By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 13:10–17 (ESV)
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
What is the point of the Christian life? It might seem like an odd question. But I really want you to think about it. Is all of this just so we can go to heaven when we take that journey beyond the veil or is there something more? Because of my particular calling in life, I think about these things more than most people. I remember once while I in theology class my professor posed the question, “If Jesus died of a heart attack would we saved?” and the follow up question was, “What if Jesus was still in the tomb?”
These sorts of questions kind of make us uncomfortable, but they are important. There are several points of view to these questions and how we answer those questions will actually dictate how we live our lives today. If we make an attempt to answer the question if Jesus died of a heart attach would we still be saved, from my point of view the answer is yes. I say that because I believe that Jesus provided the way of salvation because he took on a human life and lived the perfect life for us, because his life was lived for us how he died did not matter because he lived. That is one view, others will take a different view and their view has value. The shedding of blood points to something and makes a greater impact so the cross has great value,
Now for the question, of what if Jesus was still in the tomb? Would his life and death provide hope? This I believe is a greater question than even how Jesus died, because how we answer this question really affects our lives today. If salvation is through the cross only, then we would be saved even if Jesus did not raise from the grave, but there is no change and no hope. Without the ressurection we remain in the tomb. There is no victory over our struggles, and we just have to cope with whatever life gives us. There is no opportunity for a different life, a better life. When I went to Ukraine with Campus Crusade for Christ we were trained to present the 4 spiritual laws. These laws are wonderful and I agree with those laws completely. But often we get stuck on one aspect of the Gospel. Jesus came to live among us, to take on humanity for us. He showed us a way of life that would encourage a deeper relationship with God and those around us. He suffered with and for us, he knows what it is like to struggle and to feel pain of various kinds. He even knows intimately the pain of death.
If we focus on only the cross our focus remains on the pain. We live in the struggle, we say things like this is my cross to bear. Yes, that is a cross to bear. Yes you will struggle. Yes life hurts. But there is something beyond the struggle. There is something on the other side of our pain. The life, death and resurrection of Christ give us hope that we can have life, not just life but life to the full.
Today we meet Jesus on a day he made it his custom to spend in worship. He joins with the rest of the Jewish community at their synagogue. I often speak of the struggle that Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day, I speak of how he challenged their interpretations of scripture, but Jesus did not oppose worship. He might disagree with someone in the leadership, he might even oppose the direction leaders are taking people. But Jesus did not leave the worshiping community. He made it his custom to worship with the community. There are many reasons that the discipline of attending a meeting for worship regularly is important. The greatest reason is because it is in worship where we as a community can practice loving God and others.
Jesus goes to the place of worship and he is teaching there. This is important. It is often hard for us to imagine what the first century synagogue was like because our understanding of worship is what we have experienced ourselves. Their worship space was different. The greatest difference would be that the main sanctuary would have been filled with men only. The women of the community were there but they were in a different section of the worship space. They could hear what was going on, but were not direct participants. Jesus was teaching among the community, surrounded by men, and he sees a woman enter. The woman had struggled with a disabling spirit, which was so severe that she was stooped and unable to stand straight for eighteen years. I appriciate the fact that Luke tells us how long the disease persisted, because it allows us to recognize just how much this disorder had effected her life. If we consider the average life expectancy of women in the first century was around thirty-five years. Of course this does not mean that thirty-five years is old, it simply means that to live over ten years in the first century was amazing, and for a woman to survive giving birth was equally amazing. To live eighteen years with a disability, shows that this woman struggled. We know for sure that she survived childhood since she is at a minimum of eighteen, but it also tells us that she spent the majority of her life disabled. Everyone knew how long she suffered, they knew enough to be able to tell Luke.
This woman enters while Jesus is there teaching. She enters the women’s worship area, which is either an area seperated in the back of the sanctuary, divided by some sort of screen, or possibly in a balcony. She enters and Jesus sees her. The entire worship area is built to minimize the distraction of the genders, yet Jesus sees her. He sees her and he calls her over. He asks her to come, to cross the veil of separation and stand with him. I want us to allow that image to fully formulate in our minds.
He calls her to himself. He speaks to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” Then he touches her and she straightens up. I want us to picture this completely. Jesus called her into a place she was not accustomed to be, and she is a disabled woman. There is always insecurity that surrounds a disability. I have been partially deaf my entire life, I struggle with remembering names of people because I simply do not hear the sounds clearly. I struggle in conversations in a room of people because I cannot hear what people are saying. This causes me to often stand away from others. In a crowd I’m often on the fringe and I think to myself if someone wants to talk they will come to me. I have found that I am considered shy because of this, or worse cold and anti social, the reality is that it takes a great deal of work for me to have a conversation. And I know I will miss something, and I do not want to be foolish so I stand to the side. She has suffered for eighteen years, stooped, unable to look people in the eye, and Jesus has called her to the place of meeting to him. She is standing there with every eye looking at her, in the men’s sanctuary, and Jesus is talking to her. He stoops to her eye level, and while looking in her eyes he speaks. He tenderly places his hands on her and while maintaining eye contact he begins to straighten, and she does the same. Imagine seeing this before your eyes. Someone you know and have known for years being called before you and in a moment healed.
What would your response be? This goes back to the perspectives and answers to the questions we mentioned before. We respond through our world views and our understanding of God’s relationship with humanity. The first century religious culture was one that primarily focused working for God’s favor. It was common for people to blame every negative aspect of life on themselves, and endure the suffering as their fate. They will offer sacrifies to earn favor, they will do good deeds, they will give generously but if they suffer they are not good enough and will work harder. It is their cross to bear. At times our understanding of our relationship with God has not progressed to much from that place. Often we still struggle with these crosses.
Life is filled with suffering. And yes at times we suffer from our own ignorance but we do not carry that burden alone. Jesus called that woman to him. He called her, and he shared in her suffering. Yet there were some that disapproved.
The ruler of the synagogue was indignant. Luke says that he was indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath but I am pretty sure there was more to it than that. Jesus not only healed on the Sabbath but he also called a woman into an area reserved for men. Seriously remember that, Jesus called her to him, where he was teaching, he did not go to her. This is different than most of the people Jesus healed. Usually others bring the people to him, or they are crying out to Jesus to come to them. There is no indication that this lady was like this. Jesus called her to him after he saw her. As far as we know she just came to participate in worship. But the ruler in the synagogue was indignant and assumed that she was there only to obtain the release from her disability.
Why was he really upset? Jesus challenges him. He says, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?” You feed your livestock, you water your livestock, you make sure that your livestyles are maintained even if it means you might have to do a little on a day dedicated to rest. This is not about the Sabbath at all, the Sabbath was just a nice cover for something deeper. Which Jesus points out in his next statement. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
His indignation came from somewhere other than keeping the law. It was focused on tradition. He was upset because Jesus brought a woman to a place where tradition excluded. I say this because Jesus is clear to say, woman and daughter of Abraham. They were excluding women from full participation in worship because they were women, and Jesus is saying no, she is a daughter of Abraham. They were acting offended because Jesus healed on the sabbath but Jesus was saying you treat your livestock better than your own daughters.
No one is excluded from the love of God. Each person hold so much value in God’s eyes that he was willing to give his own life to bring them out of the darkness and into the light. Everyone is important because they bear the image of God. Each person we encounter can encourage our lives and deepen our faith. This woman suffered for eighteen years. She suffered, not only from the binding disability, but the judgemental attitude of those around her. They were so busy blaming her for her own problems that they lost sight that she was not only human but a daughter of Abraham. They added to her suffering because it was the cross she had to bear, and they wanted to make sure she knew it.
The life, death, and ressurection of Jesus is important because every aspect of Christ shows us God. Jesus shared a complete human life. And life contains suffering. But suffering should not be our final destination. And it should not be a solo trip. Jesus called that woman to him and he shared in her suffering. But it goes even deeper than that. That act gave Jesus’s accusers fuel to fan the flames of their indignation. They could not justify their dislike of Jesus because he has now transgressed against one of the most important commands, one of the commands that all religious leaders agree on. He worked on the Sabbath. Of course the transgression was not an actual sin, but a human interpretation of what they think God meant. Jesus transgressed, because he looked at the true law, that all human life is sacred because we all bear the image of God. Do we see that image in those around us?
Jesus saw the woman. He saw the one excluded, the one that was bullied, the one that could not speak for themselves. He saw the woman, do we? Each and every one of us struggle with something. We might consider our struggle insignificant or it might possibly be a gross injustice accepted in our civil society. We struggle, but we do not struggle alone. Jesus is with us in that struggle. He faced injustice, he suffered ridicule, he lived in a family that was non traditional. He knows our human condition, but he also knows that our struggle is not the end. Our struggles, even the ones that are self inflicted, can move us one step deeper in our relationship with God. Our struggles are not who we are. That woman was no longer a crippled woman, but a daughter of Abraham. In Christ we are children of God, adopted into the family through the life, death and ressurection of Jesus. But how are we responding to those people around us in the midst of their struggles? Are we like the ruler of the synagogue, becoming indignant because they were offered grace? Or are we like the woman coming to worship even after eighteen years of constant struggle with no relief in sight? We all struggle. But how are we responding to ourselves and those around us?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 18, 2019
Luke 12:49–56 (ESV)
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Have you ever been confused about a passage? You are reading through scripture, at least I hope you read through scripture, and you read something that just causes you to stop. You as yourself, “did I read that correctly or did I miss something?” You go back a few verses, and you still do not have a clues what you read, so you go back a few more, and you come to a conclusion that that just does not make sense and you forget about that part and move along. I will admit that through out my life there are times where I do not understand a passage and I will just forget that it is in the scripture and live my life the way I want too, as if it were never there. I know terrible right. I am being honest, because this is the tendency of most people. We get to something that we do not understand and we do not engage it. We do this with most of the Old Testament. I will admit that I am not a fan on meditating on Leviticus or Number. Just the though of meditating on the book of Numbers gives me flash backs to algebra and, well actually it was not that bad because I slept through most of algebra which is probably what I would do if I meditated on the book of Numbers.
All joking aside, I am speaking of something that we all do. We all like passages of scripture and we dislike others. We enjoy some stories and we dispose others. We all do this. I use the lectionary to choose the passage for each week, and the lectionary is a list of scriptures that many denominations joined together to compile that will use the seasons of the year and the church calendar to get the most scripture read in a systematic manner. If we were to read each of the scripture readings of the lectionary during our meetings for worship, you would actually hear around 70% of the New Testament, and 30% of the Old Testament over the course of three years. When I say those statistics it sounds terrible, but this statistic is if we only listen to the bible being read on a Sunday morning and do no reading outside of worship. If we used the daily lectionary the percentage of scripture read in that same three year period would be closer to 85% of the total bible. I mention this because these readings are short, most people can read these in less than ten minutes of their day. Which to be honest is not that much time. With the simple investment of ten minutes you could have a large majority of scripture read in three years. For those of us that are a little more ambitions there are reading plans that can help you venture through the entire bible in a year. But my thoughts on this are, read scripture and think about it. Let it move deep in your souls and allow those scriptures to affect your actions. Sometimes when we read too much at once we rush through and it is like getting five inches of rain on dry soils, which results in a flash flood. All the water runs off the soil and down the contours of the earth, carrying with it debris that can rip and damage the land and structures along the way.
I use the lectionary, You might think that I am limiting the scope of scripture, but the reason I have chose this path in my ministry is because I own my great-grandfather’s bible commentary set from when he was a pastor. I know which of those volumes were the most used, because some of the books are in mint condition and there is one that is barely held together by tape. I choose to use the lectionary because it forces me to preach on some of those passages I normally would not. And I know if I chose things myself, I would only preach out of the Gospel of John. And I have told the ladies that choose the music that if there is an option for which Gospel passage we read and John is one of the options I will probably always choose John.
When we approach scripture we tend to stay with those passages and books we like. We rarely really engage with those portions of scripture we find difficult to understand, and if we do engage with them we often take them out of context because we misunderstand the scriptures around them so we interpret them from our modern perspectives. Today’s passage is one of those passages that we often skip over in our minds. We probably read it because it is in the Gospel, but it is one that just does not fit with our understanding of Jesus, so we do not understand it. And because we do not understand it we look at it out of context or we just leave it alone. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I did not like some scripture. I did not like it because seemed to cut a bit too deep into what I find comfortable in my expression of faith. I do not like today’s passage either, and oddly it comes from the same area of Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus tells the people gathered around him, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is not what we expect from Jesus, We would rather he said something like, “he who is without sin cast the first stone,” or “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” We do not really like when Jesus speaks in these dark and scary ways.
The imagery in this passage is one of judgment or at least a trial of some sort. When ever fire is mentioned in scripture it usually refers to these things, unless they are cooking fish on a beach. Fire is often a frightful image. We have fire alarms in our homes and fire sprinklers in our places of business because fire consumes and can even kill. Fire must be treated with great respect because we can lose control of fire, and a fire that is out of control can be deadly. I grew up in rural Kansas, and in Kansas we have this odd relationship with fire. We use fire as a way to manage our grasslands, we also use fire at times to manage weeds in fields. To us fire is a tool. It is a tool that can be beneficial, but can easily become unmanageable. When fire escapes control it can become destructive, that last wildfire that crossed Kansas destroyed thousands of acres of land, and killed thousands of cattle. Why would we uses such a destructive tool, because to stop using fire in the prairies would result in greater risk of wildfires. When used properly and in control the fire consumes only that with is unnecessary and unwanted, leaving the ground ready for new growth. When fires are not used systematically there is a massive build up of dead plant material that will fuel even greater fires, which unfortunately happens in many areas, especially in the summer when the temperatures are hot and the weather is dry.
I have gotten a bit off topic, but fire often means trial and judgment. Jesus said that he came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! This is an odd phrase. It is frightening actually. It gives us a mental image of Jesus wielding a flame thrower. But let us take a step back. He came to cast fire on the earth. I mentioned that in Kansas we often use fire as a tool. The point of that tool is to rid the prairie of the dead grass that has little nutritional benefit for the cattle. The dead grass shades the ground causing the new grass to emerge later in the spring. If this dead grass is not removed the amount of new growth during the growing cycle will diminished and there is less nutritious grass for the cattle to eat. Universities have studied methods that would remove the dead grass that would be less frightening than fire, things like mowing, but had found that this does not have as much benefit as fire. The secondary result of the use of fire is it encourages nature to respond, it stimulates the seeds to germinate and the roots to produce. Jesus says that he has come to cast fire on the earth. He is like the Kansas range manager, going out onto the prairies starting a controlled burn. This statement is very similar to Jesus saying that he is the vine dresser that is pruning out the branches that do not produce fruit. He is casting fire on the earth to remove that dead unproductive residue that is hindering growth. But the statement goes on, “and would that it were already kindled!”
Jesus said that he was coming to provide a healthy and nourishing controlled burn, but the fire was already burning. He came to start a fire yes, but when he got here there was already a wildfire raging. I want us to keep this in our minds. There was already a fire burning out of control. The fire was burning out of control for a reason. There was old growth, dead material that had not been removed, there was trash and residue that had been left laying around. As soon as a spark hit this death, the fire raged.
We often look at this passage out of context. I have heard this passage used to promote terrible things. In most cases it promoted a form of arrogance and self-righteous promotion. An attitude where the proverbial my actions are righteous and the fact that I offend others around me is because they are wrong and Jesus is judging them. Even to the point that I will actively persecute those that oppose my ideas because Jesus said that he came to cast fire on the earth.
Jesus is saying these words out of sorrow, not judgmental ism. Jesus came to restore and reconcile humanity to God. He challenged the religious, because they were adding their own interpretations to scripture and making those interpretations the focus of the religious observances instead of letting scripture. The interpretations were not necessarily a bad thing, in fact many of those interpretations inspired and promoted new growth within the faith. But like most things they had run their course and because they were a perspective during a moment they had lost their relevance. Yet the residue remains. It is dead but they left it there, they still held on to it but because they could not say that that teaching does not make sense now, and getting rid of it they add to it with the attempt to make it more relevant again. After thousands of years of this, they have dry dead material that catches fire.
Jesus said these words after an intense discussion with religious leaders. He said these word after correcting the zealous chants of the enthusiastic laity. He said these words after confronting the concepts of civil law and the greed within, All of which came from religious interpretations commonly held and promoted by leaders at the time. Jesus says these words in sorrow because there is so much dead worldly philosophy within the religious community that when the fire burns away what is dead to allow new life to grow it will be painful. And those that have something to lose will not go gentle into the night.
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus continues. He goes on to say that this lack of peace will cause divisions between the most dear people we know. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and strife between the in-laws. It is a common phenomenon that we often treat the people we love the most the worst. The reason this happens is because we are around them most often. They have become so common to our daily routines that we often neglect them. We begin the relationships thinking we are in this together and every decision I make is based on mutual profit. But as time goes on and we become comfortable with each other, sometimes we begin to assume that what I want is what we want. Often this is true, but occasionally the we is not really considered. This leads to arguments and struggles, which leads to resentment and eventually divisions. And a once loving home is filled with individuals, good individuals that would probably give you the shirt off their back in many instances. But individuals that are just as self centered as they were in the very beginning. Jesus said that he is going to be right in the middle of this struggle.
This passage bothers me. The prophets said that Jesus was going to be God with us, the prince of peace and the lord of lords. He was going bring about an age where the lion would lay down with the lamb, and a child could play around with snakes and not get bit. Why anyone would do that I do not know, but the Messiah was going to make the world better not worse. Yet here Jesus is saying the opposite. It does not make sense. The fact that it does not make sense to me frightens me. I sat and struggled with this over the past few days. I struggled so much that I had to leave my house and get away for a while so I could pray with this scripture. I came and I sat in the pew, I read the passage over and over and just sat in silence letting the words soak into my soul. I do not come up before you in vain. I know that I can be very wrong in what I say and I take that possibility very serious, so I pray a great deal before I speak. But usually I am comfortable with doing this at home. This week I had to go to that isolated place and I sat in silence considering what Jesus meant when he said that he was going to bring division.
Everything about Jesus’s life and lifestyle speaks truth about our relationship with God. Jesus came to the various disciples and he said to each of them in some manner “follow me.” This invitation was either directly from Jesus or was from someone who had already received that invitation. Never once did Jesus attempt to force anyone to follow him. Jesus respected each of them as individuals and they had the opportunity to accept or reject the invitation to join Jesus on his journey. As Jesus walked the pathways throughout Galilee, along the coast of the sea, and through the lands of Judea and Samaria no matter where he walked he never once imposed his lifestyle on anyone, but everywhere he went he invited others to follow. There were times that he became very vocal about certain aspects of life in a certain area and he spoke out against those things, but even in those moments of anger, the anger was focused in a manner of invitation as opposed to exclusion. I considered all of this as I sat with this passage. How does the prince of Peace become the destroyer of peace?
The reality is he is not. Even while Jesus was nailed to the cross he continued to invite people to himself. There were three crucified that day, one ridiculed Jesus, and the other pleaded with Jesus to remember him. Jesus did not reject either but invited the one to join him in paradise. While the religious leaders sneered at Jesus as he hung on the cross, Jesus looked to the the sky and said “forgive them.” Even those that brought the suffering to Jesus, he did not wish to exclude but left an open invitation to them to accept. Jesus did not institute division, everything he did invited people to a different life and lifestyle. Every word he spoke inspired a hope of something greater if we would simply turn. Yet, today we see Jesus speaking to a crowd and he says, “Do you think if have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, rather division.”
I contemplated the divisions of which Jesus spoke. I considered the arguments that I have engaged in, the grudges that I held, the resentment that I have carried. I thought of all those areas in my life that I lacked peace and I realized something, in all of those areas even the areas I felt justified, the struggle was based on me or my perspective. That person did something to me and now I have let that perceived injustice poison my life. I was offended, I was injured, I was disrespected, this all happened to me and now I will hold it against them. The divisions are self inflicted. The war I wage is my war, not Christ’s. Jesus says these words not from his personal perspective but from ours. We want Jesus to support our ideas, our actions, our lifestyles, and Jesus says no. He is saying do you think I came to justify your interpretation or perspective and exclude everyone else? No! If we want Jesus to fight our battles then we will never be at peace, because we are focused on ourselves. We are living our lives in religious self justification to the exclusion of others and Jesus will not join us in that battle.
This was a hard pill to swallow. It illuminated something within me that quite frankly I would have rather left in the darkness. Because I might be wrong. I stand before you all as a religious leader a spokesman for God, and I have to come to grips with the reality that I might be wrong. I may have looked at something, promoted something, encouraged something out of my own selfish desires or justification and I might actually be opposing the very work of Christ within this community. And the reality of this means that each of us may be doing the same.
The things we promote and encourage might cause a branch to quickly grow but wither. Seeds might quickly germinate and grow but as the heat comes we have just dry dead leaves ready to catch fire. We may have resentment and hurts we have carried for years, like a dead branch hanging precariously in the tree ready to fall on someone when the wind is right. We have all this undergrowth and residue laying around that we have not cleaned up, but we are not allowing Jesus to take care of in a controlled manner. And then all of a sudden someone or something sparks and challenges our ideology of life and a wildfire rages leaving behind destruction. We lash out at our fathers because they never listen to our ideas. We lash out at our sons because they are too young to know how things really work. We disrespect our mothers because they just do not understand that times have changed, and our daughters just don’t realize the risks they are placing themselves in. And the in-laws… I love my in-laws but I am often afraid that maybe they might think their daughter made a mistake. It burns, because we want others to do things our way, to see things our way.
Jesus is calling out to us, “repent for the kingdom is near.” but are we willing to turn? Are we willing to accept his invitation or are we going to stand in the middle of our piles of debris? Are we going to hand so tightly to our traditions and interpretations that we will shade new growth or are we going to let God take the rubbish away? Will we nurture that which is growing well or will we allow the wildfires raging in our lives destroy the good around us? Jesus is offering each of us a life and lifestyle with him, but it does have a cost. We have to let go of that of the world within us and embrace that of God. Not only in us but also in those around us.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends I encourage you to examine your lives. Examine and ask God if the things that disrupt the peace in our lives are based on his will or our own, is it based in our understanding of tradition or on his life giving grace? Are we following him or are we expecting him to follow us? Let us now enter into this time of peace with God.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 11, 2019
Luke 12:32–40 (ESV)
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
How many of us live in fear? It is almost impossible to live in our current era and not have fear crouching at our doorsteps. The news media markets fear with nearly every report it does not matter what political slant you watch or listen to, fear oozes no matter what. People prey on our fears, they use our fears to sell products to us. I have a fear of being caught on the road in a storm so I carry with me at all times blankets, stuff to light a fire, trash bags for trash or to use for other emergencies, and jumper cables. I even have a power converter in case I need to charge a computer or phone that cannot plug into my car. I also carry with me everyday a backpack that has spare batteries for my hearing aid, a power cable from every type of device I own, along with a power adapter, a first aid kit, and enough books to keep me entertain for weeks. You might say that is just good planning and you might be right but the reason I first started carrying everything was not out of the mindset of being prepared, but the fear that I might be trapped.
Fear is probably the second best marketing gimmick, we know what the first one is and I do not have to tell you that, but fear is right behind. Fear sells because it is packaged in a way that makes you feel like you are being responsible. I remember nineteen years ago everyone I knew was buying emergency supplies. They were filling totes with canned goods, dried meats, bottled water and pretty much anything else you could think of. Why, because someone wrote a book that played on our fears. Many of you probably remember it too. Someone said that our computers were not capable of recognizing the year 2000 and when the calendar switched to this new century, every digital record would be lost because as far as it was concerned it was the year 1900. This would cause a massive failure in every system from our medical records to the power grid. Our cars would not run, our banks would fail, planes would fall out of the sky and we would have to resort to using horse drawn sources of power. We were sold fear.
There is nothing wrong with being prepared. It is good to have supplies ready in case we have a storm. It is good to have cash on hand for those times your credit and debit cards do not work. It is good to fill your tank with fuel before the warning light turns on. But when we let fear take over we no longer think clearly. We listen to the news and we form ideas in our head and react without thinking everything through. We make decisions based on our emotions in a moment and not the wisdom we gained through experience. When we live our lives in fear we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated and controlled, we allow our ignorance to rule our lives and we stop thinking rationally.
This past week, I have spoken to many people about fear. Every day as I work I am met by people that see someone they find strange and I have to walk them to their vehicle. They are afraid of being a victim, and their fear is so great they cannot walk a few yards from the building to their car. Recent events in the news has just increased fear. And I listen to words of fear being spoken constantly from all sides. This fear is driving people to purchase supplies they do not need, and causing others to stay home and stop doing the things they love. Very few people have actually looked beyond their own fears. And the worst thing about it all is that fear is what started the entire avalanche of fear.
There is a fine line between letting wisdom rule in our lives and letting fear drive us. And Jesus tells us Fear not. Today’s passage begins with those very words. Fear not. What do those words mean to you?
The word we translate as fear, is one that can be used in many ways from causing you to flee to terror. It can also be used in a religious reverence. Jesus tells us not to fear. We look at those words in this era of history and we almost want to laugh. How can we not fear? We can list off thousands of things to fear from the flu to terrorism, yet in all of this Jesus says do not fear. Do not allow all of that to drive you. Do not let it control your life. Easy for Jesus to say he did not live in our neighborhood.
Think for a moment about Jesus’s time. There is a reason Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, not because we needed to hear that it is important to help injured people on the roadside. He told the story because there were bandits along the road. He told that story in that way because it was likely that that very thing could happen. First century Judea was filled with terrorists, they called themselves patriots, but they were bandits willing to use force and fear to subjugate the population around them. And they preyed on that fear, they used it to force people to choose a side. Either you support them or you are a roman sympathizer. There was no middle ground, no moderates. There was no debate to methods or theory, simply a statement of support or not. Fear. And they had every right to fear, because the Romans were not exactly the most gentle rulers either. It was not uncommon for them to prove a point by making an example of someone who just happened to be in an area they were at. Simon assisted Jesus with the cross not because he was strong, but because he did not want to join Jesus on the cross. We fear and our fears are often unjustified. It is alright to be cautious, it is even good to be prepared, but it is wrong to live our lives being driven by fear.
Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock.” I find this phrase humorous. I said last week if you do not see humor in scripture, you just are not reading it. Fear not little flock. Jesus is calling them all sheep, but not just sheep, little sheep that cannot survive on their own. He is being endearing, because who does not like little sheep, but he is also being a little harsh. He is saying this because this passage is coming from the same sermon that we spoke of last week. He is challenging the religious leaders, he says they are so caught up in their systems of interpretation that they measure every possible source of income and are sure to tithe even a tenth of mint. I explained that this is a simple herb that is basically a weed that has a few redeeming qualities. But still a weed. He got after the religious leaders for this and then he challenged the younger brother of a family because he was using that same thought process to encourage Jesus to support his cause in regard to inheritance. Following this challenge he looks around a the crowd and teach about anxiety. He says do not be anxious about anything. God provides for the birds, God clothes the flowers of the field. Our worry and our fears do nothing but waste time.
Fear not, little flock. Jesus often refers to humanity as sheep. There are many reasons for this. Sheep were one of the first domesticated animals in human history. They are one of the most useful of animals too. They provide both wool for clothing and meat for the table. A flock of sheep was a sign of wealth because you would not be in need. But there is a downside of sheep. They are some of the stupidest animals. The require constant supervision. They will get themselves lost by eating. They can get so transfixed on the grass before them that they will take a bite and take a step until they no long are with the flock. They also have lost most of their wild instincts of protection. Most animals have some sense of defense but sheep only know run. A threat presents itself and they all run sometimes they will follow the sheep in front of them and sometimes they will just run on their own. A shepherd must protect the sheep and keep them together or they will become lost. The other annoying thing about sheep is that they have a thing about water. It freaks them out. If the water moves they will run away. Sheep are like the perpetual icon of living in fear and being lead by the desires of the moment.
This is why the twenty-third Psalm is so important:
Psalm 23 (ESV)
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
The shepherd in this psalm makes sure they have plenty to eat, to such a degree that they are full and they lay down in their food. He takes them to the still waters so they can drink their fill without getting afraid. He keeps them on the path leading them even when bodies want them to run out of fear. They are safe and protected between the rod and staff.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Perfect love cast out fear. Fear causes us to withdraw, love causes us to reach out. Those that are not bound by fear will live a life of joy. Willing to build relationships and to engage and encourage a community. This is what God wants to give us. A kingdom is more than a nation but influence. When Jesus speaks of kingdom he is not speaking of political entities but the scope of influence and a way of life. The kingdom of God is not one that is on earth because it is beyond earth, but it begins right were we are. It is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom.
It is God’s pleasure to take away our fears so we can live free. Imagine how that might look. Again, since we are a little flock remember the words of David in his psalm. We fear about what we will eat, yet he makes us lay down in green pastures. We fear evil, yet when we walk in the valley of death with Christ we will not fear evil, because Christ overcame the threat that valley held over us. He protects us with his rod and staff, he heals us with his oil. And his mercy give us a dwelling place, a kingdom, a community.
But still we fear. It is one thing to know God wants to provide in our minds but our hearts still fear. We still worry. I am not exempt from this. I lay awake at night worrying about many things. Usually I turn those worries into prayers but I am still often in dis ease. Jesus does not leave us alone even here.
Sell your possessions he says. And immediately our hearts are going back into a state of fear. If I sell everything what will I do, where will I live, how will I survive. Calm down. Jesus is telling us fear not. Sell your possessions, not sell all your possessions. Jesus is telling everyone that will listen to work. Continue to do what you do, continue to buy and sell. Continue to build and repair. Keep working. But change your attitude. Fear is self centered, and love is others centered. The world is self centered, the kingdom of God is others centered. Sell your possessions and give to the needy.
Jesus is telling us how to see the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. He shows us this throughout his life. He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues. He withdrew often to pray. And he ministered to the sick and taught. Jesus had a lifestyle of worship, prayer and ministry. Jesus used the gifts he had to serve those around him. Jesus worked. He worked hard. But his work was not focused only on his own needs. He did everything to build the community. He made it his custom to worship with everyone, not because he needed to attend a meeting for worship, but because we need encouragement. We need the community to pray with us, to remind us that there is more to life than our troubles, we need each other to redirect our attention to God. Jesus honors this and made it his custom to encourage worship together. But corporate worship is not enough. We also need personal spiritual discipline and prayer. What we bring to worship reflects what we do in our daily lives. If worship is dry and boring, it is not the church’s fault but our own, we have nothing to offer others so it becomes something dead to us. And instead of encouragement worship reinforces our fears. What we do on our own as we withdraw to isolated places to pray revives our spirit so we can worship fully. And both of these should direct our attention out to others.
Jesus left the time he spent praying and he walked down the hillside seeing crowds of people waiting for him, and he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Animals driven by fear and the hungers of the body. Each of us can look at our world today and we see this all around us. Fear and hunger of some sort. Hunger for attention as we post selfies on social media. Hungry for knowledge as we dive into our studies. Hungry for food. And fear…oh the fear. If we go out to Walmart we can be shot. If we go to a concert what will happen? If we drive on the interstate highway someone will crash into us. Hunger and fear we are sheep. Jesus says work and earn money but instead of letting fear rule how you use it build your community. Invest what you have to encourage others. Minister to their needs. If what you have is time give your time. If what you have is a tool of trade then give your money to use to build the kingdom. Use all you have not to be controlled by fear but let God direct it to build his kingdom here.
There is a reason Jesus says to work and give to those in need. If we do not give, if all our attention is focused on ourselves how can we serve those around us. Since I am a bi vocational pastor, I have several interesting conversations. Many times I am called on to speak for all the entire church even the expressions of faith that I myself do not adhere too, Because of these conversations I have studied a great deal and I have found that I respect why some of the traditions of other faith traditions. Like why the Catholic church encourages their priests not to marry. I definitely do not agree because I love my wife and am proud to be a father. But there are limits that family places on our ability to serve God. If a church needs a pastor I am not always free to go serve that church, because I have to make sure my family has what they need. I cannot move as easily because my son has school to attend. But an unmarried pastor can go at a moment’s notice. Another tradition that is important is one that both Quakers and many Anabaptist churches embrace, simplicity. The reason it is important is similar to the catholic priest being unmarried, a simple lifestyle allows us to serve quickly. If we train ourselves to live on less we have more to offer others. If my house is not filled with a truckload of possessions I can move fairly quickly. If I am disciplined in my spending habits I can invest the profits of my labor into areas that will benefit the community at large. I can give to schools. I can assist with hospital bills, I can even provide the means so others can be released to serve God more fully.
These ideas are what Jesus is talking about. Fear not, God whats us to live in the kingdom today. Sell our possessions and give to the needy, be ready to act quickly so we can answer Christ’s call at any moment. These things can take on many forms. Are we ready to act when we hear the news from Rwanda that pastors must have an education before the government will allow them to serve? Can we send funds to help them get that education? Can we quickly respond to the ministry needs in Lawrence or Topeka where new ministry opportunities are emerging? Can we respond quickly in our own community. Can we provide assistance to those among us that may not have a grasp of our language? Can we assist the students among us with their studies so that they can be released to serve God in whatever way they are called? Can we respond to our local schools when their educators do not have the funds to buy books for the children they teach? Can we respond to assist those whose home were lost to fire or a flood? Are we loving God with everything we have or are we instead being driven by fears?
I said that this week has been filled with many discussions about fear. In each of those discussions I encouraged those people to embrace the love of God and to seek wisdom and knowledge. Because when we have knowledge of the things we fear, the fear no longer controls us. I encouraged those I spoke to focus on what they can do instead of what they cannot do, because again if we are afraid of what we cannot give our children that fear holds us back. I spoke to people who were afraid that they would not be financially able to accomplish the goals they had set for themselves and I encouraged them to pursue their goals and asked how I could help, directing their attention away from where they lack and back on something more important where God has provided. Fear not little flock its God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom, so let us live in it today by following Christ loving God in our worship. Embracing the Holy Spirit in our daily prayers and study, and living the love and lifestyle Christ shows us with those around us. We have all we need to do what God is calling us to do already available to us, but are we too afraid to see it.