Ambulans in Itinere

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The faith of a prostitute

Joshua 2:1-14

Sometimes it's hard to have faith. When something goes wrong in our life, our instinct isn't to go to God and ask for his help; instead, we try to "triage" and "damage control," doing our best to make sure the worst doesn't happen.

It seems like it would be easy for us to have faith: after all, if we are believers, we have seen God's direct intervention in our lives. But that's not how it works. Those of us who should have the most faith try to manage things "for God," instead of allowing God to take over for us. It sometimes seems that the people who know the least about God are willing, at first, to follow Him most faithfully.

And that's the story of today's first lesson. Today, we return to the Israelites, whom we left arguing in the wilderness. By way of summary, we'll recall that Moses has led the Israelites through the wilderness of the Siani Penninsula for forty years. Finally, after all of the generation of those who refused to go into the Promised Land at first had died, and only Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb were left, God tells Moses that he may go and see the Promised Land.

Of course, even Moses doesn't get to cross over, and it is up to Joshua to lead the people into their inheritance. God gives him very specific instructions about how to conduct the military campaign that leads God's Chosen People into their land. Basically, get the priests, grab the Ark, and go: follow Me, and you will win.

And they do. Finally, they've made it all the way up from the Sinai to the Trans-Jordan (where today's Kingdom of Jordan is located), and they are encamped facing the largest and strongest city of the Canaanite peoples: Jericho.

God again lays out special instructions for Joshua and the folks. They are to take the Ark, march around it with all the people once each day, with the priests blowing the ceremonial shofar horns (made of rams' horns) as they go, for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they are to do this seven times; on the last time, at the end, all the Israelites are to give a great shout, with the priests blowing their horns, and the Lord will give Jericho over to his people.

Very specific, and very God-centered. God wants his people to remember that it was not they, themselves, who conquered their new land, but God out of his love for them. Even with these specific instructions, though, there's a temptation to do a little planning. Try to prepare for God's failure -- as if that were possible.

And so Joshua, himself a faithful man in what was once an unfaithful generation, himself gives in to a temptation to plan -- to attempt control. This, in and of itself, is a lesson of how no one is invulnerable to the challenges of sin: like Moses being prevented from going into the land, Joshua falls before the Lord. Like we all do.

What is the fruit of this plan? The story in today's text. Joshua, in giving in to temptation, can't help but go and scout the city in case the Lord's plans fall through. He sends in spies to determine how strong the city is. He says, "Go, view the land, especially Jericho." Off they go.

Did you guess they'd end up where they did? The Bible says, "So they [the spies] went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there." Do not pass "Go," do not collect $200; go straight to the nearest prostitute.


Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the author of Joshua to leave in that little tidbit about where the spies went to? Why are we meant to see that these men -- presumably loyal, faithful men whom Joshua could trust with something as important as his scouting mission of Jericho -- go straight to the house of a prostitute? And, in case we try to find an excuse for the spies, the Bible says "[they] spent the night there." At Rahab's.

This doesn't just shock our understandings of proper behavior as twenty-first century Christians, either: remember that only one book ago, these people literally heard the Voice of God give the ten commandments and saw the Tablets written by the very finger of God delivered from Mount Sinai at the hands of Moses. And they can't keep their lust satiated long enough to do a job for a man that they trusted and respected.

The spies could have had hidden in a barn, in the house of any person they saw fit. Some say that they chose Rahab for the very reason that she was an outcast. But would she have been? In a culture that worshipped Baal and Asherah, would a prostitute been someone scorned from society? Indeed, might she have even been a priestess of the pagan religion? Regardless, the spies are not being obedient in hiding out at Rahab's.

But, as he does for us so many times, God takes the spies' sin and disobedience, and turns it into glory for himself.

Somebody found out that the Israelites were over at Rahab's, and the authorities come looking for the Hebrews. Rahab had two choices: she could give them over to her own countrymen and co-religionists and give them warning of the imminent Hebrew invasion, or she could hide them and help them in their mission, which she could only see as one from God.

You can imagine the Israelite spies cowering on the roof, overhearing the angry soldiers and court officials demanding that Rahab turn them over. You can sense the moment of decision for Rahab that must have seemed to last for eternity. But in that instant, the prostitute, the scarlet woman, made a choice. She could have chosen to continue to live for herself, making money and influencing the high-ranking officials who could have afforded her services.

She could have. But she didn't. Rahab says, "‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’" She hides the Israelites. Having only known them in the heat of one night's passion, she makes a decision that forever alters the course of her life.

The soldiers left, and Rahab brought the spies back out. They were dumb-founded. They knew, for certain, that they were bound to be executed. Surely, their faith was wavering as they sat in the afternoon sunshine on the roof of Rahab's home. As the prostitute, the unexpected savior, retrieves her wayward patrons, the explains what she has done.

"‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below."

What a confession. What an admission. What an incredible willingness to take a leap of faith. Rejecting her homeland, her people, and the false gods to which she offered sacrifice her entire life -- and perhaps to the false gods which she had acted for as a temple prostitute -- Rahab makes a decision for the God of the Israelites. "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below."

You can see the Israelites with their chins down, shuffling their feet as they realize that this woman, who in her life had known nothing but sin and the heartache of life as a discarded commodity, had more faith in God than they. The same men who had witnessed countless and daily miracles throughout their entire lives, from the very same God, were shone faithless by a pagan woman of the night.

Rahab's simple plea is almost heart-breaking: "Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’" Please, she says, save my family and I. Just let us join you and live for the Lord. Let me escape this horrible life. Please.

Their hearts convicted, and challenged, by the overwhelming faith of this amazing woman, "[t]he men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’" No more do they doubt that God is with them: for when the pagan prostitute gives way the Lord, who can doubt that the Lord is God, and that Jericho is prepared for the people of God as a bride for her groom.

For us, too, the most challenging examples of faith come from places where we least expect it. When people who struggle to eat every day come up with the provision to help others whom they consider "less fortunate," our hearts are challenged, and our faith is renewed. What, but an Almighty and Everlasting God, could cause selfish, fallen people to love one another to the point of challenging even death itself?

The faith of spies and prostitutes seems an unlikely source of encouragement in a world, like today's, where wars, rumors of wars, and daily fears of economic and security collapse are imminent, but the same God who promised to deliver Jericho into the hands of God's people promises today that we can have the liberty of his eternal Promised Land. Let us pray that we can be like Rahab and declare, "[t]he Lord ... is indeed God in heaven above and earth below."

O Lord God, King of the Universe, we confess that we are distracted from our work for you, as the spies of Israel were, by the pleasures and lies of this world. We confess that often our faith pales next to that of the simple babes-in-Christ. We adore your mighty power, that delivered the Promised Land into the hands of the Israelites, and we proclaim the greatness of your power that raised Jesus from the dead. Help us, Lord, to remember that you are a God of mighty power who can and does save his people -- even today. Save us, Lord, from the unbelief of planning and of seeking to control our lives. Let us be wholly devoted to you and your purposes, giving you thanks for all the blessings you have bestowed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forver and ever, Amen."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Believe, strive, proclaim

Romans 9:19-33

One of the reasons that I like using a lectionary in studying the Bible is because it makes you look at Scripture that you might otherwise gloss over or try to avoid -- either because it's a hard text, or because it doesn't seem interesting.

Today's text, for me, is an example of one of those texts that makes you scratch you head and ask the Holy Spirit, (in the East Tennessee vernacular) "Do-what?"

A lot of people today doubt that hell exists. Friends and co-workers of mine balk at the idea that an "all-loving God" would "punish" people for their sins or wrong-belief.

"If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, he wouldn't send people to hell," they say, confidentialy folding their arms whilst closing their eyes and raising their chins. For them, the point is clear-cut.

The Bible though, especially here in today's text, seems to have something else in mind.

In Paul's day, too, people challenged the idea that God could be both Creator and Punisher. After all, if God created all of the people -- and supposedly loved them so much that he came to die for them -- wouldn't this God refrain from sending them to hell? Wouldn't have been easier, and more humane (a word, by the way, which always makes me laugh when applied to God -- humane? -- I don't want God to treat me humanely, I want God to love me divinely), to simply have not created those people?

In his letter, Paul picks up the simple response: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?"

Yikes. We've heard this response before, and it grates on all sorts of fun nerves that we, as fallen, sinful people, have exposed for all the world to see. It reminds us that we're not in control, it reminds us that, despite trying as hard as we can, we still don't know everything. It reminds us that we're subordinate to God -- and you know how much we hate remembering that sometimes (remember the Serpent's advice in the Garden? "You will not surely die -- you will be like the Most High").

This is the same sort of argument that God smacked Job down with in what many people consider the oldest book of the Bible (though, of course, the oral tradition found in the Torah is obviously much, much older).

Job, one of my favorite Biblical characters, was a righteous man who believed in God. He did his best to serve the Lord and love Him. Nonetheless, God allowed Satan to test job, in order that God would be glorified and Job's faith would increase. During the testing Job got, well, a little "testy."

When Job starts to whine to God, when earlier he had been faithful, God lays the "smackdown."

"Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements -- surely, you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? One what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?'"

When the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the Holy One whose "chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form," tells you to "gird up your loins," you'd better get ready -- it ain't gonna be pretty. God asks Job questions for two whole chapters. And then, He asks, "Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? ... Will you even put Me in the wrong? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?"

Job gets the picture. The Romans, it seems, didn't. And so Paul goes to work to set them -- and us -- straight.

Taking his cue from the Lord, Paul writes, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory -- including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"

Paul answers the argument that many make against a God whose authority actually means something, whose laws are actually enforced. Paul argues to the Romans, and to us, that God's patience is a demonstration of his great love for us. For surely, if He wanted to, God could force us to love him and save those that he picked and chose. Instead, to make known his glory, he created the nay-sayers and gave them a free choice to love him, as he has given to those who he knew would cling to him. God is a God of equal opportunity creation: everyone gets a chance to give God an "up or down vote."

After quoting examples of how God has used his power to entice and draw people to himself throughout his creation, Paul points out -- the way that the Lord did to Job -- that it is God's prorogative to set the conditions for salvation: "What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works."

According to human understanding, this wouldn't seem "fair." But God designed and created us, and he knows how we work. He knows -- and really, we can too, if we're honest with ourselves -- that human beings are unable, as Paul says, to "succeed in fulfilling [the] law," if we're simply doing it "based on works."

Instead, we must "strive for it on the basis of faith." Neither Jesus nor Paul ever said that we should just "eat, drink, and be merry," abandoning all pretenses of obedient living. Instead, Paul calls us to follow the example of the chief cornerstone: "They (the people who tried to fulfill the law on their own) have stumbled over the stumbling-stone, as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’"

Christ is our chief cornerstone -- but for those who try to live a "good life" on their own, Christ becomes the chief "stumbling-stone." For in our efforts to be obedient, we fail; Christ's obedience, then, belies any excuse that we might bring before God.

And so, it becomes our duty to "believe[] in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith."

Matthew 24:1-14

Speaking of stones and cornerstones, isn't it funny to imagine the disciples running up to Jesus as they're walking out of the Temple and say, "Oooo, Jesus, look at these buildings. Aren't they pretty?"

In my mind's eye, I see Jesus smiling, sadly, and saying what he did: "You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

That probably wasn't the response that these particular disciples were looking for. Indeed, Jesus truly was a stumbling-stone for many people. He can't even admire the Temple's magnificent architecture! Instead, he has to go off and predict gloom and doom. It makes you wonder who the disciples were trying to put on a show for -- what did they want Jesus to say? Their attempt at subtle self-glorification -- after all, who's tithes and offerings made the glorious Temple, as enlarged by Herod, possible -- leads us to expect the second scene in today's Gospel lesson.

The disciples come back to Jesus, expecting like God did to Job, to rebuke the Lord over his negativity. "Tell us, when will this be?" They had been thinking about his words all day. They had missed an entire day's worth of Christ's teaching in order to worry about when the Temple would be dragged down.

Now I don't want to be too hard on the disciples. These were good men, who tried their best to be faithful, and who had been good Jews throughout their lives (generally, with several notable exceptions, like the author of today's lesson, Matthew the Tax Collector). They loved Yahweh, and they loved to worship Him in His Temple at Jerusalem. Hearing the Messiah prophesy the Temple's destruction would make you worry. But it is also a subtle reminder that the disciples -- and us -- tend to forget that God's kingdom is not stone and mortar on this earth.

If he wanted, God could speak and bring forth thousands of Temples much more costly and beautiful that Herod's. Arguing with Jesus about whether and when the Temple would come down is just like arguing with God over why he created people and then allows some to reject him. It's missing the point. The point about the Temple was the worship of God. And, if the disciples had consulted their Tanahk that they had lying around, they would have remembered that God does not need a Temple to be worshipped: indeed, Adam, Seth, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Zerrubbabel, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and many, many other faithful people served and worshipped God without the benefit of the Temple and its sacrificial system.

The problem, as Christ was subtly trying to show his disciples, is that we, humans, get so enthralled in the motions and traditions of worship, that we often fail to actually worship God. It is as Christ said already, "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him."

Jesus continues his admonitions, warning the disciples not to worry about the "how" of worship, but the "who." He tells them: "Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

Focusing on God is what matters, not "[being] ... alarmed" when we see people "saying, 'I am the Messiah!'" and hearing "rumours of wars." Our job as Christians, is to humbly abide in Jesus, "believ[ing] in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith."

Jesus doesn't promise us that believing and striving for Him are going to be rewarded on this Earth. He doesn't say that things will be easy. Even while he was on Earth, he warns his disciples: "[T]hey will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will stumble, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold."

It's a bleak picture that Christ paints. Even darker than imagining the Temple of God pulled down to the last stone. Of course, Christ doesn't leave us hanging. He doesn't send his disciples, or us, back down the Mount of Olives without hope. After all, he is in the business of changing lives through transforming love: "But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come."

The end will not come until "all the nations" have had a chance to hear and respond to what Jesus has done for each one of us. That's certainly "good news." But it's more than that. It's a marching order.

While we're "believ[ing] in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith," it's our job, as Christ also commands in the Great Commission, to "proclaim[]" "this good news of the kingdom" "throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations." If we truly mean what we say in the Lord's Pray, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we will take Christ's words to heart.

So let's get moving. "Believe in him," "strive for obedience on the basis of faith," and "proclaim[]" "this good news of the kingdom" "throughout the world."

Father in Heaven, we confess that we are quick to doubt, to question, and to place our opionions and understandings in the place of Yours. We give you glory, for only you could have laid the foundations of the earth; only you can wrap yourself in glory like a garment. Only you, O God, are all-knowing and all-loving. Help us, Lord, to believe in Jesus and to strive for obedience, not on the basis of our own strength, but on the basis of faith in the One whom you sent. Thank you for loving us, and thank you for promising to give each one of us a chance to respond to your redeeming, transforming love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Conviction and clean dishes

Romans 8:31-39

There's a funny thing about calling Jesus a Holy Defense Lawyer. It makes the Prosecutor Satan. Which, considering my career plans right now, is rather ironic.

Today's text further ingrains in each us as believers the idea that "God is for us, who is against us? ... Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?"

I went to a courthouse, today, for the meeting of a Grand Jury. In case you're not familiar with the role that this legal body plays, the Grand Jury is composed of around eighteen people who are called in to hear evidence about a crime.

Unlike the trials you're used to seeing on television, the defendant is not present, and neither is a judge. There is only the prosecutor and the jurors. The prosecutor is bringing evidence to the jurors that something bad has happened, and that we think this person did it.

In the language of today's text, the prosecutor "bring[s] ... charge[s]" against persons who have committed wrong, that justice might done in our society.

If, after hearing the evidence that the prosecutor puts on, twelve of the eighteen jurors believe that the charges are probably true, then the State is empowered to arrest the person against whom charges have been filed; that person must then be tried in the jury trials we're all used to.

Before Jesus came, we were in the situation that a defendant faces in a Grand Jury hearing. The only people there were the jurors (God) and the prosecutor (the Accuser, himself). And, unlike earthly prosecutors, Satan has all the evidence in the world to prove that each of us -- every single one of us -- has done exactly what he accuses us of doing. We have not kept God's law, and we are (as they say) "guilty as sin."

After Jesus came, though, things were different. "It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." It's no longer just the prosecutor and the decision-maker. Now, if we are believers, we have someone going to bat for us. Of course, Jesus doesn't have to dispute evidence or argue persuasively that we should be excused for our law-breaking.

Instead, as I've said before, he walks up to the judge/jury and says, "Dad, I've taken care of this."

Nothing will separate us from the love of God: "Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" Nope. Nada. Non. Ain't gonna happen.

"As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’" As Christians, we are in the world, but we are definitely not of it -- and the world is not a big fan of that. But, because of Christ and his love for us, we have hope.

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." But what are we conquerors of? If we are more than conquerors, what does that mean?

The pre-eminent conquerors in Paul's day, obviously, were the Romans. Technologically advanced, politically dominant, and economically secure. In this, his letter to the believers in Rome, mentioning a conqueror immediately brings to mind the legions: their strength, their undominitable heritage, and their invincible might.

Paul looks at the might of Rome, at its peak, and says, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

No accusations by the Evil One, no armies of men, no demons, circumstances, failed-nurturing; no orientations, persuasions, or addictions: nothing can withstand the power of the Almighty Love which stands astride eternity proclaiming, "This is my beloved."

Matthew 23:13-26

Sometimes, though, even our faith in Jesus and our knowledge that he holds us in the palm of his hand is not enough to keep us from trying to take care of things ourselves.

And even in following God, we can sometimes pervert and spin God's amazing love and grace into something that would make even the Prosecutor-of-the-Saints smile. When we read God's word, or we gather with God's people for worship, there exists some of the greatest tempation to sin. When we are confronted with God's holy law, we want to run away from it -- for even in our redeemed state, we shirk away from the Light to hide in the darkness.

We try to play hide-and-seek with our Dad walking in the cool of the evening while scrambling to put some leaves together for clothes. And while we're lurking in the dark corners of our self-righteousness, we cover our mouths with a hand, say "Bless his heart," and point. In our minds, we lock people out of God's kingdom, and try to keep them from getting in to find the Truth.

And it makes Jesus mad.

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"

"Woe to you, blind guides! You blind fools!"

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind guides! You strain our a gnat but swallow a camel!"

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind Pharisee!"

I'll be honest. I'm kind of hunkered down. I'm looking around with shifty eyes. It's a good thing that Paul has just affirmed that God is for us; that none can stand against his Love. Because Jesus just laid it down like it is.

When I read today's Gospel lesson, I feel convicted. I think of every time I didn't involve someone I knew needed hope and love and friendship with the love and hope found in Christ. I think of the times I told people what to wear before coming to church. I think of my own virulent reaction to some of the people whose sins I know, and who have "the audacity" to show up in church.

"Woe to you ... hypocrite!"

I feel the conviction of the Spirit in thinking about my denomination and my churches for our treatment of some people whose sin we have elevated to some sort of super-sin that apparently requires recourse to the old Covenant Law. I think of how we tolerate all kinds of evil in the name of grace and love while keeping our churches firmly (and comfortably) full of people who think, dress, and worship just like us.

"For you cross sea and land to make a single convert" -- but you don't talk to the person across the street. Next door. In your own family.

" tithe mint, dill, and cummin," making sure to avoid this drink, and that type of dress or music while making sure not to do that, "and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." Walking by the homeless man. Ignoring him on the way to church. Caring nothing about starving people dying in our own cities and around the world while we sit fat and happy eating our Double-Quarter-Pounders with cheese (and ketchup only, please -- with a Coke, too).

We're too busy "straining the gnat" out to take care of the "camel" we should be avoiding. We're so careful to clean the outside of the cup, that the inside swims with filthy self-indulgence and greed.

Hypocrites. Pharisees, right? Not just the Pharisees. Us. Each of us. Convicted. Guilty.

But wait a second. I seem to recall that the Holy Spirit, through Paul, just had something to say about conviction. Is there only woe? Are we called to a spirit of fear and loathing? Must we wallow in the dark recesses of our self-indulgent sin?

"Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?" There is no codemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

What, then, should we do when conviction, especially conviction we deserve, presses down?

"First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean."

Repent. Claim the promise of the power of God's love. Remember that it is Jesus who intercedes for us, and that our holiness must be linked to his. We have nothing on our own; as we saw in yesterday's text, we must not put on our fine clothes and strut about praying for two hours on the JumboTron at the front of the Six Flags Over Jesus.

We must get our knees, in humility, and ask our Intercessor to head into the Courtroom. We must come to the end of our excuses and have the awe-inspiring understanding that we bear the image of the Almighty, and that we must depend totally on His love.

We cannot clean the inside of the cups of our lives. We try all the time, and we just end up fishing out the gnat while we swallow the camel. But nothing can stop Jesus, not even death itself.

Surely, then, He can take care of a little dish-washing.

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we confess that we, in ourselves, are hypocrites. We proclaim with our lips and our works that we love and serve you while we struggle in our hearts for our next opportunity to sin. Lord, we confess that without you, our lives are spent spit-shining the outside of the cup, while the empty filthiness remains thickly lodged in our hearts. We repent, Father. We adore your mighty Love, that set us free from sin and death. Save us, Lord, from our own hypocrisy. Create in us, O God, a new spirit and heart each day. We thank you, Father, for your word and its powerful assurances coupled with challenging conviction. Help us to hear your voice, Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and our Almighty Father, One God, now and forever, Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2006

When praying becomes a spectator sport

Romans 8:26-30

I've always thought it was strange that some people are afraid to pray out loud. I mean, I suppose that I've never really struggled with saying anything out loud, since I'm rather verbose (some would say even more than that). My confusion, though, is not just based upon my own personal proclivity to talk. For me, there's always been a bit of a conceptual block as well.

If one does not have a problem talking with one's best friend, brother, sister, mother, or father, why would one have a problem talking to God?

The issue, of course, is much fuzzier than that, and my tendency to lump everything into one, broad view exacerbates my difficulty in understanding. Today's Scripture from Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome, though, adds significant understanding that even I cannot miss.

Paul has been writing to the Roman believers, oppressed and hidden away throughout the capital city of the Empire, about Deep Things: indeed, the depth of the theology upon which Paul has touched can be evidenced by my failure to grapple with any other texts from our Lectionary during the course of the past few posts. There has simply been too much to address from Romans to take on anything else.

Today, though, Paul turns from these theological depths of orthodoxy (right belief), and turns to practical concerns of orthopraxis (right practice).

Of course, Paul does not completely abandon his theological discourse. Certainly turning his narrative from the "spirit of adoption" wherewith believers are able to call out to God as "Abba," Daddy, to the practical implications of such theology makes sense. And Paul, in typical pithiness, hits the nail on the proverbial head.

Here, Paul is making a huge statement that should embolden believers. Many of us struggle with the words to pray, and Paul is determined to remind us that it is not our words but our heart which the Spirit of God listens to. This truth is so profound for Paul that he describes it, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." In our pain, suffering, and frustration with life, with one another, with sin, and (even) with God, sometimes all that we can do is sigh, deep down in our spirit.

Paul assures us that "God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

This is good news for those who know Christ, in that our hearts are the substance of our relationship. It is a daily conversation with Him that counts, not some formula of prayer. Certainly, corporate prayer is important, and Christ affirms it in his use of the Jewish forms and in his recitation of the Psalms. At the same time, Paul is calling us to supplement our liturgy with conversation.

God loves our Te Deum's, but he also cherishes our "Help me do good on this test, Lord." Jesus hears our Agnus Dei, and he mercifully answers our, "I'm sorry, Master."

This, then, is the broader implication of Paul's invocation of the Spirit of adoption. This is the context of the famous declaration, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

It is not so much that God is going to make everything around the believer good. Look at Paul's life for one; look at modern day believers for another. God never promised things would go easy for his children. But, looking closely, he does promise that those "called according to his purposes" will understand that everything works together for Good in the end. Not necessarily today, not necessarily tomorrow.

This test of faith is hard, but it is one that we can accept and understand. Carrying on the adoption analogy, Paul reminds us that this understanding -- and this willingness to talk to God in prayer -- will only continue to grow as we are "conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family." God is our Father, Christ is our Brother, and yet Master, too.

Those who have called upon the name of the Lord have had their names in the Lamb's book of life since the foundation of the world. They are the ones for whom God has prepared a place. Paul writes, "And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." It is not that God has picked and chosen; instead, it is that God has graciously "read ahead" to the end and went back in the beginning to make everything fit just right.

God wants us to share with him in prayer, and he wants us to claim our new family lineage as his sons and daughters. In claiming our new status, though, God has not called us to pride. Because we, too, have been justified, we, too, remain in need of justification. It is not by my own goodness that I am justified, but by God's calling and salvation.

Matthew 23:1-12

God's salvation will draw us closer to him, and it will challenge us to remain humble. Because even in matters of faith, where we have done nothing, we will try to rise up and place ourselves on the pedastal that God deserves.

Jesus' relationship with the Pharisees always seems contentious in the Gospels, and today's Gospel lesson further adds to today's theme of true worship and humility.

It is especially humbling to be in the role of the "teacher" when reading this text. To be honest, I am glad that I am not a preacher right now, because it will be very challenging to actually preach a sermon on Jesus' words. "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach."

Practicing what one preaches (or teaches, as the translation may be) is hard. Period. But doing so in the face of the Prince of Peace, He who knew no sin and became sin for us, is impossible. Jesus points out that the Pharisees, the people teaching the Way of God as revealed at that time, were doing a good thing in teaching the people to follow the True God, the God of Israel. But Christ's implicit rebuke of the Pharisees' and scribes' actions is stinging. "Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do ...."

Before we get too haughty about the Pharisees and scribes and their failure to practice what they teach, we must remember that Jesus' rebuke is not just for them: we, too, have "tie[d] up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and la[id] them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." First we fail to meet our own faith commitments. Then, we point the finger (the only lifting the finger gets, according to Jesus) at our neighbors when they fail to follow where we have gone.

Remember my inability to understand why some people struggle with praying out loud? It is pretty pharisaical of me to point out what some can not do. For in boasting of my own willingness to do so, I am belying my commitment to true prayer and loyalty to Jesus' teaching. "They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their [prayers long] and their [clothes nice]. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them [Teacher]."

Since it is, as Paul says, the Holy Spirit praying for me, from the depths of my soul, why should I boast of my prayer-life? Jesus says that the Pharisees keep their prayers long and their clothes nice. They would have been the folks on Christian TV today with the $1,000 suits and the 20-minute prayers. But folks doing things "for God" (read "for my own advancement") are easy to find closer to home. The person who has a quiet time or reads his Bible so that he can tell his accountability partners about it later, instead of doing it to spend time with God. The person who sings a solo to the congregation instead of the "Audience of One." The church who builds a giant cross or statue instead of using it to tell others about Christ.

We are to be servants. Humble. Praying in conversation with God. "The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." And it isn't us who is supposed to do the exalting. It's God.

So let's keep our prayers sincere and our clothes modest. Let's keep our hearts fixed on God and remember that we have been called to a spirit of adoption. And in this family, there's only one Favorite Child.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too many times, our prayer life has suffered while we boast about our religiosity. We admit that we forsake time with you for the distractions of this world. And we repent of putting on religious show instead of truly worshipping you with the unction of the Spirit. We glorify your mighty power, that hears our groanings and lamentations and whispers, "I am." Save us, Lord, from being modern Pharisees. Help us, Holy Spirit, to hear your voice and obey your call to humility. Thank you, God, for hearing our prayers and for saving us from our own selfishness and pride; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Hope on a bathroom stall

Thanks to the Independence Day holiday, I have been away from the internet, and unable to post. I am glad to be back, and I am very excited about today's Scripture.

Romans 8:1-17

This weekend I traveled to my hometown for a restful time celebrating our nation's independence. It was a good time with my loved ones and friends who I have not seen much lately. On the way back down to Alabama, where I'm currently living, I stopped over in Springville to get some gas and stretch my legs.

While I was getting gas, I decided to take advantage of being stopped for the moment (I am notorious for wanting to go "straight through" with the smallest amount of stops possible): I went to use the restroom.

Now for you ladies out there, you may have never seen this in your experiences -- having never been inside a women's restroom in a gas station, I am unsure what they look like. But, at least as far as the men's restrooms, I am somewhat of a lay expert. Usually, someone has taken it upon themselves, particularly in metropolitan areas, to scribble something on the wall or the bathroom stall. Those scribbles tend to be on the vulgar side.

Not in Springville, though. Yes, there were the usual vulgar expressions, but there was also a striking example of someone striking back for the Kingdom (though I'm sure the staff at the Shell station would have preferred feeding the poor to scrawling on their wall). Someone had written, next to some vulgar sexual remark, Romans 8:6.

"To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."

After returning outside, I was intrigued. I know that I have read Romans thousands of times. And I know that I have read that verse before. But it struck me like a thunderbolt. How true that short, proverbial sounding verse is.

How many times have we abandoned the great promises of God and ignored the time-stopping, death-killing proclamation from Heaven's throne, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!"

God is jumping up and down and saying, "Look! I took care of it! You can come home now! I paid the price!" No more are we exiled from Eden, but we're prodigals with engraved invitations.

"For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

The new law -- the fulfilled law of God -- is that, in the language of C.S. Lewis, the Deep Magic which requires a traitor's blood has been appeased: God's just law, that sinners deserve death, has been met. The punishment was meted out. The fine was paid. The jail time was served.

And now, we get the opportunity to accept God's gift and become a part of Christ Jesus so that, in Him, there is "therefore now no condemnation."

So for those of us who have claimed God's free gift of salvation, "Christ is in you, [and] though the body is dead because of sin," even though our flesh is still subject to temptation and failure, "the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you." We don't have to suffer the temptation. If Christ dwells in us, we are no longer bound to the chains of death and temptation.

How many times has Satan whispered into your ear that you're never going to stop sinning? How many times has the Deceiver tried to get you to think God is frustrated with your failure to conform to Christ's example? Every time we fall, we get frustrated with ourselves and with our annoying and infernal tendency to get back up, thank God for our salvation, and go and sin again.

But the Word of Truth belies the Evil One's counsel: "he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you." Because the Third Person of the Trinity dwells in us, believers, we can call on the Power of God to nourish us against the temptations and snares of this world!

The life that God promises is not just eternal life after our earthly death. God has promised, in today's passage, that the Holy Spirit will set our mind on life -- on things of the Spirit. God strengthens, not us. It is not our own strength upon which we are called to rely.

"For all who are led by the Spirit of God," all of those who have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, and in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, "are children of God." Each of us who have believed has been incorporated into God's Family. "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption." The Evil One would have us cower from our sin and flee from temptation. But, thanks be to God, "[w]hen we cry, '[Daddy]! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

And God doesn't let anyone mess with his children. He is the Almighty, El Shaddai, the Lord of Hosts, the High and Awesome Creator and Father of all. "[A]nd if children [of God], then heirs: heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ -- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

God, through Jesus Christ, has given each of us an opportunity to take the filthy bathroom stall upon which are written our failures, our weaknesses, our secret sins, and have them covered over, like the bathroom in Springville, with the Great Truth of Romans 8:6. Setting one's mind on the things of the flesh is death. It is hopelessness, helplessness, and despair.

When we are adopted by God our Father, our soul is flooded with God's Holy Spirit, and we are given power to live, truly live, in peace.

God our Father, Daddy: we confess that we sometimes listen when doubt whispers that your love has limits. We give you glory that you have purchased for yourself all those who would call upon your name. We praise your power and holy might which gives us hope and peace. Help us, Lord, to listen for the voice of your Holy Spirit. Draw us closer to you, and help us to live in the liberty that Christ bought for us on the cross. Thank you, God, for sending Jesus to die and to be raised up for us; thank you, Lord, for sending your Spirit to live inside of us as a promise that we are yours; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.