Sunday, March 30, 2014

Light and Sight

Remember those stereogram pictures that were so popular about 10 years ago? They were a colored pattern that if you looked at a certain point in the picture and unfocused your eyes, you could see images that appeared to be sticking out of the page. I could always see them. Other people squinted, crossed their eyes, moved the picture closer or farther from them and just couldn't see the 3-D effect.

Most people can see the incredibly realistic chalk drawings people do that make it appear that the sidewalk has opened up beneath the street, revealing chasms, monsters or underground rivers. However you do have to stand in a certain place for the forced perspective aspect of the picture to work.

There is a 3 dimensional optical illusion you can see on the internet. The sculpture looks like a dragon but as the camera moves from left to right and back the dragon's head appear to follow you. Only when the camera moves too far to the side do you see that the dragon is made in such a way that the head is concave rather than convex and that's what makes it seem to move.

But those are optical illusions, things created to fool you. Your eyes don't anticipate the trickery and see them in a way that makes sense to our brains. Surely you can see things in plain sight.

Not necessarily. In one notorious experiment, which you can see on the internet, people are asked to watch a basketball game and count how many times the ball is passed. Folks are so intent on counting that they don't see the man in the gorilla suit walk right up into the middle of the game, beat his chest and saunter off the other side. People in this experiment could not believe that they missed such an obvious thing until the tape was played back to them. It turned out that they only saw what they expected to see.

Our nose can detect up to a trillion different scents according to a recent study, yet despite optical illusions and our own selective ability to see what's right in front of us, despite the ability of computers to manipulate video and photos, we use our eyes as our primary sensory organs and we trust them to tell us the truth about the world around us.

Sherlock Holmes often told Dr. Watson and various Scotland Yard detectives, “You see but you do not observe.” With that in mind, Stephen King wrote a short story in which Holmes was fooled by an optical illusion while Watson figured the mystery out. The great detective blames his oversight on his allergy to a cat who has been all over the crime scene. Holmes did occasionally get things wrong even in the original stories, though it was not because he didn't see something but because he misinterpreted it.

Today's lectionary choices are all about sight and lack thereof. In 1 Samuel 16, the Lord calls upon Samuel, the last of the judges, to anoint a new king for Israel. Samuel is sent to Jesse from Bethlehem, one of whose sons will rule over God's people. Samuel is impressed by the looks of the first young man he sees. But God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God passes over all 7 of the sons Jesse presents to Samuel. Only when the prophet inquires is he told of the youngest son, David, who is currently watching the sheep.

It is said that during the presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy that those who watched them on TV felt Kennedy had won the debate, whereas those who listened on radio felt Nixon had done a better job. Even Nixon later came to think that his refusal to let the makeup people tone down his 5 o'clock shadow, combined with Kennedy's good looks, caused that perception. Ironically Kennedy's own strong features and healthy tan were due to the steroids he was taking for his Addison's disease. Many pundits wonder if in today's media saturated world we will every again elect a jowly man like Nixon or a big-nosed big-eared man like LBJ or a bald man like Eisenhower even again. 

Studies show that people tend to assign good character to those who are handsome or beautiful even if they have no other data on them. Unusual looking actors are restricted to comedy or villainous roles. The latest rumor is that 71 year old Harrison Ford will be replaced as Indiana Jones by young and handsome Bradley Cooper. Steve Buscemi, an excellent actor who is 14 years younger than Ford, was never even a contender.

Studies show that better looking people are more likely to be hired even when their resume is no better than that of an average-looking person. We trust in appearances. God does not. He looks at the heart of people.

David was short, or at least shorter than Saul whose armor was too big for the shepherd. He was ruddy, which may mean he was redheaded and fair-skinned, a rarity in the Middle East. (Esau is the only other person in the Bible described as ruddy.) Redheads are in vogue today but throughout history, cultural attitudes toward redheads has been polarized. They were sometimes revered and sometimes feared. Egyptians associated redhaired people and animals with Set, the god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners. They considered the color red to be unlucky and frequently burned red-haired maidens. The Greeks thought redheads became vampires after they died. Aristotle said they were emotionally unhousebroken, whatever that means. Traditionally redheads have been considered volatile and quick tempered. So despite being handsome, David was not what Samuel had expected. Ironically, David, anointed as king over all Israel, becomes the archetype for the Messiah, God's anointed prophet, priest and king. When God sends Jesus to fulfill that role, he is also not what people expected.

In our gospel (John 6:1-41), Jesus encounters a man born blind. He is not what the disciples expected. His condition causes them some theological confusion. As was common at the time, they consider disease a punishment for sin. But if he was born blind, it couldn't be a punishment for any sin he committed, could it? Perhaps it was punishment for the sins of his parents?

Believe it or not, people still think this way. Things go bad and we think God is punishing us. I once had a patient at a nursing home, who, when she learned her husband, also a patient there, was diagnosed with a terminal disease, thought God was punishing her! I assured her that Jesus took all of our punishment; she could stop torturing herself.

We have had some TV evangelists opine that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake that hit Haiti were punishments from God for the sins of the people. Jesus would disagree. In Luke 13:4, Jesus dismisses the idea that the tower of Siloam fell on and killed 18 people because they were bigger sinners than anyone else. And here Jesus refuses to accept the premise that sin caused the man's condition. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned...” he says. Jesus instead sees the man's blindness as an opportunity to reveal God's works. He will heal the man. Jesus doesn't care about fixing the blame; he is all about fixing the problem.

A lot of people blame the victims of misfortune for their problems. People blame rape victims for being too scantily dressed. Folks blame the unemployed for not having jobs and the poor for not having better paying jobs. But even when face with a woman taken in adultery, Jesus is more interested in saving the woman's life from a righteously indignant mob than in passing a verdict on her. At the end of the incident, Jesus asks about her accusers. They are gone. And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus, like his Father, sees things differently than other human beings do. He sees people as those created in God's image whom his Father sent him to save. So he doesn't write them off. He is especially drawn to those who know they need to be saved, which is to say, people who are often despised by respectable people, like tax collectors and prostitutes, as well those who were powerless in his society, like women and children. Since they needed saving, he disregarded parts of the law that got in the way of his mission, like rules against doing work on the sabbath or about being rendered unclean by touching lepers or being touched by menstruating women. He talked with Samaritans, healed the slave of a Roman soldier, and cured the daughter of a Gentile woman.

The people Jesus did not respect where those who let things get in the way of saving people: religious leaders who put rules before alleviating suffering, men who put their wealth ahead of helping the poor, moneychangers who put profit ahead of providing for the needs of worshipers. In our gospel it is Pharisees, so opposed to Jesus that they cannot believe that God would heal folks through him on the Sabbath. And so in contrast to the man he cured, Jesus pronounces them sightless. Their inability to see and acknowledge the truth that is right before their eyes meant they were spiritually and morally blind.

“Once you were darkness,” writes Paul in our passage from Ephesians 5:8-14, “but now in the Lord you are light.” Note that he does not say “you are in light” but “you are light.” Like a candle lit from another candle, like a mirror reflecting a bright light, like an optical fiber, we are to convey and conduct Christ's light and illumine whatever part of the world we find ourselves in.

Bad conduct loves the darkness. As Chris Rock said, “Drugs are illegal but ATM machines are open 24 hours? Have you ever taken out $300 at 3 am in the morning for something good?” Paul says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” We are to expose the lies, the decay and corruption, the things people deny about their lives and activities, which are unfruitful, producing nothing good. We are to do this not out of maliciousness, but so that they can face the ugly truth of their conditions and hopefully turn to Jesus to be saved.

Nor need we be nasty about it. If someone uses the N-word, you can merely say, “You mean an African American.” If they talk about the poor in a disparaging way, you can say, “You mean the average poor person, a single white woman with children?” If they make snide remarks about the homeless, you can say, “You mean the average homeless person, who is a child of 9, or the half of all homeless women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse, or the 40% of homeless men who are veterans?” It can at least force people to check sweeping generalizations that blame victims for their plight.

More importantly, we need to see others through the lens of Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us that what we do to others we do to him. Mother Teresa used to emphasize this to the sisters in her order by doing rounds like this: “Jesus in room 301 couldn't keep his lunch down today. Jesus in room 306 is getting dehydrated. Jesus is room 207 needs to be turned frequently to prevent bed sores.” She was reminding them whom they served.

Appearances and status and prejudices blind the world to the truth. God sees us clearly. As his followers we need to open our eyes to the fact that everyone is created in God's image and everybody is a person for whom Christ died. They should be treated accordingly so they have a chance to see those things in themselves. If they don't see them or don't act like it, that's not our concern. What's important is that we are light to those who are willing to see and to follow Jesus' steps through this dark night until we see the dawning of his new creation. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Who?

A prison got a distinguished guest speaker to address their prisoners. He looked out over the men in orange jumpsuits and began, “My fellow citizens...” And then he stopped as he heard some snorts and whispered comments. And he realized what he had said. As convicted men, the inmates had lost their rights as citizens. So he began again, “My fellow convicts...” The laughter was louder this time. He realized that he was going to have to drop his pretended camaraderie with the inmates and skip to one of his other standard opening remarks. So after the laughter died down, he tried a third time. He said, “Well, I'm glad to see so many of you here today...” 

In the past weeks we've talked about why we should tell people about Jesus, how we can communicate the gospel and what the essentials of our message are. Tonight we are going to talk about the important task of knowing your audience so you can effectively target our message to them.

When I worked at a radio station in the Ozarks we didn't have to worry about who are audience was. It was everyone in town who didn't listen exclusively to the Christian station, the only other radio station in this town of 5000. We were the sole source of local daily news and our most popular feature was the Civic Record, a recitation of who was admitted to the local hospital, who was discharged, who was born and who had died and where were they laid out. Among ourselves, we Djs called this boring feature the Civic Dead. Once when the station was off the air due to transmitter problems, I fielded phone calls from people who wanted to know if, despite being unable to broadcast, we were still going to read the Civic Record. I had to quash the temptation to tell them we would indeed for all our psychic listeners.

When I worked for a hard rock station, we knew who are our audience was: primarily young men from their teens to their twenties. Which is why I questioned the account executive who wanted me to write an ad for a poodle grooming service. The salesmen, not one of our best, ignored the fact that our listeners were outside his customer's target audience and the ad would not generate much if any business. He was practically taking their money under false pretenses.

Even if you are using the right medium, not everyone exposed to your message will respond. Let's say you are a Chevy dealership. The best ad in the world will not move people who usually buy a Mercedes Benz. Or a Lexis. Even Chevy buyers who have already have a model that's only a year or 2 old are not likely to be tempted by your ad to get another. Your best target are people who would consider a Chevy and who are already looking for a new car or whose present car is old and giving them troubles and might be ready to think about trading it in. No message will be effective for all people.

This doesn't mean you needn't tailor your message for your target audience. Jesus did. His audience were Jews in a largely agricultural country so he used a lot of imagery that involved seeds and plants and trees and vineyards. He also used metaphors about shepherds and sheep, another rural occupation. A carpenter, he spoke of building houses and towers. Growing up the poor son of a widow, he spoke a woman frantically searching her home for a lost coin and a widow who harasses an unjust judge till he gives her a fair verdict. Living in a land of great wealth disparity, he spoke of the rich and their slaves. Jesus spoke of things that were familiar to his audience. Knowing their attitudes towards these things, he would sometimes play to their expectations and sometimes confound them to make his point.

So who are the likely members our audience? For the gospel, potentially everyone who is not already a Christian, though practically it would be mostly seekers and people who have not already made up their mind on God or Jesus. Given that most children today are rarely taken to church outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals, people with children are an important audience. In fact, a lot of people who drift from the church will return when they become parents, realizing their children should get some religious education. Which brings us to another key audience: lapsed Christians. And out of that group, our expressions of the faith might appeal to certain folks who are familiar with the way we worship, such as lapsed Lutherans, lapsed Episcopalians and former Roman Catholics.

We have to frame the gospel slightly differently for each of these audiences. For agnostics, we will want to go with the basics of theism. For seekers and those not raised in a church we also want to be adept at talking about the essentials of Christianity. We will want to have some answers for Frequently Asked Questions and for common objections. It can be trickier with lapsed churchgoers. They may have just drifted away. They may, however, have had bad experiences in a previous church or be given bad theology. I had a friend who desperately wanted a child. When she delivered a stillborn baby, her pastor told her it was God's will. Not surprisingly she did not return to that church. You don't tell people that their tragedies or losses are God's will. You certainly don't tell them they are punishment for their sins. You tell them about God's love and healing. You point out how God knows pain and loss through Jesus. You tell they can stop punishing themselves because Jesus took care of that for us. You let them find the meaning of their painful experiences for themselves, even if it takes years.

While the essentials of the faith don't change, what you emphasize in communicating the gospel will vary with each person. So a great deal of evangelism should be listening to the person to find out their specific needs and desires.

They may be simply looking for God, a creator, someone bigger than them to whom they can give their allegiance. That's a simple order to fill, but it's rarely that straightforward for most people.

They may be looking for a faith, by which I mean a way of understanding life and the world. There are many competing models out there but if the person has perceived the emptiness of the paradigms the world offers, they may rightly think that a better place to look is Christianity. They may also be looking for a source of strength, a resource to help them deal with life and their struggles.

They may be looking for a community, a group of people who provide love and support.

They may be looking for a purpose in life, an inspiration to motivate themselves.

They may be looking for a moral code, an organizing principle or way of behaving as they navigate through this tricky and corrupt world.

They may be looking for peace and/or forgiveness and healing.

Or they may simply be looking for a blessing for a rite of passage, that is, a baptism, wedding or funeral. This is definitely an opportunity to tell them the good news but it's my experience that few of these people stay in the church after the ceremony.

Jesus offers all of these things: a big God, an approach to life that gives both guidance and strength, a group of followers distinguished by their love for one another, an energizing purpose to life, a code that prioritizes ethics by love for God and others, spiritual well-being, forgiveness and restoration, and a way of fitting the big events of our lives into the larger narrative of God's redeeming love for his people.

As for our specific churches, what do we offer people? All of the above plus some features of our own. For one thing, we are small churches. Unlike bigger ones, nobody gets lost in the crowd here. You can know pretty much everyone in the congregation. The parish acts like a caring extended family. You have every opportunity to use your gifts and participate in the life of the church and make an impact.

Secondly, we are liturgical churches. There is beauty and harmony in the way we worship God. We are united in our words and actions. We are literally all on the same page. And we offer complete worship—prayer, praise, preaching and partaking in the body and blood of Christ. It is a spiritual feast for those who hunger and thirst for God.

So we have the tools to identify our target audiences and we have lots to offer them. When and where can we encounter them in order to invite them to the great feast? We will look at that in 2 weeks. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Participants in Grace

The scripture referred to is Exodus 17:1-7.

During one of my summers in college I was working with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, and I was assigned to Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone Park. I had a secular job but when off-duty I worked with a seminary student and his wife arranging Bible studies and worship services at the lodge and local campground. There was another employee who claimed to be a Christian but certainly didn't act like one. When the discrepancy came up he invoked what Paul said about our salvation depending on God's grace and not our works. No matter what I said, he said that obeying commandments was an attempt to attain righteousness by our works. Besides they infringed on our freedom in Christ.

At that time I had not read Dietrich Bonhoffer's critique of what he called “cheap grace.” In The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” What people hear preached often goes like this: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolation of forgiveness.”

In other words, it is the preaching of one half of the gospel, ignoring the whole “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus” part. It is misunderstanding what salvation is. It is thinking that good and evil are static states and that being saved is simply being moved from one position to another, there to stay. But as in physical life, in the spiritual life one either grows or deteriorates. You are either becoming more Christlike or less so.

Bonhoffer's description of the world of 1937, written from the heart of Nazi Germany, sounds very much like the 21st century: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available at too low a cost. We gave away the word and the sacraments wholesale; we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving...But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”

God saves us without our help but he never tells us to be passive. God always requires our participation. In today's Old Testament lesson we see an example. The Israelites are thirsty and once again grumbling against God and Moses. God agrees to give them water but doesn't make it rain or lead them to a spring. He tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Then the water comes out. It is the same staff God told Moses to hold over the Nile and turn it to blood. Is the staff magic? Or is God making a point of involving humans?

We see similar things throughout scripture. The Israelites must march around Jericho and blow their horns before God makes the walls fall. When Naaman comes to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, he has to bathe in the Jordan 7 times before God heals him. When Jesus gives Peter and the not yet disciples a spectacular catch of fish, he doesn't have the fish jump in the boat or enter the net they already have in the water; he has the men throw their nets on the other side of the boat. When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, he tells him to stretch out his hand. When he feeds the 5000, he has the disciples check for what food they have at hand, which is 5 loaves and 2 fish, and uses that to feed everyone. But couldn't Jesus have made do with nothing?

The principle seems to be that even when God could do something without our help, he nevertheless involves us in the process. Is he just showing off? No, I think he is doing what my wife does when she lets little Nicholas help her bake. She could probably do everything faster and better without him. But she includes him for 3 reasons.

First of all, he wants to help. The best time to get kids into helping with chores is during that period when, as toddlers, they want to help you and want to imitate what you do. New Christians are often the same way. They want to get out there and do God's work. They may need training and guidance, which takes time, but it's a mistake not to let them help. It helps them feel a part of the church and of God's kingdom, where what we do on earth is what is done in heaven. So you may not have them take over running the Sunday School or managing the soup kitchen or heading up the Altar Guild but you do let them join in and help at any or all of those things, rather than worry that they'll mess things up or not do things precisely the way you'd like them done. As my wife does with Nicholas and will do with our granddaughter when she gets to that stage, you let them do what they can. And that's one reason God lets us do stuff he could do without us: to let us show our love for him by helping him and imitating him.

The second reason my wife lets Nicholas help her bake is to teach him how. A motivated student is a valuable resource. Most people have a hard time learning things they don't care about. But when they want to learn, it would be foolish not to teach them. My kids went to my wife and asked her to teach them to cook because they didn't want to be like me. (In my defense I can cook anything in the world...provided there are microwave instructions on the box.) So she let them help her and taught them how to increase their skills in the kitchen. God lets us be part of what he is doing because we are supposed to be in the process of growing into the likeness of Christ. He will do the heavy lifting but he involves us so we learn about him and so we learn to be like him. Disciple, after all, simply means student. God believes in learning by doing.

The third reason my wife lets Nicholas help her is that she loves him. When you love people you love doing things with them. It's fun when someone shares their knowledge and skills with you. God loves us and wants to share his wisdom and gifts with us. One of the things Jesus did was make it possible for us to be reconciled with God and so enjoy his love. There is a time to simply spend time with someone you love, gazing at them and thinking about them. We do the equivalent in worship and in our private time with God. And then there is time to do things with a loved one. We shop or go to a movie or go for a hike or do a project together. God too wants to spend time with us, doing things together: sharing his word with others, helping people out, taking care of his other creatures as well as his creation, learning the wonders of expressing his love through our work and through our talents.

A saying attributed to St. Augustine summarizes God's penchant for involving us in his plans thus: “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” After all, he reveals his will to us. He invites us to enter his kingdom, become his children, become co-heirs with his Son. He commissions us to tell the love story of God and his creatures. He gives us the ministry of reconciliation. Why? It's not like he needs our help. Maybe he is trying to show us that we always need his help.

The paradox of how God works with us is captured in Philippians 2:12-13, where Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling...” which makes it sounds as if it all depends on us, but then it goes on to say, “for it is God who is working in you, both to desire and to fulfill his good purpose,” which makes it sound like it all depends on God. It is in fact a collaboration but one in which God is in charge and a lot of our job is getting out of his way and following his lead. It's like working with tech support to fix your computer: you have to do what they say, shut down programs you were running, and then let them take control of our cursor and screen, delete stuff that is harmful, and put on a security program to protect you in the future. In the same way, we have to do what God says, shut down some of our own pet projects, let him take control of life, let him eliminate our destructive habits, and fill us with his Holy Spirit. We are cooperating with him but it is not an equal partnership.

That's the key difference. When Paul writes of our salvation being a matter of grace and not works, he means we cannot save ourselves but he doesn't mean we do nothing. He just means we are not in charge; it is not our initiative but God's. But we still must respond to God's offer. After all he says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Our part is to say “yes” to God: to his gift of grace and then to all that follows from that. Which means obeying his commandments. Not because they make us righteous but because they are what people made righteous by Christ do.

It is all about what kind of people we are and are becoming. Are we becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, kinder, more generous, gentler, more faithful, more in control of ourselves? Because that is what the Spirit is trying to make of us. And we can quench the Spirit, just like a child can bring a planned family outing to a grinding halt by refusing to cooperate at all. Or like a person can sabotage his recovery from an illness by not taking his meds or not doing his rehab exercises or not giving up the foods or habits that are bad for him. Sometimes people so hate being told what to do that they will refuse to do it even if it means they will remain ill rather than get well again.

I wonder what happened to that employee who felt he could call himself a Christian while still doing whatever he wanted. Did he eventually give up the pretense of following Jesus? Or did he come to see that what he thought of as freedom in Christ was an excuse to indulge in behavior that was ultimately self-destructive? Did he ever come to see that the whole point of following Jesus was to be transformed? Did he ever realize that such a life promised him more pleasure and contentment than his self-centered life of seeking new sensations, regardless of the personal cost? Or did he stay entrenched in his habits despite mounting negative consequences?

I don't know. That was a summer job nearly 40 years ago. But I hope he did have a moment of clarity, an epiphany, a falling of the scales from his eyes. He was a charming and intelligent man. He had a lot of promise and, I hope, a long life ahead of him. I hope it has been a good life, in every sense of the word.

God is not looking for perfect people. He is looking for imperfect people who realize what they are and want to change, want to change enough to surrender to God, to let him have control of their lives, and who are willing to not only pay lip service to being Christians but to actually deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow in Jesus' footsteps. It's not that we can do anything to save ourselves but having been saved by him, we receive the power of his Spirit to think and speak and act like him more and more day by day.

And that is true freedom in Christ: the freedom from the enslaving habits of sin that keep us doing the same things over and over while expecting different results. The freedom we receive in Jesus is the freedom to enjoy God's gifts and use them as he intended. Real freedom is having the ability to choose what is good for you, with a clear mind and a clean conscience. Only then can you discover that what is good in the sense of being morally right is also good in the sense of pleasurable. Because then we will be in harmony with God our creator and so with with all our fellow creatures as well as with ourselves. We will be free to be the person God created us to be, not limited by our past but facing a future as boundless as God's love. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: What?

In the last two weeks we have looked at why we should tell people the Good News about Jesus and how we should tell them. This week we get to what we should tell them.

The gospel can be as simple or as complex as needed, just like most things in life. If you want to explain atoms to kids or laypeople you can use the picture of a ball or clump of balls being orbited by other balls, rather like a planet with many moons or satellites. If you want to explain it to a physics major, you can go into the fact that the traditional picture is a very simplified image of the way atoms really are.

To get a really good look at our really big God and the different ways he relates to different situations, you need to read the whole Bible, preferably in the original languages, and then read Bible dictionaries, commentaries, theological works, etc. But not everyone can do that. And even if they did it would take a long time to do it and then digest it all. So when people want to become Christians, while we encourage them to start a lifelong habit of reading the Bible and other good Christian literature, we first just give them the basics. The church even took the traditional baptismal formula and expanded it into what is now know as the Apostles' Creed. It is a good summary of the essentials of the faith and we say it every time we baptize someone, as well as frequently throughout the year, alternating with the Nicene Creed which is really an expansion of the Apostles' Creed. We use catechisms to get deeper into the beliefs we build our lives around. But for starters, we can use something even simpler than the creed.

By the way if you wish to see how the apostles summarized the gospel read Acts 10: 34-43. It is Peter's speech to Cornelius and his family, the first Gentiles he ever evangelized. He talks of the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit. Jesus went about doing good and healing, was crucified and rose from the dead. He will come to judge the living and the dead but those who trust him will be forgiven their sins. Bible scholars call this basic outline the kergyma, Greek for proclamation. You see variations of it throughout the book of Acts.

There are other ways to present these facts and we will discus them a little later but first let's look at the elements using the 5 W's you were taught in writing class: who, what, when, where, why and, for good measure, how.

Who is the subject of the good news? Jesus, of course. But who exactly is he? The early Christians, during times of persecution, came up with a secret sign to identify each other. It was the ichthus or what we call the Jesus fish. It was not an arbitrary symbol. Some clever person realized that the Greek word for fish could be used as an acronym for everything one needed to know about our Lord. Ichthus stands for Iesus Christos Theos 'Uios Sator, or in English, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. The first letter of ichthus was the same as the first letter for the Greek form of Jesus. Not only is this his given name, it also means the person we call Lord is a real human being. No reputable historian denies that Jesus of Nazareth lived. He was a real man. What it means for us is that when we look at Jesus we see what a human being can be. He lived and died as one of us; he ate, got tired, got angry, slept, felt pain, was tempted but without sinning. He is the epitome of humanity.

The second letter stands for Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah, the Anointed one. Christ is not Jesus' last name but his title. It means he is God's promised and anointed prophet, priest and king. He speaks for God; he acts for God; he is to be obeyed as God. Jesus is not merely a philosopher or a good teacher. As C.S. Lewis said, after all Jesus said about himself, he can only be one of 3 things. If he is wrong about himself, he either knew it was false and is therefore a liar. Or he didn't know he was wrong and so was deluded and a lunatic. Or he is right in what he said about himself and therefore is the Lord. There really aren't any other choices.

The 3rd and 4th letters stand for God's Son. As his son, Jesus shares God's nature, the way a person's offspring shares their DNA and is a human being and not a dog or a frog or a rhesus monkey. The Bible says that Jesus is the very image of his Father and so when we look at Jesus we see what God is like: just but merciful, loving and forgiving. As J.B. Phillips put it Jesus is the God who is beyond our ability to comprehend focused in terms we can understand, in time and space and human personality.

The last letter of the Greek acronym stands for Savior. He redeems us, literally, buys us back from slavery. He saves or rescues us. But from what?

What he rescues us from is evil, which can be defined as the misuse, abuse and neglect of the good gifts God gives us in creation. There is nothing in this world we have not turned against ourselves or others. We have used our God-given intelligence to makes weapons out of everything we have discovered: our muscles, rocks, sticks, metals, chemicals, germs, and nuclear materials. We have created civilization and used it to create dictatorships, war, slavery, prostitution, and exploitation. We have enormous inequality in the distribution of pay so that those who work the physically hardest and most hazardous and nastiest jobs get paid less. Except for professional athletes, who first have to risk their bodies for no money in school and college before we pay them large sums for short careers that are over just when other people's careers are hitting stride.

We do evil or sin by our thoughts, by our words and by our actions. Jesus says, in Mark 7:21-23, “...from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, promiscuity, envy, slander, arrogance and foolishness.” The evil conceived in our heads comes out in what we say and what we do. We even manage to sin by what we don't do, like not helping the hungry, the threadbare, the sick, the imprisoned, the person who is not like us in appearance or culture or status. The typical attitude toward God, at least when his way conflicts with our way, is “My will, not yours, Lord, be done!” Like rebellious children, we don't see God's will for us as loving but as telling us what to do and we would rather suffer the consequences of our bad choices than do what we don't want to do. This contrarian way of thinking, speaking and acting alienates us from God, which in turn alienates us from everything else he created: nature, other people, even ourselves.

This separation from God, the source of all goodness and life, causes spiritual illness. Sins are the symptoms of this spiritual and moral disease which can lead to spiritual death, the ultimate separation from God. That is what Jesus came to rescue us from.

When did Jesus do this? During his earthly life. He preached, that is, told us what the problem is with us and what the cure is: himself. And to show that he was right in his assessment and that he was what we need, he healed all who came to him and trusted in him from whatever illness enslaved them, be it physical, mental or spiritual. When an illness is really severe, a transplant can be the only thing which can saves the sick. And some transplants, like a heart, require the death of the donor. Such is the spiritual disease of the whole world, that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, gave his life on the cross. (Crucifixion is, not coincidentally, a method of death that was the product of evil minds, who communicated that evil idea to other people who built it and evil leaders commanded that still other people act on this evil thought by nailing folks to it.)

Of course, Jesus could have been a liar caught in his own snare or a lunatic who didn't know he could die. But God raised him from the dead on the third day since his burial. This event vindicated Jesus and turned his followers from fugitives into witnesses to his mighty act of self-sacrifice and triumph over death. It was his resurrection that showed that Jesus was right about who he was and what he was sent to do. He was God doing for us what we could not do: live a human life perfectly in harmony with God's will and take on all the consequences of human evil. As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, to paraphrase 2 Corinthians 5:19.

Why would he do this and at such a high cost? Because he loves us, as John 3:16 says. Or as Romans 5:8 puts it, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If you really love someone you would do anything you could to save them. The extent to which Jesus went to save us shows how much he and his Father love us.

How should we respond to this good news? How should you respond to anyone who offered to save your life? If it were your doctor and you trusted him, you would do what he said. You would undergo a heart transplant if the doctor said that was the only way to save you. You would put yourself in his hands. And if afterward he said to stop doing these things and start doing these other things, you would do what he said. That's all Jesus wants us to do: believe what he says and act like it. Respond to his love and faithfulness with love and faithfulness.

That is the gospel or good news in a nutshell. Notice I stated the problem—evil—and the solution—Jesus. You could tell the gospel as a story. Jesus often did. And he used common things and experiences to make the gospel more understandable. You'll see that I used medical metaphors to explain it. Use ones from your own background if you find appropriate examples. Or from the background of the person you are talking to. Which is the second part of successful communication: know your audience so you can tailor your message to their level of understanding. That's what we'll discuss next Wednesday. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Run-Up to John 3:16

Probably the one verse all America knows is John 3:16 and that's largely due to sports fans who hold up signs with the reference at televised events. I wonder how many folks actually look up the verse and how many of those who do check it out then go on to read it in context. Today's gospel (John 3:1-17) is almost the complete passage in which the verse occurs.

It starts with a stealth visit by Nicodemus, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish council and supreme court. He comes by night because, we presume, having a heart to heart conversation with Jesus would be seen as a breaking of his vow as a Pharisee. To enter the chaburah or brotherhood of the Pharisees one had to vow in front of 3 witnesses that one would observe every detail of the written law found in the Torah as well as the Mishnah, the oral law codified by the scribes. Meeting with someone who had disrupted the temple as Jesus had just done would, at the very least, be frowned upon. Pharisee means “separated one.” The Pharisees set themselves apart from the ordinary world and from ordinary people by their observance of the law and all the regulations deduced from it. Jesus did not follow the law as closely as they would like.

Still it is a wonder that Nicodemus came to Jesus at all. And he obviously wants to discuss something with a person he regarded at this point as a prophet. Nicodemus says this because of the signs Jesus performs. But Jesus immediately moves the focus to the deeper matter of being born anew. I know our translation says born from above and that is one possible meaning of the Greek but based on Nicodemus' response, I think he perceived it as being born again. William Barclay, to whose Daily Study Bible I am indebted in researching this sermon, tries to capture both meanings by translating what Jesus says as “...unless a man is reborn from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Now Barclay has this interesting idea about Nicodemus' misunderstanding of being born anew. Perhaps he did get Jesus' meaning. After all, when a Gentile converted to Judaism, he was not only circumcised but baptized and treated as if he was a new and different person than he had been in his previous life. That was why John the Baptizer's ministry was so radical; he was baptizing not Gentiles but Jews as if they were just coming to Judaism. But perhaps Nicodemus was also skeptical, posits Barclay. He interprets Nicodemus' response as not crudely literal but almost wistful. “You talk about being born anew; you talk about this radical, fundamental change which is so necessary. I know that it is necessary; but in my experience it is impossible. There is nothing I would like more; but you might as well tell me, a full grown man, to enter my mother's womb and be born all over again.” And maybe Barclay is right. Perhaps Nicodemus would like to change but thought he was too old to start over, to start a new life. His hope was fighting despair.

But Jesus insists that such a change is possible; not by the will of mortals but by the will of God. And Barclay points out 4 closely interrelated Biblical ideas that go with being born anew or from above.

The first idea is, of course, rebirth, a new beginning. As Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away and, behold, the new is here.” Being born from above is a new start to a new life, lived in and through Christ.

The second idea connected with being born anew is that of entering the kingdom of God. Jesus says no one can enter it except by being born anew. But what does this mean? Earthly kingdoms have borders; they are limited by geography and by treaty. God's kingdom does not, because it is not a place but a state of being. In the Lord's Prayer we say, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is Jewish parallelism, a poetic way of saying the same thing in 2 ways, the second time enlarging upon and explaining the first. We see it in the psalms, like verse 7 of today's psalm (121): “The Lord shall preserve you from evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.” So in his prayer Jesus is equating the kingdom of God with doing God's will in this life as perfectly as it is done in the very presence of God. Wherever people entirely follow God's will, there it can be said that God truly reigns. Being born anew makes us citizens of God's kingdom and wherever we are doing God's will, loving him and loving others, we are planting and expanding the reach of his kingdom.

The third idea that goes with being born from above is our being adopted as children of God. In Genesis 4:20, 21 it says, “Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of the nomadic herdsman. His brother was named Jubal; he was the father of all who play the lyre and the flute.” It's rather like when we call George Washington the father of our country and patriots the sons of liberty. Similarly, in the Bible, someone who not a literal child of someone else could still be called the son of that person if he followed in his footsteps. Thus in the Old Testament angels are sometimes called the sons of God. Sometimes the king of Israel is poetically called the son of God in the Psalms. In this vein Paul says, “ imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Ephesians 5:1)

To be a Christian is to be adopted as a child of God. In Galatians 3:26 Paul writes, “...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.” John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name.” True faith naturally brings about a change in how one acts. Jesus himself says, “But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6:35) Like being a citizen of the kingdom, being a child of God means following God's will.

A fourth idea associated with being born anew is receiving eternal life. Which means more than life which never ends. Because eternity is outside time. Time is a creation of God who lives in eternity. So eternal life is God's life, which he shares with us. On the cross Jesus gave up his life so we could have eternal life. Through him we are born anew or from above into a different kind or quality of life—divine life.

In his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you the truth, unless a person is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The water, of course, is baptism, the washing away of our sins, the sacrament in which we are buried with Christ and raised to new life in him. And the Spirit is God's Holy Spirit, who anoints us and seals us as Christ's own when we are baptized. This is symbolized by the blessed oil with which we anoint the forehead of the baptized. The Greek word Christ as well as the Hebrew word Messiah mean, literally, “the Anointed One.” As members of the Body of Christ we are also anointed by the Spirit to do God's work. We are to be, as C.S. Lewis put it, “little Christs,” reflecting our Lord and Savior in our thoughts, words and deeds.

We are both physical and spiritual beings, operating in both realms. But the two are not separate but interpenetrate each other. The physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. Water symbolizes death and rebirth; and H2O ceases to be merely a combination of chemicals but is also made a channel of God's grace. Bread and wine make Christ's lifegiving death and our internal dependence on him concrete; the Eucharist turns the basics of a meal into a communion with the divine, the Body of Christ on earth sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, becoming one with God and with each other.

The person of the Trinity we have the hardest time understanding is the Spirit. Nicodemus is having trouble, too. So Jesus uses the fact that the same Greek word pneuma means both “spirit” and “wind.” Wind moves things. You can feel it but you can't see it. The Spirit works that way as well. The Spirit moves us. We feel him when he is at work though we do not always know where the energy and inspiration he gives us comes from. Bacteria, atoms, energy—lots of powerful things in the physical world are invisible to the naked eye. God's Spirit cannot be seen but the effect he has can.

When Nicodemus still doesn't get it, Jesus shows surprise that a Jewish leader does not understand. But then Jesus has come from heaven, the presence of God, so he is the one with direct experience. So he goes with a reference to the Torah, specifically Numbers 21:4-9, where the people of Israel were plagued by poisonous snakes with a fiery bite. God commands Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole. The people are told that anyone bitten who looks at it recovers from the poison. Jesus draws an analogy to what will happen to him. He will be lifted up on a cross and those who look to his self-sacrifice with faith will be reborn into life eternal.

And that brings us to John 3:16. We have learned that at the heart of Jesus' mission is not just getting people to sign on with God's side. This is not a competition between good and evil. It is about God bringing spiritual rebirth to his creatures, making them his children, citizens of his kingdom, participants in his divine eternal life. But why is he doing this? Because God loves the world. He loves his creation and all his creatures. He pronounced them good when he created them. They have turned bad but he wants to make them good again, bring them back into harmony with his gracious will. And so he sends his unique son to rescue the perishing and bring them back to life, true life. He is not interested in condemning this world but in saving it.

And he is doing it one person at a time, touching and healing them, washing and anointing them, adopting and transforming them. He opens to them the realm of the Spirit that they might grow into their fullness as beings created in his image, more than mere animals, more substantial than angels. As Christ is both fully God and fully human, so we are to reflect the marriage of the earthly and the heavenly made perfect in him. We cannot take credit for it; it is all his doing. What we can do is humbly and thankfully work with him until not our will but his will be done and we see all things through his eyes, eyes that look with love upon this world and look forward to pronouncing it good once and for all.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: How?

Last week we looked at why we should tell people the gospel. We looked at both the practical reasons and the spiritual ones. And it's important when you embark on any task to understand why you are doing it. For instance if your spouse tells you to grab something for dinner, the way you go about it and what you get depends on whether it's for the whole family or just the two of you or if you have guests. If there are kids involved you will probably pick up things they will actually eat. If it's for the 2 of you, you might stop by a favorite restaurant or pizzeria and pick up something you both really like and don't get to eat often. If you are entertaining guests, you might kick things up a notch.

This week we are starting to get into the “how” of evangelism. And there are 2 important things to know when you want to communicate something: your message and your audience. But before we get to those I want to build on what we said last week and show how the “why” influences the ways we communicate.

You can only be effective at delivering a message if you are passionate about it. That's why in the days before cell phones when your teenager relayed a phone message to you, it tended to be incomplete or garbled. If the message was unimportant to them, they just jotted down a number and you were lucky if they remembered the name of the person who called or what it was about. 

Where do we find the passion we need to communicate  the gospel? For completeness, I mentioned several reasons “why” we should share the good news but the key reason is that we should do so out of concern for the spiritual welfare of others. That's even more important than the fact that Jesus commanded us to. When we pass on the gospel out of a sense of obligation, we will probably communicate that along with the message. And it won't elicit much of a response if the person thinks we are only telling them this because we are being made to do so.

We should share the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done for us out of compassion for those struggling through life without Jesus. Because that will dictate how we communicate it.

First and foremost, we should communicate it with our love. In John 13:35, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The mark of the Christian is love. One of the big reasons young people are leaving the church is that they don't see the ethic of love being carried out as it should. Would you take advice on weight loss, however well researched, from an obese doctor? Why should people believe what we say about love if there is little evidence of it in our lives?

So our second point is that we must proclaim the good news with our lives. St. Francis is supposed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” Wikiquotes lists this as disputed but a possible source of the idea is Rule 11 of the Franciscan order where it cites 1 John 3:18, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.” Or as the Good News translation puts it, “My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.” That idea is seconded by James when he says, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Later James writes, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18b) He is not contradicting Paul or saying works save us. He is saying that true faith changes one's life and such a change will be evident in how one lives and what one does. Jesus himself says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

True love begets action or else it is the kind of daydream love adolescents have for the cool guy or hot girl in class, the one they can't bring themselves to talk to. If we really love others we will do things for them. What kinds of things? Jesus gives us a good list of things to begin with in Matthew 25: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty; taking in strangers; giving clothes to those who need them; taking care of the sick; and visiting those in prison. James, Jesus' brother, adds the frequent Old Testament concern for helping widows and the fatherless. (James 1:27)

When 6 year old Caleb White first noticed a homeless man sleeping on the streets in Detroit, he began a project of making and taking sandwiches to the homeless. Now 11, Caleb has enlisted classmates to make presents of wrapped shoeboxes that contain not only food but a hat, gloves, toothpaste and toothbrush, soap and other necessities. This last Christmas he distributed 150 boxes as well as 100 winter coats sent by an apparel company in Boston which heard about his project. They were distributed through a charity called Feed My Sheep.

Here on Big Pine Key we have the food pantry. Located at the Methodist church, its volunteer base includes people from all denominations. It is a real demonstration of the fact that Jesus fed the hungry and those who follow him should, too.

There are also ministries that provide shelter for the homeless, that visit hospitals and nursing homes, and that bring God's word and love to jails and prisons. In Africa there are several ministries helping the many widows and orphans that are the result of war, AIDS, and slavery.

Here in the states I found a ministry called Mary's Comfort which works with those who have lost husbands and fathers in any way, whether death, desertion, divorce, war or imprisonment. The statistics they have gathered from the Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services are staggering. The vast majority of the poor in this country are single mothers and their children. Of the 12.2 million single-parent families in this country, 10 million are headed by single mothers. Up to 15% of these are actual widows, women whose husbands died. The average age at which a woman is widowed is 52. 40% of the homeless are women and their children, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Considering how often the Bible talks of widows and orphans, I'm surprised there aren't more ministries like this in the US.

I hadn't heard of Mary's Comfort until I googled “ministries for widows and orphans.” I imagine most people have not heard of it. This is a major problem with the church. We do a lot of good but we are not as savvy as a lot of secular organizations in letting people know. When people think of Christians they tend to think of all the controversies that have made the news rather than all the ways in which Christians show the love of Christ for others every day.

So if we are going to tell other about God's love, we need to make sure that they see nothing in our lives that contradicts our message, or suggests that it is nothing but talk.

Finally, we must communicate the good news of God's grace and forgiveness through Christ with our lips. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The statement assumes that people will be asking us about Jesus rather than us buttonholing folks in malls and on street corners. In fact, if you look in the Bible telling the gospel is usually done in answer to a question. In Acts 2, people are amazed by the disciples speaking in tongues and ask, “What does this mean?” In Acts 3, Peter responds to the obvious questions that were forming in the minds of the people who saw the lame man walking and leaping and praising God. In Acts 4, the Sanhedrin asks Peter, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” In Acts 7, Stephen is asked to defend himself against charges of blasphemy. In Acts 8, Philip sees the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah, asked him if he understands what he is reading and the man answers with a question, “How can I unless someone guides me?” And so it goes. When they talk about the gospel, the apostles for the most part are responding to questions asked them about spiritual things. In fact, Jesus' own teachings are often given in response to questions from his opponents or his disciples or ordinary people.

Now it must be admitted that many times the questions are prompted by things Jesus or the apostles say or do. You may not have the gift of healing or speaking in tongues or other extraordinary things that draw people's attention or amazement. But you know what is extraordinary today? Taking time to help other people—taking a hungry person to a restaurant to eat or listening to someone in emotional distress or going out of your way to aid someone. And if that prompts a question, like “Why are you doing this?” or “Am I holding you up from something?” You can respond with an appropriate comment about how you are doing this because you are trying to follow Jesus. And if they ask to know more about Jesus what do you say? We will get to that next Wednesday.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tempting Offers

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11.

I'm going to offend some sportsfans right off the top. I really don't care who wins March Madness or the Olympics or the Superbowl or the World Series. They are ultimately irrelevant to my life and, generally speaking, to the life of the world. Take the World Series. Unlike the World Cup in soccer, the World Series doesn't actually include teams from all over the earth and I'm sure that there are people in South America, Africa, the Middle and Far East who would think the name not merely inaccurate but arrogant. Still, it just doesn't interest me. It's merely people playing games. I'm glad their fans enjoy it. I hope the players are enjoying it. But when people anywhere riot or get into fights over who wins a game, I am puzzled. Why do people get so worked up about a game with arbitrary rules played in many cases by people who get paid more than the President and who are just as likely to move to any team that will pay them more and whose scores will soon be old news? Are people's everyday lives actually affected by the wins or losses? Where is their sense of perspective?

Sports and games are as old as humanity, though. We love to pick sides and root for our team. And often our team preference is a matter of happenstance, depending largely on where we grew up or presently live. The people of Chicago are loyal to the Cubs despite the fact that the team hasn't won a World series in more than a century.

Unfortunately, some people think that theology works the same way. That is, that religions are essentially teams and that the rules they play by are just as arbitrary as the rules for human games. So they feel that penalizing anyone for picking the wrong team makes as much sense as inflicting physical punishment on fans for picking the Denver Broncos over the St. Louis Rams. Aren't they all basically the same?

While it's true that religions overlap a lot when it comes to social ethics—establishing justice and encouraging unity, for instance—they really see the world in very different ways and that affects how they teach you to live. Buddhists don't generally believe in a god. They believe that they should follow the 8-fold path in order to ascend to Nirvana, which is literally the snuffing out of the flame of life and therefore ending the dreadful cycle of death and rebirth into this world of suffering. Hindus believe in a rigid caste system with no upward mobility in this life as well as in millions of gods. One is Kali, the goddess of death, destruction and disease. Her devotees, the Thugs, were robbers who saw their murder victims as sacrifices for her. The Sikhs see themselves as soldier-saints. The Amish are complete pacifists, eschewing all violence and use of force. Saying all religions are alike is like saying all political philosophies are alike and therefore it doesn't matter if you believe in Nazism or in democracy. Unlike sports, the differences in religions matter. Their ideas of morality, what is good and what is evil and why, matter.

The Bible says that God is love. That is, that God is literally a love relationship, the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, a unity of love so strong that the 3 divine persons are one God. We were created in God's image and in order that we might love him back we were created, not as pre-programed robots, but with free will and the ability to choose. We have misused the gifts God has given us, made bad choices and have turned the paradise God has given us into hell on earth. We have chosen to murder, to steal, to rape, to torture, to deceive, to take away other people's freedom, to worship men or money or might or popularity or elements of creation rather than our creator. God didn't create evil; we did by making non-loving and often intentionally harmful choices. And the consequences of those choices ruin our relationships—with God, with other people, with the rest of creation and even with ourselves. So why do we make bad choices? Genesis and Matthew give us perfect paradigms of the temptation process.

It all begins with doubting God's goodness or wisdom. The serpent, the voice of temptation in Genesis 3, first makes an exaggerated assumption. “Did God say 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?” Obviously this would be an outrageously bad decision by God, leaving the man and the woman malnourished, if not starving. The woman contradicts this but the seed of doubt is planted. And often temptation begins with thinking that God is unreasonable and his rules arbitrary. That's because we don't always see the reasons for God's rules. In a similar way, a toddler doesn't understand why Mom won't let him climb up the bookcase or drink from the bottles of brightly colored fluids under the sink or open the front gate and go exploring the neighborhood on his own. From his point of view she is just being mean. He can't see that though the rules displease him, the reason for them is love.

The woman then misstates God's rule, expanding it. She says they can't even touch the forbidden fruit. And when we face a rule we disagree with, it usually begins to loom larger in our eyes. It seems to become bigger, more grotesque, more of a hindrance to our lives than it really is. Every parent is familiar with how the biggest arguments with children or teens seem to revolve around the smallest things. If they can't get a specific toy or electronic gadget, they act as if they are being deprived of all the necessities of life. If they can't wear a particular fashion item, they act as if they are being condemned to be treated as a pariah. If they are forced to miss a special event because they didn't do their homework, they act as if they are being persecuted to the point of martyrdom. They act like it is the end of the world. Deny us humans what we desire and it becomes not the most important thing in our life but the only thing in our life.

Next the woman is told “You will not die!” From doubt and an exaggeration of the size of the prohibition, we go to a flat-out contradiction of what God says. God is not just unfair but wrong. Or lying to us. The woman is being tempted to distrust God. And we often do that when we want to surrender to a temptation. “Oh, it won't hurt to do it just this once.” And then we take two steps into the minefield, see that we haven't blown up yet and figure it's safe to do handsprings.

On a recovering heroin addict said that the most insidious thing about the drug is that it doesn't addict you immediately. He and his girlfriend started by taking it occasionally and without suffering any scary side-effects. Their descent into fullblown addiction was so gradual they didn't realize it until it was too late. Had it powerfully taken hold of them from the very beginning, it would have alarmed them and they would have fought it immediately.

So the voice of temptation tells the woman that, despite what God said, nothing bad will happen to her. In fact, the reason for the prohibition is that God is insecure about his position. “...God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” A lot of kids start drinking because all the cool kids do. Their parents are against it because they are hypocrites. Or kids smoke because they think it will make them look more grownup. Their parents are treating them like babies. The kids can make up their own minds. They're not stupid.

We disregard God's rules because we either think he is keeping good things from us or we think he is just plain wrong. We know better than God. We can handle this. We are not stupid. Thinking we are wiser than God or ascribing ignoble motives to him are good ways to end up doing stupid things. It's like when someone ignores a Warning Sign on a piece of machinery or on a piece of property. It's like ignoring the Mythbusters when they say, “Do not try this at home.” There is usually a very good reason. It is often a matter of safety. There's a reason why hair dryers have stickers that tell you not to use them in the shower. Because someone probably has and tried to sue the manufacturers for not making explicit what common sense should have told them.

Finally the woman takes a good look at the tree and the fruit and since everything looks fine (and the fruit is a shortcut to great wisdom) she gives in. One wonders how often people's last words were, “Looks OK to me.” If you are not an expert, don't go picking wild mushrooms for dinner. If you are not a construction worker, don't go climbing around building sites. If you don't know the person who sent you the email, don't click on it. People trying to deceive you know that we are drawn to what is attractive. Looks are often the least reliable indicator of whether something is safe to do or ingest or mess with. 

And be especially skeptical when an offer sounds too good to be true. Take this pill and lose weight without dieting or exercising. Don't think so. Answer this email from a bank official in Nigeria and you will be millions of dollars richer. No way. Take a bite of forbidden fruit and you will instantly be as wise as God. Really?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that the last thing someone tempting you wants you to do is think about it clearly. Temptations rarely appeal to reason; they go for the gut, for our feelings and desires. They appeal to our lust or greed or envy or laziness or anger or fear or hunger or pride. They may be presented as the smart thing to do but there is always a flaw in the reasoning. Don't ask if it's the latest thing or if it's popular or if it's what all the smart people are doing. Ask is it true or false? Is it right or wrong? Is it loving or harmful?

Basically we see in Genesis the fundamental problem with humans. God gives them the run of his whole paradise, asks them not to do one thing and they can't stay away from it. It's like when you tell a kid he can play with every toy in the room; just don't touch that one. He ignores all the other great stuff and makes a beeline for the one forbidden object. Humanity never changes. We are rarely swayed by the thought that “I could do that but I really shouldn't.” We just can't say no to ourselves.

We are told in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in all things as we were but without falling into sin. When we look at Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, though, it doesn't look very tempting to us. I would not be tempted to jump off a building. So we need to look beneath the surface of the temptations he is facing to see what is really at stake.

The temptation to turn rocks into bread is obvious when applied to Jesus. He's been fasting for weeks. He's hungry. And he is the son of the same God who gave Moses and the Israelites manna in the wilderness and water from a rock. It should be easy for him to satisfy his hunger. The temptation seems to be, on the surface, about him misusing his power for his own benefit. It might also be about becoming a material messiah, feeding the poor to get them to follow him. We see later that when he feeds the 5000 they try to force him to be their king. What he tells them then is in line with what Jesus tells his adversary here. “Man does not live by bread alone...” and as the quote from Deuteronomy goes on to say, “...but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Humans are more than mere animals. We are spiritual beings as well. Jesus did not come to fill our bellies but our hungry souls. These days people don't starve because the world doesn't produce enough food but because it is not getting to them, often for reasons of politics and corruption. If enough people did hear God's words and put them to work, we would make sure no one was physically hungry. It's not that feeding everyone is impossible; just difficult. Which we often confuse with the impossible. When we see a starving child, we should not ask, “Why, God, why?” but “Why, man, why?”

Doctors discovered that Romanian orphanages had high infant mortality rates. And it wasn't because the babies weren't receiving food or good physical care. It was because the staff was too busy to do anything more. The children were not being cuddled or cooed over or loved. Most died from failure to thrive. Those that survived suffered from severe emotional problems. They needed more than just their material needs met. 

It is interesting that suicide rates are highest not in poor countries but in wealthy countries where people's physical needs are met but their religious ones are not. Japan, South Korea, Hungary, and Belgium are in the top 20 countries with the highest suicide rates. They are also in the top 20 least religious countries. China is both the least religious country in the world, according to Gallup, with 75% of the world's atheists and it has the world's 6th highest suicide rate. Is this because mankind does not live by bread alone?

So the first temptation is to expend our energy on something other than what we really need: God. Without him, most people find life not worth living. Jesus did not go into the wilderness to feast but to fast and hear what God was saying to him about his upcoming mission. Jesus will not compromise his relationship with God over food, in sharp contrast to what Eve does.

Next Jesus is tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and be caught by the angels. Again this would not be a temptation for me. But for Jesus this would be a spectacular demonstration of his divine power and a great way to start off his mission. His adversary even quotes the Psalms to back up his suggestion. As Shakespeare said, the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. But Jesus has a counter quote: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus did not treat God as his special effects team but as his Father and Lord. He didn't try to paint God into a corner or demand stuff from him as proof of his support. Jesus' mission was about substance, not flash. His miracles serve his mission, showing God's love through healing minds and bodies, feeding the hungry, saving the disciples from a storm at sea, and restoring the dead to their grieving families. He used his powers to help others, not to hype himself.

We have all heard of people doing foolish and reckless things as a show of their faith in God. Pat Robertson said God had told him the outcome of the 2012 election. He was as wrong then as when he predicted Armageddon would happen in 1982. At best that kind of stuff makes him a laughingstock; at worst it damages the faith of some Christians. Recently preacher Jamie Coots, star of the reality show “Snake Salvation,” died from a snake bite received during one of his worship services. Even if we were to accept the verses in the longer version of Mark 16, on which this practice is based, there is nothing there that commands people to pick up snakes and handle them. But I bet it is a lot more exciting than a sermon which explains that these verses are not found in the oldest and most reliable biblical manuscripts or that Jesus refused to do miracles just to prove himself.

We face this temptation every time we speak for God on matters that are not found or well-grounded in scripture. Or when we tell God what we think he should do, instead of following Jesus and what he said we should do. We should always know the context and general thrust of any passage we quote. Way too much damage has been caused by people erecting whole rickety theological structures on a few overburdened and misused verses. There are lots of bright and shiny notions about God that look and sound good but are just not true. We need to go beyond superficial appearances and attractive lies, in contrast to what Eve did.
Finally the tempter makes a blatant bid to get Jesus to worship him as a quick way to make the kingdoms of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Hey, it would speed things up and there would be no need for anybody to get crucified. Jesus again quotes scripture: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

We face this temptation whenever we feel we must have something “no matter what it takes.” Or whenever a leader says something must be achieved “at all costs.” Or when we endorse the idea that “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.” We may not see it for what it is but we are essentially selling our soul to the devil when we say that the end is so noble that it justifies the means, however unethical. What Eve desired, to be like God, was such a good and desirable thing she was willing to disobey God to achieve it. We see this at work when people cheat to win elections or lie to win an argument, or when they use fear or hate to persuade people to adopt their position. We are not to fight evil with evil but as Paul says in Romans 12, we are to overcome evil with good.

The right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do and that is why we find ourselves tempted. We begin to doubt God's goodness or wisdom or fairness. We stop trusting him. We get caught up in appearances and muddy thinking. We neglect the spiritual for the physical. We figure it won't hurt to break the rules this once, especially when the goal is so noble. And surely God won't let us get into any real trouble if our intentions are good.

There are real moral dilemmas out there, where two values seem to be at odds, like when pursuing justice threatens to disrupt the peace or when seeking peace seems to mean not giving everyone full justice. Those are times when making the right choices are really hard. But a lot of time what we think are tough moral choices are simply situations in which what we want is wrong and we want to somehow make it right. We want to justify it. We need to trust that God is wise and that his rules are expressions of his love. 

And we need to trust him to help us fight temptation. In 1Corinthians 10:13 Paul writes, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength but with the temptation will provide you a way of escape so that you are able to endure it.” Ways to escape include honest prayer, an appropriate verse or passage of scripture, a helpful distraction, a call to a friend who will help you, or an opportunity to literally leave the site of the temptation. Musician Bobby McFerrin uses song. I hadn't heard that one before but singing a rousing and meaningful hymn or inspirational song might be enough to break the spell which temptations seem to exude telling you that you will inevitably succumb to them. Remember that God's Holy Spirit is in you, the Spirit that empowered Jesus as he faced down every temptation life could throw at him.

And remember that the last temptation is the temptation to despair, to think that you will never be able to conquer your temptations and that God will give up on you for falling and failing. Nothing could be further from the truth. As it says in 1 John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God forgives all who repent. Just admit your sin, get up and start again to follow Jesus. By his death he freed us from the penalty for sin. Through living in his Spirit, we are gradually being freed from the power of sin. When we enter his Kingdom, we will be freed from the presence of sin. For we will be with him and we will be like him forever.