What the World Needs Now

This has been quite a year. This has been a year in which God has given us each an opportunity to recognize that the path set before us looks a little different, there are some curves and turns that we did not see before, and, with each new curve and turn, he is giving us the chance to say ‘yes’ to our transformation and ‘yes’ to our refinement. This has been a year when God has challenged us with the question – Does our love look like Jesus’ love?

Which brings us to today, on this day we light or fourth advent candle.  Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, today, Love.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote, 

There is nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can make that can be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see isn’t shown. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love, Love, Love Is All You Need. Love, Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.

Burt Bacharach wrote,

Lord, we don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb, there are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last ’til the end of time. Lord, we don’t need another meadow, there are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow, there are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen, Lord, if you want to know…What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some, oh, but just for every, every, everyone.

Rabbi Yehuda Lave wrote

“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva called this “the great principle of the Torah.” A moral society will succeed; an immoral or amoral one will fail. That is the key prophetic insight. G-d did not make the demand that people love one another. That was beyond their remit. Society requires justice, not love. Good people love God, family, friends and virtue.  “Beloved is man,” said Rabbi Akiva, “because he was created in God’s image.” Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. God made each of us in love. Therefore, if we seek to imitate God – “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” – we too must love humanity, and not in the abstract but in the concrete form of the neighbor and the stranger. The ethic of holiness is based on the The vision of creation-as-God’s-work-of-love. This vision sees all human beings – ourselves, our neighbor and the stranger – as in the image of God, and that is why we are to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.

Love is the spark and the fuel for the Holy events we observe in our remembrance of God’s gift of the Son to, and for, us.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.

In this, our initial introduction to Mary and Joseph, we see that God sent the messenger. God, meaning the full God, father, son, and spirit. They were all present, as they discerned that now was THE time, the plan that had been in place since before time began, before humans existed, before there was a need for a Messiah. The plan of redemption, of restoration, the plan that called for sacrifice and death, the plan with the purpose of life – life for all.  As father, son, and spirit stood there, were they crying, were they excited and hopeful, were they concerned, or were they stoic and determined? Did they grab ahold of Jesus and hold on to him with all their might, not wanting to let him go?  Did they have visions of the evil on earth running through their thoughts?  This shared angst of the three was compounded by the fact that Jesus was about to step out of heaven and onto his earthly path in the most vulnerable state possible – he would begin as a helpless infant. Now there was no plan B in case things got too difficult, there was not a quick getaway if it became too painful and intense, this was THE plan.  They were 100 percent confident with the plan, it was the perfect and, actually, the only plan to deliver all peoples.  However, as they stood there they were more than aware that this had never been done, God had ever ever endured through anything like this path… just how brutal would it be, how difficult would it be to watch?

The three surely experienced all of the emotions, all the concerns, all the tears, and all the rejoicing that redemption, restoration, and life would bring back to creation.

Jesus, just like us, would begin his path with faith – faith that he would arrive at the destination, faith that he would achieve the purpose, faith that he would, once again, sit with the Father.  But, still, this had never been done, God had never been subjected to this aspect of the human experience, especially not in such a vulnerable way – he would travel his path just like we travel our path.  He too would be enveloped by hope, the hope which step by step, would bring him to peace, as he chose to reside in that peace he would live in the joy which would hold him through temptation, rejection, grief, arrest, beatings, and even death.

One more element infinitely and ultimately identified their actions – Love.  God had this plan in place long before there was a need because God so loved his creation and his created. It was the factor that led the three to hold to each other on as long as possible, and it was love that led them to let go and send the willing Son to earth, to the world. It was love, ‘for God so loved the world that he…..’

Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, on our fourth Sunday of Advent we arrive at Love. Love binds all of these together.

Paul says to the church at Colossi, 

Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:14

 
What ‘things’ was Paul speaking of, what is bound together in perfect harmony by Love? To answer this, we must go back a couple of verses where Paul says.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:12-14

Love is the variable factor that makes following God’s path different than mapping our own path. 

Mary and Jesus are on two parallel yet unique paths.  Mary’s path is a path paved with pain, misery, it will be a life turned upside down and knee deep in Eve’s curse.  Jesus will experience his path with all the emotions and experiences of the human journey plus his will include a death unlike any death of a human.  Parallel paths, different steps, the same purpose – to rescue the world that God so loves.

Much can be learned from the response of Mary as details of her path begin to unfold. Mary was already on her path when the angel appeared to her, she had already stepped on it by faith, she had already begun to grow in the hope that engulfs the path, she was already gaining a sense of what peace is, and possibly, she was seeing a glimpse of the joy that comes with residing in peace. 

Each year we approach the nativity and birth story as our tradition, we tie it to the songs that are known, we get with family and friends, we over eat and exchange gifts. We fill it with sentiment, which is appropriate as that is what you do when celebrating a birth. Each year we put up the tree and switch our music to the Carpenters and Bing Crosby a little earlier that the previous year, we watch the same gooey Christmas shows we have watched for decades, we remember, we treasure, we enjoy.  It is the ‘most wonderful time of the year!’ We settle into our cherished honored and comfortable traditions as we reflect on and learn from this group of people who were stretched in a time when life went in a direction they never expected.

Today, we focus on Mary, the teen that did not consider herself prepared to take this journey – the truth was, her entire life had been on this path, a path that turned out to be saturated with a hope-filled, peace-empowered, joy-inducing, love-binding journey –  everything about her life had been a journey of readiness up to this point.

An angel appeared to Mary and proclaims to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ God was not a new figure on the Mary’s path.  She had been on this path since childhood, she had stepped on the path by faith long before she even knew what faith was, she had listened to the teachings, followed the prophets words, and, like others, she had kept watch for the coming deliverer, the Messiah.  She had sought truth and grabbed ahold of it every time she discerningly discovered it.  This experience of the angel, however, especially an angel calling her ‘favored one’ was new and a bit disturbing.  The words ‘Perplexed and Pondered’ describe the reactions of Mary at this messenger.

A more vivid translation of the greek word Perplexed is the word Agitated.  This was a fully acceptable response, an angel shows up, which was not a common event in Mary’s life, in fact this had never happened to Mary, nor had any of her friends or family.

We don’t know a lot about angels.  The visual presentation of the Seraphim given in the prophesy of Isaiah 6, presents beings that would be terrifying to the say the least.  Imagine having that appear to you in in moment of quiet with no one else around.


Perplexed, agitated, is the emotion that Mary experienced, it was unsettling and upsetting.  This was something that had not been a fixture in her faith and she  knew not to just accept without proper truth seeking. We saw in our readings a week ago God calling us to be open to his moving but to not be gullible. This was an earthquake moment for Mary, it was a challenge to the faith in which she had become comfortable. Mary had not experienced angels and messages that spoke of ‘favor’, nor had any of the priests, rabbis, or even prophets educated her on this, it was totally new, it was totally, in her reality, without precedent.  Unprecedented things such as this must be questioned, there has to be consideration, she had to seek truth here in the same way she had learned to search for truth all her life.  Earthquakes happen, we are tasked with making sure they are good and true.

Next, we see the presence of a Pondering that rose in Mary. Pondering are the manner we consider and contemplate. She traveled beyond the experience and probably continued to turn it all possible ways in her mind to fully process the event. To better understand this verb ‘ponder’ we consider another verb, which comes after the birth of Jesus – the word Treasure. As shepherds appeared at the stable, as Simeon and Anna, separately approached the newborn Jesus in the temple, and even two years later as the wise men appeared at the doorstep of Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem – Mary ‘treasured’ these moments in her heart.  Treasuring is different than pondering.  This treasuring response was much like a child’s baby book that a parent fills in the significant events in the life of the child.  These filled pages of the baby book then serve to remind in a sentimental way but also when affirmation is needed.  The purpose of pondering is to investigate and then accept or reject, the purpose of treasuring is to hold on to those affirmation moments for times when extra strength is necessary.

The angel informs Mary that she is going to have a child.  Mary was not half listening, No, she was processing as the experience progressed, she was paying full attention, she was fully present and in the moment.  Her response was very human, and again – very appropriate. She began to probe for answers – HOW? ‘How?’ She asked, ‘How is this possible? I am a virgin.’

We have forgotten the value of questions for understanding, even within the conceptual walls of the church.  Much like in the time of Mary, the religious institutions have become the beacons of knowledge that was held in a vault – questions were repugnant, even now. Instead of asking ‘How?’ Or ‘Why?’ We say nothing in fear of sounding stupid or repetitive.  Mary asked a question that needed to be asked, ‘HOW?’  The messenger gave her an answer that met her need for knowledge without overwhelming. The answer gave enough needed clarification to give her the affirmation she sought.

The messenger then initiated the treasuring system within Mary.  The relevance of Mary’s situation was connected to the surprise and impossible pregnancy of Elizabeth.  The two affirmed each other.   Then comes the moment when all of the path before meets all of the path ahead, the moment when she recognizes that, indeed, this is the hand of God and that God can do the impossible, even those things never before done.  God can fill in that gap that seems unfillable.  And Mary responds with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

So, we have an angel appear to Mary and proclaims ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  ‘Favored One’?  ‘Favored One.?! Favored one, meaning that God is about to turn Mary’s world upside down, that she is going to become a social disaster, she will be uprooted from home and family, from the familiarity that is her life, much of her life would be on the run – Favored one, to have all her plans thrown out the door and now facing this great unknown, unknown because it has never been done? This is favor?

The irony of Christmas is that it is all about us and not about us at all, that it is all about giving while being all about receiving, it is all about self and not about me, or you.  Christmas is not the beginning of God’s love but it is the place where we so powerfully see it.

Christmas is actually the most appropriate way to end the year 2020.  It has been a year of unusual messengers that have brought unexpected messages.  We have been faced with unprecedented times, events, inescapable challenges.  Our usual way of life, of family, of work, of play, of church, have all been altered.  We have been faced with the option of forcing the ways of our past, of yesterday, to retain our normal for the future, or, instead, to ponder the agitation we experience with these challenges and consider that fact that God has broken through and is refining our path in preparation for our future. It has been a time when we have been given the opportunity to Love God and Love all Others, or a time to return to primarily loving ourself.  For such a time as this, we celebrate the time of a young lady who was faced with a similar challenge, a similar time, a time of refinement, recognition, and of surrender.  It is also a time for us to recognize the transformation God has done in each of our lives, and in our church.  I could spend paragraphs speaking of the Christians in our nation that have insisted on demanding their rights instead of loving others, religious institutions that have chosen litigation when facing the new twists and turns on their path, twists and turns that are mechanism for God’s transformation in our life.

I believe it has been a time when you, individually and as the small group of believers that go by the name Grace Fellowship, have indeed recognized that this world desperately needs Love. You have accepted the calling to be the avenues of that Love.

Love IS what the world needs now.

Faith, Hope, Peace, Joy, Love

a NOW faith

We are in this bizarre time of social distancing, online school/church gatherings, an abundant need, yet rare shortage, of hand sanitizer, lysol spray and wipes, and not to mention suddenly finding that our enhanced internet might not always have enough bandwidth for all the returned children now working/schooling from home along side of Andrea and me.

In the midst of all this craziness we are adapting, we might even say we are evolving. Our household has eaten all of our meals at home for two weeks, Starbucks has sent out people to do coffee welfare checks in our absence, one of my daughters read scripture in church this past Sunday from over a hundred miles away in her pajamas and eating turkey bacon. In addition, we had a reader, and several participants, from other states.

Life is now surreal, it is our new reality, our new normal – it might be temporary or maybe it will impact us permanently.

I, too, am adapting and evolving. After a lifetime of ‘winging it’ with mere bullet points when preaching, my evolving has been to script my full sermon manuscripts for my Sunday message. I have been meaning to do this for too many years to mention, I even sat down once to try but failed – it got boring and laborious. But now, that there are many other options for participants worshipping with us at home than to sit still and listen to a much too long sermon, I must be concise and more respectful of time.

In reality, I have not faithfully followed the manuscript when preaching but it is holding me accountable and timely.

Rick

The NOW faith 

(manuscript for 03.29.20)

When Jesus called for Lazarus to come forth from the grave, and as Lazarus came out from the tomb, those who opposed Jesus knew the time had come to stop this movement and this ‘prophet’.  This was the final straw.  They had to stop the talk and discredit the rumors of Lazarus’ resurrection just as they had managed to do with the widow’s son in Nain and with Jairus’ daughter in Capernaum.  Few even talked about Jesus bringing those two back to life anymore.  Those situations had been easy, plant a subtle seed, call it a resuscitation instead of a resurrection – but those two had not been dead for four days. This one was difficult, there were too many credible witnesses, too close to Jerusalem, and Lazarus had been dead for four days!

The basics of their plan was to kill Lazarus the following day so – no resurrected life – no miracle.  If Lazarus was actually in a tomb who could prove that he had risen from death.  The opposition could claim mass hysteria, drunken revelers, or use any number of tried and effective lies and half truths.  So, they would return the following day to kill Lazarus.  An easy and permanent solution which they were convinced was flawless.  The next day, however, they found the same crowd at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  Lazarus was reclined at the table with Jesus and others, as Martha served as host.  Mary then drew even more attention to the living Lazarus as she anointed Jesus with an expensive bottle of perfume.  Now there was no way anyone would believe that resurrection of Lazarus was a hoax; there were now too many witnesses were able to testify what they had seen after they interacting with Lazarus for two days 4 days after his death.

If only Lazarus had not died, if only Jesus had not called Lararus out of the grave.  But, Jesus had called for Lazarus to come forth and Lazarus actually had.

In the minds of the opposition, this was the point when they made it their unfailing mission to get rid of Jesus once and for all.

This was also the moment when Jesus gave us all a clear understanding of why Jesus came, what he taught, and the manner in which he interacted with all.  He came so that we could all have Life Now.

As we take a moment to look at some of the characters in the story of Lazarus death and resurrection we quickly see a picture of the various presentations one the same faith.  

There were the disciples, who, after being unable to convince Jesus not to return to Jerusalem due to safety concerns, decided to accompany him to Bethany.  Bethany was basically a suburb of Jerusalem and Jesus already had a target on his head.  It was the disciple Thomas, who is usually remembered for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, that said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  The disciples had a faith of a soldier, this was their mission – to protect the one who led them.

Then there was Mary, whose deep display of grief in Jesus presence seemed to trigger his tears.  Mary was always the one that lived in the moment.  Whether it was sitting at the feet of Jesus to experience every moment in his presence, or mourning at the grave of her brother, or even sacrificing her most valuable possession to honor Jesus, she always held back nothing.  Mary’s faith was like a sponge soaking up every experience and every moment.

And we have Jesus who had seen death before, this death was different though.  At this death we see something we do not see elsewhere, we see Jesus weep.  Not just cry but weep.  Deep and empathetic weeping, the kind that others notice and cannot be hidden.  Rationally, he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but it was the experience of loss, as viewed in his closest and most loved ones, that made this different.  His tears were about the pain of death, the pain that others experience in the loss of a loved one, and possibly the impact that would be felt at his own impending experience of dying.  Real soul crushing pain that goes to bed with you at night and wakes up with you in the morning.  That feeling you cannot shake no matter how much you rationalize.  It hurts, and Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced this at the tomb of Lazarus.

Then there was Martha – Martha often gets a bad rep, considered too controlling, maybe too rational, probably too concerned about every detail.  She was the one that was honest with Jesus, even when it didn’t sound very holy or righteous.  She was always looking at the obvious but, at the same time, looking for more. But it was also Martha who took off running to Jesus the moment she heard that he was close, while she could see no trace of him she ran at the simple mention of his name.

It was Martha who allows us all to better understand that Jesus came to so that we can have life now.  It was possibly for Martha, and then for all of us who read her story, that Jesus permitted four days to pass following Lazarus’ death before he returned to Bethany.  It was Martha that had the interaction that provided her, and us, the essential element of faith, a faith that permits us to understand what it is to Live Now.  We see this displayed in the dialogue that was probably less than a common paragraph, a lesson that began with Martha’s statement:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not  have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Martha was placing her hope on, and defining her faith by, a coming event, a coming moment – Resurrection.  Jesus corrected her, and possibly our,  theological understanding through his use of three small, yet powerful, words that explained everything:

I, Am, Life.

I

The one letter word ‘I’ is pretty self explanatory.  Jesus is talking about himself,  there is no question, what comes after ‘I’ refers to him, and only to him. We see this same definite direction as Genesis one says, 

‘In the beginning GOD created’  

It is also much like the “I’ in his statement detailed in John 14:6

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is no discussion or argument, he is referring to himself.

AM

The word ‘AM’ is not an event to come, or even an event that has already taken place, actually it is not an event at all.  ‘AM’ is a statement of ‘was being’, ‘now being, and ‘will begin’.  It is, in the case of Jesus, an infinite identifier.  Jesus is, Jesus was, Jesus will be, Jesus is a forever ‘Now’.  This is what Jesus is and it is what Jesus does.  He was before Martha embraced and followed, it was what Martha experienced as she journeyed with Jesus, it was her own resurrection and her existence – it was why she automatically took off running.  It was in this teaching moment with Jesus that Martha a Now Faith began to click, she began to understad.

Life

Jesus said:

I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

Greek word zóé: life or live

It is not just life as we think of it but both of physical or present and spiritual now or future existence. 

Martha, without realizing it had already experienced the life, she had already partaken of the resurrection for she had also previously been dead in her sin.  Jesus, in very definite, yet simple, words, taught Martha, and us, that his mission was not just about a future event, a physical resurrection or his own resurrection, or our own eternity, it is about NOW, and the faith he leads us in is a NOW faith.

As followers of Jesus we are also partakers of the resurrection that IS Jesus and of the NOW life, we are not waiting for this life it is NOW.

Faith, the faith we call Christianity, is not a waiting faith, it never was and never will be.  We do not wait for a moment and then start living, we do not delay the life until heaven – We live NOW.

It is when we are alone and when we are with many, it is when we are surrounded by those who treat us unfairly and when we are around those who we can fully trust, it is when we are poor and when we have plenty, it is when life is miserable, it is when life is pleasant, it is when life is scary and when life is easy, it is when we are uncomfortable and inconvenienced and when things are just right, it is when we feel unloved and it is when we feel loved,  it is when we are free to move and do and it is when we are in quarantine and lock down.  It is NOW. 

This is what Jesus was talking about when he prayed:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is OUR mission, that we would live now in as if we were living in heaven.  It is our reality as believers, it is our way of life as followers, it is living in the unseen and enjoying even in the midst of the unenjoyable. 

It is NOW.

So, How do we live in a NOW Life, a Now faith?

Much like the Disciples, Mary, and Martha, who each approached their believer journey, their life differently, living with a NOW faith is also going to be personal. 

Somewhat different for each of us, somewhat different depending on each of us.

It probably will start by looking for our Joy, the Joy that reminds us what our calling, our mission, is – what are life is about.  Not just happy things but those discoveries that remind us of our NOW faith.  Maybe it is a memory grasping truth, maybe it is a happy or a sad moment or experience, possibly it is just realizing that what you can see and how life feels is not always true to what life is.

It is what takes us back to the place that Martha went to when she realized that she was not waiting for an event but that life was right there with her.

It is what led Martha hold a dinner party the next day in honor of Jesus.  It is what led Lazarus to recline at the table with Jesus, it is what led Mary to anoint  Jesus.  

What is your LIFE NOW FAITH leading you to do?