Tag Archives: Redemption

God’s Graciously Stubborn Refusal to Give Up

Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wis. 

Text: Ezekiel 2:1-5

 

“Does God ever get too fed up with us?” The question came to me.

As the question was asked, I could see concern, maybe even worry, come across Sharon’s face.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Does God ever get tired of forgiving…and then…just stop?”

It was obvious to me that Sharon had given this some thought. And really, it is an honest question, and likely a question that many of us have asked, want to ask, maybe are asking right now. Because at its core, I think that it is a question that weighs on us.

The state gives you three strikes…even parents can hit a breaking point…but what about God? Does God ever give up on us?

***

Our text this morning brings us to the exile. The time when the Babylonians swept in and burned the city and carried off everyone who was wealthy or had power or status. This way they could keep their defeated peoples weak and relatively powerless, and it makes them much easier for the Babylonians to control. So not everyone was taken off into exile, but many people were left, trying to pick up the pieces of their former lives.

The exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God. After this, the people of God will no longer be centered in one place, but rather, scattered across the world. Yes, there was a return, and yes, many did return, but not everyone did. Many stayed where they had put down roots, and they learned what it meant to follow God in a foreign land. But we are not there yet. We have not yet gotten to ways to follow God in a foreign land.

The wound is still raw, the people are still hurting, and similar to how some children feel when they move around Christmastime (how will Santa find me?), I can imagine that there was a similar sentiment amongst the people of God who were taken off into exile. After all, it was not just their home, but it was the promised land…the land that God had promised to their ancestors. This was their inheritance. This land was a sign of God’s promise to them, this was the sign of God’s favor toward them. Even more than that, it was in this place, in the temple, where God actually lived. And for those who were taken off into exile, they were not just taken away from their homes, that would be hard enough, but they were taken away from God, and that must have felt almost unbearable.

It was at this time, that God’s call came to Ezekiel. He was already a priest, and already in the service of God, but it was not just a priest that this people needed right now, they also needed a prophet. They needed someone who would speak God’s words to the people, and someone who could speak the people’s words to God. It was during this difficult time that Ezekiel, himself taken into exile, was called by God to serve God and the people in this new way.

Seeing a strange and magnificent sight, Ezekiel falls on his face, and God says to him, “O mortal, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.” But Ezekiel doesn’t stand up on his own strength, on his own accord, but we are told that a spirit entered him, and set him up on his feet.

The voice, says to him, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn…” Not necessarily a great way to begin one’s charge. Chances are that he already knew much of this, after all, he was a priest and had a public role already, but just to be sure that Ezekiel knew what exactly what was going on, God makes it oh-so-clear to him the exact state of the people.

We are told that Ezekiel was told that he is to go to them and speak the word of the Lord GOD, such that whether they hear or refuse to hear, “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

***

I’ve said this before, but I think that it is worth saying, prophecy is not primarily telling the future. Fortune tellers do that. Soothsayers do that. While there is often a future element to the words of the prophets, predicting the future is not primarily what they do. They speak God’s words to the people, and they speak the people’s words to God. The ancient people of God didn’t have a nice book all bound together as we have it. The ancient people may have had a few things written down, but much of the early parts of the scriptures were in oral tradition, and were not written down until now, the exilic period.

So how do they experience God in this foreign land, in this foreign place? The prophets speak God’s words to the people. These people who are rebellious, who have transgressed, these people who are rude and stubborn, it is to these people that God sends Ezekiel, not as punishment, but because these are still God’s people, and even with all of their faults, God is still committed to this people, and God continues to reach out to this people, to embrace this people, to comfort this people, even when this people may not know how to reach back.

This is not just here that we see this story, but all through scripture. Already from the time that Adam and Eve decided that they wanted a snack, and why not that fruit, and they hid, God called out, “Where are you?” through God liberating the ancient people from slavery in Egypt, to God sending prophets to God’s people in exile, to sending Christ to become flesh and dwell among us, to tabernacle among us, to share life with us, God has been reaching out to a rebellious, rude, and stubborn people, people like the ancient people of God, and people like you and me, the modern people of God.

***

Today we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When we celebrate this, it is not simply a somber memory of Jesus’ death, remembrance is part of it, but we cannot forget about communion — are lifted up into heaven in this moment, and we commune with Christ and with all the saints of all times and all places — and hope, when we look forward to the time when restoration and redemption are completed and creation is renewed.

It is in this sacrament that God takes elements of bread from the earth and the fruit of the vine — God works through these things that we can see, and taste and touch, and smell — and through these ordinary elements, confirms and strengthens and feeds our faith, indeed, the sacraments are another example of reaching out to us, rebellious and stubborn as we are. Even when we cannot reach out to God, even when we feel distant from God, even when we feel as though we are separated from God, God reaches out to us, draws us close, and assures us of God’s abiding presence.

***

And it was because of this, that was able to look Sharon in the eyes, and tell her, “No. God never gets fed up with us. No, God never tires of forgiveness. No, God will not withhold forgiveness from those who come to God seeking forgiveness and redemption.”

God has far more patient than you or I or anyone else. God does not have a three-strikes policy. God is even more gracious than you or I could even imagine.

This, sisters and brothers, is the good news. That God is gracious, even when it is not fair. That God’s grace knows no bounds, that God never tires of forgiveness, and that all those who seek grace will receive it.

The people of God then and now, the people of God across the world, and those sitting in this church on the hill are rebellious, rude, stubborn. But this is not the point of this story. This is simply the fact of what is. The point of this story is that God is faithful even amidst our unfaithfulness, that God is gracious even in the face of our undeservedness. That God, too, is perhaps stubborn, to stubborn to give up on God’s people, and God’s commitment to God’s people, even when the people’s commitment wanes.

This is the good news for Sharon, this is the good news for you and me, and this is the good news for the world.

The Deception of Carols

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright…

***

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by…

***

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…

***

Christmas carols bring a sense of calmness and stillness to this time of year. Amidst the hustle and bustle of shopping and preparing for Christmas celebrations, from running here and there trying to find sales, a Christmas carol lets us slow down, gain an inner sense of stillness. It makes us feel better, more Christmaslike, more peaceful. We adorn our churches and homes with crèches — the peaceful, holy looks on the faces of Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus with a halo around his head, the animals silently sitting by, and the magi reverently kneeling before the newborn messiah.

During the holiday season, much ink is spilled with the words, “peace,” “love,” and “joy.”

It is a nice feeling.

But Christmas carols lie.

 

***

I’m over at YALT today, come on over to read the rest…

From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.

 

Hump Day Hymns: Welcome, Sweet Day of Rest

Hymnal

Welcome, sweet day of rest,
That saw the Lord arise;
Welcome to this reviving breast,
And these rejoicing eyes!

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

One day amidst the place
Where my dear God hath been,
Is sweeter than ten thousand days
Of pleasurable sin.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.
-Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

As a child, I dreaded Sundays. I did not like going to church, I did not like that the whole house slept in the afternoon, and I did not like that I was so mind-numbingly bored in my very small town whose streets rolled up on Sundays.

I recall hearing stories from my parents on their Sunday restrictions. Could ride bicycles, but only to the end of the block. Could play catch with a baseball, but no bat, because at that point it became a game. I remember being thankful, at least, that my parents were a little more liberal with their understanding of Sabbath rest. But, the importance of rest was still there, and the belief that working — particularly when one did not absolutely have to was to be avoided.

When I was young, my parents also avoided going into town to stores that were open on Sunday.

“Why?” I would ask.
“Because we are making them work.” they would respond.
“But they will be there anyway!” I protested.

But my protestation’s didn’t matter. I was the child and I followed the rules, I did not make them.

As I grew older, my schedule grew busier. Between school, band, theatre, employment, and trying to have a social life, Sunday rest became more difficult. No longer was it just boring on Sundays, it was a disruption in my life, a day which did not allow me to be productive, a day which surely must have been designed for a simpler and easier life of yesteryear. Surely when God gave the Sabbath commandment, God didn’t realize all that I had to do.

***

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss. (Emphases mine)

For me, being a rural Dutch Reformed Midwesterner at heart, sitting is difficult.

“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a) is difficult. I am much better at “stay busy and try to remember that I am God.”

Sitting is hard, particularly when there is so much to do. I have been a busy-body all my life, and if there is a time when I do not need to do something, I make sure that I remain doing something, to ensure that I stay busy. Rest brings guilt.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the whole point of Sabbath rest — to be an interruption. To disrupt the rhythm of life, to throw on the emergency brake while speeding eighty miles-per-hour on the interstate. Perhaps it is supposed to feel the tension between resting while still having so much that needs to be done.

***

My spiritual director repeatedly encourages me to take walks in the middle of the day.

“Walk to the lake, take a stroll through the park, it doesn’t matter, but do it,” she tells me.
“But I have so much to do! I have to stay working,” I respond.
“Exactly,” she tells me. “You need to do this for two reasons. First, because you don’t have time, and that is precisely the reason to do it. Second, it is work, because it is reminding you that you are not in charge of everything, that everything does not lie on your shoulders. God is in there too.”

***

Sabbath still remains difficult for me. It is an interruption, and it requires trust and faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

I have a difficult time seeing how taking a day off — even going for a walk during the day — is going to work through the problems I face or the stresses that I bear. But perhaps that is the point.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).

I need to rest not because I can, but because I cannot. The Kingdom of God breaking into to the world is not painless and smooth. Perhaps the point of Sabbath is not to wait until you can stop, but rather simply to stop, and let God take care of some things. It is to remind us that we depend ultimately not on the work of our hands, but on God (who uses the work of our hands).

Easy to think about, hard to do.

Each day I understand a little better that Sabbath is not about what we can and cannot do, but rather, it is about experiencing the good that the world has to offer, it is about taking time special for God, it is about experiencing a little bit of the already in the midst of the not yet.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.

Reaching Into the Dark

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 7:11-17

This is a short story, only six verses to be accurate, but it is a wonderfully beautiful story. This story is another example of how, sometimes, silence can be more powerful and more significant than words. After all, there are only a couple of spoken phrases in this whole story. The rest is narration and silence.

So let’s look at the scene for a couple moments. Jesus was coming from Capernaum where he just finished healing a centurion’s servant. There, Jesus never even saw the centurion or his servant. What Jesus did see was the love of the community and the faith of a foreigner — neither of which would be expected for a Roman centurion. So Jesus was traveling again — Remember, Jesus traveled literally all the time. Perhaps Jesus was going to this town on purpose, perhaps he was passing through but decided to stop there.

Before Jesus even gets to the gates of the town he sees something out of the ordinary. There is a crowd coming out of the city. Jesus is trying to come in, and seemingly everyone is trying to get out. He hears the flautists and he hears weeping and wailing. As he looks closer he sees that in front of the group is a bier, which is not exactly a casket but does hold the body of a deceased person. At this point Jesus and his disciples, who were with him, realize that this is a funeral procession.

It was not only the disciples that were with him, but a crowd also came with them, and they were really wanting to know what is going on. One of the disciples approaches one of the bystanders and asks what is going on, and after finding out, he goes up to Jesus and tells him that the funeral is for a young man who was the son of that widow, and the disciple points out to Jesus his mother.

So now we have the crowd from the funeral procession and we have the crowd that Jesus brought with him, and there, in the midst of this now massive group of people is this one woman who has first lost her husband, and now her only son. Widows were particularly vulnerable because at the time, women depended on men for shelter, food, and pretty much everything else needed for life. So this woman lost her husband, and it would have been her son that was taking care of her, and now he died. All of this on top of the fact that a parent lost her child.

So there are a mashup of people with a crowd coming out and a crowd going in, and Jesus looked and he saw the widow, and he felt compassion for her.

It is this moment, I think, that really speaks volumes here. We see not only Jesus’ actions, we also have the opportunity to glimpse into what Jesus was feeling. His heart broke.

Jesus then walks up to the widow and says, “Do not weep,” which would be rather insensitive and offensive if it was not for what he does after that. Jesus then touches the bier, which is enough to make him unclean, and the pallbearers get the hint, so they stop for a moment.

Jesus looks at the pale, cold, lifeless corpse. As he looked at the corpse, he pointed his finger at it and said, “young man, I tell you, get up!” And suddenly with that, they boy sat up, and started talking. Why did he start talking? So that everyone there knew and we can know that he was actually alive. This was no muscle spasm that made it look like he sat up, he started talking.

This story is beautiful, if not in its words, in its silences.

This story is also somewhat unique. It is one of only three stories recorded in the gospels where Jesus actually brought someone back to life. Many people he healed, but only three he brought back to life. It is also somewhat unique because no one asked him to heal the boy. No one asked him to do anything. We read that Jesus saw the widow and he had compassion.

It reminds me of the raising of Lazarus. No one asked him to bring Lazarus back to life, but his heart broke.

Similarly, here we simply have Jesus who sees a mourning and grieving mother, but not only that it is a woman who has lost her only remaining support, and he has compassion, his heart breaks, he feels sympathy for this widow. It is this that drives him to action.

When I was young, I would sometimes see Jesus as somewhat aloof. He taught a lot, always knowing what others didn’t know, always understanding what others didn’t understand, always seeing things in a way that no one else saw. People would ask him to heal this person or that and he would, and then teach them something. Now, none of this is particularly incorrect, but it is incomplete. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete if we forget about this story of Jesus raising this widow’s son. No doubt the redemption of the whole creation was in view but this story, in part, teaches us that Jesus was not just interested in the redemption of creation but also about the care of particular lives in particular situations.

It is important that we pay attention to what Jesus does here. First, he sees her, then he has compassion for her, then he reaches out.

Amidst all of the people in the crowd, all of the people who were mourning — no doubt he had friends and neighbors — amidst all of these people he saw the widow. It is important to understand that this was not just a “look at” or a “notice” but he saw, he perceived, the tried to understand. So he sees, truly sees, this widow who has just lost her only son and he has compassion.

The word here refers not to something of the intellect, but to a gut-wrench. Jesus didn’t just have pity on her, he deeply felt compassion and sympathy in his gut. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what he saw. He knew that what he saw was not right, he knew what was happening was not part of God’s original order and design, he knew that parents were not supposed to bury their children, and he knew that this woman’s livelihood was in the balance.

So Jesus doesn’t just say, “oh that is just too bad.” No, this compassion drives Jesus to do something, so without being asked he first comforts the mother, and then reaches down to death, reaches into the unclean, into the impure, into the dark to bring life out of it.

Jesus reached down into that seemingly bottomless abyss out of which no one comes, and brought back a life, which no one would have ever thought possible.  I find it interesting that Jesus could have just spoken the young man back to life without getting his hands dirty, but he didn’t, he touched the stretcher on which the dead body was carried. In doing so, Jesus, in a way, reached down into the dark.

Now, I would guess that none of us have seen a dead person come back to life in quite this way. I have talked with medical professionals who have witnessed or been involved in resuscitations  but this is something different, this is a dead person who comes back to life, sits up, and starts talking.

So, this is all well and right, but how can we relate to this story?  I find that many Christians that I spend time with typically follow one of these two methods of dealing with these miracle stories. Either, one, we expect that miracles like this don’t happen anymore, and they only happened to teach something about Jesus, and since they are accomplished, there is no need for them any longer. The second method is to expect miracles like this, and then when they don’t happen, we assume that something went awry…there was lack of faith, insincere prayer, a besetting sin.

Many of us tend to fall into one of these broad camps, and neither of these are particularly better or worse than the other. We do this because we have a difficult time reconciling what we read in scripture and what we witness in our lives. I’ve seen parents bury their children. I’ve seen a mother bury her 9 year old son — and I was 8 and he was my best friend. I’ve been with a mother and father bury their newborn daughter who never made it home from the hospital. All of these were great people who did not deserve what happened, and if being faithful was the prerequisite for a miracle all of these people would still be living and breathing.

These miracle stories are not just about the individual person who is on the receiving end of the miracle. These miracle stories are to give a foretaste of the Kingdom of God when things are set right. These stories are to give a glimpse into our hope that God will restore the world into what it ought to be, a world in which blind will see, lame will walk, the sick are healthy, and parents do not bury children. They are to give the people in first century Palestine, and us today, a taste of who Jesus is, and what he is all about. They are to give a glimpse into who God is and what God is all about — after all, Jesus is God-with-us.

Perhaps we don’t see someone raised from the dead like this, but can we imagine Jesus reaching into the dark for us? I think that we’ve all seen it in one way or another. Someone with a terminal disease who has long outlived the projections of even the best doctors. The mother who has serious complications in childbirth, yet the child somehow survives. The four-year old boy who gets stuck by errant bullets and yet survives just fine.

But we also know about the sixteen year old girl who gets struck by a drunk driver yet dies even before they can get her to the hospital.

We live in a world full of contradictions. We live in a world when some people seem to get miracles and others do not. We live in a world where there seem to be far more people in need of miracles than there are miracles to go around. But one of the practices that we must continue to hone throughout our faith journey is our imagination. Our capacity to imagine where God might be working, and what God might be doing even if we cannot see it plainly. Our ability to imagine that miracles come in forms which are less glitzy, perhaps even less dramatic. Maybe, then, the challenge we face is not a world with too few miracles, but rather too few of the ones that we want, or the ones that we recognize as miraculous.

When we focus on only one view of what is possible, only one way to think of miracles, only one way that God works, we miss the fact that God works around us, all the time.

Elijah stood in a cave while God promised to pass by. First there was a great wind, and God has appeared as a great wind before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God. There was an earthquake, and God has appeared in an earthquake before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God either. And then there was a fire, and God loves to use fire, but scripture tells us that still wasn’t God. Rather, God appeared in the sound of sheer silence. Had Elijah just assumed that God would be show up in the same majestic ways that God has before, Elijah would have missed that encounter with God.

If we only accept that God shows up in this way or that, we will miss the ways that Jesus sees us, has compassion for us, and reaches into the dark chaos of our lives. Just as Jesus touched that stretcher of that young man, Jesus reaches into the dark of our lives, and can many times, work a miracle, even small, even if we can’t see it, even if we can’t recognize it for quite some time.

It is not our job to make miracles happen, and it is not our job to determine how God shows up. It is our job to try not to fear, to believe, and to pray. I hope that we will never stop praying for miracles, but we have to understand that when we pray, we are engaging God in relationship rather than pushing buttons on a vending machine. When we pray, we share in God’s purposes, regardless of whether things happen the way that we want, when we want.

So I want you to imagine, just for a few moments, where God might be present in your life, how God might be present in your life. Where might you see Jesus reaching into the dark? We don’t have to pray for God to show up, God’s already here. Our prayer is for God to make Godself evident, and for God to show Godself so that we can understand and experience God’s presence, God’s action, God’s long reach out to us even if we are, like the young man in this story, dead to touch.

Amen.

Hump Day Hymns: Come, Lord, and Tarry Not

Hymnal

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Come, for Thy saints still wait;
Daily ascends their sigh:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”:
Dost Thou not hear the cry?

Come, for creation groans,
Impatient of Thy stay,
Worn out with these long years of ill,
These ages of delay.

Come, and make all things new;
Build up this ruined earth;
Restore our faded Paradise,
Creation’s second birth.

Come, and begin Thy reign
Of everlasting peace;
Come, take the Kingdom to Thyself,
Great King of Righteousness
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

When I was a child, I was terrified by the thought of Jesus’ return. I was terrified of the world ending. I wanted to live out my life and not have it cut short. As I have grown, however, my outlook has changed. I long ever more deeply and desperately for the parousia.

In my community I am faced with depths of human suffering. Homelessness, poverty, unemployment, crippling hopelessness, murders, assaults, and prostitution. Every day is another example of how the world is not how it ought to be. While I stand before my congregation of people who all suffer and hurt deeply, people who are visibly broken and cannot hide it as others can, people who have a hard time reconciling the sovereignty and providence of God with their own life experience of barely being able to subsist, even with assistance.

What I appreciate about this hymn is that it, I think, cuts to the core of the issue. Some other hymns will talk about streets of gold and mansions. However, to be honest, I don’t care about mansions or streets of gold, I yearn for suffering to end, I yearn for things to be as they ought, I yearn to have a night with no sirens, and a morning when I can look at the news and see no shootings the previous night. I cry out, “Come, Lord, don’t waste anymore time! Why do you keep us waiting?”

This hymn is honest, and I think that it is both relatable and formative. Who cannot relate to deeply yearning for redemption, to wondering if God actually hears our cries, to grasping on to this hope as if our lives depended on it, even if we have seen no confirmation of it as yet? Streets of gold and mansions are fine, but they are not what I am concerned about, and I don’t know many people who are truly looking forward to streets paved with gold. The people that I know long for restoration and redemption, things to be how they ought to be, for suffering to end and to gain the ability to dwell with God and one another in peace and harmony. Most of the people that I know desire, more than anything, to see a fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah:

No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. (Is. 65:20-23, NRSV)

**

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Life on a State Highway

North Hwy 11

(cc) Melanie Lukesh on Flickr

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Romans 5:1-5

Paul was spending three winter months in Corinth. He has already been around the Mediterranean world a couple of times on missionary journeys, telling people about the good news of Jesus, starting churches for these new followers of Jesus. During these journeys he would also keep in touch with these churches and visit them.

Now, remember, he was travelling all over much of the known world without a car, airplane, or ship with an engine, so this is slow and difficult going, and it takes a lot of time.  At this point he is nearing the end of his life. He is about 53 years old, which by today’s standards isn’t that old, but in the year 57, that was a ripe old age. What Paul may or may not have understood, as well, is that he was also nearing the end of his life because just 7 or so years later he would be executed.

It is here that Paul sits down and writes a unique letter, that we have as Romans. It is a letter which is bursting with theological concepts and faith concepts, and is incredibly comprehensive.

Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; we boast in our hope in sharing the glory of God.” This is not to make us puffed up or filled with self-pride, but this is to enjoy and rejoice in the the fact that through Christ we have been reconciled with God, we are at peace with God. This is not just something to know, this is something to experience deep in our hearts, deep in our beings. It is something to feel, because this is the center of the Christian life, and this is the foundation for what is to come.

Paul continues, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings…” Here is where things get complicated. At first reading, I wonder, and you may as well, why would we boast in our sufferings?  Suffering is bad, is miserable, is not good. These are all true. But we must look at the relationship between the previous statement and this one. Remember, justification by faith, God making us right with God by faith is what gives us peace with God, and we rejoice in the fact that we have hope in sharing the glory of God. So, why do we boast in our sufferings?  We can rejoice in our suffering, because there is more going on that we can experience. He even continues, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

**

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28).

If anyone deeply knows suffering, it is Paul. He writes this not as how things ought to be, or need to be. You know the phrase, “hindsight is 20/20”? As an old man, by his standards, not ours, Paul has some time during the winter to reflect, to plan, and to look back on his life. He has been through a lot, as we just heard.

This passage does not say that we must suffer in order to gain hope, but rather, he is trying to reframe how they understand sufferings.

Suffering is a part of living in a fallen world. It is not only us that are not as we ought, the whole creation is not as it ought to be. A two-mile wide EF-5 tornado which slices through neighborhoods and homes is not part of God’s grand design. People that do not have adequate housing, people who are abused by others, children that are neglected, none of this is part of God’s order and design. Suffering is a consequence of living east of Eden and west of redemption.

As Paul sits before his parchment, ink well and stylus in hand, he looks back on his beatings, whippings, stonings, shipwrecks, and despite all of this suffering, all of this bad, all of these struggles, when he looks back on them, he can catch glimpses of God throughout the way, even when he couldn’t see those glimpses in the moment. What he gives is a progression that happens, not a formula to be followed.

Paul tells us that we can rejoice in the midst of our sufferings, because if we are justified by faith, if we have peace with God through Christ, if we will share in the glory of God, then nothing can take that away. As Paul writes later in this letter, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31b). That of course is a  rhetorical question, because it is its own answer. If God is for us, then no one is against us, ultimately. Yes, the powers of evil and the devil put up resistance, but we know how the story ends. We know that evil will be overcome, that death will be conquered, and all will be redeemed and restored to its former glory.

In the prophet Isaiah, we read the vision that we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks (Is 2:4) , that is, instruments of destruction will not be eliminated, but transformed, transformed into something useful, something which can be used to farm, to bring forth food, to encourage life. The real glory of all this is not that bad stuff will be gone, but that bad stuff will be transformed into good stuff.

While this will not be completed within our lifetimes we can get glimpses of this, and this is what Paul is telling us here. Suffering is not good, but it can produce endurance. Endurance can produce character, and character can produce hope. This hope is the most significant thing of the life of faith.

Part of this is the imagination of faith. Now, we tend to use the word imagination as something which is made up, fake, not real, but our imaginations serve important functions in faith as well. Imagining what could be, and what will be, imagining what God might be doing, even when we can’t see it, this is the stuff that sustains us. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. We can do this not because we are creative in ourselves, we can do this not because we can muster up enough wishful thinking, we can do this because we have been justified by faith, and because we have peace with God in Jesus Christ, and because we have hope of sharing the glory of God.

The real question, here, that we must consider is this: How big is God? Is God bigger than our sufferings? is God bigger than the bad that we experience?  The answer is not just whether or not God can just push the easy button for us, although many days I would greatly appreciate that, but whether God bring good out of bad. As we spoke of not long ago, Jesus proved that he is master of death not by avoiding death, but by dying and conquering it.

Now, I am under no illusions here, and I understand that we are all at different places here.

This past Thursday I had a church meeting in Fond du Lac, WI. There are a couple of ways to get to Fond du Lac. You can take the freeway, where it is a non-slowing, non-stop road the whole way there. But, there is the state highway system which runs a bit slower, and runs through small towns and villages. The trip may not be quite so fast, but it is more interesting. While we may prefer life to be a freeway where we can get on at the beginning and it is a nonstop expressway to hope. However, life is more like a state highway, with all of the good and the bad that comes with that.

This passage is like a state highway which runs through a bunch of small towns, and these towns are called Suffering, Endurance, Character, and Hope. We all live in these different towns, and we move between them. Some of us are in the suffering town and we can’t see endurance, character, or hope. Others of us currently live in the hope town and we can look back over our time living in each of these towns and we can see God’s hand in it. Others of us live in the midst of these two, and perhaps we can’t see either that clearly right now.

The good news of this is that we are not alone in our town, and that our town is not the only one. For those of us who live in the village of Suffering, Paul tells us that Endurance, Character, and Hope are just up the street. For those of us who live in Town of Hope, Paul reminds us that suffering is just down the street, and we will likely have to move back there. But, the good news, is that we are not imprisoned in one of these villages. We move between them°.

The best way to finish this journey is not to look back on it and say, “I did not suffer, I did not struggle.” The best way to finish this journey is to be able to get to a point where we can proclaim from the mountain tops with the apostle:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 37-39)

 

___________

°Illustration adapted from http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3210

The Simplest and Most Difficult Commandment

Although we are in the Fifth Sunday after the resurrection, our gospel passage today comes from shortly before Jesus’ betrayal and execution. Jesus and the disciples are gathered together in an upper room that they rented to spend some time together and to observe the Passover.

During this time, Jesus took of his outer robe (like someone would take off their tie and roll up their sleeves to work) and wrapped a towel around himself. Jesus took a basin from the corner of the room and poured water into it. Jesus kneelt down onto the ground and asked the disciples to remove their sandals. One by one, Jesus took their feet into his hands and poured water over them. He then dried their feet with the towel that we put on his waist.

You see, in the ancient world, people walked everywhere and they would wear sandals. The roads were not paved, of course, unless you were in the big cities, and feet often became dirty and dusty. Hosts would provide water for washing feet and sometimes a servant to do it for them. It was a basic act of hospitality, of caring for those who God has brought to them.

So in this moment, Jesus humbles himself to serve his disciples — makes me think of what Jesus taught before that, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One by one, Jesus took the feet of each of the disciples into his hands. Poured water over them, cleaned them, and then dried them, gently placing them back down.  When Jesus came to Peter, however, he protested, it was not right, therefore, for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the savior and redeemer of the world to humble himself before the disciples. Finally, he allowed Jesus to wash his feet, and after Jesus finished washing the feet of all of the disciples, he put back on his outer robe (unrolls his sleeves and puts his tie back on), and sat down at the table with them again.

“Do you realize what just happened?” Jesus asked them.  Jesus was great at turning every moment into a symbolic and teachable moment.

“You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus continued, “and you are right, that is what I am. If I am your Teacher and your master, and I have washed your feet, then you must wash each other’s feet. I have been an example to you, and you must follow this example.”

Jesus was telling his disciples not simply to wash each other’s feet, but to care for one another, serve one another, take on humble tasks to help one another. Jesus was telling the disciples to submit to one another, not because one is lesser and one is greater, but because those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

You see, Jesus did not become lower than his disciples. Similarly, the disciples did not suddenly become higher or more important than Jesus, but still, Jesus stooped down, took their dirty feet, and cleaned them with his own hands.

The gospel writer now tells us that Jesus was troubled in spirit, as he told the disciples that one of them will betray him. Peter asked, “Who is it?” Jesus tells him that the one to whom he gives the bread that he dipped into the oil will be the one. Jesus takes the bread and hands it to Judas and we are told that Satan entered him, “Go quickly and do what you must do,” Jesus tells him.

The rest of the disciples don’t quite get what is going on. Now, Judas was the treasurer, and some thought that Jesus was telling him to buy the things that they needed for the festival, others thought that Jesus was telling Judas to give something to the poor. It seems simple to us, but in real life, it was a very enigmatic — mysterious, confusing — moment.

Judas, then, takes his piece of bread and goes his way.

This is where we enter the story, right as Judas is leaving the upper room with the disciples.

Jesus then tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

One thing that I often think about, is why does Jesus call this a new commandment?  Love for one another has always been a commandment, way back in Leviticus we can read this, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). So love for one another has always been a part of our faith all the way back to the beginning.

This commandment, then, is not so much new as in never before heard of but new as in renewed, enhanced. You know the line, “New and improved”? This is the commandment that Jesus gives to us. The commandment to love one another is new and improved, enhanced, strengthened. We are not just to love others like we do ourselves, we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  As Jesus loves us.

Jesus continues, “‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

Here Jesus lays down the simplest and and most difficult thing possible.  It is simple, love each other. But it is incredibly difficult, love each other.  You see, Jesus didn’t say, “love those who love you,” he didn’t say, “love those who are easy to love,” he didn’t even say, “love those who are kind to you.”  Jesus said, As I have loved you, love one another.

How many of you have someone in your life who you think is simply unlovable? How about this a bit closer to home. Look around the sanctuary, take a good look at everyone here. How many of you think that someone sitting in here is unlovable   See, if we cannot even love the 50 to 60 of us who gather here every week, we can see how difficult this command can be.

Jesus gives us this command not because it is easy, but because it important.  In fact, it is so important that Jesus tells them that the way that others will be able to recognize Jesus’ disciples is if they love one another. Not by wearing a cross, not by going to church, not by speaking religious language, but by love. Wearing a cross is fine, I do so. But that does not make me a follower of Jesus. Going to church is crucial, all Christians must gather together regularly, scripture is abundantly clear about this, but simply showing up to church does not make one a Christian. Speaking in the language of faith, talking about faith and Jesus is good, but simply speaking this language or knowing Bible verses does not make someone a Christian.  How do we know a Christian, a follower of Jesus?  We know them by their love for one another.

Surely not those who are unlovable right pastor?

I want to remind you that Jesus knew clearly what Judas was going to do. When Jesus washed the disciples feet, Judas was there. Shortly after Jesus gives this command to love one another, Jesus will demonstrate such love to die for people, even people who are unable to love Jesus on their own. Jesus could have said any number of things, but Jesus tells them to love one another.

But Jesus doesn’t just tell them to love however they feel like it, we are called to strive to love others as Jesus has loved (and loves) us. But how does Jesus love?

Theologian William Barclay notes four characteristics of Jesus’ love:

First, it is selfless. Jesus’ love for his disciples was so great that Jesus’ entire life was directed at them, not asking himself, “what do I get out of this?” So also must our love be focused on caring for the other person rather than what we can get out of the arrangement.

Second, it is sacrificial. Jesus will do whatever it takes to continue in love, even if it leads to a beating and a grotesque execution. Sometimes we may think that the goal of love is to give us happiness. But what Jesus shows us that sometimes love demands pain and a cross.

Third, it is understanding. Jesus knew his disciples. We often show up in the same building once a week at most, and many times we don’t really even get to know one another or know what is going on in one another’s lives. Jesus was deeply involved in the lives of the disciples not because he wanted to point out this thing or that thing that they did wrong, but because he wanted to know them, to understand them, so that he could love them better. Real love is not loving an ideal, but loving someone how they are.

Fourth, it is forgiving. Peter was going to deny Jesus at the very time when Jesus needed him most. Yet what did Jesus do?  Jesus reinstated him, forgave him, reached out to him, and welcomed him back into the fold. True love is based on forgiveness and always involves forgiveness.  Loving like Jesus requires that we can forgive even the most painful of betrayals, even when it hurts so badly to do so.

Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.

Loving is hard, and perfect love is something we will not attain, this side of redemption. But love is not something that is completely unattainable.  Think of a time in the past week, when you have chosen love. Think of a time when you could have acted in a number of ways, but you acted in a loving way. Perhaps you worked to be more understanding of another even when it was difficult, perhaps you sacrificed in some way to benefit another, perhaps you had a moment when you were thinking not of yourself, but fully of what is better for the other person. Perhaps there was a moment when someone wronged you and you really felt that you were in the right, but you offered forgiveness. These are all ways that we behave in love.

Take a moment to think about it. Think about what happened, think about what you were feeling and what you were thinking.

Now, I want you to think about a time in the past week or so when you found it hard to love. Perhaps you were simply not able (or willing) to try to truly understand the other person or where the other person was coming from. Perhaps you were not interested in thinking of the other over yourself, or you found it really hard to sacrifice. Perhaps you could not forgive someone for whatever reason.

Take a moment to think about it. Think about what happened, think about what you were feeling, and what you were thinking.

You see, we do love people, regularly, and we do fail, regularly. It is right for us to give thanks to God for allowing us those times when we have loved others, and we can pray to God to give us strength to be able to love others when we have not.

Remember this, loving someone else begins not with them, but with you. To truly love someone, the work is not that they need to make themselves lovable, but that we need to be more loving. If you can’t love those whom you don’t think deserve it, we can never truly love anyone. If we find ourselves unable to love we must first look in a mirror, we must look inside of ourselves, because the capacity to love others begins within.

Shortly after Jesus gives this command, Jesus goes on, not only to talk about love but to show love. To exhibit love. To redeem a world which rejected him, to bring true light into a world who loves darkness. Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected because “God so loved the world.” So even in those times when we fail to love, we can remember that God extends love to us, and God grants us grace to, little by little, grow in our capacities to love one another. After all, we love because God first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

Speaking of Sin

That Reformed Blog is a relatively new blog community begun by a group of friends and acquaintances who all try to live out what it means to be “Reformed” in daily life: Ministry, work, marriage, singleness, parenting, and just about everything else. It is a great collective of writers, and I am humbled to be a part of it. Today, I’m over at That Reformed Blog. But first, a little taste of my post:

I am the pastor of a church in the inner-city and a vast majority of my congregation are low-income, most are unemployed, and many struggle with addictions, broken relationships, poverty, hopelessness, and are aware that they are largely ignored by the majority of the city.

I also talk about sin. A lot. We have a Call to Confession, a Prayer of Confession, and an Assurance of Pardon each and every Sunday. I want people to remember that they — we — are sinful creatures who are in desperate need of redemption and restoration.

 Click here to finish reading this post.

“Do you love me?” – Sunday’s Sermon

Christ’s Charge to St. Peter by Raphael

It has been quite an emotionally exhausting few days for the disciples. The entry into Jerusalem was followed by extraordinary events in the temple, a Passover meal unlike any other, an intense experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, and unexpected betrayal from one of their own, an armed arrest, a series of denials, a pro forma trial, a jeering mob, and a bloody execution. This is followed by an immense feeling of defeat and disappointment, and perhaps even some shame, in the wake of what happened. Only a few days later they find out that Jesus didn’t stay dead, that the tomb was empty — not only that, but the alive-again Jesus even showed up a couple of times.

There are only so many emotional ups and downs, only so much emotional turmoil, only so many waves of such strong emotions that a human can take. They were overwhelmed, and likely not even sure what to make of the last few days.

“Let’s go fishing!” one of them says.

This is the sensible thing, after all. This was their trade, their career, before Jesus uttered those magical words, “follow me.”

Back to something they know, a semblance of routine, of order, of their past life. It was a life, which although not necessarily perfect, was theirs, it was a life that they had lost when they started following Jesus and it probably seemed as if it would finally be theirs again.

So they go out fishing. They are fishing at night, which is not unheard of. Fishing at night can be very productive. It is quiet and still. Standing up in the boat, and very still, so not as to cause too much motion to scare the fish. There is a torch which offers them light. The night is ending, and the day is breaking, the sun rising just above the horizon.

There was a man standing on the shore, who we know is Jesus but they didn’t know this — at least not yet. And this man yells out, “You don’t have any fish, do you?” The disciples reply back, “No, we don’t.”  The man yells back, “Cast your net on the other side of the boat,” perhaps seeing a grouping of fish.

So they cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they found fish, just as the man had said. In fact, a lot of fish. The fish filled the nets, completely, but the nets don’t break, and they haul all of it into the boat. The disciple whom Jesus loved, a peculiar title only found in the Gospel of John, squints into the horizon at the man. “It’s the Lord!” he shouts to them.

Peter, then, scrambles to compose himself, to ensure that he is properly dressed, and he dives in the water. The other disciples row the boat in along with all of those fish.

When they get there, they see that Jesus has already started a barbeque grill — charcoal, they didn’t have gas then — and the coals are already heated and there are a few fish and some bread already on the grill.

“Bring some of the fish you caught,” Jesus tells them. So Peter goes to the boat and drags in all of those fish, and they place a few of them on the grill.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus invites them. Jesus then hands out bread and fish.

Now, this was the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised.  Notice, that all of these appearances include physical activities. Touching, eating, drinking, making a barbeque grill, giving them advice on where to throw their net. This is so that we can know that Jesus was not just a vision or a ghost — after all, ghosts don’t eat, and visions don’t know where the fish are. So Jesus is in all of these very real and very physical situations to prove to the disciples that he is real, and they are recorded in these stories so that the readers will know this as well.

They are eating, and they were likely conversing as well, sharing stories, sharing good times, talking about what has happened, all that has gone on, all that they have been through. As Jesus sat with them in the circle, perhaps he notices something…he only sees ten people in the circle, and that Peter is missing.

Perhaps Peter sat outside of the circle, his back against a tree while the other disciples gathered.  Remember Peter denied Jesus, just as Jesus had told him he would. He said that he didn’t know Jesus, he promised that he didn’t know Jesus, he even swore an oath that he didn’t know Jesus.  All of which were lies, though, lies because he wanted to save his own skin. Perhaps Peter thought that lying would afford him a sense of security or stability that he wouldn’t have had he told the truth and told him that he was a student, and even a friend, of this Nazarene who had just been arrested.

Chances are he wasn’t readily accepted back into the circle. You know what I’m talking about, perhaps they included him, but didn’t really and fully include him. They let him hang out with them, but they would all exchange glances with one another — each one knowing what they were thinking — but leaving Peter out of the real loop.

So perhaps Peter was on the outside, physically and literally as well as metaphorically, with what happened clearly burned on his conscience. You don’t usually forget those things. He didn’t know how to move past it, he didn’t know how he could continue. I would imagine that he was conflicted — wanting nothing more than to see Jesus, but not really knowing how to do so — he probably had a lot of shame internalized — not just guilt, but shame.

Jesus goes up to him, and as he approaches, Peter looks away, not really being able to look him in the eye.

Jesus says to him, “Simon Peter, son of John” (so that there could be no confusion at all about who Jesus was talking to), “do you love me more than these?”

We don’t know what Jesus was referring to as “these”, but perhaps Jesus was waving his arm over their fishing equipment, over the nets, the boat, everything that Peter uses in his trade (Barclay). Perhaps Jesus is saying, do you love me more than your trade, more than your boat and your nets, more than your sense of stability and success, more than your ability to feel secure, more than your ability to live your own life and do your own thing, do you love me more than this?

Peter looks up, tentatively, and says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?”

Peter looks at him again, and says with even more passion, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus asks yet again, “Do you love me?”

Peter is hurt because Jesus asked him yet again if he loves him. Perhaps Jesus didn’t believe him, perhaps Jesus was still angry about the denials. Perhaps he will never be included again.

Peter says even more earnestly and with even more passion, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Feed by sheep.”

Jesus then offers a familiar invitation, one that he heard a while ago, in what must have seemed to be a previous life, “follow me.”

I don’t know if Peter realized it or not, but something very important happened here. Perhaps you didn’t even notice it.

Just a few days before this, Peter was asked, a seemingly simple and innocent question, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” a woman asked.  Peter looked around, seeing that she was talking to him, and he shook his head, “no, I am not.”

Two more times he was asked if he was a follower of Jesus, and two more times he said, “no.” It wasn’t until afterward that he realized what just happened.  Just as Jesus said, just as Peter himself said would never happen.

So here in our story today, Peter was asked three questions, “do you love me” and this time Peter was able to answer them all “Yes, I do.”  Peter was asked, “Do you love me?” for each time that Peter said, “I don’t know him.”

This is what is so interesting about this story, and what is so important about how God operates.  This is how God interacts with us. Peter could have just said, “sorry” and Jesus could have just said, “Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.”  But it was something, it was something to Peter, it was something that he couldn’t forget, it was something that he went over and over again in his mind.

Jesus, then, takes this horrible thing that he cannot get rid of, he takes this moment which is etched in his mind, and he turns it into something good. Jesus took denial and transformed it into a moment for a wonderful expression of love.

And then Jesus issues an invitation, an invitation that leads us all the way back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he first called the disciples with these same words, “follow me.”

Jesus takes his shame, takes his less than stellar actions, and transforms them into something new, something good, something life giving.

But it wasn’t only then that this happened, this also speaks to us now.  I think that we are invited to see ourselves in Peter. We are invited to see ourselves in Peter’s unsteady faith, we are invited to see ourselves in Peter’s denials, when we find that the easiest way is just to say, “I do not know him.”  But we are also invited to see ourselves in this moment of Peter’s reinstatement, when Jesus takes the thing that likely bothers Peter the most, turns it around into something good, and then does something which Peter may never have expected, he issued an invitation to follow, again. Jesus was welcoming him back into the fold. Reinstating him as a disciple.

Jesus does the same with us. We too have denied Jesus in words and actions, we have lived like we don’t know Jesus, like we don’t follow Jesus. Sometimes we recognize when we do this, many times we do not. At some point we will realize it, and we will be overcome with guilt and sometimes even shame. I hear it all the time. “I’ll come to church when I get my life together,” “I need to work through some things before I come to God,” “I’ve done some really bad things in my life,” people have told me. I think that all of us can relate to these things in our past that hang heavy over our heads.

But Jesus comes up, and doesn’t say, “don’t worry about it,” Jesus doesn’t just say, “It’s okay…” Jesus comes to us and says, “Do you love me more than all of this?”  “Do you love me?”  “Do you love me?”  And just when we think that Jesus may never forgive us, when we think that Jesus doesn’t believe us, when we think that we will never find redemption, Jesus offers us an invitation, perhaps one that we have heard before, perhaps not, and he says, “follow me.”