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“Listen As One Being Taught”

By Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 19:28-40
Philippians 2:5-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a

 

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,-

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?


 

Notice this truth – that when we are excellent at something, it is because GOD has given it, God has fashioned us with gifts and abilities, and God teaches us.

 

Of course we are also responsible.

We can follow God, or we can turn aside, away from God – much as the prophet here acknowledges his capacity to either follow God or turn backwards, away from God.

 

In this scripture, we hear the prophet explaining how he hears God.  God wakens him, morning my morning, wakens his ear “to listen as those being taught.”

The prophet does not claim to be the master.  The prophet does not claim exclusive knowledge or even wisdom.  The prophet is renowned and yet he does not claim the knowledge and words he imparts, as being his own.

No, he simply listens, as one being taught.

…as one being taught.

 

How many students do you know who are well-known?  It isn’t usually the student whose words are remembered.  Isn’t it rather the master, the teacher, the guru who gets the glory?

And yet, the prophet describes himself as listening as one being taught.

He is nothing, apart from God’s instruction.

He is only a teacher, insofar as he is taught by God.

 

And isn’t that the truth of things?  Wisdom and truth, strength and joy, freedom and redemption…they all come from God.  They originate with God.  And we only begin to grasp and receive them when we humble ourselves before God, again and again, allowing God to be our teacher, our comfort, our Lord, our Savior!

 

We only teach well, insofar as we are taught.

We only lead well, insofar as we are led.

We only comfort well, insofar as we receive God’s comfort. 

We only love well, insofar as we experience and receive the steadfast love of the Lord for us. 

 

Christ humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  Isaiah humbled himself, opening himself to God’s instruction and becoming as a student before God, morning by morning.

 

If Christ and Isaiah humbled themselves, shall we not also humble ourselves?

Shall we not also open ourselves before God in prayer and listening?

Shall we not also become as a student of God, listening as one being taught?

 

Our God knows exactly what we need.

Our God already sees solutions to our problems.

And our God loves us more infinitely than our minds can begin to grasp.

 

So won’t we too humble ourselves, morning by morning,

Listening for God’s Words to us, morning by morning,

Becoming a student of God, opening ourselves to God’s instruction,

And not being rebellious, not turning backward,

But like Isaiah, pressing forward,

Our faces as flint,

Confident in our Provider,

Confident in our Vindicator,

Confident in our Helper, Redeemer, our Friend.

 

 

And let us be loved!

Let us be comforted!

Let us know God’s sweet and timely provision!

Let us see God’s mercies and surprising grace!

Let us be taught by the Creator of Heaven and Earth,

And may we be led by the One who made the stars and the ladybug and who cares for you and me.

 

Beloved, let us open ourselves to the Almighty.

“The Expansive, Uncontainable Love of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 8:26-40
Isaiah 49:5-13

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Isaiah 49:5-13

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

As I read the scriptures just preceding this story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the story of Paul, then by the name of Saul, is playing out, as he is dragging men and women out of their homes and imprisoning them for being believers.  As much as I imagine he might look back on those times in his life with great shame and repentance, I want us to notice what God did through it.  It says the people began to scatter.  And as they scattered, they went proclaiming the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.  And so it was that many of Samaria came to believe. Yes, Samaria – the very people Jews had lived nearby and despised and looked down on for generations – Samaritans were coming to believe.

The fulfillment of the former time was come.  The old wineskins were bursting.  The old rules were no longer useful because they had served their time, fulfilling their purpose.  The time for Israel’s separation from all other nations was over.  The people had survived nomadic times, had survived being aliens in the land, had survived famine and sword.  They had not assimilated or been annihilated.  And they had survived with enough of their heritage in tact that they still remembered the God of their ancestors. And although their worship and understanding of God needed some realignment, enough had survived that Jesus could enter among them and speak into their lives and hearts, their religious festivals and practices, their minds and understanding.

By the hand of God and the rules carefully designed to keep them alive and culturally awake, the people of Israel bore into the world God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, God’s greatest gift to the world!

And Jesus begins his ministry turning water to wine – showing that the time for ritual cleansing and rules had come to an end.  The time for rejoicing had come!

And so following Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have a people in great transition.  We have a people awakened to the fresh and present work of God in their own day and time. We have a people, slowly connecting all the dots between all they had known of God before and all that had been proclaimed to them through the prophets to the God they had come to know most personally in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Their worldview was in flux, like tectonic plates shifting below them.

And the world that Jesus had ushered into being, was new and different in so many ways.  For Jesus had ushered in the Kingdom!  And Jesus was commanding them to also be about the Kingdom work – setting captives free, opening the eyes of the blind, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor!

A world that had long awaited, long cried out, long moaned and writhed in the agony of sin and suffering, of pain and injustice, was awaking to a new dawn of hope, a world of hope for all those in the deepest darkest pits of death and despair.

This new world was bursting the seams of all that had come before.

The rules separating people was one of the first rules to go, because Jesus himself had commanded them to go and spread the Good News to ALL people!

And so the elitism that had crept into their life of faith before – that elitism that says, “God loves me but not you…”  It was seen for the hog wash it was.  All the idols, the images and ideas of God that they’d held mistakenly before, …they were being torn down and rooted out, to make way for the undeniable God-come-near.

And so people formerly looked upon as trash and dust of the earth,…  these people went from being invisible to visible…to those who had come to believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And with the Spirit of God poured out into the lives of the disciples and believers, people were able to tune into God’s working and movement in the world around them.  They were able to feel the nudging of God to go and to speak to those they would have never noticed or considered before.

And so it is, how Phillip comes to step into the chariot of the Head Treasury Court Official of Candace, the Ethiopian Queen.  An angel had come to him and told him to go to that very wilderness road, south of Jerusalem that day.  And so Phillip obeys, not knowing why God has sent him there.  But he is still tuned into God as he goes, listening, and the Spirit tells him his next move:  to go over and join this particular chariot.

It would have been very nosey and imposing of Phillip indeed, had God not moved him to do this, but God knew that the one inside the chariot was one seeking God and needing a teacher.  And so, as Phillip approaches, he hears the prophet Isaiah being read, and he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  Phillip replies, “No, how can I, without someone to guide me?!”  And so Phillip joins him and begins proclaiming to him the Good News of Jesus.

And so this one, this Eunuch, this court official, of another land and people, comes to know God through Jesus of Nazareth, and he is hungry for the Spirit of God – asking, at the first sight of water – that he too may be baptized!

To a people long separated from all other people
To a nation set apart for so long
This act of God reaching out to such as one as this is radical.

That the God of all the Universe would care about this one, so uniquely, as to send an angel to Phillip, sending him to the very spot, where the Spirit would then move him to share the good news with this stranger… what a beautiful and radical gift! 

God was showing the people the width and breadth of God’s love for the world.
God did not just love those chosen to birth Christ into the world.
God did not just love those who were born into a singular tribe or nation.
God loves ALL!!!

Jesus was not sent, simply for the sake of the children of Israel.
Jesus was sent to be the bread of life to ALL who hunger!
And so the old playbook, with its many rules, was being re-written.

And so I ask us today, what is our playbook?
Who do we consider in and who do we consider out?

Is there anyone outside of the grace of God?

Is there any darkness through which Christ’s light cannot pierce?
After all, Christ even penetrated hell itself,
and we can surmise brought many home with him…

What does Christ’s commission mean to us?
What does it mean for our church?
What does it mean for you, in your life, in your job, in your recreation??

Our God cannot be contained…not even in all the religious books and songs and buildings we can muster.  The earth itself is but God’s footstool.

We cannot contain God.

So are WE listening to the Spirit of God, working and moving among us?

Are WE willing to obey, following the Spirit’s lead, even if we might be seen sometimes as nosing in or imposing…

Are WE awake, listening for God, from the moment we wake, till the moment our heads head the pillow at night, and even listening in our dreams?

Are WE willing to follow God expansive and enveloping love, even to the darkest, dirtiest corners of our communities?

Are WE willing to love with the bold and expansive love of our Savior?

May we let loose of all the idols we have of God – not stone or metal images – but the mis-ideas we have of God. May we let go of all our pre-suppositions and judgements.  May we let go of what we think we know, asking God to teach us and open our eyes to the fullness of the Living God, here and now!

And may the light of Christ shine brightly through us.

May it be. 

“She Gave It All”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 11:1-10
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Mark 14:1-11

Mark 11:1-10

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

Mark 14:1-11

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

This story calls to me. It tells of a woman who breaks a very costly jar of ointment over Jesus’ head, unexpectedly, during a meal in someone else’s home.

This woman is unnamed.
She is not mentioned before or after.
She steps into the story, and just as quickly, she is gone.

But her presence in the story,
Her sacred act,
Her sacrificial gift – thought to have been her most prized and expensive possession… – it changes the narrative.

God is mystery.  We only glimpse in moments God’s working among us. We sense in moments God’s presence and abiding love.  We do not see continuously.  Our vision breaks.  Our faith has interruptions.  We find ourselves overwhelmed and distraught and distracted by many things…

But in these moments, when we see with clarity of vision…
In these moments, when we hear, like God is speaking directly to us…
When we find ourselves compelled to act…
When our hearts become pregnant with a word we are called to speak,
With truth we are called to birth into this world…
When every neuron of our brain seems to be firing with idea after idea,…
When we have a moment of clarity, of vision, of word, of power,

May we, like this woman, act.
May we speak.
May we initiate.
May we birth that vision we have intothe world.

I do not imagine this woman who anointed Jesus saved all her money anticipating this very moment.

No, I imagine she had very different plans for this treasure.  She may have been planning ahead for her own death or that of one she loved.  She had parents.  She may have had a husband and children.  She likely had sisters and brothers.  ANY OF WHOM would have been the likely recipient of such an extravagant gift. This was a heart gift.  It was for loved ones.  It was for the most heart-wrenching of moments…, of saying goodbye to one with whom you have shared love and life and joy and sorrow.  This is the kind of gift reserved for one’s most treasured relations.  It is the type of gift one gives with a full and aching heart.

And this woman.
This woman who has a name.
This woman who has a family and a story.

She uses ALL of this most precious gift, breaking the jar, holding nothing back, pouring it over the head of Jesus.

Can you feel the utter, logic defying, outrageous, extravagant outpouring of love???

What compelled her to give away her most precious possession in such an act of unbounded love and sacrifice?

This is one of those moments that begs for silence.  The silence that is pregnant with
the truth we sense without words,
with beauty we feel without understanding,
with holiness and sacredness that we know and cannot speak.

But this act of great love
Moved some witnesses to outrage…”How could she WASTE all this on a moment?  On one man?”

Indeed, she was not behaving logically.
She was not behaving at all.

A number of witnesses quickly surmise what she could have and should have done with her treasure…

But to this Jesus says, “No.”

What she has done, illogical, hugely generous, sacrificial, from the aching and outpouring of her heart,…
is holy.

She has stepped into the flow of what God is doing.
She has joined in God’s story.
She has prepared Jesus’ body for his death and burial.
And she will not be chastised.

For her illogical, outrageous, extravagant gift is
precious
and perfect in the eyes of God.

We can become masters at summing up and judging the actions of one another.  They should have…   They could have…  Why didn’t they…   Why would they…

But the true questions for us, are
What is God moving in us?
What idea does God have nagging at our hearts?
What words is God burdening you to spill out?
What deed has God given you idea for that you are called to birth into this world?

The true questions for us are not about our neighbors, our family, our friends…
Why they do and don’t do such and such…

The true questions for us, are

What is God doing in you? What is God doing in me?

Will we step into the flow of God’s bigger story?
Will we follow God where the path is illogical, where criticisms will flow, where the future is uknown?…
Will you and be found giving all of ourselves
for the One who has given all for us?

This woman will always be known as one who gave it all.

How will our story read?

“Transformed and Ever Transforming”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 9:1-20
Isaiah 58:1-12

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Isaiah 58:1-12 

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This scripture passage always stops me in my tracks.  Every time I read it, I hear God’s righteous anger.  I hear God’s impatience with outward displays of repentance.  God is telling it like it is. No fluff.

The people say one thing, yet do another.

They seek God and delight to know God’s ways, AS IF they were a people who practiced righteousness.

The people have the outward appearance of religion while their hearts and motives and behaviors are far from God’s ways

They fast.  They put on sackcloth and ashes. They mourn and make displays of repentance, but they do it for their own motives.  Their actions don’t really change.  Instead of turning away from sin, they sin all the more, continuing to oppress and exploit one another, to fight and bicker, to blame and point fingers, to turn away from the hungry and oppressed…

God SEES RIGHT THROUGH these pious religious acts.

Perhaps to the world and even among their peers, these folks appear very good.  They do the right things.  They follow the rituals.  They know what to say.  They show up. They seek after God.

But their hearts and their lives betray them before God.

And God wants no part of it!

The whole point of everything, the whole point of seeking God, the whole point of fasting, the whole point of praying, the whole point of sackcloth and ashes…it is all to bring us to true repentance and discipleship. The point of all this seeking God is that we might EXPERIENCE GOD and be transformed.

We are to leave DIFFERENT than when we came.

If you and I are coming to church and worship, week after week, and leaving the same.  Then we are missing the point all together.

To stand in the presence of the Almighty, is to be changed.

And we are here to seek the presence of the Almighty God.

If we are leaving the same, then we have to ask ourselves why we are coming.  What are we doing.  Whose interests are we serving?  What are our reasons?  Do we have an agenda?

We gather as the church to seek God’s face and learn God’s ways.
So how are we putting into practice God’s ways?
Where is all this seeking God getting us?

John Newton composed the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.

He was not one you’d think of as a hymn writer or a lover of God.

In fact his early years were full of angst and pain.  His puritan mother died just before his 7th birthday.  His father was a stern sea captain who began taking him out to see at age 11.  His continued drunkenness and recklessness led to his being impressed into the British Navy.  But he didn’t last there long, but was caught trying to desert, given 8 dozen lashes and demoted to common seaman.  During one voyage on a slave trading ship, the ship was damaged badly and would have sunk, but Newton prayed to God and miraculously some cargo shifted on the ship, plugging the hole in the hull and allowing the ship to drift to safety. This moment is renowned as marking his conversion to Christianity.  His real transformation was slower in coming, however, as he later wrote: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”  But this moment did mark the beginning of his reading the Bible.  And in doing so, he began to look on his captives with greater sympathy.

Still, he continued in the slave trade business, making 3 more voyages, until he had a stroke and retired.  Even still, he continued to invest in the trade of human beings…

Ten years later, he became an Anglican priest.  He began composing hymns to accompany the services, some 280 in all.  Eighteen years after his retirement from the slave trade business, he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  It would be sixteen more years, however, before he publicly renounced the slave trade in a blazing pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.”  In the tract he described the abhorrent conditions of the travel and he apologizes for how long it took him to publicly renounce the practice.  He wrote:  “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Despite Newton’s long journey to repentance, this final step of publicly denouncing the trade of human beings made an impact.  The tract became very popular and was printed and reprinted.  And in 1807, the English civil government outlawed slavery in Great Britain.  Newton lived, just long enough to see it.

Newton is not a fine example of someone who followed after God quickly.  It took him almost his whole lifetime to begin to “right” some of the grave wrongs and injustices committed in his life.

And yet he did follow.

Despite the time it took, despite the seeming gross inadequacy of the good he tried to accomplish in his later years, he turned…away from sin and toward righteousness.

And so many other figures we meet in the Bible are flawed.  The famed prodigal son of Jesus’ parable does not turn around until he hits utter rock bottom, not until he’s squandered half the family’s wealth and assets, at the expense of his father and brother…

And yet he turns.

Even Paul, who authored so many of our beloved New Testament books only turned to God after actively and fervently persecuting the followers of Christ.  He used the hold the coats of those who stoned Christians.  He traveled far and wide hunting them.  But God had other plans, stops him in his tracks, and begins to teach him through the risen Christ and through those very Christians he had only days before been seeking out in order to kill.  Paul, then known as Saul, turns, away from evil and toward God, and God gives him a new name.

If you’d have asked him before whether or not he was following God, I am sure he would have given us a resounded, “Yes!”  After all, he was top among his peers and colleagues in serving God, as he understood God to be.  But it wasn’t until he met the risen Christ on that Damascus road that his understanding of God expanded and he was able to glimpse the Living God.  Like the scales that fell from his eyes, the idols of God which he’d fervently followed fell away before the One true God who shattered all his boxes and limits and narrow ideas about God.

Reading the Bible, coming to church, seeking God’s face, worshipping together… all of this is meant to facilitate encounters between us and the Living God.  Though our encounters may be less dramatic than Paul’s on that Damascus road or John Newton’s in the belly of that ship for human trafficking, these encounters are real.  And they are meant to shake us out of our complicity in sin and evil – even the kind of complicity we once thought was good.

We cannot encounter the Living God and leave unchanged.
Our lives are not our own.
They have been redeemed at great cost.
We have been saved and called for PURPOSE.

And not our own purposes. We are called to step into the flow of God’s Spirit and to join our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend in carrying out God’s purposes.

Like Jonah, called to tell a sinful people the error of their ways, we may be called to reach out to folks we do not like and might rather see smote by the hand of God than given another chance.

Like Moses, we may be called to lead a stubborn and rebellious people, out of bondage and into freedom and that wholeness that comes from righteous living.

Like Joshua, we may be called to fight battles, where the odds are stacked against us, where the people are literally twice our size…

Like Joseph, we may be called to save a generation, ensuring there is food enough for all.

Like Rahab, we may be called to harbor spys and change course of history…

Like Paul, we may be called to persist, at great odds, in sharing the good news and nurturing the faith of new believers…

We cannot reduce God’s commands to prescriptive acts.  There is not a magic number of good deeds we can do to be righteous before God.  So what are our motives?  What are our motives for giving?  What are our motives for coming to worship?  Why are we here?

If we give, may it be because God is calling us to trust God more with our finances and to empower others to be about the work of God in our time.

If we worship, may it be an opening of ourselves to the living God among us now.

May we find ourselves changed, week after week, in the presence of the Almighty God.

If we love, may it be because God has first loved us.

If we comfort others, may it be with the comfort God has shown us.

If we serve and give of ourselves, may it be because our God has given so much to us, and we will be found honoring and serving God with our gifts and talents.

This season of Lent is an invitation to truly humble ourselves before God.  It is a season of opening ourselves to God’s presence, as we meditate on the life and death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is an invitation to open ourselves to encounter the Living God.

With the Psalmist, may we too pray:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

And may we be found faithful – not perfect, not always right – but a disciple,
one who spends time in the presence of the Lord,
learning God’s ways,
continually correcting our course,
continually growing and changing our ways,
that more and more and more,
whether early or late,
we may be found to be following after Christ,
not merely learning about God’s ways
not merely stepping away from our sinful ways
but stepping into the active and powerful working of God in our world right now,
speaking what God leads us to speak
working as God leads us to work,
and walking in God’s ways. 

May it be so.