In the midst of pandemic, and in self-isolation, our attention is naturally drawn to those post-apocalyptic dystopian future parallels; such as zombie cult or alien invasion films, or any portrayal of life, as we know it, ending. We long for a return to the normal life we knew. I long to see you all in worship, in gatherings, and events that our church holds for the community. We are social in our nature, humans need that connection as we are all an image of God’s Triune Community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God as Three and One. Yet, I know that many things will be different after this pandemic finally ceases to be a health threat. And that is okay. Perhaps we will awaken to the reality that the Heavens have always been invading our world and that just might change how we live in this heaven infested world!
We are looking at this phenomenon as we explore the “Road Trips of the Bible” in my sermons and Zoom Bible study (on Wednesday nights at 7:00 PM). With just a few examples – Hagar and her son (the castoff concubine of Abraham), are heard by God and are provided water in their desperate hour to sustain them (Genesis 21:17-19). What about God providing a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, instead of his son? Thus, keeping the promise to Abraham of a great nation of blessing for the world. Jacob was running for his life and had a vision where he saw heaven and earth connected by a ladder or passageway. He awoke and said (my paraphrase): “God lives here! … I’ve stumbled into his house! This is the awesome entrance to Heaven” (Genesis 28:12-19). Moses and God have a conversation and receives the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) to show the people how to relate to God and our fellow humans – how to live in both heaven and earth!
These are just a few examples of heaven invading our earth. God refuses to leave us alone. I believe that Jesus is the fullest expression of heaven having come to humanity itself. On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus encounters the two disciples who do not recognize him until he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread. Heaven is present in our world; we just need to acknowledge that we are the taken/chosen, blessed beloved of God, who in our brokenness and vulnerability are able to be a gift of God’s heavenly presence in the world. Heaven invades our world through us!
Perhaps you have had an experience where you have known the closeness of God. When we were about to have our first child, Evie, I remember being in a diner with Doris and being overcome by actually seeing the faces of children in the people all around me. I was teary-eyed looking at all these people who were somebody’s son or daughter, receiving a heavenly reminder that we are all God’s children! I don’t know how long it lasted, but it had a profound effect upon my life as I experienced the expansive love of God in a new and tangible way. Perhaps, you have a story similar to Elijah, who did not hear the voice of God in the thunderstorm or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice – the tug of God upon your soul.
The Gospel of Matthew, written with a Jewish audience in mind, and therefore utilizes the phrase “the kingdom of the heavens” thirty-two times to underscore God’s rule and presence that is found over and over within the rich tradition of Old Testament. By looking back, Matthew shows us today that God is already here. Therefore, praying the Lord’s Prayer becomes a radical transformative cry for each of us to become “on earth, as it is in heaven!” Indeed, the heavens have invaded the earth – can you see the possibilities of how God can use you as an evidence of heaven/God’s presence in our dire world? What is God ready to awaken in you? Are you willing to find out?
Hope. It’s a word that’s loaded. In the midst of this pandemic, it can be hard to see or even get a glimpse of it. Or maybe, what we think we see isn’t it. Hope is not a naive wish or optimism that the future will just improve. At the other end of the spectrum, hope is not just some profane or deceptive idea to numb us to our very real struggles and pain. Hope, living with real hope as recognized in the Bible, is a profound trust that your present and future life is in and with God. That is what the Kingdom of God is: Hope.
Dallas Willard, in his book “The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God” makes the claim that the New Testament makes plain that this Kingdom of God that Jesus is always talking about is “not something to be ‘accepted’ now and enjoyed later, but something to be entered now (Matt. 5:20; 18:3; John 3:3, 5). It is something that already has flesh-and-blood citizens (John 18:36; Phil. 3:20) who have been transformed into it (Col. 1:13) and are fellow workers in it (Col. 4:11).” Our hope is not misguided, because Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrate the presence of this new reality, and is our invitation to align our lives with and in it.
So, the Kingdom of God is already present with the presence of Jesus, but not yet fully realized because God does not choose to override our freedom of will. Jesus entered human history through the life of an ordinary family. Then this extraordinary life offers something unexpected. He inaugurates us into an eternal kind of life right now, that flows through him. He does this first by bringing that life to bear upon our needs, then spreading it through our deeds – deeds done with expectation that he, his Father, and Holy Spirit will act with and in our actions. We are no longer alone, like Adam and Eve hiding and covering themselves in the garden. We can now become active citizens of God’s Kingdom. Reality as it can and should be.
Becoming a citizen of this Kingdom of Light, means that we can leave behind those dark and lonely places where we have made valiant yet vain attempts to merely survive and come into God’s healing, joyous, hope-filled light. This is a journey that we must all make. The good news is that you don’t have to make it alone. God is with you! Our church is with you, as we endeavor to be who we are called to be: the Body of Christ. Examples of these journeys from hopelessness to hope are all over the Bible. In the weeks to come, I will be preaching about these stories in a sermon series I am calling Road Trips of the Bible. Check us out on Facebook Live at 10:30 AM on Sundays and on our Zoom Bible Study and Check-in on Wednesdays at 7 PM to join the journey.
So, hope is not just another four-letter profanity that is some kind of cruel joke in our dark times. It is, as Andy Dufresne said in his letter to Red at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of the things. And a good thing never dies.” Indeed, our hope is alive in Jesus! And he is alive in us, to bring hope to a hopeless world! Let’s make it so.
We are all feeling the difficulty of this pandemic in different ways. The uncertainty around health and jobs are real and weigh upon us. Social distancing takes a hard toll on our souls, yet are necessary tools to help not overwhelm our healthcare system. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day we, Christian’s, observe the final meal (Passover) Jesus shared with his disciples. In our corner of the world today, this is commemorated as a pot-luck meal that we have shared with our partner congregation, Iglesia: Mision Bautista de Westchester, and neighbors, Trinity Lutheran Church, several times in the past. It was at this meal that we celebrate Jesus taking the known ritual of the Passover meal and making it about himself! The lamb was slain to put blood upon the doorpost to protect the firstborn of each Jewish household – thus saving the presence of God in their world, is now the role that Jesus embraces for all of humanity and creation. The doorposts of the universe are about to get coated in Jesus’ blood to protect everyone and everything and to preserve God’s holy, universal presence once and for all time.
Clearly the disciples did not grasp his meaning that night. The question for us, all these years later is: Do we? They had expectations of a new political Kingdom, where the Roman authorities would be removed and resoundingly defeated. But this would only be a giving into the temptation of Satan upon Jesus in the wilderness for worldly power and domination over nations. This is the sad and reliable story of human history. Violence only begets more violence. Yet, Jesus offers a new way of abiding peace (Shalom), freedom, compassion, and grace through his sacrifice.
Perhaps this Holy week is the one where we are most able to relate to and dwell with the disciples in their bewilderment, anguish, questions, doubts and fears. They did not know that Sunday’s empty tomb was coming. They did not expect a bodily resurrection of their teacher and mentor. They did not expect that God’s plan for redemption would play out like this. They just couldn’t get their minds around that large of a God; that large a love.
So, as we gather around computer screens or cell phones and participate in Easter services this year while sanctuaries are empty, unthinkable just a few short weeks ago, let us be reminded how unthinkable it was for those grieving, dedicated women, who set out to anoint his body, and find Jesus’ tomb empty. May we, like them, encounter this risen Lord, Jesus the Christ – the Messiah in a new way, too! It is this risen Jesus who would equip their rag-tag group of misfit followers into God’s powerful instruments of peace to share with the world. If we can get that truth in this strange Holy Week, then we will understand the first Holy Week in ways we never could have before.
Holy God of transformative presence, grant us to be with you in your absence, obeying you even in the deep moment of your apparent defeat. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
A couple of years ago, based on a recommendation, I read a gritty crime story, written and set in New York City of the 1970’s by Lawrence Block called The Sins of the Fathers. It is the first in a line of books about a depressed former detective, turned private investigator. There was a passage that struck me then and stayed with me all this time and seems especially fitting now, in our new COVID-19 reality.
“Take care. It seems to me that people have only been saying that phrase on parting for the past few years or so. All of the sudden everyone started saying it, as if the whole country abruptly recognized that ours is a world which demands caution.”
“Take care” – we all say it to friends and acquaintances alike. That phrase is now infused with new meaning today.
Taking care is our occupation right now. Our world is a world where caution is needed. Where patience is needed. Where faith is needed. Faith, in the Hebrew understanding, is not a conceptual idea (noun), but an act of trust (verb). IN the face of this world, where caution is needed, we can still trust in a God whose grace is sufficient.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9
Please know that even in these difficult times of health concerns and social distancing, that God is concerned for you and not distant. God is often found when all our distractions and illusions of control and power are stripped away. Similar to the biblical character Job on the ash heap, we find our true situation that it was always about a God who gives us life, loves us, and longs to be in relationship with us. So, the best way to “take care” in these trying times is to: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22)
Please take care by calling upon the God who is the creator, redeemer and sustainer of your life. Taking great care in our great God will help you find great and lasting peace.
I came across this video (below) while I was … well, you know … consuming content on my phone. It’s from an advertising company out of England, commenting on how to reach and engage potential consumers. This has become increasingly difficult for them since most of us (as they say) are “time poor and content rich.” So, in order to break through the noise, they say that an advertiser must be “relevant, evoke an emotion, be creative, and have a purpose.” Well, yeah, that goes for followers of Jesus too! So, how can Christians and the Church get the story of Jesus’ love, compassion, and mercy to cut through the everyday noise of our distracted society today? Watch this video and see my take below.
Jesus preached, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Matt 7:1). This was as radical as it sounds today. They, like us, lived in a profoundly judgmental culture. Jesus is not saying that people are perfect, but is calling attention to our hypocrisy when we judge other, we conveniently forget our own sins. Living out non-judgmental lives will have a deep and lasting effect on those at the edges of the church. Taking a non-judgmental posture toward others is a beautiful expression of faith as we do not seek to control others and forget our failures. We, like the other, are not free from sin and in humbly acknowledging our moral failures; we grasp anew the nature of God’s forgiveness. So many people have walked away from the church because they have felt judged as inferior sinners by so called “Christians.” They are not. True followers of Christ don’t judge, but trust in the sacred gift of God’s mercy to forgive. We should all see ourselves as the grateful woman with the Pharisees house who washed Jesus’ feet with our tears and expensive oil (Lk 7:36-50).
2. Evoke Emotion
Jesus showed all the emotions that make us human: sadness, gladness, anger, pain. But the teachings and demonstrations of Jesus’ love are the most enduring. We are to love God and then our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40). This will evoke a powerful response in a culture that seeks only self-preservation. Yet, even the religious legal experts knew this. So one wanted clarification on exactly “who” Jesus saw as his neighbor. Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, underscoring the idea that it wasn’t about neighbor as a noun, but being neighborly as a verb! Making the hated Samaritan the hero of the story deemphasized the “who” and made clear God’s intention on what we all are to “do.”
3. Be Creative
The two creation accounts of Genesis emphasize the goodness of creation. In the first creation account, God creates in seven days and at the end, blesses it, and pronounces that it is good. Did you know that in Exodus, God gives Moses seven detailed sets of instructions on how to build the tabernacle or the Meeting Tent? At the end, Moses blesses the tabernacle and pronounces that it is good. You see, the wandering Israelites now have a moving tent meeting where God can come and be present with God’s people. What a creative and powerful symbol of God’s presence in creation: God is looking for a body to embody! And just like God made creation, the Covenant people are told how to build a tent for God to inhabit. Their community meeting reflective of the cosmos! We as Christians, see a further progression of the story of God’s faithfulness and love with the coming of Jesus, God dwelling quite literally within one human. Creativity is at the heart of God’s unfolding revelation to humanity.
4. Have a Purpose
Jesus’ purpose was to usher in God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Jesus said repeatedly that the “Kingdom of God was at hand!” Then after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, the church was started. Clearly the Kingdom of God is not yet completely present with all the pain and suffering in the world, but we are here to reflect the light of Christ into all the corners of the world. This light was eloquently expressed by Paul as the Fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with its passions and its desires.” (Galatians 5:22-24) Why wait till you die to enjoy the wholeness of God’s Kingdom? The purpose of your life should not be deferred till after this life. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) He’s talking about your life! Living abundantly is God’s desire for your life. What that looks like for you, only you can say. What enlivens you? What are you passionate about? The church must be about helping people to give expression to the God given talents and passions that we all have. That is when earth begins to look like heaven!
Have you ever been in a situation where you were meeting someone, for the first time and only had a vague description of what they looked like? If you were lucky, maybe they let you know what they were wearing. As Christians, if we are going to follow Christ throughout our lives,, then it would be important to answer the questions, how do we recognize the risen Christ? Looking at the New Testament, that was an important question for the early church. In several passages we read about encounters and metaphors that help us identify how Christ is present in our lives.
Recognition of Christ is sometimes slow in coming. Consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They travel for miles talking with Christ without recognizing their friend. Yet, it was only when they broke bread together that they recall, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:32). Consider Mary Magdalene, where she is the first to discover the empty tomb and the risen Lord, she does not recognize him, assuming that he is a gardener who has moved the body. It isn’t until he says her name that she truly sees who he is.
Have you ever been touched by the compassion of another? Perhaps the risen Christ was extending you compassion through that person. Have you ever had a profound conversation with someone about suffering, death, and meaning, a conversation that awakened intensity in your thoughts and a general feeling that put your whole life in a richer, deeper, wiser perspective? Perhaps the risen Christ was moving through that person toward you. Have you ever found a community that revealed an abundance of life (John 10:10), a way of living overflowing with grace and delight? Perhaps the risen Christ was moving through them toward you.
How do you recognize the risen Christ? We listen to what is awakened in our hearts through deep conversations. We attend to the voices of compassion we grow to trust. We participate in a community of abundant life. Then we know that Christ is risen indeed! Through this Lenten time, I will be preaching a series called: Encountering Jesus. We will look at several encounters that Jesus had and how they can lift our hearts, empower compassion, and reveal abundant community. Please join us as we Encounter Jesus together!
We've been studying the Prophet Isaiah here at First Baptist since September and will continue on through November. We have looked at key passages that instill a sense of hope in the face of the Israelite despair at being taken into exile. The Babylonians had destroyed their temple, captured their king, and destroyed their city. Today, we too face a metaphorical exile of sorts with severe feelings of dislocation from cultural identity and disconnection from one another is more real despite the hyper technological connections found within our phones and social media. Studies show that Americans are literally dying of loneliness. And yet, out of the darkest of nights, hope remains possible with God! Then suddenly, in the midst of a desolate refugee camp of despair, far from home in a foreign land, Isaiah speaks: a change is finally going to come! They are not forgotten; in fact the opposite is true – the dawn of a new day is breaking!
Isaiah helped the Hebrew people to imagine reality differently, the possibility of a different world, a world that God has waiting for us! Jesus embraced this dream of a new reality. I am inspired to image the Body of Christ that is compassionate to the world’s forgotten and left behind. Whether that’s a dozen refugees on a rubber boat in the Mediterranean, a scared and lonely child separated from her family at our southern border, hungry kids in our community, a family huddled in a Syrian basement praying to survive another night … “For unto them a child is born, unto them a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6). That’s the Gospel. That’s the dream God has for our world.
That calls to my mind the hopeful song, A Million Dreams, from the musical, The Greatest Showman –
I close my eyes and I can see
The world that's waiting up for me
That I call my own
Through the dark, through the door
Through where no one's been before
But it feels like home
They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy
They can say, they can say I've lost my mind
I don't care, I don't care, so call me crazy
We can live in a world that we design
'Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all its gonna take
A million dreams for the world we're gonna make
There's a house we can build
Every room inside is filled
With things from far away
The special things I compile
Each one there to make you smile
On a rainy day
However big, however small
Let me be a part of it all
Share your dreams with me
You may be right, you may be wrong
But say that you’re bringing me along
To the world you see
To the world I close my eyes to see, I close my eyes to see!
(by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)
Do you see the world that Isaiah and Jesus dreamed? Pray that you might be open to the realities of the undying dawn of God’s Kingdom to enter our world through Christ in you! God has a beautiful vision “for the world were gonna make!”
I recently came across this beautiful song by Sara Bareillas, from the musical "Waitress". It speaks to the critical importance of a nurturing environment for dreams to be cultivated and grown. Basically, the song shares that dreams need a "Soft Place to Land."
It is my goal, everyday, as Pastor of First Baptist, to foster this reality in our congregation! We can be that "soft place to land" for God's dreams to grow inside and take hold of you! We can be that sense of place where God's dreams can shape and mold you into who God sees you can become! A place where hurt and shattered dreams can be mended. A place that knows that with God, "Nothing's impossible child!" That's what dreams need. That's what we are fostering here at First Baptist!
If you're "someone" longing to find your "song" this Holy Week, this might just be it. #JourneyToResurrection #DontLetTheLightOut
We celebrate the Risen Christ this Easter! Please join us as we not only hear the familiar story of Jesus’ resurrection, but also hear a lesser known passage written in Isaiah to the devastated exiles who had lost their land, their king, and their Temple. The disciples and followers of Jesus felt heartbreak and despair on that Sunday morning, like the Hebrew people in bondage in Babylon. As Jesus shows himself to be alive once more, the passage in the 49th chapter of Isaiah speaks of a God who has answered them, who has helped them, who has kept them, and has given them as a covenant. God calls on them to courageously say: “to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Appear.’”
As we celebrate Jesus’ coming out of the tomb and appeared before the whole world demonstrating a power and love that the world had not yet imagined, Isaiah’s usage of two little Hebrew verbs also suggest the cosmic purposes of God for his people. The two mandates are first to “come forth” and free the prisoners- free people from their fear, anxiety, despair, hunger, poverty, shame and guilt. Second, we are to announce to the invisible, those in the shadows, at the margins of our society, “Appear!” The power of the resurrection and the life of Jesus is to authorize all persons, all exiles, all marginalized to be fully present and visible, to be fully reconciled to life in community.
So, as we celebrate the reality of Jesus’ coming forth out of the tomb and appearing to the world, we also understand our new role to utter and enact these two little verbs: come forth and appear, so that we might become the covenant that God is seeking in the dawning Kingdom of Heaven!
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)