On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Palace church, marking the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
Sermon delivered Sunday, October 30, 2011 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Joshua 3.7-17; Psalm 107.1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13; Matthew 23.1-12.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s OT lesson, the writer makes it clear how important it was for God’s people Israel to recognize God’s Presence in and through them. That is why God took special care to bring his people out of Egypt to the promised land in this spectacular and unforgettable way. They would face great opposition in the coming days and years and apparently God wanted to reassure them that he had both appointed a new leader for them and that he was indeed leading them throughout it all.
And we can relate to the need to know that God is with us and leads us because our world is every bit as scary and uncertain as was the ancient Israelites’ world. Like them, we still have to deal with sickness, setbacks, heartaches, failure, aging, death, and a host of other stuff we would rather not deal with. Like the Israelites entering the promised land, we wonder about, and sometimes fear for, our future. And like the ancient Israelites did, we too desperately look for God in our midst to guide, protect, and lead us.
But it is precisely at this point that I am convinced many of us miss the mark and lose hope in God because we are busy looking for God in all the wrong places. We are looking for God to show himself to us in ways similar to when he brought his people out of their slavery from Egypt with great power and glory. We want a God who will part the Red Sea of our lives, so to speak, who will zap all evil and fix all our problems with the wave of his hand because we believe (and rightly so) that God has the power to do just that. But when that typically does not happen (although sometimes it does), we can lose heart and hope (and sometimes even our faith), and dismiss God as being a fraud or unreal or irrelevant to our lives.
The problem with this thinking, however, is that this is not the how the God of the Bible typically chooses to reveal himself to his people. Yes, there are stories of God revealing himself in great power and glory, today’s OT lesson being among them. Certainly Scripture makes clear that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever present. There is nothing too great or too hard for God. But typically God has not chosen to reveal himself to his people in spectacular displays of power and might, at least not as the world defines power and might, or as God did when he delivered his people out of Egypt (or even in today’s OT lesson). This is especially true in the NT, with the exception of Jesus’ resurrection and some of his other works. But even with something as breathtaking as the Resurrection, there are many who do not see it as God’s mighty act of power. Jesus himself even predicted this would be true (cf. Luke 16.31; Matthew 12.38-39).
Consequently, this morning I want us to look briefly at some biblical criteria for recognizing God’s leadership and presence in our midst so that we do not miss God’s presence among us. When that happens, I am equally convinced that it will be a game-changer for us, if it is not already, because we can face the trials of our life with more courage and hope when we know God is with us and guiding us.
So how does God typically show himself to his people? More often than not God shows himself through the lives of faithful people whom he calls and we need to get our minds firmly around this fact. In the OT, for example, God used his prophets to show himself to his people and guide them. Prophets served as God’s mouthpiece and called God’s people to repentance so that they could be the people God called them to be, his agents of healing and redemption for a sin-sick world. You don’t have to read very much of the OT to see that God frequently used human agency to communicate with his people and often what God’s prophets had to say was not well received. Just ask the prophet Jeremiah, for example. Tradition has it that he was sawed in two by the disgruntled recipients of his message as they were living in exile in Egypt, an exile caused by their bad behavior in the first place! It seems that God’s people regularly forgot why God called them to be his people and expected God to be at their beck and call, not vice versa.
Then of course in the NT we learn that God became human and died on a cross to deal with the intractable problem of sin and the alienation it causes between God and humans. So if we want to see what it looks like when God shows himself to his people to lead and guide us, we look to Jesus. And what do we see? Paul tells us in several of his epistles that God condescended to our level and became human. He gave up the trappings of power, prestige, honor and glory, and humbled himself, even to death on a cross, so that we would have a real hope and chance to live with God now and forever.
Jesus tells us essentially the same thing about humility in today’s Gospel lesson when he contrasts behaviors that reflect God’s image in his world to selfish and proud human behavior. Jesus seems to be telling us, “Do you want to see God at work in your life? Do as I do, not as these Pharisees do. Be humble, not proud. Be content to use your gifts in God’s service and you will find God’s presence among you.”
All this reminds us that if we want to learn to recognize God’s leadership and presence among us, we had better start looking at behavior offered in Jesus’ name that is selfless, humble, and service-oriented because as we have just seen, in God’s kingdom up is down and down is up. The folks whom the world considers the weakest—that is, those who are humble and loving and willing to serve God and others tirelessly—are those who will be the leaders in God’s kingdom. And in their humble and loving service to others, we see God’s presence and leadership among us.
We see this same principle illustrated in today’s epistle lesson. Paul has been reminding the Thessalonians about his ministry. In both last week’s and today’s lessons he reminds the Thessalonians that he has worked hard and selflessly for them. He has tried to be a father to them by encouraging them to adopt humble lifestyles that will allow God to work in and through them to be the people God called them to be. None of this is sexy or glamorous and it will surely disappoint many because they would rather see God as a mighty ruler who beats the snot out of his enemies when they cross him. They are more interested in following a strong leader because we all can respect displays of power. But a crucified Messiah? Not so much.
But overt displays of raw power is typically not the way of the God of the Bible and it is certainly not the way of Jesus, God become human. No, we find God present in us and leading us when we observe his people denying their urges to be self-centered and make life all about themselves. Instead they look to the needs of others as much, if not more so, than their own needs and then they do something about it. Let me repeat that. They don’t just talk, they act.
We also see God’s presence and leadership among us when we see forgiveness being offered instead of revenge being exacted. We see God’s presence and leadership at work in the voices and work of all who strive for peace and justice and healing of all kinds. Again, most of the time, we will not observe anything particularly sexy or spectacular, at least by the world’s standards. Instead, we just see God working in and through his people to bring his healing and transforming love to bear on his world, just the way our Lord did in his life and through his death.
Why God has chosen to show us himself in this way I cannot say because Scripture does not say. What I can tell you is this. When we see God’s people faithfully following Jesus and using our respective gifts to bring his healing love to the world through selfless love and humble service, we know that God is here among us and that gives us heart and hope because our faith is bolstered by what we see and hear.
So what do we do with all this? First and foremost, if we want to recognize God’s presence and leadership in and among us, we had better get intimately familiar with Scripture so that we can sharpen our ability to recognize examples of when God is present among us and when he is not, just the way Jesus told his followers to do in today’s Gospel lesson. The old adage is true. The more you practice something, the more proficient you become at it, and that is also true when it comes to reading God’s word in Scripture. The more we read, the better we become at recognizing God’s presence and leadership of our life.
As we delve into the word, both individually and together as God’s people, we will want to roll up our sleeves and get to work so that God can use us and the gifts with which he has blessed us to be present to those who need it. This means we have to open our eyes and look around us to see what needs we can reasonably address and then act on those needs in some way, shape, or form. This is never easy and that is why we must come together regularly, both in small groups and on Sundays, so that God can use the reading and exposition of his word, our fellowship, and the sacrament of holy communion to sustain and encourage us in the work he calls us to do. We will then be able to remind each other that God’s work is all about humble and loving service to others. When we serve others, we not only show God in a powerful way that we love him, we also demonstrate to all who have eyes to see God’s presence and leadership among us.
God has chosen to reveal himself and lead us primarily through the selfless and humble love and service of those whom he calls. When we think about it, this really is a good thing, even though it is often hard work, because it gives life meaning and purpose. What an awesome privilege it is to open ourselves up to God so that he can use us to bring his love to bear on his world! We simply have to train ourselves to recognize God’s presence and leadership in this way so that we do not miss it and become discouraged. And when, by God’s grace, we learn to recognize God’s presence and leadership in our lives in the humble and selfless service and love of his people, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Sunday, October 23, 2011.
Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson, our Lord cuts to the chase when talking about ethics and morality. He tells us that if we are going to be God’s called-out people, then we are to love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves. At first blush this all sounds good. There aren’t a bunch of arbitrary rules to follow so we don’t have to constantly go over a mental checklist to see if we are doing what we are supposed to do (e.g., Go to church regularly? Check. Read my Bible regularly? Check. Act syrupy sweet to everyone? Check.) and avoiding what we are supposed to avoid (Not cheating on my spouse? Check. Not embezzling the company’s funds? Check. Not frolicking in La-La Land while Maney delivers another awesome sermon. Oops!).
Yet if you are like me, when we think about Jesus’ summary of the Law, i.e., the Mosaic Law, we can’t help but feel uneasy and often we don’t know why. Then it hits us. While we might want to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves, we realize that we just don’t have it in us to do that. We don’t love God with our whole being because we sometimes would rather love ourselves more than God. When things are going well for us, we often get sassy and take all the credit for our success. And when things go terribly wrong for us, we are tempted to blame God and walk away from him.
Then there is that loving our neighbor thingy. That’s really hard because frankly not all of our neighbors are nice people like we are and so they deserve what they get. I mean, really. Who wants to love an unlovable person? We’d rather punch him in the mouth. Even the most faithful of us sometimes make life about themselves, not others.
And when we read stories like today’s OT lesson and hear psalms like today’s psalm, we can really get discouraged because they remind us of our destiny as mortals. St. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23) and we realize that when we don’t love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves, we miss the mark. Our OT lesson reminds us that even a man like Moses who had such a unique and wonderfully intimate relationship with God died, and we wonder what is in store for us. We hear the psalmist pleading with God to relent from his holy justice and to show compassion on his people. We instinctively relate to that because we are among those people the psalmist is talking about. Try as we might—and I am willing to bet that all of us here do try to live our life in ways that we hope are pleasing to God—we know that we are not equipped to live up to the standards that are inherently contained in Jesus’ summary of the Law. We are just too profoundly scattered and broken to live our lives like that.
But just when we are about to lose heart and hope, we remember that Jesus summarized the Law when he was only a couple of days away from the cross and so we have real hope. In becoming human and dying for us, Jesus showed us what it looks like to live out the two great commandments faithfully. By his wounds we are healed and are reconciled to God once and for all. This, in turn, makes us profoundly thankful to God for his outrageous gift of love and grace offered freely to each of us, even though we deserve none of it.
Not only that, but we are also people who have the hope of resurrection and New Creation. Because we have peace with God through the blood of our Lord Jesus and because we have the promised gift of his Holy Spirit living in us as individuals and collectively as Christ’s body, the Church, to help us mature into the humans God intends and created us to be, we have been given everything we need to enjoy our new life in Christ. The Christian faith never has been a program of self-help because we are incapable of that. Instead the Christian faith is all about the project of God’s help in our lives as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
All this frees us from the intolerable burden of having to try to do the impossible of loving God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves to be made fit in God’s eyes. We no longer have to worry about being worthy to live in God’s direct Presence for all eternity because what God did for us on the cross has guaranteed that we have been made clean in God’s sight. Instead, through the blood of Christ shed for us and with the Spirit’s help, we are freed to work on developing the habits of character that will allow him to use us to bring God’s healing love to his broken and hurting world and the people living in it. I am talking, of course, about developing the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, which in turn open us up to display the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5.16-25).
But what does this all look like in practice? Let’s take one example using today’s epistle lesson because we want to grow this church and Paul tells us how to do that by being good Christian ministers. When we put on the nature and character of Christ, we not only show that we are trying to love God with our whole being by becoming the kind of humans he created us to be, we also demonstrate our love for our neighbors by bringing Christ’s love to bear on them, which is the key ingredient we need to introduce Jesus to others and grow this church.
It all starts, of course, with our relationship with God. As we work at developing the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, we have to put in the required sweat equity. In other words we have to do our part so that we can be open to and shaped by the Spirit. He does this primarily through word, sacrament, and fellowship. In practical terms this means we read and study God’s word, both as individuals and together in small group Bible study on an ongoing basis. The sweat equity we invest is to work on developing the discipline we need so that this habit of reading and being shaped by God’s word develops. It’s hard work because we are a busy and distracted people. That’s why we need each other so that we can encourage each other when the going gets tough.
Likewise we come to worship each Sunday so that we can not only hear and reflect on God’s word (hopefully without me putting you to sleep—it is hard to reflect when you are asleep) but also to feed on our Lord’s body and blood when we come to his Table each Sunday. There is a profound mystery here and I cannot explain to you exactly how the Spirit uses word and sacrament to form and shape us so that we become like Jesus over time. I just know this happens, and not all at once, so that we increasingly see the fruit of the Spirit in our life and relationship with others.
Notice carefully that as this happens, when we are growing in our relationship with God through Jesus and becoming more like him, we become better equipped to imitate Paul in his ministry to others because all Christians are called to be ministers of the gospel. I’m not talking about ordained ministry. I am talking about being image-bearers of Jesus to others who do not know him, and we do that most powerfully in the way we live our lives. As Paul notes today, this isn’t always fun or easy because as we start to become like Jesus we will arouse opposition and persecution. Some will see us and hate us because we are not playing by the rules of the world. They will mock us and call us ignorant and intolerant haters, among other things. But there will be others whom God sends our way who will take notice of us in a more positive way. I can’t be more specific than this because this usually happens in a very idiosyncratic manner.
But it will happen and when it does we will discover that we have the character traits of the Spirit that he will use to help us talk to others about our faith when the time is right and in the manner Paul talks about in today’s lesson. As we reach out to people with the Spirit’s help, we will discover a boldness to live out our faith and talk about it freely to others, even in the face of fierce opposition, just the way Paul was able to do. Why? Because we keep our eyes on the cross and have a resurrection hope. Our future is secure. This will also help us eventually to stop worrying about whether we are worthy (we aren’t except by God’s grace) or have what it takes to live out our faith and talk to others about it (we don’t on our own). Instead, we will just get on with living our lives faithfully, remembering we are not responsible for producing results. That is God’s job and God’s alone.
Our love for God and others will lead us to treat everyone with gentleness, love, and respect. We will be willing to speak the truth in love about Jesus to others because we know him and know what it is like to be transformed by his great healing love. We will be like hounds of heaven in our pursuit of others because we know that without a real relationship with Jesus, there is not much hope to offer people, either for living life in this world or the next. Because we really love people, we want better for them than to be separated from the love of God in Jesus. Accordingly, we will not succumb to political correctness or have some goofy notion of love that tells others to follow their hearts and be themselves because we remember that Jesus told us that it is out of the human heart that all kinds of evil come, and this evil has the ability to separate us from God’s love, both now and forever. Notice carefully that all this faithfully imitates Paul’s description of his ministry and how we as the Church are to behave toward everyone.
Again, none of this is easy and none of it will ever happen without the Spirit’s help and our willingness to develop the habits of mind and heart that will allow the Spirit’s Presence in us to grow. But as we learn to become more and more like Jesus we will discover that this really is how to grow our church, not for the sake of getting more numbers but for the sheer joy and privilege of allowing our Lord to use us as instruments of his healing love and peace. We won’t always get it right. In fact, initially we will probably get it wrong more often than not. But we keep at it because we keep our eyes on the prize and are willing to do the work necessary to open us up to God’s healing love made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And when, by God’s grace, we dare trust Christ in all this so that we develop the Christian character that will equip us to live with him here in our mortal bodies and forever in the promised New Creation, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We can all relate to Moses’ interaction with God in today’s OT lesson, can’t we? As we saw last week, God’s people Israel have been acting badly and now God has told Moses that God will no longer lead his people to the promised land. One of God’s angels will do this instead. As we stop and remember that Moses and his people are in the desert, this would have come as a terrible blow to them, and especially to Moses because he was the Israelites’ leader, charged by God to care for God’s people. When he heard God pronounce those terrible words of judgment on God’s people, that God would no longer lead them to the promised land because they were a stubborn and rebellious people who refused to submit to God and obey him so that God might destroy them along the way, Moses must have felt terribly alone and abandoned. In other words we are reading another biblical account of one of God’s people experiencing what St. John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul” where we feel keenly God’s absence or withdrawal from our lives and the loneliness and fear that ensue.
This is why we all can relate so well to Moses because every one of us in this room has experienced the dark night of the soul where we have the terrible feeling of being abandoned by God. The dark night might come with the death of a loved one or catastrophic illness. It might come in the midst of broken relationships with friends or loved ones. It might come when we realize just how shallow and petty we can be as human beings, the way I was convicted this past week. It might come when our fervent prayers for ourselves or loved ones apparently go unanswered. Or it just might come inexplicably and for no apparent reason.
If we are not mature enough to understand that sometimes God’s occasional absence helps us to better recognize his presence, the dark night of the soul can be faith-destroying and so we should pay attention to how Moses dealt with his own fears of being abandoned by God. Specifically, I want us to look at ways we can appeal to God to make himself known to us when we are feeling alone, abandoned, and afraid, and desperately need to be reminded of God’s reassuring presence and promises to us. In doing so, we must remember that there are no guarantees that God will respond to our prayers on our schedule (or even at all). As we saw last week, God is sovereign and God will do what God will do (or not do) in God’s good time, not ours. Still, there are some things we can do that will appeal to the very heart of God and we would be foolish not to use biblical examples such as Moses in today’s story to help us learn how to better pray to God because God is infinitely kind, merciful, and faithful.
The first thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he acknowledges his own fears. When Moses asks God whom he will send to lead God’s people to their new home, Moses is effectively saying, “God, it feels like you’ve abandoned us all here in the desert and reneged on your promise to lead us, and that makes me very afraid because if you have abandoned us, we are toast (no pun intended) and I am discredited as your chosen leader of your people.”
To address these fears, Moses then appeals to his relationship with God. He reminds God that he knows Moses intimately and is pleased with him. This immediately alerts us to the fact that Moses must have spent a good deal of time and effort in developing his relationship with God. Moses likely had a vigorous prayer life and paid close attention to God’s commands to him and God’s people. He surely would have been on the constant lookout for ways in which God manifested God’s presence in Moses’ life and the life of God’s people. In other words, Moses must have made God the primary focus in the events of his daily living.
Based on this relationship, Moses then appeals to God to teach him God’s ways so that Moses will be better able to see and experience God’s presence in his life. Notice carefully that Moses is not appealing to God for some kind of mystical, other-worldly, or navel-gazing activity. In other words, Moses is not appealing to God to make himself known through feelings, emotions, and subjective ways because these things can easily get distorted and mislead us. We can genuinely feel that we are right and be genuinely mistaken. Instead, Moses is appealing to God to teach Moses in objective ways so that his mind can apprehend and understand.
This is where we need to pay attention because this principle applies to us as well. If we are serious about recognizing God in our lives so that we do not feel abandoned, we must understand that we come to know God, not by feelings and emotions, but mainly by learning his ways—his revealed standards, his revealed methods, and his revealed benefits. And where has God revealed all this? Primarily in and through Scripture and in the consistent pattern of behavior in the lives of his saints. We see this latter principle illustrated quite nicely in our epistle lesson this morning. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their demonstrated faith, hope, and love, which, in turn, demonstrates that the Spirit is at work in and among them. For Paul, this makes the Thessalonians a powerful example to the world around them, a world that has often been hostile to them, persecuted them, and made them suffer.
When Moses appeals to God to teach his ways to him, Moses is also demonstrating real humility and a genuine desire to know God so that he can be obedient to God and thereby be transformed by God and better recognize God’s presence in his life and the life of his people. And this is the critical point in the lesson today because after Moses appeals to God to teach him God’s ways, God relents and promises Moses that God himself will lead his people Israel into the promised land, despite God’s people’s continued unfaithfulness and rebellion.
The second thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he appeals to God’s faithfulness by telling God to remember God’s people. It was God who called out his people Israel from Egypt and Moses is reminding God of that. Of course, God does not need to be reminded of what he promised, but that is not why Moses brings this up. He is appealing to God’s essential character, i.e., to God’s Name. Among other things, Moses is reminding God that God is faithful and good to his word.
Think of this this way. Imagine your kids coming to you to remind you that you promised them ice cream. They tell you they are counting on your promise because they know you to be good to your word. In other words, they are appealing to your character based on their past experiences with you. How much more so with God and his promises to us! When we are feeling alone and abandoned by God, we would be wise to remember examples of God’s faithfulness in our lives and the lives of others, both past and present, to help alleviate those feelings.
The third thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he reminds God that God’s glory is at stake. Moses’ desire for God’s glory to be seen is not based on some petty or vain motive. Rather, it is based on the desire for the nations of the world to come to know God and have real life. That is why in Scripture God is always so jealous that God’s glory be maintained and made known. Without a relationship with the one true and living God through Jesus, we cannot hope to possibly have and know real life. In Moses’ day and age, pagan nations would only pay attention to a God who was powerful enough to deliver on his promises and defeat his people’s enemies. What we see here is essentially Moses making another appeal to God to reveal his character by asking God to reveal his very love for the world in ways Moses’ contemporaries would understand and which would ultimately be made known in Jesus
In case you missed it, we have just seen Moses bargaining with God. This may shock us as most of us have probably bargained with God at one time or another in our lives, only to go away disappointed. But did we bargain or negotiate like Moses did? Did we start with a sincere desire to learn of God and his ways so that we could recognize how God works in his world? Were our prayers based on a desire to better learn and obey God’s commands so that we could be transformed into fully human beings by obeying them? There is no magic formula here, precisely because God is sovereign. But when in our fear we appeal to God to make himself known to us again, we would be wise to examine our motives before we make our appeals. Of course, that we can examine ourselves in this manner is itself indicative of the fact that God really is with us because all real self-examination before God is the product of God’s grace.
Last, we notice that even after God grants Moses’ request to accompany his people, Moses apparently still needed more reassurance and so he asks God to show him personally God’s glory. What we see here is Moses essentially reminding God and himself that God’s glory is further empirical evidence that God has not abandoned Moses or his people. In other words, God is also made known through his glory
If someone like Moses needed added reassurance of God’s presence in his life, how much more so do we all need that kind of assurance? Here again, we find more encouragement from the text because God grants Moses this request as well. But God does this only on a limited basis and I do not have time (nor you the patience) to explore this dynamic further today. Suffice it to say here that theophanies, or appearances by God to humans, are the exception rather than the rule of life. But we as Christians have something much better than needing to rely on theophanies for assurance that God has not abandoned us. As Paul reminds us in today’s epistle we have the power of the Holy Spirit living in us and demonstrated by the fact that we manifest the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love in our lives. That is objective evidence all of us need to be reminded that God indeed lives in and among his people.
So what can we learn from this to help us navigate through our dark nights of the soul? The lesson should be very clear. If we sense God’s absence, we must understand that our feelings are not always good guides. We can be mistaken. Instead, if we want to deepen our relationship with God and be better able to recognize his presence, we should be appealing to God to teach us his ways so that we might better recognize how God works in our lives. This means we use our minds to learn his revealed ways and standards to us so that we can more readily comprehend his presence. We must reject the romantic notion that life is all about feelings.
Likewise, we can also appeal that God would show us his glory to further reassure us. Here too we have an objective standard and measure to which we can look. It is the cross of Jesus Christ. When we are feeling abandoned by God, a good place to start in prayer is to look at the cross of Jesus and meditate on Philippians 2.5-11. Doing so are powerful reminders that a God who loves us enough to become human and die for us so that we could live in his direct Presence for all eternity will hardly abandon us in our moments of greatest need. Faith, hope, and love anyone?
Of course, all this assumes we are doing our part to develop our relationship with God. We cannot possibly have the kind of relationship with God that Moses had or learn God’s ways if we do not drink deeply from Scripture and study it with other faithful souls. As I have urged before, a good place to start is with the Daily Office or a good Bible reading plan like BibleGateway’s. If you are not doing this, you are showing evidence that you are not all that serious about having a real relationship with God and should not be surprised when you experience dark nights of the soul with increasing frequency. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Rather I am encouraging you to look at the evidence (or lack thereof) that you really do desire for God to teach you his ways so that you can know his presence in your life and to act accordingly.
The dark night of the soul can be a terrible and frightening experience. After all, who would not be frightened to sense that he or she has become separated from the very Source of life? But take heart and hope. As we have seen, God created us for relationship, not destruction, and when we appeal to him to teach us his ways and act according to his character, we have the consistent witness of Scripture and countless Christians that God will answer these prayers.
In doing so, we are also reminded that having a relationship with God is not based primarily on emotion or about becoming some kind of mystical navel-gazer. It involves using our minds and acting according to God’s standards as we do business in God’s world. When that happens, we can have confidence that God will not only ease our fears that come with the dark night of the soul, but also use us to make a difference for God by bringing Christ’s love to bear on others who desperately need to experience it. We do that primarily by how we live so that everyone can see and experience God’s presence in our lives (and theirs). And when, by God’s grace, we get this, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A spot-on analysis from Professor Wydick, IMO. From Christianity Today online.
The Occupy Wall Street movement shares more than it would like to admit with the Tea Party, its populist complement on the right. Rather than taking the approach of self-reflection and personal ownership of sin that Jesus imparts to his followers, each of these movements seeks to externalize blame onto a culpable Other. It is Immigrants or Muslims or Obamacare or Greedy Corporations or Corrupt Wall Street Financiers who are to blame for our problems. But obviously not … Us.
1 In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2“Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. 3 Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” 4 So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and while Jeremiah dictated all the words the LORD had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them on the scroll. 5 Then Jeremiah told Baruch, “I am restricted; I am not allowed to go to the LORD’s temple. 6 So you go to the house of the LORD on a day of fasting and read to the people from the scroll the words of the LORD that you wrote as I dictated. Read them to all the people of Judah who come in from their towns. 7 Perhaps they will bring their petition before the LORD and will each turn from their wicked ways, for the anger and wrath pronounced against this people by the LORD are great.” 8 Baruch son of Neriah did everything Jeremiah the prophet told him to do; at the LORD’s temple he read the words of the LORD from the scroll. 9 In the ninth month of the fifth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, a time of fasting before the LORD was proclaimed for all the people in Jerusalem and those who had come from the towns of Judah. 10 From the room of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper courtyard at the entrance of the New Gate of the temple, Baruch read to all the people at the LORD’s temple the words of Jeremiah from the scroll. 11 When Micaiah son of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, heard all the words of the LORD from the scroll, 12 he went down to the secretary’s room in the royal palace, where all the officials were sitting: Elishama the secretary, Delaiah son of Shemaiah, Elnathan son of Akbor, Gemariah son of Shaphan, Zedekiah son of Hananiah, and all the other officials. 13 After Micaiah told them everything he had heard Baruch read to the people from the scroll, 14 all the officials sent Jehudi son of Nethaniah, the son of Shelemiah, the son of Cushi, to say to Baruch, “Bring the scroll from which you have read to the people and come.” So Baruch son of Neriah went to them with the scroll in his hand. 15 They said to him, “Sit down, please, and read it to us.” So Baruch read it to them. 16 When they heard all these words, they looked at each other in fear and said to Baruch, “We must report all these words to the king.” 17 Then they asked Baruch, “Tell us, how did you come to write all this? Did Jeremiah dictate it?” 18 “Yes,” Baruch replied, “he dictated all these words to me, and I wrote them in ink on the scroll.” 19 Then the officials said to Baruch, “You and Jeremiah, go and hide. Don’t let anyone know where you are.” 20 After they put the scroll in the room of Elishama the secretary, they went to the king in the courtyard and reported everything to him. 21 The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and Jehudi brought it from the room of Elishama the secretary and read it to the king and all the officials standing beside him. 22 It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. 23Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. 24 The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. 25 Even though Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. 26 Instead, the king commanded Jerahmeel, a son of the king, Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet. But the LORD had hidden them.
–Jeremiah 36.1-26 (NIV)
If you care at all about people, you cannot help but be saddened by this story. It is not about those “rotten Israelites.” It is about the failure of human beings to desire a healthy and right relationship with our God so that we can find peace and bring his salt and light to bear on his broken world.
Imagine you are a parent and have an only son on whom you are counting to continue your good family name and reputation. This, of course, requires that your son conduct himself in honorable ways and practice living a virtuous life. But as your son grows up, he refuses to do this. He goes his own way and brings shame and dishonor to your family name. What would you do? How would you react? You might get angry with him and threaten to cut him off from the family. You might try to reason with him in the hope that he will change his ways. Whatever it is you would do, you probably would not consider doing nothing, thereby letting your son go on his merry way to destruction.
If you get this concept, you are getting closer to understanding God’s reaction in this story. We have to remember that the Bible is the story of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity so that we might find God’s healing and peace. Part of that plan included calling God’s people Israel to be agents of his healing and redemption to a sin-sick and broken world. But Israel was every bit as broken as the people they were called to help God redeem, and so became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Today’s story is a sad and poignant reminder of that fact.
It is easy to read the story superficially and conclude that God is nothing but an angry ogre, bent on punishing his children. But that is a terrible misreading of the text. Note carefully why God threatens punishment on his people. So that they will turn away from their wickedness (the traditional word for doing this is repent) such as idol worship, practicing unjust economics and politics, and turn back to their God.
Why does God want this? Because he loves his people Israel and wants them to help bring about his healing and redemption. You can’t lead people to God if you are not following God yourself (Christians, listen to this if you have ears to hear!). Just like the wayward son in our hypothetical situation above, so Israel was rejecting God’s call to them to be his people and this can help us better understand God’s anger toward his people.
It’s not about punishment. It’s about healing and redemption. Why is this so hard for us to understand?
But sadly most of God’s people would not listen to his warnings to them spoken through his messengers, the prophets, of whom Jeremiah was an important one. This is powerfully symbolized in King Jehoiachim’s burning of God’s word that had been written on a scroll. Jehoiachim’s audacity is even more remarkable when we remember that the Babylonians, very agents of Judah and Jerusalem’s destruction, were at her gates and laying siege to the city! But the King, the leader of God’s people, would not listen to God’s warning to him contained in God’s word. Instead Jehoiakim burned them.
You know this story is not going to turn out well, either for Judah’s king or God’s wayward people today.
Again, we miss the point if we do not remember God’s end game. God wants us to be reconciled to him and for us to enjoy life as he intends for us and created us to live. Given that he is our Creator, it follows that God knows better than we do what constitutes real life and happy living. But just as God’s ancient people Israel did, we too are stubborn and refuse to listen.
That is why it is even more remarkable that as the culmination of God’s rescue plan, God did not give up on us. God and his love always remain faithful to us. Instead, God became human and suffered and died on a cross for us, thus bearing his just punishment and wrath himself so that we would not have to. He invites us into a life-giving and healing relationship with him and all we have to do is accept his gracious offer and allow his Spirit to live in us and change us into his very image so that we are Christ-bearers to the world. This means we don’t burn God’s word, we submit to it. We do not try to change God’s word into our image, we are changed by it. We don’t make the Christian life about ourselves, we are changed into the very image of Christ so that we make life about service to him and others, no matter who they are.
This is hard work and requires that we die, or at least the selfish, proud, and hard-hearted parts of us. We are baptized with Christ and buried with him so that we can anticipate being raised with him on the last day to enjoy new resurrection bodies and eternal life living in God’s direct Presence in the new heavens and earth.
In the meantime, we have work to do right here and now, work that involves bringing God’s love in Christ to bear on a broken and hurting world and people. We feed the hungry, heal the sick, and pronounce the Good News of God’s love to people by living changed lives. We imitate Christ in his love and service to others and dare to love folks enough to insist that they not stay in their destructive patterns and habits that can only lead to their death. We aren’t their moral police. We are their encouragers and supporters because we understand they don’t answer to us, but to God.
This is the choice that confronts each of us. Sadly, there are more Jehoiakims in the world than their are saints of God. But that doesn’t stop us from offering Christ to others because we know what it is like to have him in our lives, warts and all, so that we have real faith, hope, and love.
If you are looking for meaning and purpose in your life, start engaging God’s word in Scripture to see what is demanded of you and then start engaging God in prayer for additional support and guidance. As you do, don’t forget to hook up with other faithful Christians so that you can have a human touch to help you when you need it most. It’s the hardest decision you will ever love making. In doing so, you will discover that you are being changed in ways you cannot begin to imagine and given a power that is beyond your own means to transcend anything life in this world throws at you. That, folks, is nothing to sneeze at–or burn.
A wide range of voices claims that a crisis of biblical interpretation is taking place. But contrary to many pundits, the crisis does not simply involve a decline in the Bible’s authority. Even when the Bible is turned to as the authority, it’s not necessarily interpreted Christianly.
A very good piece. If you are interested in studying God’s word in Scripture, by all means check out this article.
IRAN: Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani’s life still hangs in the balance.
As we wait for the formal written verdict to come through, Pastor Nadarkhani’s life hangs in the balance. [Christian Solidarity Worldwide] calls for continued urgent international action to prevent his execution, which could still happen anytime.
If you are inclined to add action to your prayers, please consider emailing Iran via this website.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine that you have a friend who has invited you to go on a hike in the mountains with him. You are not a particularly adept outdoors person and have some reservations about going on this hike. But your friend is an expert hiker and woodsman, and you love being outside, even if you do not particularly like hiking in it. And so you agree to go, albeit a bit reluctantly.
Halfway through your hike you stop to rest. Your friend and guide tells you to stay put while he goes and checks out the trail ahead to make sure it is safe and navigable. He tells you he will be back shortly and that you should take this opportunity to rest, relax, and enjoy the beauty around you while he is gone. An hour goes by and your friend does not return. Two hours pass, then three. No sign of your friend. You are deep in the woods and have no idea where you are. To make matters worse, your cell phone doesn’t work so you cannot call to check on your friend or call for help. How would you feel? Would you feel afraid? Abandoned? Alone? Would you start to lose hope? What would you do?
However you answer, I hope this little imaginary scenario will help you better understand how the Israelites likely felt in today’s OT lesson. I’ve painted the story in this way to help us get a better feel for what God’s people may have been thinking and feeling. Too often when we hear stories like today’s OT lesson, we tend to get all uppity and say something like, “There go those crazy Israelites again, falling off the deep end and showing what rotten people they are.”
But I don’t think it was like that. Yes, the writer tells us that the people acted corruptly in making an idol, but I am not convinced they did this because they were totally rotten. The writer tells us Moses had been away from his people for 40 days, a biblical phrase which means a long time, and I think they genuinely believed that their leader had abandoned them or had been killed. So there they were, stuck in the middle of the desert with no one to lead them, and that made them very afraid, just like our novice hiker in the scenario above. And because they had come from an idol-worshiping country, they reverted back to doing what they knew best to seek help and calm their fears. So they made themselves an idol in violation of the second commandment.
And we do not have to be lost in the desert or mountains to understand this dynamic of being afraid that we have lost our leader and our way. We remember times when the events of life have conspired to make us feel lost or abandoned. Perhaps some of you are going through those times right now. We look around and wonder where God is or who will lead us out of our mess. Sadly we too often turn to other, lesser idols to try and calm our fears and soon discover they inevitably fail to deliver because they are not the one true and Living God.
But we miss the point of the story if we stop here or don’t pay careful attention to the interaction between God and Moses that follows because in that interaction we find the very heart of God and what he keeps inviting us to do when we think we are lost. So it is worth our time to look carefully at what this story tells us.
First, we must understand that God is making rhetorical statements to Moses about destroying his people. Make no mistake. God does not countenance evil of any sort. He did not countenance Israel’s idolatry nor does he countenance ours. But the way God phrases his intentions to Moses suggests that God was not interested in destroying his people. If that were the case, then why didn’t God just go ahead and do it? Instead, God was giving Moses a chance to change God’s mind and Moses responded brilliantly.
The issue, at which we are looking, of course, is why bother to pray to a sovereign God in the first place? After all, if God is sovereign, God will do what God will do. Moses had no power to make God do anything so why did he bother to intercede on behalf of God’s people? As today’s story (and many others) make clear, we pray to our sovereign God because God wants us to pray to him, both for ourselves and on behalf of others.
There is a mystery here that we cannot penetrate, but Scripture consistently encourages us to pray to this sovereign God of ours with the confidence that he will listen, just the way he did for Moses. It is almost like God is testing us to measure the state of our faith and trust in him. Because God is all-knowing, God certainly doesn’t need to see how we will behave. He knows that before we ever act. But Scripture seems to insist that we must always act on our faith and that God’s tests are more for our benefit than his. We will never know the state of our faith and love for God until we are required to demonstrate it, just as Moses did when he interceded for his people.
Turning now to Moses’ actual prayer to God, we see a desire for God’s will to be done and for God’s glory to be made known to the nations. Moses demonstrated this by reminding God that destroying God’s chosen people would bring dishonor to God in the Egyptians’ eyes. It would effectively negate God’s powerful deliverance of his people from Egypt and cause the Egyptians to question God’s faithfulness and sovereignty. In effect, the Egyptians would say, “See? God brought his people out of our land only to destroy them. God didn’t deliver on his promises to bring them to the promised land. What kind of God is that?”
Moses also appealed to God’s faithfulness. He resisted the idea of God creating a new people from Moses’ seed. This showed tremendous humility on Moses’ part. Think about it. It would be pretty heady stuff to think that God found you worthy enough to be the father of a new race of called out people! But Moses did not want that. Instead, he appealed to God’s faithfulness by asking God to remember his covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Consequently, Moses was successful in getting God to change his mind precisely because God is faithful to those whom he calls. Moses simply reminded God to be the God that Moses knew, a God who is faithful, merciful, and kind. Moses could not have prayed like this or known God to possess these attributes (and a whole lot more) had Moses not had a real and living relationship with God. It was not Moses’ eloquence that changed God’s mind. It was Moses’ appeal to God to be the God Moses knew so intimately so that others could see and come to know his God in the way Moses did. By definition this is what God calls his people to do and God will always answer prayers like that!
Surely this is the kind of praying that Paul had in mind when he told the Philippians not to worry about anything but to bring everything to God in prayer so that they could enjoy God’s peace. We enjoy God’s peace when we pray to him and ask that his will be done and that his Name be glorified, not ours. This, of course, takes great faith, humility, and maturity on our part.
So what can we learn from this story? First, like Moses and Paul, we need to be doing the things necessary for us to get to know the character and heart of God so that we can learn to trust and depend on him in any circumstance. We do this best by learning the story of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity that is contained in the Bible so that we can better understand how God deals with his people and what he wants from us. Too often we make our relationship with God about us rather than God and think that having an intimate relationship with God will make us immune from the hurts and heartaches of this life. But when we learn the overall story of God’s rescue plan, we immediately realize that being God’s people does not make us immune from suffering. We have to look no further than the cross of Jesus to understand that.
Rather, as we study God’s word, we learn what humility and faith look like and what we are called to do and be as God’s people so that we can bring God honor and glory, just like Moses did. As we do, we also learn that we can and should bring our prayers to God, that nothing is too small or unimportant for God. If it is important to us, it is important to God and we had best be talking to God about that in prayer (and listening to what he has to say to us).
As with any habit, as we learn to bring our cares, concerns, praise, and thanksgiving to God, our prayer life gets easier because we discover that God delivers. And aided by our Bible study we learn to better recognize and understand the mind of God, at least as best we can as mere humans. This, in turn, makes it easier for us to see God’s hand in our lives and the lives of others. And as we grow in grace and knowledge of God, we also discover that it is easier to give thanks to God in all circumstances because we have learned to trust God’s good and perfect will for us. When that happens, we discover that we’ve learned real humility and in the process gained true peace.
This, in turn, will help further reduce our fears and anxiety. It will also help us make sense of troubling stories like we find in Jesus’ parable today because we realize that while God loves each of us as we are and will meet us where we are, he cannot leave us that way, precisely because he does love us and wants us to grow in the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love in ways like we have just been talking about. The person in Jesus’ parable who was thrown into the outer darkness apparently did not want to play by those rules. He apparently was content to wallow in his sin and we could expect that his prayers (or lack of them) reflected that fact.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. God shows us how to not only survive in the wilderness but how to overcome it. It starts with developing a real relationship with God in Christ so that we can learn to trust God’s character and his ability to be there for us when our lives blow up. This means we have to work at developing a robust prayer life that accompanies our ongoing study of God’s word in Scripture. This, in turn, allows us to be open to his Spirit and guidance in our lives so that God can use us to be the people he calls us to be. None of this is easy but it is the only way that we will ever find true meaning and peace in our lives. And when, by God’s grace, we experience this truth, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A thought-provoking analysis, originally published back in January of 2011, especially in light of Steve Jobs’ recent death.
But the genius of Steve Jobs has been to persuade us, at least for a little while, that cold comfort is enough. The world—at least the part of the world in our laptop bags and our pockets, the devices that display our unique lives to others and reflect them to ourselves—will get better. This is the sense in which the tired old cliché of “the Apple faithful” and the “cult of the Mac” is true. It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world, hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be dated, dusty, and discarded like a 2001 iPod.
A friend of mine says that human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.
[Jesus said], 21 ”For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
–Mark 7.21-23 (NIV)
I am not inclined to write posts like this very often but I cannot remain silent on this issue. My insurance company, Auto Owners Insurance, has raised my insurance premiums for our property approximately 26% over the past two years. That’s right. TWENTY-SIX PERCENT. We have made no claims in this period so why have our premiums sky-rocketed like this? One word: GREED.
Before I go any further I want to emphasize this is not an anti-capitalism rant. I am a capitalist through and through. It has its faults, like the obvious one I am commenting on today, but overall it accomplishes what it is supposed to. I have no problem with people making lots of money legally and ethically. Neither do I have a problem with healthy corporate bottom lines that are earned legally and ethically because that generally means good things for most folks and the economy.
But that is not what is going on here. What is going on here is an industry taking advantage of the fact that it operates in a very restricted market with limited competition to screw consumers. You don’t have to be real smart to see that the recent chain of natural disasters has caused the insurance industry to pay out big bucks. Frankly, that is not the consumer’s fault. It is a fluke of mother nature and it is a given that there are inherent risks for any capitalists.
However, the insurance industry apparently doesn’t see it that way. Instead, they are leveraging their position to recoup losses at the expense of the consumer. They do this because they can. And in doing so, they are essentially telling everyone that they are not willing to accept the risks that are inherent when you insure folks against loss. Sometimes you bite the dog. Sometimes the dog bites you. It’s the nature of the business but the insurance industry gives every indication it is not willing to play by the rules by which most everyone else must play.
And that is where I am rubbed the wrong way about this. The insurance industry knows it has consumers by the short hair. It knows most people need insurance (or it is mandated by law) and so what do insurers do? As an industry it raises our premiums to make up for the increased expenditures they have had to pay out of late. Again, they do it because they can. There is very little competition going on and when that happens consumers always get screwed. Always. The market mechanism simply does not work without competition. This is especially obnoxious given the economic climate in our country. People everywhere are being asked to make sacrifices–except, apparently, the insurance industry.
They aren’t making sacrifices because they do not have to. They will simply raise our insurance premiums.
Every time they raise premiums at a disproportionate rate they are essentially thumbing their collective nose at the rest of us. They are telling us, “Times are tough and you must make sacrifices. You must tighten your belts. But we don’t have to. Why? Because we can collectively raise rates as high as we want to and you will just have to suck it up, baby. We have to watch out for the bottom line and keep our investors happy, you know.”
Even though our options as consumers are limited, I encourage you to start writing your Congressman and Senators to express your dissatisfaction and ask for some relief from this odious practice. Again, I am not advocating socialism. I am calling for economic justice, and without competition the only way that will likely happen is through legislation. Likewise, I encourage you to write to your insurance companies and express your dissatisfaction. I am going to start looking for a new insurer after I do.
Insurance executives need to stop living in la-la land and get a grip on reality. They need to understand that they cannot keep raising premiums at a wicked and uncalled-for rate. It will eventually spell their ruin.
Make your profits, insurance industry. But in doing so understand you also have a social responsibility and screwing already strapped people so that you can recoup your losses simply because you can is not a way to be socially responsible. Be good citizens, not greed-mongers.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
–1 Corinthians 11.23-34 (NIV)
I dedicate this reflection to my mom and dad, and in loving memory of them, on this the 64th anniversary of their wedding. They were married on Worldwide Communion Sunday, October 5, 1947 at First Presbyterian Church, Van Wert, OH. Enjoy your rest with your Lord, mama and papa. I love and miss you.
Sadly in my life, I have talked to many Christians who are reluctant to come to the Lord’s Table to receive holy communion because they “are not worthy” and too often their reluctance is based on today’s passage. Assuming their reluctance is not some kind of false humility, this is a real shame because they are denying themselves a real and tangible sign of God’s great love and grace offered them through the death of Jesus. Written some 20 years after Jesus’ death, Paul gives us the earliest account of the Last Supper that we have in Scripture and we need to pay attention to its broader context because it gives us some guidance as to what Paul likely has in mind when he talks about partaking the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy” manner.
Paul has been castigating the Corinthians for making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.17-22). Apparently many confused it with eating a regular meal and that was their first mistake. Yes, we eat and drink the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus, but this was never intended to be a regular meal for us as Paul makes clear here.
The second mistake the Corinthians made was to be cliquish in their participation in the meal and as Paul makes clear here and elsewhere in his letters, the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way. Apparently some of the richer Corinthians brought an abundance of food and drink and then overindulged while their poorer counterparts went hungry. What a travesty this is, says Paul. But why is it a travesty? Because Jesus’ body and blood is offered freely to all who come to the Table in faith. Christ did not die for a few privileged or wealthy folk. He died for all people who come to him in faith and when we understand this, we can begin to understand what Paul was talking about when he spoke of taking communion in an “unworthy manner.”
For you see, anyone who comes to the Table is unworthy of the gift offered because we are all terribly broken people. But that misses the whole point of the Gospel. As Paul wrote to the Romans, God demonstrates his love for us by dying for us while we were still hostile and openly rebellious toward him (Romans 5.8). The point is that nobody is worthy to come to the Lord’s Table based on his or her own merits. Holy Communion is a sacramental sign (an outward and visible sign, in this case of bread and wine, that represents and inward and invisible reality, in this case of the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the elements) of God’s great love and mercy for us.
When Paul talks about eating and drinking the elements in an unworthy manner, he likely has in mind the context about which he has just scolded the Corinthians. “Stop treating this meal as an ordinary meal,” Paul says. “Stop hoarding food and drink. Stop being selfish and self-centered. Don’t you know that Christ died for all of you, not just some? Do you really think some of you are better than others? Think again.”
Now of course this does not mean that we should not be self-reflective and willing to change our unholy ways before we come to feed on our Lord’s body and blood. Jesus himself commanded us to make peace with our enemies before we bring our gift to the altar (cf. Matthew 5.22-24) and that surely finds application here. We can’t be at odds with our fellow believers, at least as far as it depends on us (cf. Romans 12.17-19) and come to the Table with an unforgiving and proud spirit because that goes against our Lord’s commandment.
But to exclude yourself from holy communion based on a misunderstanding of today’s passage is just plain sad because God welcomes us in our brokenness, even while he is not satisfied to leave us where we are. He begins to heal and forgive us when we come to the Table and feed on the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. If churches were only for “good people,” they would be utterly empty because there is no such thing, popular opinion excluded. No, churches and the Lord’s Table are for broken and forgiven believers.
It is part of the awesome beauty of communion that folks like you and me are invited to approach the Table in faith so as to receive healing and forgiveness in a powerful and tangible way. In doing so, we remember Christ crucified for us and we feast at the great eschatological (end time) banquet with all the saints of God. Past, present, and future are collapsed into one great moment when we come to the Table to receive the bread and the cup. It is a great mystery and sacrament, this holy communion, and we are to treat it accordingly. The Corinthians apparently did not and that is what got them in hot water with Paul.
Life is hard enough as it is and we are prone to despair and discouragement because we all get beaten up regularly. That is why partaking in communion regularly is such an important thing for Christians to do as part of their growth as disciples. There is no magical incantation going on here, just the wondrous mercy and grace of God, poured out for us on the cross, so that we have a real hope and chance to live with God, now and forever.
The next time you come to the Table, by all means please do examine yourself carefully. Be prepared to change, with the Spirit’s help, that within you that needs to be changed. But do not exclude yourself from coming to the Table if you are willing and able to follow your Lord to the best of your ability, even if you are profoundly broken and flawed. Otherwise, you cut yourself off from feeding on the grace and forgiveness of Jesus so that he can help you grow in your faith, love, and obedience, both to him and to others.
You also cut yourself off from a tangible and real reminder of God’s great love for you manifested in Jesus. If God loves you enough to become human and die for you, and if you come to his Table with a humble and contrite spirit, why would God ever find you to be “unworthy” in that sense? After all, God never rejects a humble spirit or a broken and contrite heart (cf. Psalm 51.17). His very cross stands as eternal witness to this and you can be reminded of this each week as you come to his Table and accept his gracious offer of healing and forgiveness by feeding on the body and blood of your Lord. What an awesome and sacred privilege. Thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ!