John 6:1-15 ESV
The band Arcade Fire touched on something in their song “We Used to Wait”, from the 2010 Grammy winning album of the year “The Suburbs”. It’s a song about how fast our pace of life has become, how complicated things have become, about how even though we tell ourselves everything will be alright, we just can’t sleep at night. If everything is so alright, just why can’t we sleep at night?? Here is a partial lyric sheet from that song…
I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
Now our lives are changing fast.
Now our lives are changing fast.
Hope that something pure can last.
Hope that something pure can last.
Now it seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
We used to wait.
We used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait.
All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown
We used to wait.
We used to wait.
We used to wait.
Sometimes it never came
We used to wait
Sometimes it never came
We used to wait
I’m still moving through the pain
Now we’re screaming “sing it again”
I used to wait for it
I used to wait for it
Hear my voice screaming “sing it again”
Wait for it
Wait for it
Wait for it
Now I’m going back 4000 years. Going back to a time when we used to wait for it…
“And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day….”
Genesis 18:1-2 ESV
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mare, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day….Do you have this image?? We can look at the Bedouin people in the Judea wilderness. Arcade Fire sings that our lives are changing fast, but not for the Bedouins…Our lives may be changing fast, but theirs are not. We can imagine what this scene is like, we can know what the tent looks like. We can imagine old man Abraham sitting at the door of his tent. We can imagine Sarah bringing to him a bowl of dates. Old man Abraham, it’s hot outside, just sitting in the door of his tent under his canopy. Old man Abraham with his long beard, just sitting there. Doing nothing more than occasionally eating dates, spitting out the pits, drinking from his jug of water. He’s just being…alive in the heat of the day. He can taste the sweetness of the date, see the blue sky, feel the heat of the day, hear the insects drone, he can smell the sheep….
Then in the shimmering distance on the horizon, he sees three men drawing near. Three strangers, he doesn’t know them. So Abraham does what Bedouins do to this day, offer their famous hospitality, he invites them to stay for a meal, and they do. Abraham sits down in the heat of the day at the entrance to his tent with his three guests and they share a meal. But over the course of the meal, and the conversation that ensues, Abraham slowly begins to understand that this more than three strangers, but this is in fact an encounter with God, the God that he worships, the God that he has followed out of Ur of the Chaldeans.
God begins to reveal more if his will and make more promises. This time God makes promises to Sarah and Sarah laughs and thinks it’s funny. Sarah says “I didn’t laugh”, God says “Yes you did.” Because she did laught, because it’s funny. God says that she, Sarah, at 90 years old will in a year give birth to a child by Abraham who is 99. It’s funny stuff…
What is Abraham doing?? Ultimately he’s saving the world. He’s establishing the line of Abraham that becomes the nation of Israel. That becomes the people through whom Messiah comes and brings us salvation. He’s living the most important life in history before Jesus Christ. Not Moses, not David, not Solomon, not Elijah, but nobody is more important than father Abraham.
What does he do? He doesn’t do much in life. If you add up everthing he did in the Bible it wouldn’t take much more than a week. Abraham spent most of his life waiting. Just being, just waiting…
We used to wait for things. That’s what Arcade Fire recognizes in their song as a change in our society. We don’t wait much anymore. Now our lives are changing fast, hope that something pure can last….
One of the biggest changes over the past century, the whole of the twentieth century but even more so now in the twenty first century is the speed of life. It just keeps getting faster and faster and faster…the speed of life. Much of our technology has been utilized to make things happen that much faster. So fast that we don’t have to wait for it. As a people, we have learned to dislike waiting. We hate to wait…
I am writing to myself far more than you. This might be for you but I know it’s for me. I’m writing out of my own need. We have been cultured in speed and instant. We have learned to hate the idea of waiting for anything. I am the worst, and it’s a defect in my character I’m asking Jesus for help with. So when a band like Arcade Fire tells us to wait for it, they are speaking to me. I know this is something I need to hear, probably we all need to hear…
The Bible really has almost nothing good to say about being in a hurry. In fact, the Bible seems to view being in a hurry as a kind of temptation. A kind of lust to have things in an inappropriate way. When the Bible portrays people who won’t wait for it, It usually means they are heading in a wrong direction….
Adam and Eve. Think about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowing good and evil, that in and if itself probably was not an evil thing. What was evil was for Adam and Eve not to wait for it and let God in his way, in his time, teach them good from evil. Instead, they listened to the serpent, couldn’t wait for it, and went and plucked from that tree and put the whole human race into trouble.
Abraham and Sarah, most of the time they did pretty good. But then they had a hard time waiting for it. So they wanted to speed things up, make it happen faster. They got tired of waiting for it. So Sarah gives Haggar to Abraham. Let’s just say that created some tension in the home…brought some trouble about.
Maybe you remember the story about King Saul was waiting for the prophet Samuel to come preside over the offering of the sacrifice. Samuel was delayed, Saul was waiting. He had to wait for it. He didn’t want to wait any longer, so he offered up the sacrifice himself, something he was not authorized to do. It got Saul in trouble, and it began his whole downward spiral until finally he would be rejected by the Lord from being King. Because he wouldn’t wait for it.
Or the Prodigal Son. He wouldn’t wait for it, he wanted his inheritance NOW! It’s a defect in out soul when we won’t wait for it.
We need to realize that the pace of the Bible is slow. The Bible is very pre-modern in that sense. We, as modern people, have decided that there is nothing that can not be improved by making it faster. But the Bible resists all of that. The pace of the Bible is deliberately slow. You will find that God makes a promise and then fulfills it…maybe 700 years later. That happens with Isaiah. Isaiah brings forth a promise from God that God is going to do a certain thing, and then seven centuries roll by before God gets around to doing it.
Who would like to be used of God to bring forth a great promise of God that will be fulfilled about 2718????
Wait for it…
More on the Prodigal Son…
It’s very easy to reduce the parable of the Prodigal Son to a two act play, but it’s a three act play, and the third act is the most important. The first two acts, the Prodigal Son and the Compassionate Father, are really just setting up the real point Jesus is making. So we can’t stop after the second act, we must go on to the third act, the Angry Brother.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
This is a three act play because there are three characters, and there are three characters because in the whole problem that necessitated Jesus telling this story, there were three actors. There were the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. There is Jesus who is receiving them and eating with them. And there are the Pharisees who were upset, offended and angry about it.
The sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes are the prodigal son. Jesus is the one enacting the will of the father, he’s playing the role of the father. It’s the Pharisees who are acting out the role of the angry brother.
In the parable, the elder, angry brother sees the extravagant hospitality of the father as an injustice. For the elder brother justice must involve punishment or it’s not fair. In his estimation it’s not fair, he won’t come to the party, and because of this he will not experience the kingdom of god.
The Pharisees talked about the Kingdom of God all the time. It’s what they were waiting for, they wanted the Kingdom of God to come. But because they didn’t understand how the Kingdom of God would come, when it actually was coming through what Jesus was announcing and enacting they missed it. They didn’t enter into it. This is why Jesus says to them …“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Matthew 21:31 ESV
But look at what the story tells. We have an ungrateful, profligate sinner younger son who insults the father in many ways, squanders his resources, comes back home, and is graciously, extravagantly received as if he’s coming home a hero. A robe, a ring, shoes, a fatted calf, a big party. We look at this, but what is it? Is it reconciliation to be celebrated? Or is it injustice to be protested?
This story can be told in such a way that you will be sympathetic with the angry older brother. Some might already be. Seriously – all he ever did was think about himself. He brought shame and disgrace upon the family, sold off part of the estate, and wasted it on drink, prostitutes and partying!! He was just living recklessly, having a good time, then when things get bad he comes crawling back home, and we treat him like he’s a hero??!!
How many, when we read it like that, think “Hey, that older brother has a point!” That’s the little Pharisee in each one of us. And yes, “He’s got a point!”
The Pharisees thought of justice as punishment instead of reconciliation, and that was their undoing. The Pharisees missed the Kingdom of God because when it actually arrived it looked like a welcome home party instead of mandatory sentencing. Their idea of the Kingdom of God is when people get what’s coming to them!! It’s about time! Getting their just desserts!!! That’s what the Pharisees are looking for…
But instead of mandatory sentencing, it’s a welcome home party, and they just could not recognize it as the kingdom of god…
More to come.
Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, straight outta Matthew. Jesus tells a story of a farmer who hired laborers in his vineyard. Some he hired first thing in the morning, some he hired about the third hour, then Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he hired more laborers. Finally, about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
Everything was a-ok until quitting time, when it came time to pay all these laborers their wages. The owner starts with those who had just arrived in the last hour, and each of them received a denarius. Then those who had been there six hours, those who’d been there 9 hours, also received the same denarius. Finally, those who had started first thing in the morning come, and they believe (as do we) they should receive more. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ To which Jesus’ farmer replies But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Jesus’ farmer just broke every economic rule, every rule of motivation, every rule of fair compensation. Yes, the union boss would have been running an investigation of these labor practices!
Think about it. This last group of laborers had been standing lazily around all day – Why do you stand here idle all day? It’s harvest season, if these guys had wanted to work, they could have found work. The text doesn’t give them credit for doing any exceptional job in the hour they were there. Yet the boss gives them the same pay as he gives those who’ve been sweating under the hot sun.
It makes no sense. Seriously, it makes no sense. Why would any employer give the same pay no matter the quantity, or the quality, of work done? It makes no sense because Jesus is not teaching us about economics, but grace. The grace of God. Grace can not be calculated like a day’s wages. Again, grace is not about finishing last or first; it’s about not counting.
This story Jesus tells is not about fairness. In fact, the story is completely and patently unfair, and that is the whole point. Grace is not fair. By definition, it is unfair and undeserved. It is, after all, grace. You can’t earn or deserve grace. I’ve heard it said of forgiveness that if you have earned it or deserve it, then it’s not forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is freely given or it’s not forgiveness, it’s simply right justice. You’ve paid back your debt, you’ve done your time, you did not receive grace or forgiveness, just that which you paid for.
I would say the same thing about grace. If you’ve earned it or deserve it, if you’ve worked so hard for it that in receiving it you are simply getting what is owed to you, where is the grace in that? Grace is either freely given or not given at all.
And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ It is not fair. We earned our pay. Which of you reading this does not fall on the side of these 12 hour workers? This is the way our world works, and believe me, sometimes you can be a 12 hour worker and it’s still not good enough. No matter how hard you work to earn favor in this world, by the rules of this world, there will be someone there to tell you you’re still not good enough.
‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” Not so in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord, runs on grace. Two thousand years after Jesus, we still haven’t wrapped our heads around this yet. We’ve got all kinds of rules, regulations, and lines in the sand. But in Bible, even through the Old Testament but most glaringly in the “…Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” John 1:14 ESV, all we see is the grace of God. Jesus Christ, the full revelation of God, never once turned away a sinner who came to him. His only rule is grace and forgiveness. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15 ESV. Ouch. Didn’t see that on the Romans Road.
I may try to earn it. You may try to earn it. But the more we try to earn the grace and favor of God, the farther we move away from Him. It is our world that runs on merit. It is the spirit of this world that pits us against one another, makes us climb over one another on that ladder of success. It is the spirit of this world that says if we would only do more, we might get more. It is the spirit of this world that says that getting more is the goal.
In the kingdom of God, we can not do more to get more. Twelve hour workers get no more than those who showed up just in time for dinner. There is no more to get. He’s already given it all. All we can do is accept free gift of the grace of God, freely given.
“”For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.””
Matthew 20:1-16 ESV
Looking at the grace of God, a grace which surpasses all human understanding and comprehension. A grace which just makes no sense to us, because the only ways we can understand are the ways of our world, the ways we have learned and lived our whole lives. Consider this story of a shepherd and a particular lost sheep.
“”What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:4-7 ESV
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting this one. It seems simple enough, but when I really consider it, what about those other ninety-nine sheep? Jesus tells us this man (God the Father) would leave ninety-nine sheep in the open country to chase after this one fool sheep who wanders away. In the open country, unprotected, there would be thieves, wolves, and any number of other threats. More could simply wander off. What if he comes back with this one lost sheep, celebrating and thanking God, and twenty more are missing? Then what?
It makes no sense to us (at least me) because I am too busy counting. I like to know I’m doing the right thing, making the right decision. So why would I leave ninety-nine perfectly good sheep vulnerable to attack, unprotected, to go chasing after one scoundrel who never should have wandered off in the first place? In trying to win back this one little sheep, I’m not going to risk losing any of my good sheep.
But here’s the thing about God and his grace – if you’re busy counting, doing the math, you’ve missed the whole point. In the words of Philip Yancey in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace?, “Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting.” God’s grace is a free gift, not something we can ever earn.
God’s not doing the math. God is not about making sure we have done ten more good things that bad things in our life so we can then somehow be found worthy of his love. God is not even about distinguishing “bad” from “good”. (What was that tree Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat from in the garden?) If he were, he had ninety-nine perfectly “good” little sheep and would never have left them to chase after that one “bad” sheep. But, as Jesus also says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” Luke 5:32 ESV. That one lost sheep is the whole reason Jesus ever came…
God did not come to us in the form of Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, because of how righteous we are. He came to chase us down because we are all his lost sheep. He comes out of heaven, walks with us on earth, joins us in our mess which we have made, and guides us back. He is gathering his flock. If we have been brought back into the fold, now we get to join Jesus in chasing down the rest of those lost sheep. We are out in the open country, there are wolves watching and waiting. If we are just standing still, how easy will it be for the wolves to pick us off?
So we don’t stand still. We join Jesus in his search. In our search, we draw closer to Him, we become more like Him. As we become more like Him, we too begin to stop counting. We too begin to see the value of one lost sheep. We too will leave ninety-nine in open country to chase the one who has strayed.
There are so many lost sheep. So many that, as Jesus tells us, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Luke 10:2 ESV. If you are that lost sheep, Jesus will not rest until he has tracked you down. He’s come all the way from heaven to find you. If you’re one of those ninety-nine in the open country, the wolves are watching and waiting for their chance to strike. Quit standing still, go with Jesus, and find that lost sheep He is looking for.
In the Jesus story, right now looking at Mary the mother of Jesus and the world she lived in. It’s a world with a booming economy, but lots of people get left out. But in this booming economy, in this world where Caesar is called the “son of god”, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying REJOICE! You could say this is the proper beginning of New Testament. Now we are stepping into Good News. Rejoice! When the angel makes his enunciation with the word “rejoice”, Good News is indeed breaking into the world. The long dark night is at last coming to and end. It is time to rejoice!
God is keeping his promise to bless the world through the seed of Abraham. Rejoice!!
God is keeping his promise to rule over the nations through the Son of David. Rejoice!!
This child who will bless the world and rule the nations is about to be born. REJOICE!!
But then Mary speaks. How will this be, since I am a virgin? To which the angel answers The Holy Spirit will come upon you…of course it is from this that we get part of the apostles creed where we confess of Jesus Christ – “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary…”
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth points out that there are 2 moments in Jesus story where God himself intervened directly in his creation. These two moments are the Virgin birth and resurrection. It is no surprise that these two moments are the dual foundation of our Christian faith. It all really comes down to Merry Christmas and happy Easter. It is all about the incarnation and the resurrection…
Even though God intervened – He does not override Mary’s human freedom. Mary is free to say no. The angel Gabriel here awaits Mary’s response before leaving her. We see Mary ask her questions. How will this be, since I am a virgin? We see the angel answer her. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” St Augustine had a famous sermon, about 1600 years ago. In his sermon Augustine portrayed this moment as a hush falling over heaven as God and all the angels awaited Mary’s response. Then she speaks – “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. And all the angels and heaven rejoiced and did backflips. Rejoice indeed. God’s intervention hinges on Mary’s yes.
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who was carrying John the Baptist at the time, said of Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Luke 1:42 ESV. Mary said yes to God. But saying yes to god does not mean Mary’s life will be easy. We think it’s all about “Say yes to be blessed!”. But for Mary, sometimes it was just the opposite. Saying yes sometimes meant meant embarking on life etched with sorrow. As Simeon so correctly prophesied of Mary at Jesus’ temple dedication “…and a sword will pierce through your own soul…”Luke 2:35 ESV.
She will live her entire life under the shadow of assumed scandal. Joseph would have divorced her. He has only one assumption when his betrothed turns up pregnant . But an angel comes to Joseph – “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”” Matthew 1:20-21 ESV. But the angel didn’t go to everybody. There were plenty of people in that backwoods of Nazareth who knew that Mary had come up pregnant by someone other than her husband. It follows her her whole life, it will cause her suffering.
After her baby is born, we don’t know how long, maybe a month, maybe six months, maybe a year, there are thugs from King Herod seeking to kill her son. She and Joseph have to escape to Egypt. This doesn’t sound like Mary said yes to be blessed, does it? It doesn’t sound like her life got easy and happy after she said yes to God.
Jesus escaped, but lots of little boys died in this search for Christ. Does Mary have guilt that her son is the one who survives? Does this put an additional burden upon her, that because King Herod wanted to kill her baby a lot of other babies died. Running for your life, having the burden of the death of other women’s babies on your conscience, this doesn’t sound like an easy life…
Mary was also there at cross when her first born was crucified. Jesus will always her her first born. Whatever else Jesus was, Jesus was always her first born child. Yes, Jesus was her Lord and savior, but he was also her son. In this way Mary is extraordinarily unique. And yes, she lived through seeing her own son tortured on a Roman cross.
The days we live in are shallow and cheap. We in turn present a version of Christianity that we ourselves can handle. We present to the world that saying “yes” to God means your on the fast track to happiness. But what if it’s not so. Yes, we know saying yes to God will save you, will get you out of certain struggles. But what if saying yes to God gets you into other trouble? What if it saves you from this trouble only to throw you into that? What if it brings with it baggage you’re going to have to struggle with and might make your life more difficult? What if????
There IS joy in getting involved with god. He saves you from your sin and other things that are killing your soul, but know that there will also be sorrow. The message to Mary – REJOICE!! and get ready for sorrow. Can you accept it, can you receive this, can we handle that? Will we say thanks, but no thanks? I’m Glad Mary did not.
Christianity is filled with paradoxes. As we engage our life with god, we gain the capacity for real sorrow but at same time real joy. Mary will know both. It’s part of the reason for our fascination with her.
We know that joy will have the last word, But we don’t get there in a cheap, easy way. Along the way there will be sorrow. It might be comforting to know that at least when we go through sorrow it’s part of Christ being formed within us. We don’t have to feel guilty for going through a hard time.
How can we look at Mary?? How do we understand her? We know this much about her, that she is a human being in whom Christ was formed. AMEN! Literally. Here is a human being in whom Christ was formed. And just what are we to be? Men and women in whom Christ is formed. We are to be like Mary, a bearer of God into the world.
In Mary, there is a tension between deep joy but also profound sorrow. It should be comforting to know that sorrow is part of Christ being formed in us. It’s not abnormal, but a part of the process we go through as Christians, part of our spiritual formation. We say yes to God, but life doesn’t always go our way. We don’t get to be happy all the time. But the struggles and sorrows we go through are just part of the process of growing in Christ, as Christ grows within us. It’s all part of the mystery of Mary…
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.”
Luke 1:26-38 ESV
The first week of advent on the church calendar, so Happy New Year to all my brothers and sisters in Christ! Not exactly an advent message today, but maybe a little talk of mountain climbing…
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Isaiah 2:1-5 ESV
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…”
Hebrews 12:22 ESV
What Isaiah anticipates, the writer of Hebrews announces as gospel, that in Christ we have come to the mountain of god. The great mountain that is the mountain of god. Jesus claims the first ascent, he has led the way, fixed the ropes, established the route, that we might enter into the experience of the living God.
But we still have to climb it.
Mountains are very prominent in bible It’s amazing how many important episodes occur on mountains. There is Noah on Mt. Ararat, Abraham on Mt. Moriah. We have Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. We see Deborah and Barak on Mt. Tabor, Elisha with his sword on Mt. Carmel.
Much of Jesus’ ministry also occurs on mountains. In His story alone we have the mount of temptation, the mountain of transfiguration (also Tabor), the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of Olives, the Mount of Ascension. The Bible is seemingly overflowing with mountains.
Mountains in the Bible sometimes represent God Himself, as is very often in the psalms – “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.” Psalms 125:2 ESV.
Oftentimes climbing mountain is a picture of entering into a deep experience of god. Think of Moses on Sinai, or Elijah on Mt. Horeb being restored as a prophet.
Most ancient cultures have held certain mountains to be sacred. The Greeks had Mt. Olympus, Japan had Mt. Fuji, Mt. Kanchenjunga in Nepal (3rd highest peak in the world), Mt Vesuvius, Long’s Peak (known as “Nesotaieux” to the Native American’s long before we ever got here). Yes, these and many other peaks have been worshipped by people as sacred for thousands of years. Ancient people could not help but stand in awe and wonder at the majesty of these mountains. But if worshipping the creation instead of the creator is a sin (and it is), then so is the secular idea that nothing is sacred. Because, for example, if it’s idolatry to worship a mountain as God, it’s also idolatrous to destroy a mountain through mountain top removal mining for the idol of greed. Let that one sink in for a minute…
Sometimes when we are in or near the mountains, we just want to stay on the lower slopes. We don’t really want to climb them, we are just as happy to admire them from the comfort and safety of the valley below.
But sometimes, we want to climb that mountain. Sometimes, we feel driven to go higher, to get above the clouds. I feel that way about God. I am still relatively new in Christ (I believe), still in many ways very immature in my faith. But I do not want to stay on the lower slopes of the mountain of God. I am not satisfied with simply telling you that Christ died for my sins, I said a sinners prayer and got baptized and now I’m going to heaven when I die. I don’t know how to express this, but that just feels kind of empty. Of course I want to go to heaven and not hell when I die (whatever that really means), but is that really all there is? Is the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ, his life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension, his suffering, his teaching, “love your enemies” and the golden rule, all this is just about being “in” or “out”? Pardon me for being so bold to say, I think we are missing something.
So I want to climb that mountain. I want to go above the tree line, get past “in” or “out” theology. I want to go higher on the mountain than just knowing that Jesus died for my sins (as beautiful as that truly is). I want to climb higher on the mountain, get closer to what the apostle John saw when he so daringly told us, not once but twice, that “God is Love!” And I say to all who are reading this, “come with me”. Let’s begin to climb this mountain, the mountain of God, together.
You can do it. It won’t be easy, but you can do it. But you can’t do it alone. Novice mountain climbers who want to go it alone can get lost, go astray, and even perish, even in the mountain of a God.
Mountains, if you approach them from different directions, or different perspectives, can give you many different pictures. Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains can appear to be a completely different mountain depending on the direction you approach it from, or even the season you are seeing it in. Again, God is like this. Depending on our perspective (and I’m only talking about Christian perspectives here), we can come to God from different perspectives and different places, and see God, differently.
We can get into trouble if we approach the mountain of God, think that the perspective we have is all there is to see, then declare to the world that “I’ve found God, and God is ____” If we do this, and become convinced that our perspective of God is all there is to see, we can become fundamentalist in our views. Fundamentalism is the belief that one perspective of God (our perspective) is all there is to see of God. But just as some of our great mountains are for too vast to take in from one perspective, so God is far too vast to see and comprehend from just one vantage point.
Now, God is not everything we make him up to be. He has definition. When I’m talking about God, I’m talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I’m talking about the God of Israel. The God and father of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, the true and loving God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But we many different perspectives of our God, do we not? We have the Orthodox perspective, Catholic perspective, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, And Pentecostal perspectives. Each one of them can be fundamentalist. If a Catholic says “Our perspective of God is the only one that’s valid and if you see God from a different angle the you’re a heretic!”, that’s Catholic fundamentalism, and we must rise above that. It doesn’t matter if it’s Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Baptist, Anglican, we can all go the fundamentalist route. We must rise above that and learn to be contemplative.
Our great mountains are so big and so vast that we cannot see all of them from one perspective. So if we see a mountain like Long’s Peak in Colorado or Mt Fuji in Japan or Mt Rainer in Washington, but come at the The from the north side over and over again, but then come to them from the south instead, we might feel we are seeing a totally different mountain. If we don’t know it’s the same mountain before we see it, we can be completely fooled and not recognize it at all. It doesn’t mean it’s a different mountain, just that we’ve come to it from a different direction this time. We could be fundamentalist about the mountain – “If you don’t see the diamond face on Long’s Peak then it’s not Long’s Peak!” Yes, Long’s Peak has a diamond face if you look at it from the east, but from the West you don’t see it at all. It’s still Long’s Peak, just a different vantage point.
Though we can only see one vantage point at a time, we can go all around the mountain and learn all the different vantage points and get a fuller picture and understanding of the mountain. In the same way, we can learn to be contemplative as we approach the mountain of God, as we respectfully engage with other traditions who over the centuries have learned this angle, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Southern Baptist. We can learn other traditions views of the living God, and get a much clearer, better, more true vision of the nature of God.
So this advent season, as we anticipate the coming of God, let’s understand God is coming. But while we may see his coming in many different ways, it doesn’t mean one is right (mine) and all the rest are wrong. But maybe, just maybe, if we can respectfully engage and contemplate another’s point of view, we might get a fuller picture of the God we love. We have our guides (which we need) on the mountain, maybe this advent season (and beyond) we can open up to another perspective and come to see a different trail, and climb just a little bit higher on the mountain of God.