Sermon from May 25:
Everyone who believes in God has a ladder theology. Christianity utilitzes various ladders that have been developed over the centuries. These emerged (either consciously or unconsciously) from a narrative in Genesis 28:
10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He [e]came to [f]a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it [g]under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood [h]above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your [i]descendants. 14 Your [j]descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will [k]spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your [l]descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have [m]promised you.” (emphasis mine)
The idea that we can climb up to heaven to see God in all His glory is very attractive. It has so enveloped some people that they actually gave up their “normal lives” to live in communes of one sort or another. This was so they could pursue direct, unencumbered communion with the Almighty. Adherents to this purpose developed what was called the “monk’s ladder” (From Guigo II, Scala Claustralium in Latin). It included four rungs: 1. reading Scripture, 2. Meditating on the Scripture to find the hidden meaning (seeing all scripture as analogy; an error), 3. Prayer as response, and 4. Quiet contemplative living.
Others have developed ladders based not in a personal encounter with the Almighty, but on the personal effort of satisfying God’s moral demands. Their ladder is a morality that was derived from Scripture and other sources, including socio-cultural norms. Scripture is useful for becoming more like God.
Finally, the last group has developed a ladder that satisfies the mind and fills in the gaps of understanding that Scripture presents. These people have developed a ladder based on speculation. Disatisfied with the tensions of Scripture, they attempt to resolve these tensions through logical reasoning. For the most part, they, like the other mentioned earlier are recipients of Platonic thought. Their error is that they don’t take God at His word, but need to justify God’s words. They climb the ladder of an intellectual form of Christianity that doesn’t need to wrestle with the self. Instead of facing the crucifixion, they narrowly avoid it by rationalism.
All of these have inherited the disease of the tower builders in Genesis 11. We all believe that we can reach God(hood) if we have the right method. Only one problem: it’s idolatry of the self.
Into Babel, God brought the judgment of dividing people based on language. Into our idolatry, he brings the curse of death. And , in fact, these ladders are a proof that we are dead. We need someone to descend into our burial hole to rescue us from the death we are in.
That person has already come. His name is Jesus, and He has come to crucify our idolatry and utterly demolish our ladders. In fact, He has come to replace these ladders with the original one promise from Genesis 28. A very small reference in John chapter 1 will make this clear. It is so brief that you have probably read over it:
51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” Jesus, alone, is the Ladder who has come out of heaven and brought heaven down to earth.
Some people live for the weekend. They want to forget about work, go to a bar, and let loose.
Others prefer to work for the weekend. They are more than happy to either get paid time-and-a-half or just work because they can climb up the corporate ladder. Work is more than a means to make a living, it is their identity.
This may explain why many people who retire die so soon after their retirement. Their identity is linked to what they are doing.
In fact, many retirees have “projects”. Working for charities or starting one create a purpose and meaning to their lives. They feel valuable.
But, inevitably, people get burned or burned-out. Despite their best efforts, they are let go when the company down-sizes, or they have put so many hours into their work that they begin to have physical and emotional issues.
They are forced to take “time off”.
Maybe you identify with these people. Maybe you find yourself on the other end of things, hating your job and wishing you could do something else. Maybe you have pursued your “calling” but find that it doesn’t pay the rent.
In any of these cases, a person’s self-esteem can be affected. Disillusionment is not just a five-syllable word, it’s the reality of everyday life. It’s felt more strongly in a culture where we see hip-hop stars making seven or eight figure salaries.
It’s as if the world is “not right”.
And, that’s right. The world is not right. It is rare to find people who are completely happy with every facet of their job. It is rare to find that healthy person who has balanced life and career. It is rare to find work that is fulfilling and financially secure (even if you’re very talented).
So, what are we to do if things are not going as expected? There has to be someone to blame.
We may be afraid to admit it, but that someone is God. If I have the degree, the experience and the personality, it must be some situational force preventing my success. It must be God.
So, people go one of two ways: 1. Get religion (get God on your side), or, 2. Become an atheist (get rid of the problem). It’s the natural outflow of the human heart.
And both of these are efforts at overcoming the reality that things are not right in the world. Work is unsatisfactory, so I am going to work at fixing it.
We’ve been trying to do this since the building of the tower of Babel.
Human effort and work will never succeed in fulfilling our deepest need for identity and fulfillment.
Consider Genesis 3:17-19:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
In [f]toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the [g]plants of the field;
19 By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”
Wow, what a buzz-kill! On the other hand, dissatisfaction with work has been a common theme throughout human existence. We share a human link with Adam.
So, if the world is not right, and we can’t get complete satisfaction from our work, how are we supposed to have value and an identity?
All of that is answered in the work of God through Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17 answers this way:
17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, [a]he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
The ultimate worker, the Son of God, was both the creator of all creation (see John chapter 1) and the re-creator. In Him alone, does our life have meaning. In Him alone will we find our identity. In Him alone will we find value and worth. Not because we worked so hard at “getting religion” but that He worked Himself to death … on a cross outside of Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago.
And, He’s still working for you and me. Bring your worries to Him. Bring your complaints about your job to Him. Bring your hopes and dreams to Him. Tell Him about your burn-out, your boredom, your lack of enthusiasm, your workaholism, your successes, your failures, and your frustrations. He’s not there to condemn you. He’s there to listen, hear, and take all of it before the heavenly Father who makes all things new … through Jesus Christ alone.
To the glory of God, Amen.
Gene Veith is an important and gifted writer. This comes from his book, “The Spirituality of the Cross”. I hope this helps you consider your vocation:
“It is possible–and common–to pursue occupations for which we have no aptitude and thus no vocation. I have had many students who choose their major in college on the basis of which job pays the most, regardless of the gifts God has given them. They try to turn themselves into accountants or managers or engineers, though they end up hating their studies and not being very good at what they are trying to do. Their true vocation might be music or art or construction work, but they are trying to be “practical”– as if vocation were self-chosen–and they deny their true God-given gifts to pursue talents they do not really have.”
-Gene Veith, “The Spirituality of the Cross”, 108
11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” 13Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
Can you remember your first job? Fast food restaurant, athletic club, or maybe a supermarket. The first day, they started to train you, and can you remember how that went?
It’s not unusual to feel inadequate for a job. Feelings of inadequacy are normal when you are doing something new. You might also feel overwhelmed and lost which cause you to question why you decided to take this job.
Moses stumbles across the burning bush in the midst of his job. He’s gotten herding sheep down to a science. He’s good at it. He feels confident yet is ever-aware of the dangers he might face. He is up to the challenge.
But a burning bush that isn’t consumed is completely strange. He doesn’t know what to make of it, so he approaches more closely.
Then God starts to speak. He tells Moses what he needs to do. He tells Moses to step out of his comfort zone boldly. Moses then asks the question, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Do you hear the fear in his voice? The trepidation? The worry? The feeling of inadequacy?
God doesn’t address him with modern psychology. Instead, God says to him, “I will be with you”.
The very thing God is telling Moses to do is a great and mighty work. It is an impossible work. It is a fool’s task, and Moses doesn’t want to look like a fool. He is afraid of the risk and returning to a powerful nation to demand something when he is powerless.
He might believe he will be thrown in jail for such a request.
It’s possible that Moses had a speech impediment. We know he had an anger problem. Like anyone else in this world, he had limitations and “issues”.
But God doesn’t refer to any of these. Instead, He declares who He is and that He will be with Moses. All of the success of this enterprise is based on God’s working.
And, wherever He sends, He goes. He does not abandon His children. Whatever He asks us to do, His promise is sure that He will be with us. He says to Moses, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt”, not, “if you bring my people out of Egypt”. God’s confidence is sure, because His promise is based on His Word.
And this Word is Christ, who is the saving God. He will lead us to the promised land of heaven. Why? Because we are without limitations and issues? No, but because this promise was secured at the cross. All of our excuses and fears are extinguished by this single phrase, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”.
In the end, Moses didn’t need to worry about who he was, because God made his name great. He made his name eternal.
Life in the middle
Have you ever seen the show, “In the middle”? It’s about a family who lives in the mid-west and they are middle-classed. The parents are middle-aged and they struggle through life. Their appliances are continually breaking down, their kids have quirks and issues and their furniture is run-down.
They accept their middle of the road lifestyle. Yeah, sometimes the mom has aspirations to live a more productive life, but eventually all her best efforts lead her to the same place she began.
In the New Testament, Acts stands out as an interesting book. It is a series of stories, like the Gospels, but it’s not a letter like the epistles. It’s smack-dab in between the Gospels and the epistles, too.
Our passage in Acts today tells us about a time in between two important events in the New Testament. The first is the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven which we celebrated this past Thursday. Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took Him out of sight. He ascended to His throne in Heaven.
The second important event, which we will celebrate next Sunday is Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. After this event, began the greatest missionary effort of the Christian church in history. This wasn’t a lukewarm experience for them.
But, the time between these two incredible events was a little … slow. The disciples went back to Jerusalem and waited at the place they were staying. They reunited at a central location.
We can get into a rut, too. The Sunday after Easter isn’t as well attended. The flowers don’t have quite the same glory as before, and everyone seems a little bit run-down. We gather to pray and hear God’s word, but it just isn’t the same thing.
It’s kind of like high school graduation. You reach the top of the platform to receive a diploma, but by the next week, you’re thinking about the next step in life. You’re beginning again.
Maybe you’ve just lost your job, or are newly retired. You’re thinking, “now what?” It’s that sense of being lost, in limbo, but not quite in purgatory. It’s the doldrums. At times like this, we “re-assess” and “consider our options”. We want a new life, a strong and stable identity. You might pray more, and read the Bible more in order to find “God’s will” in the situation.
In our passage, the disciples began to pray. They were praying together as one body including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and His brothers. And Jesus was there, too. Matthew records Jesus saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”(18:20).
This was the beginning of a community. And this community wasn’t so small. In fact, when Peter stood up to talk, there were 120 people present. He stood in the middle of them and spoke about Judas.
He was putting things into perspective. After Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter realized how the prophecies by King David in the Psalms were fulfilled by Judas.
And, who was better to realize this than Peter, who denied Jesus, and may have realized that He was this close (finger gesture) to being counted with Judas. If it wasn’t for the intervention of Jesus praying for Peter before the Father, we might have had a different story. Acts might have focused on John, or James, or Andrew instead.
But, Jesus did intervene. He knew Peter would fall. He knew he would deny Jesus. Despite this, Jesus steps into the gap and prays for Peter: Luke records in Chapter 22, verses 31-32:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Jesus gave him the promise that Peter would turn again, despite his falling.
Peter’s sin lead him to weep bitterly for his betrayal. It’s a sin that repeats over and over again. If you consider the Old Testament Israelites and how they so readily worshipped the golden calf Aaron made. God was so angry that He basically told Moses to step aside while he destroyed the entire nation. Thankfully, Moses intervened and Israel was spared.
At other times, God simply struck down those who would betray Him by following other gods. The sacrifice of animals was not enough to intercede on their behalf.
You and I, too, have a tendency to go astray. Maybe we fall into a form of worship of personalities, politicians or our own position in life. We get caught up in money, importance and security. But our God is a jealous God. He will not share His glory with anyone, including you or me. In fact, Jesus Christ has stepped into the middle of human history for one purpose; to kill us. Because, unless He drowns the Old Adam in the waters of baptism, He cannot resurrect us. If we remain hopeful in one work to make ourselves right before God, then we are making ourselves god. In a word, we commit idolatry.
We are made aware of this idolatry and other sins through the preaching of the Law. The law, though, is not the sum and total of Christian preaching. A preacher who only tells you about the Law and what you should be doing is leading you into the bondage of self-righteousness.
Jesus has come and fulfilled all righteousness for you. He has obeyed His Father perfectly for you. He was the “middle man” who defended you and I before the damning testimony of our sin. He has set you free from the rule of sin and death. And He has come to begin the final assault on our greatest enemy; our own sinfulness.
The beginning of this assault was at the waters of your baptism. It continues every time a brother or sister pray for you and with you. It continues as Christ is present in the communion for the feeding of your faith. It continues as you hear the word rightly preached. And, when we go astray, make no mistake about it, the good shepherd is willing to leave 99 other sheep to find you.
Jesus is the intervening God who died on a cross in the middle of two criminals to become our eternal intercessor. And, He didn’t stop there. Jesus Christ still stands before the Father, praying on our behalf as the great high priest. The lot has been cast in your favor in Christ. He never ceases, continually working for our salvation.
And He has given you a new identity; you are a son or daughter of the living God. We have been made the children of God through His blood. Because of this, we can pray with Jesus, saying “Our Father who art in heaven”, all in Jesus’ name.
To God be the glory now and forever,