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May 19 - What Happens When I Die?

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

John 5:24

 

Earlier this month, we began exploring questions you wanted answered.  One of the topics several people asked about involved death and heaven; summarized simply as “What happens when I die?”  This is an important question particularly considering the results of a recent study on mortality in the United States showed that the mortality rate is still 100%.  Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, all of us face the inevitable situation that our body ceases to function and we enter a state called death.  This is nothing new to the human condition or unique to any culture.  It is universal to all living things.  So, what does happen when we die?

Today’s Old Testament reading, written thousands of years ago, gives us some important insight into our understanding of this question.  That passage of wisdom lays out 14 coupled seasons of alternating human activities: “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.”  And point with question today, it began with these words, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die.”

Now if we stopped with reading just those verses of from the Bible, life would seems like a series of repetitive cycles of alternating extremes destine to simply end with our death.  But after this list of alternating extremes, the writer added these all-important words, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”  There are two very important points in these words.  First, with the presence of God in our life, even the alternating cycles and season can be made beautiful.  I know that can be hard to accept when we experience the difficult or sad parts of those cycles such as weeping and mourning, but absent God those circumstances would be unbearable.  Absent God our life would be governed by chance, randomness, and the will of the most violent and strongest among us.  Absent God, we would have no concept of peace and love which are beautiful.  The second point is this; God has set eternity in the human heart.  Our life is not temporary.  It goes on forever.

How then does our Old Testament Scripture help us answer the question, “What happens when I die?”  The Scripture let’s us know that even death can have beauty and that the end of our bodily function does not mean life has ended.  Life continues beyond the body.  Jesus made this point as well when he said that we should not fear the one who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  This means our life is comprised of a perishable physical body that gives form and residence to an impermissible soul.  So when our body dies, our soul, the essence of who we are, leaves the body and is our form for eternity.

How do we know such a thing for sure?  The New Testament recorded for us an interesting account of death and eternal life.  One day, a man named Jairus came to see Jesus.  Jairus explained that his young daughter was dying.  The man begged Jesus to come to his house and heal her.  Unfortunately, before Jesus could arrive to Jairus’ house a messenger came to say the girl was dead.  “Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed’” (Luke 8:50).  Jesus arrived with Jairus at his home and found the girl dead as the messenger had said.  “But he [Jesus] took her [the girl] by the hand and said, “My child, get up!”  Her [the girl’s] spirit [her soul] returned [to her body], and at once she stood up” (Luke 8;54, 55).  This scene confirms to us that we are made up of a body and a corresponding soul.  There is a unique relationship between the body and the soul.  When that girl’s body died, her soul left her body.  When Jesus healed the girl’s body, the same soul returned to the same body.  There are many eastern religions, such as Hinduism, that believe in the transmigration of the soul from one body to another.  In that view, the soul leaves the body upon death and searches for a new body to inhabit.  The moral conduct of that life, karma, determines the quality of the new body that recently released soul.  The better the behavior in one’s life, the better the body in the next life.  Christians do not believe in karma and the movement of the soul from one body to another when we die.  We believe in a unique relationship between of one body and one soul.  And that when we die, our soul leaves our body but will not seek out a new body.

Where then does our soul go when we die?  Jesus illustrated the movement of the soul using a parable, a story.  Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:19-23).  Jesus story informs us that upon our death, our soul moves from the body to one of two destinations.  One is to the place of angels and comfort.  The other is to a place of distress and discomfort.  There is no alternative place.  Roman Catholic tradition holds that there is an alternative place.  It is called purgatory.  In purgatory, the soul of those who die in the grace of God are purified.  This purification period is not specified and depends upon the number of venal sins one committed and the punishment that must be experienced for the sins already forgiven.  Jesus was clear.  There is no third place for the soul to go when the body dies.  The destination is either the place of discomfort called Hades or a place of comfort.

            What is that place of comfort called?  Jesus had something to say about that as well.  As Jesus was dying on the cross, Jesus heard a voice from the man next to him.  It was a thief who also hung on a cross.  The thief testified to the onlookers that Jesus was an innocent man.  “Then he [the thief} said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Jesus answered him [the thief], ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42, 43).  The place of comfort where Jesus will be found is called paradise.  Later in the New Testament paradise is called the place of God (Rev. 2:7).  Elsewhere, in numerous places of the Bible, the place of God is called heaven.  So the place of comfort is called paradise or heaven.  What happens when we die?  Our unique soul separates from our unique body and moves either to the place of comfort called heaven or the place of discomfort called Hades.

            The existence of two places raises the natural question.  Can a soul later move from one place to another?  Can our soul move between heaven and Hades or Hades and heaven?  Jesus had something to say about that as well.  In that story of Lazarus and the rich man, we will recall that angels carried Lazarus to heaven and the rich man went to Hades.  From his position in Hades, the rich man could see Lazarus seated comfortably with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people.  Jesus said, “So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”  “But Abraham replied, ‘Between us [heaven] and you [Hades] a great chasm [think Grand Canyon] has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here [heaven] to you [in Hades] cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there [Hades] to us [in heaven].’” (Luke 16:24, 26)  Jesus was clear.  When we die, our body goes to the ground and our soul goes to either heaven or to Hades.  There is no third place.  Once in heaven or Hades, there is no movement from heaven to Hades or from Hades to heaven.  We cannot visit from one place to the other.

            Now, I am going out on the limb here and assume that given the choice between Hades and heaven, everyone would prefer heaven.  The Apostle Paul thought that was the case and he wrote:

We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed (we will die).  But when that happens (when we die), God will have a home for us to live in. It will not be the kind of home people build here. It will be a home in heaven that will continue forever. But now we are tired of this body. We want God to give us our heavenly home. It will clothe us and we will not be naked. While we live in this [earthly] tent, we have burdens and so we complain. I don’t mean that we want to remove this tent, but we want to be clothed with our heavenly home.  [Paul was saying, “Everyone wants to get to heaven, it is just no one wants to die to get there.”] Then [in heaven] this body that dies will be covered with life. [God will make all things beautiful.]  This is what God himself made us for. And he has given us the Spirit as the first payment to guarantee the life to come.  So we always have confidence. We know that while we live in this body, we are away from the Lord. We live by what we believe will happen, not by what we can see. So I say that we have confidence. And we really want to be away [absent] from this body and be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-8 ERV). 

What happens when we die?  Our body is buried.  Our spirit is absent the body and now present with the Lord in heaven.  Now is that the end of the story?  No.  Not quite.

            In many places in the Bible, it speak of a later resurrection of the body.  That means the soul is re-embodied.  Not in another body but in the same body in which it once resided.  The body that died will be transformed back into life.  But what is the purpose of that eventuality.  The Book of Revelation said it is for this purpose.  “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:1-4).  What happens when we die?  Our bodies are buried and are souls go either to heaven or Hades.  If we are in heaven, we are present with the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is a beautiful sight.  Then, at a time of God’s choosing, those in his grace are restored into body and soul, only this time the body is imperishable.  That resurrected body will become part of the new kingdom of God where God will live among the people.  The people will be his people and he will make it all beautiful for their will be no tears, no death, no mourning, no crying, or pain.

            That just leaves two questions.  How can I be sure this is true?  How can I be sure my soul will go to heaven?  We know this is true because Jesus told us.  To prove the truth of his words, Jesus was raised from the dead.  We can be sure this blessing is for us if we follow the words from today’s New Testament reading.  Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).  What happens when we die is not a matter of chance or karma.  It is by choice.  A choice that Jesus made to die for us to make our life now abundant and beautiful and to make heaven our eternal destiny.  What happens when we die is a choice.  It is our choice to believe in Jesus and accept his grace for this abundant life now and eternal life with God.  No one else can make that choice for us.  So I will close with this question.  Do you know what will happen to you when you die?  Let us pray.

May 12 - Can I Doubt?

1 Kings 19:1-18                                                                             

        A few months ago, we began collecting questions about the Bible and Christian life that you wanted answered.  Last week, we talked about a question raised regarding the meaning behind an odd Bible passage involving Jesus and the Cursed Fig Tree.  This week, we are going to explore questions raised about the Christian life, namely, “Can I, at times, have doubt?  What can I do when my mind is troubled with questions about God or His plans?”

            These are good questions and I would like to begin today by answering as simply as possible the question, “Can I as a Christian have doubts?”  The simple answer is, “Yes.”  Doubt is a natural consequence of believing.  So, doubt is not a problem for Christians because to be a Christian means you have some significant beliefs.  The New Testament letter, Jude, acknowledges that at times we will have doubts and tells everyone in the Christian community to, “Be merciful to those who doubt.”  We should not misjudge others who have questions that we do not have.  As Christians, it is alright to experience doubts, but we cannot be lazy or unreasonable about our doubts.  If we have a doubt, we cannot be lazy and say, “Oh, well, I am a Christian, but I doubt that such and such is true,” and just leave it like that.  Instead, we need to actively work to resolve our doubts through study and prayer.  The author, C. S. Lewis, had doubts about Christianity.  He wrote books to work his mind through those doubts.  The great preacher, Billy Graham, had doubts about Christianity.  He prayed his way through those doubts.  We cannot be lazy and live with our doubts nor can we be unreasonable about our doubts.  We cannot, for example, say, “I will only believe that Jesus died for my sins, if God writes me a personal letter and delivers it in the mail by tomorrow morning.”  That is an unreasonable way of resolving a doubt. 

We must not be lazy or unreasonable with our doubts because if we are, then our doubts will deplete our faith and cause us suffer.  In the Bible, there is a beautiful visual illustration of suffering because of doubt.  Jesus was walking on the water alongside the disciples who were in a boat.  The disciples thought Jesus was a ghost.  Peter called out to the figure, “If it is you Lord, call me to come to you.”  Peter was working through his doubts.  Jesus said to Peter, “Come to me.”  Peter climbed out of the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus.  Peter was making progress on his doubts through faith.  Then Peter shifted his attention from Jesus to the rough waves and strong winds of the sea around him and Peter began to sink under the water.  Panicked, he called out to Jesus to save him.  Jesus did and encouraged Peter saying, “You who expressed just a little faith, why did you then doubt.”  When we stop working to resolve our doubts, we sink.  A recent survey of American’s who consider themselves Christians found that nearly 2/3 have faced or are facing doubts about their faith.  That, of itself, is neither surprising nor necessarily bad news.  But here is the bad news.  People are not always working on those doubts.  Of those experiencing doubt, 45% stopped attending church, 30% stopped reading the Bible, 30% stopped praying, and 25% stopped talking about faith issues.  The numbers add to more than 100% because some people stopped doing all those things.  The bad or sad news is these folks are not working on their doubts and are sinking under the waves and winds of life because of those doubts.  The good news is the survey found those who worked through their doubts felt their faith was much stronger as a result.

            Our Scripture reading today talks about a man who had doubts.  His story gives us insight into how we can resolve our doubts.  The man’s name was Elijah.  Part of his life story is found in our Bibles in 1 Kings, Chapter 19.  We pick up Elijah’s story just after he had a mountain top experience with God.  Elijah had challenged 450 priests of the pagan religion Baal to a contest.  The priests and Elijah would each ask their God to consume with fire an animal offering set upon a stack of wood.  The priests prayed and danced to Baal to burn up the sacrifice but there was no response.  Elijah then soaked the wood in water and prayed to God.  Instantly, God consumed the waterlogged sacrifice with fire.

            As we come into Chapter 19, we find that the queen of the land, who worshiped Baal, was furious with Elijah and sent a message to him that she would kill him.  Despite Elijah’s victory over the priests of Baal, Elijah panicked at the queen’s words.  Elijah doubted God and God’s ability to see him through this crisis.  Elijah became afraid and ran for his life.  Elijah’s had shifted his focus from the work of God, the closeness of God, to the “waves and winds” caused by the queen.  Fear replaced faith and a consuming doubt came over Elijah.

         Elijah fled into the wilderness.  He became exhausted by his journey of doubt.  Then Elijah went to God in prayer and said, “God, take my life.”  Elijah wanted to end his own life to escape his doubts.  Elijah was not working on his doubts and now wanted God’s help to end those doubts in an unreasonable manner.  Some years ago, while I was a deacon at a Clifton Park church, a few of the deacons were ministering to a man experiencing some medical issues and undergoing a divorce.  One day, we could not contact him.  We obtained a key to his house and went in.  The house was chaotic except in the bathroom the shower curtain was neatly drawn enclosing the bathtub.  I slid the curtain back and found our friend, our fellow church member, dead in the tub.  His fear and pain had driven him from God, and he saw no way back except to take his own life.  Elijah saw no way back, no way to escape doubt, except death.

        Fortunately, the Bible shows us that God answers prayer, not as we might want, but always in accordance with His will.  Instead, of taking Elijah’s life as had been prayed, God ministered to Elijah through a messenger of his own.  In verse 5, we see the messenger touched Elijah and told him, “Get up and eat.”  In verse 7, the messenger again touched Elijah and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  God understood that doubt exhausted Elijah and Elijah needed to be built up.  This part story is a wonderful illustration of the power of our congregation.  When people are in need and pray to God, “Help me,” that prayer may be answered through the ministry of this congregation.  Each of you is a messenger of hope from God to someone else who is experiencing doubt or a struggle with life.  Suffering, from whatever source, can cause people to question God’s presence and his care.  “But if they can feel his love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence.  They can know that he hasn’t abandoned them. In you they see God.”[1]  We need to be attuned to being used as God’s messenger of hope through our presence to those who are suffering. 

        After being revived by God’s messenger, Elijah traveled to Mount Horeb, the place of God.  In the cave on Mountain Horeb, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  We are not sure how the word of the Lord came to Elijah, what form it took, but it was a piercing question from God.  “What are you doing here?”  When God asks a question, it is not for information because He is all knowing.  It is a question seeking a conviction of the heart and a question to cause us to work through our doubts.  Elijah responded.  “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”  Elijah doubted God was still in charge and thought everything depended upon his own strength.  Elijah was in a valley of doubt.  But here is the important part.  Elijah was talking to God.  He was working through the question God asked and now he was not let his doubts keep him from abandoning all belief in God.  This is such a contrast to the results of the survey I shared with you about American’s who doubt where it showed so many are not working through their doubts.  Elijah wanted not to doubt.  God said to Elijah in verse 11, “‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart.  After the wind, there was an earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake or fire.  But after these movements of nature, there came a gentle whisper. “13 When Elijah heard it [that whisper], he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”  God wanted to talk to Elijah.  The kinds of signs and wonders of nature described here are the likes of which Hollywood filmmakers would want to put in our minds as to how God approaches us.  Yet, God was not there in any of those manifestations.  Instead, God spoke in a whisper.  God said again to Elijah again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  God wanted Elijah to keep working on expressing his doubts.  God’s question was to bring Elijah to focus again on his relationship with God and the evidence of God in his life.  God was asking Elijah, “Do you not remember you are my prophet to be among my people?  You speak my words, not your own.  Do you not remember I gave that life purpose?”  God then told Elijah “Go back the way you came.  Anoint Hazael king over Aram.  Anoint Jehu king over Israel.  Anoint Elisha to succeed you as prophet.”  In short, God told Elijah that God was still in charge, still involved, and that Elijah needed to get on with the work to which God had called Elijah to do.  God affirmed that even though Elijah had doubted him, God had not doubt Elijah.  Even though Elijah became unsure of God, God remained sure of his plan for Elijah.  God was getting Elijah back on God’s agenda.  Doubts get us off God’s agenda and onto our own agenda.  When we allow our doubts to separate us from God, life has no purpose or meaning, we suffer and begin to sink under “waves and winds” of life.

            Elijah’s story of doubt shows us that doubt can come into our life and cause us to panic and question the very nature of God.  The key though is to take our doubts back to God whom we question.  We should not quit.

This was the pattern Elijah set for others to follow, including some great figures in the Bible who had doubts.  Consider John the Baptist.  John was a powerful preacher who told of Jesus’ coming.  John baptized Jesus and as Jesus arose from the River Jordan, John heard God’s voice say, “This is My Son in whom I love.”  John called Jesus “The Lamb of God.”  But then John was arrested and imprisoned.  From prison, John sent a couple of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question, “Are you the one or should be expect someone else?”  John’s difficult circumstances led him to doubt.  Jesus’ response to John’s friends was this, ““Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”  Jesus wanted to encourage John to remove the doubts in his mind by accepting the evidence of God’s work through Jesus.  We can do likewise.

Jesus, just before his arrest which he knew would lead to his crucifixion, went into the garden of Gethsemane and he prayed to God.  He prayed so hard he sweat drops of blood.  His prayer was, “Father, if there is a way, take this cup from me but if there is not a way, let your will be done.”  Did Jesus look forward to the suffering he was going to experience?  No.  Did he wonder if there was another way?  Yes.  But following God’s plan was essential to Jesus.  When Jesus finished praying, he knew there was no other way.  When Jesus finished talking to God, he did not quit the purpose God had for him and run.  Instead, Jesus walked toward those who had come to arrest him.  Praying through our doubts can work.

I will finish up with just one more illustration.  Jesus once encountered a man whose son was made sick by a unclean spirit.  This father’s son lay at Jesus’ feet convulsing and foaming at the mouth.  “So He [Jesus] asked his [the boy’s] father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’  And he [the boy’s father] said, ‘From childhood.  And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” 

The man had turned to Jesus, God in the flesh, with a wonderful prayer.  “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  In our belief, we may, at times, doubt.  This is not in itself a fatal condition to our Christian walk.  What we must not do, however, is to be lazy or unreasonable about our doubts.  Instead, we must actively work through our doubts by seeking counsel, study, and prayer.  This is the model set forth by the likes of Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and a nameless man who wanted healing for his son.  This is the model for us as well to live out our lives as Christians.  Let’s pray


[1] Haugk, Kenneth, Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart, (Stephen Ministries; St. Louis. MO; 2004), 30.

Jesus and the Cursed Fig

Joel 2:21-24

Mark 11:12-25         

A few months ago, we included in the bulletin a sheet of paper encouraging you to provide a question or topic you would like to explore in a sermon.  The idea behind the request was for us to explore things we wonder about, beliefs we have doubts about, or passages from the Bible that do not make sense to us.  Questions, doubts, and puzzling passages are important because their existence suggest we want to know God more, that we want to know Jesus more, that we want to appropriate a greater portion of the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can walk through life more faithfully.  In response to the request, we received a handful of replies.  Today, I would like to explore a question received concerning an odd account of Jesus and him cursing a fig tree.  So, it is a good question to ask, “What does a fig tree have to do with God, His love, and my response to God’s love?”  It turns out this strange little passage, “Jesus and the Cursed Fig Tree,” had a lot to say to the original Gospel readers and has a lot to say to us.  This passage does so because it has a great deal to say about Jesus; God’s personal expression of love for us, a Savior sent by God.

I would invite you to turn to this odd passage in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11, beginning at verse 12.  This story covers the days after Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem with a great deal of fanfare; a day we now call and celebrate as Palm Sunday.  Based on that timeline, we would be looking at what happened on the Monday and Tuesday that followed Palm Sunday.  We enter this passage knowing that the time for Jesus’ public ministry was coming to end.  God’s plan to bring us to Him through Jesus was unfolding at quickening pace and today’s passage moves fast and speaks of things to come.

There is some mystery with this passage which contributes to it being a bit odd.  Some of that mystery comes from symbolism that we may not recognize and some of it comes from the structure of the writing.  The first part of the mystery of this story involves the symbolism of a fig tree.  Mark’s original readers would have understood, without the need for an explanation, that a fruitful fig tree was a symbol of God’s blessing and prosperity for the Jewish nation.  We heard echoes of that sense of blessing in our Old Testament reading from the Joel, “The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.  23 Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God.”  The people of Zion were the Jewish people and so a fruitful fig tree was a symbol of a blessing.  Mark’s readers knew that, we might not see it.   If you were looking for a relatable example, I could sing, “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain,” and you would likely know without explanation that I was talking about symbols of blessing and prosperity for America.  Someone visiting from Israel would likely have no idea of that symbolism unless we shared that knowledge with them.  So a fig tree, rich in fruit, symbolized a blessed relationship between God and the Jewish nation. 

Now another part of the mystery of this story involves the way our Gospel writer, Mark, chose to relate it to us.  Mark presented the story in a sandwich form.  As we go through the story, Mark recounted Jesus cursing a fig tree; that part of the passage is the bottom slice of bread for the sandwich.  Then Mark told the story of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple.  That is the filling for the sandwich.  Finally, Mark shared the results of Jesus’ curse of the fig tree; completing the sandwich with the top slice of bread.  This “literary sandwich” technique is a classic method of ancient writers to draw attention to the center or filling of the sandwich.  For us then, Mark wanted the cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple, the filling, to be seen in the light of the cursing of the fig tree, the slices of bread.  The stories of the fig tree and cleansing the temple seem like wildly different subjects, but are, in fact, related.

With that little bit of background, let’s turn now to Mark’s account of that Monday at verse 12.  Mark wrote, “The next day as they [Jesus and his disciples] were leaving Bethany [a town about two miles from Jerusalem], Jesus was hungry.”  There is nothing too complex about the opening.  Jesus and his apostles were beginning there way to Jerusalem.  Jesus was hungry; just like you or I might be as we begin our day.  “13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he [Jesus] went to find out if it had any fruit.”  I did not know too much about fig trees, but I learned that fig trees are different from other fruit trees such as apple, pear, or peach with which we may be familiar.  Figs, large enough to eat, grow on the tree before leaves appear on the tree.  Therefore, seeing a fig tree with leaves suggested the tree should be laden with fruit.

Mark continued.  “When he [Jesus] reached it [the fig tree], he found nothing but leaves [on the tree], because [alternately – even though] it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he [Jesus] said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his [Jesus’] disciples heard him say it.”  Jesus was hungry.  He sought satisfaction from a fig tree but found none.  The strength of the tree was all in its appearance with lush and full leaves but no fruit.  The purpose of a fruit tree is not to appear healthy at a distance by producing lots of leaves.  The purpose of a fruit tree is to produce fruit to satisfy the hunger of the owner.  So, Jesus saw there was a problem.  The tree was not productive for the purpose its creator intended.  The life of the tree was solely in looking good at a distance.  Jesus, Son of God, through whom all things were made, spoke the words to end a tree of his creation; a tree that only left people hungry and wanting.  For Mark this is the bottom slice of bread for our literary sandwich.

Mark continued the story forward with the filling for this literary sandwich.  “15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts.”  The Temple was heart of the Jewish nations worship of God.  It was to the Jewish people the most holy and sacred place.  And to those responsible for caring for the temple, only holy and sacred activities occurred in that place.  Mark continued though that when Jesus entered this temple, he “began driving out those who were buying and selling [things] there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”  Jesus caused quite a stir and stopped the activities of the Temple. “And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’’ 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law [those responsible for the Temple] heard this and began looking for a way to kill him [Jesus].” 

The Temple leaders were outraged.  “Who in the world does this Jesus think he is declaring what we are doing in the Temple is something other than holy and sacred?  How dare he say that the purpose for which the temple was built was no longer being fulfilled.”  Jesus, Son of God, through whom all things were created was dramatically revealing that the temple built for people hungry for prayer and reverence before God no longer served its purpose.  We can now sense the parallels to the fig tree story.  So, Jesus stopped all movement within the Temple.  Jesus did this because the blessing of the Temple to the people, the purpose for its existence, had been corrupted.  Oh, from a distance the Temple looked like a magnificent place of worship, but up close it was not bearing any fruit.  Jesus, Son of God, prophet powerful in word and deed, was saying again to all, “Repent!  Turn from your own self-gratifying purposes and turn to God.  Do this in the present so that you are assured a future.”  Prophets were and are never well liked in their lifetime because people rarely welcome being told they must repent and change their ways.  The Temple leaders hated Jesus’ prophetic message so much that they wanted to kill him, but Mark explained, “they [the leaders] feared him [Jesus], because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.”  In his teaches Jesus said of himself, “Something greater than the Temple is here” (Mt. 12:6).  The people recognized that truth in Jesus and that terrified the Temple leaders.  “19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city [Jerusalem and the Temple].” 

Mark had applied the filling atop the bottom slice of bread in our sandwich.  Now came time for the top slice of bread.  Mark continued with verse 20, “20 In the morning [what we would think of as Tuesday], as they [Jesus and his disciples] went along, they saw the fig tree [from the day earlier] withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered [what happened the day before] and said to Jesus, “‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!’”

Jesus’ prophetic judgment against the fruitless tree, a fig tree, the symbol of a blessed relationship between God and the nation of Israel, had taken hold.  The withering of the tree was whole and complete.  Peter observed the tree withered within a day from the roots up to the leaves. John the Baptist, a prophet, who proclaimed Jesus’ coming, had warned, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down.”  The withering of the fig tree and the Temple cleansing symbolized that the things of the past, God’s blessing only to the nation of Israel and the practices of the Temple, were completed.  And with that Mark placed the top slice of bread on the sandwich and left for Jesus to explain the significance of all this to us. 

Jesus explained to his disciples the significance of the withered fig tree and the cleansing of the temple this way.  Jesus said, “Have faith in God.”  Just four words to explain the essence of the message of hope of the Gospel and the significance of this story, “Have faith in God.”  Jesus was pointing out the obvious.  The root of our life must be faith in God.  The root of our life must not be in temples of stone or the belief in prosperity signs.  “Have faith in God.”  Why should we have faith in God?  Because Jesus, something greater than the Temple was among the people, God in the flesh, and He would reveal God’s blessing to all people.  Jesus would show the extent of God’s love to fuel our faith in Him by completing the work to save us from sin.  How?  Jesus would go to the cross and die for our sins, all our sins.  Jesus causing the fig tree to fruitless fig tree and cleansing of the fruitless temple symbolized showed the God was reaching out to all people that they would worship him through Jesus.

Just before Jesus was arrested and sent to the cross to die, He affirmed this message to his disciples.  Jesus said, “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”  “Have faith in God; not in fruitless trees.  Have faith in God; not in Temples of stone.  Have faith in God; not in repetitive sacrifices.”  For Jesus had reminded all who would listen God’s desires, “I desire mercy not sacrifice and the acknowledgement of God and not burnt offerings.”  The withered tree and the cleansed Temple meant the old had passed away and that our faith must be in a personal relationship with God, not in nationhood and sacrifices.

And if we have faith in God, then Jesus explained the outworking of that faith, the fruit of that faith, would a community of prayer and forgiveness.  He said to his disciples, “24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  Something greater than the temple is here.  It is Jesus.  He is the exact image of God who offers us forgiveness.  Only God can forgive our sins against him and he offers that forgiveness to all who would love and follow Jesus.  Our fruitfulness will be found if we are grounded in Jesus.  Our forgiveness and capacity to forgive other will be found in Jesus.

“Jesus and the Cursed Fig Tree,” is a powerful story of God’s plan for you and me.  It is a story that seeks us to change in the present to have a future.  It is a story that rituals and traditions cannot replace faith and trust that God sent Jesus, his Son, to die for our sins and lead us into a fruitful life.  It is a story of powerful symbols.  And today we can celebrate the redeeming story of Jesus through the powerful symbols of the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper.  In a few minutes, we will take the bread and drink from the cup; powerful symbols of Jesus’ body and blood given for us.  Powerful symbols that with Jesus our natural hunger and thirst for God will be satisfied.  They are powerful symbols of how much God loves you.  Let us pray as we come to the table set out for us by the Jesus and let us have faith in God.

Apr 14 - Does It Matter

Luke 19:28-48          

Today is on our church calendar as Palm Sunday.  It is the Sunday that signals the beginning of what many refer to as Holy Week that culminates on Easter Sunday.  For many other people, Palm Sunday begins a countdown clock for getting photos with the Easter Bunny, making final purchases of candy, marshmallow peeps, and jelly beans, and purchasing new clothes for Easter.  In fact, retailers expect that each American consumer will spend an astounding $150 on Easter.  That is $18 Billion.  That amount of money is more than the annual economy for 78 countries of the 192 countries in the world.  For school children, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday usually signals the blessing of a vacation and a sign that the end of the school year will soon be here.  Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday are a big deal to the way we spend our money and our time.  But does Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday really matter to us?  And by really matter, I mean, does what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago on what we call Palm Sunday make a difference in our life, in the way we live, in the way we raise our children and grandchildren?  Are you refreshed by Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, or depleted by it, or just indifferent to it all?  How we answer those questions determines whether Palm Sunday matters to you? 

I know Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday do not really mean anything of substance to a great many people.  They are indifferent.  Now, that is something new.  People were not indifferent on the first occasion when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Jesus was not indifferent.  He was very emotional that day.  Jesus, the exact image of God, was excited, sad, tearful, and angry.  The people who surrounded Jesus were excited or angry.  No one was indifferent.  That original day mattered to everyone.  Does it matter to you and me?  I think we should see what happened that day and why it should matter greatly to everyone here.

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 19, starting at verse 28.  The scene of this story is probably familiar to most of us.  Jesus and his disciples had been staying just outside of Jerusalem in the villages of Bethphage and Bethany.  Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem and instead of walking into the city, today, Jesus wanted to enter upon a young donkey, referred to by Luke as a colt.  Jesus charged two of his disciples to find the colt and bring it to him.  In verse 35, we read, “35They [Jesus’ disciples] brought it [the colt] to Jesus, [the disciples] threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.”  A cloak is an outer garment, typically a long sleeveless coat.  They had prepared Jesus to enter the city as the prophet Zechariah said he would when 400 years earlier Zechariah wrote, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).

Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem and the people responded.  Luke wrote, “36 As he [Jesus] went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.  When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”  The people around Jesus were not indifferent to him.  They were singing and shouting about him.  They threw their cloaks on the ground so Jesus upon the donkey could walk on them.  I guess if we focused on Luke’s account instead of other writers who talked about palms being waved, we might call this "Cloak Sunday” instead of “Palm Sunday.”  Regardless, this crowd was whipped up and excited.  They wanted to bring attention to Jesus and they wanted to be able to say, “I was there the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey!” 

Now not everyone shared the crowd’s excitement.  They were not indifferent to Jesus either.  They held some strong passions.  Luke identified this group in verse 39, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’”  Put most simply, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to make everyone shut up.  The Pharisees thought the crowd a threat to them and thought the Romans might see the crowd as an unruly mob.  People have wanted others to stop talking about Jesus since Jesus walked this earth.  You see it all the time in our society.  We can talk all we want about Jesus inside this building, but society now says, “Please don’t speak about him in the public square.”  But Jesus had a surprise for the Pharisees and it is a lesson we should hear.  Jesus said, “40I tell you, if they [the people] keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  God will not be silenced.  God will be heard and praised either by humanity made in his own image or by nature itself.  The Pharisees were not indifferent to Jesus and the power he had over people and events.  They desperately wanted Jesus to stop people from singing and shouting about him.

            Luke then records an important reaction to this whole noisy scene.  It is a reaction of just one person.  In verse 41, Luke wrote, “As he [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he [Jesus] wept over it.”  Jesus was not indifferent to this scene.  The scene brought Jesus to tears.  The word weeping does not mean, “Jesus’ eyes got moist.”  The Greek word Luke used meant Jesus had tears flowing down this face.  Jesus was in agony amid all the celebration.

What would cause Jesus to cry?  Jesus looking at the city of the Jerusalem said to those listening, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.  The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.  They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”  Jesus knew the people of the city would reject him.  Jesus knew that those who reject Jesus will be like the city of Jerusalem.  They will not have peace.  Those who reject Jesus will have nothing solid in their lives.  Those who reject Jesus will lead their children to reject Jesus.  It is sad when someone rejects God.  The city would reject Jesus and the but a few years later the Romans would later dismantle the city, kill its inhabitants, and throw down ever stone of the Temple complex.  Only the Western Wall or Wailing Wall is the only part of the temple that remains in place today.  The city was not indifferent to Jesus, they would reject him, and Jesus wept.

Luke’s account of Jesus entry to Jerusalem carried one more passion filled element.  Verse 45, “When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling.  ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’’  Every day he [Jesus] was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.  Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.”  Jesus was not indifferent to the conditions of the temple that day so many years ago.  He drove out those elements that corrupted the purpose for which the temple was built.  This upset many people.  They were angry, not indifferent, and wanted Jesus dead.  Others wanted Jesus to live and take the next step.  While this group waited on Jesus, they listened to his words, absorbing them with great delight.  Everyone had powerful and passionate beliefs about Jesus, whether they rejected Jesus or hung on his every word.

What then does this passage mean to us today?  Should this passage matter to us today?  Are we passionate about today or have we introduced a new emotion to the scene by being indifferent?  I think we can see a few things from this passage.

First, Jesus comes into our lives and we must respond.  Those who are excited by the message of Jesus sing and shout about his presence and hang on his every word.  They may not fully understand everything he said or his purposes, but they hang in there and don’t run away.  People who follow Jesus sing with joy.  People who follow Jesus talk about him, and at times, shout about him in the public square.  They are not intimidated or pressured to be quiet.  They want to bring attention to the message of Jesus.  This is the wonderful experience of a rich life of faith in Jesus.  However, in our day, some follow Jesus but at a distance and without passion.  They are folks within the Christian community live like the world and so they behave as practical atheists.  They are informed of Christ, they may attend church, they know Jesus’ words but there are no real changes in their lives from knowing him.  They are practical atheists.  These folks are indifferent to Jesus.  He does not penetrate their life and change the way they think, speak, or act.  We need to ask ourselves as individuals and as a church, have we become indifferent to Jesus and living the life of a practical atheist?  If Christianity became a crime, would there be any evidence to convict me?

Second, our passage reminds us that some will reject Jesus and seek him to be silenced.  We should not be surprised when we see it or experience.  Here is the good news.  God will raise up people to sing and shout or he will command nature itself to do so.

Third, even when people reject Jesus, he still is passionately desiring them.  He wept over the city of Jerusalem and I think he weeps today for those who do not come to him.  Too often we think of Jesus as a man standing on the gangplank of a ship about to leave port.  We see him checking the credentials of those seeking entry and he seeing if there is some way to keep them from boarding the ship.  I believe the contrary is true.  Jesus is on the gangplank of that departing ship reaching out trying to grab hold of anyone he can reach and get them on board the ship before it sails.  The picture in my mind is Jesus reach out grabbing one by the arm, the other by a leg, and a third by the hair to get them on board.  Jesus does not anyone to perish and he weeps when he see some people walking away.

Finally, knowing these truths about God’s passions and his desires, does this day matter to you?  Do you experience this day as a day of celebration of joy, shouting, and singing about how much God means to you and that he sent Jesus into Jerusalem to set things right for you?  Do you hang on Jesus’ every word wondering how do I bring these words into my life?  Do you see Jesus as the savior desiring no one perish? If this is who you are, celebrate your life in Christ!  You are a new creation!

Perhaps you have rejected him and yet you are here.  To say, “I am not sure who Jesus is to me” is to reject him.  If this is you, I am glad you are here, and I would hope you and I could have a conversation.  You need to make a decision about Jesus, and it will effect you, your life now and forever.  We should talk.

Finally, perhaps you are a practical atheist.  You are not in the Biblical story we read because people then were not indifferent to Jesus.  A practical atheist stands at the bottom of that gangplank ducking each attempt by Jesus to get them on board.  If this is you, then you need to decide that Jesus should matter to you.  It is time to change and grab hold of Jesus arm as he reaches for you.  Let him change your life in wonderful ways.

Jesus’ entry to our lives, like his entry to Jerusalem, matters.  It mattered to him so much that he died to get us on board the ship.  Does it matter to you?  Let us pray.

 

Apr 7 - Why Suffering

Matthew 26:57-67

Matthew 27:27-31

Our conversation today is a difficult one.  It deals with suffering.  Webster’s Dictionary says suffering is, “The state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.”  When we hear suffering described that way, suffering sounds rather clinical, sterile, and lacking in depth.  Suffering, true suffering is real.  It is raw.  It is physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional.

The question, “Why is there suffering?” is common to every human culture and has persisted for centuries.  Because we bring interpret everything that happens to us in order to give it meaning, we interpret suffering to bring meaning to it as well.  Today, we will think theologically about suffering, applying an interpretation to it, and how suffering effects our life, our relationship with God, and our relationships with others.  Often, in suffering, we wonder, “God, what did I do or what did I not do to cause You to bring this suffering upon me?”  This is a very common thought among the people I counsel who are experiencing the loss of a loved one.  They are suffering and want to know how God allowed this death to happen or why didn’t God keep this death from happening.  When we interpret suffering through the lens that God is the cause of our suffering, then as Christian counselor Paul Tripp wrote, “It’s hard to run to God for help, to rest in his care, to be assured of his love, and to believe that his mercies are constantly available and new every day when you’re convinced you’re being punished by him.”[1]  Dr. Tripp’s words are powerful.  For if we interpret suffering as coming from God, then our suffering is made all the worse because we will not reach out to God, who is the source of our healing.

What then are we to do?  I would suggest we deal objectively with some facts of life and suffering.  First, “We live in a broken world where people die, food decays, wars rage, governments are corrupt, people take what isn’t theirs and inflict violence on one another, spouses act hatefully toward each other, children are abused instead of protected, people die slowly from disease or suddenly from accidents, drugs addict and devastate families, gossip destroys reputations, bitterness grows like cancer, and the list could go on and on.”[2]  I think we all get the picture that there are many avenues and pathways that surround us which lead to suffering.  This is the world in which we live.  Since, we are experts in worldly suffering, I do not think we will need to expand on this point.

Second, because the world is broken, then to experience suffering is to live the human experience.  Meaning, suffering comes from human living.  Then when we suffer, we need to realize that God has not singled us out for suffering.  Suffering is common to all.  Therefore, the source of suffering is not of God or from God.

Third, although God is not the source of suffering, God is intimately aware of our suffering and desires it to end.  Sometimes we think that because we follow Christ we should not suffer.  “God doesn’t bargain people into faith in Jesus by offering immunity from suffering.  Because Jesus took on himself the punishment of our sins, we are free from sin’s suffering, but not from life’s suffering.”[3]

Finally, not even God is immune from suffering.  God understands suffering in a very real and personal way.  It is with this point that I would like us to spend some time.

We are the beneficiaries of the relationship between God and suffering.  Let that sink in for a moment.  We have benefited from God’s very personal suffering.  We see the relationship between God and suffering most clearly in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.  Why is that so?  Because Jesus is God in the flesh.  Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).  Jesus said, ““I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:6, 7).  Most simply, Jesus was and is the exact image of God.

Since Jesus is the exact image of God, then we should ask ourselves about the relationship of Jesus and suffering.  Ask yourself, how many times and how many people did Jesus single out and inflict suffering upon them?  How many times did Jesus inflict a disease upon someone or cause someone’s death through an accident or ruin someone’s reputation with gossip or abuse a child?  The answer is Jesus never did any of those things.  Jesus never inflicted suffering upon anyone and yet he was the exact image of God.  I guess we can then dispense with the idea that suffering is part of God’s inherent nature and plan.

This then requires us to examine how Jesus reacted to those who were suffering.  Let me give you three quick examples from Gospels.  One: “14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Mt 14:14).  Two: “32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way” (Mt 15:32).  Three: “11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”  14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Lk 7:11-15).

            We could go on for the balance of our time citing additional examples Jesus’ response toward suffering.  The result would be that we would find Jesus was never indifferent to suffering in its many forms and that his desire was always to alleviate suffering.  His acts show that God does not provoke suffering, does not find the slightest joy in human suffering, and his desire is to lead us through suffering.  Therefore, if this was Jesus behavior toward suffering and he is the exact image of God, then when we suffer, we should not interpret suffering as coming from God, but that God is the source of our healing.

            Perhaps one more illustration can help us see more clearly the relationship between suffering and God.  Let’s look quickly at our New Testament readings today.  Our readings came from the Gospel of Matthew and painted disturbing scenes.  The first reading came from Chapter 26, verses 57 through 67.  Jesus had been arrested.  His hands bound together.  It was night.  The best and brightest of Israel gathered to hear evidence of religious crimes allegedly committed by Jesus.  The trial was in the home of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas.  Witnesses testified against Jesus, but they could not keep their stories straight.  Nevertheless, suffering for Jesus had begun.  Jesus, fully man and fully God, was tied up and accused.  He was suffering in a very personal and visible way.

            The trial of Jesus was a falling apart.  So, Caiaphas intervened directly and said to Jesus, “‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’  64 ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’  65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?’  ‘He is worthy of death,’ they [the best and the brightest of Israel] answered.  67 Then they spit in his [Jesus’] face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him.”

            Jesus, the exact image of God, was suffering.  He was suffering at the hands of his own people.  They spat upon him.  People all around him were punching and slapping him in the head and face.  Bruises were forming and blood was beginning to flow from Jesus’ body and the rejection by his own people was now complete.  Suffering.  Jesus suffered.

            The best and brightest of Israel were not done.  They dragged Jesus to the Roman governor.  Another flimsy trial was held.  Another unjust decision was reached.  From our second reading, after the soldiers whipped Jesus, “27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.”  Suffering.  Jesus, the exact image of God, suffering the brutal abuse alone in silence.

            Was the source of this suffering God upon God?  Or was this suffering the act of man upon God?  Arrested, bounded, rejected, spit upon, punched, slapped, whipped, stripped, mocked, pummeled with a rod, and then nailed to a cross.  This was human behavior inflicted upon God.  We might say, “I would never do that!”  And yet, if we want a visual representation of our sin against a Holy God, it is no less personal and real as the suffering Jesus endured.

            What then are we to make of this conversation on suffering?  First, we know we live in a fallen world in which suffering is a part.  We have all experience too much life to deny the truth suffering is part of life.  Second, we must see that God is not the author of our suffering and God takes no delight in our suffering.  Third, God understands our suffering in a very personal way because he experienced it firsthand.  But what was the purpose of God’s suffering?  Jesus consented to suffer and die so that we could understand the love God gives to us and never withdraws from us.  Jesus consented to suffer and die so that we could experience grace.  Grace so overwhelming that when we receive it, God removes from us the desire to cause suffering and replaces it with a desire to love others.  That is what God’s grace does.  If we receive God’s grace, if we genuinely allow God’s grace to flow into our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies then we are remade into a new creation.  God understands our capacity to inflict suffering because he experienced suffering at the hands of humans.  Even though God suffered, his character did not change.  God desires that we not suffer in our life or suffer in our sin.  Finally, God wants us to trust him in and with our suffering.  He wants us to turn to him in our suffering that he can comfort us.  God wants us to be an instrument of relieving the suffering of others.  God knew that people could experience him in a real way not by visions of heaven to a few people but in the flesh, through Jesus.  Jesus knew that people could continue to experience him in a real way not through majestic buildings or monuments but in the flesh, through his followers, you and me.  If those who are suffering “can feel his [God’s] love, a love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence.  They can know that he hasn’t abandoned them.  In you they see God.”[4]

            Jesus suffered that we might experience grace and share it with others.  To express the depth of God’s grace, its life altering nature, as Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  This was an act of grace to his tormentors and to all who would sin against God.  Jesus gave of his body and blood upon the cross so that we could receive God’s grace. 

Jesus’ words on the cross harken us back to the final meal with his disciples when he took bits of bread and a cup to explain that he would suffer in body and blood for them, for you, and for me.  We come now and see the bread and cup before us and realize that God is not the author of suffering, instead he is the one who suffers with us, he is the one who offers us the grace to heal, and to heal one another.  Let us come to the table prepared for us by Jesus, the exact image of God, who suffered for us and offers us companionship, grace, and healing in the suffering we experience in life.  Come and join with me and experience God afresh.  Amen and Amen.


[1] Tripp, Paul David, Suffering; Gospel Hope when Life Doesn’t Make Sense, (Crossway; Wheaton, IL; 2018), 33.

[2] Ibis, 30.

[3] Haugk, Kenneth C., Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering, (Stephen Ministries; St. Louis, MO; 2004), 24.

[4] Ibid, 30.

 

Mar 31 - The Basin and the Towel

John 13:1-17

            Our Scripture reading today came from Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John. Chapters 13 and 14 present a key scene in the life and ministry of Jesus.  These chapters reflect the scene of Jesus’ final meal before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion.  I think to help us understand this scene we should ask ourselves some questions.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, with whom would you choose to have your last meal?  What would you want to talk about as you ate?  What would you want to do for those who ate with you as a memory of that time together?  Would you give them a gift?  What bit of wisdom would you want to share?  Your time is very limited.  So, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, with whom would you choose to have your last meal?

            If we keep that question circulating in our mind, then we will have a better feel and perspective on today’s Scripture passage from John, Chapter 13.  I invite you to join me for Jesus’ last meal by turning to that passage.

            John began the scene this way, “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  John began filling in the answers to our questions about who was at the last meal.  Jesus has chosen the people of his intimate circle of friends.  John describes them as “his own.”  This was a closed meal.  It was not an American open house occasion where anyone can drop in to say “Hello,” have a bit to eat, and then leave.  For Jesus, he wanted a very private last meal and John said Jesus’ main interest was to have next to him those whom he loved.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you have an open house or would you have a closed meal?

            John continued, “The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.”  We now see that two people understood that this was Jesus’ last meal.  Jesus understood that to be the case, knowing that he would be arrested and put to death.  The devil, working through Judas, someone Jesus loved, was also working to make this Jesus’ last meal.  John was showing that this last meal was part of a cosmic battle between the powers of good and evil, Jesus and Satan, between light and darkness.  This is monumental spiritual battle played out through human actors.

            Human actors, Jesus’ loved ones, were also engaged at this moment in some very human behavior.  If we looked for a moment at other accounts of this meal, particularly in the Gospel of Luke, we would read that at this point, “A dispute arose among them [Jesus loved ones] as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (Lk. 22:24).  Can you relate to this scene?  Have you ever been to a family dinner, hoping it would be a pleasant time, only to experience the sibling rivalries come into full bloom as to who is the boss of who?

            We absorb this scene for a moment.  Jesus was sitting their quietly, knowing this was his last meal.  He was looking at those he loved.  He saw Judas, eating from the same table.  Jesus and Judas were both aware Judas would soon betray Jesus.  That betrayal would ignite an epic spiritual battle.  The others at the table were alternating between bites of food and arguments about their rising status as though they were vying for the senior vice presidency of a growing industry “Jesus Incorporated,” if you will.  Jesus’ knew that time was running out.  Soon, Jesus would yield his life for this group of argumentative and misguided friends.  This group would need to carry on the work Jesus started and bring the message of hope across the world.  This group would continue the epic spiritual battle of light and darkness, of hope and hopelessness, of life and death.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, and such chaos was present at your final meal, what would you say or do at this moment?  Would you yell, “I am going to be dead tomorrow and all you can do is think about betrayal and who will be in charge?”  Or perhaps we would just sit quietly and weep over this scene.  Jesus knew death was soon and to make a lasting change on this group, he could not yell, he could not cry, he needed to do something loving, radical, redemptive, and memorable.

            John continued, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” 

The noisy table talk ended abruptly in the silence of Jesus’ actions.  Jesus removed his outer clothing, grabbed a basin and a towel, knelt before one of his friends and began gently washing and then drying their feet.  John had said that Jesus “Having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.”  Jesus was loving his disciples by washing their feet.  Gary Chapman, author of the book, “The 5 Love Languages,” wrote, “Almost instantly in a time of crisis, we hug one another.  Why?  Because physical touch is a powerful communicator of love.  In a time of crisis, more than anything, we need to feel loved.  We cannot always change events, but we can survive if we feel loved.”[1]  Jesus knew the crisis was coming for his friends and he wanted them to know that he loved them.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how and to whom would you express your love?

The room remained very quiet.  The only sound was that of Jesus moving and washing the feet of his friends one by one.  Jesus then came with his basin and towel and knelt before Peter.  John wrote in verse 6, “He [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’”  Peter, who on more than one occasion knelt at Jesus’ feet in recognition of Jesus’ holiness and being the Son of God could not imagine Jesus kneeling at Peter’s feet.  Peter saw Jesus only doing the task of the lowliest servant.  For Jesus to take the posture of the lowliest servant was too radical for Peter.  Peter could not let Jesus remove the debris, dirt, and dust from his feet.  Jesus’ action was radical.  Jesus was reversing expectations.  Jesus was good at doing that.  When young people died, Jesus raised them from the dead.  Outcasts, such as tax collectors and sinners were invited to repent and become part of the kingdom.  Women, marginalized by society, were raised up into positions of prominence in the kingdom.  Those who had little to give but gave were praised above those who gave from abundance.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would act in a radical manner toward your loved ones?

            “Jesus answered [Peter], ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’”  Peter thought for a moment.  He wanted to be with Jesus and to be with Jesus more so than any other disciple.  Peter responded, “‘Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’  10 Jesus answered [Peter], ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’”  Peter did not understand the radical nature of Jesus act was not about washing the dirt from the physical body.  The washing of the dirt expressed in physical terms the spiritual battle Jesus was waging.  Jesus was going to the cross to redeem his friends, to redeem you, and to redeem me from sin.  The cross is an act of washing us clean of the debris, dirt, and dust of sin.  Jesus told his friends, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  The later, the understanding of redemption, would come at the time of Jesus’ death burial and resurrection.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you want to redeem any relationships with those you love?

            Jesus acted with love, he acted radically, and focused on redemption.  The human arguing over who would be the boss ended.  There was one more lesson Jesus wanted his intimate friends to remember.  Verse 12, “12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’” 

Jesus gave his disciples a powerful visual memory on that evening of that last meal.  Jesus used the simple implements of a basin and a towel to show his love, his radical humility, and his desire to redeem his friends.  Those who study human behavior tell us that we remember emotionally charged events better than any other event in our life.  This last meal was an emotionally charged event.  Behavioral scientists tell us pleasant memories and positive memories are better remembered with greater detail than unpleasant memories.  Jesus used the basin and the towel to embed in the memory of the disciples a positive, encouraging scene to remember, for soon they would be struck by the disturbing and grotesque memory of Jesus nailed to the cross.  For three days, thereafter, the disciples suffered Jesus’ absence.  It was a hollow horror following his death.  They experienced genuine pain of grief.  I wonder, how many times the disciples quietly thought about the last meal they shared with Jesus and the washing of their feet.

We no longer wash the feet of our dinner guests.  Occasionally, you might see a church hold a special service in which pre-selected individuals come forward for the pastor, priest, or pope wash their feet.  In many cases, the washing of feet in the church has become a ritual aping what Jesus did.  Jesus was not so narrow in his charge to his disciples that they might mimic his behavior.  Jesus wanted his disciples, and he wants you and me to imitate his heart of his behavior and make it our own.  How so?

First, Jesus wants us to recognize the message of love in the washing of his friends’ feet.  With whom would Jesus want you to love?  What is the basin and towel Jesus wants you to use with those people?  What is the love language Jesus wants you to speak to those people?  Is he calling you to speak words of affirmation to someone?  Is Jesus calling you to speak words of encouragement to someone, kind words to another, and humble words to third?  Are words the basin and towel you are to use today to love someone?  Is Jesus asking you to spend time loving someone?  Is he calling you to sit and talk with someone who is lonely, or hurting, or confused?  Is Jesus asking you to give a gift to someone?  Perhaps the gift is a poem you wrote, a colorful stone or piece of beach glass, or a bag of groceries to say, “Friend, you matter.”  Is Jesus asking you to comfort someone with your tender touch?  Perhaps a hug, handshake, or pat on the back is needed to encourage someone to do the next right thing, only there is no one to give that to them that touch of encouragement, except for you.  The basin and the towel and the languages of love come in many forms.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and show love to others?

            Second, Jesus wants us to be radical with our love.  He wants us to come to him and ask for his Holy Spirit to empower us to help walk with others to reverse the challenges of life.  It is radical to help those who cannot repay you.  It is radical to stand up for those who have been marginalized by the world.  It is radical to step out of the comfort of our lives and help carry the burden of another person.  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and be radical for others?

            Third, Jesus wants us to bring the message of redemption.  Jesus said, as you are going through life, “make disciples… teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19, 20).  Peter, who could not imagine Jesus washing his feet, later understood.  Peter said, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15).  If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and speak of redemption to someone you loved?

            Love, acting radically, and speaking of redemption were all made memorable by Jesus through a simple basin and towel.  Jesus knew he was going to die the next day.  We do not know whether tomorrow is our last day or that we have many days ahead.  Therefore, we should not wait to be loving, radical, and redemptive.

            A poet explained it this way.

In an upstairs room, a parable
Is just about to come alive.
And while they bicker about who's best,
With a painful glance, He'll silently rise.

Their Savior Servant must show them how
Through the will of the water
And the tenderness of the towel.

In any ordinary place,
On any ordinary day,
The parable can live again
When one will kneel and one will yield.

And the space between ourselves sometimes
Is more than the distance between the stars.
By the fragile bridge of the Servant's bow
We take up the basin and the towel.

And the call is to community,
The impoverished power that sets the soul free.
In humility, to take the vow,
That day after day we must take up the basin and the towel.[2]

With whom will you share your basin and towel?  Let us pray.


[1] Chapman, Gary; The 5 Love Languages, (Chicago, IL; Northfield Publishing; 2015), 111-112.

[2] Card, Michael, The Basin and the Towel.

Mar 24 - Am I Accepted?

Luke 18:9-14

            If you have seen the news in the last couple of weeks, you may have seen a story about one of the most fundamental human desires.  That desire is acceptance.  The story involves very wealthy parents paying vast sums of money to use fraudulent means to get their children accepted to prestigious colleges and universities.  In some cases, the scheme involved having other people take their children’s college entrance examinations.  In other cases, the scheme involved pretending their child was an extraordinary athlete.  We might think to ourselves, “Well the parents just wanted the best possible education for their children.  That is a noble goal, they just went about it the wrong way.”  That may be true but closer examination of several cases is revealing because the children, once accepted, did not pursue the academic challenges, they only wanted to be admitted and eventually receive a diploma.  Why?  Because there was a desire to be accepted into that group, that college, or that university believing that in doing so, they would reap the benefits accorded to that group.  The parents and children wanted acceptance and wanted to avoid rejection. 

This parental drive to ensure acceptance and avoid rejection for their children has gathering a title.  Such parents are called, “Bulldozer or Snowplow Parents.”  Such parents engage in clearing the road ahead of their children to assure acceptance at every turn and reassurance that rejection is not an option.  There are certainly noble thoughts behind the actions of the parents, but we know the real world is a continuing series of human interactions of acceptance and rejection.  And we know that rejection can be a very painful experience.  Many of you know well the pain of rejection.  When I was a kid in Massachusetts, a popular expression of torment to another kid was to say to them, “You’re a reject.”  The first major assignment I had in the Federal government was to investigate the circumstances of the suicide of a security officer at a nuclear facility.  Why did he take his own life?  Because he had been rejected by his co-workers, supervisors, and managers.  He was being fired from his job and could not bear to go home and tell his mother that he had been rejected.

Acceptance and rejection are found throughout human experience.  We find this dynamic in the earliest part of the human story.  The Bible says, “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering (acceptance), but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor (rejection). So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:2-6).  We know Cain rejected God’s counsel and killed his brother Abel.  Acceptance and rejection are present in human life.

            The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s words saying that God would send a savior into the world and yet, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Is. 53:3).  This savior came into the world through a young woman named Mary.  When Mary told her husband Joseph that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s first response was to reject Mary.  When the child was born, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem to honor this new born king.  The earthly king, Herod, rejected the idea of a child born a king and killed all the male children in and around Bethlehem in the hopes of destroying this new born king.  The Gospel writer John said when this savior came into the world, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him [they rejected this savior]” (Jn 1:11).  John said this savior had a name.  His name was Jesus and he came that all who would believe in Jesus would be saved, that is, they would be accepted by God.

            This savior told a story of acceptance and rejection.  A man named Luke, wrote down that story for those who would read his work and come to know this savior.  We have the privilege to read that story.  I invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18, beginning at verse 9.

            Luke says in verse 9, that Jesus was telling this parable, or story, to some folks who were confident that their behavior was superior to others and that God was impressed by such behavior.  These folks thought they were not only better off than others around them, they also thought they were, in fact, better than others around them.  So, Luke wrote, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  We need to pause here for a moment and make sure we are on the same page as Luke’s readers.  The temple to which Jesus referred was the temple of Jerusalem which Jesus would later describe as his Father’s house and a place of prayer.  In this story, two men go to that temple at the same time to pray to God.  One is a Pharisee.  He was Jewish.  He was a religious leader who worked hard to uphold all the laws and decrees of God.  The Pharisees were respected and admired by the people of Israel.  As a result, the Pharisee considered himself an accepted person.  The other man was a tax collector.  He was Jewish.  He took money from the people of Israel in the form of taxes and gave the money to the Romans so that the Romans could continue to rule over Israel.  Tax collector were despised by the people of Israel and seen as traitors.  The tax collector was a rejected person.  In this story, the Pharisee and tax collector share one very important thing.  They have chosen not to be anonymous about their respective lives.  As we will see, both were open with how they saw themselves before others and before God.  Their openness stands in contrast to our growing desire for privacy and anonymity.

            With that bit of understanding, we come back to the story.  “10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”  So ends the prayer of the Pharisee. 

With some drama and some sarcastic humor, Jesus portrayed the Pharisee in this story as very confident that he was better than other people and therefore, better off with God.  Putting down others was, in part, a way for the Pharisee to raise himself up.  In part, the Pharisee believed, in order to ensure God’s blessing, he and others like him must exclude and call out those people who might corrupt the nation.  The righteous of Israel must reject the robbers, evildoers, and the adulterers so that Israel would be protected.  Sinners, “rejects,” must not become part of the fabric of Israel.  We see tension from the Pharisees toward Jesus on this point throughout the Gospels.  Repeatedly the Pharisees questioned why Jesus sat, ate, and stayed with sinners and tax collectors.  Such people were not to be part of the nation being blessed by God.  So, the Pharisee revealed through his public prayer that he believed he was justified before God because of his standing in the community and felt right to reject some people.

The story continued.  Jesus said, 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”  So ends the prayer of the tax collector. 

Again, with some drama, Jesus portrayed the tax collector in this story as broken individual.  The tax collector recognized that he was thoroughly rejected by his fellow citizens but that was not the focus of his concern.  The tax collector was concerned that he stood rejected by God.  The tax collector showed no regard for how others saw him; his concern was with his relationship with God.  He was repenting of his sin and knew he could only be accepted by God if God showed him mercy.  The tax collector’s prayer showed the delicate and powerful nature of human action, repentance, coupled with the divine action, mercy.

What does it mean to show or be shown mercy?  Mercy is action or withholding of an act that is essential to the recipient.  Mercy is something that resolves for the recipient a life-threatening situation that they cannot remedy on their own.  Mercy is never random and is not anonymous.  There must be some form of relationship between the giver and the receiver of mercy.  So when the tax collector asked for mercy, he was saying a lot with one word.  Using just the word mercy, the tax collector was asking God to act, to resolve a situation for the tax collector that he could not fix on his own.  Using just the word mercy, the tax collector was asking the God he knew, a God with whom he had a relationship with, to accept him, even though he was sinner.  Mercy clears the pathway for us to move from being rejected of God to being accepted by God.  Mercy is the power to reverse the past and grant a future.

With the prayers of both men now completed, Jesus completed the story.  14 “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The tax collector, the sinner, humbled by his sin, openly confessing of his sin, was justified before God, meaning he was made right with God.  In God's eyes, persons are considered righteous when they recognize their sinfulness and repent of it.  The tax collector was thus accepted.

Jesus’ short story is a powerful reminder that we have a need for acceptance.  The Pharisee desired and received acceptance from people.  The tax collector desired and received acceptance from God through mercy.  So, what is the enduring message of this story for us?  There are two things I would like to end with.

First, acceptance and rejection are part of the human experience.  The important thing for us to keep in mind that human acceptance and human rejection is temporary, but God’s acceptance or rejection is forever.  If our life pursuit is to believe we must always be accepted by other people, then we will spend our days as a “people pleaser” ultimately moving from one disappointing relationship to another.  However, if we pursue acceptance by God, then we will spend our time now and forever satisfied that we are right with God.  The 23rd Psalm is an example of someone living their life accepted by God.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.”

Second, acceptance by God comes through mercy.  In God’s wisdom, he made mercy into a person, his Son, Jesus.  In the New Testament Book of Titus, we read, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  (Titus 3:3-5).  We are accepted by God when we accept Jesus as Savior.

Do you ever wonder whether you are accepted by God?  That seems like a big question to leave in doubt.  If you want to know if you’re accepted, the Bible tells us repeatedly what to do.  Repent (turn to God), believe in Jesus as your savior, and be baptized.  If you have not taken all those steps for yourself, then now is the time to speak to God, seek his mercy through Jesus, and share your story of new life with others.  For in Jesus, we do not need to wonder if we are accepted.  Amen and Amen.

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