Thursday, February 21, 2019

Actual prayer

Prayer without a willingness to be broken and remade by God is religion, not prayer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Welcome to the Kingdom

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday.]

Luke 6:17-26
I first heard of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, when Ann and I watched the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen. The Camino is a series of pilgrimage pathways on which people walk to the shrine of the apostle James the Great in northwest Spain. Our own Theresa has trekked on this pathway. Recently, we watched a TV travelog on the Camino. Friends of ours are going to Spain with a group to walk a portion of the way that has been so important to Christians since the Middle Ages. I’m looking forward to hearing their descriptions of the Camino. It’s one thing to read about or see pictures of a place; it’s another thing to hear from people who have actually been there.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 6:17-26, Jesus, incarnate God, Who was both an occupant and the architect of a place where He wants all people to live describes both what this place is like and what it isn’t like. Jesus describes the kingdom of God, not a place on a map, but a state of being, a state of blessedness. 

All who live under the reign of God, who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord Who came into this world in order to give us the kingdom, live in this blessedness today (even when we feel burdened by grief, money, disagreements, guilt, sin, discouragement) AND will live in even greater blessedness after Jesus has raised us from the dead. 

Like someone Who has been there then, Jesus describes the kingdom of God for us. Maybe like me, in the midst of challenging times, you need to hear about the kingdom of God. Jesus seems to think that we have need to hear about it.

So, please look at our lesson. It begins at verse 17: “He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.”

Here we see that Jesus has just been on a mountaintop, where He has chosen twelve of His followers (disciples) to be His apostles. In Luke’s gospel, mountaintops are always places of prayer and closeness with God. We need mountaintops: times of worship and prayer and reading God’s Word. It’s these times that help us face our days and weeks with the grace and hope that God wants to give to us. 

But there are also jobs to be done, bills to be paid, decisions to make, kids to shuttle this way and that, groceries to buy, lawns to be mowed, driveways to clear of snow, life to be lived. We have to leave the mountaintops and go to the level plains. While He was on earth, even Jesus had to do that.

When Jesus and the twelve apostles get to the bottom of the mountain, onto a flat plain, there are all kinds of people gathered to hear Jesus and to be helped by Him. Jesus teaches and heals. Down on the Plain--down in the everyday places of life, Jesus makes Himself accessible to all people: apostles, disciples, and the crowds who don’t yet believe, but know that there is something different about this preacher from Nazareth.

The very fact that Jesus went down to the Plain from the mountaintop, just as He once had gone from the throne room of heaven to a cattle barn to be born into this life and would one day go to a cross He didn’t deserve, tells us something about the kingdom of God. It is God’s passionate desire that all of us who would otherwise be condemned to death and separation from God will be part of it
He wants to give everyone an opportunity to be part of His kingdom, whatever pigeonholes the world might put us in. 

Jesus embodies what Mary, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, knew would happen through Jesus. Remember what she told her relative Elizabeth what was happening through the baby Jesus then in her womb: “...He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) 

Through Jesus, the kingdom of God overthrows the old order of this world. Richness and health and power and full bellies are no advantage to those who want to walk with God

Jesus puts everyone on the same level. He wants all of us, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. And He loves all of us, the whole human race made in His image.

Now, Jesus describes the kingdom of God. Verse 20: “Looking at his disciples, he said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”

Here Jesus describes two blessings enjoyed by people who are in the kingdom of God today and two that we will enjoy in eternity. 

According to Jesus, the poor are blessed. Maybe it’s because they’re not weighed down with stuff. Years ago, a friend of mine was the CFO for a company that had been in on the early years the dotcom boom. He also did the founding millionaire’s taxes. One year after my friend had done the founder’s taxes, his boss confided, “You know, when I was poor and had nothing, I thought that if I only had money, I’d be happy and carefree. Now that I have this money, I worry all the time about how I’m going to keep it.” Rich or poor, those who enter the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus are blessed. Money has a way of fooling us into thinking that we have everything under control. But that’s a lie. In the kingdom of God, we relish the fact that we’re not in control; God is. And when we trust in Jesus, God has us in the palm of His hands. 

Jesus also says that persecuted believers are blessed because in their faithfulness, they join a long line of persecuted believers who experienced a promise that only a crucified and risen Savior can make: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

The hungry who trust in Christ will be blessed one day to sit at the eternal feast with God. This is the feast that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretold centuries before Jesus’ birth: “The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine.” (Isaiah 25:6) We get a foretaste of this feast every time we receive Holy Communion.

The grieving who trust in Christ will be blessed one day when Jesus welcomes them into eternity. It’s a place in which, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Jesus’ description of how He turns the ways of this world upside down in the kingdom of God continues in a set of curses. They describe the lives of those who, like the oldest boy in His parable of the prodigal son, refuse to enter into the kingdom, even though it's offered to them as a free gift. 

Verse 24: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26)

Here, Jesus is flouting the so-called wisdom or common sense of this world. This false wisdom tells us that the goal of this life is to make ourselves comfortable, to get as much as we can, to avoid problems and troubles at all costs, to live like kings and queens. But that’s the way of death, of separation from God and separation from others. In the kingdom of God, the last are first and the first are last. The blessed are those who know that it’s in Jesus that we find life (John 1:4) and in Jesus alone (John 14:6). 

Jesus makes me want to belt out the words from an old song, “You can take the wisdom of this world / And give it to the ones who think it all ends here.” (Bruce Cockburn, The Hills of Morning)

People who experience the blessedness of life in God’s kingdom know God gives so much more than what this dead world can offer to us!

I knew a woman who came from a wealthy family. She never wanted for anything. She had food to eat and money to spend. Cancer, which came to her, doesn’t care about those kinds of things though. (Neither do car crashes, heart attacks, or any of the other things that can rob us of health, life, or happiness in this world.) But this woman was blessed because she didn’t put her faith in wealth or plenty, laughter or the acceptance of others. She trusted in Jesus Christ. She was a citizen of the kingdom of God, the place in which all who trust in Christ know that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) 

Even as she drew her last breath, she was blessed. She is even today. You and I don’t have to imagine the kingdom of God or rely on other people’s descriptions of it. We can live in God’s kingdom right now. It’s the kingdom in which Jesus blesses you with forgiveness, life, peace, and hope. It’s the place we live in whenever we turn to Him to be our God and King and Savior. And through Jesus, it is ours forever. Thank God for that, the greatest blessing of all. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]