Foxes and Hens

Luke 13:31-35 New International Version (NIV)

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

I saw a video this week of a man openly weeping. His female companion was videoing his display of emotions, laughing at him the entire time. And then, she posted the video online because she thought it was pretty funny.

You are probably wondering why the man was weeping, and what kind of sick person would find this humorous. The man in the video was wearing a Cleveland Browns shirt. He was crying because the Browns had just traded for one of the best receivers in the league: Odell Beckham, Jr.

This highlights an interesting aspect of sports, especially among us men. Sports can bring out our alpha male, masculine side. We see heated, verbal exchanges, and sometimes athletes can come to fisticuffs in the middle of a game. But sports can also reduce us to tears. We weep when our team wins the national championship, we weep when our team loses the national championship. We weep when someone with great potential sees their career come to a tragic end because of injury.

When is it okay for men to show emotion? Sporting events, funerals, and at the birth of our children? Sure, those are acceptable times. More than that and you will probably be labeled a sissy.

Today we are going to talk a bit about masculinity. Jesus is, in many ways, one tough dude. But Jesus also shows us a different kind of masculinity, a masculinity that loves our enemies and does good to those who persecute us. Jesus shows us a masculinity that is willing to lay down your life for another. Let’s walk through this scripture to see what Jesus can teach us about masculinity and femininity today.

I find verse 31 interesting. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, but someone steps in to give him a heads up. Notice who it is that warns Jesus to flee because Herod wants to kill him. It is the Pharisees. There are two ways that I can read this. One, it could be that I’ve been looking at these people wrong all along. They really do care about Jesus and they don’t want to see him hurt. Jesus is another one of God’s chosen people, and though they don’t always see eye-to-eye, the Pharisees seem to be concerned with Jesus’s wellbeing. It is clear throughout the New Testament that there were Pharisees who seemed to be on Jesus’s side, people like Nichodemus.

Or, the other option, which I think is more likely, is that they just don’t want him around. Jesus is a trouble maker, and they know that they can’t physically threaten him, but they can attempt to scare him away by reminding him that Herod isn’t afraid to take a life or two when someone seems to present a problem for him.

Whatever the Pharisees intention was, they were at least being honest. Herod is a threat, and I’m sure Jesus took him seriously. Remember that it was Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded, even though many people regarded John as a prophet. Herod isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and he isn’t afraid to make some people angry in the process.

What impresses me about Jesus at this point is that the Pharisees aren’t telling him anything that he doesn’t already know. For the last few chapters he has been making his final approach to Jerusalem, and he seems to know that this will get him killed. He knows that there is both political and religious unrest in the city, and it is very clear in the other gospels that Jesus knows what is going down.

So when the Pharisees give him a heads up about Herod and his desire to put an end to Jesus’s ministry and life, how does Jesus answer? He says in verse 32-33, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is going to keep doing what he has been doing. Jesus exhibits some holy stubbornness. He even seems to hint at the resurrection when he says that he will reach his goal on the third day. Jesus knows he’s going to get killed for this, but he is going to do it anyway. He is going to do it, because he knows it is the right thing to do.

That’s tough. That’s the stuff they make super hero movies about. This is like Jesus, the Avenger.

But what’s with the reference to a fox? This is the kind of language we used to describe attractive women when I was growing up. She’s a fox! I wouldn’t use that language now, and I’m pretty sure that’s not how Jesus intended it. This is not a reference to how attractive Herod was.

What else do we know about foxes? They are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants, and other animals. Foxes also have a reputation for preying upon chickens. We never had much for chickens on our farm growing up, but foxes have a reputation for visiting the chicken coup late at night and returning with a fowl taste in their mouth. I’ve seen foxes sneaking up on their prey. They stay close to the ground, slowing moving closer, until they can pounce. Jesus calls Herod a fox, a cunning, creeping, predator looking for his next meal. Keep that imagery in mind, and we will circle back to it momentarily.

There is a big change in Jesus’s tone between verses 33 and 34. He goes from this tough guy who is willing to go toe-to-toe with Herod all while defying the wishes of the religious elite, to being compassionate. He even names the shortcomings of the people, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” I’d expect him to say something else tough and maybe intimidating here. Get it together, Jerusalem! But how does he follow that? “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Our tough-guy Jesus just used a chicken reference to describe himself. A chicken. We call people a chicken when they are scared. We cluck like a chicken when someone’s fear keeps them from doing something. But our tough-guy Jesus just describes himself as a chicken. And not just any chicken, a female chicken, a hen.

A hen seems like the farthest thing from the alpha males we always see depicted on television, or in the movies, always willing to fight anyone who gets in their way. But this is Jesus’s chosen metaphor to describe his own feelings.

There has been a lot in our news over the last year about what some have called “toxic masculinity.” Earlier this year, shaving brand Gillette ran a video calling toxic masculinity into question. This ad wasn’t without some controversy, and there are some things I think they could have done better, but I applaud them for their efforts. The ad showed children bullying other children, and men making catcalls and slapping women on their bottoms, all while men stand by and say things like, “Boys will be boys.” What has in recent years been called “locker-room talk,” Gillette called toxic.

This ad encouraged men to do better. If you see bullying, say something, do something. If you see men treating women as sexual objects, say something, do something. Being masculine doesn’t have to mean hurting other people.

I readily admit that while I don’t bully people and I try not to objectify women, I’ve too often sat by and allowed people to treat others as something less than fully human. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms in my life. And it isn’t just high school. Just in the last year or so I heard two men talking in the locker room about a fitness instructor at the local Y. I’ve heard much worse, but it really didn’t feel appropriate.

I think this is one reason I would like to see us go back to some of the familial language we used to see in the church when we would call people “brother” or “sister.” I think we would treat one another better if we really did view each other as family. This weaker male isn’t someone to pick on to make yourself feel tough. That’s your brother. That woman leading your spinning class isn’t a piece of meat for you to ogle over. She is your sister. Sure, there is also femininity that can be toxic, but it seems to me that we men are the ones who really need to step up our game.

So who can we look to for a good example? How about Jesus? Jesus is a tough guy, willing to stand up to Herod and the Pharisees, even if it costs him his life. But Jesus is also the one who wants to gather the people together like a mother hen. We never see Jesus bullying people, and we never see him degrading women or reducing them to a sexualized object. There is love, respect, and dignity offered to each person.

What I see in our text for this morning is a very intentional juxtapositioning of two different animal species. We have the cunning fox, who is looking to prey upon innocent creatures for his own gain, and we have the mother hen, willing to sacrifice her own body for her chicks.

The idea of a bird protecting her young under her wing is a common metaphor in the Old Testament, occurring at least five separate times (see Deut. 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalms 17:8, 36:7, 91:4; and Isaiah 31:5). Psalm 91:4 is probably my favorite: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

The bird, a hen in Jesus’s metaphor, takes the brunt of the pain for her chicks. Since I didn’t grow up with chickens, I did a little research to see if this really was something that hens did. I came across many pictures of hens protecting their chicks from the rain, and hens protecting their chicks from predators. And I came across two different stories, one of which I will share with you. I questioned this story a bit, but New Testament Scholar NT Wright includes this story in his commentary on Luke, so I don’t want to dismiss it.

Wright tells the story of a family in England who lived on a farm. Like many farms, they had pigs, a cow, a sheep or two, and some chickens. Unfortunately, the barn caught fire one night, which is a real concern anytime you store large quantities of dry hay or straw inside a wooden structure. They were able to get most of the animals out, but the chickens were lost in the flames.

The next day, the farmer was walking through the remains of the barn when he came upon the burnt carcass of a chicken. Out of frustration the farmer went and kicked the carcass with his boot. When he did so, he turned the carcass over, and out ran a couple of young chicks. Surely, this man was scared, but he also thought of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem. The mother hen had gathered her chicks under her wing and sacrificed herself for the wellbeing of her offspring.

There are a number of ways that we could apply this teaching. We could focus on Jesus’s death on the cross, where he died for us. But I want to circle back to this idea of toxic masculinity and instead offer a Christ-like masculinity.

With Jesus as our model, we need to be willing to make sacrifices for others. When I heard the two men talking in the locker room at the Y, I should have spoken up and let them know that that was not appropriate. It may have affected how those men saw me, but that’s the example we have in Jesus. We put others before our own comfort, before our own popularity.

And recently, a friend of mine has taken to posting negative things about a person on Facebook. I don’t want to say who they are attacking because I don’t want this to get political. But my friend, a youth pastor, posts ad hominem attacks about a congressperson almost daily. They call her stupid, without ever addressing the issues she is arguing for. Often these attacks are in the forms of memes that don’t even quote this congressperson, but attribute sayings to her that she never said.

Isn’t that bullying? And I wonder if he would say the same things about a male congressperson with the same viewpoint? This seems to be toxic masculinity, and I need to say something.

I need to say something, because others are watching. I need to say something, because this guy is a youth pastor. The entire point of the Gillette ad was to change things for the next generation because we can do better. And Gillette probably lost some business by running the ad. Doing the right thing is often costly. But we need a little holy stubbornness in our lives, because doing the right thing is rarely the same as doing the easy thing.

In saying this, I realize that I sound like a typical man, trying to fix things. But I think we men do have to fix things. We are responsible for toxic masculinity, and we need to be a part of the solution. When we see bullying, either in the traditional sense or online, we need to be a part of the solution. And the solution to toxic masculinity isn’t femininity. The solution is Christ-like masculinity. Men can still be men, but we need to be men like Jesus. We need to be men willing to risk our own bodies, our own reputations, for the good of others. We need to do it for others, and we need to do it for those who are watching.

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Hungry for God

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

Happy first Sunday of Lent! “Happy” and “Lent” aren’t always two words we hear together in the same sentence. People like Advent, we like building up the anticipation as we await the arrival of the Christ Child. But Lent? Lent is a time of penitence, a time of sacrifice, a time of confession. Yet I think Lent is important. It seems like the world loves a baby in a manger, but we could do without an innocent man on a cross. Let us never forget that Lent is a time to remember what Jesus has done for us.

This Lent we will be focusing on our own emptiness. We will be drawing from scriptures that use metaphors like hunger and thirst to describe the way we yearn for more than this world has to offer.

But just what is Lent? And we are a Mennonite church. Isn’t that a Catholic thing? Today we are going to look at the tradition of Lent, where it started, and by examining our scripture for today, we will try to better understand the symbolism of this liturgical season.

Let’s start on the day before Lent officially begins. People around the world, Christians and non-Christians, often celebrate the day right before the beginning of Lent. In some circles it is called Shrove Tuesday, which means a Tuesday of Confession. Other traditions refer to this day as Pancake Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, which in French is Mardi Gras. The idea is to prepare for a Lenten fast by making sure that your conscious is clear and to stuff as many calories down your throat as possible before you give something up.

Obviously, Mardi Gras has taken on a different meaning in some cultures, but the root is still the same. Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, and Pancake Tuesday are about getting a little more carnal pleasure before giving something up for the next 40 days.

And for those who say, “I just can’t give up something for 40 days,” fear not. Sunday is officially recognized as a “cheat day.” Sundays in Lent are a mini-Easter, when Christians are permitted to break their fast.

Why 40 days? The 40-day Lenten fast corresponds to Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness for 40 days before he began his official ministry. though I don’t know anyone personally who has tried to do a complete fast like Jesus did. But that’s not the point. In fact, I think that many people miss the point of a Lenten fast altogether.

I recall a conversation that I had with a friend a few years ago. We were together on Ash Wednesday, the official first day of Lent. As we sat at the local Applebee’s, he informed our group that he was giving up smoking for Lent. He thought that was pretty funny, because he didn’t smoke anyway.

Many people give up something like sugar or sweets for Lent. This can be done well, but often it isn’t. Lent isn’t a joke, and it isn’t a diet. It is about sacrificing something so that you can improve your relationship with God and with your neighbors.

I’ll give you an example of what I do think gets to the point of Lent. It is becoming popular to give up social media for Lent. How many hours do we waste each day, week, month, or year checking Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? And as we all know, our interactions on social media are often less than Christlike. So in giving up these things, we hope to spend more time with God, and less time fighting with one another. I also heard about someone who was trying to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics over Lent. For them, caring for creation is an important part of how they connect with God.

Others take the 40 days of Lent as an opportunity to add something to their lives. We’ve all heard the estimates about how long it takes to form a new habit. 40 days is a pretty good place to start. Some people will be more intentional about reading their Bibles or other devotional materials for 40 days. Others will be spend 40 days helping the needy in a new way. Many people try to spend more time in prayer for Lent. Lent isn’t just about giving something up, it is about adding something to your life. And it should always be about improving your relationship with God and neighbor.

Those of you who come from a Catholic background may be thinking that I am missing something: the meat fast. Catholic teaching states that all Catholics over the age of 14 must abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and every Friday of Lent.

I think that this practice is a little dated, but that doesn’t mean that it is without merit. Back in the days before you could get a quarter pounder on every corner, meat was considered a luxury item. In many countries it still is. Meat was often reserved for special occasions and times of celebration. For instance, if I asked you what food you associate with Thanksgiving, you might name pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. But what Thanksgiving would be complete without a turkey? Or July 4th without a hotdog? Wait, there isn’t any meat it a hotdog, but you get the point. Abstaining from meat was a way of giving up a luxury item.

I don’t think we should be legalistic about Lenten fasts. That’s never the point, and nowhere in the Bible are we told to observe a Lenten fast. The command of a Lenten fast isn’t biblical, but neither is toothpaste. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. I came across some great “rules for fasting during Lent” on the Pulpit Fiction website that I want to share with you. Rule 1: There are no rules. But they do offer some guidelines, which include things like: “Remove something from your life and allow God to fill that space,” and “The purpose of the fast is not to follow the rule you laid out. The purpose is to grow closer to God. God is more interested in your heart than this practice.”

Where I see the strength is in the training. For someone like me, a confessing sugar addict, to give up sweets is training me to resist temptation. If I can stare down a cupcake and win, who knows what else I can accomplish? There is nothing sinful about eating cupcakes, Praise Jesus! But when we train ourselves to resist something as simple as sugar, ideally we would be able to resist greater temptations.

Connecting with God, training to resist temptation. When we look at the individual temptations of Jesus, I’m really not sure that they are all temptations. The first temptation is to turn a stone into bread. If I could do that, I would. Elsewhere Jesus multiplies loaves and fish to feed crowds of 4 and 5,000. There is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. There is obviously something else going on here.

I think it is helpful to remember that Jesus is consistently shown throughout the New Testament to be the sinless redeemer of the world. Where humanity has failed, Jesus has succeeded. In the book of Genesis we find the story of Adam and Eve. They lived in the Garden of Eden, and all of life was good. They had one rule: there was one tree from which they couldn’t eat. Then comes the serpent, and he tempts the first human beings to break the one law that they had. Adam and Eve failed, giving in to temptation. Jesus overcame temptation and was victorious.

What other notable stories do we have in the Hebrew Bible? The Great Flood? That event took place because the entire world was sinful. The Exodus? They wandered in the wilderness because they sinned. And maybe you can remind me, how many days did it rain during the Great Flood? How many years did the Hebrew people wander in the wilderness? 40. I assume that when the people hear that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, they are going to think of these other famous 40’s and be reminded of their own failures.

In Romans 5, Paul describes Jesus as a second Adam, only this time, Jesus got it right. Just as sin entered the world through one man, so too had God’s grace entered the world through one man. His name was Jesus.

The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones into bread. Again, there’s nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. I say if you can do that, go ahead and do it! But this gives Jesus a chance to refer back to the Hebrew Bible. And notice that all of Jesus’s rebuttals to Satan’s temptations are scriptures from Deuteronomy. Even more specifically, they are all references to Israel’s years of wandering—and failing—in the wilderness.

In verse 4, we find Jesus’s response to temptation 1: “Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” This is a part of a larger passage of scripture from Deuteronomy 8. Here are verses 2-3:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This temptation never was about bread. It was about humility. It was about our relying upon God, the source of all things that are good.

The next temptation involves the devil taking Jesus to the top of the mountain and offering Jesus power over all nations if he will just bow down to him. Does this mean that the devil has power over all kingdoms, nations or governments? That’s debatable. It seems like the devil is offering Jesus a shortcut to power. Jesus is offered a crown without a cross. But Jesus needs to consider what kind of messiah he is called to be. Verse 8, “Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’””

This is also right out of Deuteronomy 6. Verses 12-13: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.”

How did the Israelites do at that? *Cough, golden calf. Cough.* The temptations of Jesus, and more specifically his response to these temptations, reveal that not only can Jesus overcome temptation, he succeeds where human beings had failed.

So obviously, the point of the story is that Jesus is good, humans are bad. You’re going to sin, so go forth and sin boldly! No, probably not. No, I think this story and the entire season of Lent are helpful reminders that we are failures, but there’s still more to the story.

The final temptation involves the devil taking Jesus up to the highest point of the temple and daring him to jump. I’m pretty sure the devil even called him chicken, trying to egg him on a bit. Maybe not, but what does the devil do? He quotes scripture to Jesus, which just goes to show how much we can twist scriptures around to say whatever we want it to, especially when taken out of context.

I’ve always assumed that this temptation was about Jesus doing something miraculous in front of the Israelites so that they would believe in him. If you were coming out of church today and someone jumped off our roof, only to stop inches above the ground and hover there for a bit, you would take notice! But let’s look again at Jesus’s response in verse 12 and its original context. “Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”” This comes from Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.”

And now I want to know about Massah! This story comes from Exodus 17, where the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and they complain to Moses, accusing him of bringing them out into the wilderness so that they, their children, and their livestock will die of thirst. Verses 6-7:

Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?”

When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the temple, this wasn’t to show other people who he was. This was an effort to make Jesus second guess his own identity, and to second guess if God was really with him. If God saved him from this terrible fall, it was proof that God was with him.

I came across a new mini documentary series on Netflix called “Losers” this week (Rated M, this isn’t for everyone). At this time there are eight episodes about various athletes who failed at their particular sports. And it wasn’t just like some kid losing his ball game at the Y. We’re talking about world-class athletes failing and failing miserably. And yes, they took this failure hard, but they didn’t let their failure beat them. They found other ways to excel.

The heavy-weight champion of the world is knocked out in his first match as the champ by a scrub who didn’t even deserve to be in the ring with this guy. The champ begins writing play and screenwriter. And English soccer club needs to score one goal to not be removed from the league, and they only have time to score because their best player is bit by a dog during the match and they score in the extra time. A basketball player is kicked off I believe three different college teams for behavioral issues and drug and alcohol abuse before finding his home on a traveling performance team like the Harlem Globetrotters. And yes, there is a golf story too. I didn’t watch that one, but some guy fails.

I think that there are two reasons why someone might watch a show called “Losers.” Some people are going to watch this series because they like to watch other people fail. They get their daily dose of schadenfreude, joy from other people’s pain. But then there are those who will watch because we can relate. We get it, because we too have failed. We have missed the big shot, we lost the girl to someone else. Our coworker got the promotion. And every now and then, it is good to see something good come out of our failures.

This is just as true for our religious, spiritual, and ethical failures. We’ve failed, I’ve failed. In Lent we remember our failures, not to dwell on them and feel guilty. In Lent we remember our failures to emphasize that something good has come along. Where we have failed, Jesus has succeeded. Now something better is out there for us, and we know it. We hunger for more. We hunger for God and his kingdom.

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God Ordained

John 21:15-19

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

I have been asked to preach an ordination sermon later today for my friend MaryBeth, who is a pastor at Signs of Life Fellowship, a deaf church here in Staunton. So I’ve been practicing my ASL and spending a lot of time thinking about the subject of ordination. I was ordained for ministry back in November of 2007, and since then have utilized all aspects of that designation: marrying, burying, and of course, tax breaks. That’s right, pastors don’t make a lot of money, but we get to keep most of what we get!

But from where do we get this practice of ordination? And is it still relevant today? I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about ordination and what that means to the 21st-century church.

To ordain literally means to put something in the correct order. This can be a little misleading, because this is not to suggest any kind of hierarchy, as if an ordained Christian is some sort of super Christian. My wife and family can attest to that. To order something in this sense means to sort it. I was ordaining my socks earlier today, as I was looking for a matching pair. I’m halfway kidding, and I don’t mean to cheapen the concept. One thing, person, or group is being separated out from the rest. When we ordain a person for ministry, we are setting that person aside from the rest, noting a particular gifting or calling upon their life.

The most thorough examination of ordination in the Bible is found in the Old Testament. In Exodus 28 God tells Moses to set aside Aaron and his sons as priests for the Hebrew people. God then spends about a million chapters describing the work of the priests, sacrificing animals and performing other religious acts in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple. That’s what the priests do, and not just anyone can do that work. This is work that God has ordained them to do. So Moses is to mark Aaron and his sons as set apart from the others. They have a unique calling, which requires a unique service. We find the details of that service in Leviticus 8. In verses 22-24 we read, “[Moses] then presented…the ram for the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. Moses slaughtered the ram and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses also brought Aaron’s sons forward and put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet.”

This is gross to our modern-day ears. But blood was a common part of the sanctification and purification rituals of the Hebrew people. It was used to show God where the Hebrew people lived during the Passover, and blood was used in the atonement or forgiveness rituals of the people. Later in Leviticus we will find a very similar service used when a person with leprosy is healed and pronounced clean. The blood seems to be a symbol of forgiveness for sins, purification of impurities, and also a commissioning for future responsibilities.

So why the ear, thumb, and toe? The Bible never tells us, and that can be both fun and frustrating. It is fun because we can be creative and try to guess why God would choose for these parts to be bloodied. It is frustrating because some people will come up with some theories that are really out there!

The interpretation that I like goes a little something like this. The ear is a symbol of hearing, the thumb/hand a symbol of work, and the toe/foot a symbol of travel. Essentially, the ordination ritual involving the ear, thumb and toe is saying, May God bless you in the understanding of his word. May God bless you in the work that you do. And may God bless you wherever you go.

The smearing of blood is only one of three symbols often associated with ordination. The others are the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. When the person is prayed over with the laying of hands, anointed, or sprinkled with blood, they are being consecrated, set apart from the others for a particular ministry.

Make no mistake, this doesn’t make the person better than the rest of the group. Again, this isn’t about a hierarchy of regular Christians and super Christians. This is a way to recognize the special call and gifting that this person has received for a specific ministry.

The priesthood in the Old Testament differed from what we pastors do today. The priests were the liaison between God and the people. Only the priests could make the sacrifices on the part of the people. Only the priests could enter the Holy of Holies, the most exclusive part of the Jewish Temple. That is a lot of power and responsibility placed on the shoulder of the priest.

But in the New Testament we find a different story. We read that at Jesus’s crucifixion the curtain dividing the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was split in two, symbolically stating that God could not be contained in a room, but was everywhere and available to all people. 1 Peter 2:9 reminds us, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

That “you” is the plural. You all are a chosen people, you all are a royal priesthood. This was written for the entire church, not just the priests. And the book of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our high priest. Jesus is the one who is the bridge between us and God, breaking down any barrier that might have been there.

So do we need priests in our churches? If we are all priests and Jesus has covered the Temple responsibilities of the priest, do we still need ordained clergy?

Of course I’m going to say yes. I’m not interested in losing my job today! But the purpose of clergy is different in the church today than it was in the book of Leviticus (praise God! I don’t want to be making any animal sacrifices anytime soon).

There are twelve examples in the New Testament of people being designated for special ministries; none of them use the word “ordination,” but they do describe a special service of recognition. For instance, in Acts 6, there is a need for people to care for the poor and the widows among the disciples. The disciples instruct the other believers to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Then in verse six we read, “They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.”

We sometimes refer to these seven men as the first deacons of the church. It is the deacons who care for the poor, who care for those who can’t provide for their selves or their families.

While we don’t have any official deacons in our church we do have a handful of people in our congregation who work frequently at the Valley Mission. We have people who volunteer weekly to teach and tutor in the after-school programs. We have board members for the Valley Mission and the Staunton-Augusta County Relief Association. In a way, you are serving as modern-day deacons. I think that we need to do a better job of recognizing you in this role. You have been ordained, set apart by God for this ministry, and I want to recognize that.

Barnabas and Saul are commissioned for their missionary work in Acts 13:2b-3, “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”

We support a number of missionaries through organizations like Virginia Mennonite Missions, and we support church planters. We have been raising funds for Armando and Veronica Sanchez for some time now. And I am glad to announce that they officially went on the Virginia Mennonite Mission payroll on March 1. We’ve been praying for the Sanchez family, but have we recognized them as ordained by God, set aside for this ministry? Barnabas and Saul were church planters, and the Sanchez family is as well. God has ordained them for this ministry.

The ritual with blood found in Leviticus is replaced with the laying on of hands and prayer in the New Testament. But the purpose is still the same. These people are being set apart for a special ministry, called to do something that not everyone is called to do.

So what about our modern practice of ordaining pastors? I’ll answer that in a bit of a roundabout fashion.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel we find Jesus telling his disciples a story about a shepherd and his sheep. In this story, the shepherd calls his sheep by name, which shouldn’t surprise any of us that grew up around animals. Every cow, sheep, and pig had a name on my father’s farm. Why should this be any different? The shepherd calls his sheep by name, and the sheep recognize the shepherd by the sound of his voice. There is a relationship there; a sense of knowing and being known. There is a mutual caring for one another.

Jesus goes on to explain this story in verse 11 and then again in verses 14-15: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus is himself the good shepherd. So what’s going on in our text for this morning? Our scripture takes place after the resurrection of Jesus, which means it also takes place after another event: Peter’s denial of Jesus. Recall that on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. And in John’s gospel, he denies knowing him three times, just as Jesus had predicted.

I don’t think that it is by accident that Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and three times, in three different ways, tells Peter to feed and care for his sheep. But wait, that’s Jesus’s job. He is the good shepherd and shepherds feed and care for the sheep. The good shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know him. Now Jesus is passing on some of his responsibility to Peter. “Peter,” he says. “Feed my sheep.” You will now be a shepherd as well.

Or to put it another way, the work that Jesus began here on earth, Peter is now to continue. Jesus is pointing to Peter, recognizing his gifts and abilities, and saying, “Peter, feed my sheep. Peter, care for my sheep.”

I’m not sure if anyone here speaks Latin or not, but the Latin word for shepherd is also a pretty common word in our English language as well. If you were to read the Latin form of the Bible, the Vulgate, when Jesus calls himself the good shepherd the word that is used there is the one that I’m referring to as well. The Latin word for shepherd is “pastor.”

When Jesus told Peter to feed and care for his sheep, Jesus was calling Peter to be a pastor. And though Jesus doesn’t explain this metaphor, I believe that when Jesus says to feed his sheep, he is talking about teaching followers of Jesus. Through teaching and preaching, it is the shepherd’s job to provide the theological, ethical, and spiritual nourishment that the church so desperately needs. And when Jesus says to care for his sheep, he is instructing the shepherd, the pastor, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bind up the broken.

Shepherds, pastors, your job is to feed and care for the people of God.

Who do we see being set aside for special ministry in the New Testament? In Ephesians 4:11 we find what is often called the “fivefold ministry of the church,” where apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are specifically named. And in 1 Timothy 3, bishops, elders and deacons are named.

Whether we call it ordination, commissioning, blessing, or something else altogether, I think we should be pointing out the gifts of the people around us and praying a special blessing upon these people for the work that they have been called to. It isn’t just the pastor who is ordained by God, but each person who has been separated out by God through the gifting of the Holy Spirit.

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Passing the Test

Genesis 22:1-19

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

My brother ordered a fishing pole for my son’s birthday, and it arrived this past week. So what do you do when you receive a fishing pole in February, and have a snow day? You go outside and practice your casting. I took a video and sent to my brother, who responded, “Did he catch anything?”

I said, “Yep, a cold.”

We all had our immune systems tested this week as the flu bug made its way through my family. Not just a cold, but the actual, testing-positive-for-influenza flu virus. Some of us came through it without getting sick, while others weren’t as lucky. But in the end, I think we are all stronger because of it. Or at least our immune systems are stronger now.

Today we are going to be talking about testing. I’ve been working through some responses to my sermons over the last few weeks, and about a month ago I mentioned that God knows us perfectly, and loves us anyway. Afterwards someone asked me, “If God knows us perfectly, then why does God test us?”

My first response was to reply that not all tests are from God. But the Bible does clearly describe times when God does test humans. Today’s passage from Genesis 22 is one such instance.

When I started working with the passage, I remembered how important it is to approach the Bible with some humility. I have more questions than answers after studying this passage, and if you spend much time digging into this one, you will too. So I want to start this morning by reciting the three most-important words in theological discourse: I don’t know. There are times when the best response we have to people when they ask difficult questions is to say, “I don’t know,” and this passage presents us with a great opportunity to do that. But I also don’t like to stop with “I don’t know.” The next three most-important words are, “Let’s look together.”

Let’s start this morning trying to better understand what a test is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a test as: “a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use.”

We have many teachers in our church. You test your students to see how well they have learned a subject. When my son went into the Urgent Care on Monday, he took a test to see if he had Strep. At my parents’ home they have an older, wooden cat walk suspended within one of the barns. Before I walk out into the middle of the barn 20+ feet above the cattle, I test it a bit to see if it will hold my weight. We want to see how well our students can perform, we want to see if something really is what we think it is, we want to check something’s reliability.

This is where my original question comes into play: if God knows us perfectly, then why does God test us?

The most common response I hear is that God doesn’t test us to prove to him what we are capable of doing. God does it to prove to us how much we are capable of.

Think of it like this. I am pushing 40-years-old. I’ve never been a great athlete, but I’ve always enjoyed competing. In my grown-up years, one of the things that I’ve been able to do more and more of is running. It is a sport that you can play by yourself, and with my schedule, I can often find enough time here and enough time there to get in a run between meetings and school buses.

Last year I ran my first ½ marathon. My goal was to run it in under two hours, and I beat my goal by twelve minutes. I didn’t know how fast (or slow) I could run a ½ marathon because I’d never done it before.

I decided to do the race again this year, because I’m a little crazy like that. No, now I want to see if I can improve on my time. What if I get my weight under 200 lbs? What if I train more and pay attention to my nutrition and get a real pair of running shoes? (After Zion’s accident, I will avoid the Nikes this year.) I don’t know the answer until I actually try. I’m not sure what I am capable of until I am pushed to find out.

The most-common response to why God tests us is so we can find out what we are capable of. There are surely things that we wouldn’t try unless forced to do so. I think that is a reasonable explanation…some of the time. I’d also want to warn you against seeing every hardship as a test. What really makes me uneasy is when people think that everything, including traumatic events, are a test from God. If you ever hear someone tell a person who is mourning the death of a child that God is testing them, please speak up!

I believe that the main point of the book of Job is to teach us that we should never jump to the conclusion that the bad things that happen to us are the result of God punishing or testing us. Job is doing well, he has money, he has a family, and he has a nice farm. But all of that is taken from him. Yes, if you look at the book of Job, it is set up as a test of Job and his commitment to God. But it isn’t God who is testing Job, it is Satan.

Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. We read this in Luke 4:1-2a, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil.”

The footnote after the word “tempted” tells us that the Greek word peiradzo can also be translated as “tested.” There are other forces in the world that test us.

One more. In Luke 13 there is a story where some people come to Jesus and they seem to be pointing out to him how bad some people are and how they deserve punishment. Jesus’s response is to remind them of a recent accident where a tower fell and killed 18 people. From verses 2-5 we read, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! … Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”

Sometimes bad things just happen. God doesn’t make them happen, and don’t assume that bad things happen because God is testing us or because we have sinned. Sometimes bad things just happen.

So what are we going to do with this text and the underlying question of why God tests us. My first response is to say that though God knows us perfectly, that doesn’t mean that God always knows how we will react. We see this in places like Exodus 16:4, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.’” And Deuteronomy 8:2, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

Whatever it means for God to know us perfectly it doesn’t mean that God know how every decision we make will play out. When we talk about God being “all knowing,” or “omniscient,” I think that means that God knows all things that are knowable. And somethings just aren’t knowable in advance. They need to be tested.

But that is far from the most disturbing thing about this passage. The most disturbing thing is that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, and Abraham was going to do it. This is the child that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah in their twilight years, the child through whom God had promised to bless the entire world. Now God has told Abraham to kill him, and Abraham was going along with it.

There are a couple of things that we need to remember here. First is that Abraham lived in a time when child sacrifice was a common event. The gods often required people to sacrifice their first born, so as terrifying as it sounds to us, it was commonplace back then. Surely, it was still horrible, but still commonplace.

Second, a number of people have commented that while Abraham seems to pass the test, this does not mean that he earned a perfect score. Not all tests are on a pass/fail basis. Is it possible for Abraham to have scored higher?

Consider the story from just a few chapters earlier, when Abraham met three visitors. These visitors, whom we are told represent God, tell Abraham that they will be destroying the city of Sodom. Abraham doesn’t just sit idly by, but instead bargains with God. What if there are 50 righteous men living there? Will you wipe out the entire city if there are 50 righteous? What about 45? 40? Eventually, they get down to 10. Abraham really puts it on the line for the city of Sodom!

So why doesn’t he seem to argue for his own innocent son?

This is especially interesting when you consider the history of the Hebrew people arguing with God. Isaac’s son, Jacob, will famously wrestle a being, earning him the name “Israel,” which means, “He who wrestles with God.”

My son is nine. I have to think that if I heard God or an angel telling me to sacrifice him on the top of some mountain that I would assume that I misheard, or that the voice wasn’t actually God speaking to me. I would question that voice, not just because I feel pretty strongly against child sacrifice, but also because that doesn’t sound like something the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ would ask for me to do. It may sound like one of the ancient gods of Abraham’s day, but it doesn’t sound like my God.

Maybe Abraham gets an “A” for not withholding his son, but an “F” for not engaging God in conversation. That averages out to a passing grade. Yes, Abraham passed this test, but he didn’t get a perfect score. He could have done better.

There is still one more understanding of this text that I like better, though I still have my concerns. This interpretation suggests that the test was never about Abraham sacrificing his son, but whether or not Abraham could adequately discern the character of God. Ready to get a little nerdy?

Abraham has had a relationship with God ever since God called him to leave his home for a place that God would show him. Abraham and God had made covenants and promises to one another. God had given Abraham a child (or two) in his old age. God and Abraham were not strangers.

This final understanding of the binding of Isaac suggests that Abraham was being tested to see how well he knew God. And from the beginning of this story we can see that Abraham did indeed know that his God was not like the other gods. His God wasn’t going to ask him to sacrifice his son. In verse 5, just before going off to make his sacrifice, Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

It sounds like Abraham was planning to bring Isaac back with him, like God would somehow intervene and stop him from killing his son.

They climb the mountain, and Isaac, who is probably a young adult at this stage, notices that they have wood, they have fire, and they have a knife. What they don’t have is a lamb for the sacrifice. When he asks his father about this, Abraham says in verse 8, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

It is possible that Abraham lied to Isaac to placate him. But keep in mind that Abraham was over 100 years old at this point, and Isaac likely between 12 and 32. Yet somehow, Abraham was able to tie up Isaac in order to sacrifice him. I don’t think that happens unless both Abraham and Isaac both knew that God would intervene and stop this senseless act of violence.

The test, in my opinion, was to see if Abraham recognized God’s character, if Abraham recognized that his God, the true God, was not like the other gods.

My friends, not every bad thing that happens is a test from God. Sometimes bad things just happen. And when God does test us, sometimes it is for us to see how strong we are. But God also tests us to see how well we know him. Though the story of the binding of Isaac leaves me with a lot of questions, I feel confident is saying that God is not like the others gods of this world. No, if you want to know what God is like, look at our enemy loving, nonviolent, self-sacrificial lord, Jesus Christ.

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A Mennonite Pneumatology

Romans 8:12-17; 26-27

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

A few weeks ago I preached on the baptism of Jesus, and I really wanted to end that sermon on a teaching that I feel is often ignored in the Mennonite Church when we talk about baptism. I mentioned the proclamation from heaven declaring Jesus, and us, as beloved sons and daughters of God. I think that is absolutely true, you are God’s sons and daughters. You are loved. But a couple people pointed out to me that I jumped right over another aspect of Jesus’s baptism. Look again at this pronouncement from Luke’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 22, “And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

I went right for the beloved-ness, but skipped over the Holy Spirit altogether. This is even more embarrassing when I think of what John says just before Jesus’s baptism in verse 16: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The baptism of Jesus is bookended with teaching on the Holy Spirit, but I ignored it. No, not intentionally, but I didn’t say anything about this important teaching. I won’t make that mistake again, especially as we can see in today’s scripture that our beloved-ness and the Holy Spirit are intricately connected. Paul writes, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Today, I want to look at a little Mennonite Pneumatology. Pneumatology is just a fancy way of describing the study of the Holy Spirit, the Hagias Pneuma in Greek. Our Mennonite theology tends to focus on Jesus, and I don’t apologize for that! But we, I, could do a lot better job of talking about the role of the Holy Spirit. What I want to do today is look at some Mennonite history, ask why Mennonites have shied away from pneumatology, and then do what can be described as a bit of a survey of biblical references to the Holy Spirit and look at how these references can help shape our understanding of what we are called to as Christians in the 21st century.

The first thing that I want to mention is that even though many modern Mennonites don’t emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit as much as the other persons of the Trinity, that hasn’t always been the case. The first Anabaptists saw their movement within the Protestant Reformation as a Spirit-led initiative. It was the Spirit that called them to be rebaptized, and it was the Spirit who empowered them to endure the persecution of the other denominations. Many Anabaptists understood John the Baptist’s reference to Baptism by Fire as a reference to the persecution of the church, where thousands were martyred in a period of about one hundred years, many by burning at the stake.

But one of the most amazing things to me is the way the early Anabaptists understood the Holy Spirit as their guide in interpreting the Scriptures. Like the Jerusalem Council from Acts 15, the Anabaptists called upon the Holy Spirit to help them understand the timeless message of the text. In Acts 15 the Council writes, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” as if the Holy Spirit was right there with them, guiding these simple fishermen and tentmakers as they discerned the future of the church. Likewise, the Anabaptists understood the Spirit as their guide, even though many of them had no formal training. Indeed, there were Anabaptists like Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons who had formal, religious training. But when most Anabaptists were meeting in caves and homes to avoid persecution, they relied upon leaders, many of whom couldn’t read, to lead their churches.

Our history is a Spirit-led one, so what happened? I can only speak from my observations here, and have no study to back up my hypothesis. I would start with Mennonite humility and simple dress. We have historically dressed in cape dresses and plain coats, worn simple hairdos and mustache-less beards. We have passages like Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And we all know how to misquote Proverbs 16, Pride cometh before the fall. (That’s not what it says, but it works.) Though perhaps in a different way, Mennonites still consider a humility and simplicity virtues.

Then comes the early 20th-century charismatic movement. People were rolling on the floor, handling snakes, drinking poison, speaking in tongues, and being slayed in the Spirit. Surely this ecstatic style seemed so out of sync with traditional Mennonite humility. For some Mennonites, that was a good thing, and many charismatic Mennonite churches and even denominations were formed. Others forced the pendulum to swing too far back the other way and we just didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit, at least not in the same way as the charismatic churches did.

Furthermore, unfortunately, many saw the Charismatic movement as an opportunity to make money. People went on the road, calling their selves “faith healers.” With the rise of television came the televangelist. Absolutely, there are some people doing wonderful things for the Kingdom of God by using various mediums of communication. But when the one’s doing the most healing and the most slaying in the spirit are also driving the fanciest cars, living in the biggest houses, and flying in their own private jets, I get suspicious. In fact, I get a little angry because these are people claiming to follow the one who said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

That is my best guess as to why modern Mennonites don’t focus a lot on the Holy Spirit, and I think it is time for a change. I believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and active among and within us. I believe in the gifts of the Spirit, and I believe that some do have the gift of healing, or prophesy, or any of the gifts listed in the Bible. My advice to you is simply to pass on a word I heard from a pastor on this very subject. He said to always be open, but cautious.

Let’s move to our biblical survey. We simply cannot look at every passage about the Holy Spirit in our time this morning, so we will hit a few I find helpful.

My first question for you is when did God create the Holy Spirit? Is this something that God decided would be helpful at Jesus’s baptism and then split into three separate entities? No, we find references to the Holy Spirit all the way back in Genesis. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the first part of the Trinity mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, appearing in Genesis 1:2, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

The Hebrew Bible does not provide a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit and tends to depict the Spirit as a part of God, which doesn’t contradict our trinitarian understanding of the Spirit. Reading this passage reminds me of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to these two passages, there never was a time when God did not exist as three-in-one.

Let’s move on. The book of Isaiah tells the story of the Babylonian Exile and then the return of the people to the promised land. Isaiah was a prophet who received messages from God which he conveyed to the people. In Isaiah 61:1-2a we read this: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If that sounds familiar, it is the text that Jesus used for his first recorded sermon in Luke 4. In both cases, the Spirit is a messenger between God and the person through whom God wishes to speak. The Spirit is the communicator. And this goes both ways. Not only does the Spirit tell us what God wants us to hear, the Spirit tells God what we need, even when we don’t have the words to say. As our text for this morning says, when we don’t even know what we ought to pray, the Spirit intercedes with groans that even we can’t understand.

The Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves.

I mentioned the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism. I think that was an act of equipping. Many times the giving of the Holy Spirit is about God providing people with the ability to do the ministry to which they have been called.

One of the best-known stories of the Holy Spirit also is about equipping. I’m speaking specifically of the events of Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered together when they hear a loud wind blowing through town. Let’s pick up in verse 3-4, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

My interpretation of this event is that the gifting of the Holy Spirit and the disciples speaking in tongues was all about spreading the news of Jesus to people of every nation, ethnicity, and language. When we find lists of the spiritual gifts in places like 1 Corinthians 12, it is almost always God gifting people to do some kind of ministry or to live out the call of Christians.

I like what Pastor Greg Boyd writes in his book, Seeing is Believing, “The main work of the Holy Spirit, then, is not to supplement what the Son did but to apply what the Son did to the lives of God’s people. He glorifies Christ by revealing him to his children (Jn 16;14). He does not speak of himself (Jn 16:13) but rather causes people to behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ, thereby transforming them into this glory.”

What about the whole idea of speaking in tongues? I don’t think that I have any kind of exhaustive list of what the Spirit can do, and I do believe that the ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues that we see in some Christian traditions is a manifestation of the Spirit. What I want to push back on is any form of Christianity that says that speaking in tongues is the sign that someone has the Holy Spirit. First of all, I think that most of the references made to speaking in tongues in the New Testament is about super naturally speaking other languages to spread the Gospel, and not some personal prayer language between you and God. When people make this the sign, the sine qua non, keep in mind that Paul faced people with a similar perspective. And Paul often tried to downplay this gift. You will notice that when Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit, speaking in tongues is always last or near last. And in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 he writes, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

The point throughout Paul’s work seems to be that speaking in tongues is no more important, no more valuable, and no more a sign of the Spirit’s presence in a person than any of the other spiritual gifts. This isn’t a contest. I would say that speaking in tongues was never intended to be evidence of the Spirit. Do you know what is evidence? Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We call those the “fruit of the Spirit.” When you are living in the Spirit, you will bear these fruit.

I want to address one last passage in our biblical survey this morning. I’ve looked at this before, but it needs our attention again today. I would file this aspect of the Spirit under the category of “empowering.” In 1 Corinthians 12:3b, before he gets into a list of Spiritual gifts, Paul writes, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus is Lord! Looks like I’m filled with the Holy Spirit. No, this isn’t just about uttering the words. This is about saying it and meaning it, even when you face negative consequences. To say that Jesus is Lord is to simultaneously say that Caesar is not. When Jesus is Lord, your job cannot be Lord, your boss cannot be Lord, your president or country cannot be Lord. Paul proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” and it cost him. He was imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately put to death for his faith.

Our Anabaptist forebearers proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord,” and many of them were burned at the stake, drown in the river, or beheaded.

When Martin Luther King Junior stood up and proclaimed that all men were created equal, when the government said that they were not, Dr. King was saying that Jesus is Lord.

When Orie Miller, founder of Mennonite Central Committee, stood before the president of the United States to ask for exemption from military service for conscientious objectors, Orie Miller was proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.”

And though we don’t have a clear pneumatology in the Old Testament, I believe it was the Holy Spirit that empowered Moses when he told Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I believe it was the Holy Spirit who strengthened Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and Daniel, preventing them from bowing down and worshipping idols.

As NT Wright says, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to speak up when the world does not look like the Kingdom of God. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to speak even to those in positions of power. Nobody can say that Jesus Christ is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.

Now please note that none of these men were perfect. They all had their share of problems. But God’s Spirit still worked through them, and God’s Spirit can work through a flawed person like you and me.

The Spirit of the living God serves as a communicator, and equipper, and an empower-er. And I’m sure a whole lot of other things as well. It is my hope that we can continue to develop a more robust Mennonite pneumatology that will help us as we seek to make God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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Stewardship, Proclamation, and the Greater Good

Psalm 24

1 The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; 2 for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.

3 Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? 4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.

5 They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Savior. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, God of Jacob.

7 Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory.

The church is easily divided. We can divide over our favorite college team, are you a Hokie fan or a UVa fan? We divide over politics, to build a wall, or not to build a wall. And yes, we find ourselves divided over issues of theology. But one thing that I hope we are not divided over is whether or not we are called to care for the world God created. I know very politically conservative people who love to camp, hunt, and fish. I know very politically progressive people who like to hike, garden, and ride bicycles. And who doesn’t like going to the beach? Well, I don’t but that doesn’t mean that I want to see the beach destroyed.

The point that I’m trying to make is that caring for creation has become a partisan, political issue, and I think that is a shame. I’ve never met a person who wanted to see the world deteriorate, or for their grandchildren to not be able to breathe the air surrounding them. So let’s not make it a Republican thing or a Democrat thing. Instead, what I want to remind you today is that caring for creation is, or at least it should be, a Christian thing.

You’ll notice that I’m going to use different language than what you might hear on television or the radio. I’m not going to talk about environmentalism. Environmentalism isn’t a bad thing, but as a follower of the God revealed in the Bible, I want to instead talk about creation care. Today I want to highlight three reasons why Christians should be working to improve and restore the creation that God once called “very good.” We do so as stewards, as witness to God, and for the greater good of humanity. Let’s start with an argument from the point of stewardship.

In find it interesting to go all the way back to the beginning. I’m talking about going all the way back to Genesis chapter 1. Genesis teaches us that God created the heavens and the earth, all the birds of the sky, the fish in the water, the plants in the soil, and the creatures on the land. At the end of the day, God pronounces them good. Then, on the sixth day, God creates human beings and pronounces all of creation, not only good, but very good. And a part of what God pronounced to be very good was a hierarchy within creation. Only human beings are said to be created in God’s own image. And God placed the human beings over the animals, the plants, and the soil itself. The NIV says that humans were to “rule” God’s creation. The KJV says to have “dominion” over creation. In our 21st century vernacular, we might say that God ordered human beings to be stewards over all that he had made.

The interesting thing to me about all of this is that this is not the result of the fall. We know that Adam was forced to till the soil and deal with thorns as a punishment for his sin. But in both chapters preceding the fall, God tells the human beings to care for creation. Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

Our first mandate as human beings is to care for what God has created.

We were never given the land to do whatever we want with it. Look at our text from this morning: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Or, as the hymn we sang earlier reminds us, this is our Father’s world. We are watching it for him, but make no mistake, it is still God’s!

In Romans 8 there is an interesting section where Paul writes about creation groaning. In verses 20-22 he writes, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

It is hard to say exactly what Paul is speaking of. He didn’t know about climate change, single-use plastics, or shrinking polar ice caps. But he recognizes that creation was not as it should be, even in the 1st century. He compared it to our bodies, which ache and can be broken. So what are we to do? Sit around and complain? No, Paul says we are more than conquerors. Our bodies will be made whole again, and so will this world. God will heal us, and God will heal creation.

This is what Richard Bauckham has called our “ultimate hope.” Our ultimate hope is for the new heaven and new earth where there will be no pain, suffering, death, or decay. But we also have what Bauckham calls “proximate hope.” Proximate hope is the hope for something better in the present or near future. We have proximate hope when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick. And we have proximate hope when we care for creation, when we perform that first mandate given to humanity in the Garden of Eden to be stewards of what God has created.

We don’t look at a starving person and say, “Well, one day, when Jesus comes back, you’ll have plenty to eat.” No, we feed the hungry. We don’t see a sick person and say, “You will be made well when you die and go to heaven.” No, we provide the best care we can for them now. And we don’t look at the polluted waterways and skies and say, “God will make all things new.” No, we seek to make things right now, as best as we can. We have our limits, and we do believe that one day God will make all things new, all things right. That’s our ultimate hope. But our proximate hope is that followers of Jesus can make a difference here and now as well. We do it out of love for God, love for our neighbors, and as a witness to the world of the kingdom of God that is at hand.

This brings me to my second point. We care for creation as a proclamation.

Psalm 19 begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”

Creation itself tells us about God. I always feel the need to warn people that God and nature are not one and the same. We do not worship creation, we worship the Creator. And creation cannot completely reveal who God is, Jesus did that. But even Paul, in Romans 1:20, tells us that God can be known through creation: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

If we got on 81 south and drove to the bottom of Virginia, we would find Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in the Commonwealth. Mount Rogers is 5,729 feet above sea level. I’ve never seen Mount Rogers in person, but the pictures that I’ve seen look a lot like what we see around our area. The views are breathtaking and beautiful, with massive rocks jutting this way and that. And compared to the Rocky Mountains, they are tiny. Remember that Pikes Peak is over 14,000 feet above sea level.

What does Mount Rogers tell us about God? Let me ask you this, how many mountains have you made? The biggest mountain I ever made was with the mashed potatoes at our last carry-in meal. We can look at creation and surmise that our God is powerful and creative, artistic even.

I’ve said before that the more I learn about science, the stronger my belief in a Creator becomes. I once heard a pastor say that we strengthen our belief in God by thinking bigger and thinking smaller. By thinking bigger, he is calling us to consider the heavens, just as we were encouraged to do in Psalm 19. The earth is approximately 93 million miles away from the sun, and Pluto is about 7.5 billion miles away from the sun. Our solar system is a part of the galaxy known as the Milky Way, which is about 100,000 light years wide. The Milky Way is one of the smaller galaxies, and with the Hubble Telescope, scientists estimate that there are about 100 billion galaxies. Our God made that.

But we also go smaller. We all know that everything is made up of atoms. And atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Do you know what makes up most of an atom? Empty space. Let’s give this some context, we all know how big a penny is. The size of a single hydrogen atom compared to the size of a penny is roughly equivalent to the comparison between that same penny and the moon. Our God made that.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God, but when we pollute the skies and the waters, how clearly is that proclamation made? This year marks the 50th anniversary of the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. This wasn’t the first time the Cuyahoga caught fire, but it did help lead to what is now known as the Clean Water Act. At the time of the fire, the river had no discernable life in it because of the pollution. Not even slugs. In my opinion, the loss of biodiversity takes away from our proclamation of God as our artistic Creator. With the loss of the beauty and diversity of creation, we lose a bit of our understanding of how awesome our God is.

Let’s move quickly to my final point for creation care: the greater good.

Some of you may recall the country music group, Alabama. Back in 1990, almost thirty years ago, Alabama released the title track to their album, “Pass It on Down.” This song was about caring for creation. The lyrics include: Let’s leave some blue up above us,/lets leave some green on the ground./It’s only ours to borrow,/let’s save some for tomorrow./Leave it and pass it on down.

This isn’t a partisan message from Alabama. This isn’t some hippie, liberal, message. Alabama often used images of rebel flags on their albums and official posters. 30 years ago, Alabama was singing about passing on a world where we can swim in the streams, drink the water, and enjoy the great outdoors. Alabama was thinking about the next generation.

In enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, and I don’t think it is wrong to want to preserve it so that I can enjoy it. But I also realize that in my remaining 40-50 years on this planet, I probably won’t have to suffer too much because of the environmental condition. I may have to buy water at the store or wear more sunscreen, but we have mountains that will keep any rising ocean waters from consuming my property. I don’t rely on predictable weather patterns for my business. But others do.

We have had some weird weather lately. I wish I had taken a screenshot of my weather app, which showed temperatures in the 70’s on Tuesday, and a possibility of snow this weekend. We have been up and down, hot and cold. In many parts of the world this was also the rainiest year on record. There is a lot of debate about how much of our climate change is the result of human meddling, but there isn’t much debate about the fact that things have changed.

Hurricanes, floods, and desertification are causing many people to pick up what they have and look for a better living situation. I’ve heard that climate refugees are going to be one of the greatest humanitarian issues facing future generations. And it seems to be affecting people we know and care about as well.

I am writing this on February 8, 2019. My family in Ohio still has corn standing in the field, which is usually all harvested by Thanksgiving. It was a wet spring, which means the corn was planted late. It was a wet fall, which means they couldn’t get the combine through the mud. So the corn sits in the field, rotting, losing valuable feed for the livestock.

I came across this quote from Gus Speth, who teaches at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Speth writes, “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

We can do all of the assessments and scientific calculations that we want. The real concern, according to Speth, is selfishness, greed, and apathy. We Christians have something to say about that.

It takes a little more work to sort our trash, or to use reusable containers rather than disposable one. Carpooling takes some prior consideration. Walking or riding a bike can be inconvenient. But every little bit helps. I despise terms like “going green” because they are so binary, as if you are either helping the environment or hurting it. Instead, we make incremental changes in our lives, our habits, and our practices because we are only stewards of God’s creation, God’s creation proclaims his glory, and we are all depending on that creation for our wellbeing.

I want to end with some thoughts that I came across in an article about gardening. I’ve kept a vegetable garden for the last decade or so, sometimes with more success than others. In this article, Tina Osterhouse writes, “Although planting a garden might seem like an insignificant act, it offers us something deep and enduring: a reminder of God’s sovereignty over the earth and a practical, incarnational way to participate in his created order.” Osterhouse reminds me of what I have said here before, I’ve never met an atheist farmer.

She goes on to say why gardening is a step in the right way to healing not only the world, but also our own souls. Quoting Osterhouse directly: “First, in a culture driven by immediacy and instant gratification, gardening forces us to cultivate patience.”

Patience. Is there anyone here who wouldn’t benefit from developing a little more patience? We have the world available to us at the touch of a button or the swipe of a smart phone. But when you plant a seed, you wait. You water the seed, and you wait. You fertilize, weed, and you wait. To garden is to cultivate patience.

“Second, gardening reminds us of our finitude and fallibility.”

Finitude: all created things come to an end. Fallibility: all created things have faults and make mistakes. I’ve seen some of your gardens, and you put me to shame. I can’t grow a tomato to save my life. Peppers, I got that. Zucchini, no problem. But tomatoes are a bit of an enigma for me. And in the fall, when that first killing frost hits, even my zucchini plants stop growing. Gardening reminds us that for everything there is a season, and we aren’t always in control.

“Third, in a world that continues to stun us with harsh cruelty and chaos on every side, gardening offers us beauty and simplicity.”

I have spent a lot of time this sermon contrasting deterioration with beauty. By planting something we have the opportunity to add to the beauty of creation. Whether you are planting cucumbers or chrysanthemums, you can make the harsh and ugliness of this world a little bit better.

We are called to be stewards of God’s creation, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. The heavens declare the glory of God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Creation care isn’t a political issue, it is a Christian responsibility. I pray that you will join me as we make incremental changes to bring proximal hope to this world as we await our ultimate hope in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Known, Called, Equipped

Jeremiah 1:4-10

4 The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” How beautiful is that? God speaks these words to the young Jeremiah, using the Hebrew word “yada” to describe the depth of this relationship. There are people that I grew up with and haven’t spoken to in twenty years. If you asked me if I knew them, I’d say yes. There are people in this community whose names and faces I recognize, I might know where they live, work, or go to school. If you ask me if I know them, I’d say yes. I might meet someone once or twice, we may share a mutual friend. If you ask me if I know them, I’d say yes. But that’s not yada.

Yada is a deep understanding, nothing hidden kind of relationship. My wife’s birthday is this Wednesday, so to celebrate we will go out for supper. As we discussed this someone asked what her favorite restaurant was. I said, “Oh, Sonya doesn’t have favorites.” She said, “See, you get me.” I said, “I get you, but I wouldn’t say I understand you.” Her “You get me” is the essence of yada.

God tells Jeremiah that before he was even conceived, God knew him, God had this full understanding of his very being. Before Jeremiah was born, God “got” him. That’s yada.

But is this unique to Jeremiah or does this deep knowing apply to everyone? God is speaking directly to Jeremiah, and goes on to say, “before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

If we assume that God knows everyone before they are formed in the womb, do we also have to assume that God appointed us all as prophets to the nation? Let’s look at some other passages. Psalm 139:13-14 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” I always thought of God as more of a crochet-er than a knitter.

Isaiah 49:5-6 says, “And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength— he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’”

One more, Galatians 1:15b-16a, “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

Each of these passages speak of yada, God knowing the person who wrote these words. So it isn’t just Jeremiah, it is also David, Isaiah, and Paul. That still doesn’t answer whether God knew all of us in the same way since our embryonic stages, just that God knew those leaders of the faith since their very beginning.

We can debate this question all day and never come to a consensus. I don’t think that the point of this passage is when God officially knows us, if it is before we are conceived, before we are born, or sometime after we come screaming into this world. So please don’t make any firm theological pronouncements based on these texts. The point seems to be, and it is consistent throughout the Bible, that God knows us personally and thoroughly. As David writes in verse 1-3 of Psalm 139, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

What word do you think is translated there as “you know me?” Yada.

And yes, David is speaking of God knowing him in this passage, but there is a consistent voice throughout the Bible that says God knows all us completely. God even knows how many hairs are on your head, which for me is a lot, but most of them are coming out of my ears and nose. This is how I interpret the passages in Paul’s writings about predestination. God knows us completely, God knows our personality and our situations, and therefore God knows every possible decision we will make. God knows us completely and thoroughly. And perhaps the most amazing thing about God knowing us completely is that God still loves us.

God knows us all, perfectly and thoroughly. This is not in any way deterministic. Yes, God has called Jeremiah to be a prophet, but he could say no. In fact, Jeremiah tries to say no. We find his excuse in verse 6, “‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’”

Obviously, you do know how to speak, Jeremiah. Perhaps you meant to say that you do not know how to speak well. But with a little encouragement, Jeremiah agrees to his calling. Unfortunately, our scriptures tell us stories of many people who were called and chose to turn away from their calling.

The best example of this is found in Luke 9, where Jesus calls three different people to follow him. Just three chapters earlier, Jesus called a bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, and a religious extremist and they all accepted this invitation. But in chapter 9, all three men have excuses. One seems worried about housing, another first wants to burry his father, and the third one wants to say goodbye to his family.

All of these things seem like legitimate concerns. And notice that they never say never. They seem to say “Not yet, not now.” Even Jeremiah doesn’t seem to say that he will never be God’s prophet. His excuse is that he is young. Maybe if he was a little bit older he could do the job. Maybe with a bit more experience and some public speaking classes he could be prepared.

God responds with some encouragement in verses 7-8, “But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.”

It is really easy to say no when God calls you to something. It is even easier to say “Not yet, not now.”

But what do we have to fear? God has promised that if we are called, he will equip us. In the last few verses there are five “I” sayings. God says I will do this and I will do that. Maybe you are not good enough to do it on your own, but that’s just the thing. You aren’t on your own.

Hebrews 13:21 tells us that “[God will] equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” The passage we read two weeks ago from 1 Corinthians 12 referred to the Spiritual gifts. This is God, through the Holy Spirit, equipping us to do what God has called us to do.

God knows you, God calls you, and God equips you.

One of the things about the Bible that bothers me, however, is that the stories in our scripture tend to highlight the extreme cases. When I think of the stories of calling in the Bible, I think of Moses speaking with a burning bush, Jesus calling the disciples to drop their nets so that he can make them fishers of men, and Saul/Paul getting knocked off his donkey by a blinding light and a voice from heaven. It seems like the stories that we have recorded always involve men being called to do something extreme. And this storyline is often picked up in our churches as well. When we talk about calling in the church, we often think about pastors being called to ministry, missionaries called to some far-off land, or broken people being called to healing and wholeness. Indeed, these are great stories. And it is the great stories that make it into the printed accounts. But what about the less extreme cases, the everyday callings?

I read this week about an article written in the New York Times about all of the autobiographies that have been published in recent years. An autobiography is simply a person’s life story written down for other people to read. The author of this article claimed that the increased number of autobiographies over the last few years shows how self-involved and narcissistic we have become as a nation. For every great president or CEO, there were a handful of books written by people who’s claim to fame was winning a talent show or marrying a wealthy person. The author also quoted a survey that said that 70% of people believed that their life story was worth telling, which he took to mean that people today are simply too full of their selves.

However, about a week later, there was a letter to the editor that picked up on the theme that was conveyed in this article, but went a different direction with it. They wrote, “This article claimed that 70% of people think their life story is worth telling. So that means that 30% think they have no story worth telling. How sad.”

Let me assure you of this: God knows you, God calls you, and God equips you. Your story is worth telling.

I think we walk a narrow line in the Mennonite Church. We preach and teach humility, as Paul reminds us to always think of others as higher than ourselves. But we can take that too far as well, downplaying the work that God is doing in our lives and the calling we have to serve God and our community. You’d hate to sound like you are boasting by saying that God has called you to do something. “Hey, listen to Ethel over here. She was called to be a missionary. Isn’t Ethel special?”

Yes, Ethel is special. And so are you. Your calling is no less important than Ethel’s or mine. Not everyone is going to have a calling story like Paul or Moses. Not everyone is called to be a pastor or a missionary or a church planter. In fact, there is only one Moses, only one Paul, and only one you. Everyone is called to something. And the amazing thing is that nobody else is going to have a calling story like yours.

When did God first know you? I don’t know when, but I know how. God knows you completely, God “yada’s” you. And because God knows you, God knows how best to use you. God calls those he knows, and God equips those God calls. God knows you, and don’t ever forget it.

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