The Son of God

“Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).  Their affirmation was not an official statement.  But it carries more weight than any political, religious, or military edict.  Those who were closest to Jesus, as He died, recognized His divinity.
The crowd joined the Jewish leaders and Romans to crucify Jesus.  The unanimity of those who represented the world against the innocent Lamb justified their position legally, religiously, and socially.  Too often, we still believe this way, that, “This is the way the world works!  Somebody has to pay!”
In Christ Jesus, God was willing to die at the hands of humanity.  He gave Himself to us and for us.  To our will God submitted His own will.  This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus.
We killed the Son of God.  God lets us have our way.  Even when our way ends in death, God allows us freedom.  Even when it ends in the death of God’s Son, God allows us agency.  It looks like wrath to us, but it is the way of profound, un-controlling love.
Lord, thank you for revealing Your Son and our evil at the cross.  May we receive your gracious forgiveness with gratitude and changed hearts.  Amen.
What does it take to recognize the Son of God on the cross?

Gethsemane
We must look back to the introduction to the reading for this morning.  Jesus went to the place called Gethsemane, to pray.  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with Him.  While the disciples flagged with sleepy eyes, Jesus prayed three times “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39b).  “…But as You will!”
Where we get our desires defines how we live.  We get our desires from one another.  This begins as parents teach their children and siblings show one another the way to the ice cream.  We get our desires from one another.
As we grow up, this process becomes less visible, but it is built into our system of life.  World-based desires wind up self-centered.  Worldly desires are marked by envy, revenge, and violence.  Our enemies, our neighbors, Madison Avenue, and Washington, D.C., dictate our desires even when we are not aware of it.
Like any sane human being, Jesus did not want to suffer and die.  But in His prayer, He gave His will over to the will of the Father.  What His Father did with His own will fills out the rest of the story.  Together, They gave Themselves to the will of the crowd.  And this crowd represented the whole world, rejecting the life-giving mission and message of Jesus.
The dynamic of conflicting desires between people brings us squarely into the realm of human justice.  Early on, society learned to handle interpersonal violence by creating a scapegoat to neutralize the growing conflicts of selfish willfulness.  After His appearance with Caiaphas, we find Jesus before Pilate as the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, the Lamb of God.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we recognize the possible sources of our desires.

Pilate and Company
Pilate was managing the scapegoat mechanism.  This so-called scapegoat mechanism is a device of polite societies everywhere.  This mechanism works to make peace by the periodic sacrifice of a victim.  Often, in our justice system, this victim is guilty of some terrible deeds and deserves death according to our standards.
Capital punishment troubles many of us.  Arguments about how the death penalty deters crime may or may not be convincing.  And the satisfaction of a vengeance wrought usually shows itself shallow and fleeting.  Revenge leaves a deep bitterness in the soul.
More often, our scapegoats are not in the judicial system.  As a prelude to the scapegoating of an individual, groups find solidarity and security by identifying the latest threat to their safety.
We think in binary and exclusive terms.  We want it clear who is in and who is out of our group.  We then scapegoat that person or group of people: Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, Muslims, Communists, women, men, heterosexuals, homosexuals, the rich, the poor.  Almost any group can feel “picked on.”
As long as the conflicts are between groups of nearly equal size and power, we continue in the polarized situation such as we have in American politics today.  Or, we see the world-wide conflicts such as that between the White Satan of American exceptionalism and the Axis of Evil in Islamic society.
This teetering war between groups takes a huge toll.  It is horrible.  Conflict between “equals” is symptomatic of our unresolved envy and bent towards violent resolution.  Polarization is the first step towards rectifying our conflicting desires.  We think, “Find some folks with whom you agree and dig in your heels!”
However, beware of when the majority finds a small group or an individual to blame for its ills.  This often happens in the classroom or on the playground or in the boardroom or in the family or even in the church.  Bullies can turn an entire class against the geek.
Whether a bonafide individual scapegoat or a commensurate enemy, the cure in either case is grace.  Violence begets violence, vengeance compounds revenge.  Grace gives new life.  The grace of God in Jesus Christ identified the scapegoat mechanism and revealed the evil of the crowd.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we must admit that violence funds society.

Soldiers’ Improv and More
The soldiers mocked Jesus.  They improvised a riff on His rule as King.
The Prince of Peace was made to wear a warrior’s robe.  They used the pretend scepter as a club against Him.  The crown of thorns, their mock obeisance, and the sign they put above His head show us more about the soldiers than about Jesus.  They were completely consumed by the system.  The scapegoat mechanism works, and they were model employees.
The disciples fled; the crowds gathered.  Only a few women disciples stood by at a distance.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world had turned against Jesus.   “And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:25, emphasis added).  The phrase translated, “all the people,” literally means that all the people were complicit.
The scribes and elders and priests joined in identifying Jesus as the one who must die for His blasphemy and threats against the temple.  Such it is with scapegoats.  They become the source of all our troubles.  We become unanimous against them; removing them, casting them out, killing them becomes the only viable solution.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we admit our willingness to crucify others.  Whether you realize it or not, to the extent you already think in non-violent terms, the story of Jesus has informed your life.  Any gracious, forgiving, loving impulse the world finds today God gave us on the cross of Jesus.  All genuine goodness comes from God and is revealed on the cross.

The Voice of Jesus
The gracious cure hung before them on the cross.  The gracious cure calls for someone to stand apart from the crowd and to provide the minority report.
The gracious cure called for someone to endure the humiliation and to absorb the pain.  The gracious cure called for someone to forgive our evil, sinful, violent actions and attitudes.  The gracious cure called for God to give Himself for us, to us.  And Jesus gave Himself.
We know this happened because Jesus sowed the seeds of a contrary witness.  Crying out in what is the most difficult passage of Scripture to understand, Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (27:46b).
The mystery of the Trinity complicates this exchange.  We only hear God answer in the darkness, and the torn veil, and the earthquake, and the raising of the many dead from their tombs.  We cannot appreciate one God in three persons no matter how many times we sing or teach or pray about it.  Yet, we hear the Son of Man calling out to God, “Why have You forsaken Me?”
In Christ Jesus, (who is fully God and fully man), God was willing to die at the hands of humanity.  He gave Himself to us and for us.  To our will God submitted His own will.  This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus.  And He cried out as He absorbed the terrible pain of our wrath.
That’s the best I can do to understand this mystery.  Others have extended, alternative, explanations.  I will rest in this, God loved us more than He loved Himself.  God’s will was, in this awful moment, to abandon His will to our will.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we must see the love of God, willing and obedient unto death.  We must see that the way to life requires self-giving through the place of living sacrifice.  We must be willing to take up our own crosses and to follow Jesus.  Amen.

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Scapegoat Blindness

“As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth” (John 9:1).
Jesus restored the sight of a man who had been blind since birth.  Jesus saw the world in its potential and in its need.  Where we are plagued with blindness, Jesus saw where and how to act with gracious love.  Where the world pursued a scapegoat, Jesus gave sight to a blind man.  Giving sight to the man born blind, Jesus challenged the blindness of all the players in the story.
God offers spiritual perception—vision to human beings.  He wants us to see the world as He sees it, filled with potential and beset by needs.  In Christ Jesus, God illuminated the world around us.  He enables us to see the potential and the needs of others.  He offers to deliver us from the blinding effect of the scapegoat mechanism which drives society.
We can see the potential and needs of the world.  Or, we can remain blind and never even see what we do not see.  At first, we cannot help ourselves.  We are born and brought up in the sin mode of envy and rivalry.  But as we encounter God in Christ through the gracious word and acts of His witnesses, we can begin to see the world as God sees it.  We see our own need.  We begin to understand our potential.  And, by faith, we begin walking in grace.  We can see the potential and the needs of the world, especially its scapegoats.
Lord, uncover the blindspots in our vision, turn our blindness into sight.  Amen.
What blindness towards scapegoating does God cure?

Blame Game
God cures the blindness of the blame-game.  Jesus was hiding from some of the Jews who were trying to stone Him.  He escaped their impromptu scapegoating event.  As He flees certain death, His first encounter is another scapegoat.  That’s how the disciples saw this poor man.  Trying to place blame (scapegoat someone), the disciples presumed to find spiritual meaning in the problems of life.
We tend to presume, the good life of physical prosperity and health is a life blessed by God.  Conversely, the bad life of poverty and sickness is a life cursed by God.  This belief provides a ready supply of scapegoats.  However, it is a lie.  This game is all about whom to blame (or claim).
Yes, godly practices can lead to material blessings but godliness does not guarantee good stuff.  Neither do disease nor poor circumstance nor chance disaster require us to look for some sinful cause or sinner to blame.  Sometimes, stuff just happens.
We don’t manage our lives completely, neither does God pull the strings.  We enter the creation with the potential for good and bad which we participate in making and ofttimes must simply receive from the creation and the choices of others.
What was their point?  Does this theological musing matter?  What’s the point of living right if it does not assure us of good outcomes in the physical realm?
God reveals Himself in the context of our lives, however distressed they may be.  The question is not whether to blame ourselves, our parents, someone else, or God Himself.  The quest is to discover, display, and proclaim the works of God in the midst of whatever life brings—good or bad.  We don’t need scapegoats.

Clay Ointment
Through the ages, believers have trusted God for healing.  Healing is so mysterious that we presumed only God could do anything about our health.  With the advent of modern medicine, we’ve come to understand much more about the body.  We can do surgery and set bones.  We can clean wounds and take medicines to fight infection.
At what point the body heals itself in connection with our efforts of treatment and recuperation is now less mysterious, but mystery remains.  What’s obvious here is that Jesus made a clay ointment and prescribed an active treatment.  He could have just spoken the word, or perhaps just nodded His head or waved His hand.  But, He used tools of healing that the people were familiar with, and He engaged the man’s cooperation.
God cures our blindness regarding methods.  A living being naturally tends to fight infection, to regrow broken bones, and to heal its flesh.  Nutrition and exercise and good attitude do as much for a body as most drugs.  Most importantly, I cannot think of a single healing in the Bible which does not engage the person or his or her surrogates in the process.  Faith healing is a partnership of humans and God.
Through love, God created a thriving universe designed to bring health.  Through our cooperation, by faith and/or by deed, He can heal the people we planned to scapegoat.
Even with our cooperation, our illnesses often lead to death.  We are not promised otherwise.
But as God opens our eyes towards the various methods and tools He provides for us to thrive, we recast our vision on the true and more vital healing of our souls.  We can see the scapegoat as one whom God desires to heal.  We don’t need scapegoats.

Nearly Neighbors
Not everyone will recognize this shift in focus to spiritual healing.  Thankfully, God cures the blindness of our shallow relationships.  A void of deep interaction with one another positions neighbors as strangers and friends as outcasts.
Some of the neighbors didn’t recognize this man as he returned from the pool, now able to see.  The cynic in me presumes they didn’t know him very well in the first place.  Others recognized a similarity, but presumed it could not be the same person.  They too show a spiritual dullness.  Yet some others recognized him.  No doubt these were the closest of family friends.
Not previously knowing him, Jesus saw this man who was blind from birth.  He saw his potential and his need.  It seems that some of his neighbors had failed to see a human being of worth at all.  He remained a good candidate for scapegoating.  In any case, we are never going to see what we haven’t been looking for.
God works through our sensitivity to others.  God can cure the shallow level of our relating with others so that, with blinders off, we can see one another and know one another and call each other by name.

Sabbath Rules
The man did not know where Jesus was, the neighbors brought the man to the Pharisees.  It was Sabbath, and there might be legal issues with which to deal.
Making clay and practicing medicine, Jesus broke Sabbath rules.  The Pharisees ruled that, as a Sabbath breaker, Jesus was not from God.  But, the signs of healing which Jesus had performed begged the question of His authenticity and authority.  The Pharisees divided over the issue.
God cures the blindness of legalism.  The Pharisees had to reconcile the reality of a cure with their rigid rules.  What is more important, people or principles?  Some people have a difficult time answering this question, but for me it’s obvious.  God favors His creatures over the adherence to rules.
They presumed that God rested on Sabbath, and at creation He did.  But hear this interchange from a previous healing on a Sabbath.  John explained, “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working’” (John 5:16-17).
The “rules” legitimize the need for a scapegoat.  Expecting a zero-sum balance, we believe that someone must pay the price!  However, God rules through love to heal and to cure the blindness of our legalism.

Fear of Exclusion (Parental Predicament)
As soon as our eyes are opened to our bent towards legalism, another blindness arises, fear.  The parents of this man feared that the Jews would have them thrown out of the synagogue.  They feared becoming scapegoat, themselves.  In fear, they were willing to let their son be the scapegoat.
The good news is that God can cure the blindness of fear.  Jesus opens our eyes to the limits of human expulsions.  No group can cast out a supposed scapegoat without sending that scapegoat into the arms of God.
The parents deferred to their son’s accountability because they feared the Jews.  They passed the buck, determined that if anyone suffered, it would not be them.  He would substitute as the object of the Jewish action of exclusion.
Ultimately, the Jews cast the man out.  But, notice how that unfolded.  “They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?’ So they put him out.  Jesus heard that they had put him out, and finding him, He said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’” (John 9:34-35, emphasis added).  Jesus sought out the man, just as He came to seek and to save that which was lost.

Pridefulness
Now, why did the Jews cast out this man?  Pride seems to be their driving motivation.  The man whom Jesus cured of blindness stood before the Jews and proclaimed the mysterious power and presence of God in Jesus.  But they were too proud to allow any truth to the reality.  They had a tradition to protect at any cost.
They were, after all, “disciples of Moses.”  Their pedigree trumped any late-coming, rabble rousing rabbi of questionable origins.  But the proof stood before them.  A man, blind since birth, stood before them seeing.  And he could now see not only what they could see of the natural world, but he also could now see what they could not see because of their pride.  The man saw that God was working through and in this teacher, Jesus.
God can cure the blindness of pride.  It simply requires us to humble ourselves and accept that God was at work in Jesus.  Humility allows us to see God at work in any number of people around us.  But in the case of these Jewish leaders, they remained blind; they put him out, and Jesus came and found him.

Ignorance
The most simple blindness to cure is that of ignorance.  Jesus found the man and asked a question, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35b).  The man answered in honest humility and openness, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” (John 9:36).  Here, Jesus revealed the blindness of the scapegoat, himself.
“Jesus said to him, ‘You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you’” (John 9:37).  God cures the blindness of ignorance.  Gently, directly, clearly, Jesus revealed Himself to the man.  The man opened his heart to the Son of Man, and Jesus affirmed his questioning, searching, and budding faith.
God revealed Himself through and in Jesus.  God replaced our need for a scapegoat with the Lamb of God.  We may find Him in the face of a friend, a neighbor, a family member, or even a foreigner.  God’s Spirit will reveal Jesus to our searching hearts.

Rebellion
All we need to do is ask.  Sadly, pride morphs to rebellion as we refuse the most gracious offer from God.  If we humble ourselves, God cures our blind stubbornness.  If we refuse, in a proud self-defense of our logic and learning, we will remain blind.
The certainty of our positions ought always be checked by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit leads us to understand and opens our eyes to see.  
    The world and the religions of this world refuse to see God revealed in Jesus.  He breaks the rules!  He shows God at work in sinners!  He finds those whom “we” cast out!  He shows us our blindness in respect to the scapegoat!
May all our blindness be turned into sight.  And may we see and trust in God, revealed in Jesus.  Amen.

60 “Be Thou My Vision”

Meeting Jesus

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
A Pharisee named, Nicodemus, met with Jesus one night.  As we imagine some worry on his part that his peers might see him visiting Jesus, that he came at night seems significant.  But the hour only colors the meeting.   Since Pharisees were, most likely, businessmen, it may have simply been after work.
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a separatist from the ways of the world.  He held to strictly interpreted concepts of Israel’s founding laws.  His purpose seems more interesting, as we must read between the lines of his simple affirmation, “You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus met Jesus, not with a question but with a statement.  Yet, Jesus wasted no time leading Nicodemus into a deeper understanding of who He was, especially in His relationship with God.  As Nicodemus recognized the presence of God with Jesus, Jesus opened the door for Nicodemus to meet God.
You see, God sent Jesus to save us.  By definition, salvation, as following Jesus, requires a meeting.  You can only follow someone that you have met and are getting to know.  Jesus and the one to be saved must meet one another.  That’s how a person meets God in salvation.  God sent Jesus to save Nicodemus.  The meeting was on!
Meeting Jesus, we discover who God is, and we trust in Him for salvation.
Lord, open our hearts to those gracious meetings with You which fan the flames of faith and understanding.
How do we meet God in Jesus?

Spirit
It’s nighttime.  This man who separated himself from the world was sitting with the Rabbi of the people.  It’s ironic, since his name, Nicodemus, means victory of the people.  Perhaps they’re around a fire.  Or, imagine the candles lit, and an oil lamp on the table.  And this Rabbi, Jesus, jumped in by telling a “ghost” story—a Holy Ghost story, the story of the Spirit.
But rather than a scary story, such as ours are, Jesus told the sacred story of the life-giving Spirit of God.  “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do no be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7).
We meet God in Jesus through the work of the Spirit.  This Spirit, who gives us being, this Spirit who gives us life, Jesus characterizes as free and inscrutable.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
There is no pressure to slip in a visit under cover of night or simply after work.  The Spirit goes whithersoever it desires.  And we know His presence.  There is no Pharisaical pressure to remain separate from perceived threats to the Law.  The Spirit moves in us and through us and around us and with us.  Indeed, the Spirit moves us in directions and ways which exceed our understanding.  The Spirit gives us life and breath, exceeding the limits of nighttime and all the pharisaical legalism of presumptuous leaders.

Serpent
And then the tone turned somber if not a little tense.  Nicodemus showed deeper reluctance to the descriptions of Spirit-life which Jesus had offered.  Jesus challenged whether Nicodemus could be such an expert in the Law and not be able to see the truth as He opened it up before him.
From introduction to the Spirit, Jesus now focussed on His personal story.  The image is striking if not frightening.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
We meet God in Jesus when He is lifted up.  What does this serpent talk allude to?  What would lifting up Jesus look like?
First, the Moses and serpent story refers to an incident in Israel’s history in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.  Moses tells us that in response to ongoing toxic complaints from the Israelites, “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num 21:6).  God’s character, methods, or motives are not the question here.  The emphasis is on the venomous nature of the people’s complaint.
But even that is not Jesus’ point.  Jesus moved to the solution.  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent [out of bronze], and set it on a standard; and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live’” (Num 21:8).  The bronze serpent was lifted up in sight of the community for the sake of the community.  Thus, must Jesus be lifted up.
Listen!  The serpent was a construction of men which God used for their salvation.  Crucifixion is a construction of men and God used the crucifixion of Jesus for our salvation.  This is the, “Lifting up Jesus,” part.  We think that, “Lifting up Jesus,” means something like, “Giving Jesus the praise!” or, “Always blessing His name!”  Later in John’s Gospel we find that the phrase, “Lift up Jesus,” specifically refers to the crucifixion.  Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”  John explained, “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (John 12:32, 33).
Sacrificial deaths were not a new thing.  Society probably owes its existence to the emergence of such violence.  But previously, no sacrifice ever gave more than a temporary relief from suffering by the suffering of the other.  The difference with this crucifixion, in the lifting up of Jesus, was that Jesus went sinlessly and willingly and gracefully and filled with forgiveness to the cross.  And most importantly, we heard the story from the perspective of Jesus.  That’s the story we tell today as we, “Lift up Jesus.”

Savior
This brings us to the Father.  Giving Jesus to the world, God was giving Himself to His creation.  Hear these most well-know of verses.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
We meet God in Jesus as God gave His Son to us.  He is the God who gives of Himself into His creation and for our good.
Pharisees tried to remain separate from the Romans and from the Greek cultural influences and the common folk and the Sadducees and all the others who didn’t follow the Law with the right (meaning, in agreement with them) interpretation.  Business occupied his day and a meeting with this Jesus, with Whom he sensed God, occupied this night for Nicodemus.
In complete contrast, God refused to separate Himself from us.  He came in the flesh.  He turned night into day in the light of His presence.  Jesus walked with us and touched us and lived with us and went about doing good.  And Jesus died for us and rose for us and is coming back for us.
The age of life was present and open to Nicodemus that night.  It remains open to us today.  We often translate the phrase, zoen aionion, the zoe—eon, eternal life.  For many, this implies a future in heaven.  But this phrase refers to an eon or “age” of life which is present as we speak, and which lies before us without end.  Eternal life is simply that life which is worth living eternally.
God meets us in Jesus, and we can meet Him and be saved (entering into this life-age) through Him.  He is the Father God who gave His only Son to us.  He is the Son of Man lifted up on the cross.  He is the Spirit who gives us life.  Meet Him!  Know Him!  Trust Him!

Worship in Spirit and Truth

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Last week, we met Nicodemus.  That is, he came one night and met Jesus.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and apparently a successful businessman.  This week, we read that Jesus met an unnamed woman of Samaria, of the village of Sychar.  She was drawing water in the middle of the day, at a time when encounters with other women of the village would be least likely.  A person from a more opposite situation in life than that of Nicodemus could probably not be found.  But Jesus found her.  And she met Jesus.
God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and truth.  Her journey was quite different from that of Nicodemus.  Her starting point grew from a totally different world.  She was well-versed in matters of faith from the perspective she shared with others of Samaria.  Still, God sought her and found her and invited her to faith through one of the deepest, most extended theological discussions in Scripture.
We believe Jesus and give our lives to God as we worship Him in spirit and truth.  The story of the woman at the well shapes our faith in ways the story of Nicodemus does not.  We often get entangled in various challenges to worship.  These things short-circuit our worship of God in spirit and truth.  This story clarifies at least five challenges to worship in spirit and truth.
Lord, lead us to worship in spirit and truth.  Amen.
What are some challenges to our worship in spirit and truth?

Water of Unity
Jesus had asked this woman for some water.  She protested.  He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan.  Didn’t He know how inappropriate this was?  Samaritans and Jews do not deal with one another.  The first matter is this life-giving water which washes away our prejudice.  Divisive thinking and acting short-circuits worship.
Muslims and Christians, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, our binary distinctions keep us comfortably separate and clearly decided on who is who.  The truth that one God created all of us often fails to change our minds.  Too often, the spirit of grace fails to persuade us to share that same spirit of grace with others.
God challenges our divisiveness through group-expanding metaphors such as water from the well.  The request for water from Jacob’s well, Jesus turned into an offer for a gusher of spiritual water renewing and giving life to the soul.  This water washes away the distinction between Jew and Samaritan.  This water satisfies our deepest thirst.  The currents of this water carry us into an everlasting age of life without the pains of exclusion.

Husbands and Others
The woman asked for some of this spiritual water and to be cleansed by its truth.  Jesus countered with the request that she go get her husband.  This brings up the matter of relationship.  Broken relationships short-circuit worship.
She admitted that she “currently” had no husband.  Jesus clarified that indeed, she had had five husbands and that she was not married to her current companion.
She presumed He must be a prophet to have knowledge of all this truth.  How could He know, otherwise?  More perplexing is the lack of condemnation from Jesus.  He simply declared the reality of her broken relationships with a spirit of grace.  Jesus offered no particular blame.  Nor did He suggest she get married now, or reconcile to the first one, or whatever.
While it might be important that the woman recognize Jesus as a prophet, I doubt that that was even the point.  God challenges our brokenness by leading us to deal with failing and failed relationships.  When we face the truths of our lives God opens a spirit of grace which convicts and consoles and challenges.
To the challenge, she abruptly shifted the conversation.  But she was brought face to face with perhaps her greatest need, fulfilling her desire to be in relationship with someone to love and by whom to be loved.

My Mountain of Sacrifice
By calling out her need, Jesus moved the conversation to the next level.  When you start touching upon a person’s deepest needs and desires they begin to think about ultimate matters such as who God is and how you worship Him.  Is He the God whose anger must be soothed or the God whose grace can be received?  Thinking of God as retributive rather than restorative short-circuits our worship in spirit and truth.
God challenges our worship by calling us away from worship based on our particular place and practice of punitive sacrifice.  First, she focused on place.  “Our mountain, in Samaria, is the only right place to worship.”  So many substitutes for the mountain come to mind: our church, our denomination, our doctrine, our color, our … you fill in the blank.  Most importantly, the mountain signified a place of sacrificial ritual, the spilling of blood.
Jesus did not take the bait.  She framed her argument in opposition to the position of the Jews who approved only Jerusalem as the place of worship.  Jesus spoke an immediate and comprehensive answer filled with the spirit of love and profound truth.  Jesus said, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Beyond the exclusionary constraints of place or any of its substitutes or the spilling of blood, God bids us worship Him in spirit and truth.  Whether Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, we maintain our mountains as places to sacrifice.  We develop and maintain places to shed blood in hopes of keeping the peace.  The invitation to worship God in spirit and truth erases our presumed need for continued blood offering.  Rather now, as Paul said in Romans 12, we present our bodies as living sacrifices!
The spirit is one of openness; it’s not my mountain or your mountain—neither is the point.  The truth invites the immediate and living response of our lives in praise and adoration.  The truth refuses to embrace bloody scapegoating and retribution and wrath and fear.

Waterpots, Carry-out, and Witness
The story then pivots on the moment when Jesus admitted to being the Messiah, the Christ.  The woman claimed that she knew the Messiah was coming and would help us understand everything.  In response, “Jesus said, to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (John 4:26).  Jesus revealed this truth because He was already busy doing the will of the Father who sent Him.  He was bringing to harvest a dear lady with troubled relationships.  He was revealing how God was working in and through Him.
About this time the disciples returned from their mission to find food.  Interrupted by the disciples, the woman left her water-pot and headed into town.  The truth she took back into the village was far more important than a pot of water.  She proclaimed the possibility that the Christ was nearby.
Meanwhile, Jesus refused to eat the carry-out.  Rather, Jesus schooled the disciples on how ripe for harvest the souls of the people were.  The value and readiness of souls changes the spirit of our work.
We witness of so many things.  We get excited about our ball teams, and we should.  March even goes into a madness over playoffs.  We have “spirit.”  In a spirit of excited witness we may point to our church, our pastor, our doctrines, our politics.  Here is the challenge.  The woman did none of this.  She pointed to Jesus.  He claimed to be the Christ.
Our misguided witness to our pet projects and ideologies short-circuits worship.  It is as harmful as failing to witness at all.  Both hurt worship.  God challenges us to witness that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, the One anointed to save the world.  We have no other message to offer.  This singular focus enables and guides our worship.

Samaritan Disciples
Then, the Samaritans offer a final shaping of our worship in spirit and truth.  A measure of the effectiveness of worship is the extent to which others begin to hear and respond to that word of grace which moved us.  Walking through faith in another person’s steps short-circuits worship.  With Jesus, each of us can walk on his or her own.  Indeed, it is incumbent on us to so walk.
As exciting as it is for the pastor to lead someone to Christ or to prompt a spiritual breakthrough in someone’s life, it excites the pastor beyond measure to see disciples begin to hear God for themselves and to grow in faith without being spoon-fed.  The Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and because they began hearing from Christ, Himself.
Perhaps we’ve read this verse as a put down to the woman.  Now I see it as the ultimate goal of any Christian leader.  “[A]nd they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42, emphasis added).
We worship in spirit and truth as God convinces us of His great truth through the power of His Spirit.  Then we begin to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  Will you join in listening and hearing and sharing and worshiping in spirit and truth?  Amen.

Glory to God!

Luke 2:1-14
GLORY TO GOD!
John Alden Tagliarini
December 25, 2016

“‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” (Luke 2:14).
Luke described the birth of Jesus with praises to God.  He painted the scene leading up to and including the manger.  Then Luke took us to the fields to introduce us to the shepherds and the angels.
In the final words of our text this morning, God received the praise of angels.  They celebrated that Jesus entered history to save us.  That’s the bottom line.  The revelation of God in Jesus, prompted the praise of the heavenly host.
And, we praise God for sending the Savior.  We can do nothing less than join the host of heaven with praises to God for His grace.
We pray, “Lord, fill us with praises for Your grace to us. Amen.”
We need the same things the first century world needed.  The stark contrast which Jesus brought to the ways of the world revealed the power of love and the effectiveness of grace.  To better understand God’s answer to the needs of the world, let’s consider the question.  What was the world like when God sent Jesus?

Caesars
The world was a world of Caesars.  August in their own self-conceived images and assertions.  They exercised divine rights and imagined themselves as gods.  They built empires and used human resources as though people were expendable.
In the ways we assess effectiveness, leadership is not often humble.  According to the world, effective leaders put themselves forward and first on all fronts.  Effective leaders brook no insubordination.  They are at the top of the food chain and are loath to let anyone think otherwise.
The august Caesar planned a census to count everyone, not because he believed that everyone counts with individual worth as human beings and might need resources, rather because census determined taxation.  Also, a census would help him determine military resources and strategies.  With hubris, Caesar presumed to own all that he had conquered.  He was counting his assets.
Amidst this hubris and among the thousands of travelers, a couple of transients made their way to Bethlehem.  Joseph was in the proud lineage of David, but his journey was not a boastful homecoming.  Rather, two people made their way under the duress of a foreign king to continue as objects of the imperial domain.  Their story changes history.
Telling their story personalizes an otherwise systematic disregard for human life.  Joseph and Mary would register with the authorities of the realm, but Mary was with child.  New life fills every family with the potential for growth.  This promise of a soon to be born baby, fills this story with the potential of the seed of David upsetting all that the greed of Caesar presumed.  Into a world of Caesars the true King is born, and we praise God for His grace.

Rooms
The world also had a scarcity of room, or so everyone believed.  That there was no room in the inn has a poetic, even poignant, depth.  We discover the metaphor for lack of room reflected in our busy lives and distracted hearts.
Back then, the world may have offered different models of commercialism but the reality is no different today.  Whether they are known as kings and princes or as CEOs and presidents, it makes no difference.  A relatively few wealthy people control the production and distribution of resources.  And worldly desires drive their envy, often prompting jealousy and erupting in conflict.
An imperial edict forced a housing crisis created by an migration of transients.  We already mused over what might have motivated the census described in Luke’s Gospel.  Today, we see thousands displaced by brutal wars, the results of rivalrous desires to acquire.
Whether the census-created housing shortage in Bethlehem or the greed-created shortage of room in our Bryson City hearts, the trouble boils down to the same messed up desires.  And leaders are not the only problem.  No amount or kind of Christmas gifts can satisfy our deepest desires when we catch “our” desires from each other.
As long as we want what the other guy has, or seems to want to have, rather than wanting what God wants, we will crowd out any hope for true peace.  There will be no room in our lives or our hearts for the Prince of Peace, Jesus.  Commercialism will win.  Commerce becomes Caesar; and Caesar becomes commerce.  There is no room in the inn!
I am thankful that Jesus, even baby Jesus, is Lord!  The birth of Jesus creates in me a whole new set of desires.  All Jesus wanted in life was to please the Father, to do the Father’s will.  This can be my desire too!  I praise God for His grace.

Shepherds
As the baby is born, and the story unfolds, the camera pans out for a wide shot, and we see shepherds in the distance.  There are shepherds today, ranchers with vast herds and small farms working at subsistence levels.  I am certain they are all brave folk who meet the many challenges of the job.  The world produced a practical courage based on human strength and skill.
First century shepherds were probably a rough and ready sort.  They were accustomed to extended separation from the town folk.  They had experience meeting the dangerous threats from wild beasts.  Fearless though they might have been, when the angel of the Lord appeared to them, they were terrified.
As the world measures it, courage has much to do with the notion of a tough-guy shepherd.  As the angel revealed it, courage has more to do with the Gospel.  He said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
The angel went on to say, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).  Doesn’t sound very courageous does it?  Can all this encouragement come from a helpless baby in a manger?  Yes!  Profoundly, yes!
What will it take for us to understand the power of love, the power of childlike dependence, the power of God?  Will the words of the angels persuade us?  The heavenly host praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14).
Christian courage is courage to trust God to deliver, not just the baby Jesus, but the Prince of Peace, the Savior, Christ the Lord.  Because of the good news of Jesus, we praise God for His grace.  Amen.

106 “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”

Precious Produce (Fruit)

James 5:7-11
PRECIOUS PATIENCE
John Alden Tagliarini
December 11, 2016 — Advent 3

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.  The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains” (James 5:7).

In this passage, James encouraged believers to patiently wait on the Lord.  The passage ends, in verse eleven, with the promise that God is coming full of compassion and mercy.
As believers, we patiently wait on the Lord.  And I pray, “Lord, teach us to wait patiently upon You.  Amen.”
What else does James say about patience in this text?  How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?

Define Patience
Sometimes people get under my skin.  Do you know what I mean?  Usually the irritants are not personally attacking me, but sometimes that has happened too.  While bullying occurs anywhere, the scenario plays out in our schools daily.
I remember boarding the bus one day, while in junior high school, and bearing yet another insult from a particular nemesis about my Italian heritage and parentage.  I had taken all I could, so I wailed my fists against this boy’s back until he seemed to submit.  I looked up to see the bus driver staring at me.  Uh oh!  Yet, she turned away in what I construed to be silent approval.
Even with what seemed to be an adult justification of my actions, I felt weak and unsatisfied.  I wanted my fists to transform my enemy into a blithering puddle, profusely apologizing for his meanness.  It didn’t work.  He shut up, but it didn’t feel as good as I imagined it should.

Often, our strategies of force only frustrate us as we wait for true justice.

The Lord’s coming will bring ultimate justice to His world.  How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  Before we cite patience as the primary strategy, we ought to define patience.  Two common words translate as patience from Greek.  One word suggests remaining under a load, endurance of a situation.  Often this connotes adverse or difficult things or circumstances.
The other word suggests suffering long with regard to antagonistic persons.  “Long-suffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger, and is associated with mercy, and is used of God, Ex. 34:6; Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet, 3:20. (Vine’s EDBW, p 377, from Notes on Thessalonians, by Hogg and Vine, pp. 182, 184.)  James uses this second word in most of this passage.
The refusal to retaliate or to act on our latent anger should change our concept of patience.  Patience is no longer a matter of simply biding our time, twiddling our thumbs.   Waiting does not involve the proactive self-defense of a crusader.  In true, spiritual, waiting, we absorb the pain and hurt of our interactions with others.  More on that in a bit.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We exercise patience through the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Farmer
So, how does the farmer show this sort of patience?  Why does James offer the farmer as an example?  Our familiarity with gardening may skew our interpretations.  Too often we preach this text by talking about how farmers actively wait by weeding and fertilizing and watering.  The problem with this approach to understanding the text, however based in reality it is, is that it does not capture the focus of the text.  It’s just not what the Bible says, here!
James could easily have described active waiting in terms of the farmer’s work: weeding, tilling, fertilizing.  Remarkably, James’ farmer simply waits on the early and late rains.  No farmer controls the rain.  He must wait on the rain, on something that he cannot manage, manipulate, or cause to be (Irrigation notwithstanding—it’s just not the point!).
If there is a “between the lines” interpretation, I see more a critique of the agriculturist who wants to know why the farmer isn’t digging wells, or canals, or building aqueducts to water his fields.  To any such critique the farmer seems to be saying, “I am waiting on the rain.”  It makes no sense.  But that is the posture of faith—waiting on something one cannot control, waiting on God.
There is an important modifier in this verse.  The farmer waits for “precious” fruit.  This fruit is honored, of great value.  The adjective seems a little over the top for a tomato, or potato, or a pomegranate or even for a fig!  You, who have grown a big crop of corn, tell me the truth.  How many ears do you shuck before you begin to think, “Enough already!”?
This fruit is valued as precious.  The phrase is unique in the Bible, precious fruit.  Would the farmer value it more if he’d logged many hours in cultivation?  Or, does the farmer value this fruit so greatly because he understands what a gift of grace it is?  Perhaps the farmer understands that by patient waiting, God has cultivated a precious fruit of faith in his own heart.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We strengthen our hearts by trusting God to act.  The ultimate work of justice is beyond our control.  The precious fruit of grace, received by faith, is a gift.

Practice Civility
Another clue which pertains to this precious produce is James’ call for civility.  James told believers not to complain or groan, expressing anger or desire against one another.  This is the part we can control.  We can choose to live peacefully with others.  In this commitment, we will suffer long in the face of taunts and innuendo and outright assaults.
Remember, long-suffering is the very definition of patience.  I did not have patience on the bus that day.  James said this is an area in which we can expect judgment.  “Do not complain, brethren against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:9).
Judgment opened that door as I saw our bus diver looking at me in disbelief.  I was one of the last ones the route, so we had shared enough time to know each other.  My actions probably surprised her as much as they surprised me.  At first I saw her judgment as commending my righteous indignation.  In reflection I wonder if her judgment was more a disappointment over my lack of control.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  Let’s watch our tongues and lower the rhetoric of anger and desire.

Consider the Prophets
An alternative to a face-book type one-ups-man-ship is prophetic speech.  James said to take the example of the prophets.  In the prophets, we find truth spoken in love.  And for speaking truth, they suffered.  They showed patience, at least most of the time.  Regardless, they trusted in God to deliver.  And, they spoke in the name of the Lord.
This is key, speaking in the name of the Lord.  To speak in someone’s name suggests you know his or her mind and heart.  James and John tried defending Jesus’ honor with a “Tweet” calling for the destruction of the village in Samaria, which had not received them.  “But He [Jesus] turned and rebuked them, [and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’]” (Luke 9:55-56).
Here is where we misunderstand the prophetic voice.  Too often we think to be prophetic means to condemn and to judge.  If we speak in the name of the Lord we ought to be certain we understand God’s heart.  God cares for the salvation of souls and not their destruction, however just we might think it to be.
Even when we speak truth to injustice, God’s purpose is redemptive not retributive.  This is why the prophets of old knew suffering.  They waited in true, spiritual, waiting.  They absorbed the pain and hurt of their interactions with others.

They were willing to speak against power while refusing to use power to be heard.

How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We replace our self-serving language of condemnation with the language of redemption.

Patient Endurance
Up to now, James has spoken of patience, translating the word for long-suffering.  In this final verse, James used the other word for patience, translated as, endured and endurance.
James called our attention to Job.  Job endured affliction from circumstance and from people.  He suffered long, and he remained under the load of trials.  He is a good example, because Job did not endure silently.  The book bearing his name is filled with his searching for answers.  And the story ends with God blessing Job.
This final dealing with Job reveals the truth about God.  It affirms what James said, “…that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11c).  I have no other reason to endure, much less to suffer long, than the power of who God is.  The Lord who is full of tender mercy and compassion is coming and indeed, is already near.  Immanuel!  God with us!
When our tempers flare in hurtful outbursts, we are saying we do not trust God’s mercy and compassion.

Impatient rhetoric and reaction denies that the mercy and compassion of God are viable alternatives to this world of sin.  But friends, either God’s character counts for something (for everything) or it doesn’t.

How then do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We remember how God meets our endurance and patience with His mercy and compassion.  We remind one another of God’s grace by showing mercy and compassion to others.  Amen.

267 “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”