Archive for February, 2017

Mountain Tops

Mountain SceneHave you had many mountaintop experiences? These are those experiences which bring us closer in our relationship with God, usually through extraordinary experiences. What were those mountaintops?

In our two scripture passages from this past week, we find two different mountaintop experiences. In Exodus we find Moses going up the mountain to encounter God. God called him to the mountaintop, and this is where he encounters the living God. Covered in a shroud of clouds and mystery, God met Moses on the top of that mountain.

40 days and forty nights, Moses stayed on the top, stayed with God. If you remember, Moses came down the mountain with his face glowing from his encounter. People were afraid to look at him; he was transformed by his encounter with God.

And then in our Gospel lesson, Jesus goes up the mountain and is transformed. He is actually transfigured. There was a definite change in how Jesus looked to the disciples who traveled with him that day. His face shone like the sun and his clothes were changed to a brilliant white.

Great things happen during those mountain top experiences. The mountain is a great place to be. When I experience a mountaintop, I don’t want to come down. I want to stay on the mountain as long as I can. But eventually I have to come down. I was like Peter, wanting to pitch a couple of tents on the mountain, trying to make the moment last as long as he could.

If I came down, it meant that I would have to re-enter the world around me, but I liked it on the mountain. I liked the feeling I had. It felt like nothing could go wrong, all was right within my soul, it was perfect. Why ruin a good thing, right?

But we have to come down off the mountain, because as much as we like it up there, life is lived out in the plains. Friendships are formed in the normal everyday experiences. Ministry is done in the level plains. In the rolling hills of northwest Illinois.

As Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top, we are transformed by those experiences. When we encounter God in such a real way, it has a tendency to propel us to the mountain. And when we encounter God in that real way, we become transformed. Like Moses, we don’t look like we used to. We don’t act like we used to. We don’t treat others the way we used to. Our lives are transformed on that mountain top. But they are not transformed for our glory, it is all for the glory of God, and that’s why we need to come down off the mountain and enter into our everyday lives. We need to be the witnesses to God’s transforming power, so that others can have their own mountain top experiences.

Now, one last thing to remember, especially as we head into the Lenten season, is that mountaintop experiences aren’t always moments of absolute joy, seeing the wonder and majesty of God in new and magnificent ways. These experiences can also be times of quiet reflection.

I recently had such an occasion when I made a trip to Denver Colorado. I was able to enter just the foothills of Denver, still a long way off the mountaintop. But it gave me a few moments to reflect on my relationship with Jesus Christ and what he is calling me to do. Jesus did the same.

Jesus secluded himself many times up in the hills of Galilee. Matthew 5:1 tells us; “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” An escape, a resting place, or as an old spiritual says “steal away to Jesus.”

So as we enter Lent this Ash Wednesday, I hope you can reflect on those celebrations of being on top of the mountain, but I also hope you can carve out some time, just 15 minutes, to steal away to Jesus on the mountain top.

Christian Love

christian-loveMatthew 5:43-45 tells us; “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.”

In our passage today we hear that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. So the question comes, how do we love them. This past Sunday we looked at the ancient Greek words used for love. Stroge love is one of family, love of a child or parent. Eros is a love between spouses. Philia love is considered “brotherly love” which would be the love of not only family, but also friends. This love requires a warmth and affection towards another. But the love expressed here for our enemies is not any of these, it is Agape love.

This is the highest form of love. It is a never changing love. It is a love that can be felt between spouses, family, and friends. But it can also be felt between strangers and, dare I say, enemies. You see, this type of love is not affected by behaviors, good or bad. Nothing affects it.

God has shown this throughout scripture. We see this when the Israelites turned away from God and even began worshipping other gods, when they questioned Moses in the desert, even when they killed God’s only Son. God’s love never changed. He always loved them, just like he always loves us. Throughout the Psalms we hear this phrase over and over again, “give thanks to the Lord our God and King, His love endures forever.” This is God’s steadfast love. This is God’s Agape love for His people, for all people. Agape love is invincible goodwill, the ability to love those we don’t necessarily like, and those who don’t particularly like us. This kind of love is a choice. We choose whether to love someone with Agape love, or we don’t. It is our choice. We have the liberty that God has given to us to make that choice.

Now please understand this, this choice that we can choose to make, is only possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. That is the power that is given to us, the power to choose to love. It all starts with each one of us. When we get up in the morning, we can choose to love. We can choose to lay the hate and anger aside, and allow the Agape love of God to be manifested in our lives.

This love is based in a relationship, beginning with our relationship with Jesus Christ. It all starts there and then we make our decision to love others, through the grace of Christ. We have that liberty, just as all of those around us have the same liberty to do as they like to us. We don’t have control over them, but we do have control over our attitudes and our ability to love.

But we are not only called to love our enemies, but we are also called to pray for them. Now I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly difficult to pray for someone that I don’t like. If fact, I find that if I pray for someone that I’m not especially fond of, it won’t take long before those feeling begin to vanish. It’s hard to pray for someone, and truly want God’s will for their lives, without beginning to feel something for them. You begin to see that they are also a child of God, that this is a special person whom God loves, just as much as God loves you. And if that’s the case, how could you not love a brother or sister in Christ?

Anger and hatred have no place in the face of God. They simply can’t exist together. Anger has no place in the Kingdom of God. Hatred has no place in the Kingdom of God. Bullying has no place in the Kingdom of God. Racism has no place, oppression has no place, divisive language has no place, persecution has no place in the Kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, we are called to be godlike, to be Christ like. We are called to be imitators of God and how do we know what that is? We know this through the revelation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is how we know what it means to be imitators of God, to be Christ like.

God demonstrated Agape love through the life of Jesus Christ, He embodied Agape love to all people, not just the ones who followed him and listened to His teachings, but all people, including the tax collectors, religious leaders, and even those on the fringes of society. Jesus Christ ate with sinners. This is the life we should follow; this is the life we should be looking to imitate. This is the life that shows us what true Agape love is, and we should act the same.

We even get it straight from Jesus’ lips in our scripture today. Verse 44-45 again; “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of the Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

God offers blessing on all people, not just the “good” ones. He gives the benefit of the sunshine as well as the blessing of rain on those who follow his commands and those who don’t, those who love him and those who curse him. This is Agape love, a love that is unwavering in the face of rejection, in the face of disbelief, and in the face of anger. Love, regardless of whether it is reciprocated.

I think too often, the love that we have is conditional. We will love someone, or at least be kind to someone else as long as they do the same. If they decide not to return the favor, to show affection, or to at least acknowledge our love, then we just drop them and move on to the next person. I’m sure that we can all think of someone who we have treated this way in the past.

But you must see that God is calling us in this passage to something greater. He is asking us to not only love our enemies and pray for those who would like to do harm to us, but He is also asking us to be like Christ. God is asking us to be perfect, as He is perfect. Leviticus 19:2 tells us; “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 1st Peter 1:16 also tells us; “You shall be holy for I am holy.” And now in Matthew 5:48; “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are to be like God, be like Christ.

But what does it mean to be perfect? How do we live a life of perfection? If you remember, perfect in our scriptures does not necessarily mean what we think it means. To be perfect means that you are living into God’s calling in your life and in our passage today it means that you are living your life full of Agape love to all people. This means loving both the saint and the sinner alike, with the same kind of love that God loves us; unchanging, unwavering, regardless of the actions of others.

Again, a glimpse of John Wesley’s view of Christian Perfection; having nothing but the love of Go and the love of neighbor in our hearts. Not just in actions, but in our affections, the things that only God and ourselves can see. Is this possible, absolutely! Is it difficult, darn right it is. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop striving for it.

What’s in Your Way?

whats-in-your-way-titleMatthew 5:23-26 says this; “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

As we look at our relationships with God and others, there are many times when we know that our relationship with God is primary, before all else. But in these verses, we might hear something a little different. We see here that if there is a problem with a brother or sister, we should first take care of that before we offer anything to God. It seems like our relationship with others take precedents before God. But as we look at this a little closer, things change.

First, God is calling us to reconcile our relationships here, before we do anything else. But notice the example given, is reconciliation in reverse, or at least the normal way we would think about it. We usually think about it this way. We’ve done something to someone, we have wronged them in some way. We didn’t treat them the way they deserve. Either way, we are at fault. So we go to them and ask for forgiveness. We say that we are sorry and hope they can find it in their heart to forgive us.

But this example tells us how to react to someone else’s anger or action, regardless of its validity. It may be that their anger is appropriate and valid, but that should not stop us from seeking reconciliation and forgiveness. The condition of the church, this community, is that important. That is why Jesus is asking us to reconcile before we approach the altar with our offerings.

You must see that anger, resentment, gossip, talking down to others, even name calling is not acceptable behaviors within our community. All of these things are barriers to community, they are barriers to love. All of these things are like bricks being placed one by one, creating a wall that one day will cut off our relationship with each other. God knows that if we are not reconciled with each other, we will never be reconciled with Him. We can’t be right with God until we get right with our neighbors and friends. Let me remind you of the greatest commandment; we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all your mind. And, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We need to get right with each other, and do it quickly. As our scripture tells us, we need to come to terms with our accuser while we can. If we wait too long, we risk being turned over to the judge and reaching a point in the relationship which is beyond the point of no return. Then we lose the chance to ever reconcile with them.

So go, make that phone call, send that text, go and visit, reconcile your relationships.

Salt or Salty?

salt-or-salty-sermon-titleMatthew 5:13-14 says this; “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Here we have Jesus telling us that this is who we are; salt of the earth and the light of the world. But this isn’t just describing us, it’s more of a charge. It’s something that we should do; be salt, be light. As we look at these two metaphors, we need to make sure we look at them from the perspective of Jesus’ day, because if we look at them from today’s perspective and our health conscious society, salt may not be a wonderful thing all the time. But then again, there might be some insight even today.

The people in Jesus’ day would have viewed salt in a few different ways. They saw it as a representation of purity, as a preservative, and something that adds flavor. I guess we could see that as well.

First, salt is bleach white, clean looking and therefore was used in many references of pure and purity. We could see the same with snow, “it was as pure as the driven snow.” Fresh, clean. Jesus was telling his disciples that they needed to live a life of purity. They should live their life avoiding sin. They should be an example of a life devoted to Jesus and his teachings. We are called to the same.

2000 years ago, they did not have refrigeration, they had no freezers, nothing to keep their food from spoiling. What they did have was salt. Salt acted as a preservative and kept their food edible for a longer period of time. Salt helped the meat they were not ready to cook yet, to not go bad. How many times are we in the middle of conversations with friends and the topic becomes toxic. Gossip begins, slander erupts, name calling begins, or maybe it’s just a change in tone. How easy is it to just go with the flow, follow suit, and join right in the degrading conversation, even if we know it’s wrong?

Here’s where the preservative comes in. We are to be like that salt, preserving the conversation from going bad. As followers of Christ, we should be the ones who stand up for what is right and good, making sure that those around us aren’t sucked into the gossip or degrading conversation or actions.

Salt add flavor. Oh yes it does. It adds flavor. It also brings out natural flavor, like steaks. I’m sure some of you are on one of those low sodium diets, heart healthy, low salt, low flavor diets. You see, when you take out the salt, food has a tendency to get a little bland, at least it does when you first begin the diet. Maybe you get used to it, maybe not.

As Christians, we should be adding flavor to our relationships. I’m not sure when it became normal to think that Christians were always the boring ones, never having any fun. I say that since we are Christians, we should be the ones having the most fun. I mean really, what can be better. We have everything to celebrate. So let’s add a little flavor to our lives, salt it up!

One more thing about salt. As I was reflecting on salt’s many different uses, I came across one during the winter season. When the weather gets bad and road conditions deteriorate and get slippery, the road crews venture out and lay salt down on the roads. It’s a safety thing. We don’t want people sliding off the roads and getting hurt, right? What if being the salt of the earth means helping to keep people on the straight and narrow path that leads to Jesus Christ?

Can we see our lives like that rock salt, guiding people to safety when times get rough and when it seems like it would be easy to just let go of the wheel and slide right into the ditch? We should live our life so that others can get traction in their relationship with Jesus Christ and not slip off the path God has called them on.

But we are not just the salt of the earth, we are also the light of the world.  We are called to be a light in a world full of darkness, to share the light of Christ with a world that so desperately needs it. We are like a city on a hill, lighting the way for others to find their way home. We are like a lighthouse, leading people home safely from the dangers of the sea.

With all this being said, the light of Jesus in our life as something that needs to be seen. The light of Jesus in our life should be seen as a guide, leading others to a relationship with Him. We can see the light of Jesus in our life as a warning light. Many see these warning lights as something that keeps people away from danger, and we need to be that warning light to those who find themselves in danger.

But if they can’t see the light, how are we supposed to help them? If our light is hidden, how will it lead people to a relationship with Jesus Christ? Worse yet, if our light has been dimmed in any way, will people be able to see it. Will it be so dim that not only will others not see it, but it also will not be able to guide us, to show us the way any longer? (pause) So how is our light hidden or dimmed?

Our light is hidden when we are going along with the crowd. When we find it more important to get along with everyone that we don’t stand out for what we believe in. When we are caught up in situations and conversations that are not life giving. When we decide that other things are more important than sharing and witnessing to our relationship with Jesus, we hide our light, the light that Jesus has placed in our hearts.

Our light is hidden when we deny the light. When we either walk away from our relationship, or we deny that we even know Jesus, we place that bushel over our light. When we sin, we allow our light to be dimmed. The further away we get in our own relationship with Jesus, the dimmer our light gets.

Our light is hidden when we fail to explain the light to others, when we don’t testify to our relationship, to the change that we’ve had in our lives, the bushel covers our light a little more.

Our light is hidden when we are quiet when we should speak. When we encounter injustices in this world, when we find ourselves in the face of bullying, when we are face to face with hate, we need to speak. We need to be the light that reaches into the darkness of these situations, shining the light of Christ into the darkness of sin.

Finally, our light is hidden when we ignore the needs of others. Jesus has called us to share the good news with all people, not just those that we want to, people like us, people that we like being seen in public with, but all people. We are to care for those who are in need, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Who are we to judge who God loves? How can we place our visions before God’s vision? Are we attempting to put God in a box, only wanting him to save those we choose? This is a dangerous place to be…

If we are doing our part as disciples of Jesus Christ, our lives can’t be hidden. If we are living our lives as people who are loved by God, saved by grace, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, there is no way in the world our light can be hidden. We will be like that city on a hill, shining for all to see. Our lives will be that beacon of light which reaches the lost and broken.

I don’t really have to tell you about the world that we live in right now. All the anger, disgust, bullying, discriminating, and hate filled things that are going on within our country and even our community are dragging us down. They are attempting to hide our lights. All of these things are diminishing the lights that we have in our collective souls.

I look around me and see the world becoming darker by the day, and it’s not just from the leaders of our country. This is coming from many in our world who have taken an extreme side, regardless of which side, and are tearing others down. Belittling them with horrible speech and name calling. There are so many who have hidden their lights by speaking in ways that Christians or even just moral people should never speak.

We need to be sure that when we speak up, which we should do, that we do so in the love of God. We should spread the love of God all around us, having uplifting conversations and debates about the issues that really matter. Issues of life. Issues of love. Issues of caring for others and helping to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

If we are truly the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we need to live our lives accordingly. As disciples of Christ, this is what we are called to do.