Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wednesday Night Devotions: 1 Peter 2:11-12

Lately when I've been here, I've been focusing on working through one chapter of scripture: 1 Peter 2. Four weeks ago, we looked at the first three verses, and one thing we learned was how important it is for us to be challenged and forced to really think and ask the hard questions when we're sharing our spiritual thoughts with each other, even here at prayer meeting. If we don't do the hard work, we can't grow. And all of us need to grow. God wants to transform us, not leave us behind. God wants us to walk with him, and a walk means progressing forward. Two weeks ago, we looked at the next set of verses, and we learned that we're called to be the one holy temple and royal priesthood of God on the earth. All of us are responsible to be together a holy union where people can come to experience the glory of God in Christ and to receive the power of the Spirit. We don't have this kind of privilege and responsibility by birthright. We're sinners called from all walks of life. But now we form one temple, and we have to let God be manifest in our midst. We're called to offer up our praise and service to God as a priestly sacrifice, and to give thanks to God, because it's only as members of the body of Christ that we can be royal priests, not on our own.

Too often, all of these lessons pass us by. Too often, we Christians are content to live on milk for life and to take our limited spiritual food through the IV of broken-down devotionals. Too often, we fear stepping outside of our traditional comfort zones, and we let our complacency and our ways of doing church get in the way of maturing spiritually. Too often, we Christians make it almost impossible to experience God among us. Too often, we get in Christ's way with our division, our squabbling, our rabbit trails, our personal agendas, and our laziness. Too often, we reflect the secular rather than the sacred, instead of reflecting the sacred to the secular. Too often, we model our priestly service on Cain's offering instead of Abel's – we don't give God the firstfruits of our praise, the best of our service, but just toss him a few cheap afterthoughts and expect God to thank us for it as if we were doing him a favor. And too often, we forget the grace that saved us and look down on those who are where we all were – and especially those who commit the apparently unforgivable offense of doing sins that look different than our favorite sins! Too often, we forget that we're both unpolished blocks and the temple of God's presence for all the world.

We need to keep those lessons fresh in our minds. They're part of what God is teaching us through Peter. We sometimes think that we can just drop in on a passage of scripture without reading what else the author has been saying up to that point, and we can get into trouble by doing that. This week, remembering what came before it, we can pick up where we left off and see just how much Peter has packed into the next two verses:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” [[1 Peter 2:11-12]]

Peter has already been talking about our identity as far as Christ is concerned. Being in Christ means being royalty in the kingdom and a priesthood in the kingdom and a temple in the kingdom. Note: 'in the kingdom'. What about 'in the world'? What does being in Christ mean for our position in society? Look at the words Peter uses. 'Foreigners'. 'Exiles'. See, our citizenship isn't really in the world, not our first allegiance. When we look at the world around us, we aren't supposed to think of it as 'home' anymore. This world, as it now is, is not our home. It isn't our native country. We aren't citizens of this world in this age. We're citizens of God's monarchy. Or, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven”, not in earthly places. And, he continues, from heaven will come a Savior who will take our lowly bodies and make them glorious bodies like the one he already has.

So this world isn't our home, and our citizenship isn't here. We live in this world as nomads. We wander to and fro, passing through. Our investments aren't here, or at least they shouldn't be. Our allegiance isn't here, or at least it shouldn't be. We are every much as foreign here as someone who lives in this country on a temporary visa. We aren't the natives. We're ambassadors from somewhere else. And an ambassador of the kingdom of Jesus the sinless 'last Adam' is not supposed to live like a citizen of the kingdom of the fallen 'first Adam'.

Now, it's easy to misread what Peter is saying here. When I say “this world”, I don't mean “this planet”, the earth that God created. I do not mean that we don't belong with our feet on solid dirt. I do not mean that our goal is to leave our bodies behind and live forever as spirits with harps on clouds somewhere way, way out there, far away from this place. No, that's not what we're talking about. If we mean by 'heaven' the place where God is now, somewhere separate from the earth we're currently living on, then 'heaven' is not our end goal. The Bible teaches us that we will be resurrected, raised bodily from the dead when our spirits return to what remains of our bodies. (After all, we just quoted Paul saying that Jesus will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” [Philippians 3:21] – the body that was lowly ceases to be lowly and becomes glorious, so clearly what gets discarded is the lowly status, not the body itself!) That's why, while the Greeks and Romans who rejected the idea of resurrection sometimes cremated their dead, early Jews and Christians buried their bodies in the ground. It was the people of God's way of bearing witness to the world that there's no need to 'burn their bridges' with the body, because God isn't done with it yet! So even though they knew that God can raise a person up as easily from scattered ashes as he can from a skeleton or even a mummy, they wanted to use even death as a chance to point the world to what their real hope was.

So 'escape' to heaven is not the idea that we're working with in the Bible. We can see that plainly at the end of Revelation. The New Jerusalem comes down to earth. The presence of God will be on the earth forever. Earth is not something God will abandon, and it isn't something we will abandon. There will be no more divide between the world where God lives and the world where we will; all will be brought together as one. What God has in store is a healing for the whole earth, a redemption from the fall. God has given us some glimpses into earth-as-it-will-be, and one of our responsibilities right now is to be good stewards of the earth and to help it and everything in it become more like what's to come; our job is to bring a taste of the future 'heaven on earth' into the present world. So when I say, “This world is not our home”, I don't mean that this earth is not our home. I mean that worldly society as it currently exists, in this 'present evil age' (as Paul describes it in Galatians 1:4), is not the society we're made for in Christ. When it comes to that world, we're passing through as pilgrims. And when that world comes to an end at the Last Judgment, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”, says the author of Hebrews (12:28).

So here, we're 'foreigners' and 'exiles', we're 'pilgrims' and 'strangers', we're 'aliens'. Because of that, we have no reason to conform. Fitting in is not part of the Christian job description! People who are citizens of 'this world' give in to their sinful desires. Christians are foreigners who should not. Peter insists that we should “abstain from sinful desires”. If we really did that, wouldn't it be a lot easier to tell the difference between the people of the kingdom and the people of the world? Peter also says that these sinful desires “wage war against your soul”. Our yearnings to sin are not something neutral. They are not something we can establish a nice working relationship with. They are not our friends. In the war that wages in each of us, they are enemy combatants. They are the devil's footsoldiers firing away at our spiritual health, our relationship with God. Show the devil no mercy! Don't concede an inch of ground in your hearts to sinful desires. Don't take the free sample. Don't think that a little sip won't hurt. Sin is like a can of Pringles: once you pop, you just can't stop! Sin is intentionally addictive, and it results in soul decay. That one taste is a dangerous risk. That one taste is not abstinence. And abstinence from giving in to sinful desires is exactly what God calls for, and nothing less. Taking the 'a little bit won't hurt' approach to sin makes no sense. Not if we believe what Peter says about sin waging war against our souls. Who plays flirtatious games with the enemy army? Sampling sin is like letting an enemy soldier put a bullet through you because, after all, it's just one, and it's such a little thing. No one in their right mind would take that approach to any soldier who wages a war against our bodies. Why would we take that approach to what wages war against our souls?

But that approach is exactly the approach taken by many of those who don't believe. Some will relish certain sinful desires, because they don't see the war. They think the enemy soldiers in their souls are on their sides. When they look at their bleeding wounds from messing with sin, they blow them off as decorative! That's the way Peter's audience used to look at the world. They were in sin, and they were in sin deep. But now, Peter says they shouldn't even so much as dabble in it. It's a complete and total 180º.

Peter's advice is this: live good lives among the pagans, or among the non-believers. I think there are two really instructive things in those simple words. The first one is easiest to miss: “live … among the pagans”! There have been so many groups of Christians throughout history who have thought, “If only we could withdraw to our own place, we'd be free from this corruption. If only we had a place where just Christians lived, then we wouldn't have bad influences. We should get out of the bad part of town and spend our time with our new society, the church. If we associate with church people, if our friends are church people, if we work with church people, if we go grocery shopping among church people, if our restaurants are owned by church people, then we'll only have to deal with church people – nice, clean, decent folks we can trust. God's going to judge the world soon enough, and so we'd better withdraw now so that when the hammer falls and makes a big splat, we don't mess up our nice clean shirts with the splatter.” That's the way some Christians think, if they're being honest about it.

Back closer to Peter's time, there was a Jewish group called the Essenes – the ones responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls – who took the same sort of approach and pulled out into the wilderness to live together and wait for God to end the messiness around them. Our county is home to another group with many of the same tendencies: the Amish. But Peter says to live among the pagans. Christians are called to be separate (morally, that is), but not to be separatists. Separating ourselves that way is not a fully Christ-like life, because it misses out on the Incarnation. No, we're supposed to be living among the pagans. We're on a mission to them. Our whole lives are supposed to be caught up in this mission. You know what logically comes before being the hands and feet of Christ among people? The 'among people' part. We have to be very careful that we don't create our own little bubble of a Christian subculture and go live inside the bubble. Christ came to burst our bubbles.

But just saying to 'live among the pagans' isn't enough. The pagans are living among the pagans, and I don't see God patting them on the back for it. So why would God be happy with a person who refers to himself as a 'Christian' and lives among the pagans, but lives a pagan life? What God says here is that we should “live good lives among the pagans”. Remember faith, hope, and love? Remember mercy and grace? Those aren't just fancy church words. They're life words. They're the words for our lives among the pagans. Peter says that we should be living such godly lives that, even when the pagans accuse us of all sorts of nasty things (and, he says, they will), the charges won't stick. Their falsehood will be obvious. There's no guarantee that the pagans we live among won't continue to accuse us of every form of socially unacceptable behavior under the sun, but we can at least live so that no one can say that they have a point! People will see the way we live, and anyone with half an open mind will be able to see that we're motivated by love and grace and want to be a positive influence on the world, almost like we're salt and light or something. That's the way it's supposed to be, at least. That's the idea. God wants us to be mixed in all throughout the world as a living, breathing witness to what he can do with a human life. God wants our holiness to be visible – not so we can take credit for being righteous, like the Pharisees were fond of trying, but so that God can get credit for his holiness rubbing off on us. So how are we living among the pagans? Are we really living in abstinence from everything that wars against our spiritual health? Are we living intentionally in the midst of those who need to meet Jesus? Are we showing Christ's character undeniably in our lives – his holiness, his compassion, his truth, his love, his mercy, his grace? And, most of all, are we doing it all to see God glorified?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Night Devotions: 1 Peter 2:4-10

Two weeks ago, the last time I had the privilege of sharing some devotional thoughts with you, we talked about three verses from the second chapter of Peter's letter written to Christians in scattered communities in what's now Turkey. We learned a lot from those three verses. They challenged us to make sure that we're spiritually mature enough to chomp down on a wide variety of healthy spiritual food, and not just to settle for easy-to-digest milk that we can sip without any work of our own. Spiritual maturity is something we're all commanded to strive after, no matter what physical age we are. We can learn to chew and digest spiritual steak. And that challenges us to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual nourishment we're getting in our Bible studies and in our devotionals. Are we still working with the same kind of basics that we would have used a decade ago? If so, then we probably haven't stretched ourselves very much since then. We should remember to ask ourselves the hard questions. We should force ourselves to think. There's no retiring from spiritual maturity. There's no retiring from getting deeper into the things of God, even if it may be hard work. God calls us to the hard work; he just promises that in Christ, we'll find a healthy rhythm of work and rest. If the devotions we share and the prayers we pray are no more meaty than we could have handled years ago, then maybe we've been refusing to grow – and that's not God's plan for our lives. In the kingdom of God, “we've always done it that way” is not an excuse for refusing to grow; neither is, “That makes my head hurt”, and neither is, “But I don't want to”. We're called to serve a God who transforms, a God who wants us to grow and change even though it stretches and pulls and stings and hurts.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him –, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” [[1 Peter 2:4-5]]

For in Scripture it says, 'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.'” Now, to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,' and, 'A stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.' They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.” [[1 Peter 2:6-8]]

Now Peter turns a corner to give us some new teaching. He says that Jesus is like a stone who's alive. He's the foundational cornerstone in what God is building. When people in society try to build shelters from the world, or to build schools of thought, or even to build things that honor God, too often people assume that something else can be the cornerstone. Too often people imagine that Jesus Christ is expendable. Too often
we in our hearts pretend that Jesus Christ is expendable. But there is nothing expendable, nothing disposable, nothing optional when it comes to the one-of-a-kind Redeemer, the one and only Son of God. Jesus is the living Stone. The human builders rejected him. But in rejecting him, they trip over him and only hurt themselves more, because Jesus is the one chosen by the Father to be the centerpiece, the cornerstone, in his whole construction project. And there's no other foundation anyone can lay but this one. Jesus is not one option among many. Jesus is a necessity.

We can't afford to stumble over him. We can't afford to fall. Peter says that those who stumble over Jesus are stumbling and falling because they disobey the message. When they hear the gospel, they turn away from it. Maybe they think that there's no truth anyway, so there's no point in paying attention. Maybe they think that, when it comes to religion, one thing must be as good as another, and anyone who says otherwise is just being mean and intolerant. Those are popular objections these days. And they're both wrong. Jesus is the Truth. Not the Opinion. Not the Custom. Not the Truth-for-You-But-Not-for-Me. The Truth. More specifically, Jesus is the Beautiful-Truth-in-Holy-Love. There's nothing more loving than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more beautiful than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more holy than Jesus Christ. And there is nothing truer than Jesus Christ. We can say those things in a mean and intolerant and ugly and unloving way, but they themselves are not mean, they aren't intolerant, they aren't ugly, and they aren't unloving. They're what the world needs to hear, and what the world needs to accept. Because to not accept it is to stumble. But what's more, just hearing the message isn't enough. Just agreeing with the message isn't enough. Peter says that people stumble if they disobey the message. The message of Jesus Christ – that he died for our awful sins, that he rose again in victory and life, that he ascended on high as our great High Priest to intercede with us before the Father's throne, that he reigns even now as supreme authority over everything that happens in the whole universe, and that he's coming back to judge everyone both alive and dead – that's the message we're being given, and it has a lot of implications for how we live our lives. One would hope that all those in our churches at least are familiar with the message. One would hope that they all understand the message clearly. Sadly, that's probably too optimistic. But for right now, we have to ask the pressing question: how well are we obeying the message, obeying it with 'the obedience that comes from faith', as Paul says twice in Romans?

But while Peter is talking about Jesus as the living Stone, the one who's most precious to God, Peter says something else here. Peter is telling us that as we come to him, we're more living stones. We're part of what God is building! We aren't just observers. We're God's building materials. And as we let him put us together, what's the finished project look like? Peter says that it's a “spiritual house”. In other words, it's the one and only end-times temple of God, the temple where God's Spirit is living. We together, even we right here, are God's temple in construction. Or rather, we're already a temple, and the temple is growing. This temple is alive!

If we're going to be God's temple, that carries some serious weight. A temple is the place where God lives. A temple is the place where people go to meet him. A temple is the place where people go to serve him. And a temple is the place where people go to build up their relationship with him. That's what the temple was always for. Only, as we talked about in church this week, the new temple isn't a place. The new temple is us. But what kind of a temple are we choosing to be? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they walk away thinking, “Wow.... God lives here?” If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, right now, would they meet Jesus personally? Would they be able to experience the presence of the risen Christ among us.... or would we get in the way? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they be able to walk away feeling refreshed and connected with God? Or would they have to leave feeling distant from God still? If we're doing our job as a temple here, right here in this prayer meeting, people could come here and meet Jesus. People coming here could fall in love with God all over again. But would they? Are we being that kind of temple? Are we a temple of the veiled-but-visible glory of God? Or as a temple, are we named 'Ichabod' – “no glory”?

But Peter doesn't just say that we're a temple. He says that we're being built up into a temple. This temple is not static. This temple is not finished. This temple is supposed to grow. That means, for one, that we should be out there recruiting some more stones! But it also means that we should together grow to spiritual maturity. Like we discussed before, our job as a people is not to stay still. Our job as individual Christians is not to stay still in our walk. They call it a 'walk', not a 'standstill'! Our job is to grow. Our job is to go deeper, to see farther and wider, and to love harder. Are we growing? When we look back on our week, do we have to admit that we haven't learned anything new that we can use to understand God's word better? Or can we say that we've gotten closer to the heart of what God is saying? And if we can say that, then the next important question is, what are we going to do with it?

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” [[1 Peter 2:9-10]]

Earlier, Peter had already alluded to the fact that, as the temple of God, we're also the priesthood of God. A priest is someone who comes before God on behalf of others, and before others on behalf of God. A priest is someone sanctified for God's special service. In the Old Testament, there were plenty of priests, all descended from Moses' brother Aaron. Their leader was the high priest, and once every year, after some intense preparation, the high priest would get to pass through a veil in the temple into a room called the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept – and on top of that box was a 'mercy seat' representing God's throne, flanked by a pair of heavenly creatures called cherubim. The Holy of Holies was where God's presence was. Under the old covenant, there were a lot of priests, and they kept having to be replaced. None of them lasted. They had limited access to God, and what was worse, the offerings they made couldn't really fix the problem of sin. It was just animal blood and a hamburger or two. It wasn't good enough to clean us inside and out.

But we know that things are different now. Instead of there being many priests, there's really just one. Our Great High Priest is none other than Jesus. He's perfect. He's in God's presence all the time, in the real Holy of Holies in heaven. He's alive forever, so he never has to be replaced, nor is there anybody who could fill his priestly shoes. Best of all just as the change in covenants moved us from many weak priests to one perfect priest, so it moved us from many weak sacrifices to one perfect sacrifice – which Jesus made on the cross and then brought into the Father's presence forever.

So if the whole old priesthood has been replaced by Jesus, then what does Peter mean when he talks about us as not just the temple but as the 'royal priesthood'? Well, remember that as the church, we're the bride of Christ. A woman who marries a king gets to share in his rule through the marriage; so we, in being united to Christ, share in his royal rule and in his holy priesthood. As Martin Luther wrote in 1520, “just as Christ by his birthright obtained these two prerogatives, so he imparts them to and shares them with everyone who believes in him according to the law of the above-mentioned marriage, according to which the wife owns whatever belongs to the husband. Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ.”

See, we don't have a priesthood independent of Christ's, nor are just some people in the church priests. But all of us are royalty and all of us are priests – though only through sharing in the priesthood and the royalty that Jesus has. We weren't always a people. We weren't always united together like this, as a 'holy nation'. Before we met Jesus, we were outsiders to God's people and to his plan. We weren't living under mercy. But God is a God who invites the outsiders to become the inner circle. God is a God who takes a bunch of miscellaneous no-goodniks from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and makes them into one new people and one new family and showers them – us! – with undeserved mercy after mercy and blessing after blessing. Peter says that God did this so that we could 'declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light'. We aren't in the dark anymore, the way we once were. We're living in the light, as he is in the light. We've been given rescue from the dungeon. We've been called to be priests and a temple. And the spiritual sacrifice we offer in the new covenant is to praise God with our lips and with our lives for how incredible he's been to us:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
'Tis music in the sinner's ears,
'Tis life and health and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.

On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul he shone
And filled it with repose.

Sudden expired the legal strife,
'Twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.

Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
To call the Savior mine.

I felt my Lord's atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me he died!

I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.

Look unto him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon: "Christmas Is Just the Beginning"

Have you ever noticed that, after Christmas, you sometimes feel a bit deflated? We have all this energy and all this excitement and all this anticipation going into the Christmas season; we buy our presents, we put them under the tree, we get our families together, we organize parties.... and on December 26th, it feels like it's all over and done with. Christmas seems like an ending. But really, Christmas is just the beginning.

Last week, Rev. Vondran made some invaluable points. One that struck me was how Jesus reveals to us what God is like. Remember, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Christmas is nothing less than the celebration of God starting to dictate his Autobiography, not just in words on a page, but in and as a human life. Whoever catches a glimpse of Jesus has a window into the heart of the Father.

If the only glimpse we got was on that silent night, we'd understand far more about God than we ever would've without it. But the baby born in Bethlehem didn't stay in the manger. He grew up so we could see God in action on the human stage. Reading the Gospels, it seems like even just a week in his life would be biting off more than we could chew. But with The Story, we're zooming waaaaaaaaaaay out to get the God's-eye view of it all. Even in just the early days of his ministry, I see three broad lessons that Jesus gives us about God.

The first key lesson is that God identifies himself with God's people. When God thinks of us, he says, “These people are my people; they're with me, I'm with them, and we're sticking together.” The entire life of Jesus is a brand-new testament to that. Matthew especially wants us to see the life of Jesus as picking up on a whole bunch of themes from earlier chapters in The Story and weaving the threads together. When Herod's threats loom in the Holy Land, Jesus is taken into Egypt, just like Jacob's family at the end of Genesis. After Herod the Great dies, Jesus comes out of Egypt in a new exodus, back into the Holy Land.

Later we find Jesus at the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”. When it came to Jesus getting baptized, John the Baptist was every bit as confused as we are. I mean, the whole point of baptism seemed like it was a chance to turn away from your sins and start living a godly life. Baths are for the dirty – so why did the one and only clean man ask to go under? Well, if we had to go through it, Jesus didn't want to stand apart. He wanted to stand with us. That's just the kind of attitude God has. He doesn't hold himself apart from what we're going through. When we go through suffering and pain and tragedy in life, God wants us to be able to see as plain as day that he doesn't hold our bruised and battered hearts at arm's length. When we've rolled in the mud and we need to get wet, God's there in the river too. For us.

If he wanted to stand apart from messy human life, Jesus probably could've gotten away with skipping the river. He also could've skipped his forty days of wandering through the wilderness, which matched up with the forty years the Israelites lived as nomads in the Sinai. We go through our own wilderness times of temptation and trial on a regular basis. Jesus is God's loudest way of saying that he's with us in it all. If Jesus wanted to, he could have ended the contest with the devil pretty quickly. He could have said, “Satan, in case you've forgotten, I'm God, and I can't sin. To save us both some time, I command you to get lost.” But if he had, what lesson would there be for us? What hope for our struggles would we get out of seeing Jesus resist the devil in a way only God can?

Jesus deliberately chose not to go that route. Look at the way Jesus fights the devil off. Satan tells Jesus to satisfy his physical needs; Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:13. Satan tells Jesus to impress everyone with a self-centered miracle, and even twists scripture to do it; Jesus jabs back with Deuteronomy 6:16. Satan finally offers Jesus jurisdiction over the whole world in exchange for one quick act of outrageous sin; and Jesus sends him packing with Deuteronomy 6:13. There isn't a single thing Jesus said to Satan that we can't say, too. Jesus is God's way of showing us that we have exactly what we need. If we learn God's words that well and understand their spirit so we can guard against Bible-abuse, we're ready.

The second major lesson that Jesus teaches us about God is that God is eager to teach us one-on-one, no matter what level we're at. God will accept us and meet us wherever we are, though he won't be content to let us stay down there. Whatever our hang-ups, God has a message for each and every one of us, all of us in this sanctuary right now. There isn't one of us who could say, “God's word isn't for me”, and not be a liar. When we read about the start of Jesus' ministry, one catching story is about Jesus' secret visit from a bigshot Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a great rabbi. In Jesus' own words, he's a “teacher of Israel”. He's a top theologian, a knock-out preacher. If anyone has it all together, it's Nicodemus! But Jesus warns Nicodemus that he's on the verge of flunking out on the basics. Nicodemus is so clueless that on the first sentence out of Jesus' mouth, he gets lost!

See, what Jesus has to teach Nicodemus is that it doesn't matter who you are – you could be a down-and-out loner or an all-star rabbi – our old life isn't what makes God happy. Our family tree has its roots in bad soil. We need a new one, one that has roots not in a pedigree of human bodies, but only in the Spirit of God. We need to be born all over again, this time with God as our parent. Jesus tells him about how much God loves the world that rejects him. God loves God-haters so much that he sent the very best, his Son, to die. He sent his Son to be lifted up on the cross so that whoever looks at him in faith will be cured of sin. It's that look in faith that makes all the difference. Anyone who put all their eggs in Jesus' basket is in safe hands; those who'd rather hedge their bets are in for a rude awakening. Faith is the one thing that makes the difference between life for those who have it and condemnation for those who don't. Faith is inseparable from being born again. And that's exactly the message that Nicodemus needed to hear.

Later on, Jesus leads his disciples into a place they'd rather not be: Samaria, a region the Jews of his day went out of their way to avoid. The Jews couldn't stand the Samaritans. He sent his Jewish disciples off to buy some food in a Samaritan town while Jesus waited outside at a well – probably because if they stuck around, they'd just have gotten in the way. Jesus finds himself talking to a sexually broken Samaritan woman who may have felt like an outcast even among other Samaritans, let alone when talking to a Jewish rabbi. Jesus crosses all sorts of barriers to have a conversation with her. He reveals, bit by bit, that he knows exactly what sort of life she's lived – and he wants her to know that, no matter what worldly lines in the sand are drawn between them, he wants her to come to him and find a healing that lasts.

As she's working her way up to realizing that Jesus is the promised Savior, she comes to see that Jesus has a hotline with God. So she asks him to settle one of the controversies of the day. Everyone knows that for the one God, there can be only one valid temple. The Jews worship God at the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and reject all the others. But the Samaritans worship God at the temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria and reject the one in Jerusalem. Jesus tells her that it doesn't matter any more. Worship used to have to do with geography, because the temple was a place. But if our God is spirit, there's no reason why his temple has to be a place – and Jesus tells this Samaritan woman that from now on it won't be. The new temple isn't a place, it's a people – it's us!

Now it doesn't matter where we stand when we bring our offerings to God. It doesn't matter if we get together to worship God between these panels of stained glass and those panels. It doesn't matter if we worship God without so much as a shard of stained glass in sight. It can be in our homes, it can be in the park, it can be at the side of the road in a bad part of town. What matters is whether we're living out our worship as though we're really God's temple. We need to live like the temple where his Spirit of Truth dwells to bear its fruit in our lives. God calls us to worship as the temple where people can come to meet him – and when they meet him here in Christ, in our midst, then they can have the Spirit flowing through their lives like a raging river that never runs dry. And that message is exactly what the woman at the well needed to hear.

The woman went back into her village and spread the word. They invited Jesus in, and many of them learned for themselves who Jesus is. But the disciples were complaining... as usual. When they tried to distract Jesus with lunch, he told them that he had everything he needed right there already. They thought maybe Jesus got some take-out while they were grocery shopping. They didn't understand that food is nothing compared to carrying out God's mission. They were so bogged down in earthly things and earthly meanings that they were blind to what was most pressing of all.

You know, when I picture this conversation, I imagine Jesus grabbing Peter by the shoulders and shaking him. “Don't you see? Open your eyes! Open your eyes and look, look at that field of people! They're ripe for harvest for the kingdom!” That was where the heart of the Father was. The heart of the Father wasn't with what the disciples bought in town. The heart of the Father wasn't in staying on schedule to get out of Samaria. The heart of the Father was in rejoicing in the chance to share the gospel with people who were starving spiritually and were ready and willing for the meal of God's love to be served to their souls. No one shows the Father's heart like Jesus – and if Jesus went to such desperate lengths to reach the Samaritans, I wonder how we can ever look at the unsaved in Akron and Ephrata the same way again.

The third crucial lesson that the start of Jesus' ministry teaches us about God is that God values the humble faith of outcasts more than the self-satisfied morality of the 'in-crowd'. Early on in the Gospels, we get the sense that if there's one thing that the Pharisees and Jesus most definitely are not destined to see eye-to-eye on, it's how to treat people who don't have it all together. The Pharisees were convinced that they were on top of it. They were so proud not to be like, you know, those people. You know the ones I mean. The ones who feel afraid to darken church doors because they don't feel good enough.

Jesus didn't avoid them the way the Pharisees did. He did lunch with them. The Pharisees and others got upset when Jesus ate with – gasp! – 'tax collectors' and 'sinners'! Jesus fell in with bad crowds – on purpose. The Pharisees and their friends judged Jesus for it. How can this traveling teacher not know what kind of people these are? Hasn't he ever heard that bad company corrupts good morals? Doesn't this Jesus guy understand that he's setting a bad example? Clearly if this man is the sort of man who would spend his time with thieves and adulterers and traitors and prostitutes and terrorists, he isn't someone any self-respecting Pharisee would want his children around! But a main point of Jesus' life is that God is the sort of God who would spend his time with haters, with abusers, with bullies, and with the broken – and if we need any more proof, all we need is to remember that God somehow still wants anything to do with us.

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that when a doctor's at work, he doesn't surround himself with healthy people who don't want to see him. A doctor dives headfirst into the midst of the sick and the dying because they're the ones who need him and know it. The irony is that the Pharisees are worse off, because they're so proud of their own goodness that they can't see that their goodness 'falls short of the glory of God'. Even if the Pharisees came a few inches closer to God's standards, just a few, they fell miles away from God's values. And one of the greatest dangers for the church today is if we miss this. It's easy to give lip-service to grace and mercy. It's hard to live as someone who depends on it completely. A church that doesn't remind itself that they'd be miserable sinners without God's grace, a church that forgets that it's called for an active mission of grace to the hurting and the impure and the lost – that is a church in grave danger of becoming the neighborhood Pharisees' Association instead of the church that God wrenched out of Satan's hands through the priceless blood of his one and only Son.

Every natural inclination of our hearts is to be a Pharisee. But Jesus came to show us that that's not where God's heart is. If we believe the good news that God is really Christ-like, then we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about our methods in God's mission. We have to ask ourselves, if God isn't above identifying himself with the people, who are we to hold ourselves above the muck and the mire of the day-to-day lives of the lost? We have to ask ourselves, if God's teaching through Jesus is true, then do we really get what it means to trade in everything about who we are in order to get a completely new identity from God? We have to ask ourselves, if God is willing to have a bunch of rescued sinners serve as his holy temple, are we really being a temple where people can meet Christ and get healing? And we have to ask ourselves, if God's heart breaks and burns and chases down the hungry lost, then what's wrong with us when we put anything worldly, even good things, ahead of our God's all-consuming passion? Those are uncomfortable questions. They make me uncomfortable. I squirmed when I wrote them. I'll probably still squirm in a week, or in a month. But when we come to see that Jesus is the one who makes the heart of the Father known, even in the earliest days of his ministry, then we can't not know that every 'if' in those questions is a guaranteed fact. And we can't pretend that it doesn't have a drastic impact on who we are as the church. And that's just the start of Jesus' ministry! Over the next few Sundays, we have the awesome chance to explore what else Jesus can show us about the heart of God. Because Christmas was just the beginning of the new chapter in God's story.