Limitless Grace – Part 2

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Jer. 3:6-18; Rom. 1:28-2:11; John 5:1-18

Jesus heals on the Sabbath in today’s Gospel lesson.  This story is somewhat unfamiliar to many – it only appears in one gospel, the Gospel of John, and doesn’t get much attention from the Sunday lectionary cycle.

Here’s the short version: Jesus went up to Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, to the pool named Beth-zatha.  The blind, the lame, and the paralyzed lie there, hoping to be made well.  Although the pool is mainly drinking water for flocks of sheep who come in the Sheep Gate, there is evidently some mystery surrounding the healing properties of the water, especially when the waters are stirred up.

Jesus, who would have had to pick him up and put him in the water, a clear violation of Sabbath rules, chooses to simply say, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  Even before the water is stirred up, the man is healed.  He takes his mat and began to walk.

So why do people get in such an uproar?  Sounds good, right?  Carrying his mat is a violation of the Sabbath, and the Jewish authorities point this out.  He responds, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’”  They want to know the identity of the man who healed, but Jesus had disappeared in the crowd.

Later Jesus found him in the temple, and the man told the authorities about Jesus’ identity.  The Jews started persecuting Jesus and he responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

This convoluted story about Sabbath breaking is challenging.  Of course one of the first things to point out is that all this laboring – this performing of a miracle too – is breaking the Sabbath.  And I don’t know about you, but I thought this would end differently.  That Jesus would weasel out of it by saying, “My Father is still working….and he can do whatever he wants!”  Instead, he feeds their rage, pleading guilty to the charge, saying, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

Jesus is not concerned about breaking the Sabbath, instead he is interested in clarifying his role.  By claiming God as his Father, he claims to be equal to God.  He is revealing his Messiahship.

It is easy to understand why all this gets him in trouble.  But the story reveals even more.  Why was Jesus hanging out at the dirty, smelly Pool of Beth-zatha?  What do the disciples have to do with herding sheep?  Did they come for the medicinal properties of the water?  Perhaps he came especially to see the people there.

Jesus seems to be playing with fire when it comes to the Jewish authorities.  He is taking the role of Judge and Advocate.  By performing these miracles, especially in the most unlikely of places, he is sending a clear message to the Jewish authorities: “God is not playing by the rules of the temple here.  And there is no stopping it.”

This bold, abrasive message gets him killed.  And yet, all the while, revealing the Word made Flesh.  The Gospel of John is a unique picture of Jesus, but one that I see as essential.

May God reveal to you the healing waters you need this day, and may you rejoice that we follow a God who breaks the rules to err on the side of mercy, grace, and healing – for you and me.

-Matt

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Limitless Grace

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Jer. 2:1-13; Rom. 1:16-25; John 4:43-54

What does it mean to be the Light of the World?

In John, Jesus returns to the scene of his first miracle – Cana, where he changed water into wine.  This time it is not a party that draws Jesus’ attention, but a royal official, whose son lay ill in a neighboring town about 20 miles away.

The news of Jesus must have gotten out, because this royal official heard that Jesus had come to the Galilee region and set out to find him.  He begs Jesus to heal his son.  “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus says.  The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.”  Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.”

The next day, as he was heading back, his slaves met him on the road to declare that his son had been healed.  Think about that for a minute!  He doesn’t even lay a hand on this kid, and he is healed!  His power is growing!  Healing now is taking place even without meeting the one doing the healing.  Extraordinary.

There is a series of stories in John that help identify Jesus as the “light of the world.”  It is a light that is shining on those whose worth is questionable in the eyes of many.  Previous to today’s reading Jesus has a remarkable conversation with a Samaritan woman (which is one strike against him, in the eyes of his critics).  Today it is a government official (i.e. a Roman), another strike.  Next, he heals on the Sabbath.

Grace is spilling out all over, and the laws of the Pharisees and of the temple guard are being challenged.  We are setting the stage, not only for the cross, but for the revelation of God’s light to the world.

We also witness the growth of power.  Jesus’ power is not limited to those he meets face to face anymore.  This story, like that of the feeding of the five thousand, witnesses to a grace that is almost limitless, spilling out beyond boundaries of the familiar or even of knowledge.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.

Hang on.  It’s a bumpy ride to the cross.  Being the Light of the World means more than spreading light, but attracting attention, and critics of the Light.  This is a journey sure to keep us on the edge of our chairs.

-Matt

Slow Down!

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Jer. 1:11-19; Rom. 1:1-15; John 4:27-42

Lent is about us slowing down to read the signs.  Today they come to us in scripture.

The dramatic call of Jeremiah is given today, appointing Jeremiah with oversight of the kingdoms.  The Lord puts his words in Jeremiah’s mouth and tells him he as the ability to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

With a little Hebrew wordplay, God shows Jeremiah a vision of an almond tree and a boiling pot, and assures us that God not only watches over us, but will follow through with the prophet’s words.  It is, in many ways, a foreshadowing.  It gives us glimpses of how Jeremiah’s ministry will be.

We begin reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans as well.  He begins with “guns a blazin’”.  Paul lets us know the issue at hand just in introducing himself, giving us glimpses of the summary of the gospel and the reasons for his being so upset with the Corinthians.

Sometimes my Lenten walk has felt very much like these passages – with too much going on.  Often I have felt swallowed up in all the Lenten disciplines, programs, and creative ministries at First Presbyterian.  It can be hard to say “No” to certain things in order to say YES to God and stay spiritually in tune with God.  We must wait patiently and find the time to prioritize God in our relationships.

And that is what Lent is about isn’t it?  The world sometimes seems all too eager.  But we Christians wait.  We take things slowly and deliberately – continually focusing on the cross and what it has done and is doing for us.

Have you ever driven down the road too fast only to think “Now, what did that sign back there say?”  Lent is about us slowing down to read the signs.

-Matt

John 3:16, no wait 3:17!

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Deut. 9:23-10:5; Heb: 4:1-10; John 3:16-21

Perhaps one of the most quoted scripture, John 3:16.  I cannot begin to count the “John 3:16” signs I have seen at NFL football games and other sporting events. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The problem is not the verse itself, but often the way it is used.  Taken out of context, it is often used to beat non-believers over the head, attempting to use the fear tactic in changing their non-belief.

Often I am tempted to hold up a sign that says “John 3:17”.  (You have heard me say it before, and I will say it again: Read on!)  It is amazing how scripture appears to change when rather than taking it out of context, we read scripture in the context of the story, or the book in which it appears.

In this case, John 3:17 declares “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  The passage goes on to talk about judgment as if it is something for God alone, and not for us to be deciding.  Our focus in on good deeds and staying in “the light.”

It turns out that John 3 warns against the very thing that people intentionally or unintentionally do with their “3:16” signs.  By casting judgment on people, we miss the point of God’s purposes for us.

For John, everything seems to stem back to the premise that he laid out at the beginning: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Everything that follows is an explanation and expansion of that main thought.

And where does that leave us as believers?

It means that our lives’ focus have changed.  We are to revel in the wisdom that is all around us.  We are to enjoy God, celebrate God, and feast on the goodness of God, sharing that feast with others.  We are not to disrespect God by taking on the position of judgment or condemnation.

We are to seek love in everything we do – in every relationship – in every place we go.

-Matt

Perpetua & Felicity

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Deut. 9:4-12; Heb. 3:1-11; John 2:13-22

Perpetua & Her Companions – Martyrs at Carthage (March 7, 202)

Today is the traditional feast day of Perpetua and Felicity, two of my favorite martyrs of all time.   Check them out!  It’s an early church history day.

 

The Real Rule of Law

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Deut. 8:11-20; Heb. 2:11-18; John 2:1-12

Today, in Deuteronomy, we see a vision of following the commandments cast in a new light.  Here it is all built around remembrance.  Keeping God’s commandments, his ordinances and his statues is a way of remembering God.

The last couple years there has been a lot of political hub-bub about the 10 Commandments.  There are monuments erected at so many state capitols it is hard to keep up.  Legislation to keep it.  Orders to remove it.  Legislation to put it back.  And in the midst of it all, there is an implication that the 10 commandments somehow have to do with the moral fiber of a community.  Yet, other than not murdering and not stealing, it is hard to find any of this on “the books” at the court house.  Instead, most of them have to do with not coveting, or honoring God in appropriate ways.

It turns out, the commandments are driven not by “moral fiber” but by theological fiber.  Here in Deuteronomy, the fullness of the commandments intent and impact are made known – that we “do not forget the Lord your God.”

It turns out we are doing more than remembering the Sabbath Day – instead these are all a vehicle to remember God’s place in our lives.  And by treating one another with respect, we remember where God has placed us in his eyes.

In many ways, the 10 Commandments are simply an expansion of commandment number one: Love God.  In another sense, the entire canon of the law is an expansion of that one principle.  Jesus adds to it: Love God and love neighbor.  (This is another way to summarize the 10 Commandments).

So the 10 Commandments are to put us in our place, in a theological sense.  They are not for legislation, but for ways we can honor each other in relationships and in life.

I think the reason legislator fight over 10-Commandment statues is the same reason people angrily Tweet during the night about fake news items – to distract us from the real issues and the Real Law, God’s Law.  For, when we fight over trivial matters and completely made up issues, it becomes easier to ignore God and neighbor.

Most of this comes back to idolatry – a violation of the first commandment.

The trajectory that God’s law lays forth is clear: “When you have eaten your fill and have built find houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God.”

For me, this is where the 10 Commandments really start to hit home.  If in our observance, we fail to keep ourselves in check, vaulting ourselves above God, we have missed the point of them completely.  We have traded in the truth of God for a lie.  When we turn to greed and self-centeredness, we lose the ability to see clear theologically.  We begin to see ourselves as gods.

“If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.”  I pray that our country turn and follow God’s way once again.

-Matt

Radiating the Love of X

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Deut. 7:6-11; Titus 1:1-16; John 1:29-34

It is a natural question while reading scripture: “Will I ever measure up like these people?”  While scripture is filled with those who fall short of God’s desires, I hardly think I could even come close to the kind of humility and service they often portray.

As we turn our hearts to Lent, and disciplines like fasting and praying, I ask you to ponder this question: What does God expect of me today?  What difference could I make in God’s creation that would prompt others to write stories about me?

We are called to lose ourselves in the midst of following Christ.  What a task!  What an endeavor of faith and trust.

As we are called forth from the story of Scripture, to use our talents, called to specific roles in the church, my joy comes in knowing that I am on track.  I feel like I am in a place that I am finally able to use my gifts.

I encourage you to also inwardly reflect on these things, and begin discussions with those in your family or in your church about what your gifts are and how you can best realize the talents that God has entrusted in you.

May this Lent be one of humility and service, of purging and examining, of repentance and renewal.  May the dawn of mercy break upon you.  And may your love radiate forth this day…to all the world.

-Matt