‘We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we have become.’
Dr. David Hawkins
Acts is the story of the apostles, and followers of Jesus, attempting to catch up with the work of the Spirit. It is a whirlwind of new experiences, mysterious instructions from God, forbidden places, unexpected interactions, and the constant question of boundaries. Acts is a story of Becoming, the apostles becoming the credible first hand witnesses of the life/death/life message of Christ, the Church becoming the avenue of God, the Spirit becoming the power of God, and consistently throughout, God remains the same while revealing his multi-dimensional nature, a nature that is manifest Love. Their story is a journey, not so much about a group of humans weathered and ready to save the world from itself, it is the real life documentation of humans ‘Becoming’ in order to be the hands and feet of God.
A journey that no one in their right mind would have signed up for. An experience that would have been overwhelming if they had known the itinerary before accepting. An endeavor that required moment to moment focus with open eyes and ears as well as willing hearts and minds. A journey which required those involved to plant their feet firmly and commit to this life for the rest of their lives. It was a journey that never ceased to challenge how they perceived the world, how they recognized God, how they interpreted truth – a call to constantly reexamine their most deeply held convictions, opinions, beliefs, and even faith.
It is a journey that is worthy of time, for their journey of Becoming is our journey of Becoming.
In recent weeks we have seen the apostles engaging with people from the remotest ends of the earth. People known only by their labels. Labels that identified skin color, country of origin, gender identification, practices, sin, and religion. Humans from these remote locations filled with untouchable people collided with the ingrained hatred and fear embedded in the minds and hearts of the followers of Christ.
Our Acts passage today is one such collision moment, a moment that changed everything.
Three statements from this passage are essential to our understanding.
“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
‘When they heard this, they were silenced.’
“God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
It all began with…
“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
After the experience with Cornelius and the other gentiles Peter and his companions traveled back to Jerusalem where they were confronted by the Jewish, the circumcised, believers. Their first question was not a faith issue, they actually did not seem to have an issue with the gentiles believing in Jesus and receiving the Spirit. Their first and most powerful concern and outrage was that Peter had gone into the home of a gentle and eaten a meal with him and other gentiles.
As we saw last week, it was against the law for Jews to step foot into the homes of gentiles, nor were they to share a meal. This, for the Jewish believers, was a major offense, a horrific violation of their faith. However, this was not a faith issue, it was actually not even a religious issue, it was a manmade issue. No where in God’s Law was there a restriction against such interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Somewhere along the line it had become a thing, and, without really thinking about it, it continued to be a thing even for these who walked with Jesus. This bigotry and prejudice had been instilled within them which they probably did not even recognize. It was actually the opposite of Jesus’ words. This fervent dismissal of an entire people group who were a majority of the world population, had been intertwined with their faith and now the two had become inseparable. It was the first thing that came to their mind when they heard the news of the Holy Spirit and the Gentiles. The unnoticed contradiction with Jesus words, had not yet been confronted.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
When something that is not a true faith issue is permitted to become a key issue of our faith, there must be a moment of Holy confrontation – without the moment of seeing truth our Becoming is stunted and stuck. These hateful attitudes regarding others who are also ‘so loved by God’ can often be instilled from birth, falsely affirmed in our faith, and then perpetuated from our faith contemporaries usually remains as an unnoticed and unchallenged reality of our life witness. Sometimes a traumatic event can create these unholy feelings. Here we see our first truth.
Faith is Seldom the True Core of our Offense.
This confusion of non-faith and non-faith, our failure to fully recognize those things that are cultural more than spiritual, is not a thing of the past, it is alive and strong even our time. Painful divisions exist, they are even instilled in our faith communities, faith communities built on the truth of God’s boundless love. If anything, we see them emboldened in our present reality.
In Matthew 7 we find a very uncomfortable story of a gentle woman and Jesus. The woman comes to Jesus begging that he heal her daughter. Jesus’ response is quite shocking. Ppreachers and commentators have spent a great deal of effort in covering up the offensive response of Jesus….
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
It is a very uncomfortable story of Jesus referring to a gentile woman, and all gentile, as a small dog. Of the many explanations given by commentators, preachers, and experts, it remains offensive. However, we see Christ respond to the woman’s confrontation not with a theological treats or condensation, instead he is silent, he listens, he considers, and he responds to the request of the woman.
What if racism itself is a human reality and not a sin, however, it becomes sin when we are confronted with our bigotry but refuse to be silent and listen?
The Jewish believers had been indoctrinated in the belief that they were truly superior and that all others were inferior. It was a wall of isolation between the Jews and anyone, and everyone, who was no Jewish.
Our second statement is
‘When they heard this, they were silenced.’
After the believers in Jerusalem heard the words of Peter they are silent. Now, let me assure you that for the room full of religious men, who have just been confronted with the own offense, silence is a momentous work of the Spirit. Nothing was said, no defense given, their mouths were shut.
Silence may the be the biggest challenge in Becoming.
It is very human for us to defend oneself. When our human nature reacts with words, voices, excuses, and denials – God calls us to respond with silence. A year ago the Spirit confronted us with our own prejudices as we watched the Black Lives Matter protests and riots going on around our country. We were given an opportunity to be silent, to consider, to attempt to understand the pain of these who were using their usually muted voices, we had a chance to accept their struggle and their pain. Instead, we responded with statements like ‘If they just wouldn’t protest,’, ‘Well, I’m not racist, I don’t see color,’ and, ‘The racism they are claiming doesn’t really exist.’ State lawmakers have reacted with laws prohibiting such protests and even denying the pervasive reality of supremacy and racism.
We were given an opportunity to be silent. As we watched these protests in American streets, as we saw the hoards of immigrants at our borders, as we heard the stories of harassment from women, the cries from the LGBTQ communities. We have been given opportunity after opportunity to see our own deep seated, and often invisible even to us, prejudice and instead of being silent we usually come to our own defense. God calls us to be silent, to recognize and consider that these are loved by God also, to accept, to ask the ‘why’ instead of verbalizing the ‘they shouldn’t.’ We may not ever understand, but we are never promised understanding here on earth. I’m sure that many of those believers in Jerusalem were still scratching their heads in confusion at the time of their death – but still they were silent.
This brings us to our third dynamic.
‘Peter began to explain it to them, step by step’
Peter everything with the Jewish Jesus believers. He detailed for them how God led him to recognize that their prejudice towards others was not God’s law, how God led him to go to Cornelius and how Cornelius affirmed this through his own experience before God, and then how the Spirit moved among the gentiles the same as it had in him.
The response of the Jewish believers is very interesting, they praised God for this movement of the Spirit at the same time they express surprise.
“Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Your Bible may use the word ‘also’ instead of ‘even’, and there are other interpretation choices. The actual wording is a very tepid response to a new reality they were not expecting. They do not doubt the story of Peter, nor do they refute the experience of the Gentiles receiving the Spirit – however, it is still uncomfortable and they still do not fully understand it. This does not hinder their acceptance, they still are committing this change in their mindset and will be altering their reality going forward.
Understanding Others is not a first step to Accepting Others. We do not have to understand to accept. The idea that we first have to understand is a damaging misconception on our part. Our first act of acceptance and embrace is the choice to love as Jesus loved us.
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
In an article that Billy shared with me this past week, Atlantic Senior Editor Julie Beck, guided a discussion between two coworkers, Amanda Mull and Katherine Wu. Mull, a self described extrovert, and Wu, a self described introvert. Both described the burdens, or relief of burdens, they experienced during Covid pandemic. For Mull it was a nightmare where those crowded spaces, hugging, and mindless small talk discussions that usually gave her energy were taken away. For Wu, it was her perfect and ideal scenario,
I like being able to set aside alone time and know that for these next three hours I don’t have to deal with anyone else. I think small talk is the tax that God exacted for the privilege of human speech.
Katherine Wu, science staff writer at The Atlantic
We are a society with an overflow of burdens, truth is, burdens are a reality of humanity. They are fully individualized, one person’s burden is another’s energy. Our outlook on life is largely influenced by our burdens as well as our perceptions of the burdens that others carry. As I shared last Sunday, those burdens on the backs of others, the struggles, known and unknown to us, are a key factor in how we embrace, distance, accept, or judge others. The apostle Paul was speaking to this when he talked about a thorn in his flesh, a burden that he had to carry, he had asked God to remove it three times but it remained with him and he continued to struggle – he admitted his powerlessness against this burden which forced him to rely on God’s power in the midst of his weakness. We see throughout the book of Acts as well as all four gospels – Jesus came to address our burdens as well as our future eternity.
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
I John 5:3
As we hit the 8th chapter of Acts last week, the apostles had already begun their initial impact in Jerusalem, Judea, and in Samaria and were now looking forward to the remotest parts of the earth. Just how to do that was their dilemma, God however, came with the solution. Sending the apostle Philip to his remotest place, he also sent an Ethiopian to his remote place, and there the two men met. Philip was not just there to ease the burden on this man, but in the process, God would ease the burden for Philip. The geographical nature of this remotest place, for both men, became secondary to the inner burdens both men carried with them. Philip brought his burden, the labels that he carried often without even recognizing them, to him they had become ordinary and acceptable. Burdens such as judging a person by skin color and ethnicity, condemning them because of personal burdens they carried that he did not understand or approve of. The Ethiopian carried the reverse of those burdens, he lived a life of rejection and dismissal, and even emptiness, because of those same factors that shaded every other person’s perception of him – and probably his own hatred of those who looked at him that way. There, in that remote place, God showed both men that none of those factors, none of those labels, mattered.
This brings us back to our question from last Sunday,
“What will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’
Dr. Matt Skinner, Acts: Catching Up With The Spirit
Let’s Be Honest – At first hearing, ‘Obey God’s Commandments’ sounds like the literal definition of Burdensome!
However, what if the Good News of the Good News is that God’s commandments indeed, are not a burden?
How would such an enlightenment reshape and reorient our perception of the good news, the gospel, to better align itself with the life and teachings of Jesus, and, then, what if that realignment changes how we filter the teachings of the apostles throughout the New Testament?
This is the question that sparked the journey of the New Testament Church, as we see in Acts – this spark, this question, this journey, of the church today – continues to be the challenge for us.
“What will it mean for all of us, all our world, if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’
Let’s revisit this statement,
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
I John 5:3
The epistles of John point us to an understanding of the foundation of Love. God is love, Jesus lived out that love, the Spirit leads us to manifest love in and through our lives. This word ‘Commandments’ automatically solicits thoughts of burdens not the absence of burdens. The word commandments is the hiccup for us to grasp the truth of verse 3. To better understand, we go directly to the words of Jesus.
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my (the) commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’
So, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were correct when they created the tag line ‘All You Need Is Love.’ All we need to survive this world, all we need to relate to others, all we need to carry your burdens, all we need is Love. Love tapped into THE SOURCE of LOVE. Abide in that Love, Know the one who is that Love, follow the one who lived out that Love in the flesh, Follow the one who guides us in and by that Love in our reality. All We need is love.
Love like Jesus’ Love wipes away the labels that we, as humans, permit to keep us from loving others, especially others with certain labels. We saw the Spirit began teaching this lesson to the apostles last Sunday as labels disappeared as Philip shares with the Ethiopian Eunuch. Even though Jesus has taught and demonstrated what it meant to love and embrace all people, the actually doing of this did not automatically become comfortable for the apostles. Theoretically it made sense but actually practicing it was still uncomfortable and they were uneasy – for the Holy Spirit, just like for Jesus, this came automatically.
In chapter 10 of Acts we see another apostle go to a remote place, not so much geographically but to a place that was just as difficult, a place in Judea but a place with a gentile majority. Peter was called to go to the home of a man named Cornelius, a man loved by God just like all peoples, however, this man was a gentile, he was not a Jew. The fact that there was actually a law that Jews could not enter the home of a gentile, Peter still followed God’s call. There he found that Cornelius has assembled a great crowd of people, who happened to be gentiles, to listen the truth of love to be proclaimed by Peter. Peter, like Philip, had to release his own burden of carrying labels, of not loving those that were different, those that who’s upbringing had instilled a false and hateful narrative, he had to let go and love those who God loved. So he began to speak and before he could even finish, the people had already believed in Jesus, and, as a result of their belief the Holy Spirit noisily made his way into their lives. They accepted, embrace, and followed Jesus there just as the Ethiopian man had done. To this day, this event is often referred to as the gentile Pentecost.
Those Jews there with Peter were astounded. These people had been able to accept and follow Jesus without first being Jews, without first going through the system of Judaism, without first incorporating all the religious practices in their life, they had simply believed and received through faith. Then, even more that the Holy Spirit ascended on this group also before they had been baptized.
These people who, just moments before had received their scorn, now these people were of the same faith, they followed the same Messiah, they had received the same Spirit. Their eyes were open in profound surprise, this was a very unexpected and even more unimaginable development, one that they had not seen coming.
Like the Ethiopian, the people wanted to physically identify with other followers, they asked ‘Why Not Now?’ They wanted to be baptized. Peter turned to the Jewish believers present and asked,
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
I am sure that they looked uncomfortably at each other, not knowing how to respond, but also knowing that they could not think of a reason to deny the act. So the people, these previously unacceptable people, were now brothers and sisters. God had called all the Jews to love all because Jesus loved all, now that calling was calling them to be act and to love.
We live in a world that needs love, needs to be plugged into the source of love, – the love that Jesus exhibited and the love that we are called to – so,
“What will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’
Now, Let your mind run free and consider….
What could happen if we honestly said ‘yes’ to the ‘whatever and wherever’ reality of God’s path in our day to day reality?
A slave owed his master almost $500,000.00 dollars in todays equivalent. Since the man could not pay at the requested time, the master did not take what he could from the man to settle a portion of the debt, but the master actually forgave the debt. That same slave, the one who was forgiven his almost half a million dollar debt, went to a fellow slave who owed him less that $50.00. When this debtor could not repay, the forgiven debtor refused to offer forgiveness and had him thrown into prison. Now, when the master of these slaves heard about this, he had the first slave thrown into prison until he his original debt was paid, which was an impossibility.
Forgiveness is an ambiguous practice which, as a concept, has a variety of different forms and interpretations. There are many different, and often opposing, definitions and uses of the word Forgiveness. As believers in Christ, it has been exampled and explained to us, it has been given to and, in some traditions, it has been taken away, it is an emotional act, an ‘I’ll deal with it later, or I’ll forget or ignore it’ offering, a long awaited gift, and a difficult and overwhelming barrier.
As a practice, forgiveness is a shot in the dark, seldom do we even understand our own words when we ask for it or give it to another. On some occasions we assume the power to forgive when the option is not ours. It is, often, the most difficult to give to ourselves and to receive from another. We may not feel a need to be forgiven yet we, consciously and subconsciously, we are relieved when it has been granted.
Along with prayer, forgiveness may be one of the two most misdefined, misused, abused, and sincerely abandoned concept and practice in our faith.
One of the most bizarre misuses of ‘forgiveness’ took place during the 2016 presidential elections. The rumors of infidelities that dogged Donald Trump had been quickly dismissed by his supporters until an audio tape presented him boasting of his own sexual prowess. Evangelical supporters were in a quandary to justify their continued support, soon, the celebrity religious leaders, and others, took up the mantra of ‘we have forgiven him.’ This was not a applicable use of the concept of forgiveness. Trump did not need their ‘forgiveness’, he never asked for it, truth be told his offense had not been against them – any action on their part was judgment, not forgiveness. Their dilemma was not a problem forgiveness would solve, however, instead of struggling through their decision of support, they chose to hide behind a failed use of forgiveness. Forgiveness was not theirs’ to give.
Basic Truths about Forgiveness
1. Forgiveness is a concept and it is an action, it is difficult, but it is worth the struggle, and essential to harmony and unity.
2. Forgiveness was not a part of God’s creative process, nor did it need to be, there was no offense, there was no sin.
3. Forgiveness is a noun and a verb, it is not fully either until it is both.
4. Forgiveness was born out of human need and perfected by God.
5. God had no obligation to create anything else. Love propelled him. God returned to the creator’s bench.
6. Love does that.
Let me briefly explain:
After turning from God humans found themself in a struggle – it was a struggle with their own human offenses. They had been removed from the garden to engage in this struggle. This struggle would bring them to a realization of their need for God. This is why everything, and almost everyone, in the book of Genesis, is such a mess – it all takes place at the beginning of this human struggle. As humans attempted to fix their need through might and power, the solution was elusive, they didn’t know where to begin because they were not clear on what they needed – there was no way they could devise a strategy to create it forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a holy creation, holy creations cannot be created by fallen humans. We see early attempts at forgiveness, Esau accepts and embraces Jacob, Joseph forgives his brothers – otherwise humans met conflict and offense with a ‘let’s just move on mentality’ which never lasted, or, more often, they just created more offense. Humans cried out to God, they cried out from Babble, they cried out from Ninevah, they cried out from Sodom, they cried out from the home of Jacob, they cried out from deep pit. There was a need, but the cries of humans were only a shell of their actual need – they needed forgiveness. God still heard their cries – the Father perfected their shell of forgiveness from their need, the son manifested it through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit ran with it and made lives whole through forgiveness.
When mankind chose to turn away from God they, then, turned on each other – the human need for forgiveness was presented. Humans found themselves mentally and physically unable to live with themself and with each other when wrongs done to them, and wrongs done by them, were left to fester inside of them. They also found that this same festering messed, muddled, and mangled their relationships and coexistence with God. Life was difficult at best, and impossible in most situations.
Without forgiveness there cannot be love, without love there cannot be forgiveness – without both of these, there will be no respect. Without respect there cannot not be unity, without unity there cannot be community.
When the early believers began to feel the strain of unforgiveness on their communities of faith, Christ addressed the practice of forgiveness. Peter approached Jesus and asked,
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Peter was attempting to quantify forgiveness, ‘How many times…..?’ Whether this was a low number for Peter, or, if Peter felt that this was a fully appropriate number – no number would have been correct.
It is not a question that can be given a number,
it is incalculable.
‘Without forgiveness, there is no future.’
As Jesus was speaking to community, how to have, and how to maintain, true community. The type of community where members work together to sustain and grow.
Community is formed on a common center, a town or city is formed on a geographical commonality, a club or organization is formed on a common interest or belief, a church is a community of those with a common faith.
Jesus was preparing the coming church leaders to lead out with this most essential element of their earthly existence. It would prove to be the most essential building block of the local communities of faith. It was the blueprint for the church.
Peter knew himself, more importantly, he knew people. Seven times may not have been a low number, it may not have been a holy number, it is quite possible that, in Peter’s assertion, it was going to be a truly arduous number.
At Peter’s question, Jesus answered with the parable of the two unforgiven slaves, both of whom, in the end, suffered. One suffered because he did not receive forgiveness, the other suffered, because he would not give forgiveness.
As I said in the beginning, Forgiveness is an ambiguous concept and an even more ambiguous intentional action.
The absence of forgiveness is blatantly apparent in the first fifty chapters, or 1,533 verses of the bible. Most of the actions of forgiveness we see in the book of Genesis are centered on just two men. One is the man Esau, who without petition, forgives his brother Jacob of the horrible transgressions acted out in the destruction of their relationship. The second is the man Joseph, who faced every brutality up to death from his older brothers. It is in the forgiveness given by Joseph, we see visual of how God takes on this essential concept and practice of the human journey.
It is doubtful that you need a reminder of the sins committed by brothers against Joesph. Their countless, often quickly calculated acts, culminated with the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. We do not see much of the brothers following their betrayal of Joseph, nor do we truly know any of the mental and emotional suffering that this memory possibly created in them. We do, however, see the torment surface when they, along with their people, face true physical crisis that requires they travel to a different nation for their own survival.
‘This is because of what we did to our brother, Joesph,’ they began to whisper to each other. ‘We are being punished for our sin.’
We have read of the life and existence of Joseph up to the point, however. We have not heard of a dwelling on the pain caused by his brothers, rather we see a man who has carried on, in a tradition of doing right, trough very rough, and some surprisingly good times. When these journey of these bothers, once again, intersects with the life of Joseph we begin to see his forgiveness journey.
The fact that there is not a documented struggle with forgiveness by Joesph towards his brothers, in the midst of a story that details all the other significant aspects of his story – brings us to a conclusion that he had not carried unforgiveness, hatred, or even resentment.
In our Tuesday bible project a couple of months ago, Mitch said (I paraphrase), ‘Joseph was so focused on God’s leading, and his own calling by God, that unforgiveness was not even a factor, there was no room for that to be given a thought.’ His decision had been made – withholding forgiveness, and instead, holding onto resentment and hatred, would have only held him back from God’s call.
As Joseph observed his bothers during the tests he set up, Joseph was not deciding forgiveness, that had already been given, he was, instead, determining the potential of their relationship from this point forward. ‘Could they be trusted?’ ‘Would it work for him to bring them to Egypt to live out out the drought?’, ‘How were the others in his family, especially his younger brother Benjamin, had they been treated properly?’
He was determining the ‘what’ of his future with his family, during his time of non-disclosure.
Eventually, his love would not permit him to hold back his expression of forgiveness. He could hold it in no longer, it had to come out, he had to embrace each of these that had treated him so poorly.
When he revealed himself to his brothers and acted by proclaiming his forgiveness to them, this did not happen in that moment. The forgiveness by Joesph of these undeserving bothers preceded this action. He had already released the forgiveness and now he was acting in a way that released it in them. But, the forgiveness was not yet complete.
It is in the final chapter of the story of Joesph that we see a human reality, and full circle of forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers realize, at the death of their father, that Joseph’s forgiveness of them was surely a deceitful display for their father – probably just to reinforce his position of favorite.
In their own humanness, they expressed the thoughts they had been suppressing since Joseph revealed himself, ‘Everything that Joesph had done, all that he had forgiven, was not real, it had been an act, there was no way he could have forgiven……we could’t have done that,’ they were thinking.
They had not fully received the forgiveness of Joseph, not because he had withheld it, but because they were unable to receive it. They were unable to fully accept the forgiveness from Joseph because they were not able to give forgiveness to others, that is the way it works. When we hold on to unforgiveness, when we cannot release our grasp, our hand is closed tight and therefore unable to open up to receive the forgiveness.
Joseph wept because the forgiveness had abruptly halted without his knowledge. He wept because his brothers had been living in the unforgiven state of their relationship. Joseph wept for the unforgiven state his brothers had made their home.
This brings us to a full picture of all the realities of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is our own organic choice to let go or hold on. Holding on takes a lot of work, we have to remember, we have to go through the offense over and over again. In doing this we permit the offense to ferment and grow, negatively impacting every other area of our life. The resentment, hatred, and vengeance that is a biproduct of unforgiveness is a torture and suffering that it, in a very real sense, a self imposed punishment of imprisonment.
Forgiveness frees us to live, unforgiveness reckons us to death in our life. Much like Ishmael reports of Captain Ahab’s unforgiving grudge towards the whale Moby Dick, climaxing with the death of Ahab in the vengeful pursuit, unforgiveness wraps its rope around our neck and takes us down.
Forgiveness is not a naive and dangerous forgetfulness. Joseph, who did not withhold forgiveness from his brothers, also did not set him self up to be thrown, once again, into a pit by his brothers.
Forgiveness is seldom easy to receive. Although the brothers lived ‘in’ the forgiveness of Joseph for several years, at the father’s death it was obvious they had not been able to fully accept it. We can only fully accept forgiveness when we have freely given forgiveness.
Forgiveness, when fully received, is a blessing to the giver. Only then can a relationship be fully restored and recognized.
Forgiveness is only complete when we are able to see through and past the offending actions. Joseph says to his brother, each time he presents them with the forgiveness, ‘You intended evil, but God used [your actions] for good.’
In regard to Forgiveness, what is God saying to you?
Things were different, you couldn’t really name it, but there was a change in the overall atmosphere, it was indescribable. For starters, they were going in a different direction, a very intentional direction. You only had to look were the sun was in the morning to recognize that they were heading south. Jerusalem was south, the paranoid politicians were in the Jerusalem, the south, the power of the religious leaders was in Jerusalem, in the south. It wasn’t a good direction to be heading.
None of the of disciples had said anything, even though they knew that Jesus was purposely going to Jerusalem. Still, no one said anything to Jesus, and there was no need to say anything to each other. They were all thinking the same thing, ‘don’t go to Jerusalem, don’t go to Jerusalem’ – everyday, at the break of dawn they would, once again, find themself heading south, towards Jerusalem.
A lot had happened in a very brief amount of time, it was unusual, and it was the same. Jesus was acting the same towards the crowds, he still had an overriding passion – healing the sick, curing disease, and you couldn’t not see his continual focus on how oppressed they were. There was always a crowd, and Jesus was always healing and curing, and all of the disciples were beginning to feel the weight of this oppression as everything seemed to be resting on how they were being abused by the politicians and the religious leader.
The crowd of 5-10 thousand at Bethsaida, up north near the Sea of Galilee, had also been physically hungry, stomach growling hungry. The disciples were the first to verbally address the hunger, suggesting that it was time they send the people home. It really wasn’t a heartless plan, this enormous crowd had all been there all day, the line of people needing Jesus’ healing touch seemed to growing rather than shrinking, and, what was most concerning was that Jesus was visibly fatigued, he needed some rest. Jesus didn’t even entertain the idea of sending the people home, there were too many of them, too many that were sick, and, all of them were suffering, too many that were dying under the oppression.
Oppression. The political leaders needed to keep the people in line and quiet, in order to could keep their positions of power. The religious leaders needed to keep the people in line and quiet, to keep the local political leaders happy. The political and religious leaders hated each other, but now, they were pretty chummy, it was a tense yet helpful relationship for both sides. If the religious leaders kept the people in line, the political leaders were more much more cooperative. Politicians set up a temple tax which primarily went into the pockets of the religious leaders. The religious leaders knew the arrangement was expedient to their agenda, and that it permitted the religious institution to have an influence in the appointment of powerful persons. It was a win for everyone, except for the average Hebrew, the Jews. They had to periodically go to the temple to make their offerings and sacrifices. This was expensive, they had the travel, the lodging, the food, they had to take off work, once they got to the temple they had to pay the temple tax, then, they had to pay for the sacrificial animal. The people were oppressed, and their faith leaders, and institution, were responsible for the suffering.
There was a lot of hurting, and Jesus, was incapable of not noticing and addressing hurting, pain, and oppression. The hunger of the people had not escaped Jesus notice, his response to the disciples suggestion of sending the people home was to say, ‘you feed them.’ All twelve of the men were dumbfounded at this demand,
‘With what?’ They asked with a hint of indignation.
Jesus didn’t seem offended by the tone of their questions, he didn’t even really seem to notice the blatant sarcasm, he just asked, ‘What do we have?’
‘We, what do WE, have….’ They were all thinking, however, again, no one said it, ‘WE don’t have anything, WE didn’t bring anything!’
Instead of speaking, all the men just stared expressionless, sometimes no expression communicates more than any form of expression. Eventually, Jesus said, ‘Are you sure that we don’t have anything to feed them?’
It was Andrew who finally spoke up about a boy who had offered his five loaves and two fish his mom had packed for him. It was a sweet offer on part of the little boy, it would be a touching sentimental story to tell folks back home, but really , five loaves and two fish for this crowd? That was probably not even enough to keep the little boy going for the rest of the day.
It was one of those moments when you expected Jesus to say, ‘That’s nice, now, seriously, what else do we have?’
But Jesus didn’t said that, he didn’t dismiss the sacrifice of the little boy, he didn’t even hint that Andrew was wasting everyone’s time. Jesus thanked the boy, took the food, and sure enough, he fed the crowd. But, even after their stomachs were full, they the crowd stuck around, it was getting late. The people still needed Jesus to heal them and they needed his peace to survive the oppression they lived under. So, that was then Jesus sent the disciples ahead while he stayed with the crowds until all went home.
That was typical Jesus. Everyone mattered, everyone had a name, everyone deserved health, freedom, respect, – everyone deserved to be known by their name. Jesus knew all their name, he knew every person because every person deserved to be known.
Later, Jesus asked the disciples what names the people were giving to him, his disciples were quick to answer, ‘John the Baptizer’, ‘Elijah’, ‘Jeremiah’, were all offered as answers. Jesus listened to these and all the other names the they had heard. With every answer Jesus would nod, a signal that he had heard the answer, he didn’t seem disturbed or bothered by any of the answers, afterall, it hadn’t been very long since the religious leader had called him ‘Satan’. Once you are given that name, no name is going to be more offensive. Jesus looked down at the ground, he was thinking, it was obvious that this discussion was not over. After a short time of silence, he rose his head up again, he had a look of love and embrace on his face and in his posture, which was now accompanied by a something much deeper yet unhurried, there seemed to be a new urgency in his tone. Jesus looked around, locking eyes with each of the men, still communicating love and respect, then after connecting with all twelve men, then he looked back down at the ground.
‘Who do YOU say that I am?’ He asked as his head moved up to the point where, once again, he was looking each of the men in the eye. The question was met with silence. This was a dangerous question to answer, it was dangerous for the disciples, and all answers would be dangerous for Jesus. There were always curious ears; there were always profiteering eavesdroppers. Some of those present were not sure that they thought, some would still be doubters and unsure all the way to the ascension. Many had a good idea of what they believed, they were hesitant to put it into words however. Everyone knew certain words, words like ‘God’ and ‘Messiah’ would be the final straw for the religious leaders – A rabbi convincing his disciples that he was the Messiah, or worse, that he was God would be an undeniable call to action, very bad actions.
So, the awkward silence persisted, Jesus continued to look at them. His look didn’t seem to be condescending, but, instead, concerned. His expression completely changed when Peter couldn’t keep quiet any long, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ This seemed to be a huge relief to Jesus, his expression changed from concern to hope. Peter, standing on this truth of understanding of who Jesus is, that he was going to be able to grab hold of the faith God gave to him, was the affirmation that Jesus needed..
Jesus even changed Peter’s name to ‘Rock’.
This made the next name Jesus gave to Peter all the more shocking. Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’. Peter had finally spoken out, saying to Jesus what everyone had been thinking.
‘You can’t go to Jerusalem, we have to turn back towards Galillee! You can’t let this death happen to you!’ This all came after Jesus had told the men about his death and resurrection.
Peter was now called ‘Satan’ by Jesus. The name you never want to be called, the most horrid name that Peter could ever hear. ‘Satan.’
Peter didn’t want Jesus to die, none of the men did – however, they would understand later, Jesus had to die – in order to be resurrected, he had to first die.
Peter despised this ‘dying’ plan, it was painful, for Peter , for the others, and especially for Jesus. Peter may have been sincere, he may have thought he had pure motive, but, he was trying to get Jesus to step onto a different path.
Early on, when Satan tried to finish Jesus off early but was met with failure, he had vowed to return to Jesus, he had promised to show up at another ‘opportune’ time to tempt Jesus again, an ‘opportune’ time had arrived. This time, however, he used Peter. Peter, with good intentions, was trying to protect his friend Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. Now, even the best intentions were not enough to keep Peter’s name from being changed to ‘Satan.’
Names are wonderful and names can be a nightmare. Just ask Peter. Just ask Moses.
1,500 years earlier, another man dealt with a troublesome name, this man was Moses. Mosheh, in the hebrew, or Moishe, in yiddish, or Moses (or Mes) to the Egyptians. The Etymology of these three forms of the same name are still a struggle for linguists today. For the man named Moses, during the time of the Hebrew slavery in Egypt, it was a unavoidable metaphor for the personal struggle of his own life. A struggle he was never able to escape. Moses, a Hebrew child who was placed in a basket into the Nile River, by his mother and sister in order to save him from the edict of the brutal Pharoah to kill the Hebrew children in the Nile river, was rescued by the daughter of Pharoah, and then raised in the Pharoah’s palace as an Egyptian male, a family member in the family of Pharoah, raised as a man of great privilege and authority.
Here is the problem with this name Moses carried. Pharoah’s daughter, Bithiah, basically created the name Moses, by putting two word roots together, the first was ‘son of…’ and the second part was ‘I drew out of the water.’ Basically, she intended the name to say, ‘this is my son, and, I drew him out of the water,’ However, she made a grammar error, basically in spelling and the ‘I drew him out of water’ basically became ‘he will draw them out.’ The Hebrew, or Yiddish understanding of the name is similar, a one word explanation is our word ‘deliver’, with the added meaning of the word ‘water’. The meaning of the name was also, in Hebrew traditions, ‘those who are saved.’
This Hebrew and Egyptian name etymology tells the story of the battle that went on in Moses himself. He was considered a son of an Egyptian, living in the home of the very ruler that wanted him to be put to death as a child, and, was rejected by his own people, the Hebrews. Add to this, his attempt to deliver another Hebrew, further alienated him from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. He was a slave and a master, an oppressed person as well as an oppressor, a protector and a murderer, he was a man on the outside of everything, a man now accepted by no one, a man who no longer belonged, a man who could no longer go home, a man who was known but who’s greatest desire was to not be known. He was a man on the run.
Soon, he found out that not only was he known, but, that he was know by God, who knew his name.
‘Moses, Moses.’ God called out, ‘Take your shoes off, you are on holy ground.’
God then introduced himself to Moses. It seems ironic that an iconic religious deliverer like Moses had to be introduced to God, but he did. As the discussion continues, we realize that even the Hebrews needed an introduction to God. It has been four hundred years since Joseph, 400 years since the talk of, and dependence on, the God of Joseph. This God, the God of Joesph, the God of Jacob, the God of Isaac, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of the Hebrews, the God who knew Moses name, the God who knew each of the names of the Hebrews, the God who had not forgotten them. The God who had heard their cries, cries sent out into the unknown and to the unknown – God was now sending a deliverer. That God was sending a deliverer who’s name was Moses.
‘They are going to ask who your are,’ a surprised, hesitant, and fearful, Moses said, ‘What is your name, how do I identify you to them?’
‘I am God,’ God responded in the same way any one responds when their title is their name, s name that is truly, and only, owned by no other being, ‘tell them my name is ‘I AM’.
So, God, was sending Moses to the place he never wanted to return to, in the same manner, God was sending Jesus to the very place that his disciples knew he should never, ever, go near. Both men were given the same mission, a mission to deliver the oppressed.
The oppressed, it is a very strange word. If you have not ever been truly oppressed, which is probably true for everyone hearing this message, then you cannot identify, you can not sympathize, and you definitely are incapable of empathizing – seldom do even even acknowledge a need to understand the impact of oppression on another. For the Hebrews who were now slaves in Egypt, the path to becoming oppressed had been so gradual that they didn’t even recognize it until it was too late, until they could do nothing except send a cry out into the universe.
For the Jews that held the attention and compassion of Christ, oppression had come at the hands of their rulers in cooperation with their religious leaders, the authorities had paved the road to this state of their lives, the people had accepted this because they had blindly trusted, and accepted, the lies of their leaders.
Oppressors are good, they know how to manipulate and divide, they know how to make those they are going to oppress nameless, they call them liberals, radicals, thugs, rapists, drug dealers, murderers, killers, worthless, anything that is quickly interpreted as ‘bad’ even though the intentional meaning is never questioned, and their attacks are seldom critiqued. Oppressors that are good have eliminating those that will questions their lies, it is all part of a well oiled campaign to subtly accelerate the oppressive process.
The one most effective way to counter oppression is to know the names of those being attacked and oppressed. The Egyptians did not know the Hebrews names, they accepted the labels expressed by Pharoah, the Politicians did not know Jesus, they accepted the labels of the religious leaders. Fear mongering, lies, conspiracies, slander, are all proven techniques of effective oppressors. Keeping people from knowing each other’s name is usually the most effective path.
This was the final straw that pushed the Chinese Communist party leaders to take forceful action in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. They were fine waiting the student protestors out, however, when all the other groups began to enter the square, groups the leaders had worked diligently to keep divided though the use lies and hateful labels. As these previously divided groups of people began to interact, as they began to know each other’s name, as they began to reject the hateful labels they had received from their leaders, the party officials realized their power was threatened. They took action.
When Peter was given the name ‘Satan’ a truth about himself was revealed, he realized that he was putting himself above all else, he recognized how he was allowing the true Satan to use him at an opportune moment. This horrible name opened his eyes.
A name, tells us a lot about ourselves and tells us a truth about others.
Ever since they constructed the new road connecting West Lindsey and 36th Avenue, I have seen, almost daily, large damaged areas of the fence. Sometimes it was obvious that a car had done the damage but most of the time I struggled to understand. One day I walking the path and I witnessed a man taking the slats out of the fence. I recognized the man, I realized I knew his name, this was ‘Ray’. I knew Ray, I knew his name, I had met Ray while I volunteered at Food and Shelter. Ray was one of the many clients we served that lived at the river. Ray and I had many discussions, during which he freely shared that he had been given, and chosen, the names ‘unhoused’, ‘homeless’, ‘unemployed’, ‘unemployable’, and sometimes the name ‘bum’ because he ‘didn’t follow rules very well, or at all’, and that, sometimes he had a ‘temper’ which was why every six months he would be fired from the University’s landscaping crews. As I approached Ray, he immediately recognized me, he even knew my name.
‘Rick! Can you give me a hand with this?’ He shouted.
He needed my help taking the fence apart. I had always thought of these ‘fence destroyers’ in less than pleasant terms, now I was one of them. As I joined Ray in the legions of being a ‘Felon’, which is what I assumed would be the name posted in the Norman Transcript below my mug shot, I asked him why we were destroying the fence.
Ray explained that, although he considered most of the folks at the river, to be friends, he still didn’t trust them. ‘No one trusts each other down here,’ he explained. ‘So, everyday we have to take all of our important stuff with us on our bikes.’ All this important stuff made it impossible to get the bikes through, or over, the fence, so they had to disassemble it to get to their day.
‘I’ve wondered why it is always like this,’ I said.
‘Yes, it is us,’ he shrugged.
The the eyesore of a fence was now, to me, a sign that a people, a people with names not just labels, had not been considered when the fence was originally placed designed. Whereas, before I assumed the worst about the broken fence. I would regularly see the city workers fixing the fence, I would imagine the hateful things they had to be saying about the fence destoryers. Now, I knew, it was Ray. Now I didn’t hate, it was Ray. Actually, now it was Ray and me.
A couple of months ago, as I was driving by, I saw a city vehicle with a city worker standing and looking at the fence. He was walking along the fence and you could tell he was studying the fence. As I returned, I saw this same man on the other side of the fence, walking down into the woods toward the river.
The next time I drove by, a city crew out working on the fence yet again. This time was different, this time, instead of just reconstructing the fence, they were building an opening. Now, I seldom see Ray, or his community breaking the fence, now, for the most part, they are going to the opening. I think the man I saw earlier, the city worker studying the fence, eventually went down to the river to learn the names of the people previously known only by the level of ‘fence destroyer,’ he find the most used path, and the best place for an opening.
I think this city worker met Ray, who introduced him to the others, including one lady who had the name JoAnn. JoAnn always, somehow, had an extra pound of ground beef or an array of chicken parts, which, on most good days, she would share with all the others who also had names. Now, these people ceased to be known by hostile labels and now had names. Now, that they had names, is was much easier to address their need, now, they were a little less oppressed.
Jesus was insistent that his disciples understood the oppression that the Jews were living under. Jesus sent his disciples out to these oppressed people because that was the calling that the Father gave Jesus, ‘a calling to give them a full life,’ Jesus sent them out so that they could know their names.
Knowing names is what always brings us to accept God’s call, it always leads us trust the God who calls.
God said to Moses, ’I know you by name.’ God said to the Hebrews, through Moses, ‘I know you by name,’ God says to us ‘I know you by name.’
It took five women to change the course of history. These five women did what had never been done. Five women who, as far as we know, did not receive direct instruction from God, still, followed God in the midst of their day to day survival. Five women took extreme personal risks that they didn’t really have to take. Five women risked their lives, and, along the way, unknowingly changed the world. Five women did what their gut told them to do even if it was dangerous, not just for them, but dangerous for those closest to them. Five woman saved the Israelites. Five women saved a group of humans, humans that were a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, a promise of a people, a people we, today, know as the Jews.
These five women did this extraordinary feat without any fanfare, without any substantial assistance, without any visible concern for their own safety, without support from, or even knowledge by, their community. Five women who simply stepped out and did what needed to be done. Five women who acted in historic ways, doing so merely out of their daily existence, their daily survival. Five women who were the sounding pistol declaring that the deliverance of the Israelites had begun. Five women who saved the lineage of Jesus.
Five women in a story that begins with two men. The first, was a newly enthroned ruler, Pharaoh.
This new Pharaoh was on the throne, a ruler who had an Israelite problem, there were simply too many of them, they were like wild animals in the street, and they were multiplying like feral dogs. This Pharaoh was brutal and had no appreciation for the Israelites. His ignorance of the history of his own people was staggering, his focus was himself, he was his own god – this was the god that instructed him how to secure his power, how to eliminate threats to his power, how to eliminate ‘problems’ immediately. His paranoid ‘god syndrome’ fueled existence mandated that he have all the answers needing no assistance, no one could be trusted, no one – anyone could be fired, eliminated, at the drop of a hat, at the hint of unloyalty, at the need of a scapgoat, the only characteristic of a worthy employee was blind acceptance of Pharaoh as ‘god’. His unwillingness to grasp even the most basic aspects of the history of his people led him to act with blatant disregard and reckless abandon. In a turn from wiser and the more stable rulers before him, he had no appreciation for, or even knowledge of, the Hebrew deliverer Joseph, nor did he have any respect for the God of Joesph and his people the Hebrews, the Israelites. He had no fear of this God who had shown himself in such a mighty way in the history of his people – his fear was of men, not God, a fear of what men could take from him.
The other male, a three month old Hebrew infant, was named Moses.
But, it was five women who were the heroes of this story, they were the first to be called by God, they were the first to take the deliberate and risky actions, they were the first, in this story, and the case could be made that they were the first in all of the Bible stories up to this point, to step out based on a faith conviction that this was actually not really a choice at all – it was life guided by faith. It was their daily life.
Let’s meet these heroes.
We begin with Shiphrah and Puah, two Israelite women, midwives who served their own people, the Hebrews. They were summoned out of their day to day existence to appear before this Hebrew hating ruler. Being summoned is seldom a positive for an oppressed person, it is devastating when it come from a brutal powerful ruler. Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all of the male children born of Hebrew women. These two women who had dedicated themselves to God’s calling to bring life into the world, now were given the order to take that life instead. However, these women were dedicated to their calling, to life, and more than that, they feared God. They disobeyed, and when summoned again, Pharaoh asked why he is still seeing Hebrew newborn boys. These two women in the work of life were now facing their own death, still, they stood their ground, standing on their faith, blaming the quick labor of the Hebrew women, as the reason for their inability to stop these forbidden births.
Two more Hebrew women, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, are the next audacious heroes of this story. Jochebed had nursed and hidden her son, Moses, for three months after hearing of Pharoah’s edict to put to these Hebrew boys to death by being thrown into the vicious Nile river. Ironically, the newborn female infants were allowed to live, they were not a threat – Pharaoh had no clue of the threat of his own misogynistic ingrained prejudices were to his power. Jochebed and Miriam hatched a bizarre plan that would only work if God was a part of the action. Jochebed and Miriam, as ordered by Pharaoh, ‘threw’ their beloved Moses, into the Nile River – however, before ‘throwing’ him into the river, they placed him inside a basket that had been retrofitted to float. They prepared the basket, they put the infant Moses into the basket, and they let go of it into the river, releasing their control, surrendering it into the hands of a God they didn’t really know a lot about.
Our fifth heroic woman now enters the picture, a woman named Bithiah – an Egyptian, non Israelite, non Hebrew woman who was also the daughter of the brutal and paranoid Pharoah. She was bathing in the river when she saw a basket floating in the water. Ordering one of her attendants to retrieve the basket she was surprised to find a child neatly tucked into the basket. Bithiah immediately recognized that this was a child of a Hebrew woman, and, presumed that this child had been released into the unpredictable waters of the Nile in order to save the life of this little boy.
It boggles the brain to think of the journey of this outrageous faith engineered plan which called for a mother to save her son by placing him into a basket, then placing the basket into the very river where he was ordered to die, a plan which ended with the child being rescued by the daughter of the very man who ordered the death of this infant, and, ultimately having this child raised in the very palace where this same brutal ruler lived, his own home…..and, all of this, is still decades before this same child, raised in the home of the ruler who sought his death, would deliver the Israelites from the brutally of the following Pharaoh.
We cannot leave this story of these five heroic women without looking at one final act of bravery. Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, allowed themselves to be noticed – again, it is best to go under the radar, unnoticed, when you are an oppressed person. It would be nearly impossible to consider the possibility that Bithiah naively accepted the appearance of Miriam as serendipitous. In doing this, both of these Hebrews put their own lives, as well as their families and the life of this beloved infant, in jeopardy. They had allowed themselves to be noticed – this plan of faith required not only risk and release, it required that they place themselves in the crosshairs of a powerful, brutal, and paranoid, ruler.
Five women against a powerful man who was was dismissive and assuredly misogynistic. Five women who were considered powerless and weak by a ruler that set out to destroy an entire people. Five women who began a movement that resulted in the deliverance of that people. Five women who were guided by faith, five women given the faith to answer the call, five women empowered with the grace to act on the call, five women who changed the world.
Five women whose faith that set the bar for a grown Moses, who, on ten specific occasions would be called upon by God to speak on behalf of God, to confront a man who consider himself to be a god.
So, what is faith? How do we obtain faith?
We had a family living next to us who had a daughter with a disability from birth. She was, confined to a wheel chair and, every two years would have to enter the hospital for an extended stay during which she would go through a harrowing physical treatment to attempt to restore her health, as much as possible. A treatment much like the worst chemotherapy experience that you can imagine. It was traumatizing for her and her family just to go through this. She, along with her family, attended a church, where the pastor would often speak of our level of faith being our responsibility, ie. ‘If you are poor it is because you do not have enough faith, if your marriage is failing it is because you do not have enough faith, if your house is too small or you hate your job or your kids are a mess it is because you do not have enough faith,’ and frequently, he would preach in the direct eyesight of this little girl, ‘If you are sick it is because you do not have enough faith’. One Sunday as he began going down the path of this heretical teaching about faith, the siblings of this girl stood up from their seats, and non apologetically moved to the center aisle, turned their sister’s chair around, and pushed her to the exit door. At the point, the parents, as they shared later, finally realized that they should have done this years before.
When this little girl completed the fifth grade, approaching the summer when it was time for another hospital extended treatment, she explained to her parents that she was ‘done’. She had made the decision to do no more treatments. When I say ‘ready’ this little girl had a clearer understanding of life and death, of eternity, than probably most adults. She was truly ‘ready’. The family grieved but understood and honored her decision. By the start of the next school year she had passed away.
This was knowing God enough in life that she was able to trust God in death. This was having enough faith.
Five problematic words made this statement difficult for us to fully grasp in our English language state of mind, and our own tendency toward a selfish theology when interpreting scripture:
Assurance, Things, Hoped, Conviction, Received Approval
While a greek word study of these two verses written to the early Christians who had a Jewish background would give us a clearer understanding of the meaning of this passage – Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, does a superb job of explaining these words through his translation:
“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”
Take a moment to look at, and consider, these words again.
It was this firm foundation that allowed the five women to save the life of Moses. It was the fundamental trust they had in the known but unseen God (actually for one of the women, God was unseen and unknown) that permitted them to accept the risk of saving this life.
It was this fundamental faith that had consistently allowed this little girl to trust God with her life, now leading her to trust God with her death.
As the apostle Paul is teaching the believers in Rome how to be ready to live like the five women who saved Moses, and, how to be community at the same time, he says,
This brings us to the issue of ‘Enoughness’.
We are not the master, or developers, of our faith. We do not grow our faith, we do not strengthen our faith, we do not own our faith, we do not determine our faith.
Faith is what permits us to answer ‘yes’ to God’s call – whether it is to respond with disobedience to a brutal Pharaoh with a god complex, or to let go of a basket into the Nile River in order to save the life of your child, or to painfully accept your Father’s plan to save the world.
When God calls, or leads, or intentionally places us on the path where he needs us to be, then it is not a question of ‘Enoughness’, it is not ‘do we have enough faith to answer, or to follow, or to trust’ – it is a question of ‘do we trust the God that we know, to give us the exact needed measure of faith to do what he calls us to do?’.
We end up at Jesus question that Jesus poses to his disciples – ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’
Jesus was not asking this as a test to see if his disciples had been paying attention in class, nor was it reprimand them for their ‘lack of faith.’ He was asking because he was now heading to Jerusalem, he was at a fork in the road where the direction of his physical journey was lining up with his journey to the cross. While this would ultimately be a solitarily journey that Jesus would have to travel alone, he was fully aware, though, that on the way, his disciples would be at his side. They would be going as far as they were able to go. To travel with him the distance they were equipped to travel, they would have to be ready to grab ahold of the measure of faith that God was giving them. To face the pain and struggles ahead, this faith was going to be essential.
To grasp this faith, they needed to be standing on an unshakable foundation, a foundation of truly knowing God.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus smiled the smile of the Father, knowing that Peter was ready to face the horror that lie ahead, he would make mistakes, but in the end he would realize that he was standing on a Rock. Jesus proclaims to Peter, “God has revealed this to you! The father has given you enough faith.”
Our question today is – “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
They should have known better, almost half of them were fishermen, for heaven’s sake. They should have been able to glance at the sky and realize that it was not going to be safe, especially since it was going to be dark soon. When the winds began to pick up it was like everyone had never seen a storm, everyone was yelling out instructions, most had a white knuckle grip on the sides of the boat, it was terrifying. The waves were pounding the side of the boat, rain was hitting the disciples’ faces for the entire night.
In their defense, it is possible that the weather could have radically changed after they pushed the boat out into the deeper waters. I asked our resident weather and climate expert this week if it was possible for a storm to come out of no where, a storm that even seasoned fishermen would not be anticipating. Renee told me about the KAT-a-bat-ic winds that come down off the colder high mountains to the smaller mountains where the temperatures are warming and then to the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee – stirring up the waves and wind with great veracity.
So the scared men were mad and frustrated with each other and then at the same time ashamed of themselves. Truth was, they were mostly aggravated that they had jumped into the boat in the first place. A carpenter telling a group of grown men, many who were at home on the water, a carpenter telling this group to jump in the boat, at dusk, and go on ahead. The entire situation was ludicrous!
Some would say this storm was all part of God’s plan to bring the men to a fuller recognition of who Jesus is; an orchestrated weather disaster. However, bad stuff happens –
– when people have a free choice that impacts other people and the creation –
– bad stuff is going to happen. Stuff, that often in the end, we can see how we have grown, and possibly even benefitted from the reality of bad stuff.
That is not our reality though. Ten years ago this month we sat in a hospital room for 11 nights with our daughter Grace who had a potentially fatal reaction to a common antibiotic, even in bringing her home we knew we weren’t out of the woods. A couple of years later, we sat in the surgery waiting rooms four times, and then in doctor’s offices for over six procedures until the professionals were able to figure out the medical solution to a medical issue our son Isaiah had.
We lose spouses, we watch loved ones slip away, relationships unravel, automobile accidents happen and auto parts break, brother and sister human beings are abused and oppressed, pandemics leave us living in limbo, and plumbing problems cause kitchen sinks to overflow.
I say that because that was my struggle this week – not that it is in anyway is in the same level as the struggles mentioned before, but it is on the level of most of our struggles. Our plumber was booked for four days. I tried again to work the few plumbing miracles I had up my sleeve. That is when I met Kris Reece. Kris has a 13 minute Youtube tutorial on how to fix plumbing problems that cause sinks to overflow. Kris’s plumbing problem was a result of putting cooked pasta in the garbage disposal, I realized that I had put cooked pasta in my garbage disposal. – it was like Kris and I were brothers. Later, I was reprimanded by my daughter Hannah who reminded me that Duffy Musgrove had told us the dangers of pasta and disposals. So, I watched Kris, for 13 minutes unclog his disposal, making sure that I would not get half way and realize this was out of my league. It wasn’t, I unclogged the sink, well, with Kris’s help. Now, I know how to unclog the kitchen sink, and I know that you don’t put cooked pasta in the disposal. Two lessons from one problem. I was pretty proud of myself the rest of the day, consider getting a tool belt. Plus, I learned how to use the plumber’s snake my plumber’s had insisted I purchase years before – Kris taught me how to use that as well.
Good came out of bad.
I’m not sure Paul was thinking about plumbing problems when he said,
‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’
…but it is the same dynamic.
So the disciples had strong winds, a shallow sea, scary waves, pelting wind, and were consumed with fear – it was a rough night. Interestingly, the experience prior to the storm had been positively amazing, the kind of day you talk about for the rest of your life. They had just fed around 10,000 hurting and hungry people, with almost nothing to work with. One moment the men thought it was time to send the crowd home and the next moment they were collecting baskets of leftovers!
Jesus was exhausted, and still helping the people that delayed leaving, the disciples were on an adrenaline rush, so hopping into a boat was not as outlandish as it sounds. But still, everyone was disappointed in themselves and each other.
It must be said though, the men were a little frustrated with Jesus – although no one was going to say that. One moment he is conquering hunger and disease, oppression and misery, the next minute he abandoned the disciples sending them to their death in the middle of the sea.
Then, in the punishing storm, just as the fear, anger and frustration were about to hit a boiling point, the disciples were distracted by something even more startling than the storm. Between the flashes of lightening and the crushing waves, something, or someone, could be seen in the distance – on the water. Every time the waves would crash the unidentified object or person was visible. So, as the scared men continued to hold on to the tattered sails and the sides of the water logged boat, screaming in fear, they heard the voice.
Peter was audacious and, most often, annoyingly eager, however, he was the only one thought about walking out to Jesus. The storm was so loud you could only faintly hear Jesus’ response,
We all heard that word, ‘Come’, everyone looked at Peter, he swallowed hard and stepped out of the boat. From the rocking boat the men watched as Peter navigated the waves. He was knocked down a couple of times, but he would just get up. After about three knock downs, he began to look out over the never ending waves often blocking his view of Jesus – his determination and confidence was visibly waning. He was looking back at the boat and ahead at Jesus trying to decide which would be the most rational direction to go. No way could he swim in this turbulence. Jesus picked up his pace to get to Peter, pulling him up out to the water. Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled him up just as Peter’s head was going under. As the two men made it to the boat, the waves and wind remained unforgiving – the disciples struggled to pull them in.
Jesus and Peter crashed onto the floor of the boat, Peter looking wet, scared, and humiliated. Jesus looked wet and strangely peaceful. A few seconds later, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and the waves disappeared. It was quiet, eerily silent. The men all looked at each other, they looked at Peter, then all eyes turned to Jesus. No one said anything – there was really nothing to say, but you could tell that everyone was thinking the same thing, you could see it in their eyes. Everyone released their grip and fell to their knees. No one spoke because there were no words to describe this moment. In the silence, they all began to understand that this was not an ordinary human; it didn’t make sense but Jesus was holy. They were in the presence of God.
That was how the men knew that the boat had become a holy place, God was there, God was present. How odd that it came in silence. Everywhere Jesus went there had been thousands of loud voices screaming for his attention and now, in the boat, on the calm seas and the peaceful sky, there was silence – that is where the disciples saw God. In the middle of the chaos and fear, in the middle of dire circumstances, there was Jesus, first walking on the deadly waves in the brutal wind, then, in the boat, in the silence, there was peace. God was there.
No one expected silence to be the place where they would see God but this silence had pierced the deafening waves and the unforgiving wind.
It is interesting – the different places that people see God. For Jacob it was in a multiple overtimes wrestling match, for Moses it was in a burning bush, for Isaiah it was at a funeral, for John, the Baptizer, it happened while he was still in the womb, for the centurion it was at the feet of the bloody cross, for Stephen it was as he was looking up, while being brutally stoned, for Paul it was in blindness on a public highway, for the disciples it was in a boat…and, for the prophet Elijah it was on the side of a mountain just outside the cave where he was scared and in hiding.
Nine hundred years earlier, Elijah was walking on eggshells rather than water, he, too, had seen a miracle in an awe inspiring act of proving God to be God, but now, he had a Jezebel problem. A Jezebel problem was pretty much the worst problem you could face. It was the seal of death to anyone that angered Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Jezebel’s anger had no mercy, her power had no boundaries, the fear of Jezebel was the one shared fear in the hearts and minds of everyone, including her husband, the King.
Elijah received the threatening message from Jezebel and could imagine the veins popping out on her face, he only needed to hear her name to know that she was livid. Elijah had humiliated her false prophets, he had negated the power of her false gods, and to make matters worse, he had the audacity to do it in such a public way, – it was humiliating, Jezebel didn’t do humility or fear, instead, she was the source of everyone’s fear and humility.
Elijah had run away, he was now hiding in the back of a dark damp cave.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah, in no uncertain terms, outlined his complaints to God. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.
“Go stand outside the cave, I am going to come by.”
God said in a tone that expressed love for, and frustration with, his prophet Elijah.
Elijah was still standing with his arms crossed, and his brow squinted tight, his disappointment and aggravation were on full display. He stood up defiantly, like a child who is angrily and resentifully obeying his parents, positioned half way to the entrance of the cave and not a step closer, Elijah stood his ground.
A strong wind
began to blow outside of the cave, it even whipped around inside the cave, Elijah took a few small steps back as he began to hear and feel the force of the wind that was actually moving and cracking the mountain. God was not in the wind.
Then the ground began to shake,
the walls of the cave began to vibrate, the sound of the earth moving beneath his feet was deafening. Elijah didn’t know if he should retreat further into the cave or if it would be wiser to run outside. God was not in the earthquake.
Then, Elijah recognized a burning smell,
the heat began to be unbearable, the flames began to approach the entrance of the cave. God was not in the fire.
Here, on the mountain where God had appeared in a burning bush to Moses – God, on this day, was not in the fire, the earthquake, or even the wind. Now, however, there was a new phenomena, there was silence.
Not just silence but a ‘sheer silence.’
The kind of silence that demands your attention much like the still silence on the calmed waters of the sea, a silence that drowns out the sound of the water slapping against the sides of the boat, a silence that you actually hear.
There was God, in the silence, it was deafening.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Again, Elijah outlined his complaints. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.
God didn’t reprimand, he didn’t correct, he didn’t try to comfort or encourage, he didn’t walk away, he didn’t forget that he had been the one that called Elijah to be a prophet, he just remained there, in the sheer silence.
God was present, he was there.
Elijah went outside of the cave and stood in the silence, he stood before God. Elijah remembered God’s calling, he was reminded of God’s mission, he returned to God’s leading, he rested in God’s loud silent presence.
The silence was all that Elijah could hear. The silence cleared up Elijah’s vision and strengthened his hearing.
Then, God began to speak. In a very ‘matter of fact’ manner God returned to Elijah’s calling. God never wavered from the selection of Elijah, he never turned from his confidence in Elijah the prophet. As Elijah stood in God’s presence, he was ready to return to God’s mission.
As God began to speak, Elijah realized that his previous Jezebel problem was nothing compared to the Jezebel problem he was about to have. Even here, enveloped in God’s presence, he could see reality, and it was frightening.
Now, however, he remembered that he wasn’t alone, in fact God reminded him of those who had not turned from God, those he was to continue to encourage and lead.
Oh, bad stuff was bound to happen, Jezebel was going to be angry, she had no idea how audacious Elijah could be. God told Elijah to anoint new Kings and to begin training his own replacement. Elijah could already see the bulging veins popping on Jezebel’s face, she was going to be livid. There would be no silence in the palace.
Metaphorically, Elijah was now in the boat with Jesus. He, along with the disciples, would all face other frightening storms, there was sure to be other Jezebels, but now there was peace, there was calm, there was silence.
Are you gripping the sides of the boat holding on, sure that you will not survive, are you cowering at the thought of a livid Jezebel? Or, do you realize that Jesus is in the boat, God is outside your hiding place? What is your focus? How are you listening?
It is all about our vision – what are we looking at? It’s all about hearing – what are we listening for. Are you looking at the rocking boat and the crashing waves? Are you looking at a furious Jezebel? Or, are you listening for the reminders that Jesus sat in the boat earlier, when he calmed the waters? Are you focused on Jesus’ pulling you up out of the rough waters?
Our hope is an eternal hope – the ways it takes action in the midst of an unpredictable reality are not always what we image or expect. Hope is the catalyst of faith, it is the affirmation of assurance, it is our power in our struggles, it is the tie that binds, it is Jesus in the boat, it is God outside the cave.
On the morning after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene headed to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus. She could not get there quick enough; she was beyond grateful for the impact He had made on her life. He delivered her from demons and the extensive mental and emotional baggage accompanying such a traumatic experience. He brought peace to a life that had been consistently and constantly at war. He restored joy and hope, and brought the stability to face the struggles and demons that life would throw at her. Jesus had delivered Mary, and she was beyond grateful. She was committed.
She arrived at the tomb determined to see Jesus and was shocked to find nothing. The tomb was empty.
While the disciples witnessed the empty grave and headed home, Mary stuck around. She was not leaving until she saw Jesus. She kept looking. Even though the men had left after seeing all they needed to see, or not see, she stuck around. Peter and John saw that the grave was empty and therefore they believed that the grave was empty. That was all they thought there was to see and to believe. The left satisfied, and somewhat amazed, even though they saw nothing. Mary needed to see something; Mary had a purpose, a mission. She needed to see Jesus. Mary stuck around.
Although he did not realize this truth, John needed to see Jesus. Jesus had become his closest friend. Peter was also unaware of his need to see Jesus. He desperately needed to experience release and forgiveness for the guilt and shame of his triple denial of Christ. However, both of these men were satisfied with seeing nothing. They went home.
Not Mary, she was sticking around.
She remained at the tomb.
Even though Mary had also seen nothing, and all hope seemed to be gone, she stuck around.
Eventually Mary saw two angels. Then she saw Jesus. She didn’t recognize him until he said her name, then she saw what she came to see. She knew that voice due to the fact that she had been a constant seeker of that voice. She had experienced the full scope of what it meant to depend upon and know Jesus. She knew that this was Jesus. She grabbed hold of him and was not about to let go.
She was sticking around.
Later, when the men finally saw Jesus, He told them to stick around. To wait until God sent their needed helper, the Holy Spirit.