ably as she did, and here she is. So kudos to her: she’s already proving to be a sharp wit and powerful conversationalist on her own.

Jesus prods at her reluctance by saying she should be asking him for water, really, because he’s got water that, if drunk from, will leave you never thirsty again. Which, if a stranger told me that, I’d probably not take it nearly as well as the Samaritan woman did. She quizzed him on this, and then he gives her the reveal: he knows about her. He knows her history, her identity–he knows her. Astonished by this, she has a ready-made response: so you’re a prophet eh? Ok, Jewish prophet-man, your people have told us our faith is bad, that we must worship at the temple, and yet we are barred from entry. You and your people have a lot to answer for.

I mean, the gall! The absolute nerve of the woman! This conversation’s taken more u-turns than a mountain drive. Yet Jesus actually agrees with her. He says its true that Jews do this, but he says that there’s going to come a time when that’s not going to be the case. Someday, people will be able to worship God wherever they are, without any artificial divisions, in spirit and truth. So he gives her this round.

She takes control of the conversation again. She says that she’s a believer in the messiah, that someone will come to save them and lead them. Not everyone believed this, but it was a growing movement in Judaism at the time. She was saying this to test him, to see how he believed. She never expected that he would respond positively, but that he would reveal his identity–that he was the Messiah.

coffee conversationA New Occupation

At that, the conversation ends. I imagine there was a moment of stunned knowing and understanding. He tipped his hand. She knew him now, as much as he knew her. And from there, she left.

From that moment on, she had a new life, and a new job, one she started to immediately do. She began telling everyone that she had met someone at the well who had known her entire life without meeting her, that he was a prophet, and that she could testify that he was the one who said I Am. That this was the Messiah. She became the first evangelist.

At that moment a new profession was born, something all of us followers of Jesus are called to do. We now get to follow in this brave woman’s footsteps. This woman who we are used to shaming now is the person we get to emulate. She’s the pioneer of our role as witness. She shared how she met Jesus. And she did it with everyone she met. She makes it look easy.

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it takes courage to be an evangelist.

It’s really hard to talk about faith, especially to someone we don’t know. It’s hard to talk about faith, period. There’s going to be people who don’t want to know about it, or hear about it. But that’s where it takes tact and practice.

Am I telling you to be obnoxious in your evangelism? Not at all. What I ask you to do is be authentic. Be open about it. Don’t rely on platitudes and clichés. Talk about your individual experience. Talk about your walk with Christ. Talk about your ups and downs. Talk to others as Christ talked to this woman, not letting boundaries interfere. He broke the walls down. Now you get to walk where they once were to people who could use the good news.

This should be an exciting task, though. You get to give good news to people! You get to choose how you do it, too. You can be creative. You can do it your way. You can do it on your terms. And you can do it to anyone.

I pray that you get courageous, as this woman was. I hope that if you have experienced Jesus, you can bear witness to how he’s changed your life. If you’ve met Jesus, you get to share the good news. That’s one of the best jobs out there, giving good news. Have fun with it. Be open. Be honest. In Jesus Name, Amen.

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Midnight Conversations, John 3:1-17

midnight conversations promo

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

 

van_gogh_cafe-terrace-at-nightThe most important conversations I have ever had have happened late at night.

They happen over coffee at a midnight diner. They happen after parties and get-togethers, after we’re all good and tired and our inhibitions are down. They happen while studying for important exams. They happen during inventories in the back room before a big sales day. They happen after the kids have gone to sleep. They happen when your kids have a bad nightmare and they’re shaking and aching for comfort. They happen as you sweat and cry over your finances. They happen after funerals. They happen after weddings. They happen after all the non-essentials have fallen away and you can have the conversations you dread to have and yet ache to have.

I could fill a book with all the midnight conversations I’ve had, and how they’ve changed me, who I am, how I think, how I believe. You learn about yourself at midnight. You learn about what matters.

I’ll tell you about one such midnight conversation.

night patioIt was after a long night hanging out with my brother and his roommates. Nobody had work the next day and it was right as the school year ended, so we could relax knowing the next day was off. I got to talking on the back porch with one of his roommates, who I’ll just call “Bill.” Bill was raised catholic, but didn’t go to church anymore. He had long abandoned the faith for atheism, and he was quite vocal about it, because church didn’t make much sense anymore to him. At the time, I had only just begun my journey to be a minister, and so I was freshly instilled with a sense of purpose and hope. He and I talked a long, long time. We talked about the nature of God. If God is real, why is there suffering? Why do so many people do such evil in his name? What’s the purpose of belief? Why does the church seem to resist independent thought? We talked for a couple of hours on all of this, and so much more. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember all the details. But what I do remember is that we had a genuine connection, and though we remained on opposite sides of the faith spectrum, we came to mutual understanding why we believe what we do. So I didn’t make a New Christian that night. He didn’t enlighten a New Atheist that night either. But we came together and talked. It changed me. I hope it affected him too.

The midnight conversation happens when you least expect it. Neither Bill nor I expected to talk about the meaning of life that night. But we did. And so today, we talk about another midnight conversation, one between a religious official and a religious outsider. There was mutual respect between Jesus and Nicodemus. They came to each other openly, honestly, and in good faith. And that midnight conversation has echoed down through the ages to challenge not only Nicodemus, but us in his place.

nicodemus-visiting-jesus_henry-ossawa-tannerEnemies become Friends

This story contains one of the most important and most recognizable passages in all of scripture, but if all you take away from this passage is John 3:16, you miss out on everything that makes 3:16 so powerful.

First of all, Nicodemus makes the first move. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. I’ve said it before, but Pharisees and Jesus actually didn’t have all that many theological differences. They were very similar in beliefs. It is because they are so close in belief that their differences become all that much more apparent, and the difference is of crucial importance. For Nicodemus, and for his Pharisee cohort, they are preoccupied with the letter of the law and adherence to purity. Doing the right things the right way is the way to righteousness, and the details are what is most important. In a way, they adhered themselves to rigid structures, like the temple, like the governing power. Preserving that power meant preserving their people, or so they thought. They debated endlessly how to best implement the teachings of their people, to preserve themselves, and didn’t see what was going on beyond the small scope of their interpretation.

In comes Jesus. Jesus, the outsider. Jesus, the Nazarene, who preached holiness and goodness. Jesus who cleansed lepers. Jesus who healed. Jesus who was not connected to the temple, or to the established order. Jesus, who broke the smaller laws so he could fulfill the law of love. He was tremendously popular and charismatic, and Nicodemus saw him as a good and right teacher, who came from God.

They were, categorically, enemies. Nicodemus represented a seemingly immovable object, and Jesus an unstoppable force. They were bound for collision. And yet… Nicodemus saw in Jesus a friend. A compatriot. A good and godly teacher. One who maybe could change the problems of the world.

So Nicodemus approached him as a friend under the cover of night, and sought out a conversation. He made the first step, something that not a lot of people in his position would do.

Seeing in Nicodemus this willingness to do something different, Jesus presented his teachings in the way he did. Confusing, yes, but he knew he didn’t have to dumb it down for Nicodemus. He could pick it up.

interventionThe Come-To-Jesus Meeting

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard of a “come to Jesus meeting?”

It’s a fairly popular phrase in our culture, especially in the south. It’s kind of funny too, because usually when it’s said it refers to an especially difficult meeting that one has to have. It’s a climactic meeting. It may not have anything to do with Jesus, really, but it’s a meeting in which tough love is administered. In other words, it’s become another way to talk about an intervention.

This meeting that Nicodemus had with Jesus could be called one of the first come to Jesus meetings. However, there is a crucial difference. He came to Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to him.

That’s something I think is often when we talk about Come to Jesus meetings. Meetings we have are confrontational. Jesus didn’t confront Nicodemus, and Nicodemus didn’t confront Jesus. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t serious though. This was definitely serious.

After Nicodemus approaches Jesus, Jesus gets past whatever pleasantries that were customary and gets straight to the hard philosophy: Unless you are born anew, you won’t see God’s kingdom.

In the past, when I’ve read this, I saw this conversation as Jesus talking over Nicodemus’s head. But that’s not necessarily correct. I now think Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about–and was questioning because of how hard it was to do what Jesus said.

Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about. We’re born into this world one way, born into sin. Jesus is saying you need a whole new life, period. Nicodemus is on his level, going with his metaphor. He resists not because he doesn’t get it. He resists because it feels impossible from where he is.

He’s a pharisee. He’s invested his entire life into one way of being. And now Jesus is telling him what he needs to know to see the kingdom, and it’s something that wasn’t in the plan. He’s got to go back to square one. He’s got to change his entire life.

Jesus continues that you have to have a renewed spirit, cleansed and born again to live a spiritual life. And yeah, it’s not what you wanted to hear. And yeah, it’s going to take you to God knows where. But that’s what has to happen.

Nicodemus final question is one of great importance: How are these things possible?

Nicodemus knows that that he doesn’t literally have to emerge out of a womb again. But rebooting his life completely? That certainly feels impossible. So he has to ask, how does this work? How can I restart my life like this? How can I follow where the spirit goes? How can I be cleansed by the water of new life? How is it going to work, Jesus?

And Jesus response is not one necessarily of chiding mockery, but one of confidence. You’re a teacher of the law, and you’ve been in this you’re whole life–and you’re gonna ask me? You know what to do. You know how this is going to work. If you don’t I’ve seriously misjudged you. If you don’t know this, then you aren’t who I know you to be–and I know you.

The Final Word

The final teaching is the most important part of this midnight conversation. The last teaching is grace.

Jesus admits that yeah, he’s seen the kingdom of God. In fact, he’s the only one who’s done it. But Nicodemus, and others who seek this kind of wisdom, they’re going to get there. In the darkest wilderness, in the most hopeless places, God’s going to show the way. You know how Moses got out of the desert: a snake had to be lifted high so people could see it. In the same way, you’re going to see Jesus lifted up, and you’re going to find the way.

boardwalk lightsSo have some hope. God didn’t send Jesus here because we’re hopeless, but rather to give hope. God loved the world, and because God loves the world, he loves it in this way. He’s gonna send the Son. And if you believe him when he says you gotta change? That’s going to be all the difference. In fact, that’s when you’re new life begins. He didn’t send him to condemn anyone. He didn’t send Jesus to consign you, who may be on the other side of the law, to damnation. Jesus came for everyone, everywhere, to be given a way out of the wilderness, so they can have their lives changed.

I think about this conversation a lot. I’ve changed how I think about it a lot too. Nicodemus was on Jesus’s level. He knew what he was talking about, and how hard it was going to be to do. But Jesus had faith in Nicodemus, and that’s what gives me hope, because it means Jesus has faith in me. Jesus has faith in you. He has faith in us. Faith to know that we can follow him. Faith to know what the right thing is. And faith that we can turn the ship around and find the right way.

It may be harder than we think. It may be the hardest thing we do. But we can have a new life. We can hit the reset button. We can renew ourselves and be born again, because God loves us, and Jesus has faith in us. We can do it, with God’s help. Amen, and amen.

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A Tempting Test, Matthew 4:1-11

Hand offering an apple.

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”[a]

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”[b]

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[c]

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[d] 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

tv-bar-signalBeing faced with temptation is a universal experience, and it’s one that only evolves over time.

That people have been tempted is nothing new. We simply have found new ways to be tempted, and new ways to tempt each other. It’s an entire industry nowadays, one that blossomed in the 60s and continues to today: Advertising.

One of the tricks of advertising is to create a need when there originally was none. On the TV show Mad Men, one of the angles that was used in the advertising of the world of the show was to not necessarily sell a product based on what a person needed, but rather, sell the lifestyle of a person that people wanted to be. Do you want to be successful? Successful people use this brand of stapler. Do you want to be popular? Popular people drink this type of beverage. Do you want to go on an adventure? Buy this type of car.

 

woman-running-river

In view: a picture specifically made to sell you something.

Instead of selling the thing, selling a lifestyle is so much more effective. We all have aspirations as to the kind of life we want. It’s in our internal coding, really. We want to be a certain way, have a certain life. Perhaps that life is filled with glamourous people. Perhaps that life is filled with adventure. Sometimes that life is a life of convenience, and absent worry. Sometimes that’s a life of prestige and influence. Or a life of success and affluence. Or any number of aspirational lives. And advertising is there to tempt us with these lives, by way of selling products we may or may not need.

And the trouble is, it works. It works really well. Humanity is incredibly susceptible to temptation. In fact, it’s our primary fault. Looking back to Genesis, humanity fell because we were tempted to a life that we didn’t know we wanted until it was dangled in front of us. We didn’t want to be like God until that option was presented to us. And, with hesitation, we took the temptation plunge. It’s been downhill since then.

Which brings us to today. Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a season of fasting and repentance. We started out the season in ashes and confession on Wednesday. Today is when we really dive into self-denial, and talk about when Jesus himself faced what we face: temptation.

What Might Have Been

It’s fascinating to examine what the devil tempts Jesus with, because it’s much of what we are faced with as well. And the devil tempts him with a lifestyle each time.

You see, to understand what’s happening here is that the devil is testing out the New Man. By that, I mean to go on the classical definition of Jesus as the second Adam, Human 2.0.

accuracy-bullseye_expect-perfection-raleigh-transcription-services1In Jesus, we see humanity perfected as God would want us to be perfected. Not perhaps perfect in wanting or needing nothing, but perfect in a way that only desires that which is holy, good, and pure. Holy in a way that is strong enough to resist against the temptations that led to the first Adam’s fall in the first place. Strong enough to be kind and gentle. Strong enough to be firm and resilient in the harshest of conditions–and temptations. Jesus is the new man. The devil is taking him out for a test drive, to see if he can do the same trick twice.

Comfort

Each time the devil comes to Jesus he does so with a new lifestyle, one that would be enticing to any regular person.

comfortable-guyThe first temptation is that of material gain. He tempts Jesus by saying, “Hey buddy. You’re the son of God, right? So why are you hungry? Why subsist on berries and bugs, when you could have a nice, hot, delicious San Francisco Sourdough right in front of you?” (he didn’t probably say that, but that’s my favorite bread, so this is my version of the story). While you’re at it, why are you in the desert? Why come out here, when you could live so much better! You could be in the nicest house, have a family, have comfort and all your needs met. Why deprive yourself of the good life?”

To which Jesus responds “Nah. I’m good. If you remember, God said man needs more than bread alone to survive, even if it is delicious San Francisco Sourdough. Rather, what I need is the word of God, and the promise of that Word.”

In resisting this temptation, Jesus rebukes the lifestyle of comfort, ease, and instant gratification. To make bread out of a stone is to remove that which makes bread so delicious. Bread is delicious because it had to be made. It was made from the work of the farmers harvesting and milling the grain. It was made from the sweat and energy of the baker, in kneading the dough and stoking the furnace. All of that is what makes bread so good. Jesus, in resisting temptation to comfort and ease, prefers the good result of work, effort, and that image of God that was put in humanity, which humanity then puts into every good work.

Influence

The second lifestyle advertised to Jesus in this mighty tempting test is that of religious power–influence if you will.

influenceatwork

And again, Jesus responds to this pitch, this easy life of the messiah the people always wanted by saying “I see your game, and I’m not gonna test this out.” When I hear that, I hear him saying something that sounds very close to when he was in the garden, asking God the Father to take the cup away from him. He knows its going to be hard. But the reason it means so much is because it’s hard. And so resisting this easy out is about resisting the desire to be the hero that people may want, but not the savior they need.

He refused for our sakes. Not for his own. This is Jesus seeing our needs, our need to see a savior that struggles and works with those on the bottom, healing without asking for anything in return but simply faith, faith that is transformational. When you remove that faith with proof, what good is it to be a messiah to a faithless people? Nothing.

So he rejected that lifestyle, and passed the second test. But the hardest is yet to come.

Power

Finally, we have the big guns. The devil takes him up to a high mountain, and shows him all of the kingdoms of the earth, all of the lands, all of the peoples, and shows him what he could have, and gives him the final pitch.

power“Okay, buckaroo, strap in because here’s one that are not going to be able to say no to, guaranteed. The one you’ve been holding out for, door number three. I’ve offered you comfort, and you said no. I offered you your job made easy, and yet you still refuse. Well here’s an offer you can’t refuse: everything. I will give you everything on earth. I will give you power unimaginable. I will give you everything you ever dreamed of and so much more. You want it, just name it it’s yours. People will call you not only master, not only messiah, but king. And all you have to do is your favorite thing to do: humble yourself, and bow to me. I can give it to you. And you just have to kneel. You love kneeling to your Father, and what has he given you, huh? Ungrateful followers who constantly fight amongst each other? A tradition taken over by hypocrites and liars, fat on the work of the overworked and underpaid, in the pocket of the government and uncaring about the plight of the working man? A people who don’t know what’s good for them? I can make them listen! I can help you do everything you ever wanted. What do you say? Deal?”

And Jesus, having considered everything, just said to the devil: “Leave. I’ve seen enough. Why settle for what you’re offering when I’ve already got that? I’ve already got what I need. And all I need is to kneel before one God, my father. You have nothing to offer me. Get out of my face.”

And just like that, the test was over. The second Adam had refused the gift that tempted him.

Report Card

So he got 3 out of three right. He passed the test. This new man? He was able to withstand that which has tempted people since the beginning. He was able to resist, and do what he came to do.

He denied the easy way out, and did the hard work. He worked with the least, that last, and the lost. He ate with sinners. He got dirty. And resisted everything the world offered him, because he simply didn’t need it, let alone want it. All he wanted was to save us, and to show us the way to a better, holier life.

I tell you this story today because it should resonate with us. We are all tempted by the easy way out. We’re tempted by lifestyles of comfort, ease, power, and anything else. And we’re really good at falling for it.

ladder-to-lightBut Jesus showed us it is possible to overcome temptation. In his prayer, he told us to pray for deliverance from temptation and evil. He did this and showed us that in him, we are stronger. We are stronger than corruption. We are stronger than fear. We are stronger than our base desires. We are more than hungry, empty things. We can be so much more.

In passing the test, he gave us the answers. Feed on the word of God, but don’t tempt fate. In the end, worship God, and all that you truly need will be given. That’s good news for us. As we enter a season of self-denial, we also enter a season of temptation. And we are so much stronger. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Overwhelming, Matthew 17:1-9

overwhelming-promo-picture

It’s sometimes hard to describe something that is overwhelming, powerful, and glorious. Sometimes, it’s so hard that people won’t ever believe you until they experience it themselves.

One of my favorite science fiction movies is the movie “Contact.” Based on the book by Carl Sagan, it’s about the life of astronomer Ellie Arroway, and her search for intelligent life in the universe. Her justification for this is an often repeated phrase in the movie, “If we’re the only life in the universe, well, that’s an awful waste of space.” Thought crazy by most of the scientific community, she waits patiently, listening to the stars, searching for signals from extraterrestrial beings.

contact-machineOne day, she gets her wish. A signal arrives. It’s unlike anything ever recorded in human history. A series of sound waves and frequencies, hidden in this anomalous sound are plans, blueprints, for a large machine of some kind. What the machine does? Nobody knows. But she’s bound and determined to be the first person to use it.

So she applies to be the person to use the machine, which requires a person to be in a pod and dropped through the middle of this spinning, mysterious machine. She’s almost all but perfect for the job…save for the fact that she doesn’t believe in God. The council that came together to determine who would use it decided against her because, if the machine is some kind of transport, and the person who uses it is the first to contact alien life, they should believe in some deity, because most of the human population does and they want someone to represent.

Thus is the central conundrum of the film. There is irony here: she doesn’t believe in God. Most of humanity does. But she also believes in alien life, which most people think is absurd. What do you do when you believe in something few people do? And when does your belief run into everyone else’s? What happens when your beliefs are not deemed worthy?

contact-landscapeBy the end of the film, the tables have turned. Ellie got the chance to use the machine. She is then transported somehow to a distant place, beautiful and beyond explanation or description, and is contacted by alien life. To her this journey takes 18 hours. To the rest of humanity, it appears as if nothing happens. She is then brought before an investigative committee, who disbelieves that she had this experience at all, but she is convicted, resolute: she saw something that opened her mind, and changed her point of view. She saw something amazing, and it transformed her just by witnessing it. And she doesn’t care if nobody believes her. She knows what she saw. And she begins to understand what it is for the rest of humanity to believe in something without a shred of proof. She begins to understand why they didn’t choose her to begin with. And so she goes on, continuing to live based on an overwhelming belief nobody else can understand, and transforms people around her by living out her beliefs.

This movie is, for all intents and purposes, and extended parable on faith. Whether Carl Sagan intended this to be the case is irrelevant, because the film itself stands firmly on its philosophy: Belief and faith matters, even if nobody else can experience what you experienced. Beliefs can transform you, and that transformation should change how you live. That’s the message that I hear, and that’s the message that I am reminded of today.

transfiguration-headerTransfiguration of the Heart

Today is the last Sunday before Lent, and that means in the Liturgical Calendar that today is Transfiguration Sunday.

Transfiguration Sunday is when we recognize and celebrate the moment when Jesus revealed his true and full glory to three of his disciples upon the mountaintop, shining brightly with a dazzling gleam, and communing with prophets of old. It memorializes when God the Father spoke and told the disciples that this Jesus who you are witnessing is in fact his son, that he loves him, and that he is to be listened to.

It’s a beautiful moment in the Gospel, and a turning point as well, as it marks the transition from Jesus preaching and teaching to Jesus preparing for his ultimate crucifixion. It’s placed right before Lent for that reason as well: it’s the high point of Jesus’s life on earth. There will be nothing to top the moment when his full glory is revealed to his friends. There is nothing that can surpass this moment of transcendent, overwhelming beauty.

mountain-topIn my time as a Christian, I’ve come to call this moments of being overwhelmed by the glory of God “Mountaintop Moments.” They give you a spiritual high, in a way. They reflect the dramatic emotional transformation found in this very real transformation of Jesus Christ, and in his disciples.

One can’t forget how the disciples were transformed by this event–Peter especially. Peter, Jesus’s faithful friend, ever the hard-headed zealot, responds to this transformation by wanting to manifest his inward transformation by building temples or shrines where he was–on the mountain top. He wanted to stay there on the mountaintop forever.

That’s a tempting prospect for many. Going back to the movie Contact, Ellie wants to stay transported to this alien place far longer than she was allowed to do. She wanted to explore, to learn, to experience this new overwhelming reality even more than she was already doing. Ultimately, she was denied, and sent back. Back to a world that wouldn’t understand her. To a world that couldn’t understand her. She was sent back a resident alien, a stranger in her own homeland, for having this transcendent, transformational experience.

Peter, James and John, in our Gospel story, play a similar role to Ellie. They experienced something amazing. They wanted to stay. But they were bound to go back to where they were from, and though sworn to secrecy, they eventually attempted to relay the experience in the Gospels. And I have no doubts that what we have only scratches the surface of this transfiguration. There are no words that can adequately describe God’s fullness. These meagre ones are all we have.

It’s important that they had this transformation though, because for anything to change, one’s heart must change first.

Ellie had a change of heart through her experience with new life. Peter, James and John had a change of heart when they saw Jesus in his glory. They were transformed inwardly, in a way that is impossible to explain. And God will do that. I’ve had experiences like that myself. Experiences so indescribable, they seem almost silly in hindsight. And yet they changed my heart.

You can have these transformational experiences too. I had mine on a UM Army trip. Others have had them on Walk to Emmaus retreats. Others still have had them in other ways, other places, be they with many people, or all on their own. Transfiguration happens in its own way, on its own timeline, and respects nobody’s schedule. But they all transform the heart.

Transfiguration of Life

It’s a remarkable thing when someone’s heart transforms, because it often transforms their life as well.

Ellie in Contact goes on to become a teacher, and not just a researcher. Her search moves from self-fulfillment to enrichment of others’ lives. Peter, James and John, often preoccupied with determining who is the greatest amongst themselves, become the pillars of the early church. Peter became the first Pope, despite his own shortcomings and over-eagerness. They’re lives were changed from looking inward to looking outwards.

When we are overwhelmed by the presence of God in a real and deep way, our lives can’t help but change. We can have emotional highs in our spiritual life. It’s easy to get caught up in a stirring praise and worship song. It’s easy to find that mountaintop and just stay there, never changing, never growing, never moving on. When we experience God’s grace and splendor, we can’t help then to move that focus outward.

We can be a part of the transformation of others, and enable them to come to that moment of overwhelming, transcendent glory.

If you’ve never been to the mountaintop, don’t worry–your mountain exists, you just haven’t climbed it yet. There’s no shame in not finding it yet. God has made your path especially for you, and it’s only in hindsight do you truly appreciate how far you’ve come. I hope that you do find that mountaintop, and become transformed inwardly in an indescribable fashion. I want that for all of you, because nothing compares.

boys-on-mountain-topIf you have been to the mountaintop, then I cannot be happier. But I want to remind you to not stay on the mountaintop. It’s on you now to descend that mountain, and share the good news. You may be disbelieved. You maybe thought of as crazy. It may be impossible to adequately describe what you experienced when you found God’s glory. That’s ok. It’s okay because it’s in sharing your story, you help someone else in their own path to finding their mountain. You become a co-wanderer on their journey. And one day, God will find them, and they will remember you.

Inward transformation leads to transformation of life. And my prayer for you is that all of you are transformed by the overwhelming glory of God. Amen.

 

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Once more, Unto the Breach: Thoughts on the Old Year, and into the New Year

Life has a way of taking your attention away from the things that you always mean to do, but never seem to find the time to do. I started this blog ages ago with one purpose, and now I hardly ever update it. Partly because I’m older now, and work does take up my time. This blog is a great sermon dump!

However, I am noticing habits that come back. Every year around this time, I tell myself I’m going to turn things around. I’m going to write for myself. I’m going to eat healthier I’m going to get fitter (as fit as a fat man can be!) And for the most part, I do my best to aspire to those goals. Sometimes, I have things that help me along. Sometimes, I fall back on these promises I make to myself. All in all, I have to remind myself to keep moving forward. Years are arbitrary measures of time, but sometimes measures can help us keep track of ourselves, our personal progress and our lives. So here’s to 2017,  the 2,017 arbitrary measure of the common era. Let’s do some cobweb dusting in the old brain.

Mountains behind me

There is a lot to be said for this year in terms of good things. For one, I got my career back on track in a good way. Things were very sketchy at the beginning, and it was looking like I might be in for a major life change. However, thanks to the help from a lot of people, not the least of which is DeSay, my wife, I’m back on track. I’ve been given a second chance, one that isn’t often given. I have great mentors in my life. I have a vision of what things might look like in my future, and that’s a great thing. I started out the year in a dark valley, and now I’m climbing my way out, and I could not be more grateful.

I’ve become a better pastor. I feel confident in being able to say that, and that is a huge deal. My wife has helped me gain the confidence I’ve needed to become that better pastor. My churches have been willing to help me along in ways that I never dreamed. I’m far from perfect, but I’m on the way there, to crib a note from Wesley’s writings.

My writing has changed a bit. I want to say that it’s simpler, in a way, but that’s probably because I’ve come out of the academy for a little bit. I’ve had more conversations with people. I’ve met people I would never have otherwise if I wasn’t a pastor in the rural church. People will change the way you write, for better or for worse. I feel that sometimes simplicity can mean a lot more than fancily constructed sentences with 5-dollar SAT words. Shut up, younger me, you can write well without showing off.

Other good things? The podcast, Silly Robots, is still going strong, even though since I live out here I often miss out on major pop culture landmarks than I would like. (I live an hour from the nearest movie theater, so sue me.) However, our podcast is fun, so give us a listen on iTunes and Google, and if your feeling generous, check us out on Patreon.

Mountains before me

So, here’s the dreaming part. These are the things I’d like to do in the next year.

  • As ever, I want to make writing for myself a bigger part of my life. I love writing, and I always feel better when I do write. It does give me anxiety though–what if I’m unoriginal? What if what I write is bad? I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to not care as much about these things. I’m turning 30 this year. My novel won’t write itself–if that is indeed what I write.
  • Joining the gym and getting a bit more fit. Eating better. Treating my body better, in general. I feel better when I exercise, so I just need to get up the determination to do it.
  • Listen to more good music. The last album I really listened to well was David Bowie’s Blackstar and there was so much more to this past year I missed out on.
  • Read more. Not just fiction either. As much as I ragged on my old writing style, I do want to get back into academia and read some more mentally stimulating non-fiction. If anyone has any recommendations, leave them in the comments below!

Well, that seems like a good list. Lot’s to chew on and pray on. If I don’t accomplish it? No sweat. But these are my goals for the year. So as we sit on the edge of that great cliff that is the new year, let’s plunge together and try to make this year better than last year.

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