We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.

What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.

What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.

For: 
February 18, 2018
Mark 1:9-12
Lent 1

A man walks into a bar and says, “Make mine a double.” What he means is take a shot of whatever spirits and put it in a glass, then double it by adding another shot. It’s a very literal thing. Instead of one ounce of booze, you have two. I think we should be more literal when talking about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have one ounce of spirit. Sometimes we have more. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. Our soul is real, as is our God. Religion doesn’t deal with intangibles. In spiritual matters we deal with a substance that matters. In Bible times, every son got one portion of the family estate. But the first born son got a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. Is the Holy Spirit that real to you?

For: 
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-15
Epiphany 6
Transfiguration Sunday

Mark is the Tom Clancy of the New Testament. He is an action adventure writer. His gospel moves fast. His favorite word is “immediately.” He hates the passive voice. Jesus is always doing something. As a writer, myself, I recognize the writing problem that Mark gets himself into at the end of his first chapter. Mark wants to keep the story moving, but he also wants to give us details about how Jesus spent his days. The Bible’s other authors would have written a few paragraphs about what Jesus often did, or the nature of his habits. “Often” and “routine” are not in Mark’s adventure packed vocabulary.

Many Bible scholars think that Mark, also known as John-Mark, is Peter’s ghost writer. The impulsive fisherman didn’t have time to put words to paper. Mark didn’t want to waste the reader’s time, or attention span, with talk of what Jesus ate for breakfast or how often he went to the gym. Instead, he gives us a fast paced account of a single day. He implies that this is what its like to follow Jesus. We are left thinking that being a disciple is too high stress, 24/7, type A, a thing for our lives (not that I’m criticizing Mark). Yet, Mark is an antidote to the ho-hum, gentle and mild, church-is-boring, way we have settled into this Christianity thing. 

Lent starts in another week and a half. We do well to remember that the reason Mark rips through the beginning of Jesus’ story is because he wants to take us to the cross. The event that reshapes all of human history doesn’t happen along the quaint Galilean shore, it’s in Jerusalem — bloody and passionate — and there, oddly enough, Mark slows down to bring our work-a-day world to a stop.

So every day with Jesus isn’t like the one described in Mark 1:21-39. But they all contain the same elements:

For: 
February 4, 2018
Mark 1:29-39
Epiphany 5
"They were amazed by Jesus, because he taught with authority"

Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to those he left behind so that they might have his authority to go into this hurting world and be compassionate. Anyone who knows Jesus can be “an authority” by simply choosing to love the people around them without compromise.

For: 
January 28, 2018
Mark 1:21-28
Matthew 5:21-32
Epiphany 4

Jesus calls people to follow him. I am always amazed that the first people he called “left everything.” I put myself in their sandals and say, “I wouldn’t follow Jesus today, because it snowed three inches overnight and I have to shovel us out first.” Peter and James may not have had snow, but they had fish to be taken to market, nets to be mended, elderly parents, households to take care of, etc. Looking closely at the story (Mark 1:14-20), I see that John the Baptist had already prepared these people. When we listen to Jesus, our hearts have already been prepared by the scriptures we have learned, the people who lived as Christians before us, the dark traumas of our own lives when God was our only help and consolation. These things are in our past, Jesus is before us, do we follow him?

When people follow him they join up for the same experience the first disciples had:

  1. They become a part of a small group working together to know Jesus. Think the Hobbit. Think of the tightest team you’ve ever been a part of — I ran cross-country and had a very close relationship with the guys on my high school team the year before I became a Christian. If you follow Jesus, he will call you to be a part of a small group.
  2. Hands on experience of helping people. Jesus didn’t ask people to give money to a mission project. He asked people to follow him and do as he did as he met the needs of people. 
  3. A journey to the cross. Lent is coming. Will you follow Jesus more intentionally this year, even if it put some of what you value now at risk? 
For: 
January 21, 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Epiphany 3

John wants to tell us what he found remarkable about Jesus (John 1:43-51). He tells us that Jesus was the invisible word that God used to make the universe, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?” John then tells us how John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?”  Then John gets right down to it. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus. Jesus says to Peter, “I know you.” Phillip bring Nathaniel to Jesus. Jesus immediately makes Nathaniel aware that he really knows him well, even though they have never physically met. Now it’s your turn. You are brought to Jesus. And he says, “I know you.” Then you discover that Jesus is the teacher that you need right now. If you choose to walk with Jesus, you will discover that Jesus knows you better than you know yourself.

There is an anonymous saying, possibly originating in eastern mysticism, which says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” These words speak to how we learn things. The process by which we make those quantum leaps in our lives, involves two things; first, our own inner maturity developing to a certain point, and second, an intervention by someone else who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

None of the first disciples were really looking for Jesus when they found him. True, Nathaniel seems to have been very religious and searching for something. Until he came to this moment though, he didn’t know enough to know that he needed Jesus. When he was ready, though, Jesus came to him. Jesus became his teacher. He became a disciple, someone who is ready to learn.

For: 
January 14, 2018
John 1:43-51
Psalm 139
Epiphany 2

Some people take a long time to get to the point. The Bible takes ten words to get to it. Ten words and we are told that before God spoke the “Word” the earth was a formless nothing. All of creation was face-less. Nothing had any distinction. It was dark. It was meaningless. Total entropy — physics speak for everything being without information, chaotic, and at its lowest energy state. Goo. The pits. 

I’m glad not to have known it. When we have trauma. When we lose a loved one. When our hopes are dashed. When the doctor says “cancer” or “terminal.” We visit the outer most edge of this hell. But God’s spirit has already hovered over this void. The creator came to know the total accumulation of everything that depresses us. It was dark. God said, “Let there be light.”

This is how the Bible begins. It doesn’t begin with an argument against evolution. It begins by telling us that there was once such a deep hopelessness that there could never be anything. God acted. He spoke into being the complexity of creation. I suspect that God used evolution, for Darwin tells us that this process enables there to be diversity. Life is bent on filling every niche. It is bent on being good, because this is what God spoke into existence. 

When we lack purpose in life, here’s the point. In less than ten words the Bible can restore our sense of wonder and hope. I’m glad to have known that.

When bad things happen to us, we poke our minds outside of the created order that God has gifted us with, and for a moment, feel the pre-existent void. We don’t have to stay there. It, however, gives us a new perspective. From this darkness, we can be creative.

For: 
January 7, 2018
Genesis 1:1-5
Epiphany 1

We think a lot about time as we transition from one year to the next. Was it a good year? Will I find more time to do the important things in the next? We are such busy people. Will God have room to enter into our fullness of time? I have a relative who is due to give birth in the in next month. Her pregnant shape gives added meaning to the fullness of time. When her time is full, the child will come. We each came into the fullness of our mother’s world. We each interrupted the normal. In the fullness of our own time, we will each exit this world. Unless the Lord returns before then. In the final getting up day, we shall all see the fullness of human history and its final transition to something new. Until then, we need to be mindful of the time that has been given to us to do thing of eternal value.

Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last: Successful habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business, 1994) speaks about how successful business leaders are “clock builders” as opposed to “time keepers.” That is, instead of merely trying to manage a situation, they set out to build a new reality. This new reality requires steady and selfless work. Flashy, manipulative, and creative individuals may achieve short-term success, and detail oriented, skillful managers may coach the maximum revenue out a lack luster situation, but neither brings about the systemic change that leaves an organization better than what it was before they came. 

For: 
December 31, 2017
Galatians 4:4-7
Christmastide
New Years Eve

It’s like something out of Star Wars or the Matrix. God (or the Force) hovers over a fourteen year old girl. She’s the one. Something evil has taken over the galaxy. Mary is our only hope. So the story is very old, and very new. Its familiarity makes us forget what lies at the core. The world is in the hands of powerful people (mostly old white men). The wealthy pass themselves lavish tax breaks. The Romans rule Palestine. The 1% deny children healthcare (CHIP program). As much as things change, they remain the same.

So what do we know?

  1. God is willing to enter into our world. Hope means looking for what God is doing and aligning yourself with it. There is no hope, unless we look for God and trust that He will come. We each will see God somewhere. Watch. Do what God is doing. Take His side.
  2. God has forsaken the powerful and chosen the insignificant to be his instruments. There was nothing less likely to succeed than a peasant girl from Nazareth. Who am I to doubt that God can use me?
  3. The fact that our world is so similar to the one we read of in the Bible does not mean that God’s rebellion has failed. It means that hope is as relevant now as it was then. Our parents may have lost hope. We must not.  

Oh, and like I say every week, choose to be compassionate.
 

For: 
December 24, 2017
Luke 1:26-38
Luke 2:1-14
Advent 4
Christmas Eve

All Christians believe certain things. Jesus is Lord, for example. Lately I have felt a need to say that my "brand" of Christianity parts company with some (I'm not going to name, names) who are in the news. What makes me different boils down to seven basics:

Today is a day of reversals. Those on top are tumbling. Take that, Mr.Harvey Weinstein. And yet still, the rich get richer and no one speaks for the poor in the halls of government. But, Jesus spoke for them. When asked to give the sermon in Capernaum, he took for his text the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He put his finger on this passage and read:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…” (Isaiah 61:1). 

Jesus also echoes much of Isaiah’s “good news” in his day to day teaching. As he walks among common folk he says:
Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied…
And,
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
        - Luke 6:20, 21, and Matthew 5:4-5

We should look at what is happening in today’s news and rejoice. Those without a voice are now speaking up and saying, “Me too!”

A line from Isaiah gives me hope: “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them [the poor, the abused, the meek] their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61:8).

This is the shocking statement of Advent: The Lord God cares about Justice.

For: 
December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-11
Luke 4:16-21
Advent 3

Sometimes we are sent out into the wilderness to learn things. It wasn’t until the people under Moses in the Exodus reached the middle of the Sinai dessert that God taught them the ten commandments. Jesus went out into the wilderness to prepare for the active portion of his ministry. He also sought out mountain retreats and desolate spaces on a regular basis, so that he might be ready to learn, to pray, and to  renew his commitment to God’s will. The crowds that Jesus would teach, had to first go into the wilderness and there, be taught by John the Baptist. We, yes each of us, are sent out into the wilderness to learn things.

There’s a bit of new age (popular) philosophy that runs, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” The biblical version of this is, “When you get yourself to the wilderness and have nothing, then God will send someone to teach you.” Sometimes we are sent to the wilderness by trauma, loss, or grief. Sometimes we intentionally have to choose time away, just as Jesus often did. We are too busy to be taught. We don’t have time for spiritual things. When a disruption comes, an accident, an illness, a loss of the ability to go-go-go; then we stamp our feet and pray “Lord, get me out of this wilderness.” If God answers our prayer, it is our loss. We will never learn.

If you are in the wilderness, take hope. If you are in the busy place, be ready.

see also wilderness voice
 

For: 
December 10, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8
Advent 2

I have a neighbor with a bumper sticker on his truck proclaiming, "Vehicle ready for the Zombie Apocalypse." Advent begins this year with a plea to be ready for the Jesus Apocalypse. The day is coming when we will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. The question Jesus asks is will you be ready?

 

Many people skip the apocalyptic passages of the Bible. Historically, religion in America cycles through periods of high apocalyptic awareness about every fifty years. The most recent peaking being thirty years ago, as captured in the book title, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988. These times are always followed by decades of exhaustion, when main line churches forsake the Book of Revelation like it was the actual plague, not just the messenger. Popular culture takes up the banner that religion drops, so we have Y2K, the Zombie Apocalypse, and the tragic over-response of the Bush administration to 911. This leads me to wonder if our failure to consistently incorporate eschatology into our personal theology won’t have real consequences. Why do we fail to involve our church in saving the planet? What if our lack of concern about Global Warming is related to our dismissal of all apocalyptic thinking?

For: 
December 3, 2017
Mark 13
Matthew 24
Advent 1

Jesus once story about how on Judgement Day God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. John Doe has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Hey, even Babe Ruth got three strikes before he had to go to the dugout.

Judgement is really not about punishing people for their sins. Its about providing justice for those who are oppressed. A day is coming when nations who go to war with their neighbor for sport will be made to pay for their violence. A day is coming when the masters of slaves will answer for their ownership of other human beings. There will come a day when the racist, the abuser, the usurper, and those who cheat the poor out of their daily bread, will find themselves in torment. Those who have been victims of wicked people will have their day in God’s court.

Jesus’ point is that the judge of all the earth won’t have a hard time distinguishing who is the victim and who is the accused in his courtroom. The two tables are separated by a courtroom aisle, the way shepherds used to separate their sheep from their goats. On that day the distinction between good and evil will be easily made. If you don’t know animals, think about any two other groups that can be easily sorted. The heaven bound and the hellions are as different as eggs and potatoes, Porsches and Yugos, diamonds and coal.

For: 
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46
Pentecost 34
Christ the King Sunday

I once preached about David and Bathsheba on a dare (II Samuel 11). It was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. The dare was that I had to preach about the President’s problem at the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. The parishioner that challenged me knew that I was the lone Democrat in a congregation of Republican wolves. I don’t recall much of what I said, except that the issue wasn’t sex, but the misuse of power. Whenever someone shows a habit of abusing their status, office, or public trust, they should be considered unfit for that position. That clearly applies to more than just politics. I support all of the victims that are speaking out today.

Abuse of power lies behind: domestic violence, sex trade, lack of political integrity

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