Saturday, September 24, 2011

Who is this God?

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

We often approach Bible stories from the point of view of the humans in the stories. This week, I began by wondering, “Who is the God revealed in these scripture passages?”
In the Exodus story, God is the one who takes care of the thirsty people. God ignores the complaints of the people: “We would have preferred to remain in Egypt in slavery than be thirsty in the wilderness.” God tells Moses to lead the people just a bit closer to Mount Horeb, and then produces water from solid rock – a seemingly impossible feat. The God revealed in this passage is the God of creation, capable of producing water where none existed before. The God revealed in this passage is filled with grace and mercy, in spite of the way people treat God.
In the first part of the gospel passage, Jesus asks, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" Jesus is talking about John the Baptist, of course. And he’s talking about God. Matthew, the good Jewish author, refers to God as “heaven.” So, he really means, “Did the baptism of John come from God, or was it of human origin?" If John’s baptism came from God, and the Jewish leaders didn’t believe in it, they know they are in trouble for not receiving God’s prophet.
So, the God revealed here is the one who sent John to call the people to repentance and to offer forgiveness, and to prepare the way for Jesus. The God revealed here goes to great lengths to care for God’s people. The God revealed here calls to the Jewish leaders, again and again, despite their stubborn refusal to believe. The God revealed here sent Jesus with divine authority, God’s authority, even though some try to deny he has such authority.
In the second part of the gospel passage, Jesus tells a story about obedience. One son says he will not do as the father asks, but changes his mind and obeys. The second son promises to obey, but doesn’t follow through, and so disobeys. Jesus is using a story to point out that some people do as God has asked them to do, and others – in this case the Jewish leaders – simply give lip-service to obedience. The God revealed in this passage asks for our obedience; obedience means loving God above all else, and loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. The God revealed in this passage dares to make plain our sin, our failure to believe, our failure to obey.
Jesus promises, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” When we think of the kingdom of God, it’s easy to forget that it’s not a place. It’s not even a time. Jesus is referring to an action: the reigning of God, which has no beginning or ending, and no connection to a specific place. In the reign of God, there is no inequality, no hunger or thirst, no illness, no pain. Instead, in the reign of God, everyone has what they need, and knows they are loved by God and heirs of God’s promises.
The God revealed in this passage is inclusive, welcoming. It may delight us to read that the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom/reign of God ahead of the Jewish leaders. We always like to see the “bad guys” come in last, or even be totally excluded. But Jesus does not say the Jewish leaders will never enter the reign of God. He just says they won’t be the first to do so.
By the time of Paul’s ministry, 20 or so years after the resurrection, some traditions had begun to form about who Jesus was and what it meant for his followers. We like to think that there was one set of thoughts about Jesus, one theology, but the various letters from Paul, Peter, James, and John, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the book of Acts demonstrate many different opinions and beliefs about Jesus.
One treasure of ancient beliefs is found in Philippians. Today’s passage contains a hymn, called a “Christ Hymn.” Jesus is described as God’s own self, revealed in human form. The hymn is a sort of creed as well as a song. It says that Jesus gave up the glory of being God, emptying out that divine portion of himself in order to be fully human, and in order to bring all people to worship God.
This God-with-skin-on allowed himself to be humbled, crucified, before being raised from the dead and exalted, returning again to the presence of God. The God revealed in Philippians is both powerful and humble, gloriously divine yet willing to suffer the worst humanity can offer, in order to demonstrate the amount of divine love and forgiveness God offers us.
... So, our scripture passages today reveal a God who is merciful, in spite of our grumbling and complaining; a God who asks us to be obedient, loving God and neighbor with our whole beings; and a God who will go to extremes to demonstrate the extent of God’s mercy and love.
 Hope’s mission statement is “To know Christ and to make him known.” Passages like these help us to know who Jesus Christ is, so that we can say with faith as well as with our minds, “We know Christ.”
The second half of the mission statement calls us to make Christ known. We make Christ known when we share what God has first given us: our time, our talent, and our treasures.
We share our time and talent every time we volunteer to help with worship, and make crafts and quilts, and maintain Hope’s property, and staff the booth at Dunnellon’s Market Days.
We share our treasure when we put our offerings in the plate, when we give a little extra for special projects like the Pastor’s discretionary fund, when we purchase items to give away in shoeboxes or to the schools, and so forth.
We make Christ known when we obey, doing what Jesus asks us to do: loving God above all else, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And we make Christ known when we give him away by telling our friends and acquaintances about him. As Jesus gave himself away to us, we can give ourselves away to others by telling stories about Jesus’ activity in our lives. We can tell stories like those in our Scripture today. So, this is your challenge for the week: share Jesus by sharing yourself with someone else. Perhaps these questions will help you think of stories to share.
When has God drawn water out of a rock for you – satisfying your thirst, some need you had? When has God healed you, provided a new opportunity for you, answered a prayer, poured out blessings upon you?
When has God challenged your beliefs, inviting you to think in a different way about something?
When has God called you to obey, even though you didn’t want to? How did you respond?
When have you given your whole self to God? When have you humbled yourself so God could work through you to bless others?
Please pray with me. God of mercy, you reveal yourself to us in many ways. Help us respond to you by sharing ourselves with you and with those we encounter each day. Amen

Children’s message

Props: Ad for Dolphin’s Tale
Have any of you seen this movie?

Here’s a story about a little boy I know, named Matt. He has a big sister named Katie. Their mom’s name is Tammy.

Ms. Tammy told Matt and Katie that she would take them to see a movie this week – Dolphin Tale.

Ms. Tammy also told Matt and Katie to clean up their rooms or they would not be able to go to the movie.

Katie cleaned up her room right away, but Matt didn’t want to. He yelled. He screamed. He argued. But he finally got his room clean.

So they all went to see the movie. At the end of the movie, Matt said to Ms. Tammy, “I’m sooooo glad I cleaned up my room.”

Have you ever told your Mom and Dad that you would do something, and then not wanted to do it?
How does it make your Mom and Dad feel when you do that? (angry)
How does it make you feel when you do that. (not nice)
How do you think it makes Jesus feel? (sad)

Do your Mom and Dad stop loving you because you didn’t do what you promised?
Neither does Jesus. And that’s a good thing!

Pray: Jesus, we’re sorry when we don’t do what we promised to do. Please forgive us, and help us to obey our parents better. Amen