I am the man.
The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.”
Then I went and washed and received my sight.
I remember vividly the first time I had an experience of praying with my body. I was 6 years old. I had been hearing stories about God from my parents and my school, and I knew that God was big—bigger than I could imagine, and God was powerful, more powerful than anyone or anything, and God was infinite. I remember wondering about that word “infinity.”
And then, one summer day, I went to the beach, as I had many times before. And I went into the ocean, which I had also done many times before. And I practiced something I’d learned, not in school, but at swim class: I practiced floating.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” ~ Genesis 12:1-3
If there are so many different ways to pray… why is prayer so hard for some of us? I’ll confess to you that the reason I continue to return to prayer in sermons is because I find it so challenging. Oh, I’m great with an “arrow prayer,” you know, when someone asks for prayers, and you say, Sure thing, and you close your eyes and say, “Lord, help her!” But the discipline of setting aside time for prayer? I find it hard. Not impossible, but something I don’t do as regularly as I want.
Fortunately, the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading points us to Jesus’ instructions on prayer. Not only that, Matthew’s passage offers us a prayer—THE prayer, which Christians have been saying since it first got passed around and learned by heart, like the treasure it is.
I wonder about this.
This is an amazing story. A beautiful story. A story that, even though we may be very familiar with it still has the ability to affect us… physically, as well as emotionally. There are times when this story makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And it makes me wonder.
So that is what I want to do with you, this morning. I want to wonder, aloud, about this story. Some things that we wonder, we can look up. They are things that are already on the record. But it’s the other things we wonder about… that’s where the mystery is, and that’s where we have an opportunity to really enter into this story.
What about our enemies? What about those, we are pretty convinced, are out to harm us, or even destroy us?
“You have heard that it was said,
"You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
But I say to you,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” ~ Matthew 5:43-45
It’s easy to think, well, Jesus could never have anticipated what we’re up against. Jesus doesn’t know the threat we’re under.
But the thing is, he does. He did.
When I was about ten years old, and the world was my oyster, and I didn’t actually understand many of the things I saw on TV, I was introduced to the most wonderful sentence in the world:
“The devil made me do it.”
This came courtesy of a brilliant African American comedian, Flip Wilson, who died much too soon, but whose variety show brought us his character, Miss Geraldine Jones, who lived pretty much by her powerful physical instincts. Her response to any accusation that she had acted improperly was:
“The devil made me do it.”
And it was said with a laugh, and the flip of her wonderful hair. Miss Geraldine Jones was letting us know that there were powerful forces at work, and what was a girl to do?
Jesus has some suggestions.
But what does Jesus mean? These words, by any traditional understanding of the word “blessing,” make no sense.
“Blessed” are the poor? Tell them that the next time they are evicted!
“Blessed” are those who mourn? Tell that to a widow, weeping for the only love of her life, after decades of faithful devotion.
“Blessed” are the peacemakers? Peacemakers are regularly killed for their efforts.
Is it possible that we have been completely misunderstanding this word “blessed”?
Paul begins his letter by saying two incredibly encouraging things to the church at Corinth. First, he says, I give thanks to God for you, because I see God’s grace in you. Second, he says, that grace means: you have every spiritual gift you need.
Imagine. Imagine someone saying that to you. You have every spiritual gift you need.
The light. How it shone bright as the noonday sun… and what it revealed as they peeked through their shaking fingers… an army. Was it an army? Rank upon rank of beings that did not stand on the hillside, but who hovered, circled and danced above them, swooped unsettlingly close, and whose wings… were they wings?... were the colors of rainbows and rivers and new blades of grass in the spring.
The people to whom this letter was written were Jewish Jesus-followers. The people to whom this letter was written were beginning to know persecution because of being Jesus-followers. And the people to whom this letter was written were trying to figure out what Jesus-followers should do while they were waiting for Jesus to return.
The return of Jesus is, in fact, the elephant in the room of every single word written in the New Testament. Every gospel, letter and apocalypse was written with the expectation that Jesus would return soon, and very soon. Every single believer for whom these words were written was sure they would see the return of Jesus in their lifetime.
Everyone wants world peace. Or, everyone is supposed to want world peace.
The state of the world, however, would suggest otherwise. In another, more current film, two different linguists are asked what is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word used for “war.” One answers, “disagreement.” But the other says, “a desire for more cows.” World peace is a worthy goal, until one party needs more cows, and the other party disagrees. The pursuit of peace isn’t general. It’s specific, and it challenges us to keep at that question: What are we willing to put aside to find it? What if we need more cows? How do we find peace then?
Advent is a strange season. It may be the strangest season of the church year
The Christmas season is straightforward: Christ is born, and we celebrate with gusto! The season of Lent has a clear trajectory: we are walking with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and the cross. Easter season is the celebration of God’s victory over death in Jesus.
But Advent is strange. It’s almost a season of bait and switch.
I must confess that I have had an uneasy relationship with this particular celebration for many years. I take my cue from Jesus’ own words. Now, Jesus talks a lot about “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven.” He tells us that God’s kingdom is just about here—right around the corner, rising like yeast, hidden like treasure in a field, embodied in a boss who pays people too much, not too little. Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” (Matt 5:3, 5): These folks, Jesus says, the poor and the persecuted, are the ones to whom the kingdom of God belongs. They are its true owners.
Jesus teaches us to pray for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And we do that…so Jesus doesn’t seem to believe God’s kingdom is fulfilled by his coming alone—at least, not yet.
And when people in the gospels try to call him king? Try to lay that title on him? Well. Jesus seems to reject that… “Your words, not mine,” he says (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). He says, “Who told you to ask me that?” (John 18:34). Or, he says, “I am not an earthly king. My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). And then, in exasperation, he says, again, “Your words, not mine! My one and only purpose is to tell the truth.”