COME TO THE LIGHT

Numbers 21:4-9   Ephesians 2:1-10   John 3:14-21

Jeff Davidson

The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.

A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”

The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”

The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”

The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”

Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?

One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.

Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers. 

But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed. 

So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see. 

In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.

There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.

Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.

But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.

It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.

But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.

Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?

Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.

NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Mark 1:9-15, Luke 18:9-14

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

Last week, I was talking with someone about the plants I have in my garden. I mentioned the different herbs that I grow and how my bay leaf tree has survived several years, even though it is not technically zoned for our city. According to the USDA Hardiness Zones (which provide a planting and climate guide for gardeners), most of the District is Zone 7A and Bay Laurel shrubs are technically rated as hardy at Zone 8. This friend was really surprised that I knew this; he had no idea that such zones existed.

While I’m not an expert (nor do I have my degree in horticulture, like someone else in the room), I suppose I have a basic gardening literacy. I can converse about annuals and perennials that can grow in our region and I know a little bit about shrubs and trees. This literacy allows me to make informed choices about what plants to grow and where to put them in my garden. I could spend my whole life gardening and not get to the full depth of all knowledge on the subject. However, I have the tools that I need to function and flourish, producing food and beauty while learning a little more each year.

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

Like with gardening, the Bible is an area where there is an unlimited amount to know and learn. There are obscure references and details that pastors or seminary students can joke about or spend hours discussing the nuances or arguments around. While some of us can geek out about the Bible, we don’t all need to know Greek or Hebrew or be able to discourse on ancient near eastern creation stories. You don’t have to be an expert or go to seminary to have functional bible literacy.

Pastors and teachers can highlight the main points and contexts of different books so that we can all be conversationally fluent in church and when doing study on our own. Biblical literacy gives us tools to encounter scripture: to understand a bit about a book’s culture and circumstances, determine the applications to the original audience, and then apply the text to our own journeys following Jesus. The goals of our sermons at Washington City COB are to encourage and challenge each other, while also equipping everyone with skills and tools for working with the Bible on their own.

As part of that, I have both a survey and a confession (since it’s Lent, confessions are appropriate). Let’s start with the survey. Don’t raise your hand physically but, in your head, raise your hand if you’re ever read the whole book of Joel. If you have read Joel, do you think you could give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? I openly confess that I would not have been able to do so before my sermon preparation this week.  In some ways, it’s surprising, since I’ve read it several times, was a Hebrew major, and have taken an Old Testament survey class—where I was required to memorize at least one distinctive word or phrase about every book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I couldn’t remember the keyword on my own in 2018, so I dug out our old textbook. Joel’s keyword is locusts. But, while locusts are certainly distinctive, that doesn’t really tell you much about the prophet’s message.

Joel is a short book, with only three chapters. It’s a little strange, but with important prophetic calls and precious promises that extended from Joel’s time to the future. Our passage in Joel was an alternative Ash Wednesday reading and it’s fitting both to think about Lent (which started on Wednesday) and to provide some guidance for our community discernment process. As you heard during the announcements, we are continuing our post-Brethren Nutrition Program discernment, talking about covenant community, membership, ministry, church roles, and spiritual gifts.

My sermon title today is, Everyone, Come to the Fasting Party! This could be bias, but I think my title is more helpful to remember the context of Joel than just “locusts.” In a pivotal and crucial time for the people of Judah, Joel calls the entire community of faith to join in communal repentance and fasting. Joel speaks on behalf of Yahweh, connecting the hope of community renewal and restoration with an intentional reorientation toward the LORD. In a time of crisis, the people’s hope hinges on the nature of Yahweh and of the promise that Yahweh is not finished working, revealing, and transforming.

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

While I may think “Everyone, come to the fasting party!” is a better summary description of Joel, there are certainly locusts in the book of Joel. They are nasty locusts, not fun, chirpy cicadas or 17-year slumberers. Chapter 1 starts out saying, “Pass this story on to your children! Has anything like this happened before? Locusts came and ate everything we had.” Joel recounts the devastation and the mourning of both people and animals. The people are in crisis, with their survival threatened. While Joel doesn’t say explicitly that sin is the cause of all this ecological devastation, it would have been clear to the prophet’s audience.

In the Law given through Moses (commands written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), ecological devastation is presented as a consequence of the people’s sins (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living includes both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. The Covenant was an agreement between the people and Yahweh and there were serious implications for breaking the Covenant. In other prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die.

Here in Joel, locusts devour, “animals groan,” “herds of cattle wander” aimlessly without food, and “even flocks of sheep are dazed” (v. 18). The last verse in chapter 1 says, “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (v. 20). Amid this devastation, it is clear to the prophet Joel what action is required to rescue to community from the brink.

Blow the Trumpet

If this were a play, there would be a cue for the sound of a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used in Jewish rituals, especially the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Inspired by my father-in-law’s occasional use of props during sermons, I had Nate bring in my Kudu Antelope horn from Kenya. [trumpet sound] The trumpet in our text likely would have been a ram’s horn or the horn from another animal, made into an instrument that could send a signal to the people. People groups in Kenya like the Njemp or Maasai have traditionally used this horn to communicate between villages in the Great Rift Valley. Our passage begins with the LORD saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (v. 1). The LORD gives a message that everyone in Judah needs to wake up—to tremble even—and the day of the LORD is at hand.

The Day of the LORD is a motif used throughout the prophets, used to describe when Yahweh is breaking into history to either bring judgment or deliverance against the people of Israel and Judah or other nations. The Day is not like one temporal day (evening and morning), but a cosmic event in salvation history. The Day of the LORD is God at work, making things right through judgment (since people were judged for injustice and idolatry) or making things new through a promise of transformation and wholeness.

The prophet Joel receives the word to sound the horn, the day of the LORD is near. While an impending day of darkness and gloom—not to mention the preexisting locust devastation—sounds harsh and terrorizing, Yahweh really has the people’s interests at heart and wants to keep the Covenant, no mater how many times the people try to abandon it.

The LORD, Yahweh, desires that the people come back with open hearts. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12). God wants relationships with humans. “Return to me, come back to me, come home,” God beckons. Joel calls the people to turn to God, not just with some outward expression, but with true inward repentance and transformation—a genuine reorienting of their lives to Yahweh.

The God that awaits the people is neither a tyrant nor an apathetic or impassive divine being but the “I Am”—the One who has consistently self-revealed as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13; cf. Exodus 34:6). These words to describe Yahweh are the same as those revealed to Moses in Exodus and then used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In this call to return, God demonstrates proactive love by reaching out, despite the people’s obstinance and attempts at life without God. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12).

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

Fasting is mentioned again in verse 15: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, gather the people. Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The trumpets are blown, the people are on high alert, and everyone is called to partake in what could be called a communal, spiritual detox program. A healthy detox eating program might eliminate fast food, junk food, chips, soda, and other empty calories that aren’t good for you and replace them with fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options. In this biblical, spiritual detox, the people stop everything that they are doing to focus on Yahweh.

It’s a time to assess where the people have been self-indulgent, self-sufficient, and have worshipped that which is not God. It’s a time to repent of how they have worshipped things, placed profits, personal comfort, or material possessions over people. It’s a time to recognize and confessing of having lived as though they had no need for God. For our individualistic culture, fasting, repenting, and mourning over sin are things that we are generally inclined to do privately. We don’t say, “Hey, let’s everybody come to the fasting party!” partly because our culture assumes that our own lives and decisions are independent from those around us. “You do you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone directly.”  But for the people of Israel, the individual’s relationship with God is linked to the community’s relationship with God.

Individual repentance is linked to the corporate or communal repentance; individual well-being is inseparable from the community’s well-being. The call to return to God goes out to everyone: young, old, men and women. It’s not just the priests, not just the prophets or leader, not just adults—everyone’s faith matters. The whole community is called to “declare a holy fast” (v. 15). The elderly, the children, “even infants at the breast” and newlyweds on their honeymoon: the crisis facing the community required that everyone partake in the communal fasting and repentance.

Looking at the rest of Joel, we see that Yahweh promises deliverance and renewal, a restoration of the land. Beyond that, the people are given hope of a new Day of the LORD, an era where the Spirit of God will fill and inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). The Apostle Peter cites Joel’s prophesy in Acts 2, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills and dwells the Jesus-followers.

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant, the blessings and curses and the connection between sin and the fertility of the land of Israel, those don’t apply to the new covenant in Jesus. Yet, there are certainly other relevant thoughts and questions that this passage raises for the church today. One question is this: how does our own faith affect the faith of the community? How are the health and well-being of our individual relationships with God—our individual Jesus-following—linked to the health and well-being of a congregation? In other words, when I’m not prioritizing my relationship with God, it makes sense that it would hurt me. But does it hurt others?

When I’m distant or aloof from God, it likely affects how I relate to my spouse, my broader family, and also to my church. I imagine that I’m not able to fully be the blessing that God has designed me to be, via my spiritual gifts and talents, if God is not the center of my life. I think for a time of community discernment—like what we’re trying to engage in at Washington City—it’s important to recognize the synergy between our individual spirituality and the state of our community. We need all levels of our lives to be syncing together and seeking after the Spirit.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time that Christians have used for centuries to prepare their hearts for Easter, to detox from the things that distract from our Creator, and to repent and seek God’s renewing presence. Fasting is an ancient practice and an important tool to be used, whether you are fasting from lunch, chocolate, Facebook or something else. Fasting helps us reorient our lives towards God, creating a reminder or an absence that compels us towards God. Some people don’t cut out things but add a spiritual practice for Lent: they read a Lenten devotional, commit to reading one of the gospels, they add times of prayer to their daily routine, or commit to doing a specific service.

If you want ideas or resources for fasting or spiritual practices during Lent, Nate and I are available to talk through it with you. We’re past Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to start something. Our journey towards renewal, toward community discernment, toward the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb all lay ahead.

The call to return, to draw near to God, rang out for the people of Israel and it also echoes to us today in 2018. God is still saying, “Return to me with all your heart.” It’s easy to turn God into an abstraction, an impassive deity. Yet, we see here in Joel and in many other parts of scripture—in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Jesus’ general interactions with everyone—that the Creator of the Universe lovingly calls each of us to God’s self.

Where do we find our hope during personal crisis or as a congregation in transition? We find hope in knowing God and being known intimately and deeply by God, in experiencing abundant love, mercy, and God’s purpose for our lives. Sisters and brothers, is God calling you to return, to draw near? What can you do this Lent to prepare your heart for Easter, and to get in sync with God’s Spirit that is moving in our lives, in this church, and in this world? Everyone, come to the fasting party and let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus. Turn, return to God—for God is where wholeness and completeness, steadfast love, fulfillment and blessing will be found. AMEN.

LIFE – A RATTLING

John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, Psalm 130

Nathan Hosler

When I have read, or heard this passage from Ezekiel (the dry bones) I think I have typically envisioned of something like Halloween. It’s not that I have much experience in this subject—my family lived far from town with a driveway as long as two city blocks back into a wooded area. No kids could walk there and if they could we would probably be the place that was either too scary or not allowed by parents unless they knew us. And we rarely did Halloweeny things. It may have been a bit too pagan—but of course the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol—but also a bit to gory or bent on unpleasant things. Of the one or so documented times when we dressed up and drove to go trick-or-treating we dressed up as David and Goliath. I being the older sibling got stuck with being Goliath—which is of course no less gory than any movie. A teenager is overly confident and kills a giant on a battlefield that is poised for annihilation and slavery and then cuts off his head with a giant sword.

So, though I am far from an expert on Halloween when I have read this passage I think I tend to envision something like a semi-creepy Halloween cartoon or the bones looking something like one of the paper skeletons that people hang on their front door. When I re-read this passage on Friday (after having read it most days for a week or so) a much different image seemed obvious. This time it was much more horrifying—the aftermath of a genocide or a mass grave. Not a funny Halloween but a terrifying scene. In these passages, we are graphically confronted with death. A valley of bones and a dead friend.

While in Hebron, in the West Bank of Palestine two weeks ago, I first heard of the kidnapping of MJ Sharp. He was a good friend of Sarah Thompson, the Executive Director, of Christian Peacemaker teams. He was a 34-year-old Mennonite who had worked with rebel groups in the DRC and was presently there with the UN. He and several others were kidnapped while going to investigate a mass grave. The significance of this was intensified because of being with Sarah who had close connection to him and our work with a peacemaking organization that intentionally is near sites of violence and several times had a team mate kidnapped and killed. As the week went on she became more convinced he wasn’t coming back. Earlier this week his body was found with a colleague in a shallow grave.

In between meetings on this trip on behalf of Churches for Middle East Peace I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial site and museum. I believe reflecting back on this experience also shaped how I saw this passage. Not only does a valley of bones look like a genocide but such events, and the ongoing historical memory and trauma bear down on a community. This was also present in visits to Holy sites that bear the marks of another religion’s control. The Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism can only be visited as a tourist site for non-Muslims. In fact, they even kept my Bible in security so that I couldn’t use it for a religious purpose while visiting. But there is also a stone cross from  Crusaders next to the Dome of the Rock (which is the third most holy site in Islam). And on the hill above a large Menorah stands indicating the desire to reclaim the Temple Mount.

I also met with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who were displaced by the creation of the state of Israel and are still living as refugees and now under military occupation. This displacement is called the Nakba—the catastrophe. Many homes still have original keys from homes which were locked on the assumption that they would quickly return after the war in 1948.

There is also an Armenian quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. While leaving a restaurant there I saw a banner by Armenians who seek to remember their own experience of genocide 100 years ago.

The presence of a valley of bones seemed to press in. The ongoing trauma of history and ongoing violence weighed down. And of course, this is not only in the Holy Land; we experience it too.

The valley of bones pressed in.

When we read these verses, however, we also see clearly that there is a thematic focus on life. The significance of life heightened by the presence of death. In Ezekiel, there is a vision of a valley of dry bones which then are reanimated and life breathed in. In John, there is both death and then the bringing back to life but also Jesus teaching about how he brings life and is life. In Romans, the life is more spiritually focused. To be filled with the Spirit (note the big S) and live in the Spirit is life and peace. So, the first is prophetic and focused on a people who are in some way not living. The second is material but seems to point to broader implications. And the third, is a matter of the spiritual. Very thoroughly focused on life—all aspects. Additionally, this is still part of Lent which is preparation for Easter with its post-suffering resurrection. Not only is Jesus raised in power but we will participate in this. In preparation for this we consider these passages on life. In the face of death God brings life.

In the face of death God brings life. 

We had notable set of verses in our scripture readings this week. Typically, the passages are much shorter but this lengthiness also happened last week. Jeff, who was struggling with losing his voice joked that next time we would try to have the shortest verse—“Jesus wept”—as his text. Incidentally, my passage includes this shortest verse….its just that it is surrounded by 44 other verses for context.  Jesus wept—which in this version is translated “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus weeps because of the death of a friend and witnessing the sorrow of his family. “Jesus wept” is a sign of compassion and the experience of sorrow.

If you remember though, it seems that Jesus could have prevented this. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, notes this saying “Jesus you could have taken care of this—it’s the sort of thing you do! Jesus, what were you thinking?!

The passage begins when Jesus hears of the sickness of Lazarus. Jesus is informed, with the intent that he would do something. Rather than rush, however, Jesus waits, inexplicably. He says in this God’s glory will be shown. Though the action is rather slow one can imagine the felt urgency. He is informed by alarmed family… but he waits… when he says that he will go his followers remind him that his life is in danger—that folks would like to stone him. More tension and urgency. His disciples say “let us go so that we might die with him.” Presumably not said lightly. They face death willingly. As he gets close, after Lazarus is already dead, Martha jumps up to meet him.

Along the way Jesus gives a few short teachings here and there. One of the substantial life-themed teachings is this. In verse 21 we read.

 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

We should remember that her brother still has just died at this point. He has died and Martha has enough familiarity with Jesus to say—if you had just hurried up, things would be better. Additionally, Jesus—who she obviously has much confidence in—makes a big theological statement—which though theologically significant does not feel immediately comforting.  

He says if you believe you won’t die (again remember her brother has just died) and then pushes her by asking if she believes. Interesting she says “yes” but rephrases what she is affirming. Now literarily this might be a form of explanation or expansion on what Jesus said. It is certainly much more interesting reading than if she simply said “yes.” Or if she had repeated back exactly. Or it could be that she believes he is the Messiah but isn’t quite sure about the “never dying part.”

After the teaching (about being the resurrection and the life) and the weeping Jesus calls to Lazarus and he emerges from the tomb.

The power of God brings life to that which should not be able to be raised. Lazarus was in the grave 4 days—which means he was considered definitely dead. The power of God brings life to that which should not be able to be raised.

The power of God also brings spiritual life

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

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, …

“Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

In the face of death God brings life.

CIRCLES OF LIGHT

John 9:1-41, Ephesians 5:8-14

Jeff Davidson

When I started working on this sermon I ran across this reflection from Dr. Rachael Keefe on her blog “Write Out of Left Field.” (https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/) She’s writing in part about our gospel reading from John, and she says, “As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman (who is not in our scripture reading today) and the man born blind, especially.”

That might strike home for you. Maybe you’ve been excluded sometimes because of the kinds of things that Keefe mentions. It happens a lot when we’re younger. As a fat kid, I definitely knew what it felt like to be excluded, to be out of the circle sometimes.

Perhaps you or I have excluded somebody at some time because of those kinds of issues. Perhaps it hasn’t been those issues but other issues that have led us to leave others on the outside of our circles. Whatever the issue is, it doesn’t feel good to the person on the outside, and it affects them down the road.

There are a lot of things that strike me in the story of the man born blind, but one of them is how many times he is pushed outside the circle, how many times he is pushed into the darkness by the people around him. Not physical darkness, of course, but emotional darkness, spiritual darkness. It is amazing how many times in this passage that people draw a circle that excludes the man born blind for one reason or another.

First the disciples draw the circle of exclusion. “Who sinned that this guy is blind?” His condition has to be the result of sin. Not sin in the generic, original sin sense – in that sense anything bad is a result of sin. No, they mean a specific sin committed by a specific person. He’s blind not just because of the same reason we all have faults and frailties; he’s blind because of something that may have been in his control.

Next it’s his neighbors. “Is that the blind guy? Nah, couldn’t be.” And when the blind man, or I should say the formerly blind man, insists that it is too, him, the neighbors don’t buy it. They leave him on the outside once again.

Then it’s the Pharisees putting him on the outside. It says that the Jews decided that it wasn’t the same guy, even though he insisted he was. They didn’t believe he was the man born blind that everyone knew. They’d walked by him a hundred times, maybe a thousand, so you would think they would have recognized him, but they either didn’t recognize him or they didn’t believe their own eyes. (I think there is a good sermon waiting to be preached on that fact.) So the Pharisees call the man’s parents, and they say “Yes, it’s our son” and “No, we have no idea how this happened.”

So the Pharisees call the man back again, and they go through the whole thing again, and you know what? They still don’t believe him. The man pushes back, but the Pharisees keep him out. The word the scripture uses is “reviled” as they said, “We are Moses’ disciples, but you are his disciple.” 

The man who has been healed is persistent, and he is not willing to be silenced, until finally the Pharisees just give up arguing and drive him out physically. Now the man is not just on the outside looking in emotionally or spiritually, he’s literally, physically being excluded.

The man meets Jesus again, and believing that it is Jesus who healed him he worships Jesus, and Jesus accepts his worship. Jesus lets him into the circle. And in a final twist, some of the Pharisees overhear all of this and Jesus excludes them because of their sin and their unwillingness to believe.

I find that dynamic of inclusion and exclusion running through this reading fascinating, and I know I haven’t done it justice with this little summary. It’s worth a lot more thought and reflection.

Back on February 17, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in New York magazine. (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-white-house-mole.html) I’ve read Sullivan for a long time, and I don’t always agree with him but I always find him interesting and thought-provoking. This piece resonated with me because as I read Facebook and comment threads on newspaper articles I see a lot of people who are angry at their opponents. I see a lot of liberal or progressive folks referring to Pres. Trump’s supporters as racists or morons. I see a lot of conservative folks referring to their ideological foes as libtards. I saw a lot of gloating over Pres. Trump’s victory, and I have seen a lot of gloating over the failure of the Republicans to pass healthcare reform this past week. 

Here’s what Sullivan wrote in a portion of a column after Pres. Trump’s aide Stephen Miller had made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows earlier in the week. For those of you who may not know him, Stephen Miller is a senior advisor to Pres. Trump. He is very conservative, but grew up in the very liberal Santa Monica, CA and went to Duke University, where he was among a minority of conservative students.

Sullivan writes, “I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.

Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think Ingraham and Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a champagne party to welcome Reagan’s cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better — and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish (well, I won’t use the word Sullivan does.) But I didn’t. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality — especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maher’s show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing “In Trump We Trust.” In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke — their living, breathing, raving antibody.”

You don’t have to know Stephen Miller or Ann Coulter or any of the other folks Sullivan mentions to know what that part of the column is about. It’s about people who are excluded, people who are put down, people who are mocked or demonized or treated badly for their political views and the reaction that kind of treatment can lead to. There are liberal political equivalents of those folks. It’s the same dynamic that you see in the radicalization of some very small group of Muslims who have lived in the United States for years, even decades. They feel demonized, mocked, excluded, attacked, and they react by fighting back. That’s why General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, tells people not to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

People have probably excluded us from their circles at one time or another in our lives. We may or may not have been acutely aware of it at the time. We may have forgotten it by now, or the pain may still linger and be real. We have probably excluded others in our circles in the same way. Sometimes the exclusion is intentional and sometimes we’re not aware of it at all. How have we been wounded or scarred? How have we hurt and wounded and scarred others?

There is a little poem by Edwin Markham that has been repeated so often it is a cliché to some, but it is still good. ““He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him In!” 

As we work through Lent and approach Easter, it’s a good time to think of what kind of circles we are drawing. Are we drawing circles that include others, or circles that leave others out? Are we even aware of the circles we are drawing? Are we trying to include others but missing the mark somehow?

Now in all of this I’ve talked a lot about circles, but I haven’t talked much about light. In our gospel story there are two obvious movements from darkness to light. The first is literal, as the blind man begins the story in the darkness of blindness and ends it able to see and live in the light. The second is spiritual, as the blind man begins the story in spiritual darkness, and ends the story walking in the light spiritually as well as physically, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus.

We are all at different points along that spectrum at different times. There are times when we are in darkness, lost in our sin, not feeling God’s presence, not open to or aware of God’s light. There are other times when God’s presence and joy is so real that we feel we are surrounded by light.

There is, however, a specific way in which circles of light play a role in our scripture readings. That’s in our reading from Ephesians. It’s a short passage, so let me read it again. Ephesians 5:8-14. “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

I was struck by the phrase, “everything that becomes visible is light.” One of the commentaries I read said that people of Paul’s time believed that ordinary objects gave off their own light. Maybe not a lot of light, but at least a little. I couldn’t confirm whether that’s true or not. But we do know that some objects give off light. Candles. Light bulbs. 

You can’t see the light from the candles up here real well, but if you were to walk up to the communion table and look down on them you would see that they radiate their light out in a circle. When you get home if you light a candle in the dark you’ll see that. The light forms a circle around the flame, unless there’s wind or something.

The same thing is true for light bulbs, at least traditional light bulbs with a filament in the middle. When they are lit up, the light goes all around in a circle. That’s why we use light shades, to direct the light to places where it may be more helpful.

As a Christian, you give off light. Not just the radiant glow of motherhood, like Faith (an expectant mother in our congregation) but light. Spiritual light. God’s light radiates out from you in a circle, just like from a candle or a light bulb. When we think about including people, it involves getting close enough to them that they can be in our light. It involves being aware enough of them that we can place ourselves, live our lives, in a way that puts them in our circle of light, as opposed to leaving them outside the circle. It’s almost like Markham’s poem, except that we don’t just draw a circle to take others in. We live a life that takes others in. We live a life that radiates light, the light of Jesus Christ.  We shine that light on the lost and the lonely. We turn that light on ourselves sometimes, and examine the dark places within us and bring light there to help cleanse us of our sin. Christ, living through us, becomes the light of the world.

This week and throughout Lent, think about the circles that you draw. Think about the light that you give off. Invite others into the circle of your light, and move closer to God so that the light shines more brightly through you. Amen.

GLORIFYING THE STRENGTHS GIVEN BY GOD, FOR GOD

Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Emmy Goering

I’ve just returned to D.C. after spending the last week in the Chicago area at the Brethren Volunteer Service retreat. There, I was able to get some much needed rest and was able to connect with the friends who I’d bonded with at our orientation. While we shared stories about our service experience, this sermon loomed in the back of my mind. As we were giggling and groaning, crying and commiserating, lamenting and laughing with our fellow BVS’ers, this sermon taunted me throughout the whole retreat. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be good enough? Would I have anything worth speaking to you about?

 Don’t get me wrong–I accepted this task willingly, and I am very glad to be here speaking to you today. But as you can tell, I’ve also been more than a little bit nervous about today’s sermon.

My mom says that sometimes I’m an “over-thinker”, a worry wart, a nervous Nellie–and, she jokes, that she’s worried that I get that from her. But seriously, no matter how much I want to do something, I sometimes over-think it. I used to get so caught up in the “what ifs” that I was almost frozen with fear. Luckily, the more that I step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, the easier it gets. As I shared during my first address of this congregation at the beginning of my BVS term, I have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from my hometown of McPherson, Kansas to my transplanted home here in D.C.  

But let’s get back to my recount of the retreat. Mid-week, we had a session with Dana Cassel. She introduced the idea of discerning our vocation. After conversing together in a circle about this topic, we turned to a screen that reflected the well-known “Ted” logo, signifying that we were all in for a treat. If you don’t know what Ted talks are, they are about a 15 minute speech given by anyone with an idea worth sharing.

 As long as that person has some sort of “innovative” idea, the talk can literally be about anything. The speaker who we watched was Elizabeth Gilbert, the #1 best-selling New York Times author of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” As I watched Ms. Gilbert projected on the big screen, surrounded by fellow BVS’ers, I was inspired by her story.

Her very first book was an amazingly successful bestseller. As many of you can imagine, she felt pressure to follow up with ANOTHER amazingly successful book. At the beginning of her Ted Talk, she shared the comments that she received from friends and strangers alike about her creative future. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about…at all…ever…again?”

When faced with these negative expectations, Elizabeth Gilbert remembered that she’d   heard similar gloomy comments when she’d first shared her dreams of being a writer as a teenager. Now, this was the part of Ms. Gilbert’s Ted Talk that really sparked my interest.

I related to the same gloomy comments that she’d heard as a teen. When I first shared my dream of travelling the world to serve others, some people weren’t very receptive. Most thought that my plans were just a phase; others guessed that I’d give up when things got tough. None of them specifically set out to crush my hopes and ambitions. They were just worried about me.

 For example, when I was 15 years old, I told my parents that I was going to go to BVS after high school. They’d always encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, so they were happy to hear of my plans. But when I went on to say that I also had the rest of my life planned out already, they were a bit concerned.

 I explained that there was no need to worry. I’d buy a van with my then-hypothetical  BVS best friends so we could travel the world for the rest of our days, serving others… {pause} until they reminded me that life doesn’t always work out the way that you plan. How would we support ourselves, they asked. Why, I answered, donations of food and gas money, of course. They then went on to point out that global service wouldn’t be an option if a van was our only means of transportation. Geography may not be my strong suit, but I am definitely passionate, and creative, about service! Just like the people in Gilbert’s life who questioned her ability to weather the demands of her intended career, people in my life were worried about my ability to withstand the tolls of service.

After hearing so many gloomy predictions, Gilbert began to wonder why people regarded anyone with creativity-based aspirations as doomed to fail. Gilbert questioned, why should anyone be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel driven to do?

She decided to do some digging on this tremendous burden placed upon creative people throughout history. She found something, that I believe to be, quite interesting.

She looked across time and at other societies for ways they helped people manage the emotional toll that’s often tied to creativity. Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and ancient Roman societies, people believed that creativity was a “divine attendant spirit from a distant source that came to people for some distant and unknowable reason.” Greeks called these spirits Damons. The Romans called this disembodied spirit a Genius. They believed that while someone was working creatively, a genius sat hiding in the corner waiting to give some inspiration and shape the outcome of the work. In this way, the ancient artist was protected. If their work was great, they were isolated from too much narcissism; if their work was a flop, they were isolated from the failure.

I think the idea of these genius spirits isn’t all that absurd of a conclusion. That genius, that creativity, was and is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. That being is there to guide you.

 God gave us all of these incredible gifts, and we are here to use them for God. As Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

For me, as a young Christian woman trying to find my way to serve in this world, this scripture has lifted a lot of weight off my own shoulders. However, in my desire to make a big, life-changing difference right now, to want to plan out my calling years in advance, it’s something that I am constantly needed to be reminded of. Our gifts are God’s gifts. I’m here to use God’s gifts for His Glory, but on His timeline and in His way, not mine. {pause}

I was surrounded by incredible people this last week at the BVS retreat. All of them are following their calling by using their gifts and talents given by God. Finding what these gifts are and exactly how we are to use them, however, can come a lot easier for some than others. Learning to use these gifts to glorify God can be even more of a challenge. How do we glorify this almighty Creator who gave us life and love?

 As Christians, we can look to the scripture for guidance. Psalm 95 Says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Recently, I saw the Disney movie, Moana, and it reminded me of this idea of serving the Lord on His timeline and according to His plans. The main character, Moana, is a young Polynesian princess whose island paradise is slowly deteriorating. Although Moana’s father expects her to remain on the island and lead their people as he has done, Moana believes that it is her unique calling to leave the island to fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors and save their people. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. The ocean-based animation is breathtaking, the songs are amazing, and Moana’s silly little chicken sidekick named Hei-Hei is hilarious.

While Moana isn’t a Christian movie, I did find some interesting spiritual analysis by Christian movie reviewer Kevin Ott on the website Rockin’ God’s House. Mr. Ott spoke with Mark Hett, one of Disney’s main animators on the film, about Moana’s spiritual connections. Mr. Hett is also a Christian, and he says that although Moana is based on the Oceana/Polynesian mythology of their world and their culture, the film provides a lot to discuss in regard to a call that is from outside one’s self. To quote Mr. Hett, “I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film…that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in.”

  Let’s think about that for a minute. We’re in the world but we’re not of the world. That is a major struggle for most Christians. How do we do God’s work in this world?

Much like the struggle that Moana faces when she challenges her village’s expectations for her life, we often struggle with our interpretation of what others expect of us.

 Elizabeth Gilbert faced criticism when she voiced her plans to become a writer. My choice to spend my first year out of high school in BVS rather than going straight to college was met with skepticism and misunderstanding by some.

 But just as Moana follows the call of the ocean, which is always there to support her along her journey, we must choose to follow our calling from God, who is always there to support us in our journey.

 Our path may not be normal, or easy. Our calling may not be typical, but it may not necessarily be earth-shattering, either. We may hear from naysayers who are simply concerned with our ability to withstand the challenges that we’ll face along the way. But as Christians, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. As we read in Psalm 95, we must sing for joy to the Lord; we must kneel down before the Lord our Maker.

 As we’re instructed by Romans 5, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

 At the BVS retreat this past week, I was blessed to see the work of God through my fellow BVS’ers. I challenge you to see God through others–through their work, through the passions they bring, through their service to others, even if it’s not the typical path or the easy choice. The Spirit of Christ is within each of us.  Amen.

What is the Spirit of Life?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Micah Bales

Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of a mystery that can only be described in parables and metaphor. We heard a lot of these last month as we went through the Sermon on the Mount together. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp that lights up the whole house.

Jesus’ central message is about what he calls the “reign” or the “kingdom” or the “empire” of God. He describes this hidden empire as a treasure buried in a field. It’s a pearl of great price. A seed being sown. Yeast causing bread to rise. A tiny mustard seed growing into “the greatest of shrubs.”

What is this leaven Jesus is talking about? What is the light he says shines in us? What is the pearl of great price, that we should be ready to sell everything we have to acquire it? What is Jesus pointing to when he speaks to us in these mysterious terms?

In our scripture readings this morning, I believe we’re pointed towards an answer. Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus has a middle-of-the-night encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a well-respected religious leader among the Jews. He’s an elder of the people. A teacher. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which makes him one of the most powerful religious judges in the entire Jewish world. This is a man who knows God’s law backwards and forwards, and teaches it to others.

And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Despite all his wisdom and experience, Nicodemus can sense that Jesus has something unique to offer. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond anything in Nicodemus’ experience. Nicodemus just can’t look away.

When Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ house in the middle of the night, he tells Jesus that he’s a fan. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Anyone who can perform the signs that Jesus has must be on God’s side. Nicodemus wants to learn more.

Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus in the way I would expect. I would have thought that maybe Jesus would tell Nicodemus to quit flattering him. Or maybe he’d push back on Nicodemus’ idea that signs and wonders can prove God’s presence. To be honest, I kind of expect Jesus to be tough on old Nicodemus. After all, he’s probably visiting in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want to be seen associating with this rabble rouser, Jesus. Why all the secrecy?

Here’s the most interesting part of this dialogue for me: When Nicodemus speaks, Jesus seems to hear a question. Now, looking at the text, Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question yet. He’s just getting started, letting Jesus know that he respects his ministry. But Jesus understands that Nicodemus didn’t come out to visit him at two in the morning just to pay his respects. Nicodemus wants to know what lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He wants to discover the mystery.

Sensing this, Jesus dispenses with the pleasantries. He hears Nicodemus’ silent question. And he tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

This throws Nicodemus for a loop. What is Jesus talking about, being born from above? Nicodemus came out to get some straight answers from Jesus, but here he is, still talking in metaphors. And a ridiculous metaphor at that! “What?” says Nicodemus. “You want me to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

If Nicodemus expected Jesus to cut it out with the metaphors at this point, he must have been disappointed. Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with even more mysterious language: Nobody can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Jesus says, “You can’t just be born of flesh and blood. You’ve got to be born of the Spirit, too. That’s what you came looking for, Nicodemus. That’s my secret.”

Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And at first glance, it doesn’t seem immediately related to this mid-night episode between Jesus and Nicodemus. Paul spends a lot of time talking about the story of Abraham, and what it says about the relationship of faith and the law. Is following all the rules enough to bring us into right relationship with God? Paul says no.

If following the law can’t produce righteousness, what will? What was it that allowed Abraham to have such an amazing relationship with God? Paul insists that is purely through faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God, and in response God drew him into right relationship.

The whole story of God is built on faith like this. When we are able to trust God, when we give our lives over to him, he draws us into relationship with him. He makes us holy. He calls us sons and daughters.

Through faith, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. The Jewish people had always interpreted this to mean that Abraham’s biological descendents – particularly the Jewish people – would be blessed with a special relationship with God. If you shared Abraham’s DNA, you had a share in the kingdom of God.

The Jesus movement brought a radical new interpretation to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul writes about this interpretation in his letters, and Jesus points to it at various times during his ministry. Jesus and Paul and the disciple community all tell us that the true children of Abraham are not those who are biologically related to Abraham; it’s those who share the faith of Abraham.

Can you trace your geneology back to Abraham? Good. So could Paul, and all of the Twelve Apostles. But that’s not enough to qualify a person for the kingdom of God. After all, the religious leaders who persecuted and murdered Jesus – the Pharisees and the Saduccees – were also biologically related to Abraham. They could claim him as father. And yet their lives were alienated from the faith of Abraham. They trusted their Abrahamic DNA. They trusted the laws and ordinances that Moses and the elders had passed down to them. But they did not trust God.

God showed up in their midst. Jesus was standing before them, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. But the best and brightest of Abraham’s biological children were unmoved. They preferred ancient rituals, legalistic rules, and holier-than-thou games to the fiery presence of God in the burning bush.

Clearly, though, not all of the religious teachers were so hard-hearted. Nicodemus didn’t come out to see Jesus in order to undermine or refute him. Nicodemus was part of the “frozen chosen” of the Jewish religious establishment. Yet despite all that heavy tradition and social obligation, he was able to sense something in Jesus. Something alive, active, and powerful. Something fresh and new. Something that made all of Nicodemus’ religious titles and authority seem worthless by comparison.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus wasn’t concerned with how pure Nicodemus’ ancestry was. All that DNA tracing is according the flesh. It’s essential – life is impossible without our biological natures. But it’s also insufficient. Without the life of the Spirit, a purely “biological life” is without meaning or purpose.

My wife, Faith, and I have an ongoing debate. I believe that animals, and all living things, have spirits. She thinks that only humans have what you might call a “soul.” Me? I see the spirit of life everywhere. Animals breathe. Plants breathe. Some living things are more complex than others, but we all have a spiritual dimension, a life that goes beyond mere survival.

Still, I can also see things from Faith’s perspective. Take our dog, Austin, for example. He spends most of his time acting out of compulsion. He is a biological being running on autopilot. For Austin, most of life is about when he can eat, when he can drink, when he can go outside and relieve himself. It’s about warmth, and comfort, and safety. It’s about who will be kind to him, and who he should stay away from.

But every once in a while, I see something deeper come out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Austin experience joy. We were back in Kansas, visiting my family, and we all decided to go on a nature hike. At a certain point in our walk, we crested a ridge, and we discovered an open field with a large group of geese.

When the geese saw us, they all started to take off. They rushed into the air, leaving us behind. This was a good move on their part. We learned that day that Austin is a bird dog. He was in a state of total alertness. He was ready to chase those geese down.

That was the first time we had ever seen Austin smile. Austin came from an abusive background. Before that moment, he was really a very somber dog. But when he saw those geese, he was fully present. There was no fear in him. He had found himself.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I saw the Spirit-born part of Austin that day. It’s that animating presence that transcends our compulsive biological impulses. It’s this Spirit that gives us the capacity to be more than mere animals. The Spirit of life makes joy possible. It makes faith possible.

Jesus says that this Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it will, and we can’t control it. This was a major discovery of the early church. Jesus teaches us that God is perfectly capable of raising up children of Abraham from the stones, if necessary. Paul writes that we are all Abraham’s children when we share the faith of Abraham. This faith, this joy, this kingdom, comes from the Spirit.

This is why Jesus says that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. “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.” God loves all of us so much. And he has power to make us children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but through the power of the Spirit.

Through the faith of Abraham, God empowers us to transcend our biological compulsions. Just like Austin the dog, we can discover joy in moments of unity with our world and our God. We can be freed from lives that revolve around reflexive tasks, unspoken anxiety, and the struggle to survive. We can be truly free.

We can only see this kingdom when we are born from above. When we receive that gift of spiritual life and awareness that makes all of our biological life worth living. When we discover the purpose that we were created for. To show love to others. To speak the truth. To become agents of beauty.

In this Spirit, this power, this kingdom, we encounter the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”