Come Away and Rest A While

“Come away to a deserted place
all by yourselves and rest a while”
(Jesus in Mark 6:31 NRSV)

Modern people live hectic lives. So hectic even our vacations leave us more exhausted than the jobs from which we are seeking a break. Study after study reports that Americans are overworked, overstressed, overweight, overextended, and overtired.

While there may be many complex reasons for this situation and by no means am I offering a single fix-it-all solution, but one spiritual discipline that holds out promise toward a solution would be a rediscovery of Sabbath. There was a time not so long ago when Sabbath was a value embedded in our society. Perhaps quaint now, we once believed that Sunday was a “Sabbath” on which work was not to be done unless absolutely necessary. Youth sporting events would never be allowed on this sacred day. Even Wednesday evenings when churches met for prayer and Bible study was granted a quasi-sacred respect. Those days are gone and I’m not altogether disappointed in seeing the quirkier blue laws related to this holy culture set aside, however . . .

However in losing all of what Sabbath once was, we have lost what we now need the most: time for rest.

The biblical story is punctuated with the human need for Sabbath. Sabbath is an interesting word in Hebrew that looks like both the word “rest” and “seven.” So it was an easy association between the need for rest and the seventh day. Even the creation story was told to climax in God resting on the seventh day. The Old Testament has two takes on why the ancient people of Israel should rest at the end of every week. First, based on the creation story, God did (Exodus 20:8-11). Second, however, was that the Israelites had once been slaves, thus forced to work every day, and now God had set them free. Resting then was a symbol of being free (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

Ironically by the time of the New Testament, Sabbath had become a burden rather than a blessing. Jesus challenged the religious leaders of the day for turning Sabbath into a test of orthodoxy for separating the faithful from the irreligious. Jesus intentionally did his ministry and miracles on the Sabbath and more than once did the powers confront him. In each case Jesus would rebuff them with sayings like

“Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath? … Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:10–12).

Or in another place,

“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28).

Jesus sought to restore Sabbath as a good thing for people. Consistent with this Jesus once invited his busy disciples to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)

We invite you to come rest a while with us through this season of Lent.

Copied from my article in our church newsletter at http://www.fcchammond.org/FEBOUTLOOK2013.aspx.

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What is Lent All About?

“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.’” 

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.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:1–11 NRSV)

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LENT was originally not a religious word at all. A Teutonic (Germanic) word meaning “long,” it was used to refer to the lengthening days of spring. The word was passed through Anglo-Saxo into English, and finally used to translate the Latin quadragesima (“forty days”) which imitates the Greek name for the season of Lent, tessarakoste, or fortieth. So that is why we call this season Lent.

By the fifth century, church authorities assumed the practice of Lent went back to the apostles. However historians have noted that, in the first three centuries, churches were quite diverse in their practice of the fast before Easter. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius cites a letter from Irenaeus (late second century) who states that there was much confusion over the fast that came before Easter. Some thought it should be one day, others two, and yet others thought forty hours (day and night) as the correct amount. Later when Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which contains the letter from Irenaeus, was translated from Greek into Latin, the translator punctuated text so that last group fasted for forty days, not forty hours. So, interestingly, Lent became a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

If you would like more information about the origin and development of Lent, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm.

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LENT is about repenting, reorienting, recalibrating and realigning. Lent provides an opportunity as we approach Resurrection Sunday to bring our lives more in sync with Jesus. Reflecting on the temptation of Jesus (see the Scripture above) provides resources for this time of penitence and prayer.

Henri Nowen in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership made the dynamic  Jesus’ temptations real for me. Jesus responded to each temptation with Scripture;more specifically, Jesus quotes texts from Deuteronomy 6-8.

Deuteronomy 6-8 tells how the “newly minted” nation of Israel was tested in the wilderness; and how at each test the they failed to trust God.

Now comes Jesus’ turn. He too is tested but each time he successfully deflects Satan’s overtures. Where Israel, the nation, had failed, Jesus the Son will succeed. Part of Jesus success was that he knew the story. Because he knew the story of how Israel had failed the test, Jesus knew exactly what he was facing. Now that we have both stories, that of Israel and of Jesus, we know what we need to do when tempted.

Nowen reframes each temptation so we can hear them better. The temptation to turn stone into bread is the temptation to be relevant. The temptation to jump off the temple to be caught by angels is the temptation to be sensational. And the temptation to possess all the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to be powerful.

Each of these are a real temptation because we are all tempted to focus on what we want more than anything else. When we speak of being relevant (particularly in church life) we generally have in mind that notion that if we were more relevant, more people would be interested in church. So the conversation becomes what we need to do to please people and that is where this becomes a problem. Recall another story: when Aaron, the high priest, made a golden calf for the people. The golden calf was relevant but the golden calf was not God.

Each of us have felt the desire to be sensational. Drama Queen seems to be an art form for some today. How often do we walk the line between “doing our deeds before others” and “doing our deeds before othersso that they might see our Heavenly Father.” Jesus could have stepped off the pinnacle of the temple and floated down to the earth impressing all those who saw him. However, as with the stones, Jesus understood that making himself important or impressive works against the mission of God. All three of the temptations partake of the attitude that it’s-about-me.

Finally, the desire to be powerful is so “natural” that in our culture we assume that is what people should aspire to be. Jesus could have had the whole world without the cross! That is what Satan is offering. However, the way of power without the cross is not the way of God. To be powerful is to bypass the way of suffering and the gospel is clear that for Jesus suffering comes before glory. Those who would follow Jesus must learn this, too. As the apostle Paul will say later when we are weak, we are strong (see 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 12:10; 13:9).

So what is the meaning of Lent? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. Let me encourage you to use this season as a time to repent, reorient, recalibrate, and realign your life with that of your Lord Jesus. Let’s resist the temptation to be relevantsensational, and powerful and simply moving into being who God has called us to be.

To Begin Again

Can a person really start over?

Isn’t there always baggage?

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change?

The cynic in me wants to see real change as impossible but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this is the case. No doubt, life is tough and for some and at times really tough. Yet the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than I have, holds out a vision of humanity that has potential. New things can happen!

For example, notice this medley of verses:

[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Psalms 40:3); See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43:19); Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant ….” (Jeremiah 31:31); Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) … what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15).

The Apostle Paul invited the church at Colossae (in modern day Turkey) to enter into God’s newness. In the third chapter of his letter to that church, Paul points to three areas in which God wants to renew us.

First, God invites us to renew our orientation, to seek what is heavenly, not earthly. Sometimes we live as if the minutia of every moment is the most important issue in our lives. We all—at times—are drama queens. We fail to see that in a few short moments most of what  upset us now will not really matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the Apostle is not just suggesting that we get a better mental attitude; this is not how to think your way into a better way of feeling.

The invitation is for complete reorientation. Because we have been baptized into Christ, we now “seek the things above” and we do this because “Christ is there!” Now, as those united with Christ, we are, in some sense, already with him. Imagine living now as if we were already living in heaven.

Next God calls us to reevaluate our identity. In a (religious) world intent on reminding us often that we are sinners (and we are), the Bible most often strikes another note. In this text, believers in Jesus are those who are hidden in Christ, those who have put on the new self that, according to the Apostle, “is being renewed by the knowledge according to the creator’s image.” Our new identity is not defined by religious or socioeconomic labels but by Christ. Therefore, believers should see themselves as God sees them: as specially chosen, holy and deeply loved.

Consequently, God invites to refresh our way of life. Continuing the language of baptism, Paul reminds us to “put to death” dispositions, habits and tendencies that simply do not belong to heaven-minded people. The laundry list is long and dirty: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, “since” as Paul adds, “you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Continuing the baptismal image, Paul is confident that believers have “put on” the new self and the associated dispositions, habits, and tendencies. These virtues include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, telling the truth, speaking wholesome words, love, unity, peace, and thankfulness.

In summary, Paul is not inviting his readers to embrace the power of positive thinking, but rather of taking hold of a completely different paradigm for reality. The primary feature of this new paradigm is that we are now united with Christ. This union with Christ instigates certain new realities, namely, that we are now “hidden in Christ.” The changes called for grows out of a relationship with Christ. If one belongs to Jesus, then it follows that such a person would think differently about who they are. This, then, would (naturally) lead believers to put off things that work against their new identity and to put on attributes that are consistent with that new identity.

Can a person really start over? Yes, with Jesus they can.

Isn’t there always baggage? Yes, but God can handle your baggage.

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change? Only if you so choose; it is not the way of Jesus.

Also published at http://www.fcchammond.org/JANNEWSLETTER.aspx.

Sacrifice of Praise (Hebrews 13.15-16)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13.15–16 NIV)

Throughout the sermon that we call the Letter to the Hebrews, the preacher has emphasized that Jesus is our perfect High Priest; his qualifications is that as God he can connect us with the Father and as a human he can understand and sympathize with us. Better than any of the early high priests Jesus can truly mediate the things of God to people.

Yet one of the most important functions of a High Priest was to offer sacrifices, first for himself and his family, and then for the people. Analogous to this, Jesus, while not needing to offer anything for himself, still needed, in the logic of Leviticus, to offer a sacrifice for his people. Here, the preacher offers his most significant insight: Jesus is both Priest and victim—but he is not a victim in that he is a willing and living sacrifice.

Now we are able to look back at the beginning of Hebrews to see why making purifications for sins before sitting down at the right hand of God (1.3b) is such a big deal.

Since Jesus has accomplished atonement (at-one-ment) with God, there no longer remains any useful reason for continuing animal sacrifices. They simply are not necessary since Jesus’ self-sacrifice in the heavenly temple.

However, there was one sacrifice from Leviticus that was not connected with the “forgiveness of sins.” The peace or thanksgiving offering was a free will offering just to express gratitude to God. In the passage cited above, this offering is transformed into “sacrifice of praise,” also called “the fruit of lips that confess his name.” This would include the public confession of Jesus in word and song.

Yet there is one more form of sacrifice mentioned in this text:  to do good and to share with others. Furthermore, this kind of sacrifice pleases God. Amazingly—to me—the kind of sacrifices that God is seeking through the Letter to the Hebrews are these: to love God by confessing him and by doing good to others.

And so closes Hebrews on the note of loving God and loving people.

Arrested Development (Hebrews 5.11-6.12)

Beginning in Hebrews 5.11 and going through 10.25, we have what one commentator calls the “Difficult Discourse.” And it is rather difficult: in it, the author of Hebrews will call his readers “lazy,” he will try to explain how Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek, and finally he will seek to explain the work of Jesus as our great high priest.

You can almost feel the anger and frustration of the writer as he tells his hearers that they need to grow up. He is also saddened by the condition of his hearers who by this time “ought to be teachers,” but because of the their indifference they need someone to teach them as if they were starting all over again. They can’t handle solid food; they need to be nursed! Like Benjamin Button, they have, against God’s intentions, become babies again!

Some of the indicators of the readers’ immaturity include that they lose their focus on Jesus, they don’t seem to be encouraging one another, they are on the edge of giving up, and they don’t give meeting together the time it deserves.

But the telling sign in this passage is they have not grown beyond “first principles,” such as repenting, faith, teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and judgment. These, according to Hebrews, are the “baby” doctrines!

The reason we need to grow up is that growing up is the anecdote to falling away. To give up on God is like re-crucifying Jesus and exposing Jesus to public shame! It’s like ground that receives the good rain only to produce thorns and thistles.

Though a hard word, the preacher of Hebrews holds out that his readers will respond to God’s Word. God will not forget our previous work so we should renew our engagement and effort. This active engagement in God’s mission is what will sustain us to the end.

Sometimes, the hard word is the good news!

Sometimes, it is just what we need to hear.

Do it Today (Hebrews 3.7-4.13)

The recent movie Inception explored the possibility of having a dream within a dream. This engaging sci-fi thriller imagined going even deeper, as much as four levels deep. In the text covered today, the Hebrews writer explores a text within a text, as much as three or four levels deep. Let’s see if we can peel back the layers.

The first level is the text of the sermon (focusing today on Hebrews 3.7-4.13), which cites Psalms 95.7-11 that is itself a reflection on the events of Exodus 17 and Numbers 14. Working backwards through this text, we discovered that the Exodus and Numbers texts tell of how Israel rebelled against God, first, in not trusting God to provide water for the journey, and, second, for refusing to trust God’s ability to lead them into the Promised Land. The Book of Numbers records several rebellions against God: Aaron and Miriam conspiring against Moses (chapter 12), the people refusing to enter the land (14), and Korah’s rebellion (16).

In Numbers 14, God promises that everyone, except the faithful spies Joshua and Caleb, would die in the desert. Not one of them would get to enter the Promised Land.

Today—if you hear his voice:

Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion

Like the day of testing in the desert

where your fathers tried me;

they tested me though they viewed my deeds.

Forty years this generation irked me

So I said, “Their hearts were deceived and

they did not know my ways;

As I swore an oath in my anger,

“They will never enter into my rest.”

(Psa 95.11b-11 LXX, my translation)

Psalm 95 begins as a psalm of praise but ends with the warning not to harden one’s heart against the voice of God. The psalm ends with a declaration of warning: “They [the Israelites] shall never enter my rest.”

Finally, years later, the Hebrews writer picks up Psalms 95 to warn his people not to rebel against God. However, he does not stress the ominous “They shall never enter my rest,” but rather a single word that occurs earlier: “today.” So encourage each other today. Don’t be hardened by sin today. Hear his voice today.

Because Today is really all you have.

The Son’s House (Hebrews 3.1-6)

Some sermons require a lot of those who are listening. And so is the case with the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews. However, this sermon is worth the effort.

So far the preacher has announced that God has spoken today through his Son who is better than angels who brought the law. Therefore, this Son deserves our careful attention. By becoming human, this Son became a little lower than the angels to identify with us, willingly claiming us as his siblings, so that he can be our great high priest. So little by little the case of Christ is being made.

“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (Hebrews 3.1–6 NIV)

In his next move, the preacher of Hebrews calls on his “holy” brothers and sisters—who “share in the heavenly calling—to stay focused on Jesus, our high priest who now is also our “apostle.” This last descriptor reminds us of the “sent” nature of Jesus’ mission.

What follows is a comparison between the ministry of Jesus and Moses, the historic liberator of the Jewish people. The comparison is simple. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house; yet Jesus was a faithful Son in the house. Conclusion: Jesus is better than Moses.

Furthermore, Moses testified to what could be in the future; in other words, Moses looked forward to the ministry of Jesus. The Hebrews writer will have much to say about this.

In this text, our ancient sermonizer started with the idea that the followers of Jesus “share in the heavenly calling.” Because of the high priesthood of Jesus, we now share in Jesus’ status. This is a hard thought for most Christians but it is what the text says.

Therefore, when the preacher finishes this text, he notes that this house over which Jesus has been faithful is us! We are that house and Jesus is in the house!  That is, “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”

So, let us keep our eyes on Jesus!