Posts Tagged ‘Hard Teaching’

The Crazy Cycle 8-26-18

In this sermon, based on John 6:56-71, I explore the “hard teaching” of the gospel, and the amazing revelation that God chooses us, knowing that we will ultimately fail to chose God.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-crazy-cycle-8-26-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Last Tuesday evening was back to school night at the elementary and junior high building here in Underwood…as countless families all brought their kids, and more importantly their kid’s bundles of school supplies, in order to drop things off and explore the important spots in the school for another year…class rooms, lockers, all that stuff.

And I was there too, bringing along stuff for my daughter who’s still matriculating there in the Jr High…and as we walked around the school…I overheard 2 different phrases that caught my attention.  The first one was “So 8:30 at my place for mimosas on Thursday.” (pause), No idea what that one was about…but the second phrase was one that I overheard MANY times over…and I’m pretty sure that I said it a time or two as well.  “Here we go again.”

Tuesday night was the beginning of another year…another cycle of school…and I’m guessing there were a few other things that happened on Thursday that come up in that cycle every year as well…things like rolling a sleeping kid out of bed at 6:30…and the groan that emerges from that bed when you turn the light on.  Or things like the annual posting of the first day pictures on Facebook…how many of you did that, or in the very least saw them?  And maybe, just maybe, a few of out there waited for that moment when your kiddo got out of the car and starting walking up towards the front door and in the sanctity of your car you cried out “FREEEEEDOOOOOM!!!!!”  (pause)

That first day of school is funny isn’t it…those little things that become routine….those things that happen every year at this time…those things that are just a little cog in the midst of that cycle that continues to repeat itself year after year…time after time. (Pause)

Now in light of things being cyclic…let’s pull our attention over to the scriptures…but not just the assigned texts for today…rather let’s think for a moment about the overarching narrative of the Bible.  Admittedly, I know everyone’s level of familiarity is different and that’s okay…but as I think back to a study that we worked through here in the congregation a few years back that really centered in on the overarching Biblical narrative, I remember a conversation that we kept on having…itself a bit of a cycle that repeated almost every time our study group got together…and that’s the crazy cycle that seems like it just keeps on repeating.

God is revealed to the people in one way or another…typically through some miraculous or divine event…and the people pledge themselves to following God…and things go pretty well…for a while…but people have short memories…and after a few years or a generation or two goes by…the people turn away from God…and things start going lousy…and then after a while…they remember God and turn back…and this story, in one form or another…repeats itself over and over again…often times with very similar details.

Now we actually catch just a glimpse of this from the Old Testament reading of Joshua that we heard a moment ago…when Joshua is addressing the people, who by this point are pretty strongly established in the Promised Land…and he tells them in the midst of an address to the entire assembled nation “Choose this day who you will serve….the gods of the people in whose land you are living…or if you will serve the Lord.”

What’s really interesting about this is that Joshua is pretty much mirroring his mentor from a generation earlier…maybe you remember the story when Moses stood before the people…and said something pretty similar “Choose life.”

I always chuckle when I read these different passages…and there are plenty more like them…and I picture the people standing there listening…and then they nod their heads….Oh yes…we will serve the Lord…for about 5 minutes…and then the crazy cycle kicks in again.  We see it over and over again…and let’s be honest with ourselves…we still see it today as we look around don’t we…especially when we are looking in the mirror.

If there’s one constant throughout the scriptures, I suspect it might be this.  God…the Lord, Yahweh, the great I Am, whatever name we want to assign…continues to stand before us in one form or another saying “Choose me.”

And it seems SO simple doesn’t it?  The SIMPLE choice to choose God…to walk the righteous path…to follow the rules and do what’s right? But how’s that working for us?  I can’t speak for any of you…but I know me, and I know just how often that doesn’t seem to be the way it plays out. (pause)

The crazy cycle of this life…this existence…its flawed in so many ways…the brokenness of our reality…the brokenness that lies within people as a whole…cultures or communities or groups…and the brokenness that lies within each of us as individuals…you might call systemic…you might call it a lot of things…but I don’t think any of us can honestly deny that its real…and every single time…that brokenness that lies within us will win out…as we place ourselves in the driver’s seat…as we place our own needs or desires above something else…as we essentially turn ourselves into an idol.

God continues to say “Choose me” knowing full well if it’s left up to us and our own devices…then God might as well be saying “You will always fail to chose me.” (pause) Now that’s sorta dark right…bit of a downer…but I think it’s a pretty accurate description of the human condition…because each and every one of us has within our very nature the incredibly strong ability to destroy…the capability for selfishness…the capability to inflict pain both on others as well as ourselves…and God knows this.

But God knows something else…because God takes a look at every single member of the human race, lovingly and joyfully made bearing the divine image of God, and that divine image bears an equally strong ability for love and joy and peace….and God calls this good. God sees you and takes delight in you, knowing that if its left up to you, you will somehow turn away…and so God takes on flesh…that very flesh that is broken within us…that sinful selfish nature…God takes it on and becomes human…abiding among us…dwelling in our midst…not just with us…but as one of us.

And that God made flesh…that divine word dwelling among us…makes us a promise, that even though the gospel is hard to grasp…even though the love of God, which is freely offered to every single member of the human race, just doesn’t seem to add up or make sense…and that this good news of our God that willingly claims us is a hard teaching…that same God choses us over and over again…and we hear this straight from the mouth of Jesus as he asks the 12 “Have I not chosen you.” (pause)
Now admittedly, there’s some tension here…because that wonderful phrase from Jesus follows a whole slug of other followers deciding that they just couldn’t follow him anymore…and who knows why…I’m sure there were a variety of reasons that those individuals turned away, just as there are a variety of reasons that people turn away today.

I’ve found myself in this tension quite a bit lately…and I’ve been a part of several different discussions on just how all this works. Can people turn away from the good news of Jesus?  Well it seems like it.  And all we have to do is look around in the midst of our day to day lives and we can see people who have separated themselves from the peace and joy that comes from living THIS life RIGHT here, secure in the claim that God has laid upon them.  We see it don’t we…maybe we even feel it ourselves.

But…I wonder…does our choice supersede the ultimate eternal promise that God has spoken over the life of an individual when we hear Christ say “I have chosen you.”  This is a big question…one that countless people across the centuries have wrestled with. Denominations have risen up or have split apart based on different understandings on this very question…and I’m not going to propose an answer.

But what I will say is this…the promise is offered freely…and maybe just maybe the grace of God which is made manifest in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ…maybe that grace of God is big enough to lay that claim upon us even when we have turned our backs on it.

Because if the grace of God is big enough to overcome any sin…then maybe, just maybe it can overcome that promise which we attempt to break on God’s behalf. That’s the crazy…almost offensive nature of God’s grace…that if its big enough for me…then I have to let it be big enough for you too…even if I don’t want to. And that grace is the basis of the claim that God places upon each of us as a beloved child who is ultimately invited into the heavenly banquet…and that grace is just crazy enough that I might find myself sitting at that table alongside the ones that I think are unworthy of it.

Now, lets be honest.  That doesn’t compute does it? If that’s the case…it doesn’t seem fair…and here is where we experience the tension that lies between the knowledge that we will ultimately fail to choose God and the proclamation that he has chosen us anyway…do you feel that tension? Do you like it? Because I don’t. Its something that I can’t reconcile…that we seem to be given the ability to turn away from the loving arms of God, and that same God will still stand there with open arms. Sometimes it makes me wonder what the point of all this is…and I know that many of you sitting out there wrestle with this same tension…this same question…and I don’t have a good answer for you.

But what I’ll say is this…there is freedom…there is joy and there is hope found in our faith…in believing that the promises which God has spoken over you are in fact for you…and that they are true.  Words cannot adequately express this freedom…and this joy, but they are real and we find them as we abide with the one who claims us…right here right now…and not just for the sake of some cosmic get out of jail free card that we’ll cash in when our time in this life is done…but because the same God who took on flesh…the man who is also divine has come to give us life and to give it abundantly…right here…right now

And so as we live in the tension of the unknown…and we experience that crazy cycle, both in those who surround us as well as within ourselves…may we find hope in hearing those words from Jesus…have I not chosen you?  You…are…mine. Amen.

What Are You Known For 8-23-15

In this sermon, based on John 6:56-69, I explore the “hard teaching” of Jesus that causes many of his disciples to turn away. What is this teaching, and why is it so offensive, even at times, to those of us who follow Christ?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-you-known-for-8-23-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

We all have something that we’re known for…something that people always associate with us…typically, its something from our past…some memorable event or activity that we will be forever tied to…and for those who are familiar with this situation, its never ending.

Granted, I’ve got a lot of these in my history…different situations that define me within different groups and circles….here in town, its probably the fact that I’m a pastor…when I was in seminary, I became known as the guy in the orange hat…my senior year at Iowa State, the entire Horticulture department called me Red because of a certain episode with some hair dye…my group of close friends dating all the way back to Jr High have a multitude of inside jokes that they can pull out at my expense to make me cringe…but in all likelihood, the one that goes back the farthest…the story that has defined me the longest, well it exists in the context of my extended family on my dad’s side.

April of 1988…exactly one week after my 9th birthday…the wedding day of my dad’s youngest sister…and a time when personal video cameras were pretty new…and were unbelievably intriguing to 9 year olds. (pause) After the ceremony was over, the camera operator set up the tripod to record the recession line, as the multitude of guest filed out the sanctuary to greet the wedding party…as is the custom…and low and behold…this little 9 year old spaz case…kept popping up in frame…looking at the camera…turning around to look at the people filing by…turning back around to look at the camera…over and over again. Throughout the course of the entire video…I kept popping into frame…not realizing just how weird it was…nor the lasting effect it would have on my reputation within my extended family.

To this day…people still mock me on that one…anytime there is any sort of event…and there’s a camera present…someone is going to recreate that moment…and everyone laughs…it is…what I am known for. (pause) It is…a vital part of my history.

But isn’t that always the case? And as time marches on…these little aspects of a person’s history really become the defining factor for them…and we have the tendency to gloss over everything else…sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way.

Think about George Washington…the first president of the United States…remembered fondly…while we forget that he was also a slave-owner and general that nearly starved his own troops to death…Or Henry Ford…father of the American automobile, credited (incorrectly mind you) with pioneering the assembly line…but we forget that he was also a published anti-semite.

This same tendency has carried into how we tend to remember Biblical figures as well…and this has sparked quite a bit of conversation within our current study of The Story as we’ve discussed various Old Testament figures…for instance Abraham…the shining example of faith…was a trickster who tried to pawn off his beloved wife as his sister not just once but twice…and Moses…the great deliverer of the Old Testament…who was also a liar and a murderer who tried his best to weasel out of God’s calling at every turn…or the great king David, an adulterer who was involved with conspiracy to murder.

We find the same thing in the new testament as well, for who can forget Thomas…defined for all time by his doubt…or Peter…ever the one who would deny Christ…or Nathanael who questions anyone that comes out of Nazareth.

But perhaps the one most strongly identified with a single defining moment would have to be…Judas Iscariot…forever known as the one who would betray Jesus…so much so, that within today’s gospel lesson, we find the first introduction to Judas found in John’s Gospel…and we see that he is not even initially called by name…but that he is identified as the one who would betray Jesus…something that he hadn’t even done yet…something that is ultimately motivated by the presence of evil with him…and yet…as we see…it serves as the single defining characteristic that Judas, for all time…will be saddled with…and I find myself wondering…is that fair? (pause)

Is it fair to Judas that history always associates him with betrayal…with the apparent backstabbing that he hands off Jesus’ direction in the closing chapters of the gospel…should that be his one defining moment? Or would it be better for us to lump him in with a different group out of today’s story…that unknown batch of disciples who have been following Jesus…but having sat and listened to this hard teaching…they decide that it’s time to tuck tail and run. (pause)

Because…as we hear…Jesus knew from the start those who would not believe…just as HE knew from the start…that Judas would ultimately be the one to lead the authorities out to the garden…and yet…at the beginning of John chapter 6…in the initial miracle that began this long debate that has raged on throughout the entire chapter…not to mention the past 5 weeks of gospel lessons…when Jesus fed the 5000…guess who was sitting in that crowd…those disciples who turned away…and Judas was sitting there too. (pause)

Now we have the tendency to forget that when John talks about the disciples…its not just the 12 that he’s talking about…in fact…prior to this specific passage…this one point after all those other people turn their backs and walk away…we never even hear about the 12 disciples…they are never set apart…until now…when everyone else has decided that Jesus is asking just a little bit too much of them…that this new teaching is just too much to swallow…its true…up until now…those 12 guys that we tend to put a whole bunch of stock into…they were just a few of a much larger crowd…all of whom…were fed by Jesus…all of whom were in relationship with Jesus…all of whom…at least until now…have liked what Jesus had to say and willingly followed him…willingly found themselves in relationship with him…until now. (pause)
So just what is it about THIS teaching that is SO hard for them? What is it that in the end offends them…makes them lose faith in this man that they’ve been following? (pause)
Is it all the talk of body and blood as food and drink? Maybe…but I kinda don’t think so. In the end, what it seems to be is the truth that is slowly being revealed about the identity of Jesus…that maybe, just maybe this guy really is who he says he is…but if that’s true…and Jesus really is the Son of God…and not just that but that Jesus really is God…well then what does that have to say about the God that they have always known…the God that they were taught about. (pause)

Because what Jesus has to say is going WAY past anything that they can begin to wrap their heads around…way beyond anything that they can justify as being “From God.” First of all…this guy who claims to be God seems to be telling them…not just suggesting it, but flat out instructing them to break their dietary laws…God wouldn’t do that.

And this is the same guy who told them that they needed to treat their neighbors as themselves…even going so far as to naming Samaritans as their neighbors…which might not seem that crazy to us…but it’s the equivalent of telling us that the very people we need to treat as our neighbors includes Muslims….individuals who claim to follow God, but in a radically different way than we do…so different in fact that countless wars have continuously raged through the ages as to who’s right.

This is the guy, who seems to break every single rule that they have held dear throughout the entirety of their lives with the simple goal of being in relationship with the very individuals that those rules state are unacceptable. (pause) Yes Lord…this is a hard teaching…no wonder they walked away.

But remember this…even knowing what we know now…knowing that these individuals would eventually tuck tail and run…even knowing that Judas would eventually betray him…Jesus not only accepts them…but we hear in the verse immediately following today’s passage, Jesus assuring them “Did I not choose you?” (pause)

Jesus willingly choses to be in relationship with those who he knows aren’t going to go the distance…He choses to feed those who will not reciprocate…and in the end…He will even go so far as to wash the feet of this one that will ultimately betray him. (pause)

And while we ponder on that…its also important to remember that even the ones that seemingly got it…even Peter…the very one to make this marvelous statement “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Even these men who have come to believe and know that Jesus is the holy one of God…will eventually abandon him. Peter himself, who makes this faith filled statement, will eventually deny the relationship with Christ…Peter…is also the one to cry out “I DON’T KNOW HIM.” (pause)
What is it about Jesus that causes so many of us…all of us in fact…at one time or another…what is it that causes us to stumble…what is it that offends us so much? Is it, perhaps the notion that salvation is in fact…offered to the entire world…even to those who we deem in the back of our minds as unworthy…as unfaithful…could it be the fact that Jesus invited each and every one of us into relationship with him despite knowing the eventual outcome of that relationship…even knowing that like the disciples we each have those times when we turn and walk away? (pause)

This is a hard teaching…that the relationship between God and us as individuals…ultimately…isn’t up to us…that in the end, its not about what we think of God…but its what God thinks of us…and in our moments of piety…when we forget that its not what God thinks of those that we think are out…and yet God calls them in. (pause)

I can see how the individuals there that day would have been offended by this teaching…that all of the rules don’t matter…that all the checks and balances don’t matter…that all of our accomplishments mean absolutely nothing…and that we are just as dependent upon the invitation as everyone else.

Do you suppose that hearing Jesus make these bold statements was enough to make them question whether or not this is really God talking? Because in the end, that’s what sin is here in John’s gospel…not believing that Jesus is in fact, who he says he is…whether that meets us with our expectations or not.

This is why Jesus asks them if they are offended…if it makes them stumble…or as the actual translation stated “Does this cause you to stop believing?” (pause)

The gospel is hard…not because we have to do anything to accomplish it…but precisely because the gospel is without prejudice…and no matter what rules we try to apply to who’s got it and who doesn’t God ultimately doesn’t really care about our rules…and God will NOT be hindered by them. God will invite whoever God choses to be in relationship…and the only thing that we can do about it is recognize it…and then we need to be grateful…because to truly hear the gospel is to recognize our own need for it…

To recognize that yes…I am sinful…to recognize that no, there is nothing that I can do about it…and even though humanity might define me by the horrible things in my life…the sin that resides right here…the sinful things that I have done…and then finally to realize that the arms of Jesus are opened to me anyway…and that he accepts me, not as I would like to be or hope to be…not as someone else thinks I need to be…but simply that Jesus accepts me as I am, right here, right now…and there is no power on Earth that can change that.

My past doesn’t define me…not the mistakes I’ve made…not the triumphs I’ve accomplished…not the red hair in college, or the orange hat in seminary…not the old video of me bouncing up and down at my aunt’s wedding. I am defined by how God see’s me…as his beloved child.

And the beauty of the gospel…is that this is true for all of us…YOU…are a beloved child of God…and for all eternity, THAT is what you are known for. Amen.