Condemning Unfairly & The Golden Rule

Inspired by Matthew 7:1-12

Jesus is still on that same mountain—the same mountain that he has been on for three weeks now, at least to us. For the last three weeks, we have been reading what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, which covers three whole chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. And today, we come to the end of it. The sermon has been chock full of many wise sayings, lessons, the Beatitudes, as well as some pretty tough teachings that are just as hard to hear today as I’m sure they were then. Today’s reading has hope and promise, as well as some harsh warnings from Jesus. This first sermon of Jesus’, which is sort of a springboard for the rest of his ministry, may leave us scratching our heads at times, and I’ll warn you again, that head scratching is not going to end today.

But in spite of that, there’s one thing that we can take away from it that’s certain: Jesus means business! I want you to hold on to that over the coming weeks because it will come in handy as we wrestle with some very tough passages from this Gospel, some very tough words from Jesus himself. Jesus could sense that his ministry on earth was not going to last long, he was making too many enemies too fast. And so, when he finally gets this opportunity to tell the world what God wants them to hear, he knows he’s only got so much time to do it.

And so, there are times when he might sound harsh, but I think it was just his all-business approach to his work that we are hearing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any excuses for Jesus. Jesus can take care of himself. And to be honest, not even this helps me with some of Jesus’ harshest lessons. And that’s ok, we don’t have to agree or understand everything that Jesus said. That’s where grace comes in.

So, let’s tackle today’s reading. Jesus begins this third and final chapter of this sermon with a lesson about judging others. Taken at face value, we have what seems to be an unrealistic command, something that we just can’t humanly accomplish. Jesus said, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” Is Jesus setting us up for failure here? By all means, raise your hand if you have mastered this so you can teach me! None of us can do this. We all judge! So does that mean we are all doomed?

Well, from everything else we know about Jesus, I think it’s safe to say that he did not mean that we are all doomed. So what does he mean? Whenever you come across a Bible passage that just doesn’t make sense, or just doesn’t seem right, that probably means that there’s a puzzle piece that you’re missing. Maybe it’s a translation issue, or something about the context that we don’t know, or the culture, or the original audience or any number of things. My advice in those instances, trust your instincts, and start asking questions.

In this case, it’s a translation issue. With all the translations out there, you’d think this would be a less common problem that it is by now but alas, even the newest translations fall short too often. In our reading today, the trouble is with the word “judge.” Now you might be thinking, how hard could it be to translate the word judge. Well, that same Greek word, kreno, is translated no less than 14 different ways in English! Judge, determine, condemn, sue, question, and regard, just to name a few. So, how do you determine which one to use? Well, context is key, but also cultural, literary, and social factors are involved. So, when scholars take all those factors into consideration, many have determined that simply using the word “judge” here is inadequate. It’s just not strong enough of a word.

Which makes sense because our initial problem with what Jesus says here is the fact that we know we all judge which made it sound like we were all doomed. Now many scholars think that a more accurate word would be "condemn," "do not condemn." One scholar in particular, Ben Witherington, takes it a step further to mean, do not unfairly condemn. I mean, I think if we just didn’t condemn people at all that’d be great! But what I think scholars like Witherington are doing here is reacting to the larger point that Jesus is making. It’s not just about judging, or condemning, but it’s about applying critiques, evaluations, suspicions on people that we won’t allow to be applied to us.

This is about making condemning judgments on people unfairly, uncharitably, especially when we are not willing for that to be done to us. That’s what Jesus is getting at here. This is something that we are all guilty of and it’s something that we really need to address, especially in light of the fact that we now have this awesome welcome statement, that we now have the responsibility to live into. So, I want to show you a video, the source of which is HBO, and there is one bad word, the s-word. Oh boy, the s-word in church, what’s the world coming to. I believe this video highlights a modern day example of what Jesus was trying to get at here.

Do not condemn unfairly. And so you don’t think that I’m picking on white people, this was just one example of this in today’s world. As a straight male, I have to constantly keep myself in check whenever I encounter people from the LGBTQ community or women. I have to recognize that my straight maleness carries with it the stain of an abuse of power, power that I didn’t earn but was simply granted to me at birth, when I entered a world that has treated those other two groups unfairly, and that unfairness is built into the system.

Am I personally at fault for that? Not exactly, but do I carry the responsibility to change the system for the better? You better believe it, which is why Jesus takes it a step further! Jesus doesn’t stop at saying do not condemn. But he sums up his entire sermon, the entirety of scripture actually, by saying, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.”

The Golden Rule, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.” But in order to do that, it takes some intentionality. Intentionally asking yourself, “Is what I’m feeling or thinking about someone, in any way, influenced by prejudices that have been ingrained in me since birth? Is what I’m about to say or do, what I would say or do to anyone, or is it different because of our differences? But we have to constantly be asking ourselves these questions. We have to be ever vigilant about what goes on in our heads subconsciously. This doesn’t come naturally! What comes naturally is unfairly condemning people. That comes very easy to us. And Jesus knew that! Jesus knew that because Jesus was one of us!

There is so much pain and suffering in this world. Let’s not add to it senselessly. We have enough to address with things like hunger, and homelessness, and the sick and dying. Racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, there’s just no need for such things. But make no mistake, you can be a good person, and still contribute to any of those isms unknowingly. The only way they will end is by keeping ourselves in constant check for such things, by learning all we can about them, by listening when given constructive criticism, and by heeding Christ’s call, to treat others the same way we’d want to be treated—remembering that it doesn’t come naturally, and that we are going to fail at it. Thankfully, we have a God who never gives up on us, nor condemns us unfairly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When God Doesn't Forgive

Inspired by Matthew 6:7-15

The Lord’s Prayer has been a staple for so many Christians around the globe for centuries. For many of us, it was one of the first prayers that we memorized. And odds are, we didn’t memorize it as an assignment in Sunday School, but rather we memorized it here, meaning in worship, as we recited it together, with the many generations surrounding us, each and every Sunday. Not all Christians do that though.

Some are even very much against the reciting of prayers in worship, claiming that prayers must only be done extemporaneously. I have a lot of respect for churches like that because they value authenticity, and there is certainly a lot to be said for that. However, since I grew up Lutheran, reciting the Lord’s Prayer is not only second nature to me, but I also know the value of reciting it each and every Sunday.

So when I saw that this reading from Matthew was coming up I thought to myself, oh, this one will be easy! It’s so familiar to most of us! I’ll just take it line by line and boom we’ll be done! Ha! As my dad always says, “Nothing can ever be easy.” Maybe you can guess the part of today’s reading that I’m talking about. Yeah, the ending. Jesus finishes teaching them how to pray and then just has to add, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” Jesus! What’d you have to go and say that for! Couldn’t you have just said “Amen” and been done with it? But no, you just gotta stir things up don’t you Jesus! Just can’t leave well enough alone!

Now, before we get into what Jesus meant by such tough words there are two side notes that I think we should cover, two tangential topics that came to my mind as I was thinking about this sermon that I don’t think we don’t talk enough about in the church. The first one is all the gendered language in today’s reading. The Bible translation that we use here is pretty good about using non-gendered language when the author is referring to anyone, not just men.

But sometimes, it’s just hard to escape, especially when the pronouns refer to God. In today’s reading God is referred to as Father no less than five times in our short eight verse reading. In my own personal, private spiritual life, the part that only occurs in my head, I don’t have a problem with this. But if Jesus has taught me anything, it’s that it ain’t all about me. I bring this to your attention for two reasons.

One, there are many in our society that have not had any positive male figures in their lives. For many people, maleness is automatically a negative. For some, maleness is downright evil, depending on how bad a person’s experiences were. So, by only using male pronouns for God, we are inadvertently putting some huge roadblocks in front of some people’s journey with God. And why do we continue to do that? Just to satisfy our own preferences, our own way of thinking that we really don’t want to change—because it’s comfortable for us. But again, if Jesus has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not all about us. And sometimes, we are called to sacrifice our own preferences as we care for a hurting world. Which is something we’re well practiced in! I see that in you all the time! And this is just another way of practicing that.

And the other reason I bring this to your attention is simply because only referring to God as a male is simply not good enough. It limits how big our thinking about God can be. Personally, I think God can be both genders. I think God can be no gender. And everything in between! Trying to place God in our human-sized labels like "male" is only doing a disservice to us and our ability to experience God for who God really is. I believe, with all my heart, that we can be much more imaginative about God, than a white old guy with a beard sitting in the clouds. Surely, God is more than that right, bigger than that, more comprehensive than that? The Bible is very creative with the way that God is described! And if the Bible can be, I think we can too.

The other side note is more of a heads up, or a downright warning really, and it has to do with Jesus’ tough words about forgiveness in this reading. I met with our Journey of Faith leaders recently, Journey of Faith is what our new member process is called here at Bethlehem, and we were going over some of the upcoming Sunday Bible readings that are coming our way over the next few months. And let me tell you, we are in for one heck of a ride! My goodness, if you think today’s reading is tough, wait till you hear what’s coming!

At one point the Journey of Faith leaders asked, “Can’t we just read something else pastor?” It’s tempting, let me tell you! But we won’t, and here’s why. Tough Bible passages are meant to be wrestled with. God invites the struggle. Because in that struggle we will learn more about God and each other. And is there any better, safer place to wrestle with the Bible, to wrestle with God for that matter, than right here? And if after the struggle you still don’t like what God has to say, it’s ok! God can take it!

Ok, now, about that God not forgiving you business. Jesus said, “If you don’t forgive others, neither will [God] forgive your sins.” What the heck Jesus! I thought you’d forgive us for anything! That’s not the Jesus we’ve come to know! We have this tendency, and I’ve talked about this before and will probably need to in the coming weeks, we have this tendency to make everything about salvation or damnation, to make everything either the best case scenario or the worst case scenario, leaving little room for anything in between. And I think that the church would be well served, if it had a bigger imagination than that.

Because the truth is, very little in the Bible is actually about going to a heaven in the clouds, or a hell below the earth, after we die! God has been spending most of God’s time, for thousands of years, on helping us figure out this life, in the here and now, that there hasn’t been much time left for anything else! That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus enters the scene to remind us that, the next life, the afterlife, is already taken care of. Don’t worry about, especially because, nothing you can say or do will have any effect on it anyway, lest we fall into the belief that we can earn our way to heaven. Let’s focus on the here and now, Jesus says, where we can have an impact, and let’s leave the rest to God.

So with that in mind, what does Jesus mean when he says that God will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others? Well, it depends on what we believe about forgiveness. Now, I’ve preached on this before so if any of this sounds familiar that’s why, but it’s certainly worth revisiting. I mean, forgiveness is kind of a big deal to our faith right? And if you want a more in-depth refresher just ask me later and I can tell you where to find that sermon. But forgiveness is not a feeling, in the same way that love is not a feeling.

Forgiveness is an action, more precisely it’s a decision, a decision to move beyond something that’s getting in the way of a relationship, a decision to not allow whatever it is that’s getting in the way of that relationship to dictate, to have power over that relationship moving forward. It’s the decision to say, I may not be able to forget this, but this relationship is too important, and I’m going to decide to move past it. This will no longer define us. That is what true forgiveness is. It is not a feeling, it is not liking a person all of a sudden that has hurt you, it’s moving forward, it’s moving past it.

Let me give you an example of this from my own childhood when I learned this lesson. I shared this story in Bible study a couple months ago and I’d like to share it with you all now. So, I’m probably around ten years old. And I’m at a family get together at a relative’s house in my hometown of Vacaville. I was there with my parents and the uncle whom I was closest to was there as well, my Uncle Dennis. At some point in the evening’s festivities, my dad, said something that really hurt my Uncle Dennis’s feelings.

I had never seen these two argue before, they were like brothers up until my Uncle died last year. So to see them at odds was quite traumatic. To this day I don’t know what was said but my uncle and his wife, my Aunt Ann, angrily left and went back home to the Bay Area. We go home as well. It’s late. I’m about to go to bed. And there’s a knock at the door.

My ten-year-old nosy-self got up to see who was at the door at this hour, and I watched my dad open the door to see my uncle standing there. My uncle was at least six and a half feet tall, so there he was, this large than life being to me, standing at the door, with bloodshot eyes, clearly upset, and he looks my dad in the eye and says, “We need to talk.” I don’t know what happened after that, I wasn’t privy to their conversation they had that night. My dad probably told me to go ahead go to bed.

But what I do know is that after that night, they were ok. Whew! What an impression that left on me—to see someone that I looked up to, literally and figuratively, drive back from the Bay Area that night, to make things right with his brother in law—to see him put their relationship above any hurt feelings—to see him not be able to go to sleep that night until they were ok! What an impression that left on me.

I believe that God operates in much the same way when it comes to forgiving us. God does not want our wrongs to come in between our relationships, either with God or, more importantly, with each other. So when God says, if you’re not going to forgive others, if you’re not going to make things right, if you’re not going to move past this, then neither am I. God will continue to hound us until we do! If we are going to live in the past, and not move forward, then God is going to stay there with us.

But God doesn’t want to be back there! God wants to move on, move ahead, move forward with us. And so God stays there, gently, and sometimes not so gently, urging us, pushing us, prodding us, to move past whatever is getting in the way of our relationships with others, and to forgive, remembering that forgiveness is not allowing it to define the relationship anymore, forgiveness is not allowing it to have power anymore. But God, who is ever faithful, will stay back there with us, as long as we’re back there. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Zagging of Jesus

Inspired by Matthew 4:18-5:12

So, to recap the last few weeks from our time in the Gospel of Matthew so far, Jesus was born, was baptized as an adult, and was then tempted by the devil in the wilderness. That’s the story so far, minus only a few minor details like angels and magi. Now, having been baptized by John and tested by the devil, Jesus is ready to get to work! And what does the savior of the world, the master of the universe, the ruler of the cosmos do first? He asks for help of course!

Something you will notice about Jesus as he’s presented in these Gospel accounts is that every time you think he’s going zig, he zags. I mean, what in the world would Jesus need help with? He’s literally the king of kings! But yet, here he is, asking for help, calling his first followers, his posse, his squad. First he calls Peter and Andrew, then James and John. And there’s something quite mystical, even theatrical, about the way he calls them.

We find these four fishermen minding their own business, just going about their daily work, casting nets, mending nets, when out of the blue Jesus comes along and says “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Now, if a religious leader you knew, came to your place of work, and said, come follow me and I’ll show you how to, I don’t know, build people instead of houses, or program people instead of software, or count people instead of money, you’d more than likely call security. But what do they do, they drop their nets, they drop everything, and go with Jesus. And you know, we may never really know why. What was it that made them make such a drastic life decision? We may not know why, but we do know what it was they dropped those nets for? And I wonder if it came as a bit of a shock to them.

It’s very likely, that they were assuming that they were joining up with a guy who was going to overthrow the government, lead a revolt against the Roman Empire; and what Jesus needed help with was starting a grassroots campaign to that end, and maybe even, help with forming an army. And you can’t fault them for assuming that. Life had been tough under Roman rule for quite some time, especially for the Jewish people in that region. And so, when a popular character like Jesus comes on to the scene saying things like, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”, we too would assume those things. It’s just the way our brains work. A modern day example of this would be assumptions made by many with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we just celebrated this past week.

Dr. King led a peaceful, non-violent protest for civil rights but there were many that did not agree with him and thought that a more assertive tactic, even violent tactic, was necessary to further the cause. However, he didn’t budge on this. And believe it or not, even after his assassination at the hands of a sniper over 200 feet away, who was an escaped convict who still managed to buy a rifle and scope from a local sporting goods store, there are still people, to this day, who think Dr. King should have been more aggressive.

The NRA came under serious fire this past week when they tweeted that “Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit…and was denied.” Meeting violence with violence, is just the way we are wired. And that may have worked fine when humans were living in caves but that sure as hell doesn’t work today. Dr. King knew that because Jesus knew that.

Which brings us back to Jesus zagging when everyone thought he was going to zig! What does that even look like? Where do we get that saying, zig zag? That’s gonna cost me an hour of my life online as I “research” that this week. Anywho, things did not play out the way that Peter, Andrew, James, and John may have expected. Jesus does not start a grassroots campaign to overthrow the government, nor does he begin building an army. Where does he go?

He goes to the sick and diseased. He goes to those in pain. He goes to the demon possessed. He goes to those with epilepsy. He goes to the paralyzed. In other words, the poor, the outcast, the uncared for, the forgotten. I’d bet you my firstborn child, that was not where Peter, Andrew, James, and John thought they were headed when they dropped those nets. They go from being called from the seashore, right into the depths of human pain and suffering. And that must have had a lasting impression on them.

It clearly had an impression on Jesus, because it was that place, the depths of human pain and suffering, that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount came from, which began with what we now call the Beatitudes—blessed are the hopeless, the grieving, the humble; blessed are the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers, the harassed, the insulted. Jesus comes out of experiencing the worst of human pain and suffering and delivers what just may be the most well-known sermon the world has ever heard.

But even this is yet another zag when they were expecting him to zig! Because preachers in Jesus’ day, not unlike many preachers today unfortunately, were telling people that it was their fault for the suffering that they endured, that it was probably their sinfulness, or their parent’s sinfulness, or because their faith wasn’t strong enough, or some other garbage.

But not Jesus, he comes out of those depths, almost as if he’s a reporter, reporting on what he had just seen, and heard, and experienced. And what does he report? Not that they are condemned, not that they are sinful, not that they are less than, no, that they are blessed. Jesus says they are blessed. And I can just see Peter, Andrew, James, and John looking at each other when Jesus says blessed that first time like, “That’s not how we experienced that Jesus! Were you in the same pit of despair that we were in back there, the one with the paralytics, the epileptics, the diseased?”

Peter chimes in, “Don’t forget the demons Jesus, there were demons back there!” Jesus just nods. Blessed are all of them, Jesus says. And not because of their suffering, but because Jesus saw God there with them. God is both by the side of the suffering, and in the eyes of the suffering. God is both the comforter, and suffering alongside. That is how Jesus could say, “Blessed are they...”

Remember, this Gospel began with Jesus being called Emmanuel, which means God with us. And in the coming weeks, we will hear Jesus demonstrate that time and time again. And each time, we will hear this same call to follow him, to zag with him, when the world is expecting a zig. To care for those that the world has forgotten, to comfort those that the world mistreats, to heal those that the world has harmed, to lift up those that the world has tried to squash. And this work we are called to isn’t going to make us very popular, it’s going to leave a lot of people scratching their heads like Peter, Andrew, James, and John were. But that my friends, is how we will know we are doing something right, because we’ll be in pretty good company. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Test For Today's Church

Inspired by Matthew 4:1-17

Well, things get really real really fast for Jesus after his baptism! Matthew makes it sound like he went straight out of the Jordan river and went walking into the desert to be tempted by Satan with water still dripping from his chin! Whether it happened quite that fast or not, I don’t know, but I think it’s clear that Matthew wants us to feel the connection between his baptism and his time in the wilderness. Especially because it’s easy for us to miss this element in our own baptisms?

We come to church and see babies baptized and think, awwww, how cute! Some babies cry, some squeal, some sleep, some allow for other bodily functions to take place, point is, we all leave a baptism feeling good about what just happened! And we should! But I think because we baptize babies in this church, who don’t really have much to worry about in this world while they’re babies, it lulls us into a false sense of security.

But if we think about it, we know that our baptisms don’t make our lives any easier. What I mean by that is, our baptisms don’t promise us a better life, or a life without pain, or a life without trials and tribulations. And this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, right after his baptism, is a good reminder of that. Without even allowing Jesus take a breath, to process what had just been done in his baptism, he is rushed into the wilderness to have a showdown with the devil himself. Now, most Bible translations, including the one I read from, use the word temptation. However, scholars have pointed out that a more accurate word would be test, rather than to tempt. What’s the difference you might ask? Well, one commentator put it this way, the difference is in the motive of the one doing the tempting or testing.

A tempter doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and is hoping for you to succumb to the temptation. However, a tester may very well have the best of intentions for you. In fact, the point of a test is to make you better than you were before! Even when the test is failed, something is learned, growth occurs, and we are better for it. Now, why is this important? Well, I’m not sure if you caught this but our story today began by pointing out that it was the Spirit, God’s very own self, that led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.

And we all know that God doesn’t tempt people or lead people into temptation, but test people, hmmm, I think I’m ok with that. But again, not in a vindictive or callous way, but for the betterment of God’s people, to make God’s people stronger, wiser, more trusting than they were before. Thankfully, we don’t send our baptized babies out into the wilderness to be tested! We’d never get any new members that way!

Now, I know, I’m treading on shaky ground right now. Because there’s a fine line between saying that God tests us and believing that God is behind all the horrible things that happen in our lives. You should know me by now, I am not in any way saying that.  But, we get tested all the time don’t we? Whether it’s by God or each other or just by life itself!

The point here is not to put blame on anyone when we are tested, but to pay attention to how we come out on the other side of that testing, keeping in mind, that the whole purpose of our baptisms is to be continually transformed into something new over the course of our lifetimes. So, when we are tested, the question is not, who’s responsible, but, did it make us stronger? Did it make us more trusting in God? Did it make us wiser? Did it makes us more loving? Or whatever you think was being tested.

Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ tempting by the devil. The first thing to notice is that the Devil waits for Jesus to be at a weak point. When he starts tempting him, Jesus is already extremely hungry. And isn’t that always the way. How many times has life tested you when you are already in a tough spot? I don’t know about you but it happens to me quite often. I’ve learned to not ask, what next?, because life can show real fast that things could always get worse. Sometimes the real test is how we handle stress when we are already in a vulnerable position. For Jesus, it was battling the stress of hunger and probably thirst and fatigue if he was just out in the elements. But this first temptation was about more than just physical hunger.

What was really being tested here was Jesus’ perseverance, and how self-serving he was. How long was Jesus going to last through these temptations? Because once he fell to one, that was it. If he had turned those stones to bread and taken a bite, there would have been no temptation number two or three. The game would have been over. And the Spirit would have then known just how long he could last. But more than that, the Spirit would have known if Jesus was in this for himself or not.

You see, Jesus must have known that this was more than just a test of his resolve, but that there were bigger plans at work here, that his life was somehow intertwined with others. And so, if he quit then, after one temptation, to serve himself some bread, then the Spirit would have known that if he couldn’t handle this, how could he handle what was to come?

As you think of the many ways that you have been tested over the years, the trials and tribulations that you have had to endure, which ones tested your perseverance? Which ones tested just how self-serving you were going to be? Those of us who are parents are faced with this test all the time aren’t we? Will I buy those jeans that I really need this pay or will I pay for that softball clinic that my kid wants to go to? And those tests are the easy ones.

What about something like, do I go to Starbucks or increase my giving to my favorite non-profit once a week by five bucks. Oooh, for some of us that hits us right where it hurts! But the big question is, how did you do with that test? How did you come out on the other side of that test? And I don’t mean, did you pass or fail it. I mean, did you learn anything about yourself? Did you grow, stretch, and thereby, become a better human being for it?

Jesus’ next test was all about his ego. The devil asks him to throw himself down from the temple roof and let the angels catch him. Now, Jesus rightly tells him that we shouldn’t test God like that. But Jesus was also tested with the question of, just how important do you think you are Jesus? Do you think so highly of yourself that you’d risk your life to see if God will come to your rescue? Just how big is your head Jesus? Fortunately for us, Jesus was a humble human being. He realized, again, that this wasn’t all about him. But it was about God’s world that he was called to serve. This wasn’t about the fame he would receive if he would survive a very public fall from the temple rooftop. This wasn’t about using his divine influence. The Spirit wanted to see if Jesus’ ego needed to be checked, and thankfully, it didn’t.

Which leads us to inquire about our own egos. When are those times when we are tested to see how big of an ego we have? How do we do with those tests? This question gets really interesting when we think of this in a communal sense, rather than individually. Which, as we learned last week, is what this baptismal life is all about right? Community! So, think of the ways that we as a congregation might get hung up on our own ego?

Are there times when we are tested to see just how highly we think of ourselves over others? Are there times when we are urged to rethink our ministries based on how much they are serving our own interests versus the interests of others? Or maybe in our relations with others that are different than us, that believe differently than us, or worship differently, we are tested to see how high and mighty we think we are over them, or how our way is the right way or the best way!

Finally, the devil asks him to worship him instead of God, and the reward will be power over all the nations of the world, earthly power. In this temptation, Jesus’ loyalty is tested. And again, Jesus comes out on the other end of that test, proving that his loyalty is to God, and not to anyone else, not even himself. Are you hearing a common thread throughout all these temptations? Even though each test is about something different, perseverance, selfishness, ego, loyalty, Jesus always seems to come back to that same place—that this is not all about him. And this is Jesus we are talking about, the savior of the world, the ruler of the cosmos! Even he needed to acknowledge that this wasn’t all about him!

I won’t bore you with a lesson on the history of the church but for many centuries, the church had fallen to these same temptations that Jesus faced. For too many centuries the church had thought too highly of ourselves, thought we knew better than everyone else, thought we had all the answers, and then used that pride to lord it over others who we thought were less than. Now, you may be thinking, well we didn’t have any part of that pastor, Bethlehem is only 75 years old! Well, that may be true, but isn’t our job to clean up that mess, whether we like it or not? Maybe that is our big test of the ages. Maybe we are being tested, right now, to see if we can clean up that mess. To make sure that the world knows that the church is here to serve, not to be served.

That the church is here to sacrifice in order to make the world a better place, not here to consume. That the church is here for the worlds benefit, and not our own. And that we don’t have all the answers, nor is our way of thinking or doing the right or best way. We are living in an age where the church is not thought of in the same way people did in the past. People are not attending like they used to. And if we wonder why that is, maybe it’s time to read up on some church history, and ask ourselves if there are any wrongs that need to be righted.

Could that be our wilderness that we are being called into? Could the Spirit be calling us from our baptismal waters, with water still dripping from our chins, into a wilderness where the church is no longer number one, no longer the best game in town, no longer the one in power? Could that be our test? That in spite of all that, we are still called to persevere in the same mission that the church has always been called to—to love as we have been loved. If so, may we be ever reminded of God’s faithfulness to us, to never leave our side, and love us unconditionally, no matter how we come out on the other side of our tests. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Odd Couple

Inspired by Matthew 3:1-17

Even though we haven’t skipped any of Matthew’s Gospel between last week’s reading and today’s, Matthew skips about 30 years of Jesus’ life. At the end of chapter two Jesus was a toddler and was being visited by the Magi, and then at the beginning of chapter three, he’s an adult and ready to start his ministry. Matthew doesn’t bother telling us that he’s skipping thirty years, we have to estimate that from events that Luke mentions in his Gospel. On top of that, unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t even tell us anything about those thirty years. At least Luke gives us a story from when Jesus was 12 years old.

For Matthew, these years just don’t seem important enough to even reference. It was enough to tell us he was born, his lineage can be traced back to Abraham, he was visited by some magi, and then had to move twice to escape some psychotic kings that wanted him dead. That’s it. It’s more information that Mark gives us about these early years, as we will read next year; less information that Luke gives us, as we will read the year after that, but you still get the sense that Matthew wants to get to more important stuff than mangers and magi and family trees.

And so, we get today’s story about John the Baptizer and Jesus. And aren’t these two a pair! Talk about an odd couple! I mean, if you were writing a book about this new master of the universe, you would not start it with a pair like these two! Take John for instance. Here he is, living out in the boonies, wearing weird clothes, eating bugs and honey, and calling people names! Oh yeah, I want to go to his church!

And then there’s Jesus, who comes out of nowhere, no job, poor, a commoner, a resume that leaves a lot to be desired, and he just expects to take over John’s ministry that he’s worked hard to build up, and everyone’s just supposed to go along with that! I mean, if we didn’t know better, we’d think these two just traveled here from Mars and just don’t know how things work here on Earth! These guys seriously need a PR specialist right? But no, these two just keep forging ahead like all of this normal. But this is not how you start a ministry, or a movement, or a following, or heck, even a book club!

And I think that’s probably the first place where we can find some good news in this story. You see, none of the traditional social conventions mattered to them, traditional theology didn’t matter to them, long-held doctrines didn’t matter to them, politics didn’t matter to them, you might even say that religion didn’t matter to them, but that might be something we can talk about in the Bible study!

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about from the story itself. John was out in the wilderness, offering baptism to people, allowing people to confess their sins to him, and what was he requiring of them? To change their hearts and lives, to produce good fruit. That’s not the way this works John! You’re supposed to ask them for money! You’re supposed to tell them to go to a priest! You’re supposed to direct them to the temple in Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice! You’re doing it all wrong John!

And don’t get me started on this Jesus fella! He walks in doing everything backwards too! John sees him and expects to be baptized by Jesus but instead Jesus says, “Allow me to be baptized.” And I want you to note here that these are the first words from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. These are the first words from Jesus that Matthew chose to share with his readers. And since Jesus is kind of a big deal in this book, that’s got to be significant. As a writer, you just don’t give a throw away first line to your main character! But back to his backwards ways. You would think, that since Jesus is the new leader of this new minsitry, not to mention the savior of the world, that he’d be doing the baptizing here, not John! But no, Jesus asks to be baptized instead. And we’ll get to why in a second.

The beauty in this odd couple of sorts is that they are not interested in just doing what has always been done. They are not interested in making friends in high places. They are not interested in making themselves look good or to impress anyone. They are not interested in playing the rules that everyone else is and has been for centuries. They were interested in tearing down the wall that humans had built between themselves and God. That’s why they weren’t interested in playing nice with everyone! And what kinds of walls?

For one, religious laws that were more about keeping outsiders out and insiders in. Politics that allowed certain groups of people to be taken advantage of. Social constructs that had developed to treat women, the poor, people of other races unfairly. Yes, those will all be addressed in the Gospel of Matthew. These two cousins, John and Jesus, were making a new community that would be like nothing else the world had seen. And it was going to go against the grain of society, and make more than a few enemies along the way.

Which brings us to why Jesus insisted on being baptized by John? I believe there is a lot more in common between Jesus’ baptism and ours that we have traditionally thought. Did Jesus need his sins cleansed by his baptism? No. But do we? Is that really what we believe about baptism, that without it we are doomed to Hell? Of course not! Here’s another question. Did Jesus need to be baptized to be loved by God? No. Do we? Is that really what we believe about baptism, that God somehow loves us because of our baptism, or maybe loves us more after our baptism?

Of course not! God has loved you since the beginning of time and God could not love you more than God already does! So then why did Jesus want to get baptized by John? Well, people have written volumes on this subject but I only have time to point out my top two reasons. One, because Jesus wanted his followers to be baptized, and so he was baptized as a model for us to follow. But two, and the most important reason, is what he was baptized into…

Community. Community with God and with one another. Not be loved. Not to be forgiven. Not to be better than others. But to be in communion with God and God’s people. Why? Because we need each other. We need a community for support when the road gets rough. And if anyone knew about a rough road it was Jesus! We need a community to serve side by side with. We need a community to share the load with. We need a community because we can accomplish more together than we can individually.

We need a community when God asks us, like John does in today’s story, to change our hearts and lives, especially when we don’t think we need to change anything about ourselves and we like things just the way they are! Jesus knew he would need a community to see him through the days ahead. And Jesus knows that we do too. Thank God for this community, that we have been baptized into. Amen.