All right, let’s get right into it, shall we. Let’s not tip-toe around today’s Gospel text. There is a lot to deal with and I don’t want you to listen to me preach for hours on end. What do you see when you look at me? Perhaps in our short time together thus far, you’ve gotten to know me enough that you now don’t see my shortcomings. Or maybe that’s all you see. I’m not going to pass judgement. After all, I asked the question “what do you see when you look at me” and you probably had a few answers in your head. What do you see when you look at yourself? When it’s just you, alone face to face in the mirror, alone with your thoughts, just you and God, what do you see? I wonder how often we look at ourselves and others and notice their shortfalls first, and then their attributes. Can you imagine what a strange world it would be if we introduced ourselves to other people and lead with our shortfalls? Would it be uncomfortable? I mean, you’re just saying what other people are already thinking, right? There was a recent movie that came out called “Pitch Perfect” about college a cappella groups. One of the characters was named “fat Amy.” Upon introducing herself one of the other girls said “you call yourself ‘Fat Amy?’” And she responded with “Yes…to keep people like you from calling me that behind my back.” Because here’s the thing: we want to define people by their problems instead of their potential and instead of their gifts. I would love to be wrong about this. But, sadly, I’m not. We define people by their problems. If we didn’t there would be no reason why when we do speak of other people and their problems or shortfalls that we do so in a whisper. How many times have you done this or maybe overheard someone say something that sounds kind of like this; “oh that Max! He’s such a great kid and he’s so smart…especially for someone who’s (whisper) you know…autistic.” Or “Michelle has such a pretty face! (Whisper) It’s too bad she has such bad acne.” Maybe even “Grandma is fun to be around (whisper) as long as she takes her ‘happy’ pills.” Do you want to know why we whisper? We whisper because we have been trained to think that anything less than perfection in anyone is a reason for failure. And we pick and pick and pick. We’re like those little monkeys that pick bugs off one another. We look for reasons to point out imperfections. Because as long as I’m pointing out your imperfections, you can’t point out mine. We hear of the blind man today. Much like the woman at the well last week, he has no name. He is insignificant. He doesn’t matter–especially because he is blind. What can he contribute to society? Nothing. The neighbors had known him as a beggar. He was probably spoken of in hushed tones. Whispers and glances. Jesus didn’t see any of that. Jesus didn’t care. Jesus knelt down and made mud out of the dirt in front of him and healed the man. The man didn’t asked to be healed. Jesus healed him after the disciples asked some fairly dumb questions. They wondered why the man was blind. Was it his own fault or was it the fault of his parents that he was blind. Who sinned causing his blindness. Friends, do not kid yourself into thinking that this kind of attitude no longer exists. We live in a society that is anxious to place blame, even if it makes no sense, in order justify certain situations. Of course this man is blind–but how was it caused? Who sinned? No one! He was born that way! Jesus came to the man, just as Jesus always comes to us, having no concern about his blindness or how it was caused, and healed him. God, through Jesus Christ, heals us, even if we’re in a mess with a mess like mud. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, mess to mess. This man had been in a prison for a long time. Not an actual prison but a prison that kept him from living into the life that God had planned for him. The people around him placed him in that prison because they just didn’t know how to handle a man that was blind. What kind of prisons do we put people in in our current time? What are the prisons we put ourselves in? Did you notice something curious about this reading? The man never talks about his blindness as a disability. But everyone else around him has put him in a prison that has only allowed him to beg for resources. Here’s the thing: whether we realize it or not, and whether we recognize it or not, we do put other people in prisons. When it comes to prisons, the ones we enslave the most are ourselves. Let’s talk about the prisons we put around other people. When we doubt ability just because of gender, that’s a prison. When we have a pay difference just because of gender, that’s a prison. When we avoid certain streets or establishments because of the customer base, that’s a prison. When we talk louder at someone thinking that they’ll understand English, that’s a prison. When we deny basic rights because of gender, age, mental capacity, social status, economic status, sexual identity, or heritage, that’s a prison. If you’ve ever had someone else place you in a prison–tell you that you can’t do something just because of who you are, you know how uncomfortable it is. But as I said, we do it to ourselves. We take what God has made as good (that’s us) and degrade it to the point that we are almost unrecognizable to ourselves and maybe even to God. We tend to cover ourselves in mud, except this is verbal mud and garbage that keeps us down and imprisoned. Jesus saw the blind man and saw a man whom he loved and wanted to heal. Jesus did not see his disability. Because to Christ, that man was not his blindness. You are not who you say you are or who other people say you are. I am not the extra weight I should lose. I am not my ADHD or my dyslexia. I am not my infertility issues. I am not my anxiety or depression. I am not the negative voices I hear in my head telling me I’m not good enough. Because when I come face to face with God, none of this will matter. God will see me as I am and as God made me: a perfect creation, worthy of love and grace, and worth dying for. You are not who you say you are either and you are not who other people say you are. You are not self doubt. You are not your physical issues. You are not your mental issues. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are beloved. Society will fight fiercely to tell you that everything I’ve just told you is false. Companies make money by selling you things that make you better because they’ve made you believe that you’re not good enough. We need to be thinner, taller, longer hair, beautiful nails, whiter teeth, clean complexion, covered in diamonds, and oh! we need the perfect family too! Well behaved children, a solid marriage, a nice home, well manicured lawn, and a big fluffy (friendly) dog. Here’s the thing: God doesn’t care about this stuff. God cares about one thing: your heart. God created you to love and be loved. God thought you were worth dying for, and that’s pretty amazing. We should refuse to be known and classified as anything other than what we are: beloved children of God. Someone who is clothed in God’s grace and mercy. Someone who is fed and forgiven quite often. Your current reality, friends, is not your final reality. I understand that it’s easy for me to say that you’re not these things. But the reality is, you will leave here today and whatever physical ailments you have, you will still have them. But the good news is that these ailments do not define you. What defines you is the hold that God has on you and that will never change. There will come a time when you are free from all that ails you. But in order to not get confined to those prisons, we must remind ourselves of our baptism daily. We must eat the bread of life and cup of salvation as often as we can. We should be around those who will lift us up and remind us of who we really are. These are the people who can see the real you and the real me. You are not the whispers of your shortcomings. You are the yells of “I love you” cried from a cross.
The problem with a Gospel reading this long is that there are about 19 different sermons I could preach today. I won’t do that to you. But, I had so many ideas floating around my head all week and it was hard to decide which way to go. But then I saw this cartoon floating around the internet that said something like “if you want a religion that makes you feel comfortable, don’t be a Christian. I suppose in a lot of ways that is true. It is often said that Lent is a time of repentance. I think we tend to think about repentance as stopping from doing the “naughty or bad things” in our lives when really, repentance means “turn around.” Just because we turn around from something doesn’t mean we’re doing bad things. Maybe we turn around because what we’re doing isn’t working. Maybe we turn around because we start to feel that a different way is actually better or more efficient. Maybe we turn around because we’ve had a change of mind or a change of heart. Repentance and guilt don’t have to go hand in hand. You know that I like challenging you. Today is no different.
Someone asked me earlier this week about my sermon writing habits. How long does it take? Do you get nervous? And I answered honestly and said “I first and foremost write the sermon for myself. I write what I need to hear.” And this is true. If I make you feel uncomfortable its because I’ve made myself feel uncomfortable. I do not forget, brothers and sisters, that I am a sinner in need of God’s redeeming word; I am the wretch that the song “Amazing Grace” talks about. I am, at times, the woman at the well. While other times, more times than I care to admit, I’d just like to ignore the woman at the well.
So, let’s talk about her, shall we. It helps to study this passage in depth because we want to be able to respond to what Christ is asking us to do when a situation like this occurs in our lives. We have to put it into modern day context because I’m pretty sure most of you now get water from a faucet and you would have noticed a strange woman hanging out by your sink by now. First of all you will notice that she did not have a name. She is just referred to as “a Samaritan woman.” This may seem strange to us, but in the time of Jesus this would have been normal. Women were property. Many times in the Bible we see or hear about women but we don’t know their names. Women were of a lower class. We are told that Jews and Samaritans do not have a lot in common. And Jesus is addressing her, this woman. Had she a man around, those around her would have addressed him, not her. She is his property. Then we have this strange business about a husband or husbands. Jesus is not shaming her. Not once does Jesus call her a sinner or an adulterer. It was very common in those days for women to be divorced, abandoned, or widowed. In order for a woman to survive she had to be married. This is her lot in life. She probably didn’t have much, if anything. She may have come to the well that day as an escape. She needs water to live and who does she find at the well but Jesus.
She then proceeds to have one of the longest conversations with Jesus that is recorded in the Bible. And in a time and place where people often chose not to see (in a figurative sense) people on the margins, like this woman, Jesus actually sees her. He sees her and speaks to her without judgement. Eventually, she realizes that she has been speaking to the Messiah. And now she has been changed and cannot wait to tell anyone and everyone she sees and who will listen about this man. She left everything she had with her, perhaps a symbol of her unfortunate life, a lowly bucket, and ran to share. She asked, almost scared of the answer, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She didn’t want anything stopping her from living the life Christ promised her, so she left her old life behind. She turned around, or repented. Again, not because she was sinning but because Christ was calling her towards something greater.
Here is what I want to challenge you with today: what holds us back from living into the life God has promised for us? What is stopping us from moving boldly into the future? What stops us from sharing the news of everything God has done for us? The “buckets” that we carry cannot collect the living water that Jesus promises. What is getting in our way? One of the scripture passages I take very seriously and it is actually part of what I call my “operating theology” is the great commission from Matthew 28. “ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This wasn’t a suggestion, friends.
When I ask “what holds us back” I am asking a two fold question: what holds you back as an individual and what is holding us back as a church. Now, if I’m going to name it, I’m going to claim it. What stops me from living into the future that God has prepared for me is fear. Straight up fear. And my biggest fear is failure, of course. The idea that I might fail, or even worse, disappoint someone especially if that is someone I love. Of course I don’t do it on purpose. But it has happened, it is going to happen, it will happen. Someday I will probably disappoint you. It’s just a fact. But, if I let the fear of disappointing you stop me from furthering God’s mission in this place, I would be a crappy pastor. Again, I don’t set out to do this on purpose. But, I’m sinful and flawed and I screw up sometimes. I’m human just like you. But fear can immobilize me sometimes. I “what if” myself sometimes until I’m blue in the face. I’m surprised that God has the patience for it.
What gets in your way of living into the life that God has for you and what gets in your way of sharing the good news of what God has done for you? Is it fear? Is it shame? Is it embarrassment? With what do you struggle that is difficult for you to leave behind? Have you spent too much of your time thinking about what you can’t do or what you’re not to even dare think about what you can do or what you are? You are beautifully and wonderfully made. If God is calling you into a future that God has prepared for you then why aren’t you going? And as a church, if God is calling us into a future that God has prepared for us then why aren’t we going? What is stopping us? Do I need to remind you that WNDITWB doesn’t work around here, right? Remember, “we’ve never done it that way before.” God doesn’t care. I don’t mean that to be crass. But it’s true. God doesn’t send us out into the world to the places that where we’re comfortable. The woman at the well was so excited to tell others about the fact that she had met the messiah that she literally left her bucket at the well and left.
The woman let nothing stop her. She has no name, no status, no job, no husband, no family (that we know of), and at the same time, she has nothing to lose. I think we spend too much of our time limiting God and putting God in a box that we’re missing the opportunities that God has for us. Too often, we talk about what we can’t do. We can’t do that, we’re too small. We can’t do that, no one is going to drive all the way out here. We can’t do that, we have an older congregation. We can’t do that, we don’t have the money. Guess what? Everytime that we throw another “we can’t” road block in front of God, God builds another road. What amazing things would happen here if we changed our “we can’ts” into “we can.” What happens when we leave our bucket full of “we can’t” behind and run to tell others about Christ through our words, actions and deeds?
Think how interesting things would be if when we are presented with mission opportunities we take those “we can’ts” and turn them into a positive. We can do this because we are a smaller church and it just makes sense. We can do this because we’ve got all of this space out here and people don’t have to worry about parking or the traffic. We can do that because we’ve got an older congregation full of experience and wisdom that is going to help us along the way. We can find the funds available–especially if we pair with another congregation. When we allow ourselves to be changed, when we allow ourselves to drink from a grace filled fountain God will do amazing things. Our course in life, our path in life, is not a permanent one. It is never too late to repent, turn around, and find the path that God is calling us to.
Alright, I have something to confess, brothers and sisters. I’m not proud. I almost feel like I have to hide my face from you when I share my confession with you. Okay, here goes. When I was a kid, one of the highlights of a Friday or Saturday night was sitting around the television with my brother and sister and watching “professional” wrestling. Back then it was the WWF. I’m not proud. We had our favorites: Hulk Hogan (of course), Rowdy Rowdy Piper, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Jake the Snake Roberts, The Undertaker, and Andre the Giant. Just thinking about these larger than life characters takes me back to my youth. And, of course, people held up signs in the crowd. The most popular sign is still seen today “John 3:16.” Now, let me also confess to you how naive I was.
I didn’t know much about the Bible at that age. I didn’t know that the sign was referring to today’s Gospel. I just thought it was a sign to some guy named John. And then I was confused. I thought “does John know to look for the sign?” And “does he have to be somewhere at 3:16? And is it AM or PM? And why did people choose this peculiar way of communicating with John? Couldn’t they have just gone to their local pay phone?” As I said, I was naive. I know better now, obviously.
I think that people want to quote John 3:16 so much because it is full of good news and promise. “‘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.” But it is so so so important to not stop there. Keep reading to verse 17 “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.” Eternal life free of condemnation–it sounds awesome. This good news should be enough for me to stop the sermon right here and call it good. But, you know I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily.
At first glance, these two verses can be comforting and the ideas behind them may even seem easy. I mean, it’s easy to get behind the idea that everyone who believes in God will have eternal life. And it’s especially easy to believe this because well, we believe, right? Most of us have a faith that’s been fostered since we came out of the womb. In talking with some of you, I hear a common theme of “I was baptized in this church, confirmed in this church, married in this church, and some day, my funeral will be at this church.” Your faith in God most likely brings you comfort. It’s easy to hear this verse, think of ourselves or our loved ones and sigh a contented sigh. Aaah yes. Jesus was given by God for me so that I may have eternal life. Ahhh.
Did I mention that it’s not that easy? It’s not that easy. Because here’s the thing: there is one tiny, itty-bitty little word on here that trips me up every.single.time. Everyone. “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.” Everyone who believes in him. Would you like to feel really uncomfortable? I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable here because that’s part of my call. Loving and following Jesus isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Loving and following Jesus sometimes means feeling like you’re wearing sandpaper underwear. Now that we all have that mental image, let’s get uncomfortable.
I want you to do something that will probably seem very odd to do in church. I want you to think of someone who you don’t care for. You could say it might even be an enemy. This is one of those people who just the thought of them puts a sour taste in your mouth. Do you have this person in mind? I want you to have their name ready in your mind. Is it there? Is this uncomfortable for you yet? It’s about to get really uncomfortable. Hear this verse again and add the name you’re thinking of, okay? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that (NAME) who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Well…I feel unsettled now, how about you? I think so many times when we picture our eternal life, we picture it surrounded by our loved ones, our friends, and our family. But I don’t picture eternal life also filled with my enemies, with my adversaries, even with those who wish me harm. But when this reading says
“everyone who believes” God really means “everyone.” I want to share a story with you.
Disclaimer: some of the details and names associated with this story have been changed to protect all of those involved. This past week, I found myself in a social situation. It was clear to all at this social gathering that I am a pastor as I had introduced myself that way. It as a nice event, one I was more than honored to be a part of. I was about to leave this social event when I heard a man’s voice call to me “hey are you leaving?” And I answered “oh yes I am. Sorry. I have a lot of things still to do with church.” And he said, “well, before you go I wanted to share some scripture with you.” I knew this was going to be interesting but I welcomed it. He sighed and seemed to hem and haw a bit, but then finally said “I just…I just…God laid it on my heart to share this with you.” Now let me pause right there.
I do believe that God speaks to us and through us. The Holy Spirit can stir and God will whisper or sometimes yell, depending on our ability to listen. However, I also believe that sometimes the phrase “God laid it on my heart” can be used as a cop-out. As if to say “what I’m about to say isn’t going to be nice but you can’t be mad at me because God asked me to tell you.” Anyway, he continues. “Do you know the book of Timothy very well?” And as soon as he said that, my friends, I knew where he was going. “The verses I want to share with you are 1 Timothy 2:11-12.” These verses state “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;she is to keep silent.” And this man then said to me “perhaps you should pray about that before you think about preaching again.”
I left the social gathering without punching anyone and as you can see, I’m still preaching. I was angry. And then I started immediately thinking about verse 16 from today’s reading. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Everyone includes this man who firmly believes I shouldn’t be a pastor. And the crazy thing is, that’s how God works. God’s love doesn’t care who we like or don’t like; who we get along with and who we don’t; who is our enemy and who is our friend; God’s kingdom doesn’t have velvet ropes. God’s kingdom doesn’t have limits. And that’s angering and refreshing at the same time.
There are people who I don’t want to in eternal life with me. There are people, who, if the decision was left to me, wouldn’t even have the option of eternal life. But it’s not up to me, is it? And it’s not up to you. For this, we should be thankful! I want to leave you with a quote from one of the oddest places today. I am going to end by quoting Pastor Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright came into the public spotlight when President Obama was first running for office. He was and still is quite controversial. But his quote says “I refuse to believe that my God loves only some of his world. My Bible does not say, ‘For God so loved some of the world–or most of the world …’ My Bible says all the world and whosoever – not those I like. Whosoever – not those who are like me. Whosoever. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into my cultural understandings because culture is fickle. And culture is often wrong. Culture was wrong about slavery. Culture was wrong about women. Culture was wrong about Africans and Indians, and culture was wrong about Christ. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into little cultural prisons, no matter how comfortable those prisons may feel.” God does not limit you. Don’t limit our God.
I’ve been thinking about relationships lately. This is for good reason, of course. I spent the first part of last week in Dubuque at the Rural Ministry Conference. It was really affirming. I heard something that I had heard many times in seminary, but it was good for me to hear again. Ministry is all about one thing: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without a congregation to serve (as I’m so blessed to do) I’m just someone with a very expensive Master’s degree and no real purpose. Without Chris, I can’t be a wife. Without Ellen, I can’t be a mom. Without my sister or brother, I’m not a sister. Without Christ, I am not claimed, saved, loved, and redeemed. It seems obvious, of course. But I also thought about those relationships that we take for granted. We figure this person or that person will always be there, and sadly, that won’t always be the case. I think we even introduce ourselves to people based on our relationships. When people first me and we get past the niceties of name, it’s usually a question of “what do you do?” My common answer is “I’m a pastor. I’m a mom. I’m married to Chris. I have a dog.” Do you hear that? Who I am is based all on relationships. My core identity as a baptized child of God is based on that relationship that started when God claimed me in the waters of baptism. Think about who you are. How many of your identities are based on relationships?
Today’s Gospel reading is about a relationship. I know it may not sound like it at first. But, listen again. “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” (verse 4) The devil says to Christ “if you are the Son of God” and what he is essentially saying is “if you are who you say you are” or “if you belong to whom you claim you belong” maybe even “if you really have a relationship with God” then…do this or that. And Satan questions that relationships twice in this reading. Both verses 3 and 6 include the phrase “if you are the Son of God.” In my mind I don’t hear this as Satan refusing to believe that this is true; but I hear him saying this as if he is mocking Jesus. It is interesting that the thing that Satan challenges Jesus on the most (his relationship to God) is what ultimately leads to the cross.
God has created us to be in relationship with one another. I think this is such an important point that I am going to repeat it again. God has created us to be in relationship with one another. There is this billboard that I see everyday when I take Ellen to daycare. It’s on highway 30 just as you’re coming into Clinton proper. I think it is for some sort of social service in Clinton county. It’s for a helpline and it says “parents, you’re not supposed to do this alone.” And everytime I see it I think to myself “are any of us really supposed to do “this” alone whatever “this” may be. Even Jesus, when he sent his disciples out from town to town instructed them to go in pairs. The animals assembled the ark in pairs. Even plants work better in pairs. Here’s a funny story related to that. I’ve heard the story of my parents, being new in their marriage, and they planted a garden in their backyard. They planted your standard “garden” vegetables: tomatoes, squash, onions, etc… and, wait for it, one row of corn. Just one. I don’t think I have to tell you why that didn’t work. (Just in case you don’t know, corn needs to cross pollinate so it needs more than just one row). We are created to be in relationships.
Now, that said, that doesn’t mean that our relationships are perfect. Think about the relationships in your lives. Are they perfect? At times, yes, we can say that they are pretty near perfect. At other times, the brokenness of our relationships becomes abundantly clear and they can be messy, at best. That is exactly what the devil is trying to do in today’s Gospel reading. He is trying to cause the relationship between Jesus and God to become broken, messy, and troubled by doing what the devil does best: offering temptations. Sin is not always as obvious as the devil makes it seem here. Maybe if sin were that obvious, we wouldn’t fall to it as often as we do. But sin often comes disguised as good intentions, doesn’t it?
Now, we know that here, the devil had anything but good intentions. He was trying to tempt Jesus. But, as we all know, Jesus was smarter than that and basically called the devil on his bluff. And the Devil tempts us, doesn’t he, brothers and sisters? There’s the temptation to be a better person. How many of you have seen a commercial on television or heard one on the radio for a weight loss program, hair restoration program, or plastic surgery? And sometimes we may think “yeah, I need to be skinnier, have more or better hair, or I need whiter teeth, smaller hips, bigger feet (or whatever)” and this is the devil’s nice way of tempting us. Can you imagine how those commercials would sound if they all started off like this: “God created you and you are perfect. But you don’t really believe that, now do you? Let’s fix you because apparently you are broken!” I don’t know that those products would be as popular as they are.
Then there is the temptation that surrounds our most valuable friendships and relationships. I see it already in how we raise Ellen. I do, sadly, compare her to the other kids at daycare. I wonder if she is crawling as quickly, saying as many sounds, or if she’ll start walking at the same time as the other kids. The devil has snuck in and whispered in my ear “you’re not a good enough parent.” The temptation is there to compare her. There are temptations in my marriage to compare it to the marriages of my friends. I hear what other husbands do and I either think “thank goodness my husband doesn’t do that” or I think “I wonder how I can get Chris to do what that other guy does.” And sadly, society has made it almost too easy to get out of a marriage when things get too tough. Do you know how much a “simple” divorce (whatever that is) initially costs in Iowa? $185. This makes me sad.
Our friendships come with temptations as well. I know some of you may not know a lot about Facebook but on the site, you have “friends” and these can be people you know in real life or maybe even some you’ve never met. If these people do or say something online or in real life that you disagree with there is a little button that says “unfriend” and just like that, you don’t have to deal with them anymore. So, instead of dealing with people one on one and face to face (as it actually says we should do in the Bible) we can just “unclick” them out of our lives. Temptations, my friends, are everywhere.
Being called and claimed by Jesus doesn’t mean that we will not give into temptation. But, that when we do give in, we can fully rely on God and God’s saving grace to welcome us back into that full and redeeming relationship with God. And here is the logical question that you may be thinking (or at least that I will pose). If I do mess up and give into temptation, whatever that looks like, what must I do to then restore my relationship with God. And as crazy as that sounds, that too is a temptation. When we screw up, we are often tempted to say “what can I do to make this right?” With God, there is NOTHING we can do to make our relationship right again. Only God can do that. Our relationship with God was made whole through Jesus Christ and his saving actions for all of us on the cross. And never once was he tempted to come down off the cross and not save all of us.
We are made to be in relationship. We are made to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with creation. When temptation (sin) gets in the way of those relationships, the only thing that can save us, the only thing that will save us, the only thing that has been saving us all along is Christ. The cross was for me and for you. Part of what we are called to do during this time of Lent is to repent. Repent literally means to turn around. Turn away from those things and people in life that may tempt you and turn instead towards the cross. God is the only thing that can give life and do so abundantly. God, through Jesus Christ, provides us everything we could ever need. Despite temptations, don’t go looking elsewhere for what you need. Everything you need in life comes in what sounds like a math problem: one man, 2 boards, 3 nails, 1 cross, 3 days, 1 empty tomb; eternal life.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Lord, I am tired. I am weary. You’ve heard me say that I wouldn’t mind the snow if it wasn’t so cold; or that I wouldn’t mind the cold if there wasn’t so much snow. But, here we are with what seems like so much winter still ahead of us. And what will the spring thaw bring? I am worried, Lord. Too many people I love make their living off the land. One of my favorite songs have the lyrics “the winter here’s cold, and bitter
it’s chilled us to the bone
we haven’t seen the sun for weeks
too long too far from home
I feel just like I’m sinking
and I claw for solid ground.”
Lord, I am tired. I am weary. Being a parent is the most joyous and tiring vocation I have. My Ellen is nine months old and I have no idea where the time went. She gives me great joy. But Lord, caring for her is exhausting.
Lord, I am tired. I am weary. You know the secrets I keep. You know the sins I cannot even speak out loud to myself, let alone confess them to you. You know what keeps me up at night and what makes me struggle to accept the grace I preach for myself.
Lord, I am tired. I am weary. End of story. I know I haven’t been caring myself as I should. I have not come to rest in you as often as I ought. I have not dwelled in your Word as much as I should. I don’t remind myself of my baptism daily. I don’t spend nearly enough time in prayer. My candle is burning at both ends–and three places in the middle as well.
Lord, I am tired. I am weary. I don’t know that I have what it takes to travel the 40 days with you to the cross, to your death, which I know was caused by my sin. You died so that I may have life. How is that possible? How could you find me worthy enough to die for? If I’m going to be honest, Lord, it feels like I’m already living in the season of Lent. I know I’m not alone in this, Lord.
I see it in the people around me. People are afflicted with the problems that go along with getting older. Too many of us know the word “cancer.” There are broken relationships all around us. There are some carrying sins the weight of which are immeasurable. There is the stress of families, children, relationships, and those whom we love and hold close. There is the stress of health. There is the stress of jobs or not having a job or not having a job that pays enough. And the numbers. Ugh, I don’t want to think about the numbers. Is corn high or low? Will beans be high or low? Will the price of land be fair? Will the yield be what people desire? We trust in you, Lord, but you can’t blame us for being a bit nervous?
Lord, we are tired. Lord, we are weary. What we need is rest. What we need is comfort. What we need, Lord, is you. We need a place to turn. We need a place that feels like home. We need a place that we can let our guards down. What we need, Lord, is you. Lord, you ask us to venture to the cross. Will we step forward boldly, or will we be like Peter, denying this will happen with every cock crow?
What do you ask of us, Lord? What do we need to approach the cross? What do we have to do to save you from this death? How can it possibly be that this death is inevitable and it’s actually my own sin that has caused this death? Lord, by this cross, you have created in me a clean heart. You have washed away my sin. I am still a mortal. I am dust and to dust I shall return. But in you, Lord, I have eternal life. Lord, you bring us the renewal we need. You are the only one who can bring rest to our weary souls. Why does our renewal and rest look like a cross? Why must it be that way?
Lord, you are the one that can give my weary soul rest. You alone can sustain me. You sustain me with your own bruised and beaten body. You sustain me with your blood that flows from gashes in your side and wounds in your hands. How is it that with every dying breath you give me life? I beg of you Lord to put a new and right spirit within me. Only you can sustain and renew me. Lord, help me to stop looking to those places and things that do not give life. The salvation you provide is my only joy.
I am dust and to dust I shall return, but I beg of you Lord, do not take your holy spirit from me. Lord I am tired. Lord, I am weary. You provide rest, shelter, food for the journey, a cross, and ultimately, and empty tomb. Renewal and rest, Lord. Yes, I rest in you. Renewal and rest, Lord. Yes, I am renewed as I feast on bread and wine. Renewal and rest, Lord. Yes, I have rest when you carry my burdens. Renewal and rest, Lord. Yes, I rest when you forgive me of my sins. I kneel at the foot of the cross, in awe, in shame, in thankfulness, in confusion, in gratitude, in amazement. I am dust. And yet, you saved me.
You may have figured out by now that I try to be as open and as honest with you as I possibly can be. I hope as we grow together in ministry we get to know one another better and better. I really feel part of who I am called to be is a person of honesty and integrity. You’ve heard me say once and I will say it again, I am a fellow sinner in need of healing and forgiveness. I want to share a brief bit of my call story; that is, how I think God has a sense of humor and I ended up answering a call to ministry.
It wasn’t an easy path. I started to really feel tugging about a year after Chris and I were married. But, I did my best to ignore it. I avoided thinking about it. I even avoided prayer a lot because I was afraid of what would happen if I let myself enter into conversation with God for even a brief moment. I kept busy and I filled my life with a lot of noise. I always had something going on that made noise (or at least it seemed that way). I even worked at a call center so I was paid to talk all day, you know, similar to what I do now. But, when I figured out God was going to be persistent, I wondered if I shouldn’t start listening.
Of course, I was going to be my normal hard headed self and only listen when I wanted to. I was only going to listen on my terms. I don’t think I have to tell you how well this went. People ask me a lot “when did you realize you were being called to be a pastor?” And my answer is always the same: “I realize God was calling me into a life of ministry when I shut up long enough to hear something other than my own voice.” I didn’t want to listen. But once I did, what an amazing adventure God had in store for me!
We’ve heard the voice of God come from clouds before, right? We hear the voice of God when Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. “A voice from heaven said ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” And here, we hear the voice of God again saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Same sentence, same words, just three little words that make a fairly large difference: listen to him.
See, the Jesus we are introduced to in this reading is not the Jesus that we or the disciples have seen or known up to this point. Sure, the disciples had heard that this man, this teacher, this prophet was the son of God. After all, God spoke from the heavens saying as much. But, it was easy to ignore all of that or at least conveniently forget it. And now we get the story of the transfiguration, which can be confusing to understand. It’s good if we back up just a bit there is a reason why God is telling us to listen to what Jesus is telling us. Our text today starts with the phrase “six days later” and it would be good for us to know what happened the six days before.
Jesus began to show and tell his disciples what kind of death he would “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21b). Peter, not wanting his friend to go through this kind of suffering, didn’t believe Jesus. And in response, Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, Satan.” We really have no idea what happened in those six days leading up to this. My guess, and I emphasize that this is just a guess, is that Jesus continued to teach, heal, feed people, clothe people, all while continuing to foretell his death. And now we come to a literal mountain top experience. It’s a glorious place, we can’t blame Peter for wanting to stay there. It’s peaceful, all of his friends are there (even Moses and Elijah). It’s understandable why Peter doesn’t want to leave the mountaintop.
Jesus, however, has been transformed. He is now in dazzling white clothing and his face is as bright as the sun. This is the first step towards the cross. Thanks to his appearance alone, we know he is no longer just a prophet. And once again we hear the confirmation of this from the voice of God in the declaration of “This is my Son, the Beloved;with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And while it would be logical to listen to Christ, in reality it is very difficult. God has told the disciples (and us) to listen to Christ because what he is saying about his death will ultimately turn out to be true. But the truth is this: when we listen to Christ, we never know what is going to happen and that is scary.
While it’s a mundane example, when I listened to Christ, I ended up in seminary and eventually became a pastor. I am going to ruin the ending for you here, friends. We don’t like listening to Christ and when it comes down to it, we often don’t do a great job of it. We let our own stubbornness and own sin get in the way. Now I’m sure you’re wondering how Christ speaks to us. I mean, if we’re supposed to listen (as God tells us to) then what in the world are we listening for? Are we listening for a voice (and will it be loud or soft, male or female, will I even recognize it?)? Are we waiting for a “sign” (and what in the world will that look like)? Or will it be something else that we need to be on the lookout for (maybe a text from Jesus, perhaps)? And here’s what I know, I don’t know what it’s going to be like for you. For me, Christ has spoken to me when I’m in a quiet, still place and Christ has spoken to me through those closest to me. And no, I didn’t always listen; and yes, there are still times that I don’t listen.
Listening is dangerous. Listening means we are no longer in control and that we may end up going places we’re not prepared to go. The disciples didn’t want to listen to Christ because they weren’t prepared to go to the cross with Christ. If we’re going to be honest here, brothers and sisters, I believe we often don’t listen to Christ because we’re not prepared to go to the cross either. The cross is where we should find ourselves more often than we do. Instead, the cross is where we find ourselves in a time of desperation; naked, pleading, and often the most vulnerable we can be. The cross is where we come face to face with all that makes us ugly: all our demons, all our sins, all our shortcomings, all our failures, all of our brokenness, and all of that is taken on by one man. Listening, brothers and sisters, ultimately leads to death. And here’s the strange thing, not listening, also leads to death. It’s up to you to choose which kind of death you want.
Allow me to explain. We are all busy. Society has somehow morphed into an attitude of “busier is better.” We wear our badges of multi-tasking with honor. We are sleeping less, working more, and spending less time attending to the things which are life giving. We may not be taking as many days off or vacations like we used to. We have talked ourselves into trying to be everything to everyone and in the end, we will end up being nothing. When we go-go-go at a breakneck speed, the time we have to stop and listen to Christ is barely existent. What comes of this is death. Death of friendships, death of relationships and bonding with your children (if you have any), death of your marriage or partnerships, and ultimately, your own death (literal or metaphorical). Christ is life giving. When we cannot and do not allow ourselves the time to stop and engage in self care to listen to him, we die.
However, if you listen to Christ, you will also have a death. But, this death will be a good death. If you are bold enough, brave enough, and still enough to listen to Christ, you may hear that there are things in your life that must die so that you may live a fuller life in Christ. You may hear the words “slow down” or “breathe” which means you must let die the idea that you have to be busy 24/7. You may hear the message “reach out” which means you must let die the idea that you can do all things alone and you need friends that support and surround you and so you have to nurture those relationships. You may hear Christ whisper “be loved” which means you must let die the idea that the relationships with your child or children and spouse is perfectly fine; when in reality, this too is a relationship that needs nurturing and a relationship given to you by Christ. You may hear Christ beg of you “be still” which means you need to let die the idea that you can move at 100 miles an hour and it have no consequences. But when you let these ideas die, friends, you will actually live a fuller life.
I know this isn’t easy. I’m horrible at all of these things. Hi Pot? I’m Kettle. I don’t take enough time to listen to the voice of God and I’m paying for it. I have seen my friendships start to suffer, I barely have time to even text my best friend. I have seen my relationship with Ellen suffer as I am always busy multitasking when I’m with her; checking email, reading something to prepare me for my next sermon, or just not paying attention to her because I’m too busy thinking about what I need to do during her next nap or after she goes down for the night. I have seen my marriage suffer in the fact that because I think I need to be busy all week long, I end up writing my sermons during the time that Chris and I could be doing things together. And it needs to stop. All of it. It just needs to stop right here, right now, for you and for me. As I said, listening to Christ ultimately leads to death: Christ’s death on the cross which gives life to you and to me. But not listening to Christ leads to our death: the death of relationships, friendships, and ultimately, our own death. The kind of death you have is up to you. Listening to Christ isn’t always easy but compared to the alternative, it seems like a cinch.