“Through the Sea”

This Morning’s Passage:

Exodus 14

“[Spiritual cleansing] does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”

~ from Belgic Confession Article 34: “the Sacrament of Baptism”

God uses baptism to start us on a new life, washing away the past.

Last week, we saw in Israel’s exodus from Egypt that our journey into our new life in Christ typically begins with a crisis of decision that compels us to make a fresh start with urgency and confidence. That journey will prove challenging. We are being called to live a new kind of life that is so out of place in this world, and so against the ways of this world, that we will be frequently faced with the opposition and animosity of others. Jesus showed us this in his life, as he endured the hatred of the world against his radically new kind of life. And Jesus told us that that same hatred would be aimed at us when we left behind the ways of the world and lived instead Christ’s new kind of life. Jesus even went so far to say that we are blessed “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” on account of Jesus (Matthew 5:11).

We can only persevere under that kind of enmity for so long on our own. Our individual reservoirs of will and intention and resolve will be exhausted all the sooner, the greater the danger appears to us. Like Israel, our fear and anxiety will convince us that this fledgling new life is not worth the world’s hatred, and we will quickly come to think that it would be better for us to go back to living like the rest of the world.

Of course that is not true. We have been transplanted from the slavery of darkness and death into the marvelous light of eternal life. It would be the worst kind of foolishness to exchange life for death. Therefore, God has made a way to separate us from the death of our past life, while at the same time filling us with a reservoir of grace and power and will that will never run out, because it’s filled with His Spirit of life. That way is baptism.

The sacrament of baptism marks the end of our previous life of slavery and darkness. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s crucifixion, so that our sinful self “with its sinful practices” (Colossians 3:9) is no more. The sacrament of baptism then also marks the beginning of our new life of freedom and obedience. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s resurrection, so that our “new self” is born, and we begin to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) Jesus Christ.

Just as it would be impossible for the people of Israel to go back to Egypt after miraculously crossing the Red Sea by God’s grace, in the same way it is impossible for us to return to a life ruled by sin after we have been baptized. There is no going back.

God uses baptism to make us a new people in the world, a family of faith.

And if that’s all baptism does, it would be enough. But something more happens in the waters of baptism, just as it happened at the Red Sea. Remember that when the Hebrews left Egypt by night, they were a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). That means that some Egyptians had come along. Maybe they had come to believe in the Lord God through the Israelites’ worship and witness. Maybe they had seen the Israelites painting their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and fearful of the last plague, decided to do the same to save themselves and their family. Or maybe they had decided last minute to join the exodus with these strange and powerful people. Whatever the cause, God’s chosen people have set out on this journey home with strangers and aliens in their midst. But once they cross the Red Sea, they are no longer “a mixed multitude,” but “the people of Israel” (Exodus 14:29), God’s chosen people.

In the same way, the sacrament of baptism shows us that God’s covenant promises create a new people in the world. If it is true that each of us who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection leave behind the ways of the world and start a new life, then it is also true that all of us who have started a new life in Christ are bound up together into a new people, no longer of this world. Where the people of Israel were bound together as God’s covenant people by their ancestor Abraham’s blood, we are bound together by our forgiveness in Christ’s blood; where Israel was bound together by the sign of circumcision that showed them God’s favor, Christ has given us the fulfillment of that ancient sign, and we are bound together – male and female – by the sign of baptism, which shows us that God is our good Father in Christ.

When we celebrate Christian baptism together, we hear anew God’s covenant promises to us as our good Father, that He will continue to be faithful to us, to forgive our sins, and to renew us by His Holy Spirit. We also make strong promises of our own, promises to be faithful to each other as the family of faith. In baptism, we who are baptized become a kingdom-shaped community that bears witness to the truth of our living Lord Christ together. Our relationships of mutual encouragement and accountability become sacramental – empowered with the potential to bear and display the real presence of Christ to the world. Our authentic relationships of forgiveness and reconciliation become living testimonies to the forgiveness that has been given to us. Even immense personal differences are overcome in unity of baptism; because we have been brought through the sea, the truest thing about us now is Christ. In Christ alone we find our capacity to stand in fellowship with strangers, aliens, and even enemies.

God uses baptism throughout our whole life, to renew us by His Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of baptism marks us as Christ’s own as individuals, and incorporates us into the faith family of Christ’s Church in all space and time, and unites us to this particular expression of the faith family in this place, at this time. But the water of baptism does not carry the power of salvation in itself; the font is filled with ordinary water. The water of baptism is a temporary, visible sign that signifies the eternal, invisible grace of God at work in our souls by the Holy Spirit to renew us and purify us. Even though the water dries from our skin, the spiritual mark of baptism endures on our soul throughout our whole life.

Our public Profession of Faith is a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life, where we acknowledge publicly the promises of God made to us in our baptism, and we choose to answer those promises with our own promises of faithfulness and obedience, committing ourselves to this particular Christian faith family for mutual encouragement and accountability, so that we all might continue to grow in grace and truth.

Christian weddings can be seen as a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life: a husband and wife recognize publicly that God’s covenant faithfulness goes before them as they make their covenant promises to each other, to be faithful and loving to each other the same way that Christ is faithful and loving to His bride, the Church.

Christian funerals are a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life. Because in baptism we have already died to sin and death, we have all comfort, for ours is the promise of the full victory Christ has won for us. Even in our grief, we can stand on the words of Scripture:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, cf. Isaiah 25:8, Hosea 13:14

Because the covenant promises of God made to us in baptism are sure, a Christian’s death is not fearful or futile; for, like Paul:

“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

~ Romans 8:38-39

And in and through and among the baptisms, and Professions of Faith, and weddings, and funerals, we have a second sacrament that ties directly to the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of communion is the continuation of the baptismal covenant! Where in baptism we have been adopted into the family of faith, so that we are now called children of God, in communion we are fed at God’s table the visible sign of His invisible grace. The Lord is the host of this holy feast, and all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are welcome at His table, if we are fully living into our new lives in Christ, made ours through the grace-filled waters of baptism. All who are truly sorry for their sins, and are eagerly striving to live the new life of righteousness, will find at Christ’s table grace upon grace, and will be strengthened by His body, the bread, and His blood, the cup, to continue more and more to live the holy and blameless lives Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, and made ours in the gift of baptism.

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Day 3: Galilee, part 1

Cana

We didn’t stop in Cana this morning, because there isn’t much history to see there (besides a historic Roman Catholic Church on the traditional site of the famous Wedding). As we drove through, however, our tour guide gave us a brief lesson on 1st-century Jewish weddings.

After the couple gets engaged — which involved the groom talking with the bride’s parents, not necessarily with the bride’s knowledge — the groom gets busy building and making ready their house — which (usually) involved building on an addition to his family’s house, or “insula.” Whenever the groom’s work is finished, he sets off across town to collect his bride and bring her home. The bride has no way of knowing when this will happen, so she must wait expectantly, and be ready at all times. As the groom walks, a parade is formed behind him as family and friends and onlookers join the bridal procession to celebrate the union. By the time the groom reaches the bride, the whole village is involved in the festivities! A feast would follow, and it was just such a feast that Jesus was invited to, with some of his disciples, and it was later on during this feast that his mother asked him — told him? — to somehow produce more wine, so the feast and merriment would continue longer.

This helps us better understand the parable of the ten bridesmaids that Jesus tells. In the parable, 10 bridesmaids wait for the groom to come: five were wise and watchful, keeping extra oil ready for their lamps; the other five were foolish and fickle, and did not bring oil. The five who were ready were welcomed into the feast; the five who had to go out to buy more oil missed out.

~

Lord, help us keep watch. Let the oil of your Word and the flame of your Spirit illumine our eyes and stir our hearts to wait expectantly for your return. Amen.

Nazareth Village

This morning we were in Nazareth Village, a reproduction of 1st-century Nazareth on — as close as possible — the actual site of 1st-century Nazareth. It is striking to be standing where Jesus grew up, and I suppose this is what I expected more of this trip to feel like. It helps that this place has been made to look, feel, sound, and smell, like the Nazareth that Jesus (probably maybe) grew up in.

It has also been crafted with great detail, which gave great insights into several of the parables of Jesus. Perhaps the most illuminating for me was the olive press. We were brought to one of the larger buildings, where the freshly harvested olives would have been ground on a donkey-driven mill, and the pulp then scooped into woven baskets and stacked over a vat dug in the ground to collect. Once the pure oil was gravity pressed, the baskets were then taken to the mechanical press and placed under the weight of the long, heavy beam, to be collected again in the vat. The third press is extracted as weights are progressively added to the beam; this oil is riddled with impurities from the olive pulp, and is used mostly for burning in small clay oil lamps.

The connection was made for us that, just like olives are pressed three times, so also Jesus was “pressed” three times in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

~ Isaiah 53:5

Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat, the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!

~

This place, and the ministry that manages it, left quite an impression. What an amazing witness in this place!

Sepphoris

Sepphoris, the Greco-Roman capital of the region of Galilee, is only four miles from Nazareth, but for the differences found between these two places, they’re in different worlds. If you’re not familiar with this name, don’t be alarmed. This city is not featured in any New Testament story, which begs the question: “Why study this site?”. While it was not featured, and there is no textual proof that Jesus was here, this city was in Jesus’ backyard growing up. What is more, there is historic proof that new building projects were commissioned during Jesus’ lifetime suggests to scholars that Joseph, recorded to be a carpenter (which scholars read to more likely mean a mason or even a daylaborer, considering the regional abundance of stone and rarity of usable lumber), may have perhaps been involved in some of the construction of Sepphoris. From that extra-textual leap, we can even imagine young Jesus, Joseph’s son and apprentice, tagging along to learn and help with the expansive projects.

~

It is interesting to consider, and imagine, and wonder. I wonder if Jesus, who already had a profound understanding of God’s Law by this time, was asked to work on tile mosaics of bizarre myths of centaurs and amazons and Dionysus. I wonder if Jesus took a break from the work to see one of the Greek tragedies at the theater, and what he would have thought of such portrayals of gods as fickle and vindictive. I wonder if Joseph tried to shield Jesus from the Greek myths and Roman military culture, to preserve some sense of Jewish identity for the boy. I wonder.

Lord, you have revealed yourself to us through the eyes and words of your disciples, sent to go and tell the good news that the kingdom of God is near. Through the stories handed down to us, we know you in your sufferings, and in your triumphal resurrection. Whatever else happened while you were on earth is a question mark, but we pray to you and put our trust in you as our Lord and Savior. Thank you. Amen.

Mount of the Beatitudes

What a hot, dusty, sunny place to listen to a sermon. No shade, no soft grass, no cool sea breezes. In a sweaty instant, I have had to completely re-imagine this story. We were tasked to go with our families to read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, and hear it in the place it was spoken. It’s hard work to listen in the heat on the hard ground.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

~ The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12

A strange opening to a sermon. Strange to hear blessings on a barren hilltop. Strange to hear who is blessed in this upside-down kingdom: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Not who we usually consider blessed. But Jesus welcomes and invites and blesses precisely those people who would be sitting on this hill.

~

Lord, train my eyes to see the outcast, and my lips to bless them. Embrace me in your arms of love, that I may do the same to those whom society considers of no value, so that they may discover their ultimate worth in your kingdom. Amen.

Church of the Multiplication

This is the traditional site (pretty accurate, but no real proof) of a very familiar story:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

~ Matthew 14:13-21

Whether you believe that five loaves and two fish could — by the providential power of God — fed five thousand people, or that somehow this first offering was matched by everyone else’s picnic baskets, or whatever happened, is not the point. Our group did not fixate on the historicity of this story, but on its theological significance for God’s people. A small meal became a superabundant feast in Jesus’ hands, as he took and blessed and broke and gave. Every time we celebrate communion, the same thing happens. The bread and cup are taken, blessed, broken/poured, and given, and a small meal (snack, really) becomes a spiritual feast.

This connection was made for us at the church’s altar. Below the simple communion table, there is a tile mosaic of two fish, and a basket or plate with four loaves. We were asked, “Where is the fifth loaf?”. The fifth loaf is the bread for communion each Sunday, and the miracle is reenacted for the people of God.

Peter’s Primacy

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

This is the traditional site for the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach in John 21, where Peter is reinstated after denying Jesus three times. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”. Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to be reconciled and restored.

And [Peter] said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17b)

But to be in right relationship with Jesus means that Peter — and we, too — has work to do.

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

If we love Jesus, we love those he loves. This is not easy work. What Jesus says next is sometimes read during the ordinations of pastors as they are robed:

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)

If we love Jesus, and we love those he loved, then we will go to new and uncomfortable — even dangerous — places in his name. If this is daunting, and scary, the next words of Jesus should be a comfort.

After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:19)

We are never asked to go to these places without Jesus. Even in the so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am with you always.” By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, our Lord still leads us yet. May we have ears to hear his voice, and eyes to see him leading us on.

Capernaum

Our next stop, just down the road, is Peter’s hometown, Capernaum. We arrived moments before the site was closing, which was unfortunate, but we were able to walk around the preserved ruins of the synagogue, and see the foundations of the insula, the houses of families. There is a fascinating glass-floored church built over the foundations of an early church, that was built over the foundations of what is traditionally thought to be Peter’s house. Not much time here, and no really new information, but very exciting to see nonetheless. Capernaum is featured in several gospel stories. It was here that Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast out evil spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and healed and freed many others; it was here that the four men lowered their paralytic friend through the roof to be healed while Jesus was teaching; it was here that Jesus began his ministry!

Jordan River

Our last stop for the day was at the banks of the Jordan River. I did not take very attractive pictures here, sorry. The Jordan River is featured in both Old and New Testaments, but we stopped here to remember Jesus’ baptism.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

~ Matthew 3:13-17

Here at this place, the river where Jesus was baptized, we remembered our own baptisms into our Lord Jesus Christ, lowered into his death and raised into his life. Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy!

~

Phew! A big post for a big day. Enjoy!

http://johndierckx.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/thoughts-on-god-faith-and-transformation-the-voyage-of-the-dawn-treader-part-3/
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In preparation for preaching

“I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it — if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”

“You mean it spoke?”140225

“I don’t know. Now that you mention it, I don’t think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden — trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.

“I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells — like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.

“I was going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, of as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water, I knew it had been no good.

“Then the lion said —  but I don’t know if it spoke — ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ — I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff pull off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away…

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me–”

“Dressed you. With his paws?”

“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes — the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”

“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.

“Why not?”

“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been — well, un-dragoned, for another.”

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

“Aslan!” said Eustace.

~ from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis