Sunday, March 15, 2015

Living in the Love of God

The following is in two parts. The first is the homily I actually preached for today's texts. What follows is what I first wrote, but decided it was too "thick" for everyone to follow (trying to cram too much into too limited space). I include it, though, because––for those interested–– it fills in "reading between the lines" for what was actually preached.

March 15, 2015–– 4th Sunday in Lent
2 Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23 / Ephesians 2:4–10 / John 3:14–21
Living in the Love of God

What if…. every morning…. before we did anything else…. we took time to orient ourselves…. for the whole day…. to one encompassing reality: God loves us!?

Today’s Gospel has one of the most well-known verses in the entire Bible: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

I’m a parent and a grandparent. I would give anything possible for the good of my kids. On the other hand, I cannot imagine choosing to give a single one of them up to death. Try to grasp the incomprehensible: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….

We can hear it without truly giving ourselves to it, and it’s like we become inoculated to the transforming power of this most basic truth: God loves us!

When people do not know the love of God (and that’s different than having some idea about God’s love), something horrible happens: We go looking for love in all the wrong places. We even develop warped ideas of what love really is. “Love” becomes selfishness.

We can become so twisted in our own ideas of love that we do not want to know the real love of God. God’s love can even make us angry when we’ve developed a pattern of turning away from it. The Gospel tells us everyone who does wicked things hates the light. When this happens, the people who do know the true love of God appear to be out of touch and even “unloving”! That happened to Israel and it’s described in the first reading: They mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

Has it ever occurred to you that every hard and horrible thing in this world is ultimately rooted in people trying to live outside the love of God? Turning away from God’s love is death. Even in today’s Gospel, this text that proclaims the incredible the love of God, there is a warning––a grim reality: whoever does not believe has already been condemned because he has not believed…. 

There is a choice to be made. Every day we make a decision, either intentionally or by default. God loves us. He wants us to love him back. So I ask again: What if…. every morning…. before we did anything else…. we took time to orient ourselves…. for the whole day…. to one encompassing reality: God loves us!?

If we truly love the God who loves us, everything else falls into place. This is the Gospel.

God’s Love In A Hard World

God so loved the world…. This is one of the most well-know verses of Scripture in the entire Bible. In his first letter St John even says God is love (1Jn 4:8). Out of this declaration comes perhaps the hardest question in all of Christianity: If God’s love is so great, why do so many horrible things happen in this world?

How does one answer such a question in a short homily? To be sure, a full answer is not possible (even in a long book). To understand the intricacies of God we would have to be equal to God, so please know that we all need to begin (and to remain) at a place of humility. Ultimately, all we can do is bow before God (which is the essence of worship) and “trust and obey” (which is our only sure response––and there is a wonderful gospel song by that title).

Still the question haunts us: If God’s love is so great, then why do so many horrible things happen in this world? Perhaps simple is sometimes best, so I offer some simple observations from today’s readings. I hope we can see why the reading from Chronicles is paired with John 3.

The Scriptures explicitly proclaim God’s love. This truth is at the heart of the Bible and the Church. The love of God is literally the reason we are here; we were created in love. The love of God is the only thing that offers any hope for us in the world as we know it.

This is because, even as God’s love is the ultimate truth of existence, it is also true that this world is full of hard and awful things. Why?

This world is full of hard and awful things because we (human beings) have chosen that! We do not like to hear this, and it is quite unpopular to have opinions that lead to passing judgment, but we really need to understand the whole context of Christian Faith. Christianity is the only belief system that makes sense of all the data and offers an answer that is both internally consistent and offers genuine hope (which is not to deny that some issues are left unresolved; God is God, and that’s the nature of faith).

God created human beings to be rational, responsible, and relatively free (I say “relatively” because our freedom is contained within God’s sovereignty––only God is God). God made us as we are because he is Love, and we were created to love. It goes against the nature of love to be coerced; love is a choice that must be freely given. So when God wants us to love him back (because he created us in love), he gives us the choice not to love back. What most people do not understand is that when we do not love God, awful things happen. God made the world to “run” according to his Love, and when we act against that we make life in this world very hard.

This is what the Old Testament reading is about. God’s people, Israel, who were given God’s special directives of how to live, disobeyed and repeatedly rejected God’s messengers of warning. The repercussions of their willfulness grew larger and larger until everything around them collapsed. That is always the ultimate result of dismissing God.

God’s love does not mean we are free to do whatever we wish and then get by with wrong things. The true nature of love included responsibilities. It is not love to marry a person and then practice adultery (spiritual adultery against God was a recurring message of the prophets). It is not love when a parent does nothing to correct and even punish a child for behavior that is harmful or destructive (and again, Scripture likens God to a loving parent that disciplines his children for their good). God is so loving that he uses even hard things to help us embrace his kind of love.

The idea of love has become so twisted in our society that we need a context for understanding the true implications of love. God is love, and God’s love is just that––God’s love. We are not the ones who define love. When we try to make love something other than what God has designed, horrible things happen. Distorted “love” causes distorted results in our lives.

But even then, God shows his love. God gives us a way back. God shows us what our disobedience leads to, and he shows us what true love does. When we look at Jesus on the cross we are looking at what disobedience to God really means. When we begin to comprehend that God took that death upon himself to show us a way out, we then begin to get a taste of real love.

Jesus is the ultimate prophet of God bringing his love to our world. There is no one that God does not love. There is no one that God does not desire to love him back. But the nature of love remains: We have to choose to respond. We have to choose God’s love above and beyond the many imposters of love that our world offers. Too many people too often choose to go their own way. The Gospel tells of people who preferred darkness to light, and that everyone who does wicked things hates the light. This is like Israel so long ago who mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

No remedy? After telling of judgment, the Old Testament reading gives a promise of what God will do in the future: he will lovingly restore his people. Then the promise was ultimately fulfilled in the words we know so well: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. Notice God’s motivation: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. But did you notice that it is conditional? God has not changed. He was not unloving and judging in the Old Testament only to have a change of mind and let everyone off the hook in the New Testament. The Gospel continues: whoever does not believe has already been condemned because he has not believed….

This is the nature of love. God lovingly calls us to know him through his Son. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned. Love is reciprocal. God loves us. He wants us to love him back. If we truly love God, everything else falls into place. This is the Gospel. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Walking With Jesus In the Desert

February 22, 2015 –– First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15 / 1 Peter 3:18–22 / Mark 1:12–15
Walking With Jesus In the Desert 

Mark tells us that right after Jesus’ baptism, The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. On this first Sunday of Lent we are called into a 40-Day period of spiritual examination and focused disciplines that enlarge our souls and help us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

As we seek to follow Jesus think about this: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…. Can you imagine God “driving” God? If you understand the Trinity, that is what Mark is saying. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, drove Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, into quite an unpleasant situation (from our human perspective). Even more, the verb “drove” is the same word used to describe Jesus “driving” demons out of people!

So Jesus responded to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives no mention of the specific temptations. Some have suggested that Mark’s emphasis here is not on “temptation” so much as it is the desert. The nature of life in this world is a spiritual desert––a place where demons lurk like wild beasts. We live in a world where demons try to destroy all that God loves. By ourselves we are vulnerable and even helpless. We need a Savior.

Jesus came into our world, not only to die for our sins and rise again in victory over death, but also to model for us what a perfect life lived in the Spirit is like. Life in the Spirit is "present tense”.  In our human weakness (and our desire for some control) we want God to give us a road-map to the future. We want to know the details of what to do next week or even next year. God’s Spirit is always saying “Trust and obey me right now.” Jesus shows us a human life that was a day by day response to the Spirit. And sometimes God sends things into our lives which are not pleasant, but the hard things are meant both to drive us into the arms of our loving Lord and to make us strong. Just as we don’t build physical muscle by being a couch potato, we do not grow strong spiritually without being subjected to difficulty and struggle.

But like the many people who get try to use some magic pill to get a near-perfect body, we want an easy way to healthy spirituality. Haven’t there been times that you’ve been impatient for God to do something that meets your expectations? So often God’s answer seems to be Wait. Part of Jesus' temptation was enduring the "waiting." The basic temptation from Satan was for Jesus to "do something" sensational and right away to prove he was God. Surely one of the besieging thoughts was simply “You know who you are and what you’ve come to do––get with it”. In other words, the temptation is “don’t wait on the Spirit’s leading.” It’s easy to think that if we’re doing a good thing (even what we think is a godly thing) we don’t have to wait on God. We want to charge full speed ahead. Jesus waited.

At the right time Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. When Jesus announced This is the time of fulfillment he was not talking about a moment of chronological time. He uses another word for time that goes beyond our watches and calendars. It is God’s time, and God’s time is always a dynamic now––the present moment when the Spirit wants to lead us. When we live in that moment of God’s “time” we enter the Kingdom of God. and the Kingdom of God is the rule of God breaking into the world’s spiritual desert. So the Good News comes: If we follow Jesus from baptism to the cross––and yes, through the “desert” of our various temptations––he will lead us to full salvation.

But we should always remember that hard times will often follow our high times. Jesus went from the glory of his baptism to…. seemingly nothing––into the desert. So for us, a new commitment…. a fresh obedience…. an especially good time of worship when we personally sense God’s closeness…. any spiritual “high” can be a challenge for the powers of hell to test our response to God's presence in our lives. We are called to follow Jesus in every way, but we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in obedience to God…. we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in service to others…. and, even more, we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in death to self…. if we do not first face the reality of who we are in our weaknesses and temptations in the “desert”.

Baptism and temptation were not just for Jesus. They are for all who follow him, and in this Lenten season we follow Jesus through the wilderness of temptation to the surrender of the cross. We are to keep following even when sometimes it means waiting in not so pleasant situations. If we will do that, Jesus will lead us to a life that is beyond our comprehension.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Leprosy of the Human Heart

February 15, 2015 –– 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46 / 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 / Mark 1:40–45
The Leprosy of the Human Heart

Leprosy was a big deal in Bible days. It was a seriously gross illness that could slowly rot a body even as the person lived in it. It is an awfully perfect analogy of sin, and there is a figurative application in the many Old Testament texts that deal with it.

Leprosy would separate a person from society. There could be no contact with others, even family. Someone could go months or years and never be touched. Imagine having to go through life yelling out to others to avoid you while identifying yourself as Unclean!

If only we could truly see that this is what sin does to us, but our modern and tech-driven society has found innumerable ways to insulate us from the immediate repercussions of sin. We live in a world that celebrates immorality of every type: financial and physical violence as well as sexual. We do see the world around us hurting and unravelling, but most people cannot––or will not––make the connection with disobeying God. Sin is making our whole existence dangerously unclean.

The leper that came to Jesus to be healed knew what the stakes were. He knew his situation was hopeless. There would be no natural healing. He would live the remainder of his life with a hideous deterioration of his body and then die an awful death.

But there was Jesus…. This man had heard of him somewhere… With nothing to lose he proclaimed the words of faith: If you wish, you can make me clean. The love of God is always wanting to save. Do we want to be saved? Sin blinds us so that we do not really believe we need to be saved. We can easily assume, “I’m not that bad.” The only people God cannot save are those who do not desire it. We have to want what God wants.

This leper wanted the gift of God. The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Jesus said to tell no one. (Jesus was not seeking the notoriety that later sent him to his death.) Still, the man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.

What would you do? Suddenly your whole life had been restored. You were not going to rot away. You could go back to your family. You could embrace your spouse and hold your children or grandchildren close. Your whole existence…. given new life.

The most vibrant Christians are those who really know something of what it means to be saved from the horror of helplessness and hopelessness. In another Gospel story, Jesus told his host: whoever has been forgiven little loves little (Lu 7:47). If our love for the Lord seems too little, we can ask the Lord to let us see the “leprosy” that afflicts human hearts.

This is how to understand the Apostle Paul. When we read his letters it is obvious that Paul is totally taken with Jesus Christ. Paul knew that Jesus was his Savior. This is why he tells the Corinthians: whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

We are not given the rest of the former leper’s story in the Gospel. We might imagine him going into the horizon leaping into the air and saying Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I have no problem believing that he lived the rest of his days do[ing] everything for the glory of God.

Can we ask the Lord for the grace to do the same? It might first mean taking an honest look at the leprosy of our own hearts so that we see how badly we need to be healed.

If we do that, we can say the same thing to Jesus: If you wish, you can make me clean.

If you truly want that, Jesus will do it. He is the Savior of the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Presence of God’s Kingdom

February 1, 2015 –– 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 18:15–20 / 1 Corinthians 7:32–35 / Mark 1:21–28
The Presence of God’s Kingdom

If you could have a face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis and ask him one question, what would it be? During the recent papal visit to the Philippines, twelve-year-old Glyzelle Palomar––who had been rescued from a literal life on the streets with its starvation, sex abuse, rampant drug activity and gang warfare––covered her face with her hand as she wept in front of a microphone and asked Pope Francis, “Why did God let this happen to us?”

What would you say to Glyzelle if she asked you the same question? This is perhaps the most basic issue that confronts human beings, especially when pain and injustice come too close. The Gospel of Mark gives us one of the ways God has chosen to explain what he is doing in our world.

Mark begins his Gospel by saying that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. If we had been there we would have seen…. a peasant Galilean carpenter accompanied by a rag-muffin type of following. Jesus himself was more like a street person than some outwardly commanding persona. So what caused people to realize that, with Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed, the world is more than it often seems? In our world of pain and death, we need some kind of assurance that God’s Kingdom is real.

We are not patient. Most of the time we would impulsively choose a super-hero kind of god. We want John Wayne to come in with guns blazing or Rambo to “whup-up” on all the bad guys (I’m out of touch with contemporary vengeance figures!). God doesn’t work that way. God does not overwhelm us; God wants to win our trust…. and our hearts.

Why should we give Jesus our trust and, even more, our hearts? Jesus had authority. Here was, by all external standards, an ordinary man who normally would have been a nobody. But when he talked, people were amazed. When he acted, people were astounded. And as he talked and acted, people could not help but be attracted.

Mark tells about a Sabbath day when Jesus stood to speak in the synagogue. The synagogue was the place where the Scriptures were read. As Jesus spoke in the synagogue that day, he spoke a new message and used himself as the basis for it. What would you think if I stood before you and said "God is doing a new thing, and it’s me"? We can understand why the Jewish leaders were upset with Jesus.

Yet there was his commanding authority. There was something that caused people to see beyond the simple Galilean peasant. There was life in what he spoke. There was a freshness and a reality––a power. When Jesus spoke, people listened. Jesus had authority.

Still, words can be deceptive. Someone like Hitler can express tremendous power with words so that he gets a following by emotionally manipulating people. Jesus' authority was challenged on the spot. In the synagogue was a man who was under the control of a demonic spirit. An onlooker would have seen the man get to his feet, but it was an evil spirit using the man's vocal chords which did the speaking: What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are––the Holy One of God! This demon knew exactly what was happening, and it was reacting. Satan fights back when his territory is invaded and challenged. In his first letter John says, The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work (3:8).

Here is where Jesus proved the authority behind his words. His talk of the kingdom of God was not mere talk. Jesus spoke again, and it was a command to the demon. The verb there is simply, "Shut up." Sometimes we need to tell the powers of hell––in the Name of Jesus––to shut up. But not only did Jesus make the demon shut up, he made it come out and leave the man. The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The meaning was clear to the people in the synagogue: A new teaching with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him. Again hear St John: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.

As we live in this world––a world that is broken and even demon-filled––we in the Church need to know that we follow the One who has authority in this world. We belong to the King who has given us citizenship in his Kingdom. Yet, the world is not totally healed. God is not Rambo. He doesn’t do everything at once, and he does not do amazing things merely to impress us so that we’re almost forced to believe. St Paul tells us it’s only at the End that Jesus will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power (1Cor 15:24). Until then we wait…. and sometimes we weep.

Can we see that even our pain can be a sign of God at work? He has created us to desire what is right and true and good. We are invited to turn to Jesus with our brokenness. We are invited to believe––and hope and trust––that Jesus can still heal. In fact, this is our response just before we are freshly nourished by the Eucharist: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. We are encouraged to be bold in the face of evil. The Son of God came to destroy the devil's work. Demons are all too real. Their delight is to ravage the lives of people like Glyzelle… and you and me. Our hope and trust is that Jesus is bigger than demons and evil and all the hard things.

When you go out into your part of the world this week, what do you expect to see and hear? If this week holds more pain and disappointment than pleasure and contentment, it does not mean that God is not at work. Jesus has already triumphed over sin and death and hell. He is giving us time to believe it. If you believe in the Jesus Mark tells us about, you know that God's Kingdom has come and that Jesus is the King.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What Are You Looking For?

January 18, 2015 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Samuel 3:3b–10, 19 / 1 Corinthains 6:13c–15a, 17–20 / John 1:35–42
What Are You Looking For?

We are two weeks past Epiphany Sunday when we remembered the Magi who were looking for Jesus. They expended considerable time, trouble, and expense to follow the star. Today’s Gospel jumps about three decades with John the Baptist directing two of his disciples to Jesus. The Baptizer made it easier for those who would hear, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God. Those two disciples, Andrew and John, follow Jesus and become two of his twelve disciples, and we are told it was Andrew who brought his brother Simon (who we know better as Peter) to Jesus.

It is worth noticing that the first thing Jesus says in John’s Gospel is to ask those initial inquirers, What are you looking for? That is a question for all of us.

Speaking collectively of our human situation, we are always looking for something. Many of us are familiar with one of Saint Augustine’s best known Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The problem is that too few people in the world recognize this as a basic truth. So we keep looking.

Especially in our culture we keep looking. Though we have hundreds of entertainment options today––video games, the Internet, CD and MP3 players, home entertainment centers, sporting events, megamalls, movie theaters, and even robotic toys––Western culture is battling an insidious disease. It's an epidemic of boredom. Boredom is seeing our lives as dull, tedious, and lacking in stimulation. In a paradoxical twist, our incessant saturation with entertainment ultimately leads to a "deadness of the soul", an overpowering feeling of indifference and callousness towards life. We were made for more than intense amusement and personal pleasure.

It is amazing that in our materially saturated society we can have so much and yet have such limited contentment. How many days (or hours!) after Christmas morning do we hear children whining, “I’m bored.” It is not because they didn’t get enough presents. And it’s not just children; that is the frustration (even if it’s not verbally expressed) of so many adults who keep looking for the next thing they hope will make them happy.

As we start a new year, let’s do some personal inventory. What am I looking for? I need to ask myself this regularly. What are you looking for? Are we, above everything else, looking for Jesus? Are we finding in Jesus the hope and peace and joy that motivates us to tell others about him? It only took Andrew one evening with Jesus for him to go and tell his brother.

Let’s pray for a grace not be more excited about a big ballgame or our next big purchase or even a coming family celebration than we are about the one thing that has wonderfully changed the course of the world forever. We say it every week: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…. Let’s seek to be people who embrace it and live it and share it. Everyone faces this question in some way: What are you looking for? Let’s look for Jesus. Let’s look to Jesus. Let’s lead others to Jesus. What are you looking for?


Twenty-five years ago I was preaching serially through Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.  This text was part of today's lectionary reading, so I'm posting some long-ago thoughts that are all too relevant today.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

This is not a subject I gladly come to in a sermon.  One of the advantages, though, of preaching through a book of the Bible is that one takes what comes; there is little chance of riding a favorite hobby horse, nor, if one is honest, avoiding some of the hard things we read in the Scriptures.

The next several sermons will focus on some facet of sexuality.  That is good, because we need a word from God about our sexuality.  We are sexual.  We are male and female, and that affects the way we think and act with one another in this world.  We are all the more affected because this world is fallen, and the fall has distorted our sexuality.  We need a word from God.

At the same time, this is a hard subject to address.  It can be depressing.  It can be disgusting.  It is hard for me to know when I have said enough or too much.  Some of you may have opposite opinions, some thinking I did say too much while others feel the need for even more explicitness.

We live in our own Corinth today.  Corinth was an X-rated world when Paul wrote this.  William Barclay quotes an early Greek, Demosthenes, saying:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes."  So long as a man supported his wife and family there was no shame whatsoever in extra-marital affairs.

That was the moral climate in which the Corinthian Christians lived.  That was the attitude Paul was calling to holiness.

We live in our own Corinth.  I remember going quite regularly to one of the local drug-stores when I was about thirteen to browse through the monthly issues of Playboy and Cavalier.  That caused no little struggle when I surrendered to Jesus, and later, even in my marriage.  Back then it was nude women in mostly demure positions with a wisp of fabric strategically placed so that the genitals were concealed.  That was over 25 years ago.

Today one can go into a store that sells "adult magazines" and be confronted with myriads of titles, some of which cannot be repeated in public by decent people.  Inside these magazines today you will find full male and female nudity.  And they do not stop with mere nudity; there are simulated sex scenes of men with women and women with women, portraying manual and oral fondling of genitals.  Such magazines are openly displayed in many small towns in our country.

And not just magazines –– one can also rent videos that do not stop at simulation.  These videos offer any kind of sexual variation the fallen mind can concoct: straight, lesbian, oral, anal, and all kinds of combinations.  And the reason those things are available is because people (many and all kinds of people) rent them.  Some people who go to church look at such regularly.

I talked with a Christian psychological counselor.  He told me that he sees little difference in the lives of professing Christians who come to him compared to non-Christians.  People who come to see him are sleeping around outside of marriage, feeding on pornography, and getting involved in extra-marital and homosexual affairs.  He told me of a ten-year-old boy who is already sexually active.

There are phone numbers where a person can call and either get a recording of a woman detailing what she would do if she were there or a live conversation willing to lead in any fantasy the caller wants to pursue.  I read of two boys, thirteen and fourteen, and an eleven-year-old girl who called one of those numbers.  Following the phone call the boys forced the girl to do all the things they had just heard.

Young people today are afraid to admit they are virgins –– if they are!  Virginity is jokingly called the horrible disease that comes with a simple cure.  Sex is used to sell any and everything in magazine ads and on TV.  Calvin Klein jeans advertisements have half-nude men and women in suggestive poses, and I do not mention this one brand because it stands alone.  Everywhere we look our culture is obsessed and reeling with sexual immorality.  That is what Paul is talking about here in I Corinthians 6.

In v13 we find the body is not meant for sexual immorality and in v18 flee from sexual immorality.  The Greek word is porneia, which means prostitution or any other sexual wrong.  It's the basis for our word, pornography.  I am sorry for being so explicit about the kinds of things that are around us today, but if I merely talk about sexual immorality in a general kind of way, many would not know how stark and pervasive it is, and some who do (among whom are our youth) would yawn and tune out one more predictable morality lecture.

There are two reasons why this sermon is necessary.  The first is that sexuality is so powerful.  Don't think those advertisers do not know what they are doing.  There is something about sex that grabs our attention and holds it.  Don't think the people who produce and market pornography do not know that once a person gets hooked, he or she wants more and more.  Don't think, young person, that you are the exception –– that you can be alone with a girl or boy friend in a compromising situation and not be tempted beyond your ability to say no.  Don't think, married man or woman, that you can feed that fantasy of another person and come out unscathed.  And let's not any of us think we can uncritically absorb the stuff that comes at us through the media without our moral fibre breaking down.  We live in Corinth!  Ours is an X-rated world.

Sexuality is even more powerful because of the lies that we use to rationalize wrong behaviors.  That was one thing Paul recognized in the Corinthians.  One was the line of argument in v13: food for the stomach and the stomach for food.  The Greek view of life at that time regarded sexual activity as just as natural, necessary and justifiable as eating and drinking.  Sexual abstinence was regarded as unnatural and even harmful.  "If it feels good, do it."

That line of thought obviously has not died.  Some secular psychologists and sociologists today try to say that sexual suppression causes mental illness and social inhibitions with resulting frustration, and even violence.  Don't you think it is odd that we have far more frustration and violence today when sexual freedom runs rampant than a hundred years ago in what is today sneeringly called "Victorian prudishness?"

Another lie Paul had to deal with was a perversion of the gospel.  He starts his comments in v12 with something the Corinthians were saying to justify their immorality: everything is permissible for me.  Is a Christian free to do any and everything?  Does Christian profession and baptism mean you can sleep around and feed on pornography and yet get by with it?  Paul asked the same question of the Romans: Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  His answer was, "By no means!  How can people who have died to sin continue to live in it?"

Another variation of the Corinthians' rationalizing was the idea that what they did with their bodies did not matter.  The body was temporal anyway, and what mattered was what was on the inside.  It took Paul to remind them that what is on the inside is seen by what happens on the outside.  Those who have hearts for God in the inside act like it on the outside.

New lies come up –– things that Paul does not explicitly mention (but you might be surprised at how much is here for those who are willing to see!).  One subject today that is rife with lies is “freedom.”  The foundation of "pro-choice" is that we should be free to do with our bodies whatever we choose.  Of course it is mostly connected with women and abortion, but it goes beyond that.  "It's my body" and "reproductive freedom" means she is free to sleep around with whomever without reaping the full fruit of the action.  For the homosexual, "freedom" means the right to have sex apart from the laws of nature (which by the way are consistent with the moral laws of the Creator).  Such thinking does not want to consider what "freedom" would mean for the man who desires young children.

Whatever else our culture might call these things, God's Word calls it porneia –– a prostitution of what God meant when he created sexuality.  The problem is that when human culture rejects God's truth, there is no truth.  That is yet another lie: there is no absolute right or wrong.  The culture tries to say that sex is the same as love.  Men say to women, "If you love me you'll do it."  Women do it hoping desperately that along with the heat of passion they will get a bit of tenderness and true care.  Men and women keep doing it, believing that more is better.  We judge each other by our bodies, believing the lie that a perfect body will give perfect satisfaction, and that physical satisfaction is the most important thing in the world.  We are told the excitement can’t last with the same old person; it is assumed that “looking” certainly won’t hurt anything.  The goal is “safe sex,” and that only means a condom.  We never hear anything about sex that is wrong.  All such attitudes are what the Bible calls porniea –– sexual immorality.

I read a cartoon that was far more pointed than funny.  A boy was asking his grandfather, “Gee Granddad, your generation didn’t have all these social diseases.  What did you wear to have safe sex?”  The grandfather’s wise reply was, “A wedding ring.”

There is a reason why sexual practices are getting worse and worse.  It is because people are trying to find satisfaction through the physical sensation of sex.  Sex that is cut off from a committed and lasting relationship is doomed to hurt and frustration.  When physical sex is all you have, you have nothing when it is over.  People who live for “now” find that it doesn’t last.

This is not to say that sex cannot be wonderful.  If not, it could not have the power it does.  When we come to the next section in this Corinthian letter we find human sexuality as God meant it to be. Yet even before that, we need to know who we are.  It is when we know and believe the truth about ourselves and God that things like human sexuality begin to fall into the right place.

The first thing we need to know is that our bodies are not our own (v19b).  None of us had anything to do with being here.  God is behind every conception as well as our particular characteristics. Speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David wrote:

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 full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
  when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
  your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
  before one of them came to be (Psa 139:13–16).

Not only is God our Creator, he is our Redeemer.  He bought us with the blood of his Son, so Paul says you were bought at a price (v20a).  The reason God did this was so his Spirit would be free to live inside us.  This is our hope of fulfillment –– a hope realized:  your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.... (v19).

It matters what we do with these bodies of ours.  We cannot use our bodies for immorality without it affecting our inner person.  The people Paul was writing to were going to prostitutes for physical gratification.  It was an accepted part of their culture (culture is never an excuse for illicit behavior).  Prostitution was part of pagan temple worship.  Prostitutes were readily available, and the Corinthian Christians easily could have said, “everyone does it.”

For us today the issue is greater than one dimension of immorality.  This word porneia means any prostitution of sexuality –– any use of sexuality other than what God has intended and sanctioned.  It means that sleeping around before marriage is a prostitution of sexuality.  It means filling your mind with images of people misusing sexuality so that your desires are both warped and inflamed is a prostitution of sexuality.    Christians are not to behave that way.

Why?  Because if we are Christians we belong to Jesus.  Our bodies belong to Jesus, and what we do belongs to Jesus.  When we sin these ways we are sinning against a body that belongs to Jesus.  We cannot embrace sexual immorality and Jesus at the same time.  Those who try to do so find that God is serious about this.

God hates sexual immorality.  Do you believe this?  When you see the seductive scenes on TV, does something in you say this would make you happy?  When you see the sensual magazines on the rack, can you remember there is a coiled snake ready to strike?  When a passing encounter seems so inviting, are you tempted to see how far it might go?

God wants people who will honor him in every way.  The final word here is: honor God with your body.  Is that your covenant?  God’s way is for our eyes to see only what the Holy Spirit wants us to see.  God’s way is for your body to be held only by the one with whom you make a life-long commitment.  God’s way is not to use your body except in those ways that honor the Lord who died to make you holy.

Hear these words as J. B. Phillips captured them in his NT translation:

The calling of God is not to impurity, but to the most thorough purity, and anyone who makes light of the matter is not making light of a man’s ruling but of God’s command.  It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit (1Thess 4).

As you live in an X-rated world, remember who you are.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Body, Soul, and Spirit

Wednesday: 14 January, 2015 –– First Week in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 2:14–18 / Mark 1:29–39
Body, Soul, and Spirit

What’s the big deal in Hebrews that Jesus was made like us and not like the angels?

Well, God made humans to be body, soul, and spirit. All three are necessary for us to be complete. On the other hand, angels are ministering spirits. Angels can assume a form when it’s important for humans to see them (Gabriel with Mary, the angels with the shepherds, etc.), but by nature angels are spirits.

Being fully human means living with body, soul, and spirit the way God intended. Sin has messed that up. Our “natural” tendency now is to give our bodies a far greater priority than our spirits. We feel it when we are hungry. We know it when we are uncomfortable (and others around us usually do, too). On the other hand, a person can be starving spiritually and be mostly unaware. It takes a finely tuned human spirit to be sensitive to a harmful environment. Too few people seem to feel pain and turn away with remorse and disgust when, for example, something on TV is immoral or totally demeaning.

A repercussion of this is the penalty of death: the separation of body from spirit. When we die, our bodies go into the ground to await the general resurrection at the time of the Great Consummation; our spirits are conscious and aware of our ultimate destiny ––with or separated from the Lord (e.g., St Paul in 2Cor 5:1–4 and Phlp 1:20b–23). This is a time of being unfulfilled (think of those with the Lord around the throne waiting for the full salvation of bodily resurrection––Revelation 6:9,10).

The writer to the Hebrews is saying that Jesus became like us––body, soul, and spirit––so he could give us a full salvation. His coming was not like that of an angel, nor for angels. This is modeled on several levels in today’s Gospel.

Jesus is healing bodies (because the human body is important). Jesus is delivering people from spiritual oppression (because evil can make us sick and destroy us).

Jesus also goes away alone to pray. In the popular days of his early ministry––with all his approval and the display of mighty words and mighty deeds––Jesus took the time to stay close to the Father. Jesus modeled a right ordering of body, soul, and spirit.

Our bodies are important, but the one we have now will not last forever. We wait in hope for a resurrection. Our spirits are even more important, because the person we are at core in our spirit determines the existence we will have forever.

Body, soul, and spirit…. Let’s be people who follow Jesus and nurture the healing of our spirits.

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