“Now I See”

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Meditation on John 9 (Selected verses)

March 26, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

9As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’ 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’ 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. …’ 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue… 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 

***

On Thursday, a group of about 40 children and adults gathered in Cocoa to pack and wrap food to feed needy children. The Children’s Hunger Project of Brevard County provides food every Friday to hundreds of young children in local schools who may not otherwise have enough nutritious food to eat on the weekend.

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Elaine Kicklighter organized the hands-on mission event for our church. She welcomed and guided volunteers with her handmade sign.

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Supervisors provided step-by-step instructions on how to pack and wrap and trained several people to be “runners.”

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They did a great job! It felt good to be working together on a shared mission to our community. We talked and laughed as we wrapped, packed and stacked. Time just flew by.

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The Children’s Hunger Project goal is to feed every hungry or undernourished elementary school age child in the county, one at a time. Volunteers delivered about 56,000 food packages to schools for children’s backpacks in the 2015-16 school year. They would like to be able to feed even more. They rely on donations from individuals, businesses and other community groups, including our congregation.

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A March 9 article in the Washington Post says “more than 13 million kids in this country go to school hungry.” One in 5 children in the U.S. live in “food insecure households,” lacking “consistent access to enough food.” Other estimates are as high as 15 million hungry kids, with one in 4 living in food insecure households.

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“Kids who go to school hungry may suffer an inability to concentrate and … fall behind academically. Hungry kids are more likely to miss school because of illness,” suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop behavioral problems as teenagers. “They are more liable to drop out before graduation, which leads to lower paying jobs and a greater probability of being food insecure adults.”

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The Washington Post article discusses a children’s backpack program called “End 68 Hours of Hunger.” It started with one mother, Claire Bloom, who saw a need to feed kids on the weekends. Claire, who lives in the affluent town of Dover, New Hampshire, was at a book club meeting in 2010 when a teacher mentioned that she had students who went from lunch on Friday to breakfast on Monday with nothing to eat. “I was appalled; absolutely stunned and appalled,’” Claire said.

Her eyes were opened to a poverty she never knew existed in her community. And she felt compelled to do something about it.

***

Our reading in John brings to light some of the suffering and need in Jesus’s day. He and his disciples leave the temple in Jerusalem and pass a beggar, blind since birth. A man with such an affliction would be unclean and have little choice but to live in poverty and beg for food. The disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” Thus begins a story that reveals the darkness and ignorance of the religious leaders and the love and compassion of the Lord, the “light of the world,” for those whom society deems worthless or simply a burden. Such compassion is a sign of God’s Kingdom drawing near and the arrival of the one who is to come. Jesus says in Matthew 11:5-6, when John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.   And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

These acts of mercy and miracles of healing are lifted up as the ministry of Christ’s followers in Matthew 10:7 when Jesus sends out the 12 disciples on a mission. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Now in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the man who was born blind is blind not because of sin, but so that God’s works would be revealed in him (9:3). This foreshadows an even more startling miracle to come–the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11.

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A number of details in this passage stand out as important and different than other healing accounts. First, the beggar doesn’t ask to be healed; nor does he seem to know him. Christ comes to him, uninvited, applies the clay/spittle mixture to his eyes, and tells him to “wash in the pool of Siloam,” without promising that this act will bring healing. This detail may bring to mind the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:10-14, a war hero who had leprosy.

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Unlike the prideful Naaman, the unnamed blind man is humble and quick to obey Jesus without question or protest. The reward is a miracle that the Pharisees and many of the Jewish community do not want to acknowledge. For they have called the blind man a sinner, undeserving of God’s blessing. And they call Jesus a sinner, too, because he breaks the law; he has made mud to heal a man on the Sabbath (v. 14). And this isn’t the first time he has healed on the Sabbath; in John 5, he heals on the Sabbath a paralyzed man lying by a pool by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. He had been ill for 38 years.

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With the healing of the blind man in ch. 9, the Pharisees investigate as if they are attempting to solve a crime. They interrogate the man’s parents, who only admit that he is their son for fear they will be shunned by their community of faith. The Pharisees then demand that the beggar to tell them how Jesus “opened his eyes.” They use this expression to mean physical healing. But the expression is also used for spiritual illumination. When the disciples are walking with the risen Christ in Luke 24 on the road to Emmaus, they don’t know that it is he, until they sit down to share a meal. Jesus breaks the bread and their eyes are “opened” and they recognize him.

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The beggar of John 9, who will soon experience spiritual illumination, along with physical healing, responds bravely to the Pharisees’ questions. “The one thing I do know, he says, “is that though I was blind, now I see.”

Later, the Pharisees will become angry with him and drive him out of the community.

Jesus then seeks the man out and asks, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’

     The man answers, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

     “You have seen him,” Jesus says. “The one who is speaking with you is he.’

       “Lord,” the man responds, “I believe.”

 

***

 

Studying our gospel this week, I find it particularly meaningful that of all the people the Lord could have chosen to reveal his identity, he chose the lowly, humble, despised and rejected. He chose a blind man persecuted his entire life for sins he did not commit. He chose a man who, when Jesus put clay and spit on his eyes and told him to go wash in a pool, he did it without question or protest, without knowing that his act of obedience would heal him.

Thousands of years later, Christ has revealed His divinity to us. Do we have Christ’s heart of compassion for the poor, sick, despised and rejected? If so, that compassion should stir us to continual acts of mercy and kindness. It should flow out of our hearts and shape the words we say and the decisions we make every day. Christ’s compassion should compel us to seek to change the structures and systems in our society that reward the arrogant and powerful and neglect the needs of the poor and the sick. How should we respond, friends, as the Church of Christ in the 21st century? Let us ask God to open our eyes that we may truly see–and respond, “Lord, I believe!”

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Let us pray. Open our eyes, Lord, so that we see the world with your eternal vision. Spirit, fill our hearts with love that will transform us and flow into every aspect of our lives–shaping our actions, words, relationships, and decisions. Forgive us for refusing to see what you desire us to see–the broken places in us that you want to heal, the hidden sins we are ashamed to confess, the burdens we carry that you want us to let go so that we may be free to walk in your ways. Strengthen us to humbly obey your commands, like the man who was born blind, but could see better than the rich, pious and powerful of his time. Help us to work for change in our society so that the needs of the poor, sick and despised will not be neglected. Keep us in your tender care, Good Shepherd. Lead us to live in peace and unity. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Is the Lord Among Us?

 

Meditation on Exodus 17:1-7

March 19, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

     From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

 

***

 

We are happy and blessed to welcome a number of new members into our congregation today! Happy and blessed! The folks who are joining with us to love and serve the Lord and be nurtured in God’s Word and Spirit come with a variety of spiritual gifts and talents.

 

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We are a diverse group! If you look around the room, you see some people who grew up on Merritt Island or who have been living here a long time.

 

You also see many who have lived in a variety of states before coming here–people from the Southeast, Southwest, from the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast , the West Coast and all the states in between !

 

We have quite a few who have traveled the world; some have lived in other countries.

 

Like you and I, our newest members have their own unique faith stories to share. Some were raised Presbyterian. Others were not.

When we had a gathering after worship a little while back with those considering joining the church, I shared how I was not raised Presbyterian. And how, at different times in my life, I had to find a new a worship home –such as when I went away to college and then got married and moved to Baltimore — and how hard it was to find a church that truly felt like home. We visited an assortment of churches, but it was a while before we felt that we were in the right place. And then we moved out to the suburbs and had to start all over again.

So, knowing my own struggle to find the right place to worship in my 20s and 30s, this makes me even more grateful to the Lord for this day — when we joyfully welcome new friends, brothers and sisters, who are making a commitment to journey with us and serve the Lord alongside us. You have come to a place of grace, a place filled with imperfect people straining to hear God’s voice and seeking to do God’s will.

This is a place that welcomes everyone, accepts you as you are,

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wherever you are on your spiritual journey, and encourages you in your walk with God.

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May you find hope and healing in this place.

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May you find love here.

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You have found a place where your gifts and talents are welcomed and needed!

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A safe place where there are people with whom you can share your sorrows, burdens and joys,

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a refuge from the storms of life.

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May you find, in this place, comfort and strength in God’s Word but also be challenged, transformed and equipped by the Spirit to do things for God that you never dreamed you would do.

This is a place where you will find others like you–clinging to faith in times of trial, struggling to be the people God wants us to be.

***

 

Sometimes, when I read Exodus, I forget that Moses is the leader of a congregation–a very large congregation, at that. Exodus 12:37 says Moses led 600,000 adult males out of Egypt. (They didn’t always count women and children back then.) God’s people are on the move, physically and figuratively. God, through Moses, is leading the Israelites out of slavery and oppression to the land of the promise.

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The song of triumph that Moses and the Israelites sing to the Lord in Ex. 15 after God parts the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to pass unharmed, then taking the lives of the Egyptian troops pursuing them, soon turns to lament, when the wilderness proves to be a hard place to live.

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Just when they fear they will surely starve, God sends bread from heaven to feed them and continues to feed them daily for 40 years.

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In today’s passage, the Israelites camp at a place with no water. Rather than seeking help from the Lord and encouraging one another in times of difficulty, they quarrel with Moses and challenge his leadership, blaming him for their troubles. This isn’t the first time they accuse him of trying to kill them. In Exodus 14:11, they say to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” This isn’t the first time they question their decision to follow Moses and leave their life in Egypt. In Exodus 16:3, the Israelites say, “If only the LORD had killed us back in Egypt. There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.”

This is the first time, however, that they specifically mention their children and livestock. A whole new generation of Israelites are being born and raised without any first-hand experience of the life in Egypt God’s people once lived. And Moses doesn’t seem to be growing in faith or love as the years pass. He doesn’t ask the Lord to provide water for the people who could die of thirst. Instead, he complains about the people God has called him to shepherd and seems to be concerned only about his own survival. Moses cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Our gracious God doesn’t punish Israel for having a bad attitude and wanting to do away with Moses. The Lord knows what the people need–water to drink!–just as God knows what our needs are, before we ask. And God knows what Moses needs–a sign that the Lord is still using him to lead Israel and that God hasn’t abandoned them to die in the wilderness without ever seeing the land of the promise.

The same staff that Moses uses to strike the Nile at God’s command and bring about a sign of death for Pharaoh’s people

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will be the one Moses must use now to strike the rock at Horeb–and bring about a miracle of life for God’s people.

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Horeb, in Deuteronomy, is the place where God will give God’s life-giving word, The Ten Commandments, to Moses. But first, it is the place where God’s people experience life-giving water from a most unlikely source, a rock.

Or is it? For God is often compared to a rock in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 18:46 says, “The Lord lives! Blessed be my Rock! Let the God of my salvation be exalted.” Psalm 18:2 says, “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge…” And again, Psalm 62:2, “Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”

Thousands of years later, the Son of God will meet a Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well and take us back to the Exodus miracle with his promise to give all who believe on Him living water so we may never thirst again.

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Our Exodus reading ends after Moses strikes the rock “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” But we aren’t left wondering if the water ever came from the rock–for if it had not, then God’s people would not have survived. The passage concludes with the burning question on Israel’s mind during their time of struggle. “Is the Lord among us–or not?”

It is human nature to look for someone to blame when things go wrong and to question the Lord’s presence with us during times of suffering or loss. Or when things simply don’t go the way we want them to. The reality is that God never left them! It was they who wandered away from the faith!

But God had a plan to bring them back. This was no accident that God’s people camped in a place without water. In 17:1, we read how the Israelites journeyed “by stages, as the Lord commanded.” The Lord knew they were going to have a challenge. And God planned to bless them with a miracle all along.

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Water from a rock! How cool is that?

 

***

Friends, we will have challenges ahead as a congregation. We are in that uncomfortable transition, similar to ancient Israel, between the promise and its fulfillment as we wait and long for Christ’s return and the Kingdom of God coming to fruition. It isn’t easy to be the Church in this increasingly secular age. But it has never been “easy” to be followers of Christ! Just as Christ urges his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, we should accept, even welcome, some hardship and sacrifice, trusting that God will give us the strength and courage to meet every challenge.

We need never question, as Israel did, if the Lord is among us. Christ says in Matthew 28:20, “And surely I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Let us never fail to be grateful for God’s many blessings to us and fall into grumbling and complaining. Let us be ever grateful for God’s grace–for forgiving us for all our sins and giving us eternal life with Him.

Let us give God thanks and praise for strengthening us in faith and numbers today! May we anticipate with hope and joy the miraculous blessings God has planned.

Like water from a rock! How cool is that?

 

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for being the rock of our salvation, our refuge, our deliverer! Thank you for your grace–for loving and forgiving us even though we are, at times, as faithless as the ancient Israelites, wandering in the wilderness. Help us, Lord, to be ever grateful for your blessings to us and not lose sight of your goodness. May we always sense your loving presence with us, especially during times of trial, so that we never feel abandoned or afraid. Thank you for drawing more believers into our congregation and growing our faith! Guide us to paths of righteousness as a congregation and as individuals. Mold us into the people you want us to be! In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Seeking Christ in the Dark

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Meditation on John 3:1–17 (18-21)

March 12, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

   Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11  “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

***

Seventy-five years ago this month Japanese Americans living on the West Coast began being “relocated” to internment camps. About 120,000 people were forced to leave their homes, schools, jobs and businesses shortly after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942–two months after Japanese troops attacked Pearl Harbor.

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The order authorized the War Department to create military areas from which any and all Americans might be excluded, and to provide for the “necessary transport, lodging, and feeding of persons displaced from such areas.”

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Those of Japanese ancestry living in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, were gathered into trains, trucks, and automobiles and taken to 10 internment camps. Most of those deported to these military-style camps for the duration of the war were American citizens.

I find the most upsetting photos from this time are those of the children. Some are pictured sitting with suitcases and bedrolls, wearing what looks like luggage tags on their clothing.

 

I wonder what the photographers were they thinking when they looked through the camera lens? I wonder what led our country to this extreme measure? Racism has been blamed.

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But mostly I think it was fear.

I didn’t learn about the internment of Japanese Americans when I was in grade school. That dark secret was left out of our textbooks. The topic was barely mentioned in U.S. History when I was in college in the 1980s, even though it was a contemporary issue by then. In 1980, President Carter opened an investigation to “determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into internment camps had been justified by the government.” The investigation concluded that there was no evidence of Japanese Americans’ disloyalty. President Reagan, the year I graduated from college, signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, apologizing for the internment on behalf on the U.S. government and authorizing payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor—or their heirs. For many internment camp survivors had, by then, passed away.

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The last of the work camps closed in March 1946—4 years after the executive order was signed. Some families lived in those camps 4 years! When they were released, they didn’t have homes, jobs, money or businesses to return to.

A small, blurry photo of a Caucasian man smiling and shaking hands goodbye to his Japanese American neighbor moves me to question, “Why didn’t he–why didn’t we–speak up for the voiceless?”

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We were afraid.

We chose what was easy–to say and do nothing– rather than what was right.

 

***

 

Today’s gospel tells of another dark time in history—when the Son of God came to bring light to a world darkened by evil and sin. Nicodemus’ coming at night symbolizes his own spiritual ignorance and his desire not to be seen by others, despite his protest that he and others know that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God.” He isn’t ready to be seen talking with the one who, just a little while before, was “cleansing the Temple”– overturning tables, pouring out the coins, cracking a whip and driving out all the cattle and sheep and the moneychangers, who were turning the Father’s house into a “marketplace.”

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Nicodemus has endured Christian criticism over the centuries. John Calvin, in the 16th century, was scornful of those who sympathized with the movement for reform of the church but would not publicly be identified with it. He called them “Nicodemites.”

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Scholars today sometimes infer a rude tone in Nicodemus’ line of questioning in this passage, saying he is sarcastic when he asks in v. 4 how someone can be reborn—re-enter a mother’s womb– when they have grown old? But I don’t think a man, a respected teacher and leader, who would get up in the middle of the night to go and see Jesus in secret would be sarcastic. I think he really wants to know what Jesus means by this talk of being “born from above,” possibly even to distinguish this spiritual rebirth from reincarnation, a central tenet of Buddhism and Hinduism, ancient religions that predate Christianity.

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Jesus speaks in vs. 3 and 5 of seeing and entering the kingdom of God—something only possible by the grace of God and the empowerment of the Spirit; it is the Lord who chooses us! Jesus uses the same word when he talks about the “Spirit” and the “wind.” The Greek word for Spirit or wind is pneuma, just as the Hebrew ruach in Genesis means Spirit, wind or breath. “The wind blows where IT chooses,” Jesus says of the Spirit. “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

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I also don’t think Jesus is being sarcastic or rude, either, when he asks in 3:10, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” I think he is teaching, as he often does, about the wisdom of this world–versus the wisdom of God! The apostle Paul will later say in 1 Cor. 2:14-15, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says in John 3:11, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Jesus illumines for Nicodemus God’s plan for redemption. The reference to Moses comes from Numbers 21:9, when Israel wandered through the wilderness and was totally reliant on God for their daily survival. “So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

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Jesus connects Israel’s salvation to the new covenant that will be opened to all—when the Son of Man will be “lifted up” (foreshadowing Jesus’s death on a cross, his resurrection and ascension).

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Jesus comforts us–and Nicodemus –with assurances of God’s love and grace in 3:16-17. God is not exclusive in His love for certain people that we may decide to dislike. God’s love is for ALL. God “did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved through him.” It is true that not everyone will receive this message, Jesus tells Nicodemus. He is warning him of things to come and challenging Nicodemus, perhaps drawn to Christ by the Spirit, to make good choices–“do what is true.” What is right!

“The light has come into the world,” Jesus says, “and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” But those who “do what is true,” he says in 3:21, “come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Nicodemus disappears abruptly from the text after his incredulous question in v. 9, “How can these things be?” We are left to ponder what his response will be. He will reappear briefly at Jesus’ interrogation in ch. 7 and then at the cross, with Joseph of Arimethea, another secret disciple of Jesus–for fear of the Jews.

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Nicodemus will anoint Christ’s body with an extraordinary amount of spices and oil–100 pounds, Scripture says! They will wrap Christ’s body with cloth and lay him in a garden tomb.

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Nicodemus’ journey of faith may stir us to consider our own stories–times when we were faithful and times when we relied on ourselves, and stumbled and fell. We are all sinners, redeemed by grace! We are left to our own response to Christ’s assurance of God’s love for the world. And the invitation for us all to “come to the light” so that others may see our good deeds done in God–and be saved.

In these 40 days of loving service, drawing ever nearer to Christ, let us come to our Savior with our darkness–confessing our sin and doubt. May the Spirit from above that has chosen us to believe on Christ and receive eternal life grant us a vision of God’s just and peaceful kingdom.

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May the same Spirit dispel our fears and empower and unite us to do not what is easy–to say and do nothing–but what is right.

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your love for the world and the gift of your Son, forgiveness of all our sins, and the promise of everlasting life with you. Forgive us for not wishing to admit our mistakes and reveal our weaknesses, even to you. Humble us. Forgive us for our pride. Forgive us for choosing to say and do nothing. Thank you for catching us when we stumble and start to fall, holding us firmly in your loving hand. Grant us a vision for your just and peaceful kingdom. Teach us to walk in your ways. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“40 Days of Service”

 

Meditation on Matthew 4:1-11

March 5, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

           Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,  saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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Slide10

 

We had such a great turnout for our Church Work Day yesterday! With at least 30 volunteers, Herb said it was the largest number of participants for a Church Work Day that he can remember. He was wearing a cap with a C on it for Chicago Cubs, but Debra, who must have put in at least 30 hours of calling and organizing teams of volunteers before yesterday’s event, says the “C” stands for “CHEERLEADER.” His job was to walk around and lift everyone up with his kind remarks and gentle sense of humor.

Slide11

 

On Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m., workers painted walls and fences, power-washed walls and walks, dug up plants and planted new ones, and weeded and pruned back what was overgrown. When I arrived around 9:30, folks were climbing ladders to hop on the roof to make repairs and to cut down large tree limbs, hanging over parking areas.

One guy, perched confidently on a tree limb overhead invited me to “come on up!” He seemed quite at home on his tree limb, as did the others working with him, filling up the back of a red pick up truck.

 

What a great time of fellowship it was! It was the perfect way to start off the first weekend in Lent.

People walking or driving by took notice of the commotion outside the church–cars and trucks parked all over the grass, the noise and smoke of power tools mingled with talking and laughter. They must have wondered, “What’s going on with the Presbyterians today?”

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We look inward and reach outward in the season of Lent that has just begun. We examine our hearts and lives to see how we might be more faithful to God’s call. We are also reminded of how much we need God’s grace and unconditional love!

Slide33

 

The word Lent comes from the Middle English word “lente” meaning springtime and from the Old English word meaning “to lengthen” as in the lengthening of daylight hours in spring. In the early church, Lent became the name for the 40 weekdays before Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday. This was a time when new converts would study the faith in preparation for baptism the night before Easter. It was a time of penitence for those already baptized and to make a sacrifice, such as giving up meat, in honor of the Lord’s 40-day fast, when the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be with God–and be tempted by the devil. Some traditional folks still observe Lent by giving up something pleasurable to eat.

In the past few years, Presbyterians have been challenged to observe the holy season differently than just giving up a food that we enjoy. Donald McKim writes in a 2015 article in Call to Worship of other possibilities for Lenten spiritual practices. We could, instead, give up something that is more harmful to us and the Church, such as negative attitudes and bad habits. Then, add on something new that IS good– new attitudes and practices, new friendships, and new ways of serving in our churches and communities. “We never know,” McKim says, “what the insights and prompting of the Holy Spirit will provide!”

The important thing is that the spiritual practices of giving up and adding on– whatever they might be, should bring us nearer to the Lord, and build on our relationships with others. Others should see God’s grace in us. Others should experience God’s love.

The “40 days and nights” in our gospel reading today connects our Savior’s story–and the New Covenant God offers to all in Jesus Christ– to the Hebrew Bible. While the rain coming down for “40 Days and 40 nights” in the Noah’s Ark account is the first incidence of that phrase (Gen. 7:4, 12:16; 9:8-16)

Slide35

 

the “40 days and 40 nights” in Matthew 4 is probably meant to connect Jesus’ wilderness experience with Moses and Elijah. In Exodus 34:27-28, Moses fasts alone in God’s presence on Mount Sinai as he receives the Ten Commandments.

Slide36

 

in 1 Kings 19:17-12, Elijah fasts for 40 days and nights as he flees to Mount Horeb (also known as Sinai), where he encounters God.

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Matthew will connect the three again–Jesus, Moses and Elijah– in Matthew 17 with Jesus’ transfiguration.

Slide38

Three gospels share Jesus’ fasting/temptation/wilderness experience. While Luke’s account is similar to Matthew’s, Mark’s gospel, the briefest and probably the oldest, tells the story in 2 verses! Mark 1:12-13 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”

The 40 days in the wilderness immediately follows Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit that comes upon Jesus in his baptism is already guiding him to do God’s will. Chapter 4 begins, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Another connection with the baptism passage is when the devil begins each of his questions to Jesus by addressing him, “If you are the Son of God…” At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven declares Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

This “if” is more like “since.” The tempter isn’t questioning his identity. He questions Jesus’ allegiance. Jesus models for us that when we are tempted, God’s Word and Spirit will strengthen us to do God’s will.

All of Jesus’ responses come from Deuteronomy, the most quoted book of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) in the NT. This first temptation is for Jesus to put his own physical needs and desires ahead of God’s Will for Him. Jesus answers, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3–a reminder of Israel’s complete reliance on God in the wilderness for 40 years. “Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

The “devil” then transports him to the holy city to the pinnacle of the temple, probably in a vision, saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” A fall from the pinnacle of the temple surely would be fatal. This is the temptation for Jesus to assert his power and will, again, over God, challenging God to save His life when he attempts to end it. The devil quotes from Psalm 91:11-12, taking it out of context when he says, “He will command his angels concerning you, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The passage is a promise of protection for all who have “chosen to live in the shelter of the Most High,” but not an assurance of safety for Jesus if he tries to force God’s hand. Later, in Matthew 27:40, when Jesus suffers on the cross, he will be tempted by a similar way of thinking.

Slide39

 

“Those who passed by him hurled insults at him, shaking their heads. ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’”

The devil’s third temptation is the human desire for earthly power and prestige. He offers to “give” Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” if Jesus will fall down and worship him.

Jesus quotes Deut. 6:13, changing the word from “fear” to “worship,” saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

 

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Thinking about how successful and joyful our Church Work Day was yesterday on the first Saturday in Lent, here’s my challenge to you. What other creative ways can we worship and serve the Lord throughout these 40 days? What do we need to give up? What habit or attitude is getting in the way of our wholehearted worship and service? What does the Lord want us to add on? What ministry, spiritual practice or acts of kindness are the Lord leading us to do? May others see God’s grace in us. May others experience God’s unconditional love.

 

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, thank you for your Word and Spirit that strengthened and guided your Son when he was in the wilderness 40 days. Thank you that he modeled for us that when we are tempted by the devil, we, too, should cling to your Word and Spirit, for you will guide us on our way. Lord, thank you for your grace that covers all our sins and for our faith in Your Son’s suffering work on the cross that has brought us into right relationship with you. Show us throughout these 40 days, Lord, what attitudes or practices we need to give up–and what new, creative ministry activities and spiritual disciplines you might want us to add on. Lead us to be more like your Son. In His name we pray. Amen.