• Book: Hope that Does Not Disappoint

    Chapter 3: Hope Revealed in the Son

    With the incarnation of Jesus Christ, hope takes on a new form and new character.  In the Old Testament hope is displayed in the faithfulness of God.  In the New Testament, in the person of Jesus, hope is displayed in flesh and blood.  Hope is made a present reality.

    There is something dramatically important about presence.  With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, society saw a massive withdrawal of people from the public square.  Businesses, schools, community centers, and churches all had to make adjustments –many of which were difficult.  While the type and degree of societal shutdowns varied, the fallout from our response to the COVID threat continues to be discovered.  

    One business writer said, “Workplace stress, anxiety and depression are tough enough to cope with when the world seems somewhat predictable, but when a pandemic forces people indoors –separated from the support system that helps sustain them—then it becomes an almost unendurable situation.”  He continues, “The longer the virus lingers on and people are asked to go without the very things that give their lives purpose –whether it’s attending a worship service, a group therapy session or a family reunion—the more impactful will be the effects.”2

    There is something about human interaction, human touch, even human facial expressions that are critical for human relationships to thrive.  There is a real sense in which we will never be able to replace the incarnational nature of humanity.  We are incarnational beings.  We cannot “phone it in” forever.  

    Hope itself is not immune to this problem.  Hope cannot be “phoned in”.  It has to be rooted in reality, in something substantive.  It has to be incarnated in some way.  This is what separates a simple wish from authentic hope.  True hope is incarnated in the real world.  This is why the Incarnation of Christ is such a hope-bearing event.  

    The Promise

    The People of God, Israel, who had been freed from slavery, had continued to vacillate between faithfulness and disobedience.  The Old Testament records examples both good and bad of how Israel’s story unfolded. The cycle seems to work from faithfulness to prosperity to apathy to disobedience to punishment to repentance and back to faithfulness.  Over and over again, God’s chosen people repeat this cycle.  It seems that unless something changes, they have no hope of ever escaping these repetitive events.  

    In the Old Testament they are promised a Messiah, one who would restore the nation to its rightful place and usher in the Kingdom of God.  One of the key prophecies of the Old Testament, written in the book of Isaiah some 700 years before the coming of Jesus says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”3

    The name “Immanuel” means “God with us.”  

    God. With. Us.  Could we dare to hope for something so incredible?  Do we dare to hope that it is true? 

    In the book of Matthew, we read about the birth of Jesus.  We read how Mary, a virgin, came to be with child.  The early hearers of this Gospel would have remembered the prophecy.  In fact, Matthew quotes the very same verse from Isaiah.  Joseph (the baby’s adoptive father) is instructed to “call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”4

    So, in the incarnation we have “God with us.” And “He will save his people from their sins.” This is doubly important because not only has God come and made his home here with us, but He has come to do something which we could not have done on our own.  He has come to beat the cycle of sin that entrapped humanity since the fall.  

    Hope had to come from outside ourselves.  It has.

    Hope had to deal with our sinful, rebellious, self-deceiving ways.  It has.  

    Hope had to be rooted in the real world in order to save real people.  It has. 

    The incarnation of Jesus is the manifestation of the hope that does not disappoint.  Not only is God faithful as we saw in the previous chapter, but God is now present.  Hope has come to us.

    Living Water and Hope

    Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he offers real, life-transforming hope.  There’s one episode that illustrates this particularly well.  

    In Chapter 4 of St. John’s Gospel Jesus is travelling through Samaria when he comes to a town called Sychar.  Strict Jews normally avoided Samaria.  They would travel well out of their way to go around Samaritan lands.  This was partly because the Samaritans had a mixed heritage of Gentile (non-Jewish) ancestry.  It was also due to the fact that they had departed from the traditional Jewish faith by erecting their own temple and using their own Scriptures.  Although, going through Samaria was a more direct route from Jerusalem to Galilee, it was often avoided.  But it seems God had other plans!

    Near Sychar was property that had Old Testament significance.  There was a well near Sychar which had been given by Jacob to his son Joseph, pivotal figures in Israel’s story.  John says that while Jesus sat down at the well to rest while his disciples went into town for food.  It was about noon.  

    While he was resting a Samaritan woman came to draw water.  The fact that she was coming at noon, in the heat of the day, is important.  Normally the women would come to draw water when it was cool –in the morning or evening.  Why would this woman come in the heat of the day?  We learn why as this episode unfolds.

    When she gets to the well Jesus says, “Give me a drink.” 

    She is taken aback.  She says, ““How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” 5 

    The reason for her doubfoudned state is because Jesus is breaking a number of social norms.  As we have seen, strict Jews did not travel through Samaria. Rabbis (as Jesus was considered) would have avoided speaking to Samaritans.  A single man would not normally speak with a woman. If you add all these things up, you have a pretty remarkable situation unfolding.

    Jesus answers her, ““If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”6

    In this context, ‘Living Water’ has two meanings.  It literally refers to a spring, moving water.  But in its spiritual context it refers to the Holy Spirit (more on him later).  For now, suffice it to say, Jesus is offering her something that quenches more than bodily thirst.  He is offering her the hope of fulfilling spiritual thirst. 

    She doesn’t understand.  Then Jesus slowly opens her mind to see what he is offering her.  He says, ““If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”7

    Then the story gets really interesting.  

    Jesus tells her to call her husband and come back to the well.  She says she has no husband.

    But she is only telling half of the story.  When you have skeletons in your closet, you tend to do that!

    Jesus know this of course.  He tells her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.”8

    Now we understand why she was coming to the well in the middle of the day.  When you have scars, when you have embarrassment, when you are carrying a load of guilt and shame, you tend to want to avoid others.  Remember, Adam and Eve sought to avoid God himself!  She was likely coming to the well in the middle of the day to avoid the stares, the whispers and the judgement of others.  Do you think she had any sense of the hope that does not disappoint?  Probably not.  Likely, she felt quite hopeless.  Hopeless to find lasting love.  Hopeless to find belonging in community.  Hopeless to find peace.  Hope. Less.

    With Jesus’ insight into her private life, the conversation takes a beautiful turn.  Perhaps with widening eyes she acknowledges that Jesus must be a prophet.  They discuss some of the tension between Jews and Samaritans and the woman says, ““I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.”

    In this single line, she is outlining one bit of hope to which she clings.  She too is longing for the Messiah.  

    Then Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”10

    Jesus rarely tells anyone directly who he really is.  But he tells her.  He reveals to this scandalized, despised Samaritan woman, the greatest hope she could have imagined is sitting in front of her.  He has not judged her.  He has not berated her.  He has not lectured her.  

    He has offered her ‘living water’ and a stunning revelation –the Messiah is here!  

    She is so flabbergasted that she leaves her water jar and runs to town to tell the people what has happened. St. John reveals that, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”11

    The incarnate Jesus is the manifestation of this hope that does not disappoint.  The hope He reveals is forgiveness and restoration, a breaking of the endless cycle of failure and sin.  This could only happen if God is truly with us.  

    The presence of the Incarnate Christ brings hope to us in ways we can hardly dare to believe.  But he has come.  He continues to come to men, women, and children today who thirst for living water.  He still provides this water to those who will come to him.  

    We have hope, even now, because of Immanuel –“God with Us.”

    Chapter 4 will be posted next week.

    1. https://www.ehstoday.com/covid19/article/21140779/the-unintended-consequences-of-social-distancing
    2. Ibid.
    3. Isaiah 7:14
    4. Matthew 1:21
    5. John 4:9
    6. John 4:10
    7. John 4:10
    8. John 4:17
    9. John 4:25
    10. John 4:26
    11. John 4:39

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  • Book: Hope that Does Not Disappoint

    Chapter 2: Hope Revealed in the Father

    Note: I’ve been trying to stream together thoughts of encouragement in these difficult days. The result is a short book on hope which I pray reminds you of the unchanging hope we have in our Lord. A new chapter will come out weekly. Chris+

    Our quest for hope should begin at the beginning.  We need to recapture a story, in fact The Grand Story of humanity and see how humanity first lost its hope.  By doing so, we will also discover how our God showed himself to be a God that can authoritatively provide hope, purpose, and perspective.  

    We haven’t moved too far into the Scriptures when we come upon the first man and woman, Adam and Eve.  They are living in paradise, Eden, where all is provided for them.  There they exist in innocence, untouched by shame, guilt, anger, hatred, suspicion or hurt –many of the very things that seem to dominate our world today. 

    Their relationship with God is pure and untainted. God gives them the mission to care for and steward all of creation.  God provides them with food.  So far, only God has been involved in the creation of life, but in Genesis 1:28, he ordains men and women to be co-creators in life itself when he tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, ESV)  In this way, the our first parents become the means by which the Imago Dei (The Image of God) itself will propagate.  

    It is a beautiful season of hope, a time of unmatched peace –peace in the relationship with God, peace in relationship with one another, peace in their relationship with creation.  They are truly experiencing a hope that did not disappoint.  

    But it did not last. 

    Trouble in Paradise

    By the time we land in Genesis 3, there is trouble in the Garden.  The eyes of hope are about to  be diverted from the author of hope. 

    It is interesting to watch the scene unfold.  There are lessons for us here because, in the events of what we call “The Fall,” we find a pattern that continues lead us astray and rob of our hope in our own day.

    What Genesis calls “the serpent,” or “the snake” is recognized as the Evil One, Satan, the master deceiver of humanity. His deceptive tactics are as simple as they are deadly.  

    In Genesis 3:1 he asks the Woman, “Did God actually say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)  His first tactic was to exaggerate God’s command to emphasize God’s restriction.  No, God did not say they couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden.  In fact he said they could eat from every tree except one.

    Most parents have seen this with their own children.  You can give your children five options and say, that this one thing is off-limits.  What happens? They immediately focus on the item you have said they cannot do.  Often they become fixated on it.  The restriction becomes their focus.  

    So it was with Eve.  She rightfully counters the serpent’s question by saying that, in fact, God said they could eat of all the trees of the garden, except one.  She tells the serpent in Genesis 3:2, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2, ESV)

    The first step in our fall was the temptation to ignore our blessings and focus on the perceived restriction –on what we could not do.

    Next, the serpent shifts to minimizing the consequence.  In verses 4-5 he says, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5, ESV) He actually negates the condition of Adam and Eve’s presence in the garden, as well as the punishment for their disobedience which God had explained to them back in Genesis 2:16-17.  The serpent’s deception is an outright lie.  

    Lastly, in these same verses we find a second part to this temptation.  Not only “will you not die” but he effectually says that God is holding out on them, keeping them from a great good.  His lie is that disobedience will lead to blessing.  It is an attack on Adam and Eve’s trust in the goodness of God. 

    But there is truth in the midst of the deception.  The Evil One plants a sad kernel of truth in his temptation.  He says that “your eyes will be opened…knowing good and evil.”  But Adam and Eve already knew good.  They were in paradise, in perfect and unbroken communion with creation and creator.  There was only one thing to be gained in this horrible bargain –the knowledge of evil. 

    Genesis 3:6 says, “[Eve] She took of its fruit and ate and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”  

    Suddenly the blissful hope, which had been a present reality for them, was shattered.  Their eyes were opened.  “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:7)  Yes, now they see.  But it is overwhelming.  Their innocence has been lost.    Newly realized shame and guilt have given birth to their offspring –fear.  Because that is what shame, guilt and fear do–they drive us into hiding because they represent a profound loss of hope.  It is suddenly too much to hope for fellowship, for peace, for forgiveness.  So when they hear the sound of God walking in the garden, they hide.  

    Don’t miss that.  They go from perfect, unbroken, peace with God to diving into the bushes to try to avoid him.  

    Our first parents’ disobedience is, in fact the pattern of disobedience for all humanity.  The truth is we were created for relationship with God, to know the hope built into the human heart as a present reality just as Adam and Eve did. 

    But they, and we, have traded our hope in.  We may call it by grandiose names like self-actualization.  We may cut it down to its essential ethos by saying, “You do you.”  But the truth is that it is the same problem.  We think God’s restrictions are too severe.  We think there is some good to be found in getting our own way.  We minimize or even flatly deny the consequences of our actions.  And we refuse the trust in the one ultimate source of true and lasting hope.  

    It’s hard to be hope-fueled when you are guilt-filled.  

    So paradise is lost.  And it’s lost not only for Adam and Eve, but for all of humanity, including you and me.  Where can hope be found now?  How do we reconcile this condition?  They can’t.  We can’t.  What we quickly learn from the Bible is that for there to be any hope at all for us, it will have to come from outside of us.  God will have to move to restore hope to humanity. 

    And he does.

    The Faithfulness of God

    Let’s fast forward to the pivotal event in the Old Testament –the Exodus.

    Even though it is only one book forward from Genesis, a lot has happened.  Noah’s family have been delivered through the flood.  Abram and Sari have welcomed Isaac, the child of promise and hope, into the world.  Jacob has wrestled with the mysterious messenger.  Joseph has been sold to slave-traders and risen to prominence in Pharaoh’s household. 

    Despite all this, Exodus opens with the nation of Israel enslaved and largely hopeless.  They have spent the better part of the last 400 years under the thumb of the Pharaohs of Egypt. The only slim hope they have is the memory of a covenant made by God to their forefather Abraham (Genesis 12 & 15).  

    Exodus 1:12b-14 gives you a feel for their treatment, “The Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.” (Exodus 1:12b-14, ESV)

    Then the King of Egypt gave a decree to all the midwives in the land, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (Exodus 1:16, ESV) When the midwives failed to do as Pharaoh decreed, he ordered that all Hebrew male babies be thrown into the Nile river.  

    It is here that the great deliverer of Israel, Moses, enters into the picture.  As a newborn, his life is spared and through a series of divine interventions is adopted into the house of Pharaoh.  Hope is springing up for the Hebrews, they just don’t know it yet.  

    Our first hint of the reawakening of hope for the people of God occurs in Exodus 2:23-25:

    “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

    Look at how this brief passage speaks of God’s actions:  God heard.  God remembered.  God saw.  God knew.

    The balance of the book of Exodus is the record of the deliverance of God’s people.  It is the story of hope restored and realized.  The people leave Egypt, are given the Law by which they will learn to truly be the people of God, in relationship to this saving God of hope.

    The Children of God had no hope of changing their situation unless their God intervened.  Their plight is our plight.  Hope is not something we can generate in ourselves anymore than Israel could generate hope for themselves.  Hope always comes from outside of us.  Authentic hope always has a divine origin, a divine focus, and a divine fulfillment.  

    God calls, equips, and sends Moses to bring his people out of Egypt, out from slavery into the freedom found in relationship with Him.  It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but the people learn a critical lesson which is recorded in scripture for all of time.  

    It all begins with understanding that God hears.  God remembers.  God sees.  God knows.  And finally…

    God moves.  

    The hope of Israel is tied to their covenant with God, even when all hope is lost.  

    Even when they are disobedient, God is faithful. 

    Even when the world is arrayed against them, God is faithful. 

    Even when they are wandering in a desert, God is faithful.  

    Even when they are afraid, God is faithful. 

    As he was with them, he is with us.  His character does not change.  

    This is the basis for real, lasting, sustaining hope.

    God. Is. Faithful.

    Chapter 3 will be posted next week.

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  • Book: Hope that Does Not Disappoint

    Chapter 1: A Famine of Hope

    Note: I’ve been trying to stream together thoughts of encouragement in these difficult days. The result is a short book on hope which I pray reminds you of the unchanging hope we have in our Lord. A new chapter will come out weekly. Chris+

    During the Korean War, the death rate for soldiers held as Prisoners of War was almost 40%.  This was much higher than in previous conflicts. U.S. Military leaders found this confusing because, for the most part, the North Koreans provided adequate food, water, and shelter. Prisoners were not subjected to the same rate of torture of previous conflicts.  Camps were generally low-security operations, often not surrounded with concertina wire or numerous armed guards.  Despite this, the rate of escape was low and the rate of mortality was high.

    Psychiatrist Dr. William E. Mayer was commissioned to study the experiences of soldiers who survived these Prison Camps. His goal was to discover why the death rate had been so high.  Dr. Mayer studied 1000 former POW’s and made a surprising discovery –many of the soldiers suffered from a form of extreme and debilitating hopelessness.  While the camps were low on armed guards, they were big on psychological manipulation.  The North Koreans turned the soldiers against one another. They rewarded informants.  They sowed seeds of disloyalty and negativity by withholding good news, and by inflating and immediately relaying bad news (Dear John letters, death of a loved one etc.)  They also forced prisoners to confess to one another all the bad they had done and good they had left undone.  This further sowed seeds of despair and distrust and hopelessness.  

    When the war ended, the Red Cross assisted in the liberation of these POWs.  It was noticeable that few wanted to call home.  There was little camaraderie among the men.  During his research, Mayer found that it was not at all unusual for a soldier to become so demoralized and hopeless that he would go into his cell, face the wall, and will himself to die.  Within a few days, he would succeed.  Dr. Mayer called it “marasmus,”  which he defined as “lack of resistance or acute passivity.” The soldiers called it “give-upitis”1

    It was complete and utter hopelessness.  

    This story was originally told to me when I was a young officer-in-training in the U.S. Army.  The Lieutenant Colonel who told this story to us young Lieutenants summed up his presentation by saying, “Men and women die without hope.”  

    Could hope be that crucial, that important? It seems that it is.  

    The Loss of ‘Why’

    In many ways hope is part of a cycle.  Hope is the raw material for purpose.  When we have hope and purpose, we also have perspective.  And perspective leads us to a deep realization of our ‘why’.   So, hope ultimately leads us to our ‘why’ which in turn generates a greater sense of hope. It is a type of ascending spiral that helps lift us out of, or perhaps transcends, our circumstances.  

    The holocaust survivor and writer Viktor Frankl expressed this well when he said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”2  

    As I type this, rain is falling outside.  It is a steady rain on a warm June night.  My wife is working the night shift as a nurse at a local hospital, my daughter is sleeping in her room, and my son is working on a project in his room.  The peacefulness of the moment betrays the difficulty of the year.  This has been the 2nd year of COVID.  The last 18 months have been full of unrest and upheaval.  Politics are further dividing our nation.  The anger in the air is practically palpable.  People are retreating into their silos, their tribes, which serve as echo chambers of the like-minded.  

    The notion of optimism cannot be found in any of our tribes, silos, or political parties. There is a part of us that knows this.  For the most part, society has abandoned optimism and have run headlong into pessimism.  Now, pessimism is giving way to a soft form of fashionable fatalism. 

    One of the reasons for our isolationism and withdrawal into our preferred echo-chambers is that we have lost the anchor of our minds and subsequently, our souls.  We don’t know who or what to believe.  We have lost confidence not only in our sources of truth, but in the very concept of truth.  The age of relativism has robbed us of the foundational notions of truth, and especially a sense of knowing what is truly true.  We don’t know what to cling to yet we long to cling to something firm, something solid. Instead, we find ourselves trying to grasp smoke in our hands.  

    Trust is a key component to hope.  But how can we trust in anything that is not true?  And how can we know what is true when the very notion of truth is suspect?  No wonder we are struggling!  

    We, modern men and women, are tired.  We are worried.  We are fearful.  If we are honest, it seems that the fields of faith have been scorched.  We now find ourselves in a famine of real, authentic hope.  And because we have no real, solid, conscious basis for our hope, we feel floundering for purpose and flailing for a faithful perspective.  

    Without hope we ultimately have no “why”.  

    More sobering is the thought that without real hope, real purpose, and true perspective we are susceptible to most any “why” that comes along.  This has led societies to some very dark and deadly places.  

    As Christians, should we not of all people, have a robust and real hope?  Should we not be the guardians and bearers of the light when the darkness seems to be on the march?

    The Recovery of Hope

    Hope is a constant theme in the Bible.  The people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments are time and again faced with gut-wrenching and hope-wrenching situations.  It’s a lesson that the Scriptures teach over and over again.  Consider the following:

    For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.  (Psalm 62:5)

    Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)

    We find these lessons of hope from cover to cover in the Bible.  We also find these lessons of hope frequently in the 2000-year history of the Body of Christ. 

    Perhaps this is because it is a lesson that each generation needs to learn.  Each generation has its trials and tribulations.  Each generation seems to lose its way –and its hope.  

    I believe there is good reason to hope, because there is a gracious, loving and merciful God in which to hope.  Not only is the concept of truth alive and well, it is knowable to you and me.  Truth is embodied ultimately in the person of Jesus.  It is for good reason that the Lord Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Could it be that, in his providence our Lord knew that we would need this declaration to be our anchor in difficult times?  

    I believe all Christians are called, particularly at this hour, to turn their gaze, their trust, and their hope once more toward Him.  

    We must allow him to reset our hope, our purpose, and our perspective.  

    Despite the cynicism of the age and today’s famine of hope, we can have real, lasting and true hope .  Not only that, we can have confident hope.  This hope is in Christ who is indeed “the way, the truth and the life.”  And St. Paul says “this hope will not lead to disappointment.” (Romans 5:5, NLT)

    Chapter 2 will be posted next week.

    1. Personal Story, augmented by information from Chaplain Tim Wilson, 

    https://www.302aw.afrc.af.mil/News/Commentaries/Display/Article/191174/the-prison-of-hopelessness/

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  • Uncategorized

    The Tactics of the Tempter

    One of my favorite parts of our baptism service comes near the end of the rite.  After the person has been baptized, the sign of the cross is marked on their forehead with the Oil of Chrism.  As this happens the priest says, “Receive the sign of the cross as a token of your new life in Christ, in which you shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to fight bravely under his banner against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your days.” (Book of Common Prayer, 2019, p169)

    I love the language of this prayer.  It reminds the candidate that this new life they are entering is lived on a battlefield.  Baptism is really a battlefield commission. And as this moment unfolds during the service, all of us are reminded of our call, with the newly baptized, to “fight bravely…against the world the flesh, and the devil,” and to continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of our days.  

    As we dive into today’s reading from Genesis 3, it is good to keep this language from the Baptismal rite at the forefront of our minds.  Clearly the events that unfold in today’s Old Testament lesson reveal the battle faced by all humanity.  

    For hundreds of years many military tacticians have learned valuable lessons from the 2nd century B.C. Chinese work, The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  One of the most popular maxims from this book says: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

    This lesson is often summarized as: “Know your enemy.”  As we examine the account of the The Fall in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, I think there are some important lessons we can learn about our enemy and how he works.  As we study his tactics, we are better equipped to face our tempter.

    So please open your Bibles to Genesis, Chapter 3 (or follow along in your bulletin insert).

    The Tempter

    The chapter opens with a bit of an ominous note, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3:1).  We aren’t told of the serpent’s origin or identity.  But as the story unfolds, the evil he represents and the danger he poses becomes more apparent.  When we read this verse, most Christians immediately equate the serpent with Satan.  This is largely due to how he is described in the last book of the Bible, Revelation.  In Revelation 20:2 Satan is described as, “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan…” (Rev 20:2). In this verse, he does not reveal himself in this way.  It is simply another creature in the Garden- or is he?  Here at the outset, we have our first lesson in how the enemy works. 


    The first lesson is this: Evil is crafty and often masks its true nature until it is too late.  I think we sometimes over estimate our ability at discernment here.  Sometimes evil masquarades as good, but much of the time as we see in this passage, Evil simply appears neutral or harmless.  I’ve seen many people led astray in this way –they just think this (whatever this is) is harmless and doesn’t hurt anyone.  And only when it is too late do they discover the danger.

    The verse continues, “He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1b).  Now it is important to recognize that here, with this initial question, temptation has begun.  The serpent is not launching a frontal assault but a flanking maneuver.  He does not speak against God or argue about God’s goodness.  He simply sows a tiny seed of doubt about God’s provision and the reasonableness of his prohibition.  It subtly casts doubt on God’s character by overstating the rule.  Did he say you can’t eat of any tree?  

    That’s not the rule, is it?  When God gave Adam this rule back in Genesis 2:16 he said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16). They were not forbidden to eat of any tree.  They were given every tree except one.

    This reminds me of how children often accuse their parents of unreasonable rules.  How many times do we give a simple rule, something like, “No you cannot watch TV right now or you cannot go out tonight” and our kids say, “You never let me do anything!”  The one thing becomes their everything.  

    So the second lesson is this:  Evil will always cause you to overfocus and exaggerate the rule.  If we fall prey to this tactic, we are already starting down a deceptively dangerous road.  Our trust in God is beginning to falter as our pride wells up.  The unspoken belief is that, in some way, God is unreasonably withholding some good from us. 

    And Eve takes the bait.  Listen to her response to the serpent’s question.  She says that God has given them the fruit of the trees for food and in verse 3 says, “But God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” Now is that what God said?  No!  He said they are not to eat it.  While touching it might not be a good idea, that is not what God said.  She is now over-focusing on and exaggerating the rule.  Satan has established his foothold.

    Look at what the serpent says next –at the end of verse 4 and into verse 5, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be open and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4b-5)

    Lessons 3 and 4 are both contained in these verse.  The third lesson is: Evil will always seek to deny the truth of the word of God.  In essence the serpent is saying, “God is not telling you the truth.”  This has moved from doubting what God said, to disbelieving the truth of what was said.  This is what St. Paul warns us about in Romans 1, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25)

    This is how temptation works in our lives also and we see it playing out daily in our society, even among so-called Christians.  They will first seek to disparage that the word of God says what it says; then they will say, “Well it doesn’t really mean it.”  When we do this we are treading on dangerous ground. 

    So this lesson is twofold for us.  First, we need to know His word.  We need to spend time daily in the Scriptures.  How can we be faithful if we know little about what his Word says?  And secondly, we need to believe His word and live in obedience to it.  In his excellent book, “Knowing God” J.I. Packer says, “[God’s word is] the index of reality: it shows us things as they really are, and as they will be for us in the future according to whether we heed God’s words to us or not.” (Packer, J.I. Knowing God, IVP, Downer’s Grove, 1993, p113)

    The temptation is always to deny the truth of God’s word in order to avoid the uncomfortable step of obedience to it.  So we must be watchful for the temptation often comes to us in an attempt to lead us astray by denying the Word of God.

    The fourth lesson (also in this verse) is that Evil will always seek to turn disobedience into a virtue.  So the serpent says not only, you will not die.   He adds, “You will be like God!”  This appeal to our ego further swells our pride and sense of self-importance.  So, the serpent says, not only is God’s word not trustworthy but you know that which God said not to do or you’ll die, it’s not bad at all.  It’s ok! It’s really to your benefit.  

    Isn’t this how temptation and sin work in our lives?  We convince ourselves that what we want, despite God’s commands, are actually better for us than those commands.  Therefore we seek to become an authority unto ourselves, editing God’s commands to suit us, and we attempt to make our words, his words and our preferences, his preferences. We rationalize that we are right and convince ourselves that our disobedience is a virtue.  

    Commentator David Atkinson says, “The way of rebellion puts immediate pleasure in front of possible consequences, and sets our own perceptions of what is good for us against what God has told us about ourselves and his world.” (Atkinson, Genesis 1-11, IVP, Downers Grove, 1990, 86-87)

    Well, you know how the story goes.  Eve eats from the tree, gives some to Adam and they are cast out of the garden.  Their intimate relationship with God is shattered, as is all creation, including their relationship with one another. And down to today it continues.  There is so much more to unpack here in Genesis 3, but let me recap my main points and offer some tactics of our own to resist the tempter’s schemes.

    Fighting Temptation

    I said there are 4 main lessons we find in the beginning of Genesis 3:

    • Evil is crafty and often masks its true nature until it is too late.  
    • Evil will always cause you to overfocus and exaggerate the rule.
    • Evil will always seek to deny the truth of the word of God.
    • Evil will always seek to turn disobedience into a virtue

    As we look at this anatomy of the fall, we can see the tactics of the tempter.  Friends, his tactics have not changed.  His goals have not changed.  He comes to lead us astray.  He wants our relationship with God and one another and all creation shattered just as Adam and Eve experienced. So we must be diligent in watching for these tactics and resistant to them.  

    In this discussion, I do want you to understand something important.  When we recognize that we have an enemy who seeks to lead us astray, it does not absolve us of the responsibility for our actions.  That is what we see in the rest of this passage.  God holds Adam and Eve accountable for their disobedience.  

    So how can we fight temptation?  

    1. The Fall shows us how a temptation can grow.  Let us take seriously the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation”.  Notice the petition is not “Lord, lead me OUT of temptation.” Clearly the better way is to avoid the tempting situation altogether.  Once we are already being tempted, it can be very difficult to extract ourselves from it.

    2. The Fall also reminds us that we should recognize the un-surrendered areas of our lives. That is where the tempter loves to attack.  Many of us have some habit or possession or some secret sin that we hold on to despite what we know about God’s commandments.  Let it go.  Our trust in him must be complete, even in that area you just thought of!  

    3. We must recognize the great work of Christ.  He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. And because of the incarnation of our Lord, the writer to the Hebrews says, “Because he himself [Jesus] has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18)  We are not left to face these battles alone.  

    Conclusion

    As Baptized Christians, we are called “to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to fight bravely under his banner against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your days”  You have received your battlefield commission.  These lessons from Genesis help us to know our enemy.  Let these lessons inform you as you face your own battles.   

    Arm yourself with Word and Sacrament, take confidence in the defeat of sin and death achieved by the Lord Jesus.  Remember temptation, sin and death do not have the last word.  Our call is to be watchful, diligent, resistant and reliant on our Lord’s assistance.  Jesus makes a way through the landmines of temptation.  Seek his strength and his guidance and fight the good fight of the faith.  Be his faithful soldier until the end of your days. AMEN.  

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    A Better Way in Bitter Times

    This week I had a friend who posted, “Ok, now that I’ve completed the trial week, I’d like to cancel my subscription to 2021.”  Another friend said that it was like 2021 told 2020, “Oh Yeah? Well, watch this.” 


    The civil unrest this past week in Washington D.C. has further underscored and galvanized the divisions in our country.  We already have been stretched and divided on so many fronts.  For instance, we have been wrestling with how to best address racial concerns, a sense of doubt in the election process, economic uncertainty, and the continued stress and fatigue regarding the pandemic.  These are just broad stroke topics, never mind the myriad of issues that flow from each of  these concerns.  

    To say that these are challenging times would be an understatement.  The phrase “unprecedented times” has been used quite a bit to describe these days.  But the truth is these are only unprecedented to us.  Looking back through history, we can clearly see that many nations and societies have been through this –and worse.  

    What makes this particularly challenging for us is that it is all playing out in real time on our computers and phones.  What also makes this infinitely more divisive is the rhetoric employed by many on every side to demonize, denigrate, and even destroy the opposition.  I have seen many people, people I know to be loving and caring people in general, say the most vitriolic and hateful things to others –even to other brothers and sisters in Christ.  

    In his book, “Confronting Justice without Compromising Truth”  Thaddeus Williams says, “If we see those who disagree with us as Republicans or Democrats, progressives or conservatives, radical leftists or right-wing fundamentalists first and image bearers [of God] second, or not at all, then we aren’t on the road to justice.  We’re on history’s wide and bloody road to dehumanization.” (p24)

    The issues we are struggling with are real issues, important issues.  I do not dispute that fact and I share many of your concerns.  What will our nation look like in 5 or 10 years?  I do not know.  But I do know that if the Church isn’t willing to truly be the church in these difficult days, to be a voice of faithfulness and calm and peace in these days, then our community and our nation will be the worse for it.  

    I do think there are those who are bent on carrying the banner of enmity, divisiveness, and hatred. And they are not limited to any one party or ideology.  We must resist the urge to whitewash “our” side and apply culpability entirely to “the other” side.  There’s enough responsibility for the state of our nation to go around.  

    Let us not be unaware that what we see playing out in the country right now is most certainly the work of the Evil One.  That fact does not absolve anyone of criminality or unchristian behavior.  The work of the Evil One, is spelled out throughout Scripture and his work is always the same.  Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10). Satan is called “the deceiver” (Rev 12:9), who goes about “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). St. Paul told the Ephesians, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

    The extreme divisiveness, the inflammatory rhetoric, the dehumanization of others made in the image of God are all of the Evil one.  The desire for retribution and vengeance, the spreading of false narratives and slander, are likewise his modus operandi.  As Christians we should have nothing to do with such behavior.  

    We must show a better way.  We must remain true to our Baptismal commitment to “renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and to “proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Jesus Christ to a lost and broken world.” (2019, Book of Common Prayer, pages 164 & 166). We must consider these promises in light of every conversation we have, every post we like or share, and every comment we make online.

    I know many of you are angry and frustrated and, if you’re honest, frightened.  In some ways, I am too.  But in times like these we show whether our Christianity is authentic or not, whether we believe what we profess or not, and if we really trust our God…or not.  

    I suggest the following for the people of God who are troubled and concerned in these difficult times:

    1.) First and foremost, seek the Lord with fervent prayer.  James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Pray for our community, our state, and our nation.  Pray for an end to violence and the restoration of peace.  Pray that we could solve our challenges with a common pursuit of truth and a genuine desire for the good of the other.  Fasting is also an excellent practice that, coupled with prayer, has benefitted God’s people throughout the history of the Church.  

    2.) Step back, detach from the media.  St. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”   Is that what we see on TV these days?  In our social media feeds? In what we ourselves are posting or saying?  Remember too Jesus’ own words in Matthew 6:22, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  I can’t remember the last time my soul felt better after 20 minutes on Facebook or watching the news.

    3.) Refuse to dehumanize your neighbor.  This is one of the more frightening trends I’ve been seeing.  Most every genocide in history began with the dehumanization of the other.  In the 1930s and 40’s Jews were called “rats” by the Germans and in Rwanda in the 1990’s Tutsis were called “cockroaches” by the Hutus –in both instances, once the dehumanizing language and mentality were established, the violence began.  Similar dehumanization language also preceded the genocides of Yugoslavia and Cambodia.  As Christians we are called to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”  That includes neighbors with differing opinions and outlooks, skin color, political preferences etc. 

    4.) Repent of the Idolatry of power politics, politicians, and ideology.  They cannot save us.  Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”  Time and again Israel tried to trust in politics and power and it always had disastrous results.  When they rejected God’s will and asked for themselves to have their own king “like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8) It led to much suffering and heartache.  Later, ignoring the Lord, they chose to enter into an alliance with Assyria, which helped lead to their downfall and exile.  (2 Kings 13).   While we can and should work legitimately within the structures we have to seek the good of our country, we must not put our trust in these things or ignore our Lord in the process.

    The Body of Christ, the Church is, in its essence, an outpost for the Kingdom of God.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds, must flow from that worldview and proclaim the true saving message of Jesus Christ in the midst of the brokenness we see around us.  This I believe represents our Christian posture in these days and I think recalls for us the admonition given by St. Paul in Romans 12:9-21:

    “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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    The Bible and the Newspaper

    The late Rev. Dr. Peter Moore was my homiletics (preaching) professor.  During class, he would have us research, outline, and preach sermons to our fellow students or to the entire school in chapel.  It was nerve wracking to say the least.  To be a novice preacher facing your opinionated peers (where there are 3 seminarians, you’ll find 5 opinions!) or seeing a row of Harvard and Cambridge trained academics listening to your thoughts was a knee-knocking experience.  But one thing that Peter said to us has always stuck with me.  He said, “Prepare your sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  Can you tell I went to seminary a long time ago! 🙂

    His point was that our task was not simply to mine the scriptures for intellectual nuggets to stimulate our listener’s brain, but to connect the wisdom of the Bible to real life in order move our listener’s hearts.   He taught us (in a point taken from John Stott) that we are to bridge the 1st century to the 21st century.

    I have thought of Peter’s advice a lot in this tumultuous 2020.  In former days the world was a busy, chaotic place and yet so much of it seemed far away.  During this year, we have faced quite a bit of anxiety, stress, and turmoil right here in our own homes, places of work, and in our parish family.  The tribalistic divide has only grown as the months of 2020 have passed.  From COVID to race to politics to any number of other things, life is coming at us ferociously.  It may seem that the 21st century has become unhinged from the 1st.  Can we really look to a faith some twenty centuries old to give us anything in these difficult days?  

    Yes.  We. Can.

    And it isn’t by burying our heads in the sand or whistling in the dark.  The Christian faith bridges into every century, every culture, every situation, every time.  How can we know and trust this?  Because Christians from the time of Nero until now have found this to be true –God’s truth is immutable.  God’s love is unstoppable. God’s mercy is unquenchable.   The world, the flesh, and the devil will try –furiously try– to convince us otherwise.  But the truth, love, goodness, and mercy of God, always, always remain.  And they always sustain.   

    Always.  

    In our frustration and pain, we may need to cry and mourn.  We may need to yell.  We may need to blow off steam. The Psalmist did.  Break open the psalms and you’ll find someone who might sound a lot like you!  But the Psalmist also understood the steady hand of God.  In Psalm 62:5-8 he says:

    “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.  My victory and honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge.”

    My hope is that, as Anglican Christians, we walk that bridge connecting the 1st century to the 21st  each week and, in fact, each day.  By  Word and Sacrament, we are fed, strengthened, and encouraged.  We gather in worship to give what my mentor called “high and holy praise to our high and holy God”. As we do, our praise is our assault against the darkness and chaos around us.  It is a declaration of faith and hope and love and that God is still God.  Even in the midst of 2020, He is the author of truth and the perfecter of love.  In Him is our hope.  And it is well-placed hope indeed.  

    So keep “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  Just spend more time in the Bible!

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    God’s Compassion for a Crazy World

    I’m going to say a name and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to your mind –the first thing you associate with that name.  1.) Thomas Edison. (The Lightbulb) 2.) Michael Jordan. (Basketball) 3.) Jonah (The Whale)

    Right.  The Whale.  That’s what everyone remembers about Jonah.  I can remember hearing the story of Jonah and the whale when I was a child in Sunday School.  And that’s all we really learned about him. God called him to go to Nineveh.  He didn’t want to go, so he got on a boat for Tarshish –which was in the opposite direction.  God sends a storm, the sailors feel like Jonah’s not telling them the truth.  Jonah confesses and says the storm will stop if you throw me overboard.  So they do and the storm stops.  Jonah is swallowed by some sort of fish –we usually say a whale – and spends 3 days talking things over with God before he is thrown up onto the beach.   And that’s about all we learn!  Most of our focus is spent trying to figure out the fish part of the story and we don’t pay any attention to what the book of Jonah is all about.

    I heard the story of a little girl who was asked about Jonah in school.  Her teacher knew she was a church goer and decided to give her a hard time.  The teacher was not being very kind.  She needled the little girl with questions.  She said, “We know a whale could not have swallowed Jonah.  Their throats are not big enough.” 

    The little girl said, “I don’t know ma’am.  But I’m inclined to believe the story.” 

    The teacher teased her, “How can you believe such fairy tales?”  

    The little girl responded, “Well, we believe Jesus rose from the dead.  So I think God could have arranged for some fish to swallow Jonah.”  

    The teacher scoffed.  The little girl added, “I suppose when I get to heaven, I’ll just have to ask Jonah about it.”  

    The teacher sarcastically responded, “And what if Jonah is not in heaven? What if he is in, you know, that other place?”  

    Without missing a beat, the little girl said, “Then I guess you can ask him.” (Source unknown)

    When you get into the story of Jonah you learn that the whale is not the main point at all.  It’s a story of the call to repentance and the unlikely people that responded to that call.

    Context

    We don’t have a precise date for the writing of Jonah, but most scholars believe it was written between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C. He was a prophet of God whose main duty was to called wayward people back to fidelity to God.  Usually the prophets were sent to Israel –God’s chosen people—to urge their return to their faith so that they may escape the discipline of God.  We see these messages throughout the major prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. 

    But Jonah’s call is different.  In Jonah 1:1-2 it says, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”  (Jonah 1:1-2, ESV).  Jonah must have done a doubletake.  He must have thought, “You want me to go where? Ninevah?  Come on God, anywhere but there!” 

    Why do we think that?  Because Jonah’s response, which occurs in the very next verse is to run the other way.  Jonah 1:3, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”  (Jonah 1:3, ESV)

    Why did he not want to go to Nineveh?   Well Nineveh was the major city of some of Israel’s most vicious and powerful enemies, the Assyrians.  The Assyrians would attack and destroy Jerusalem in 722BC and carry God’s people off into exile.  The last place a Jewish prophet would want to go and preach in would be Nineveh. But yet, this is where God told Jonah to go.

    There is great meaning in this call.  What are the lessons we can learn from this short Old Testament book?  

    First, Divine Judgment and Divine Compassion work together.  Undoubtedly the sins of Nineveh were great.  God tells Jonah that, “Their evil has come up before me.”   God saw their sin.  They were guilty, even if they didn’t fully realize it.  After all they are gentiles, not Jews.  They didn’t have the Law of Moses.  Yet they were still guilty. 

    I had a high school student ask me about this concept once.  How can you be held accountable if you didn’t know you were sinning?   I asked him if he had his driver’s license yet.  He said he did.  I asked him if he followed the speed limit.   He sheepishly said, “Usually.”  I asked if he noticed that sometimes the speed limit signs changed on the same road.  How on one stretch it might be a 55 and then a few minutes later, on the same road it would change to 45.  He said yes.   I asked, “If the speed limit changes to 45, and you don’t see it, can you still get a ticket?”   He said “Of course.”   He was right.  The law is the law whether you are ignorant of it or not.  St. Paul says as much in Romans 1 when he says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” (Romans 1:18a, ESV)

    And in his judgement, Ninevah was guilty and heading for divine retribution.  But in his divine compassion, he is sent his servant Jonah to call them to repentance which will hopefully lead to restoration.  The compassion and the judgement of God are not mutually exclusive. He is reaching out for them, offering them a second chance.  The question is, “Will they listen?  Will they accept it?”  The leads to the 2nd lesson I think we can learn from Jonah.

    Second, God will respond to the cry for forgiveness and mercy.  God does not revel in punishment.  He delights in showing mercy.  We hear Jonah say as much in today’s reading.  He says of God, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2b, ESV)

    When Jonah finally gets to Nineveh, he gives the shortest and most halfhearted sermon ever.  Listen to the extent of Jonah’s message to Nineveh, it’s in Jonah 3:4.  He said,“Yet forty days and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”  That’s it.  That’s all he said.  It’s sort of anti-climatic.  You keep waiting for a real barn-burner of a sermon.  But he doesn’t give it.  It reminds me of trying to get your kids to apologize.  Have you ever tried that?  “Honey, say you’re sorry.”  And they barely mumble, “Sorry.”  It’s so half-hearted.  It doesn’t seem like much of an apology, does it?  Jonah’s sermon seems sort of like that. 

    But to Jonah’s dismay, that’s all it took.  The entire city, including the king, repents.  Jonah 3:5 says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”  And the book of Jonah continues in 3:6-9:

    “The word reachedthe king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

    They repent.  They wake from their slumber, turn from their sin, they fast.  They put deeds to their words.  And Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”

    My friends, God responds to a sincere cry for mercy and a truly repentant heart.  In the absolution, the priest says, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him….” (1928 Book of Common Prayer, 76)   And this is what God wants.  This brings me to my third point:

    Third, God Desires True Repentance.  The people of Ninevah respond exactly how a people should respond to a call to repent.  Old Testament scholar, and my former professor, Paul House summarizes Nineveh’s response, “They believe God’s word, humble themselves, change their wicked ways, and place themselves under God’s mercy.” (House, Old Testament Theology, 367)

    There’s hardly a better example of a response to a prophet in the whole Old Testament .  Sadly it’s not Israel that responds this way, but the despised people of Nineveh.  And that’s why Jonah is so stinking mad!

    Jonah 4:1 says, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.”   Jonah’s own people, Israel, the chosen people of God, had never responded this well to a prophet’s call to repent.  Not like this.  It was humiliating.  It was embarrassing.  Jonah wanted to die and asked for God to kill him, not once, but twice. 

    But God is gracious in his mercy.  Consider Psalm 145:8-9: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:8-9, ESV)

    And Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)  God desires true repentance. 

    What about us?

    So how are we to apply this lesson?  Well, overarching this entire book is the great compassion of our God for all people –even those people that we do not particularly like.  When Jonah complains to God about what he perceives to be God’s over-generosity to Ninevah, God says, “Should I not pity Nineveh. That great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11, ESV)

    God has compassion on this crazy world. But notice that the compassion of God is twofold.  First, God’s compassion shows by the sending of Jonah to warn Ninevah.  He sends His messenger to awaken the people to their sin.  That in itself is an act of Divine Mercy.   Can we see that in our lives?  Can we see the Word of God, as it speaks to us and calls us to faithfulness, as a mark in itself of the mercy of God? 

    Secondly, God shows his compassion for this crazy world by the call and the opportunity to repent.  He didn’t leave them to languish in their sins.  He helped them see their sin, know its danger, and invited them to repent.  This enabled a them to find a new relationship with a previously unknown God.   And the people of Nineveh, listen and they respond.

    2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

    Again, listen to Paul House’s summary.  The people of Nineveh “believed God’s word, humbled themselves, changed their wicked ways, and placed themselves under God’s mercy.”

    That is the path for us.  It’s the path for us as individuals.  It’s the path for us as a community.  It’s the path for us as a nation. 

    Do we believe God’s word?  Do we welcome it as the people of Nineveh did?  The Scriptures will give us great comfort, yes, but they will also expose us.  Because the Word of God holds a mirror in front of us and reveals our true selves and our sin.  That may seem frightening– and it is—until you discover that God’s greatest desire is not to shame us, but to heal us.  That’s what Ninevah discovered and that’s what Jesus showed us in his passion, death, and resurrection.  This should naturally lead us to humility before God and a desire for his guidance and his truth.   When we receive these things, we change our ways and place ourselves under God’s mercy.  And then, friends, we discover, perhaps to our surprise, there is no better place to be. 

    Our Lord is compassionate toward this crazy world.  We all know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The motivation for God’s judgement and mercy is his love.  Not only does he have compassion on this crazy world.  He has compassion on crazy you.  And crazy me. 

    So, may we do what Ninevah did:

    May we believe God’s word,

    May we humble ourselves,

    change our wicked ways,

    and place ourselves under God’s mercy and compassion.

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    Living in Angry Times

    Billy Sunday was an American evangelist in the early 1900’s.  He was known for his plain-spoken sermons and fiery delivery.  In some ways you could say he was a prototype of Billy Graham.  One day a lady came to speak with Billy Sunday.  During the course of their conversation she admitted to having a problem with anger.  She attempted to rationalize it by saying, “There’s nothing wrong with losing my temper.  I blow up and it’s all over.”

    Billy thought for a minute and replied, “So does a shotgun.  And look at the damage it leaves behind.”  (sermonillustrations.com)

    We are living in angry times.  In his book, Fortitude, Dan Crenshaw says, “As a society we may have finally reached a point where we realize something is a little off.  The pathos has grown out of control, often at the expense of logic, decency and virtue. We aren’t acting the way we are supposed to.”  He continues, “How long can our society endure when we are at each other’s throats?”  (page 9)

    We have 5 major, divisive, and anger-inducing events occurring at the same time.  Any one of these would be enough on their own.  But we have all five happening at once!  It doesn’t matter which way you lean, or what political party you favor.   There are five major things happening right now: 1.) We have the ongoing Coronavirus situation, 2.) the economic fallout of the virus response, 3.) Racial tensions, 4.) Some of the worst civil unrest our country has ever seen and 5.) a very divisive presidential campaign season.  And all of these have layers of concerns and frustrations for us all. 

    Is it any wonder that, in an article published earlier this year by the Washington Post, psychologist Raymond Novaco remarked that, “We are living, in effect, in a big anger incubator.”

    There is a sense in which this pervasive anger is swirling all around us.  And perhaps, more than we are willing to admit, a lot of us are dealing with anger within ourselves.  Friends, there are certainly things that should make us angry. Injustice, violence, oppression should anger us. Something like child sex trafficking should make us angry.  I’m not talking about that kind of focused specific, righteous anger.  I’m talking about the kind of deep-seated all-encompassing fuming, ever present, nebulous sense of anger that many of us are experiencing.  I’ve spoken to a few people about it and I’m finding that often, there’s no real specific focus.  I’ve heard from a number of people who say, “It’s like I’m angry at everything and everyone. I’m tired.  I’m frustrated.  And I don’t know what do to with it.”

    So let’s talk about it.  Let’s try to unpack and unload this anger a bit and see what the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit may have to say about it.  Because I believe, friends, this is not healthy for our souls and it is not how God wants us to live. You and I weren’t meant to live angry lives.

    Help from Scripture

    Life presents us with questions.  It just does, right? As we live, we have questions about all sorts of things –questions about the meaning of life, how to handle difficulties, how to deal with evil, how to make sense of sexuality, what to do in grief, and how to understand ourselves.  Understanding ourselves includes understanding our emotions, such as anger.  As Christians, the first place we look for guidance in all these things is Scripture. We look to see what God has said to us about this.  And over and over again Scripture speaks of anger. Here’s a little survey:

    Psalm 37:8: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”

    Proverbs 19:11: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”

    Matthew: 5:22: [Jesus said,] “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

    Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

    James 1:19-20: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

    There’s a remarkable consistency on this from the Old Testament to the New Testament on this point.  Today’s Old Testament lesson is from Ecclesiasticus, which is in the Apocrypha.  Let me give you a little information about these books.  These 14 books which are basically from the time of the Old Testament. They were included in the Septuagint and in the Latin Vulgate. But at the Reformation, as they were not in the Hebrew Bible, they were removed from the Christian Bible.  This is why Catholic Bibles have them and Protestant Bibles do not.  The Anglican Church sought a middle way, a via media, in dealing with them.  The 39 Articles of Religion, which are foundational documents to Anglicanism, says that the Apocrypha is read by the Church, “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet does not apply them to establish any doctrine.”  So in the spirit of reading for “example of life” I call your attention to the reading from Ecclesiasticus:

    “Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, and the sinful man will hold them fast.”  And later in 28, verse 3, “Does one person harbor anger against another and yet seek healing from the Lord?”  

    I am struck by the words of “Hold them fast” when the writer speaks of Anger and wrath.  And then the world “harbor” as in the person harboring anger against another. These get to the heart of the problem of anger. 

    Anger vs. Wrath

    Anger is simply an emotion.  It’s a response to stimulus.  Some things in our lives bring us joy, others sadness.  Still other things may elicit the emotion of anger.  Sometimes rightfully so- as I mentioned earlier.  There is a difference between the emotion of anger and the sin of anger.  What scripture is warning us about is not so much the emotion of anger but the sin of anger.  God himself shows anger a number of times in the Old Testament. There were several occasions Jesus displayed anger in his earthly life.  In fact, in one confrontation with the Pharisees St. Mark tells us, “[Jesus] looked around at them in anger, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5)  .  So what is the difference and why does it matter?

    It used to be that the sin of anger was always distinct from the emotion of anger because the sin was called “wrath”. Wrath, the sin of anger, occurs when the emotion hits us and we do not oppose it, but we nurture it.   The sin is when we, as the psychologist I quoted earlier said, when we become “anger incubators”.  We nurture it, we grow it, we revel in it.  It is when being outraged becomes a hobby and obsession. 

    In his book, Back to Virtue, theologian Peter Kreeft says that two things move us from simple anger to sin.  First, an act of the will.  When we will ourselves to get, be, and stay furious, we have crossed the line. Secondly, our anger moves to sin when it is inordinate and irrational.  (p133-4)

    A Deadly Sin

    Wrath has always been on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Pride, envy, greed, wrath, sloth, gluttony, lust are the sins on the list.  They have been called deadly because of what they have the potential to produce in us and the severe damage they can do.  Historically, the Church has taught that these sins are particularly strong temptations for us and nurturing them in our lives can be particularly poisonous for our souls.  These are the parents of most every other sin.  Jesus directly links anger with murder and lust with adultery in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. 

    Again Kreeft is helpful.  He puts his finger on the problem of anger when he says, “Anger tends to lead to hatred.”  If love is the greatest good, and God is love, then hatred is evil, and plainly against God.  Hatred wills and desires harm to its object.  This is not of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Hatred is the child of wrath, and this is deadly to our souls as it puts us in league with the evil one. 

    How can We Fight This Sin?

    So in a world, and in a time, that seems soaked in anger and wrath, how can we fight this sin?  And we need to friends.  There are way too many of us getting caught up in this soul-killing spirit of the age. 

    First off, would God command us to do something that he knew was impossible for us to do? I don’t think so. That’d be a bit duplicitous.  When he says, “Do not commit adultery” I think he means for us to not do that.  When he tells us “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31) I believe he expects us to be obedient to that command.  So let us be done with rationalizing and excusing.  Don’t say, “I can’t help it.  It’s just the way I am.  I blow up and and it’s all over.”  Remember, the shotgun does the same thing!  You can’t control the stimulus coming at you, but you do have control over your reaction.  God has given you the ability, through his Holy Spirit to resist and not be an anger incubator!

    Secondly, we need to cultivate the counter virtue of submissiveness to God.  If we want to know what this looks like, we look to Jesus who is the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).  In all things Jesus is submissive to the will of His Father.  His father is our father, for we are his children by adoption in baptism.  This is a call to strength, but strength in meekness, in humility, and in love.  This is how we weather this storm—with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit we live our lives as citizens of the Kingdom.   We may have righteous anger over what we see going on in the world, but we place these concerns, and our anger, squarely at the foot of the cross.  We refuse to give into unabated wrath and hatred not simply because it is not good for us, but because it does not, in any way, produce the image of Christ in us or show his glory to the world.

    Lastly, we need to immerse ourselves in prayer.  We need to seek God’s wisdom in walking through these difficult days.  We need to worship, to receive the strength of the Eucharist and seek to be beacons of light and love to a world bent on anger and hatred.   That is our privilege and calling. 

    Conclusion

    Friends, refuse to live in anger.  Refuse to give in to wrath. Do not harbor anger or hold onto wrath.  Remember the words of St. Paul in Philippians 2:14-15

    “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” (Philippians 2:14-15)

    AMEN+

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    Only One Right Answer

    Which Wire?

    The other night I was watching a movie in which one of the characters had been kidnapped and wired with a bomb.  It was set on a timer and it was up to the hero of the film to diffuse the bomb and save his friend’s life.  Almost every time a film does this the scenario and the outcome are the same.  There is a timer with big bright red numbers that is counting down.  The bomb is put on the poor victim in a way that prevents its removal without detonating.  So the only solution is to diffuse it.  There are always a myriad of wires and at least one of them needs to be cut to save the day.  But which one?  Beads of sweat form on the hero’s tense face.  He grips the wire clippers firmly.  He puts the clippers around the red wire.  But is that the right one?  He pauses.  He changes his mind, and decides the blue wire should be cut.  The victim urges him to hurry.  The timer ticks down.  With just a handful of seconds remaining, usually just 1 or 2 for extra dramatic effect, our hero suddenly clips the white wire and the timer stops.  Every breathes a sigh of relief. 

    That scene, almost in that exact steps, has been repeated in many movies and every time we hold our breath, right?  Will he cut the correct wire? 

    There are times when there are many possible answers to a question.  When someone asks our opinion, there are a number of possible answers.  When someone asks us how to get to Chattanooga, there may be a fastest way, but there are actually a number of ways to get there.

    But there are other times when there is only one right answer.  If someone asks you your birthday, there’s only one right answer.  If someone asks you your firstborn son’s name, there is only one right answer. 

    Jesus and the Question

    If we were asked to describe Jesus, there are many answers.  We could describe Him as Holy, Righteous, or Merciful.   But these just tell us facets of him.  We could describe him by what he did:  He was a preacher, a healer, an example, or a miracle worker.  Those questions have many answers.  But the question posed by Jesus to the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson is a question that has only one right answer.  It is a question about the very identity of Jesus.  It starts with the question:

    “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13).  In their answer, the disciples express that there is division about who he is.

    Then, like now, there was confusion about his identity.  There were divisions among the people in the 1st century about who this itinerant preacher really was.  It is really no different in the 21st century, is it?

    Each year, as the Christians around the world prepare for Easter there is a surge in the publication of articles and books about Jesus.  Many of them are aimed at presenting Jesus as a preacher, a healer, revolutionary, or even a circus clown or hippie.  There are usually articles on the latest theories and ideas, supposed newfound knowledge and research that promises to shed light on who Jesus really was. 

    Seldom do these publications deliver.  In many ways they are answering in the same way that the disciples report, “Some say John the Baptist—an eccentric preacher.  Others say Elijah—one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  Still others claim that you are another one of the prophets of old.” 

    Then Jesus looks at his followers, his disciples, and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, ESV)

    You who have walked with me.  You who have watched me, heard me, spent time with me, followed me…Who do you say that I am?”

    Of course we know Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16, ESV)

    One Right Answer

    The key point of these verses is that there is only one right answer to this question and Peter gets it.  Peter sees.

    Jesus is not a ball of clay that is shaped into what I want him to be.  Because there is only one right answer to the question. 

    The point of this passage is that the people who called Jesus “John the Baptist”, “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets” were incorrect.  Jesus’ question, you see, is a vision test for his disciples.

    When you go to have your eyes checked, the doctor will show you an eye chart.  That eye chart has a series of letters on it that you are asked to read, usually one eye at a time in an effort to see if you are seeing clearly.  You don’t get to make up your own answers!  If you do, you fail.  If you see clearly, you can read it correctly.

    Jesus is giving a vision test to his disciples to see if they see Him clearly. 

    But why?  Why is this crucial and why ask the disciples?

    The Centrality of Jesus

    Because, above all else, the person of Jesus stands at the center of everything.  We are called to be a Christocentric community.  And in order to do that we must have a clear view of who he is and what he is about, who he calls us to be and what he calls us to believe and do.  Everything comes down to Jesus.

    Christianity and the Christian life only falls into place properly when we come to see, know, honor and love Jesus.  In a healthy church, everything points to that goal.  The music should point you to Jesus.  The Liturgy should point you to Jesus.  The Teaching, the prayers, the community, the building, everything should speak to your heart and mind about him.

    Where churches get into trouble is when any of those one things become an end to themselves.  When liturgy is traded for pageantry.  When the music of worship becomes a show to entertain.  When the building is revered only for its own sake.  When ministers become a cult of personality.  When the size of the congregation is the primary marker of success then the church has lost its main focus and its first love.  Then what exists is a Christian club, not a church.  Our focus on Jesus is absolutely central and crucial, because by it everything else rises or falls.  In fact most heresies that arisen in Church history and sometimes rear their heads today begin with a problematic understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ.

    How is our Vision?

    How is our vision?  Do we see Jesus’ identity properly?  Do we understand him to be the Son of God, our Savior, and our Redeemer?  He is a great teacher.  But he is more.  He does offer prophecy, but he is more than a prophet.  He heals many people, but he is more than a healer.  We’re going to spend a couple of minutes in our Catechism unpacking our understanding and vision of Jesus.

    In our Catechism, question 48 is, “Who is Jesus Christ?”  And the answer is, “Jesus Christ is the eternal Word and Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. He took on human nature to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, the only Mediator between God and fallen humanity.”  (To Be A Christian, page 38)

    If that is true, then the ball is in back in our court.  How do we respond?  With faith. Again, I find our Catechism to be helpful here, Question 12 says, “To have faith means that I believe the Gospel is the truth: that Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and rules over my life. Therefore, I entrust myself to him as my Savior, and I obey him as my Lord.”

    And what can we expect from this faith?  Question 15 says, “God grants me reconciliation with him, forgiveness of my sins, union with him in Christ, adoption into his family, citizenship in his kingdom, new life in the Holy Spirit, and the promise of eternal life.” 

    And question 16 rounds out our walk through the Catechism, it says, “What does God desire to accomplish in your life in Christ? God desires to free me from captivity to sin and transform me into the image of Jesus Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit.”

    I wonder if many people haven’t become so jaded with the world and with themselves that they fear they are just stuck.  Stuck in this difficult, painful world, stuck in a rut of bad habits and poor decisions.  Captive to their moods and the gravitational pull of a Godless society.   If, in any way, this describes you, Jesus has far more for you than you can imagine.  A new and transformed life in Christ is not only probable, it is promised. 

    And for us long-time Christians, sometimes our vision gets blurry.  Sometimes our view of Him gets obscured by the ups and downs of life.  If that is you, then know, your Lord loves you, and has not abandoned you. 

    We often need our vision healed.  We often need a clear image of the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And it is God’s gift to us.  After Peter’s confession, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17, ESV) 

    If you want this kind of living, active faith, and need a clearer picture of Jesus, then let’s ask Him.  If you need a renewal of your faith in Him, a healing of your vision then let’s ask Him.   

    He who Gets the Son, Gets everything!

    Let me close a story to illustrate the crucial nature of the Son.  It’s one of my favorite illustrations on this point, so you may have heard it before!

    A wealthy man and his son loved to collect rare works of art. They had everything in their collection, from Picasso to Raphael. They would often sit together and admire the great works of art.

    War broke out and The son was drafted. During that war he was killed. 

    The father grieved his son greatly and hung a portrait of the son over the mantle. Every time visitors came to his home he took them to see the portrait of his son before he showed them any of the other great works he had collected.

    The man died soon after his son. There was to be a great auction of his exquisite collection of paintings. The first picture to be auctioned was the portrait of the son.

    The auctioneer pounded his gavel. “We will start the bidding with this picture of the son. Who will bid for this picture?”

    There was silence. Then a voice in the back of the room shouted, “We want to see the famous paintings. Skip this one.”

    But the auctioneer persisted, “Will someone bid for this painting? Who will start the bidding? $100, $200?”

    Finally, a voice came from the very back of the room. It was the longtime family friend of the man and his son. “I’ll give $10 for the painting.” Being a poor man, it was all he could afford.  But he had been very close to the family and knew how much the father had loved that painting.

    “$10 is the bid, won’t someone bid $20?” The crowd was becoming angry. They didn’t want the picture of the son. They wanted the more worthy investments for their collections. The auctioneer pounded the gavel.  “Going once, twice, SOLD for $10!

    !The auctioneer laid down his gavel, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the auction is over.”

    “What about the paintings?” everyone cried.

    “I am sorry. I must tell you that there was a secret stipulation in the will. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. The man who took the son gets everything!”

    Conclusion

    Friends, I pray your vision of the Son is sharp and clear.  If not, let us pray for it.  He who gets the Son, gets everything.   AMEN+

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    When You Are In a Storm

    Storms.  We all know what it is like to be caught in one.  The wind, the rain, the thunder and lightning.  We know their power.  We know their strength.  We also know that, when we are caught in a storm, we should seek shelter.  You can sometimes drive through storms.  At other times, it’s wise to pull over and wait it out.  When I was flying airplanes, it was common knowledge that you do not mess with thunderstorms.  You avoid them.  You land and wait them out.  But on a boat, as the disciples are in today’s Gospel lesson?  That’s tricky.  They are on a lake.  There is no real shelter.  There is no pulling over.  There is no landing and waiting it out.  They are truly caught in the squall.   And, understandably, they are scared. 

    There’s a story of a 5-year old little boy, let’s call him Tommy.  He was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” She asked again, and he persisted. Finally she said, “It’s OK–Jesus will be in there with you.” So Tommy walked hesitantly to the door and slowly opened it. He peeked inside, saw it was dark, and said: “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?”  (SermonIllustrations.com, Fear)

    Have we not been caught in a storm of life and been fearful?  There’s a lot of fear in the world today due to the COVID19 pandemic.  But the fears we often face are not limited to a virus.  Storms of life are always around us. There are times when we simply get caught in them.  Let’s get some background and context to this passage.

    Context

    This event in Matthew’s Gospel comes right on the heels of the feeding of the 5000.  In the opening verse of today’s Gospel we read, “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side.”  (Matthew 14:22, ESV)  There’s an urgency in the verse.  The word translated “made” carries an implication of being “compelled”.  But why the urgency?  Why did he immediately make them get in the boat and cast off?  It is likely because of the crowds response to Jesus’ miracle.  In John’s version of these events we get a little more insight.  St. John says, 14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed [the feeding of the multitude], they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15, NIV)

    Scholars think that perhaps Jesus’ urgency in separating his disciples from the crowd was to prevent this type of thinking from infecting them—he did not want to foster this view of himself as some sort of political figure. 

    After the disciples are in the boat Jesus withdraws to pray in a solitary place.  It was probably late and he evidently prayed for a while because the next time we see Jesus in this passage he is coming to the boat during the 4th watch of the night which was between 3am and 6am.

    Now, let’s dig into some of the lessons we can learn from this passage when we face our own storms.

    Lessons from the Storm

    Matthew says that “the boat, by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves for the wind was against them.” (Matthew 14:24, ESV)  I love Matthew’s honest assessment of the situation.  A long way from land.  This means they were beyond the reach of safe harbor.  There is no shelter for them.  They are being beaten by the waves.  Not just “bounced around” or “tossed” by the waves.  They are being “beaten” by the waves.  Don’t you know what that is like?  Haven’t you been there?  We can put up with a little buffeting by life.  In many ways we can endure a bit of turbulence. We may even expect it to a certain degree.  But there are other times when we are truly being beaten by a storm.  Matthew also says the wind was against them.  I think we know what that is like as well.  We know what it means to be struggling to move forward, rowing against the wind.  The storm is raging.

    1.) So the first step in dealing with life’s storms is truly face the situation.  It does no good for us to try to minimize or sidestep the reality we are facing.  If we cannot or will not admit our predicament, we cannot respond to it.  Denial does not help us.  Many of these disciples were professional fisherman.  They made their living on this lake.  And they knew they were in serious trouble. It is not a lack of faith to look around and recognize the storm.  Why is this so crucial?  Because only when we recognize the storm can we seek help in the storm. 

    Here, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus comes into the narrative again.  Verse 25, “And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea.” (Matthew 14:25, ESV) 

    This miracle serves to remind us of Jesus’ authority—especially over creation.  We serve a mighty God.  Every miracle of Jesus is an indication of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Every miracle speaks to His rule.  The making of water into wine, the healing of the lepers, the casting out of demons, the feeding of the 5000, and the walking on the water all are un-natural occurrences—they suspend the natural laws of this world.  They are not parlor tricks or manipulations of a messianic magician.  No, think about it –they are precisely the things you would expect to happen if God were walking among us –and he is.   

    So Jesus comes to his disciples walking on the water.  Even in the first century they knew that this wasn’t normal.  Already tired and exhausted by their all night battle with the wind and the waves, they are afraid.  Matthew says, “When the disciples saw him walking on the water they were terrified…” (Matthew 14:26)

    2.) The second thing I want you to consider when you are in the storm, is that fear is normal—but so is the presence of Jesus.  Jesus responds to their fear by saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27, ESV)  I love what commentator N.T. France says, “[This verse is] an assurance for those who have good reason to fear: it does not indicate that the crisis is not real, but that in the presence of Jesus fear can be dismissed.” (France, R.T., Matthew, Eerdman’s, 1985, p238-9)  The key is “in the presence of Jesus”.  Jesus does not chastise them for being afraid.  No.  Instead he calls them out of their fear-based focus to look to him.  Why does he say not to be afraid?  Because the wind and the waves are not real?  No.  Because they are exaggerating their difficult situation?  No.  Why does Jesus tell them not to be afraid?  Because, “Ego eimi”  It. Is. I.  I am here.

    This is not simply “whistling in the dark.”  Far from it.  It is walking in the dark but focusing on the light.    

    And then we have Peter’s big moment.  He says, “Lord, if it is you. Command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28, ESV)  I’ve heard this passage read all my life and I’ve studied it a number of times.  But I’d never thought about how unique, perhaps even odd,  Peter’s request is.  I think I would have asked Jesus to hurry up and get in the boat.  I’d be waving to him, “Come on! We’re gonna drown!”  It would never have crossed my mind that I could walk on the water to Jesus.  But not Peter.  Peter wants to go to Jesus.  He wants to walk out there to him.  But in doing so, Peter gives us a wonderful gift.  It’s as if by enabling Peter to do this, Jesus takes this moment to the next level. 

    3.) This brings me to the third thing to consider when you are in the storm.  Jesus enables us to handle and accomplish far more than we think possible. 

    Jesus answers Peters request and says, “Come”.  Matthew says that Peter “got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” (Matthew 14:29, ESV)

    Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle says:

    “[This event] shows us what great things our Lord can do for those that hear his voice and follow him.  He can enable them to do things which at one time they would have thought impossible: he can carry them through difficulties and trials, which without him they would never have dared to face…” 

    (Ryle, J.C., Matthew, Banner of Truth, 1856, 2012, p136)

    Peter knew that the best place to be in the storm was near to Jesus.  And that is a lesson we need to take to heart.  Sometimes in our storms, in our trials and difficulties, we began to simply row the boat harder.  Or we try to distract ourselves.  Or we try our own remedies.  But, as Christians, we have the greatest and most powerful means of weathering life’s storms—the presence of Christ our Lord. 

    4.) The fourth thing we learn in this passage is that when you’re in the storm, keep you focus on Jesus, not the storm.  Matthew says in verse 30 that, “When [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out ‘Lord, save me.’” (Matthew 14:30, ESV) 

    We can take both a warning and comfort from this verse.  The warning is to stay focused.  Peter began to sink when we began to focus on the storm again.  Again Ryle is helpful.  He says, “Fear took away his memory; alarm confused his reason.”  If it happened to this disciple who had just walked on water to Jesus, it can happen to us also.  We can lose our focus as the storm rages around us. 

    But the comfort comes in Jesus’ response.  Matthew says, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31, ESV)  I love the word “immediately” in this passage.  It shows how Jesus is gentle and compassionate with us in our struggles.  He knows our frailty and our tendency toward fear.  He calls us to look to him, but will never abandon us in the midst of the storm.  Our Lord is always ready to help us. 

    5.) The fifth lesson we learn is that as we come through the storm with Jesus, we praise Him more.  Matthew says, “And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32-33)

    As priests, we are often on hand for the most wonderful events in a person’s life.  But we are also on hand for the worst, most difficult, and gut wrenching events in a person’s life.  As I have walked with people through their storms, I have found this to be an almost universal truth  –that as Christians pass through their storms their experience of Jesus’ faithfulness deepens their love for Him.  As the wind and waves cease, they too fall on their knees and worship him with greater confidence and trust. They have known his presence and provision in their hour of need and they have found him “mighty to save”.   

    Conclusion

    We will face storms, that much is certain.  The question is how will we respond?  May we learn from this event in Matthew’s Gospel.  We must face the storm, acknowledge our fear, focus on our Lord, trust in his presence, rely on his compassion, and remain focused on him. 

    There’s an old poem that I’d like to close with that gets to the heart of these lessons very well.  It goes like this:

    Trust Him when dark doubts assail thee,

    Trust Him when thy strength is small,

    Trust Him when to simply trust Him

    Seems the hardest thing of all.

    Trust Him, He is ever faithful,

    Trust Him, for his will is best,

    Trust Him, for the heart of Jesus

    Is the only place of rest.

    AMEN+

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