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FAQ’s of Faith: Who Is Jesus?

(a sermon for February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Matthew 16:13-20)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

It might have seemed a simple question, but when Jesus asked it of his disciples they knew immediately that there was any number of answers they could give.  “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the [other] prophets.”  Basically, Jesus, it depends on who you ask and when you ask them; truth is, everybody out there seems to have a different take on just who you are and what you’re all about!

And so it is even now; I mean, of all the “FAQ’s” (that is, “Frequently Asked Questions”) with which I could have started this sermon series, this question about who Jesus is would seem to generate the most wide array of responses!  For instance, for a whole lot of people their primary (and perhaps solitary) picture of Jesus is that of the baby in the manger; while others will immediately connect the name Jesus with the figure that hangs on a crucifix, even if they’re not at all sure what that even represents.  The fact is, there are countless people who can easily name Jesus as a historical figure or know that he’s some sort of religious icon, and yet not really know much more than that about who he is!

Then again, even those of us who have spent much of our lives knowing Jesus to one degree or another can attest to, shall we say, a changing point of view where he’s concerned.  For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School, I’m guessing that somewhere in the back of your mind there’s an image of Jesus as having long, flowing black hair, milky white skin and a robe of white and scarlet; surrounded by children and cradling a lamb in his arms; maybe that’s still how you like to think of Jesus!  Or if you are of, as they say, “a certain age” or perhaps more accurately, of a certain generation, it could be that your image of Jesus is that of the ultimate counter-culture icon; the one who vehemently turned all the values and assumptions of our middle-class world upside and inside out, the one, writes Philip Yancy, whose every teaching was “jarringly antimatrialistic, antihypcritcal, pro-peace and pro-love.”  Indeed, in all times and especially in these times Jesus can appropriately be seen as the vanguard of social justice on every level of human society.

Dig a little deeper, however; get into the biblical and theological perspective as to the identity of this Jesus of Nazareth and you discover a whole realm of possibilities as to how we might know him.  He’s the Christ; he’s Lord of Heaven and Earth; he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords; he’s the Messiah, and our Savior; he’s the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Redeemer; he’s the Bread of Life, he’s Living Water and he’s the Light of the World; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man; and he’s our Emmanuel, God With Us.  Jesus is the one to whom John refers to in his gospel as the “Word made flesh [that has] lived among us,” (John 1:14) and who Paul described to the Hebrews as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)  He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and he’s the Incarnate Word of God!

And yet for all of that and so much more that I could recite to you here, we really can’t tell you all that much about what he looked like; about his life between the time he was born and the beginning of his public ministry nearly 30 years later, or even if he had brothers and sisters (biblical scholars have been debating that question for centuries!). We really don’t even have a sense of everything Jesus might have said or taught in those three years of itinerant ministry; all we can claim as truth are the accounts of the four men who wrote the gospels, with the rest coming from biblical history, church tradition and the kind of discernment and analysis that is renewed with each successive generation.

So… when Jesus asks that question – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” – I guess the answer does come down to who you ask and when you ask them!  (Actually, maybe the best response came from the renowned theologian Karl Barth; who when asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence, he answered, “Yes, I can… [it’s] ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”)

But then, in our text this morning Jesus asks another question; and this one cannot be answered in such a second-hand manner: “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”  This is where things got personal very quickly!  I have to imagine that at this moment the disciples were all very quiet and looking to the ground, each one of them careful to avoid eye contact with Jesus, like students in a classroom hoping and praying that the teacher won’t call on them!  Because it’s one thing, you see, to report the “conventional wisdom” of the people and even share a bit of the gossip that’s out there; but it’s quite another to commit yourself!  Answering this kind of a question requires something of you; as if to say it means that you know it and you live it!   Those disciples knew full well in that moment that however they answered Jesus, life as knew it would never be the same again; they knew, as do you and I, that we are what we claim!

It turns out, you see, that as much as we might try to seek out answers to this question of who Jesus is, ultimately the real question that needs to be asked is who Jesus is to us; and the thing is, friends, how we answer that question will inevitably affect our responses to every other question of faith and life itself.  And it’s not to say that all the things we’ve seen, heard and learned about Jesus don’t come into play here; in many, many ways we are all the by-products of  two millennia of Christian teaching and tradition, not to mention all those years we spent hearing Bible stories and doing arts and crafts in Sunday School!  But in the end, what all that means and how all of it comes into focus in our lives is revealed by our own confession of faith; it is what and who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who we are and who we’re willing to be!

Granted, to make that kind of confession does involve some risk.  It’s no accident that of all the disciples with Jesus that day it’s only Peter – good ol’ impulsive, I-can-walk-on-water-just-watch-me Peter (!) – who even dares to respond to Jesus’ question:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  It was a bold answer, albeit one as he ended up revealing again and again, that Peter didn’t really completely understand; but he said it, and with every fiber of his being, he meant it.  Somehow, the whole mystery of what God had done in and through Jesus had gotten through to him, and though he couldn’t begin to explain or interpret it in any kind of way that made sense or that resolved the mystery of it, Peter knew that from now one every single moment of his life to come would be a reflection of his being in the presence of the promised Messiah of Israel, the one who was and is “Son of the Living God.”  And indeed it would; as Jesus himself goes on to say, it’s upon Peter himself – the one whose very name, Cephas, means “rock” – that the church would be built, “a church so expansive that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (The Message)  Peter’s confession of faith would be the catalyst for more than he could ever possibly imagine; a life, says Jesus, where “a yes on earth is a yes in heaven… [where] a no on earth is no in heaven.” [again, The Message].

See what I mean about what it is that we believe and say about Jesus making all the difference?  We are what we claim!

So I lift up this “frequently asked question” to each of you this morning:  Who is Jesus?   Or more to the very important point, Who is Jesus… to you?

Let me tell you a bit of what I think; keeping in mind that what I think about Jesus – as a pastor, as a person, as a Christian – ever continues to grow and evolve over time and experience and changes in my life.  Some years ago – sometime in the mid-90’s, I think – there was this song on the radio sung by Joan Osborne entitled “One of Us.”  You might remember the lyrics:  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.”  The song was a big hit, and I think it even won a Grammy award; but I’ll be honest with you in that when it came out, I didn’t much care for the song!  And mostly, it was because of that one line in the chorus that suggested that God might be “a slob like one of us.”  It seemed to be to be yet another pop culture putdown of my Christian faith; and besides, I had to put up with all these confirmation kids who delighted in pointing out to the pastor that God might just be nothing more than “a stranger on the bus!”

But over time (and also, I must admit, hearing the song played over and over again on the radio!), I got to thinking about how actually one of the central truths of our Christian faith is how in grace and perfect love God did come to us… as one of us; first as a helpless, crying baby in the arms of a young mother, then as a young man with calloused carpenter’s hands and likely middle-eastern features; then as a teacher and healer and friend imbued with the fullness of God, one who spoke with boldness, compassion and unending hope even and especially to all those who were forever without hope and dwelling on the fringes of life; and finally, as one who went willingly to his own death on the cross for the sake of our having a relationship with God now and eternally!  Beloved, of all the ideas and images that we’re given of the divine presence, the most remarkable and extraordinary of all is this incredible truth that God – God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth (!) – was “present, active, speaking, giving and healing through this [singular] human life!” And that’s everything; as Norman Pott has put it, “our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God… [but that] God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming… if we affirm God in Jesus, we are opening to the possibility of God in ourselves.”

And I have to tell you… that though my pastoral sensibilities still tend to make me shy away from the image of God being “a slob” in any way, shape or form (!); the truth is that when I think of who Jesus is, it’s not the “stained glass window Jesus” that I envision, nor is it so much someone walking around as an earthbound angel with a golden halo overhead.  It’s the Jesus who’s one of us; the one who’s just like me, who knows my joys and even more so my sorrow.  It’s the Jesus who knows, like I do – like we all do – how hard life can be; and it’s the Jesus who weeps at the loss of children in an unspeakable act of violence, and who knows that somehow and in so many ways we can be better than that.  It’s the Jesus who is one of us – but who is also one with God – that changes everything and makes all the difference for me.

Jesus comes to each one of us across the years, beloved; and he does so vividly, powerfully and beautifully.  But in the midst of it all, his question remains: Who do you say that I am?  And he waits for us to answer, each one of us in our own way.

So… what do you say?  Who is Jesus… to you?

May God bless us with the faith and insight to make confessions of our own.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Cleaning Out

(a meditation for Ash Wednesday 2018, based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

I’m sure that all of us have come to times in our lives when it has become not simply desirable, but necessary to doing some “cleaning out.”

It might be the attic that has become too cluttered with a generation’s worth of records and keepsakes and other “stuff” you couldn’t bear to throw out.  Or it might be the garage or workshop filled with furniture in need of repair and all those unfinished projects.  Or as is often true in my case, it could be a desk covered with letters to be answered and business that needs to be taken care of.  Now, you may well be a very neat and organized person, and I commend you for that; but I would also suggest that for most, if not all of us sooner or later the time will come when we look around at everything we’ve accumulated and know the time has come simply to get rid of it!

I remember that on one of our moves from one church to another, the movers packed a box of things from our old home and labeled it “miscellaneous.” As I recall, as the movers were unloading things into our new home, I had absolutely no idea what this “miscellaneous” box might contain, so I told the movers to just put the box in the shed that was connected to the garage, figuring I would just get to it later.  Well, seven years later… we moved again, and in the process of sorting and reaming things out, I finally opened this “miscellaneous” box and discovered that there was absolutely nothing useful or meaningful or even remotely memorable inside of it!  Friends, the movers had wrapped up some old magazines that had been on a nightstand; a couple of empty mason jars; and I kid you not, a few rolls of toilet paper that had been under the bathroom sink!  It was all just… junk; and I had saved this box of nothing for seven years and let it take up space in my life in the false belief that it had to be filled with things that were indispensable or irreplaceable!  Rest assured, that box got “cleaned out;” and at least in that one small moment, our “burden of stuff” was made considerably lighter.

Today we enter the season of Lent which liturgically and spiritually is our journey to the cross of Jesus Christ, a time in which our worship and study focuses on the meaning of the sacrifice made upon that cross for you and for me, and what it means for you and for me to take up our own crosses and follow Christ.  It’s a time for deepening our relationship with God by seeking to walk a little more in step with Jesus in the entire journey of our lives and living.

But part of doing this requires getting rid of all the things that hold us back or weigh us down: the burden of old regrets and past mistakes; the debris of nagging doubts and long held fears; the sheer suffocation of choices made that always seem to leave us mired in sin and regret.  It makes sense; after all, before we set out to go anywhere, we always need to ready ourselves for the journey. So it is with our Lenten journey: to be spiritually ready means that we should be “cleaning up and cleaning out” our very lives, that we might rightly pick up our crosses and walk with our Lord with confidence and stamina.

We read today from prophet Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.  Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast.” (NIV) This verse is a call to worship in the fullest and purest sense of the term, but what we need to understand is that this particular worship gathering not primarily for the purpose of celebration, but rather of confession; this is a call to repentance and a return to God, a call for faith to be renewed and for loyalty to be restored.  This is a call for all the people to come in deep humility to receive the mercy and forgiveness of God.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” says the LORD; in other words, there is more required here than simply going through the motions of confessing our sin; this is about true repentance for the sake of God’s mercy, and truly “cleaning out” the sin that separates us from God and from one another.

And that, to say the least, is a difficult thing. It requires from us true honesty and deep humility of spirit; and it means that we are to confront our sin as something real (and without, by the way, adding the words, “yes, but…” as in, “Yes, I have sinned but I have several excellent excuses!”).  To return to God takes a willingness to leave behind old ways and old attitudes and to fix our course by the lead of the one who is wiser and more powerful than we ourselves.  It takes a determination to turn ourselves 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where we’re headed; and the openness to receive grace when we find that we can’t make that turn by ourselves.

In short, we are called to bring all the cultch that keeps us from a faithful relationship with God, and set it aside; assured that in divine love, that sin will be carried away for us, never to burden us again.  But the key here is first that we have to bring it out of hiding, confess its uselessness and then… let it go.

On the wall of a church sanctuary that I know of in Maine hangs this huge, beautiful banner: all in the color of violet, which of course is the liturgical color of lent, but what draws you in is all that’s pictured on this banner is a… broom! And beneath this picture is printed the words of a prayer that has been attributed to a young girl from Africa: “O Great chief, light a candle within my heart that I may see what is therein and sweep the rubbish from your dwelling place.”

Friends, let us take some time today – and certainly, throughout this Lenten season – to sweep out the dwelling place of God within our hearts and remove the rubbish that has accumulated there.  Let us confess our sins.  Let us lay our burdens at the foot of the cross.  And in the process, let us also make room in our hearts and lives for Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of life and living. Let us do this so that the journey that lay ahead – to the cross and beyond – may be traveled in the proper spirit.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and Amen.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Lent, Old Testament, Reflections, Sermon

 

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Uphill and Down

(a sermon for February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Mark 9:2-9)

It was a powerful moment; that much is for certain, one that up to that point had to have been the most profound experience of their entire lives.

And as Peter, James and John stood up there on the mountain with Jesus, they were stunned at what they were seeing; and yet at the same time fascinated, exhilarated and warmed to their very souls.  This was no less than glory itself; and as the three of them stood there amidst the brilliant and shimmering light of their teacher Jesus transfigured before them, watching him “in deep conversation” (The Message) with Elijah the prophet and with Moses (!), who could blame Peter for his excitement and for blurting out the very first thing that came into his head?  Mark’s account of this story tells us that Peter responded to all this by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” but he might just as well have said, “Is this great or what?!”    Because he wanted to hold on to this experience forever! Let’s build three dwellings, three tents, he says, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and then we can just stay right here and never have to leave!

Like I said, it was a powerful moment; and it’s all punctuated by a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  and you can understand why they’d want to stay atop that mountain for as long as possible!

Of course, that doesn’t happen; for soon the vision fades, the glory dissipates, and once again it’s just the three of them there with Jesus.  And now it’s time to come down from the mountain and to get back to the intense daily realities of following Jesus: the long walks going from town to town; the throngs of people clamoring at Jesus’ feet, the cries of people looking for healing and teaching and love; it was so much more than anything they’d ever imagined back on that morning mending nets on the shore of the Galilean lake.  But this was the life they’d chosen (or, perhaps more accurately, the life they’d been chosen for), and it would go on now just as it had before; except that because of this glimpse of glory they’d received, everything was somehow different.  They were different.

One of the great “little pleasures” of ministry for me has always been those all too rare occasions when I happen to run into a couple at whose wedding I officiated a few months or even years before.  After all, the nature of pastoral ministry, to say nothing of the nature of life itself, is such that you sometimes just lose track of these couples, so it’s great to get caught up on what’s happened to them since that fateful day I got to join them in holy matrimony!  And there’s always stories to tell; but I always have to laugh that almost inevitably when I ask how they’re doing, one or the other will always answer, “Oh, we’re ‘old marrieds’ now!”

“Old marrieds!”  Now there’s a label for you!  It sounds kind of like “used car,” or “factory seconds,” doesn’t it?  I wonder, what does that even mean; “old marrieds?”  Certainly, it can’t mean that the experience of marriage has caused them to age pre-maturely (or at least I hope not!), and I do hope that it’s not an indication that the excitement and passion has gone out of their relationship!  No, I suspect that when they use the term “old marrieds” they’re telling me that over time and experience their marriage has become, well, familiar.

You know what I’m saying; now that the wedding and honeymoon is behind them, they’ve settled into this new daily routine of life that more than likely includes home, work, family… the whole thing.  Moreover, they’ve gotten used to each other’s little quirks of personality; maybe they’ve even set out to “adjust” a few of those qualities, in the other if not themselves!  They’ve probably already had times that they’ve grown closer together and other days they’ve felt like they’re drifting apart; and I’ve no doubt they faced more than a few challenges along the way.  And they’ve probably also come to realize, as I like to say to couples about to get married, that that stuff about “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” ain’t just boilerplate; it’s the ebb and flow of real life that enters into every marriage!

You see, the interesting thing about all of this is that no matter how glorious or memorable the wedding, eventually that day of celebration passes into memory, and life goes on pretty much as it did before; except that now, because of the marriage that’s been forged on that wonderful day – because of vows taken and commitments made – all of life and living is forever changed; and that’s because they’ve changed!

Well, I think that the message of the gospel this morning is that likewise, even as we carry the mantle of Christian discipleship life does indeed go on; and rest assured, friends, that combination of faith and life-as-we-know-it-and-actually-live-it is not always – if ever (!) – going to be easy.  But you see, it’s how we incorporate the glory of what it is we believe into the minutiae of daily life that gives that life meaning, purpose and joy!

The fact is, whereas we weren’t there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, we know all about mountain-top experiences, don’t we; those incredible moments of perfect clarity and insight that occasionally come along in our lives in which we are made profoundly aware of God’s presence and love.  For some of us, that experience came in times of great joy and elation: in the birth of our children; in moments of sudden inspiration and creativity; or when we discover for the first time a fellowship with the divine in the singing of a hymn or a saying of a prayer.  Or that experience may have come right in the midst of pain and strife: in the realization that your prayer for strength and healing was answered; in an inner peace that passes all understanding but somehow brought you through what you never thought you could endure.  These are moments that are both divine in their nature and utterly transformative; truly, this is, in every spiritual sense of the word, transfiguration.  It’s what it means to be up on life’s mountaintop when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over daily life and suddenly we see, hear and feel God’s awesome presence.  And when that happens, it’s a truly glorious thing.

But the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they’re not meant to last forever.  It may indeed be glorious, but sooner or later the time is going to come when you have to walk down the hill and return to the valley from which you came.  David Lose writes that one of the most significant parts of the Transfiguration story is that “after all of what happened on the mountaintop… Jesus came back down.  Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life ‘here below,’ down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”

And that’s where we are called to go as well: as Jesus makes clear again and again in the gospels, true discipleship is not as much in what happens atop the mountain as in what we encounter down in the valley!  The way of Christ is the way of the cross – it’s no mistake, by the way, that on the Christian calendar, Transfiguration Sunday happens just before the beginning of Lent and our shared journey to that cross – and when we walk faithfully the way of the cross there will be, as we confess in our statement of faith, a cost as well as a joy in that discipleship.  But the thing is;  as disciples we do walk downhill and we face whatever comes; but not so much because the journey has changed, but rather because we have changed for the journey!

I’ve always loved that passage from 1 Kings we shared today; a beautiful and evocative piece in which God’s reassuring voice is heard not in the noise of wind, earthquake or fire, but rather in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows.  That’s a sermon in and of itself (!), but even given that, for me what’s most telling about this story is what brought Elijah to the cave in the first place; for you see, it was not faith as much as it was despair, and Elijah’s deep desire in that moment to quit being a prophet!  And you can understand why: nothing was working out right; the Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant, they’d torn down the altars of worship and now they were seeking to kill all prophets; including and especially Elijah himself!  So Elijah has fled to this cave, not only in fear for his life but also feeling utterly abandoned by God; he’s disillusioned and angry, and he cries out to God in despair, and as a great storm rages both outside and from within, Elijah waits for the Lord to answer… which God does… in the silence.

But did you notice that when God eventually does speak to Elijah, what he tells Elijah to do?  God tells Elijah… to go!  Whereas by our thinking the easiest and safest thing to do would have been for Elijah to stay holed up in that cave and safe from danger, God says, “Go!”  Get out of the cave, Elijah, and go back to the wilderness; go back and anoint Hazael as King over Aram; go down from this mountain and then wait to follow my lead.

While Elijah is looking at the failure of the moment, you see, God is looking at the big picture and the promise of a certain future that would transcend the success or even the failure of Elijah’s efforts.  God’s plan will unfold as God intends; and life within that plan will go on as before. So what matters most now is whether or not Elijah will choose to stay true to the task to which he is called; and if he’ll remember, even in the midst of risk and strife, that incredible moment of transformation and glory that led him to answer God’s call.  The question is whether or not Elijah will walk down the hill with the same kind of faith and determination with which he walked up!

Each one of us here is called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that Christ is Lord not only of the bright mountaintops of our lives, but also is the Lord of the shadowed valleys of living. If we are to follow Jesus where he goes, the pathway will not only wind through green pastures, but also through the briars and what my father used to call the “puckerbrush.”  If we’re to model ourselves after him, we’ll surely come to times of triumph, celebration and great certainty along the journey, but we’ll also come to crossroads of grief and despair in which we’ll find ourselves struggling to find the right answers.  And if we are to be true to him, we’ll reach out with love to others in the same place.

As Christians, ours is a day to day journey of faith that goes uphill and down; and as we seek to move forward in this life with some sense of God’s will for ourselves, our neighbor and our world, we do so never entirely sure of what’s beyond the next horizon.  But whatever happens, one thing is always for certain:  in our walk, wherever it leads, we have been the recipients of glory.  The movement of God’s own Spirit in our lives and faith has offered us a glimpse of how God’s own realm will be.  Truly, we are people of a promise that transcends any of the setbacks and the stumbling and the despairing we face as we go along the journey.  The only question is whether we’ll be true to that promise, whether we’ll take the risk to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the hill and into the valley.

Before long, our service of worship will be done for today, another Sunday will have passed and tomorrow it’ll be… Monday.   Soon enough – maybe even before the day is through – we’ll be back to life as usual – going back to work, buying groceries and doing the laundry – and the experience of our prayers and songs in this hour will be but a fading memory; at least until next week when we do it all again!  Truth is, life will go on pretty much the way it did before today; and yet, it’ll be different – it can’t help but be different – because by the gentle, graceful and utterly glorious touch of God, we’re different.

Beloved, in God’s purpose and plan, this week contains a wealth of possibilities for faith, service and love; but you see, we’ll only know what God can do in our lives if we are bold enough and trusting enough to let God’s glory us downhill and into the valley of life and faith.

Just go, God says to us, just keep walking; and always remember that you’ll never be along

Thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ walks with us on the journey.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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