Category Archives: preaching

Second Sunday in Lent

Unshakable Faith

Peter was crestfallen. He had just proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus said that he would build his Church on the testimony Peter. But shortly after this statement Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” What had happened? From Mark’s Gospel we read:

Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”   (Mark 8:31-33)

Peter could not accept what Jesus was saying. He lacked something. It was early in his discipleship. Later he would grow, but for now he was missing the essential ingredient of discipleship. He lacked unshakeable faith. To understand this type of faith we need to look to Abraham. From Genesis we read:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.   (Genesis 17:1-4)

What is this unshakable that Abraham had? Abraham believed what God said to him, no matter how unlikely it might seem and no matter what obstacles appeared to stand in the way. The Apostle Paul wrote about Abraham’s faith in Romans:

Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”   (Romans 4:18-22)

Abraham had unshakable faith because he believed God no matter what circumstances he found himself in. Even when God, as a test, asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Abraham remembered that God would make him a great nation through his heir. Abraham held on to that promise.

If we believe in Jesus, then we will trust him in all things. Peter already had in his mind what he thought Jesus would do to establish the kingdom of God on the earth. He could not understand why Jesus would do anything else. When Jesus spoke about his suffering and death this did not make any sense to Peter. Peter’s way was better to Peter’s way of thinking.

Have we ever been like Peter in our thinking? Do we always need to figure things out? Perhaps we need to “faith” things out instead. Jesus offers this wonderful illustration in Mark’s Gospel:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?   (Mark 8:34-38)

Unless we are able to deny ourselves we will never be able to understand what God is doing. We will handicap what God can do for us. God wants to do great and mighty things in our life and within our souls. Will we let him, or will we oppose him because he just is not doing what we want, the way we expect? Who knows better?

Unshakable faith is the path to righteousness. God honors such faith. When we exercise this faith God counts it as righteousness. Our sins have been forgiven through the blood of Jesus and our spiritual growth is assured when we put our whole trust in his blood.

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First Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Covenant of Baptism

As we begin the Season of Lent, we have an account in Mark’s Gospel of the baptism of Jesus:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   (Mark 1:9-11)

Mark’s Gospel is short, direct, and to the point. Fortunately, we have some wonderful commentary on the baptism of Jesus from the other appointed scriptures. Someone has said that the scriptures make very good commentary on the Bible.

Let us examine baptism from both an Old Testament perspective as well as a New Testament one. Reading from Genesis:

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.   (Genesis 9:8-15)

God made a covenant with Noah and his family. What is the context of this covenant? The earth was full of evil people whom God has destroyed by the flood which covered the whole earth. He did so in order for humankind to have a fresh start in serving and worshipping their God. God gives something and God asks something from those who participate with him in the covenant. The covenant is a holy agreement with God and his people which must be honored by all participants.

How does this covenant with Noah and his family compare with the Covenant of Baptism? From 1 Peter we read:

Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Do we notice the similarities? God eradicated the sin in evil people by the flood. Now God has eradicated sin altogether by the blood of Jesus. We can now have a good conscience before God. Thus, we have access to God by our baptismal covenant.

Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan. It was more than a baptism of repentance because Jesus did not need to repent. It was a baptism of empowerment by the Holy Spirit. We may wonder why Jesus needed power from on high to begin his ministry. He had given up all his divinity and heavenly power to become one of us in every way.

Jesus set an example in his baptism for us to follow. In Romans, the Apostle Paul further illuminates the Covenant of Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.    (Romans 6:3-8)

If we have confessed our sin and embraced Jesus as Savior and Lord of All, then our baptism is meaningful to us and to God. We have entered into a covenant with God. We have died to sin so that we might receive a new life, absent from sin. All this is by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us in baptism.

Have we now arrived? Mark’s Gospel did not elaborate on what baptism means, but it wasted no time in telling us that Jesus was immediately tested after his baptism:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.   (Mark 1:12-13)

After Baptism we have begun a journey. Jesus had a wilderness experience right after his baptism. He was directed into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is ready to direct us as we observe a Holy Lent. Even though we go through difficult times, Jesus is still with us as he has promised to be. Lent is a dress rehearsal for those times. Thanks be to God that during such times we grow closer to God, empowered by his Spirit to serve him in newness of life.

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Ash Wednesday

ash-wed-pictureRemember That You Are Dust

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. In many liturgical churches ashes are placed on the foreheads of each participant. Ashes were a sign of penitence in the Ancient Near East, particularly in Judaism.

Recall this example from the Old Testament. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city and the people listened:

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  (Jonah 3:5-8)

Notice that the King of Nineveh decreed that the people must turn from evil. God is never impressed with meaningless rituals.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 6:1)

As a campus minister I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service when a school official who wanted to know at what precise time I would be doing the “imposition of ashes” (making the customary sign of the cross in ashes on a person’s forehead). She did not want to sit through the scripture readings, homily, or prayers. The mere sign of the cross on her forehead would prove that she had done her religious duty.

Let us consider these instructive words of Jesus?

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

We cannot impress God with our rituals or our piety. Why should we try to impress others who must also stand before His throne, as we are required? God is calling us to a holy fast – one in which we come before Him in true repentance.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The Ash Wednesday service serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are. Man was created out of dust by the hand of God. Our lives are sustained by His very breath. One day His breath will be taken away and we will have to give an accounting to Him of how we lived our lives.

Ash Wednesday is a check to the triumphant Christians who have arrived and no longer need to acknowledge their sins before God. It questions the “once saved, always saved” mentality.

Meaningless ritual? It might be for some. The act of fasting and repentance was not meaningless to the King of Nineveh. Jesus did not say that we should not fast. He said that we should not make a show of it. If we do, we may receive approval by some, but not by God. God looks at the heart.

If we say that we have given our heart to Jesus and yet deliberately sin, how should our God judge our act of contrition? The Book of Hebrews has the answer:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.   (Hebrews 10:26-27)

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Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

The Glory of God

During the Season of Epiphany we have been exploring ways in which God manifested his presence on the earth. In this last Sunday after the Epiphany the Gospel reading leads us to the Mount of Transfiguration. There was a moment when Jesus manifested his glory on the earth. We long for that moment to happen again. From the Gospel of Mark we read:

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.    (Mark 9:2-6)

Elijah, the great prophet, was one of the figures the mount with Jesus. We remember that Elijah  did not see death, but was taken up into heaven by God. The Prophet Elisha was chasing after Elijah to receive something from him before Elijah’s departure. From 2 Kings we read:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”   ()

Did Elisha miss the point of Elijah’s greatness? He wanted the anointing of Elijah but did he want the God of Elijah. We remember that, after Elijah’s departure, Elisha took the cloak of Elijah and struck the Jordan River, saying: “Where is the God of Elijah?”

Peter wanted to build individual shrines for all three men he observed on the mount. God quickly corrected him:

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.   (Mark 9:7-8)

None of us are immunized from the temptation of worshipping the wrong thing or the wrong person. Perhaps we have spiritual mentors who have greatly influenced our lives. If we have lived long enough, at some point we have probably discovered that these mentors are not infallible. Peter wanted to venerate Moses and Elijah along with Jesus. God the Father told him that Jesus was his beloved Son. Our focus needs to be on Jesus!

Is God calling us to come to His mount of transfiguration? Are we ready? We are not to seek spiritual experiences per se. Rather, let us seek Jesus and His glory. The Apostle Paul wrote:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.   (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

There is nothing wrong with wanting to see the glory of God. Moses asked God to show him his glory. Jesus invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain to see, in part, his glory. Is God inviting you and me to see his glory today? He is. Are we listening.

Nonetheless, we must follow Jesus. If we want to see God’s glory today we must look into the face of Jesus:

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

Are we ready to see God’s glory? Then we are to look into the face of Jesus. We are to worship Jesus as Lord and no one else. In truth, we become like the one we worship. If we worship the world then we become worldly. If we worship Jesus, then over time we become more like Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote about this mystery and described it this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”   (Colossians 1:27)

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