Pastoral Relief and Retreat

My photo
Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

Pages

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lost in Northwood


Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.
(Acts 14:8-18 ESV)

Juliet:  O Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

Romeo: [Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet: 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

Romeo:
I take thee at thy word:

Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;

Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
n  Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

C.S. Lewis, in the wonderful conclusion to The Last Battle wonders out loud about the possibility that a devout person raised to love the fictitious god Tash might find himself ultimately in heaven; that his honorable character and his unswerving faith in a false god might actually be credited to him as faith toward the true God.  

Could it be?  It is a good question.  Acts 14 suggests another, more difficult answer to the question.   In the modern world we have been taught to believe that perhaps all devotion is ultimately offered to the true God, whatever he/it is called.  If the earliest Jews called God elohim because they didn’t know any better, so the argument goes; and if over time God revealed himself to them as El and then finally as YHWH, then it stands to reason that this is merely a question of the light that has been shed in the hearts of certain people.  Some have enough light to understand God as Jehovah (YHWH).  Others only have enough light to understand God as El, and so on.  So, aren’t all devout people really worshipping the same God?

For the past three years, Jama and I have been living in a beautiful home on an unmarked cul-de-sac.  Get on Ridge Road, just off Rt. 4.  That’s the easy part.  Everyone gets that.  Go 1.7 miles.  That still works for anyone with an accurate odometer.  It is at that turn in the road that we consistently have trouble.  You see, Ridge Road ends right there.  I always tell people that Ridge turns sharply to the left, because it would take way too long to say, “but that’s actually Shelburne Hill Road.” 

Shelburne Hill Road is still a nice, typically pot-holed, paved country road, just like Ridge.  And frankly, if you continue down Shelburne Hill Road you’ll end up back on Rt. 4, not too far from where you started.  You can go around in circles in Northwood, New Hampshire that way all day.  The problem is: call it Ridge or Shelburne Hill or Range or Bow Lake Road (it keeps changing names), and the only place you’ll ever get to is right back where you started.  You’ll never get to my house that way. 

I’ve told tons of people to take a right hand turn at the end of Ridge Road, exactly 1.7 miles up.  Hardly anyone trusts that the only possibility is the correct one.  It is another road.  It isn’t marked in any way whatever -- AND about 150 yards straight ahead, it turns into a rutty dirt lane with an ominous sign that says, “Not a town road.”  Most people who trust enough to start down this road stop when they see that sign.  That looks dangerous.  I could break an axle on that road.  You simply have to go all the way TO the place where the dirt road starts before you’ll ever see the beautifully manicured entrance to Gaviat Green Estates, just to your right.  From there it is easy.  We’re the second almost brand-new house on the left. 

IS the name the most important part?  Probably not.  But trust and being on a real road that actually doesn’t just go around in circles is.  Paul and Barnabas practically had a cow (which you can call a bull or an ox if you’d like) when the people of Lystra tried to worship them as Zeus and Hermes.  The god they represented had a character so completely different from Zeus and Hermes that the two couldn’t possibly be the same.  Miss the meaning of the turn 1.7 miles down Ridge Road, and you can take every other right-hand turn on Shelburne Hill…Range…Bow Lake Road, and you’ll never ever find my house.

The great thing about Paul is that he never scolds them for taking a wrong turn.  He doesn’t say, “That’s not the way to God!”  He does say, “Woah!  Don’t worship us!  We’re just men like you are.”  He identifies with them and then spends the time to compassionately walk with them until they understand that all roads don’t lead to the same God. 

The last fellow who tried to find my house went around the loop three times before he called me.  I suggested we meet back at the corner of Rt. 4.  I never had to tell him how to find my house.  I went to a place that was recognizable to both of us and we drove in the 1.7 miles together.  I drove the road with him because telling him would take just a little too long.

Jon

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Proclamation: Prophecy


Lord’s Day Message: “Proclamation: Prophecy”
Poquonock Community Church, Congregational
July 17, 2011


Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last (Rev. 1:8-9); besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any.”
(Isaiah 44:6-8 ESV)

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Introduction
There is probably no better set of verses in all of Scripture that we could have set before us as we begin our ministry together than the passage that was just read from Isaiah 44.   These verses are like trumpets heralding what we as a congregation and as individual believers need to be about.  The verses set the bar for everything we will do together as long as we walk as a church together.  If there is a summary statement for the entirety of Scripture, it would have to be something like this. 

The only other passage I can think of that comes close to expressing what Isaiah 44 does would be Jesus’ own statement in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”  But even that statement comes with the warning attached to it, “yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” 

There is a question we need to ask one another at the beginning of any ministry.  And we’ll need to ask this question over and over again as we experience life and death, joy and sorrow together.  We’ll need to ask this question every time we eat with one another, every time we study the Word together, every time we sit down to meet together, every time we worship together, every time we give, every time we work, every time we do anything as a church.  The question we always need to ask one another is, “Why are you here?”  In the case of a gathering that has been going on as long as Poquonock Community Church, we have to ask the question “Why are you still here?”   Knowing the answer to that question will be a driving force in making us a growing, active, effective community of believers together.  These verses from Isaiah 44 provide the initial answer to that question. 

One of the first things we need to know as we begin to approach Scripture together is exactly what Isaiah 44 establishes.  Good theology begins with God.  All good theology begins with God and who he is.  If you don’t start there you’ll always end up mired in the law because you’ll be forever asking yourself “what must I do to make myself acceptable to God?”  Or else you’ll make the really horrible mistake of building your entire thinking about God on how you can appease him or keep him from being angry with you.  Both of those are wrong conclusions. 

That is why Jesus had to say to the religious people of his day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”  Jesus didn’t come so you could placate an angry God.  Jesus said it himself, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  What else could he possibly have meant than what John begins his gospel with, “In him was life and the life was the light of men.”  And Paul follows it up in 1 Corinthians 1:30 by saying, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord."  And that’s exactly what Isaiah does here in chapter 44.


Proclamation is God declaring his name.
First and foremost, Proclamation is God speaking.   You will always know when it is God speaking and not your own inner voice or a voice from some other place because God has no agenda other than himself.  When God speaks the first thing on his mind is to tell about himself.  Everything else God speaks hangs on that. 

It is God’s greatest pleasure for people to know who he is and what he is like.  We don’t have the time this morning to develop this fully, but in Genesis 1 the very first thing God does in creation is to turn the lights on so the dawning universe can see what he is like.  And when he creates humankind, he says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Even before man had language to understand God, God was communicating with him, for the name of God, the being of God was reflected in the being of man and woman.  The moment man became conscious of his own existence, when he said, “I am,” without even knowing it he was speaking the name of God.

Isaiah 44:6 begins this way, Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last (Rev. 1:8-9); besides me there is no god.”  But something of the impact of what God is saying is lost in our modern translation.  The editors who put this together formed it into a proper sentence so it wouldn’t sound so strange to us.  But in the original Hebrew, it reads more like free verse than a sentence.  In fact, ancient Hebrew has no punctuation, and in a sentence like this one, many of the connecting words are implied. 

Literally this reads, “Speaks the Lord, King of Israel, Redeemer, Lord of Hosts, First and Last, Only God.”  When you hear it that way, doesn’t it sound like God is calling himself names?

And what names!  Most modern English bibles have the first one printed as “Lord”, using a large L and small caps for the o…r…d… because what they are translating here as “Lord” is actually four Hebrew consonants with the vowels removed.  Early English Christian translators didn’t know what to make of the tradition the Jews had of not speaking the self-disclosing name of God and so they made up a word that filled in the vowels: “Jehovah.”  Whatever the word actually sounded like, it was what God said to Moses from the burning bush when Moses asked him, “Who shall I say sent me?”  And God said, “Tell them I AM that I AM sent you.” 

So here in Isaiah 44 what it really says is “Speaks I AM.”  The self-existent one.  The one who is because he is.  The one whose very name is being.  Your being.  My being.  The being of the person you meet at the grocery store.  The being of kings and presidents.  The being of the ignorant and the wise.  The being of the most lucid thinker and the most frail Altzheimer’s patient.  The being of this building.  The being of Windsor, Connecticut.  The being of Planet Earth.  The being of every star and every moon every where.  The being of the space in between all of the stars and all of the planets, and the being of the space between the atoms that make up you and me.  All of it is bound up in the self-existence of God. 

Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.”
(Psalm 19:1-3 ESV)  The collective voice of all creation cries continually, “The LORD!”  Do not believe for one second that God is not trying to say something to you.  God is always trying to say something to you.   Speaks Jehovah: I AM.

Jehovah. 

The next words in Hebrew are Melech Yisrael, the King of Israel.  The Hebrews of 780 BC had no understanding of a personal relationship with God apart from their relationship with God as a people.  That he was King over Israel meant that he was king over Isaiah.  That he is King of the Universe means that he is King over Poquonock Community Church and that means that he is King over me. 

God IS and he is the sovereign, the ruler, the king.  Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” 

Jehovah, Melech Yisrael. 

The next word in the chain is a hard one for us to grasp because all of us have been trained to understand when we hear “redeemer” to think of Jesus death on a Cross redeeming us in an eternal way so that we would not pay the penalty for our sin.  But when a Jew of the 8th century BC heard of the redeemer he immediately thought of the concept of the kinsman-redeemer. 

When a married man died in those days, it was considered the duty of his nearest unmarried male relative to marry his widow and have children who would be credited to the dead man.  In this way, the dead man’s line would be preserved through his wife and his own blood.  The redeemer raises the dead man’s offspring for him.  The redeemer, quite literally raises the dead and brings the dead man back to life through his children.  When we think of a redeemer today, we think of substitutionary atonement – Christ paying some price to get us into heaven.  The way we most often word it, it sounds like God is really, really mad at you and me from the get-go, he’s already judged us, and Christ is sort of patching things up so we don’t have to suffer the punishment that is rightfully due to us.

But the idea of a kinsman-redeemer is an offering of joy in the midst of death.  The kinsman-redeemer did something wonderful to make it possible for their dead relative to have a heritage.  The kinsman-redeemer restores what was lost through death, God’s original, joyful, passionate offering to the man, “Be fruitful and multiply!”  That is what we lose because of sin.  That is the curse that has reigned over us from the time of Adam and Eve until now.  We have lost our ability to reproduce the image of God in another.  The redeemer restores that ability in us.

Jehovah, Melech Yisrael, ga’al. 
I AM, King of Israel, Redeemer.

Now God reiterates his name and connects the dots for us.  If God is self-existent, if he is King of the Universe and King of Israel, if he is kinsman-redeemer for each and every one of us, then he is Jehovah Saba – The Lord of Hosts.  “Hosts” here is a military word.  He is Lord of rank upon rank.  He is the Lord of divisions and of armies.  But don’t take the military allusion too far.  This simply means, to Israel, that the whole force of God’s sovereignty is for Israel.  And it means for you and me that there is rank upon rank of the unseen that is here waiting and ready to stand for each of us and for this church.  The multitude of the heavenly host that the shepherds saw on a hillside one night near Bethlehem is here… now… for the church.  And he is Jehovah Saba.  He is the Lord over that host.   He is Lord everywhere, over all things.

Jehovah, Melech Yisrael, ga’al, Jehovah saba. 
I AM, King of Israel, Redeemer, Lord of Hosts.


The next one doesn’t sound like a name at all.  It sounds like God is counting.  First…Last.   But if he is Lord every where, over all things, we need to know that he is also Lord at all times.   He is Lord before and after.  He is Lord First and Last.  He is Lord at the beginning and at the end.  He is Lord of this moment and the next.  He is Lord above and below.  He is Lord from pole to pole.  The Greeks chose the first and last letters of their alphabet to express it: Alpha and Omega.  His being Lord extends across all time and space and to every corner of all creation.

Jehovah, Melech Yisrael, ga’al, Jehovah saba, ri-shown, acharown
I AM, King of Israel, Redeemer, Lord of Hosts, First, Last

Finally God sums it all up and says the radical thing that no other God on earth had ever said until that time: bil-aday elohim.   The ONLY God.  Really, after everything else he had said, did God really need to add that?  Israel knew it, and yet they kept turning to the regional gods around them.  Throughout their kingdom history they had known that he was the one and only God, and that, as the psalms say, the gods of the nations are nothing.  And yet they simply couldn’t resist.  They would get in among the other people groups around their area, groups that had gods they had to appease with idols or with certain rites and actions, and they just simply found themselves drawn to them.   So God constantly reminded them, “I am the only, the one and only God. 

Now we can hear Isaiah 44:6 the way Israel heard it. 

Speaks Jehovah, Melech Yisrael, ga’al, Jehovah saba, ri-shown, acharown, bil-aday elohim. 
Speaks I AM, King of Israel, Redeemer, Lord of Hosts, First, Last, Only God

It trumpets like the announcement it is.

THIS is proclamation. 
THIS is the self-existent God proclaiming his own magnificence. 
THIS is the model for all we need to be thinking about as a congregation
and as individual believers. 
THIS Prophecy. 
THIS Prophetic Word from the mouth of God. 

God, speaking his own name over and over, until we finally understand it in all its depth and power. 

Jon

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Authorized


            And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
(Mark 2:1-12 ESV)

Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”?  

The point that Jesus is trying to make is that both are impossible.  I have a dear friend who is paralyzed from the shoulders down.  And, by the way, who sinned, this man or his parents, that this should befall him?  Was his paralysis, which came as the result of falling off a cliff, divine punishment?  The passage from Mark 2 doesn’t ask this particular question, but it is a question that was asked of Jesus about a man born blind, and since the question of sins is on the table (or bed, in this case), we may as well go all the way and ask the other question as well.

The remarkable thing about this moment is that the in Jesus’ day the origin of all disease and infirmity was assumed to be sin.  If we are sick, we are at fault.  And so it is absolutely reasonable that Jesus addresses the question of the man’s sin first.   By erasing the stigma of the man’s sin, and essentially declaring the man ceremonially clean, Jesus has welcomed this paralyzed man back into the mainstream of society.  If his sins are forgiven, no matter that he lies paralyzed on a bed, he is to be treated as any able bodied person from here on.

The question the people asked themselves is a valid one.  Only God can forgive sins.  But Jesus is saying something very important about faith when he tells the man his sins are forgiven.  Was it Jesus’ faith and trust in his Father that gave him the authority to forgive sins?  Was it the faith and trust of the people who lowered the paralyzed man into the room that made it possible for the man’s sins to be forgiven?  Was it the faith of the man himself?  That isn’t even mentioned, though we have to assume that he wasn’t there entirely against his will. 

When someone acts against me, I can forgive his offense and all is cleared up.  But sin is offense against God. And while I may commit an offense that touches you, the heart attitude that caused me to sin is between God and me.  We see this most vividly displayed in Psalm 51.   So, though my crime may be against man, my sin is against God.  

Was the man healed because his sins were forgiven?  The man was healed because of Jesus’ love for the man, his love for the people who lowered him into the room and his love for the people who stood there questioning his ability to forgive sins.   The healing was a demonstration of that love.  So, of course, was Jesus’ offer of forgiveness.

But Jesus had the ability to forgive the man’s sins.  Jesus also had the authority to forgive sins.  Having the authority moves the whole thing from merely the fact of forgiveness to the act of forgiveness.   I may say to you, “look friend, your sins are forgiven.”  I’m announcing a fact.  But I’m not the author of your forgiveness.  That’s why only God can forgive sins, because he is the one whom you and I have sinned against and he is the only one who can forgive sin.  That is why David, in Psalm 51 said, “Against thee, thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in thy sight.”  You and I can announce forgiveness, but we cannot authorize it.

The healing of the paralyzed man is more than announcement.  It is a testimony to authorization.   And God wants you to know your sins are forgiven.  I am announcing this to you.  I don’t have the authorization to tell my son’s friend to rise and walk.  I’m not authorized to do any more than tell you your sins are forgiven.  The rest is up to you.    Whether you pick up the offer is between you and God.

Jon

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lord's Day Message: The Best Thing in the World


            There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
            You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
(Romans 8:1-11 ESV)

Preface
We have arrived at the critical moment.  This is where the rubber really meets the road.  This is the message our entire ministry together hangs or falls on.  And I don’t mean that this message is any more important than all the others we have shared because it is my last.  God willing this will not be the last time I stand in your presence and open the Word of God with you.  I hope and pray that in the days to come the relationship we have built will lead to many creative interactions between the people of Immanuel Community Church and the people of Poquonock Community Church as I go to Windsor and Randy comes here. 

This is the critical moment because of what Paul is talking about in Romans 8.  You will want to have your Bible open to Romans 8 this morning, and I want you to keep staring at these two paragraphs as we go and meditate deeply on them after we part this morning.  What they have to say to you about your life with Christ is absolutely critical.  As the old saying goes, “don’t worry, everything depends on this.”

Resurrection is the best thing in the World
Romans 8 begins with a bold statement that Paul makes: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  This is not merely a bold statement.  It is an audacious statement.   The gods of the ancient world all had to be appeased and placated.  They were all like the proverbial mother-in-law.  They had to be sacrificed to and catered to in order to keep them happy.   That’s what is so different about the ministry of Christ.  And I don’t know how or when our faith became all about believers needing to know and articulate the right doctrines in order to be saved, but isn’t that just another way of placating the mother-in-law god?  The reason the church at the beginning of the 21st century is in trouble is because people finally woke up and said, “Faith has to be simpler than that.”

And it is.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  That is the core of the gospel.  That is all you need to know.  You don’t even need to know what it is Jesus is saving you from.  You just need to know that There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

When I came to Christ when I was 19 I had heard theology.  I had been in church since I was in grade school.  My mother was the church secretary.  I had practically lived in the church.  And I can tell you that it was no great putting together of theological truth that led me to Christ.  I came to Christ because my sister faithfully pushed the “record” button on a tape recorder in Greenwich, Connecticut one evening, and because some engineer in a studio in Newark, New Jersey pushed the “play” button on his tape deck, and played a message that was available to him because some kid in a conference center in the hills of California had pushed the “record” button on his tape deck the previous summer and happened to catch a pastor from Palo Alto say, “but God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

That’s the “therefore” in Paul’s statement that begins Romans 8.  Because God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

But, you say, I’m still going to die some day.  How can I know that is true?  How do I know that God is everything Jesus advertised him to be? 

Paul began by making an audacious statement: there is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  He had a habit of starting to say one thing and then interrupting himself along the way.  What he started to say was “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.  But then he thought, I’m not sure they’ll really understand what this is all about.  I’m not sure they will really get that the best thing in the world is Resurrection unless I explain it to them first.  And so he lays out for us what resurrection is and what its effects are. 

The first thing we need to know in order to understand why resurrection is the best thing in the world is something the ancient Jews understood that our modern world has completely lost.  The Jews understood that each of us is a Trinity, and God is Trinity.  The Shema Yisrael, in Deuteronomy chapter 6 says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV)
They said, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  But if there is one god who has but one expression, then why does the most important Old Testament Scripture, the core of everything they believed about God, go on to speak of the heart and the soul and the might?  The reason is that to the Jews the three are inseparable.  The heart cannot operate separate from the soul; the soul cannot operate separate from the body; the Body cannot operate separate from the heart.  What Paul calls in Romans flesh, mind, and spirit is the same. 

The flesh represents everything we do in and with the body.   Deuteronomy calls this “the might,” our physical will.  The spirit or the soul are undifferentiated in Deuteronomy or here in Romans.  Today we talk about the “essence” of personhood as if a person’s spirit was in some way different from their eternal soul.  The Jews didn’t see any such difference.  The heart in Deuteronomy is what Paul calls the mind.  Remember Jesus’ words, “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks?”  Think of all the great teachers you ever had.  The thing they all had in common is that they taught with passion.  In the Shema Yisrael, the heart speaks while sitting in the house.  The best teacher is one who is not on the move.  They have put all other concerns aside for this moment and have sat down to teach you from the heart. 

The heart speaks the love of God.  The soul or spirit meditates on the love of God, as the Psalm 1 says, “lying down.”  And the strength or the body loves God when it rises and walks.  

You are one and yet you are three.  Listen to the language Paul uses to talk about resurrection:
 
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Resurrection is the best thing in the world for your body because nothing else you can do in the body will meet the righteous requirement of the law.  No act of worship, no self-denial, no asceticism will accomplish this.  Only resurrection will.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Resurrection is the best thing in the world for your mind and for you passion.  Toward the end of a life dedicated to trying everything he could of what life had to offer, at the end of a life spent experiencing every passion his heart could conceive, Solomon said that it was all vanity and a chasing after the wind.  But to set the mind and the passion on God is life and peace.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness

Resurrection is the best thing in the world for your spirit, because resurrection testifies that you belong to God.  The Jews understood that whatever we do in the body our spirit and our mind or heart do also.  And whatever our heart, our mind, our passions lead us to do, our bodies do as well.   Most importat, the Jews understood that whatever the spirit or soul does, the mind and the body will do as well, and that caused a huge problem for the Jewish leaders of the First Century. 

In Luke 20:27-33 it says, “There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.

Oh, they wanted faith to be so complicated, when their own history told them it was so simple.  They wanted to deconstruct the ancient trinity of soul, mind, and body and make the question of resurrection about the passions.  If there is a resurrection, they said, which of the men who had her in this life will have her in the next?   They also wanted it to be about possessions.   Remember that in their world the woman was property.  As the old saying goes, “you can’t take it with you.”  But that’s exactly what the Sadducees were getting at.  If I can’t have my property in the resurrection, I’d rather not go.  And so they were willing to chuck the whole thing and trust in the sacrifices they were making – and I don’t mean things they were giving up – I mean they were willing to trust in their ability to appease and placate the mother-in-law god as the basis for their faith.  And so they kept going through the revolving door of sin… sacrifice… placate the god… feel better for a time.  Sin… sacrifice… placate the god… feel better for a time.

That’s why Paul says that the law was weakened by sin to the point that it had nothing to offer us.  And that’s why he concludes what he does in Philippians 3:

“Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(Philippians 3:7-11 ESV)

Paul has decided he’s not going to get trapped in the revolving door.  His thinking is linear, not circular.  In some ways, it is a simple equation: Knowing Christ + His Resurrection + His Sufferings = My Resurrection.  But what Paul is saying in Philippians 3, and what he says in Romans 8 is no simple thing. 

The sufferings of Christ do not confirm that God is judge.  They confirm that man is sinful.  The sufferings of Christ do not confirm that God is wrathful.  They confirm that God is unfailingly tolerant.  The sufferings of Christ do not confirm that there is a Hell to which sinners go when they die.  They confirm that there is a Kingdom worth dying for.  Christ’s sufferings and death in fact, by themselves prove nothing.  Many, many people throughout history have died for noble causes they believed in.  Some have even died through non-violent resistance at the hands of men who thought they were doing God and the people a favor.  This is how Jesus died.  And many, many people who have died that kind of righteous death have thereby improved the lives of millions.  Without a literal, bodily Resurrection, Jesus would have merely been a man who identified with the poor, the broken-hearted, and the outcast.  Many, many people throughout history have done that.  WITH a literal, bodily Resurrection, Jesus is responsible for raising the poor, raising the broken-hearted, raising the outcast, and by this we do not mean in some pie-in-the-sky spiritual sense.    Romans 8:11 says, “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” 

There is a present tense to resurrection.  Paul is not making a promise here simply for the future.  He is making a promise for all who place their trust in Christ, because Romans 8:10 says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you… he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”  I don’t know how else we are to read this.  And this was nothing new to the experience of the people of God.  God raised Abraham from the dead when Sarah gave birth to Isaac long after having a child was possible.  God raised Joseph from the dead after his brothers beat him and left him in a pit.  God raised the people of Israel from the dead when they had their backs to the water and the entire Egyptian army was upon them.  God raised David from the dead over and over.  How many times in the Psalms does he cry, “Out of the depths I cry to thee my God?”  And when David’s sin overtook him in a public way that should have ended his reign as king and seen him put to death for his crime, God raised David from the dead.  God raised Job from the dead after he lost everything and everyone who was dear to him, and God raised Jonah from the dead and sent him to preach to Nineveh anyway.  God raised Elijah from the dead after Jezebel the queen of Israel swore she would kill him.  God raised Daniel from the dead after he was thrown to the lions.  God raised Isaiah from the dead because no sinful man can see God face-to-face and live, and yet he did.  Listen.  He is not the God who raised the dead once in the past.  He is also not the God who we hope will raise us from the dead one day.  He is the God who raises the dead here.  He is the God who raises the dead now.  If God has a purpose for Immanuel Community Church and the people gathered in this room this morning obey his voice and apprehend that purpose, it doesn’t matter that many of you are old.  It doesn’t matter that you are not many people.  It simply matters that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.

What losses has Immanuel Community Church had to suffer in order that you, as a people, might gain Christ?  I’ve listened to the stories.  I’ve heard the narrative of your history together.  Oh, the church was full.  There was community here.  There were children and suppers and building programs and then the numbers weren’t so good and one by one people left or died.  But can it be that in God’s economy these losses, these deaths were nothing more than the heralds of the resurrection to come?  Can it be that in God’s economy these are the best days of this church? 

Wait for the resurrection when you obey him.  Watch for the resurrection as you move in faith.  And live the resurrection when it comes. 

And what must you lose in order that you may gain Christ and his kingdom? 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want those words on my tombstone.  I want those words as a banner over my life. 

I want to know him and the power of his resurrection.  And if what it takes in for me to experience the resurrection is the loss of a son, like Abraham, it is worth it.  If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is the loss of family, like Joseph, it is worth it.  If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is the loss of home and security, like the people of Israel experienced when they left Egypt, it is worth it.  If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is public embarrassment and the death of my pride, like David, it is worth it.  If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is my preaching to people I don’t feel comfortable with in a place I do not want to go, like Jonah, it is worth it.  If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is taking a stand for what is Godly, like Elijah or Daniel or Isaiah, it is worth it.   If what it takes for me to experience the resurrection is the loss of all things, like Job, then it is worth it. 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, resurrection is the best thing in the world.  I can’t prove to you that one day your body will be raised from the dead or that there will be a great gathering of all those who have been raised from the dead who will sit at the marriage feast of Christ and enjoy a great banquet in celebration of the ultimate victory over death.  I can’t prove to you that Christ will raise the fourth cup of Passover, the cup of completion, and drink of it on that day when he sets all things right.  But you can test it for yourself.  If Christ is in you, although your body is as good as dead because of sin, your Spirit is alive because of righteousness.  Beloved, live the trinity that is in you.  Beloved, resurrection is the best thing in the world.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 

Beloved, trinity that you are, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

AMEN

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

George Bailey on a Bridge


How long [O LORD?] will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes,
lest I sleep the sleep of death,
            lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
            lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
           
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
(Psalm 13 ESV)

It takes more than a minute to sort out Psalm 13.  So many of the Psalms are easier to understand if you lay them out on the page differently than our translators have done.  I first learned this trick from the wonderful artistry of Timothy Botts, whose Holy Bible, with 360 full-color calligraphic illustrations (Tyndale House, 2000), may be the greatest work of illumination done since the middle ages.  When you are perplexed by a text, try changing where the lines end.   Mess with indentation, and you’ll reveal a wealth of thought.

Here, the Psalmist asks the same question four times.  “How long?”  When you feel forgotten, abandoned, friendless, or opposed, the question you most want an answer to is this one.  How long do I have to feel this way?  Realize that it isn’t necessarily true that these things have come upon the Psalmist.  He just feels this way.  He’s reached the end of his rope, like Capra’s George Bailey, who stands in the cold and snow alone on a bridge contemplating suicide because, in the moment, he believes he is forgotten, abandoned, friendless, and opposed. 

At that moment, George Bailey does the right thing.  Sitting at a bar, having had way too much to drink, he says, “God . . . God . . . Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”   The church has long had a problem with the bars and bartenders of the world.  But honestly, most of us will find greater human compassion sitting alone at a bar than we will sitting in the midst of the congregation.  I’m not saying it should be that way, and I’m not trying to be cynical, it is just that the bartender isn’t trying to make us act holy.  He has no agenda.   God is able to use those places, those people, and those moments.

The Psalmist also does the right thing.  At the same time he is feeling forgotten, abandoned, friendless, and opposed, he is unwilling to settle for the expected outcome.  He doesn’t want to die.  He just doesn’t want to feel this way any longer.  He doesn’t want to feel like a failure.   He just does.  And he doesn’t want to feel that way any more.  For whatever reason, life has shaken him to the core.

The Psalmist has an ace-in-the-hole that George Bailey doesn’t have.  The Psalmist doesn’t need an angelic visitation.  He simply needs to remember the facts.  “I have trusted in your steadfast love,” he says.  That one fact mitigates everything else he’s feeling.  So what if I am forgotten, abandoned, friendless, and opposed?  I have trusted in your love.  Even if these feelings are true, I still have that.

Far from jumping off a bridge, the Psalmist is now able to engage his will.  “I shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord.” 

Are you at the end of your rope?  Do you feel like the only solution is to go to a bar somewhere and make the reality you’re living go away?   God knows that’s how you’re feeling, and I can confidently say he won’t judge you for it.  He wants to meet you where you are.  He loves you.  Trust in his steadfast love, even if you can’t trust in anything else.   And if you find yourself able, wherever you are, choose to rejoice in him.  Choose to sing to him.  He loves it when his people sing to him.

We all know how It’s A Wonderful Life ends.  The whole town shows up and rescues George from financial ruin.  The sheriff tears up the warrant for his arrest.  Even the bank examiner throws in a couple of bucks.  And Clarence the Angel sends a final message of hope to George. 

Life isn’t like that.  But if you will choose to rejoice and sing, you will discover that, no matter what is happening in your life right now, God has dealt bountifully with you.  Was it Mother Teresa who said, “We should never pray to change God's mind; we should pray to change our mind?” 

Jon

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Character Flaw


Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may worship the LORD.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.” So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the LORD.
            Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
            Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
(1 Samuel 15:24-35 ESV)

There is a familiar quote that goes, 'Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it.'  Most sources I found say the author is unknown.  At least one thought it was coach Vince Lombardi who said it.  Whoever said it, nothing could be more of a true explanation for what happened to King Saul.

You may remember that when the men came to anoint him as king, they had to hunt Saul down and ultimately found him hiding among the baggage.  There is no more deadly combination of character flaws for a politician to have than the twin issues of fear and pride.  That was the exact combination that ultimately undid our 37th president, Richard Nixon.  A politician can survive infidelity (Bill Clinton, Grover Cleveland), corruption (Warren Harding, Chester Arthur), and even poor judgment and bad advice (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush), but no leader can live in fear of the very people he serves while also nursing an outsized ego. 

Look at what happens here.  God had told Saul to go and utterly end the Amalekites.  We’ll discuss whether God ever approves violence some other time, but for now let’s just assume that’s what God ordered done.  Saul went and did the job, but he brought back a bunch of what pirates used to call booty (isn’t it funny how the meanings of words change over the years) – gold and silver.  He also brought back the king of the Amalekites, Agag.  His plan was to put on a show for the people of Israel once he got home.  He was going to kill Agag in a great public display that would feed his character flaw of pride and assuage his character flaw of fear.

When Samuel the prophet confronts Saul about this sin, Saul shifts the blame to the people!  He sinned, he said, because the people wanted a show.  Today we would say he had succumbed to the curse of polling data. 

Having issued the excuse, Saul turns on a dime and tries to regain his political footing.  He shifts the focus to worship – this time because he is afraid of Samuel.  This guy will do whatever will placate the person he’s dealing with.

When Samuel drops the other shoe and tells Saul God has rejected him from being king, Saul completely goes to pieces.  Talk about grasping at straws!  He turns violent and tears Samuel’s robe.  We are watching the disintegration of a public figure.   And oh, by the way Saul, God isn’t going to lose any sleep over you.  Anyone remember Spiro Agnew?  Even Nixon was glad to see him go.

It is curious what happens next.  Saul cuts a deal with Samuel.  “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.”  Saul didn’t care a whit about worshipping God.  All that mattered to him was how he looked to the people.  He wanted to be remembered as a religious man.  Why did Samuel let him go through with his charade?  He did it because, while Samuel, as a prophet could announce God’s intentions, he could not bring them about.  That would have to wait for another day when David’s star would rise and Saul would self-destruct.   Samuel didn’t need to do anything.  Saul was right on course to bring about his own end.

Samuel regrettably must finish the work Saul was sent to do.  Saul couldn’t even be depended on to do what he had promised.  Remember the show he was going to put on?  When Agag comes in to speak with Samuel he has a big goofy smile on his face because he knows that Saul had undoubtedly promised him he would spare his life and set him up in a country estate somewhere after the conquest was complete.  My guess is Agag was in on the whole deal from the beginning and betrayed his own people. 

Samuel is no soldier.  It says that he hacked Agag to pieces.  I don’t think he was any good at working with a sword, but once he got started he probably took out all his pent up frustration about Saul out on this Amalekite.  No wonder he went back to Gibeah and mourned over Saul for the rest of his life. 

This whole sad political saga may sound very remote, like something out of West Wing, but really fear and pride are part of daily reality for many of us.  Do you spend your life placating the people you work for?  Are you afraid of what your friends think of you and how they view you?  Did you ever put on a party because you thought that’s what you should do if you want to keep this set of friends happy?   Welcome to Saul’s world. 

The great failure of Saul is that he was unable to learn from the things God wanted to use to teach him.  He was afraid and ambitious when they anointed him as king, and those traits carried on though his whole awkward reign.  They finally were his undoing.  What keeps you from really becoming what God wants you to be?  What character flaw is keeping you forever in a sin loop or forever striving and never arriving with God? 

Stop.  Right now.  Turn your computer off and walk away.  Go and spend a few minutes and give it a name, this character flaw.  And then thank God that he has revealed it to you; listen to the voices of the prophets who speak into your life.  They’ve probably been telling you about it for some time.  Once you’ve identified it, make no excuse.  Bring it to God and burn it on an altar before him.   Then go in his strength and renewal. 

Jon

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Belovedness


[SHE]
I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.

[HE]
As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women.

[SHE]
As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men.  With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.  Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.  His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! 

[NARRATOR]
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.

[HE]
The voice of my beloved!

[SHE]
Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.

My beloved speaks and says to me:
[HE]
      “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
     
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.  O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

      Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”
           
[SHE]
My beloved is mine, and I am his; he grazes among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains.
BELOVEDNESS

It starts with a simple announcement of identity.  Knowing not just who you are, but what you are soul-deep is the beginning of belovedness.  It is not something you can learn to be; it is something you were from the beginning.  But it is something that you can learn that you are. 

At the most basic level, a person must know that they are attractive in order to be attractive.  Fundamentally, all of Hollywood’s makeover movies, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Princess Diaries have it wrong.  The ugly duckling may not merely need a makeover.   What she may need is to be beloved.  Notice that this has nothing to do with being beautiful.  The standard of what various people perceive as beauty varies so widely across one culture and from culture to culture that it is impossible for us to say with any certainty what is beautiful.  Again, TV and the movies have it wrong.

In the African nation of Mauritania, for example, it is said that Mauritanian men like their women to be fat. Overweight women are sexy and erotic (so the thinking goes), and the fatter the woman, the more beautiful and appealing she is to them. This preference for bigger women dates back to the ancient Moors (nomadic Muslims of the Arabic and Berber stock) who desired fatter wives, as it was a symbol of a man’s wealth. A fat wife meant that the man could afford to hire maids and servants to do the heavy housework, which left his wife plenty of time to lounge around and eat to her heart’s desire.  The result is that over the course of literally centuries, the perception, for the people of Mauritania, both men and women, is that fat women are the most physically beautiful.

This, of course, sounds absolutely ridiculous to our 21st century Western ears.  To look at our top models and movie stars, you would think that in order to be considered beautiful, a woman needs to look like Scarlett Johansson.   Men don’t have it any easier.  Back in the 70s there a brief time when Telly Sevalis convinced a lot of men that Bald is Beautiful, and Don Rickles was quoted as saying, “I’m not bald, it’s a solar panel for a love machine.”  But if that’s true, why is hair replacement a billion dollar a year business?

Fortunately, our purpose this morning is not to define beautiful.  Rather, we want to look deeply at what it means to be beloved.  I don’t think you’ll find the word we’re going to work with in Webster’s Dictionary, but it is a good word.  Belovedness.

Belovedness starts, as I said, with a simple announcement of identity.  The thing that most marks the beloved one is that she knows she is beloved.  She is still who she was, Mary, or Susan, or Jennifer.  But she has come to know, to the core of her being, that she is beloved.   And so she says, as a sort of matter-of-fact, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”  This is true of her not because her lover called her this.  It is true of her, and that is what attracted him to her. 

We don’t have a clue what she looks like.  And it really doesn’t matter.  My preference may be for jonquils, and I would pass a rose of Sharon by, giving it no second thought.  But his desire was for a lily of the valley.  And there she was.   And there was something deeply and dramatically desirable about the fact that she knew that she was a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.  By comparison, all the other flowers, even the most delicate orchids, were nothing but brambles to him.  This was his beloved, and she knew it, and the fact that she knew it made her all the more desirable to him.

The dance of desire here is a pas de deux.  The desire of belovedness runs both ways.  To her he is like an apple tree.  And surely, if you set a single apple tree in full fruit against the backdrop of a dense pine forest such as we have here in New Hampshire, you would see what she sees.  He stands out utterly, not because he is taller or stronger than the rest of the trees.  Anyone with an eye can see that an oak or even an Easter White Pine is stronger than an apple tree.  But the brilliance of the fruit of this one tree makes the rest of the color pallet black and white and shades of grey. 

There is a feature of this desire we must not miss.  It is so easy to talk about belovedness in poetic, rather impressionistic terms.  But the reality of these verse is that she is quite bold in telling us the content of belovedness.  She does not merely want to be near him.  She wants to eat his fruit, and sit in his shade, yes, but the Hebrew language has a word here that our modern translators have taken all the life out of.  The text says, “his banner over me is love.” 

That sounds so religious and sterile.  It is the sort of thing you’d expect to see at an old fashioned camp meeting.  The tent is filled with worshippers all singing late 19th century hymns, and above the head of the song leader is a large white sheet stretched with the motto on it “Love.” 

But that’s not the word Song of Solomon uses here.  The Hebrew says, “His banner over me is ahava.”  Literally, his banner over me is desire.    And when ahava is used to speak of the love between a man and a woman, it is always sexual desire it is talking about.  They want each other.  They each want to unite with the other in a deep, passionate way that nothing short of sexual consummation will satisfy.

This is deeply erotic writing.  Listen to how she exposes her desire for him and puts it right out there:  “With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.  He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was ahava.  Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with ahava.  His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!”  She wants him.  And the best part is that this is not merely a lusting after some unattainable god-like figure.  This is the best of eros.  She wants him and she has him.  And she knows his ahava and he knows hers. 

Now, none of the versions of the Bible I have consulted picks up on this, but I feel quite sure that the next words in the text are an interruption by the voice of a Narrator, who says, “Now hang on for a moment.  You need to put your ahava away because this is neither the time nor the place for it.”  Verse 7 says, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.”

Why the break?  Because, if belovedness begins with the knowledge of identity, belovedness is confirmed by delay.  We say it this way today, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  And when ahava is present, the absence will drive them on to gain quickly what they are being denied.  Look, says the narrator, “don’t stir up all this passion until you are able to be together.  There is work to be done.

And she responds urgently, “AH!  The voice of my beloved.”  He is not even there yet, but she hears his voice, perhaps just inside her.  But no sound on earth is as sweet because it heralds their union is near.  He has been out working somewhere, and when he arrives, he does not merely run into the house and take her.  He begins again the dance of desire. 

When you’ve been married a long time, you don’t cavort the way you once did.  One of our dear friends who has been married over 30 years now once explained the way passion had become almost second-nature in their relationship over time.  She said, “Just leave the money on the night stand when you’re done, put the cat out, and lock up.”

But the beloved is constantly renewing the passion in their relationship.  When he returns from work he stands behind the wall to her garden again, just the way he did before their desire ever found its fulfillment.  And he peers at her beauty from a distance and that again ignites the flame in his heart.

As their dialog continues he imagines her as a dove who has soared high up to a cliff overlooking the garden.  She has hid herself in the cleft of a rock up there where no one could ever reach her.  Unless, of course, it was a stag.   And how fortunate!  For he is as sure-footed as any stag, and he will come to this height and meet her in the cleft of the rock where they will again embrace and pull away from tending the garden and make love once more as if for the first time.

THAT is belovedness.  Yes, human sexual desire rises and falls as the days go by because, quite simply, damaged as we are by sin we are unable to sustain any emotion for very long.   An entire culture has risen up around us screaming to us that sexual fulfillment is the goal of life.  You can’t buy groceries without seeing what amounts to pornographic displays just on the covers of the magazines.  Imagine what they’ve written on the inside of the latest edition of Vogue.  But that is not belovedness.  That isn’t even ahava.  That is just sex.

Beloved.

Beloved.

Beloved.

God is nuts about you.  To him, the marriage is not an old one.  To him the union never ceases to be a dance of desire.  I came to Christ over thirty years ago, and the things my Lord does today to show me in fresh ways my belovedness never cease to amaze me.  I freely admit that I am often like my friend, aging casually in the relationship to the point where when I think of God I often say, “Just leave the money on the nightstand,” loving him more for what he can do for me than for the desire of his presence.

But he still stands behind our wall and peers in through the window at me in ways that make me quiver, nearly embarrassed by the depth of his desire for me.  And even after thirty years he still challenges me to fly to the highest cliff and see if he will not meet me there in the cleft of the rock.

Beloved, he has brought you to his banqueting house this morning.  Don’t just take communion and tell him to be sure to put the cat out and lock up as he leaves.  His banner over you is ahava.  Be assured of that.  There is no place he would rather be, there is no thing he would rather do, than to be with you right now. 

Songwriter and balladeer Michael Kelly Blanchard once challenged an audience to imagine that they were each invited to come to a certain location and one by one they would be taken into a room where they would have a private audience with Jesus.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful, he mused. 

After the concert a woman walked up to him and said, “When you were talking about having a private audience with Jesus, I didn’t think it would be so wonderful.  That’s what I’m always afraid will happen some day.  I figure I’ll go into the room and he’ll be there and he’ll say, “You again?  What do you want this time?” 

Blanchard looked at the woman and said, “Nothing could be further from the truth.  God isn’t bored by you in the least.  When you walk into that room to have time alone with God, Jesus will shut the door behind you and rush over to you, and he’ll say, “OH.  I’ve finally got you alone.”

AMEN