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Sep 16 - Beloved

Matthew 12:9-21

1 John 3:1-3

Some years ago, I participated in a leadership training class.  The instructor spoke about solving problems.  He started with solving what are known as “simple problems.”  Now a simple problem is defined to be those problems for which there is just one right answer.  He said, “Problems with one right answer are essential for one generation to pass key knowledge elements of its culture on to the next generation.  No culture can teach its language, mathematics, history, science, or morals without using primarily single right answer problems.”  He said, “One of the positive results from getting single right answers is that when you know the simple right answer then you have also eliminated the ‘world of wrong alternatives.’”  For example, when you know 4+4=8, you know that all other possible answers are wrong.  This is a great relief.  You do not have to worry about the millions of other potentially, ‘right’ numbers because all of them are wrong. 

If we understand the principle of simple right answers, then we can understand a profound truth about our life.  We can understand that truth that we are loved.  I have met great many people in my life, but I have never met one person who did not want to know they were loved.  I have never met a person who did not express in one way or another the desire to know that they mattered.  The desire for each of us to know that we are loved is like an unquenchable thirst.  Whether we are nine days old or ninety years old, we thirst to know we are loved.  That thirst is so strong that we if we do not find clean water that quenches that thirst, we become willing to drink polluted water in the hope that satisfies us.

So, we thirst to know that we are loved.  God knows this about us.  God knows that without love, without the hope love gives us, we can lose our grip on life itself.  If we are attentive to what God has said, if we are attentive to His Word, we will realize that God gave us the simple answer to our thirst for love and the hope that comes from that love.  One of the most often verses from the Bible, the revealing story of God, gives us the simple answer to our thirst for love.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  God’s son has a name.  His name is Jesus.  And so, we can make this powerful verse most personal we can do so by saying it this way, “God loves me so much that he sent Jesus to tell me and to love me.  In loving Jesus, I will not be lost but have an eternal life of hope.” 

God loves you and gave his Son, Jesus, as a sign of his love.  All of God’s Word points to the simple right answer of Jesus as the satisfaction of our thirst for love.  What a relief that is.  No matter what, we are loved by God and we see that love in the person of Jesus.

Jesus affirmed the he was God’s love.  Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Here Jesus gave his disciples and us the simple right answer to our relationship with God.  Jesus statement does not burden us, it should not to intimidate us, it does not to exclude us – but instead gives us an infinite measure of peace and relief.  If you want to know and feel God’s love, then you can experience it through Jesus.  Knowing this single, right answer, we no longer need to worry about the millions of other, potentially “right” answers that come our way.  They are all wrong.   Jesus once said to a thirsty woman at a well “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.”  Jesus was not speaking of physical thirst, he was speaking of our thirst for true love.  In this woman’s life she had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man who was not her husband.  She was thirsting for love but had not found true love with men until she met Jesus, then she knew God loved her.  Her thirst for love was now satisfied through Jesus and such love would not be withdrawn as had happen by so many of her former husbands and relationships.

A simple right answer to our thirst for love is found in Jesus.  But we are frail humans and we wonder does God really love me?  Will he continue to love me no matter what?  The Apostle Paul who tormented Christians before he experienced Jesus’ love knew the answer to that question.  Paul said, “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture.  None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love we have in Jesus” (MSG 8:31-39). 

There are many voices pounding on our ears these days with quite the opposite message.  The world shouts, “You are no good, you are ugly, you are worthless, you are a nobody – unless you can prove otherwise.  Prove that you are worth something, do something relevant, spectacular or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire but just know we may take that love away later.”  God says, “I love you.  You cannot earn this love.  It is my gift and I will not take it away from you.”

Our reading today from the letter we call 1 John reinforces our understanding of being loved.  The opening words we read said, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”  This is a great spiritual mystery is it not?  God chose to love you and me.  One writer of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, wrote, “And I wonder, “Why [God] are people so important to you?  Why do you even think about them?  Why do you care so much about humans?  Why do you even notice them? But you do!” (Psalm 8:4)

The mystery is that God does notice you, he has chosen you, and he does love you.  But here is something else important.  Because God has chosen you, does not mean he has rejected someone else.  Some of us may remember or still experience the sometime painful experience of choosing sides.  Usually two “captains” emerge to represent each team.  Then the pool of players stands before each captain as the choosing begins.  The longer we stand in that pool of players, the more rejected we feel.  To be chosen and loved by God is radically different because instead of excluding some, God choses to include all others equally.  We heard Jesus say earlier, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  No one is excluded.  We could say it this way as well, “I am the one way to God, to real truth, and to real life.  Anyone and everyone who comes to me will be accepted by God.”  There is no rejection in Jesus.

This is why John, in his letter, said in being chosen we have our true identity, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  We are children of God and loved by Him.  That is our identity.  Let that soak in for a moment.  We hear a lot on the news about identity theft; the taking of someone’s private information usually for financial gain.  We hear a lot on the news about identity politics; the effort to divide and group people by race, social standing, disabilities, ethnicity, sex, gender, etc.  The world seeks to steal and divide people.  God says, “Wait!  Stop it!  Your identity is as my children!”  And that is what we are!

John wrote, “The reason the world does not know us [this] is that it did not know him.”  Most of the world does not understand your identity because they do not know God.  But if you have accepted the love of God through Jesus, then you have one profound identity, you are God’s child.  Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are then able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.  In our trust of God’s loving relationship with us, we are then able to look beyond the identities the world tries to impose on us and others and we can love others because we know they are precious to God.  John would write later in this same letter these words, “Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child. And so everyone who loves knows God. This is how God showed his love to us: He sent his only Son into the world to give us life through him.  True love is God’s love for us, not our love for God. He sent his Son as the way to take away our sins.  That is how much God loved us, dear friends!  So we also must love each other” (ERV 1 John 4:7, 9-11).

This is another simple right answer to life.  So let me summarize this point.  We are loved, so we must love.  We are blessed, so we must bless others.  We all need each other’s blessings.  As I said earlier, I have met and talked to thousands of people in my life.  All of them expressed in one way or another a desire to be loved.  Not one of them though would be brought to life through curses, gossip, accusation, or blaming.  We bring others to life by blessing them.  This should not require effort.  Do not look for a program or formula for blessing others or see blessing others as simply a call to spend more money.  Blessing others should be a natural outflow of our life requiring no effort at all.

John continued his simple message in verse 2 from today’s reading, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.”  John emphasized again that we are chosen, loved, and blessed by God.  We should love and bless others as God has loved and blessed.  But there is something we must not forget.  Though chosen, loved, and blessed by God, we are not God.  John said there are many things about today and tomorrow that have not been made known to us by God, and we need to accept that fact.  We are not God and we cannot act as though we are.

There is an old joke about a woman who goes to heaven.  She is met by Saint Peter who says to her, “Let me show you around.”  As St. Peter showed this woman around heaven they end up in the cafeteria and St. Peter suggested they grab a tray and get some lunch.  While standing in line, this man burst into the cafeteria dressed in a white coat.  The man grabbed a tray, cut in front of everyone else, he said under his breath he had so much to do today, and then grabbed his food and hurried out.  The woman was befuddled and said to St. Peter, “Who was that?”  St. Peter replied, “Oh, that was God, pretending to be a doctor.”  We are not God and so we must not pretend to know all the mysteries of life.  We are not God and so we must not act as the final judge of people.  We are not God and so we must not presume we see all things clearly.  The Apostle Paul put it this way, “12 For now [in this time of imperfection] we see in a mirror dimly [a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma], but then [when the time of perfection comes we will see reality] face to face. Now I know in part [just in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].” (AMP 1 Corinthians 13:12).

We are chosen, loved, and blessed.  We are not God, so some things, some experiences are a little blurry to us, somewhat of a riddle but at the right time we will see things most clearly.  Until then John said we wait, “Knowing that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

It is my hope this day, that we come to understand that that our time on earth is part of a much larger story than our birth and death.  We are part of God’s love story.  In that story, God has shown over and again his love for people and his desire for people to love him and one another.  God knows we have a thirst for love and that we will drink in anything to have that thirst quenched.  God didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity to set it right once and for all. That is how much God loves you and love me and he loves those outside this place.  God’s love will never change.  Today, know that God loves you, has chosen you, and has blessed you and wants you to love and bless others.  Let us pray.

Sep 2 - Jesus Encounters Two Thieves

Luke 23:32-43

There is a Christian children’s book entitled, “The Legend of the Three Trees.”  The book tells the story of the dreams and life of three trees; an olive tree, an oak tree, and a pine tree.  Borrowing from the story of the dreams and life of the pine tree, the book tells us that a pine tree grew high upon the mountainside.  The tree stood tall and proud.  Many times, it saw people in the valley looking up.  The pine tree hoped that its towering branches would remind people of the glory of God’s creation.  It dreamed that it would always stay on the mountain and point people to God.  One night, a fierce storm shook the mountain.  The pine tree bent and swayed in the powerful wind.  As thunder shook, a bolt of lightning flashed from the sky and splintered the pine trees trunk and, with a great crash, the pine tree fell to the ground.  The pine trees dream crashed down with it.  It knew that then it could never point people to God again.  Then one day, some Romans soldiers came for the forgotten pine.  From the pine’s trunk, they made a cross and they placed Jesus on it.  That day, Jesus died on that cross to take away the sins of all who believe in Him.  Jesus fulfilled God’s plan for Him and God’s plan to bless us.  And ever since that day, the cross points people to God as a symbol of His great love for us.  The pine tree’s dream came true, it would forever point people toward God, just not in the way it imagined.

The cross, made from a tree, does point us to God.  That is the scene of our Biblical passage today.  It is a scene of three cross.  Jesus was nailed and bound to the center cross of the three crosses.  On each side of Jesus, were two nameless men.  The conversation among the three men was and is one of the most important we have ever been privileged to hear.  That conversation determines the way the live and our ultimate destiny. 

Let’s turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 23, starting a verse 23, for the account of this conversation painful held on the crosses on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem.

32 Two other men, both criminals [some translations say robbers, thieves, or even rebels], were also led out with him [Jesus] to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they [the Roman soldiers] crucified him [Jesus] there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” 

This was a gruesome scene.  Men were being put to death by binding them with nails and rope upon a cross made from a tree; there to hang until dead.  It may take a few hours or it may take a few days for death to come from crucifixion.  In this setting, Jesus began the conversation with a prayer of blessing on those gathered to execute him.  In the full power and authority of the Son of God, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

At the very moment of utter violence and sinfulness, Jesus interceded for his tormentors and prayed to God, his Father.  He asked that the sins of those who offended God be cancelled.  He prayed that they be pardoned for their offense.  Jesus did not shout these words at God.  He quietly prayed these words to God, just loud enough for those around him to hear. 

Jesus prayer was for the life of those who actions diminished his own.  While Jesus prayed this pray for those nailing him to the cross, his prayer is universal and applies whenever someone seeks to diminish Jesus.  So, we need to recognize that Jesus was speaking those words for us as well.  He spoke that prayer for us for those moments of weakness when we sin, in those moments of unbelief we deny our Christian faith, and for those moments of indifference we withhold our love from another person.  When those things happen, perhaps if we listen carefully enough, in our hearts, we might hear Jesus say just loud enough for us to hear, “Father, forgive him, forgive her, forgive them.”  For the nature of Jesus is to bless us.

The story continues in verse 35. “35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”  36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”  38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.”  Although Jesus offered forgiveness, not everyone wanted forgiveness.  The rulers and soldiers cared nothing for Jesus’ prayer and cared nothing for God’s forgiveness.  They were too interested in showing their power over their enemy, Jesus, as they worked to take his life.  They would not stop and listen to Jesus’ prayer that God forgive them.  They were too involved in mocking Jesus.  This mocking continues even to this very day.  If you are not sure of this, read a newspaper or checkout social media feeds.  There are plenty of stories of people mocking Jesus.

Verse 39 opened the intimate conversation among the three condemned men and it started with mockery of Jesus.  “39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him [Jesus]: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”  This criminal was experiencing the agony of the cross.  Yet, he chose to use his energy to petition Jesus with insults.  He appeared to ask for divine intervention to free himself, but he does not believe in Jesus.  He chose to use his final breaths to join the religious leaders and soldiers to mock Jesus.  With his own words and by his own actions, this thief upon the cross separated himself from Jesus.  And so it is with us as well.  The Bible says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).  Nothing can separate Jesus from us, except for us.  If we never accept him, Jesus will not force us to accept him.  The thief on the cross encountered Jesus and the thief had a choice; reject Jesus or accept Jesus.  This man rejected Jesus and perished.  Before we think too harshly of this thief, let us contemplate the words of the poet:

I see the crowd in Pilate’s hall, I mark their wrathful mien;  Their shouts of “Crucify!” appall, with blasphemy between.

 

And of that shouting multitude I feel that I am one;

And in that din of voices rude I recognize my own. 

‘Twas I that shed that sacred blood, I nailed him to the tree, I crucified the Christ of God, I joined the mockery.

 

Around the cross the throng I see, mocking the Sufferer’s groan; Yet still my voice it seems to be as if I mocked alone.[1]

 

The words strike hard and cause us to think, “Do I mock Jesus when I am unforgiving or when I do not love those who need love?  Do I mock Jesus when I cause tension in my own home rather than making peace?  Do I mock Jesus when in public I refuse to pray before a meal or for someone in need?  Jesus will never act to separate himself from us, but he lets us keep the ability to separate ourselves from him.  This thief chose the path away from Jesus and that remains a choice we too can make.

            “40 But the other criminal rebuked him [the first criminal].  ‘Don’t you fear God?” he said. ‘41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’”  The second thief understood that God will not – He cannot – overlook sin.  He will deal with it.  The second thief was rebuking the other thief urging the man to refocus his heart and mind from rejecting Jesus to accept the forgiveness Jesus offered.  The second criminal used the breath of his life to speak of Jesus.  On what do we spend our breath?  Do we waste it on idle chatter, gossip, biting comments, snarky insults, useless Facebook postings, and meaningless or meanspirited Tweets?  Or to we use our breath to encourage others, to sing songs of praise to God, or to share the gospel of hope with others?  These are the choices we have.  What determines which path we take is whether we fear the power and are in awe of the wonderfulness of God.

            The second thief, soon to be out of strength, turned to Jesus.  “42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”  Unlike the first criminal who thought little of Jesus and asked little from him, the second criminal thought much of Christ and asked much from him.  The second criminal simply prayed, “Remember me.  Remember me and not my sins.  Remember me and not my crimes.  Remember me.”  What a simple, eloquent, and humble petition.  The second thief was intimate with his savior and called Jesus by name.  He knew that the story of Jesus would not ended on the cross made from a tree.  He knew that Jesus was going to die but that Jesus would have a kingdom after death.  The second criminal knew something about the coming kingdom.  He knew that judgment awaited and that Jesus determined who could enter the kingdom.  The second thief knew that that being in the presence of Jesus – in his kingdom – was not the result of work, for the thief bound to the tree could do no work.  This thief knew the kingdom was for those who had faith.  He knew that prayer expressed in the name and to the person of Jesus would be answered and would bring him peace.

            Jesus responded to this prayer.  Verse 43, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  In that instant, two prayers from the crosses were answered.  Jesus’ prayer, “Father forgive them” was answered for the second criminal’s sins were forgiven.  The criminal’s prayer was answered. “Remember me.”  Today he would be in paradise with Christ.  Forgiveness and paradise are available to us all.  We need only repent and seek Jesus as our savior.

            Upon the tree that day, the tormentors howled and cursed the Son of God.  They jeered and mocked him believing bound to the cross Jesu was powerless.  Victory would soon be theirs and this troublesome preacher would be forgotten.  Yet in the midst of all that unbelief and horror, two men prayed.  One said, “Father, forgive them.”  The second man prayed, “Remember me.”  God answered those prayers.

            God stands ready to answer those same prayers for you and me.  If you have not proclaimed Jesus as your Savior, then pray right now, “Jesus, remember me.”  Know that in doing so, you have chosen life.  If you have already accepted Jesus and the life he offers, I urge you right now to think of someone you love who has not accepted Jesus.  Pray for them and call them today.  Have the faith of to speak the testimony of the dying thief upon the cross.  Encourage them to know that God stands ready to answer their prayer and to save them.  Let them know that Jesus wants them to join him in paradise.  This is the message of hope and peace from the tree fashioned into the cross that forever points the way to God.  Amen.


[1] L. E. Maxwell, Born Crucified, quoting Horatius Bonar (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 68-68.

Aug 26 - Jesus Encounters Peter, James, and John

Matthew 17:1-9

Last weekend, I officiated at a wedding.  There was a moment in the ceremony when the bride and groom stood before me and their guests that was particularly symbolic.  The couple held hands, facing each other.  The groom was dressed in a well-fitting tuxedo and the bride in an elegant form fitting gown.  We were outside and under a massive oak tree on the lawn of a stately mansion.  This single tree cast shade on the 150 or so guests as the sunshine danced upon the surrounding fields and flowers.  There was a gentle breeze flowing over us.  It was quiet except for the words of the ceremony.  It was at this point, as I looked at the couple that I shared these words, “Here is the shape of spiritual beauty that God sees and for an hour has shared with us.”  I encouraged the couple and all married couples to “hide this image in their inmost heart.  Make real this ideal in their united life and their home will be a dwelling place of contentment and joy.”  It was a perfect moment of understanding God’s intentions and reassurance of His presence and love.  There was such clarity of God’s intent for marriage.  Such moments clearness are not everyday occurrences.  Whenever we have a moment of clarity as to God’s purpose or God’s design for our life, they are often called “mountaintop experiences.”  Such experiences, whether occurring on the lawn of an estate during a wedding or a quiet walk along the ocean or literally on a mountain top give us burst of insight into God.  Such experiences come almost without expectation.  Those moments do not last for very long.  They happen, we remember them, and those moments encourage us and strengthen us for the days ahead.

Our Bible reading today, is a mountain top experience both in the literal and figurative senses.  Even though the passage describes the mountaintop experience of someone else, God invites us to join them and capture for ourselves a sense of God’s wonder, encouragement, and strength for the days ahead.

I would invite you to turn to the account of this experience in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 17, starting with verse 1.

Matthew wrote, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”  Right away, we see that Jesus took the initiative to give his disciples Peter, James, and John a mountaintop experience; literally.  Jesus brought the three men to the top of a high mountain.  In the Bible, a mountain top is often the location for the most profound encounters with God.  The mountain top is often the boundary between earth and heaven.  Let me give you two examples of mountaintop experiences from the Bible that are significant to our immediate account.

The first mountaintop experience involves a man named Moses.  Moses was the man who God called to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt.  One day, “Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”  When the Lord saw that he [Moses] had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”  And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’  ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he [God] said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”  God granted Moses a mountaintop experience and drew Moses closer to Him.  It was a sacred moment.  Moses was so overwhelmed by the sacredness of the moment that he hid his face.

The second mountaintop experience involved a man named Elijah.  Elijah was a prophet of God who called the people of Israel to repent, to turn their lives toward and over to God.  At one point in his life, Elijah was very depressed.  He felt very much alone.  He felt that he was following God but was achieving little if anything lasting.  He believed others were out to get him.  The Bible says, in this state of despair, “Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.  And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘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 and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  Then God spoke to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”  Elijah’s mountaintop experience showed Elijah and us that God speaks in the quiet moments.  While God can speak through thunder, earthquake, or fire His preferred method is to speak softly to those who seek Him.  I can speak from personal experience that whenever I have felt God speak into my heart, it has always been brief and profoundly moving.

So we have two examples from the Bible of mountaintop experiences, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  The opening words of our text said, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he [Jesus] was transfigured before them. His [Jesus’] face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” 

Let’s take that in for a moment from Peter, James, and John’s perspective.  This man, Jesus, who they have been with for a couple of years suddenly begins to glow from his face in such a manner that it looks like the sun.  The radiance of his face is so bright that Jesus’ clothing, whatever color they were, now look as though they are ultrabright white.  This is a mountain top experience like no other.  It is as though Jesus, God in human form, fully human and fully God, was allowing only the fully God side of him show.  The brilliance of God, the fire that would not consume the bush on the mountain, appeared again.  The fire this time consumes neither the body of Jesus nor his clothing.  This was a sign of God’s presence that could not be imitated or explained.  Peter, James, and John saw an unmistakable sign that he was God.

Before Peter, James, and John could even absorb the mystery before them, Matthew wrote “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”  This is getting more unworldly by the moment.  On this mountain top, Jesus serves as the boundary between those of earth, Peter, James, and John and those of heaven Moses and Elijah.  These men of history, Moses and Elijah, who had mountaintop experiences of their own are now conversing with Jesus in the presence of Peter, James, and John.  While these men are taking the scene in, Matthew’s readers and particularly for us, we are left to ask, “Is this real?  How can this be so?  How does someone change appearance and how do people from history appear to come back to earth?” 

Most of us here are realists.  We want to understand how things work, why they work, and we want to be able to repeat experiences at our own will.  So we are confronted by this scene because it cannot be explained or repeated.  This leaves us to ask, “Is this scene a fantasy or is it fantastic?”  What separates fantasy from Biblical fantastic comes down to a single word; faith.  By faith, the fantastic things of God are accepted as truth, even though we cannot dispassionately prove them.  This trust in God, this faith, is the foundation under everything that makes life worth living. Faith is our handle on what we can’t see or what we cannot fully understand. Faith is what distinguished our ancestors, Moses, Elijah, and now Peter, James, and John and set them above the crowd.  By faith, we come to see in this scene that what is apparent on the surface of life has been moved aside to reveal the ultimate depth of what is behind them.  We are seeing depth of Jesus and the dimensions of earth and heaven revealed.  You and you alone must decide by faith whether this account is the truth. 

Think about faith this way.  The entryway to this church consists of two doors.  If the doors were just place over the opening to the church, most of us would not have the strength to lift the door and move it aside so we could enter the building.  We simply could not do it.  Instead, the doors are mounted on small hinges.  With those hinges in place, all of us can open those heavy doors and enter.  Faith works the same way.  For people without faith, coming to understand the fantastic nature of God is as challenging as trying to move aside a heavy door that just lays across the opening.  They cannot do it and therefore, never see what is inside.  For people with faith, just a little faith, that same door is easily opened and we begin to see the marvels of God that are behind the door.  This scene on the mountaintop says to us, “Use a little bit of faith to open that door and understand something far bigger is at play around you.  Jesus is not just some extraordinary teacher, miracle worker, prophet, priest, or would be king.  Jesus is God in human form. His glory is shining through his face and clothing.  He is in the presence of mortals, Peter, James, and John speaking to those who have already lived, Moses and Elijah.  This means Jesus, God among us, is the pathway between earth and heaven.”  For us, this scene challenges us toward faith.

For the disciples on that mountain top, the challenge is what to do in this scene.  Peter, who is often prone to jump into the situation with both feet, breaks the ice.  In verse 4, “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’”  Peter’s response was emotional.  This moment is so fantastic that Peter does not want it to end.  We all want mountaintop experiences to continue if possible.  Why?  Peter said it best, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  Who would not prefer to stay on a mountaintop surrounded by the presence of God rather than be in the valley surrounded by the trials of life.

But the mysteries of God had not fully played out on that mountain.  We see in verse 5, “While he [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!  When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”  I believe from that cloud God gave the shortest and most powerful sermon on record.  If you want to know God, follow God’s three words sermon to Peter, James, and John concern Jesus.  God said, “Listen to him!”  “Listen to Jesus.”  Can you imagine what the world would be like if we just “Listened to Jesus?”

As we conclude today, I want to reflect for a moment back on what Peter said.  Peter said, “Lord, it is good to be here.”  I can tell you standing before you that it is good to be here in this place of worship.  It good to come here and to be in the company of fellow believers.  It is good to be here surrounded by love and to have the opportunity to encourage and be encouraged.  It is good to be here.  But today’s Bible account did on the mountain top and our purpose in life is not to stay here.   

 Verse 7 says to us, “But Jesus came and touched them [Peter, James, and John].  ‘Get up,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’  When they [Peter, James, and John] looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  [Then they went down the mountain.]  Jesus was saying to his friends, “Yes, I know it is good to be here, but our work, the work of living, is down there.”  Jesus knew his place was among the people who needed the good news of salvation.  And so it is with us.  We must listen to Jesus who calls us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  We must listen to Jesus who calls us to love, to merciful, and to become peacemakers.  This is all work in the valley not on the mountain top.  We know that it is good to be here among our family.  But Jesus encourages us to it is good to be here but it is better to be out there.  So, in the words of Jesus, “Get up.  Don’t be afraid.”  In faith, listen to Jesus and share with others our experience of the fantastic God who loves us.  Amen.

Aug 12 - Jesus Encounters Ten Lepers

Luke 17:11-19          

This past week I met with a woman seeking pastoral counseling.  We had met on a few previous occasions, but I had not seen her for several weeks.  When I saw her this week, I asked her about a walking cast that I noticed on her left foot.  She said that several weeks ago, she dropped something on her foot, it hurt as expected, but it seemed to improve within a few days, so she took no other action.  She continued that after a couple of weeks the pain in her foot returned; only this time is was much worse than before and the pain would not go away.  A visit to the podiatrist revealed that when she dropped that item on her foot she had broken a toe.  Her toe had then healed but her toe did not heal well.  The doctor explained that to heal well, he would need to do surgery, remove bone chips, implant a screw, and relocate tissue within her foot.  She would be out of work for at least 6 weeks.  She was learning that to heal is not the same as to heal well.  The same is true of our spiritual life.  Unless we are willing to face, see, and allow our spiritual life to be properly set, then we will never heal well from the effects of sin and will not be fully who God intends for us to be.  That is the foundational message of our New Testament reading today.  Jesus healed ten lepers but only one leper healed well.  The joy of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is that each person would heal well.  The joy of the church is that we would lead others to the source of healing and that we would bear witness to people healing well.  To heal well requires an encounter with Jesus.  Let’s turn to the next encounter with Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17, starting at verse 11 and see how one man healed well.

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.”  Samaria and Galilee were two parts of ancient Israel.  The people of Galilee and Samaria despised each other, even though each group had a common set of ancient ancestors.  They detested one another, even though the foundation of their religious beliefs were common.  They avoided each other, even though the God they both worshipped said, “Love one another.”  Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, heading to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, was threading his way along the border between two groups of people who despised, detested, and avoided one another.  In doing so, Jesus was breaking the traditions of both the people of Galilee and Samaria.

12 As he [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him.”  Those greeting Jesus outside the village are all men and our Gospel writer, Luke, a physician, tells his readers the men had leprosy.  This is a skin disease that disfigures a person, causing them to lose fingers, toes, and tips of ears and noses.  To Luke’s original readers, leprosy was thought to be moral consequence; meaning they believed the men had done something wrong and now were being punished by God with this disease.  The Jews and Samaritans would agree on one thing; these ten men are not welcomed by the Jews or the Samaritans.

“They [the ten men with leprosy] stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’”  Most Bible translations have it that the ten cried out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  I think the word mercy fits better here.  The welcoming committee said in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Understanding mercy is essential to our understanding of God.  Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  If we are to be merciful, what is mercy?  There are several things to consider but for today let’s consider three things about mercy that come from the Bible.

  1. Mercy is action.  You cannot extend mercy while sitting in bed or in your favorite chair watching television.  The men with leprosy called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  The men were calling on Jesus to act.  Mercy is action.
  2. Mercy is essential to the recipient.  The person seeking or in need of mercy cannot fix the problem on their own and the problem threatens their existence.  If someone comes to you and says, “Please fix my broken shoelace,” and you do, then you have been kind but not merciful.  The broken shoelace could have been fixed by that person on their own and even if it was not fixed a broken shoelace does not threaten their existence.  The men with leprosy called out to Jesus for mercy because none of them could fix leprosy on their own and the disease would eventually take their life.  Mercy is essential to the recipient.
  3. Mercy is a choice.  Mercy cannot be compelled by moral code or law.  No one can order that mercy be granted because then it is not mercy, it is simply following an order.  The men encountering Jesus did not say, “Jesus, you are required to help us, now do it!”  Instead, they said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  They were saying, “Jesus, please, choose you grant us the gift of mercy!”

Mercy is an action.  Mercy is essential to the recipient.  Mercy is a choice.  Understanding mercy in this way helps understand God and how he has chosen to treat us.  To follow Christ and be merciful means we must choose to act on behalf of someone ways that are essential to their lives.  This is the reason we spend as much time as we do to understand our local missions.  Mission is action.  Mission is a choice.  Our local missions extend kindness to all and mercy to some.  Blessed are those who act and choice to serve the essential needs of others.

The ten men said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” “14 When he [Jesus] saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’”  Jesus saw the condition of these men.  He understood their needs.  He understood the men could not solve their problems on their own.  So, Jesus chose to act by giving the ten men a simple instruction, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  Jesus’ action expressed only by words does not seem particularly merciful, do they?  “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  Where is the mercy in words?  What we learn is mercy is in the words but not yet.  For this encounter with Jesus shows us that for mercy to be mercy, it must be received.

Allow me to give you a practical illustration of mercy that was not received.  In 1829, a Pennsylvania man named George Wilson, together with an accomplice, robbed a mail carrier, endangering the mail carrier's life in the process.  Both men were soon captured, brought to trial, and found guilty.  Both were sentenced to be hanged.  The accomplice was hanged in 1830, but Wilson had influential friends who acted on his behalf.  They got the attention of President Andrew Jackson, who granted Wilson a pardon.  This is mercy.  However, George Wilson, refused the pardon; he refused mercy.  After some court proceedings about what to do in this matter, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall concluded, “A pardon is an act of grace; and when such a pardon is delivered to someone, delivery is not complete without acceptance.  It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tender; and if it were rejected, then there was no power in a court to force it on.”  So George Wilson was hanged -- even though mercy was extended to him.  He just refused to receive it.

Jesus extended mercy to the ten lepers and said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  They asked for mercy, Jesus acted, and now the ten must accept the mercy offered in faith.  The Bible said, “And as they [the ten men with leprosy] went [to the priests], they were cleansed.”  The ten were healed because in faith they followed Jesus words and in doing so, unlocked the power of mercy those words contained.  The ten men received mercy from Jesus, were healed of their physical disease by receiving mercy and acting in faith, were on their way to share their good news first with the priests and then with their families.  Now the story could just end there and everyone would be happy but if it did we might not know the difference between healing and healing well.  If the story ended there we would not know the full measure of God’s mercy.

Luke wrote, “15 One of them [the ten who had leprosy], when he saw he was healed, came back [to where Jesus was], praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.”  Ten men accepted mercy; all were healed.  Nine men went in one direction, the direction the priests, the direction of their traditions, and they never looked back.  One man saw his healed body, changed his direction, and chose a new direction for his life.  This one man realized that he was running away from a man who by word alone had healed his body.  The man realized he was running away from God.  The man turned and went in the direction of the reality of the present and the possibilities of the future.  He went toward Jesus, the Son of God.

The man knew in that instant that his physical body had been restored but that to be in the presence of God meant so much more than physical healing.  To be in the presence of God was something he did not want to miss.  So, the man joyfully and fearfully threw himself down before Jesus and praised God like he had never done before.

Now, people have been running away from God since creation itself.  When the man and woman disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, they ran away from God and hid.  Why?  They were afraid of God believing he was a God without mercy.  God sent Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.  Johan ran away from God and went hundreds of miles in the other direction.  Why?  He knew God was merciful and did not think the people of Nineveh deserved God’s mercy.  People today run away from God today for all kinds of reasons.  Why?  They do not want God’s mercy because they do not believe they need God.  They enjoy their own traditions.  They run away from God because they are angry and disappointed that God did not do what they wanted.  They run away from God because they believe God would reject them and they could not handle one more rejection in life.  The reasons for running away from God are legion.  How about you?  Are you, or part of you, still running away from God?  If so, why?

The Samaritan man understood he must not run away from God and so he fell at Jesus’ feet.  “17 Jesus asked aloud to his disciples, to others who witnessed this encounter, and to the man at his feet, ‘Were not all ten cleansed?  [No one answered.]   Where are the other nine?  [No one answered.]  18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  [No one answered.]  Jesus moved his audience by the numbers.  Ten cleansed, nine hurried back to their old life, and only one came to embrace and praise God for his new life.  Here, in this moment, one man saw that God sent Jesus into the world. He saw God’s saving and merciful action in sending Jesus.

Now, Jesus had one final instruction, one final act for this man at his feet.  In verse 19, Jesus said to this man, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  The man was not just healed but he was healed well.  The body of the man who had leprosy was healed but more importantly Jesus healed the man’s soul giving him eternal life with God.  Rather than be at Jesus feet for a moment in time, the man would be at Jesus’ feet for all of time.  The man was healed well.  Because he was healed well, Jesus commissioned the man to do the work of God; to talk about the mercy of God.  Jesus said, “Rise and go.”

Each of us can be healed well and know with boldness and great confidence that God is with us and we are with him.  Just before his death, Jesus prayed these words for you and me.  “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”  Jesus through the giving of his life granted you and me mercy giving us abundant life now and eternal life always.  But we need to accept his mercy.  In accepting Jesus’ mercy, we will heal well.  In our healing, Jesus will walk with us and commission us with these words, “Rise and go.”  Are you healed well?  If you are not sure of the answer to that question, let’s talk. If you are healed well, then “rise and go.”  Let us pray.

Aug 5 - Jesus Encounters - Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10

Last month, I started a sermon series on the encounters people of the New Testament had with Jesus.  I began the first sermon by playing the iconic music from the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Today, we have another encounter with Jesus and this one was set to music.  The song lyrics begin this way,

 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree and he said, 'Zacchaeus you come down, For I'm going to your house today!'
For I'm going to your house today!

 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, but a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day, and a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.

 

It is not often that an encounter with Jesus leads to the honor of a song.  Zacchaeus is one so honored; even if he is known primarily by his small size.

 

But beyond the words of children’s song, what do we see in this encounter with Jesus that has meaning for us today?  Does Zacchaeus story matter?  Does your story matter?  Does my story matter?  If your story and mine matters, to whom does it matter?

 

Let’s see if we can explore those questions through the perspective of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus.  Let’s turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 19, and begin at verse 1.

 

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  [Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.] A man was there [in Jericho] by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.” 

 

As we read the opening to this story, we need to keep in mind two things.  First, tax collectors were despised by the people because they collected taxes for the Roman government who ruled over Israel.  Zacchaeus was not just a tax collect, he was a “chief tax collector.”  Zacchaeus had several tax collectors working for him.  Each tax collectors collected more for themselves than what was required by Rome and Zacchaeus took his cut from each tax collector. This system thrived on dishonesty, exploitation, overcharging, and abuse of those being taxed which lined the pockets of these tax collectors.  So, Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, was thought of as “the worst of the worst,” and was universally disliked by his neighbors.

 

Secondly, Zacchaeus was wealthy.  This is not surprising given Zacchaeus’ line of work.  However, in New Testament writing, a person of earthly wealth usually had a spiritual problem; they loved money more than God.  In the Gospel of Luke, we would hear Jesus say, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Lk. 6:24).  We would also hear Jesus say, “It is the rich who stores up things for themselves, but they are not rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21).  Finally, Jesus told a parable of two men: a nameless rich man and a beggar named Lazarus.  When the man and Lazarus died, Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven.  The rich man, who cared only about himself and his money, was buried and went to hell (Lk. 16:19-31).  There are more examples in the Gospels about the problem of wealth and distant it creates from God, but I think you get the picture.  Zacchaeus was wealthy and had a spiritual problem.

 

If we set aside that Zacchaeus is a tax collector and wealthy, what we would see is a man who is disliked by his neighbors and has little or no relationship with God.  I think this is a better lens to understand the story because I suspect we all know or have known someone like this Zacchaeus.  It is likely that we know or have known a neighbor most people disliked and that that same neighbor displayed little or no relationship with God.  We may have been that person at a time in our life when we had few genuine friends and felt very separated from God.

 

As we return to the text we find something surprising is happening to this man.  There is a commotion that caught Zacchaeus’ attention.  People around him are gathering into a crowd and are excited about a man walking through the city.  A man named Jesus of Nazareth.  The excitement and interest of Zacchaeus’ neighbors has stirred something within him.  In verse 3, we read, “He [Zacchaeus] wanted to see who Jesus was.”  This seems a little odd.  A man who seemed to care only about himself, now wants to see the man people call “Lord,” “Son of David,” and who call to Jesus for mercy.  Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of this man of God called Jesus.  But there is a problem.  The balance of verse 3 says, “But because he [Zacchaeus] was short he could not see over the crowd.”  Zacchaeus was exceptionally short and the people in the crowd were much taller than he.  So, Zacchaeus could not see Jesus and because Zacchaeus was disliked, none of his neighbors would make an opening to let Zacchaeus stand in front to see Jesus.  Between Zacchaeus and Jesus stood a wall of people unfriendly to him blocking Zacchaeus’ chance to see Jesus.  The crowd rejected Zacchaeus and it kept him isolated.

 

We learn through this moment that sometimes to behave in faith requires that we overcome obstacles.  To live by faith, requires that we breakthrough the isolation others impose us, or we impose upon ourselves.  For within Zacchaeus, as there is with everyone who wants to see Jesus, was a building passion that caused Zacchaeus to act.  Being a person of faith is never passive, it is always active. Verse 4 says, “So he [Zacchaeus] ran ahead and climbed a sycamore or fig tree to see him [Jesus], since Jesus was coming that way.”  Think about that scene for a moment.  Zacchaeus, who was disliked by neighbors and distant from God, outran the crowd, managed to climb a tree, high enough to see over the crowd for one purpose.  To see this man called Jesus.  Zacchaeus was acting completely out of character.  This is the how an encounter with Jesus begins to show.  When we have a desire to see and know Jesus, we begin to live differently from our natural character or the character other people have set for us.  Zacchaeus was demonstrating a change in character.  But there were more surprises ahead for Zacchaeus and the crowd.

 

Verse 5, “When Jesus reached the spot [where Zacchaeus was in the tree], he [Jesus] looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’  So, he [Zacchaeus] came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”  I am sure Zacchaeus was surprised.  Zacchaeus expressed a little interest in Jesus by climbing a tree to make sure he could see Jesus as Jesus passed by.  In response to a little interest, Zacchaeus received the reward of a personal relationship with Jesus.  This teaches us that God does not give as we give.  God will out give us every time.  Zacchaeus wanted a glimpse of Jesus and now Jesus wanted to stay at Zacchaeus’ home.  What is the reaction to God outgiving?  In a word, Zacchaeus expressed joy.  This joy is something we too have when we reach out in faith to Jesus.  If you are not feeling the joy of God, ask yourself. “Am I reaching out to Jesus?”

 

Now there is a sad truth about reaching out to God.  Not everyone will be happy with us.  When we reach out to God, we will change; it is impossible to encounter Jesus and remain unchanged.  That we might reach out to Jesus and change upsets some people.  That Jesus might receive us upsets others.  Look at what happened in Jericho that day in verse 7.  “All the people saw this [Jesus and Zacchaeus welcoming one another] and [they all] began to mutter, ‘He [Jesus] has gone to be the guest of a sinner [Zacchaeus].”  All the people were upset because neither Zacchaeus’ action nor Jesus’ response made any sense to them.  Zacchaeus was the worst of the worst and Jesus was the best of the best.  How in the world could Jesus and Zacchaeus share the same table?  But this is the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.  No one is beyond the redemption.  No one is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.  There is no one whom Jesus cannot say, “Today, I must stay with you.”  But we must be willing to open the door to Jesus.

 

I was speaking to someone the other day who was expressing a concern for someone they love.  This person said to me, “I just wish that God would take some action to help them.”  I reminded this person, “Jesus never healed anyone against their will.”  There are so many people who are angry at God because of their circumstances and yet many of these same people refuse to open the door to Jesus, to open the door to forgiveness, or to open the door to the body of Christ, his church.  Strangely, they prefer the isolation from their neighbors and distance from God and their own anger.

 

We see in today’s story a progression of faith in Zacchaeus.  He got excited when he heard something about Jesus.  He tried to see Jesus, but other people blocked him.  He did not give up.  He found a way to see Jesus by climbing a tree to see over the crowd.  Zacchaeus saw Jesus and then received an invitation from Jesus.  Zacchaeus acted and invited Jesus into his home.  Zacchaeus did not say to Jesus, “Could we do this later?  It is not convenient right now?  I need to change first, I need to clean up my act first, before I let you in?”  Many people say such things to God all the time.  “Lord, I am not worthy – let’s do this later.”  Folks, you are worthy of a relationship with Jesus because he says you are.  Do not wait. Open the door.

 

Zacchaeus did not wait and Zacchaeus did not know how Jesus would change him.  Zacchaeus was tender in his faith in Jesus.  He was a baby in faith and like all babies they progress through learning.  Jesus entered Zacchaeus home to stay with him and that is when things really changed for Zacchaeus.

 

Verse 8, “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”  Zacchaeus was changing on the inside and now it was showing in his behavior on the outside.  Zacchaeus repented and now wanted to serve others and make amends for his past sins.  We are changed in marvelous ways when we let Jesus stay with us and when we share the table with Jesus.

 

Zacchaeus was giving again; this time with some money.  God then again out gave Zacchaeus.  Verse 9, “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”  God gave Zacchaeus eternal life with salvation through Christ because Zacchaeus repented and accepted Jesus.

 

We too can have great joy if we answer Jesus’ call, “Today, I must stay with you.”  Have you invited Jesus into your life?  If not, find out why.  Is there someone blocking your view?  I would welcome Jesus into my life but the person in front of me is a terrible Christian, who wants to be like them.  If that is your reasoning, then run ahead of them and get your eyes focused on Jesus.  Is there someone who believes you don’t deserve to be in Jesus’ presence?  Ignore them and climb the tree to glimpse Jesus.  Know that whatever you give to Jesus a sign of your desire for him, he will out give you.

 

Today, Jesus has set a table for you.  It is a reminder of his love for you, whether you are popular or disliked, whether you are close to God or feel distant from Him.  This table is for you.  No one is excluded for Jesus said, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me.”  I urge you to come to the table for Jesus is saying to each person here, “Today, I must stay with you.”  Let us pray.

July 29 - Jesus Encounters - The Nameless Woman

John 7:53-John 8:1-11

 

A few days ago, I was thinking about church and worship services.  In my contemplations, I recalled that in my upbringing in the Roman Catholic church the flow and movement of every service was always toward the celebration of the Holy Communion.  By comparison, in the Protestant churches and particularly in Baptist churches, the flow and movement of the service is always toward the celebration of God’s word through the sermon.  Yes, the music, testimony, and prayer during our time together are important, but it is the message, the proclamation of God’s Word, that has become the center of our worship service.  Why is that so?  I wondered what would happen if we stopped having sermons?  What if we just stopped talking about God’s Word?

As I thought about these questions, some thoughts from the Apostle Paul came into my mind.  Paul, who had a very profound encounter with Jesus, wrote, “11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, and I made plans like a child. When I became a man, I stopped those childish ways. 12 It is the same with us. Now we see God as if we are looking at a reflection in a mirror. But then, in the future, we will see him right before our eyes. Now, I know only a part, but at that time I will know fully, as God has known me” (1 Corinthians 13).

Before encountering Jesus, Paul thought about God in childlike ways.  He did not see, feel, or understand God working in and through Paul’s life and the lives of others around him.  After Paul encountered Jesus, Paul thought like an adult and with Jesus at his side, Paul could begin to see, feel, and understand the beauty, majesty, and love of God.  And yet Paul struggled to see God completely.  Paul described it as seeing a reflection of God.  But Paul understood that in the present he would not know God’s will at all if God’s Word was not spoken and spoken about.  He would not know how to live in a Godly manner.  Paul would not know how to discern that God was present through all circumstances of life if he did not hear God’s Word.  The same is true for us.  Because we do not see all things of God clearly but more as a reflection, it is most important that we share God’s Word with one another and any insights to understanding God’s will.  That is why we take the time for Bible study and sermons; that we might see God as clearly as possible.

In today’s sermon, we are looking at a very familiar story from God’s Word of an encounter with Jesus.  It is a very powerful story, and we can best understand it if we enter the scene.  When we enter the scene, we can experience the rolling emotions and passions of the crowd, of the accusers, and the accused.  We can hear the shouts of the angry accusers, the quiet of the woman who stands alone; we can take in the inspired words of Christ, and just as importantly we can absorb the inspired moments of silence.  Far too often in our world today, we fail to take notice of those moments when no one speaks.  We should cherish those moments and use these moments to let God sink into our lives without distraction.  Do not forgo those moments alone with God.

Our story today comes from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John.  I would invite you to open your Bibles to that passage.  The passage involves a mob intent on carrying out an act of capital punishment by throwing stones at until death ensues. It was an ancient form of the death penalty and yet it is still a method employed in such nations as Iran. In stoning, the crowd pelts the convicted with stones.  In this manner, upon death, no individual among the group can be identified as the one who killed the condemned.

As we come into today’s scene, we need to remember that there is a growing tension between Jesus and the religious leadership.  The religious leaders were angry with Jesus for his words because Jesus’ words changed the image of God created by those religious leaders. 

Let’s enter the scene.  “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.”  Jesus was staying on the Mount of Olives; a place only mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures in the final days of his life.  From there, he arose and went early in the morning to the Temple, the most sacred place in Israel.  People began to flock around him.  There were men and women eager to be in his presence.  He sat and began to teach. This was the posture of a rabbi.  Can you imagine yourself in this scene?  You are in the holiest place, the Temple, and Jesus, a great teacher, is sitting with you explaining the purpose of the commandments and good news that he brings about God.  He is patiently answering questions and helping you understand the greater things of life.  Jesus was polishing the reflection of God in the mirror, helping people understand the love of God.  It was a treasured moment. 

Suddenly, the moments of peace at Jesus feet were broken by voices and noise, a great commotion was heading toward Jesus and it was getting louder and more angry sounding by the second.  In the midst of the voices and yelling, you hear a woman crying.  Verse 3, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’”

The moments of quiet and awe-inspiring instruction were over.  Sharp voice and angry accusations of a mob, instead of sweet truths about God, now fill the air.  If we were present we might think the mirror reflecting God’s image just got a little cloudy.  The mob made the women stand in front of the crowd.  She was isolated and alone.  They brought her to the Temple to accuse her of being a sinner, one worthy of death.  They brought her there to shame her and destroy her.  Often it is the precise moment when man seeks to demonstrate power by taking life that God demonstrates his power by giving life.  The Hebrew Scriptures put this scene into context when it says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Harm was meant to come to this woman, but God would do good through it.  This woman would have an encounter with Jesus and her life would be completely changed.

As we reenter the scene, we realize the mob had come to the Temple and turned it into a court room, except there are no witnesses presented, no evidence offered, and no opportunity for the accused to speak.  The woman just stands alone, hearing the accusation and a demand for immediate execution.  The serenity of God’s house was broken by man’s evil ways and now a decision awaits life or death for the woman.

The noise of their angry mouths stopped, and they tuned their ears attentively for Jesus’ reply.  For his part, Jesus did not move from his position.  As the quiet settled waiting for Jesus’ reply, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”  We want to know what did he write?  However, we will not know in this lifetime because it was not important for us to know.  What is important is that those moments of writing, represent a moment of divinely inspired silence.  Jesus did not speak.  The crowd he was teaching did not speak and the woman stood silent.  God works with silence as well as with words.  The silence built the tension focusing the attention of everyone on Jesus and this encounter.

After a moment, we see in verse 7 that whatever Jesus has writing had no immediate impact on the accusers. The text says, “When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”  The words of Christ stunned everyone into silence and changed the scene dramatically.  The mob was no longer a mob, per se, because each person was now accountable – and must decide, “Am I without sin?” There were no more questions or accusations.  Jesus’ words left each person in the hands of God to work through the silence.  In the silence, Jesus returned to writing in the sand.

I wonder if we can see ourselves in the role of the accusers.  I know from my own experience there have been times when I have spoken ill of another, when my tongue has been sharp and cutting, when I accused and condemn others with my words.  In this moment of Godly silence as Jesus wrote in the sand, I cannot help but identify with the self-righteous accusers.  The contemporary Christian band, Casting Crowns, has a song that speaks to this very moment.  The title of the song is “Jesus Friend of Sinners.”  The poetry of the song says to us in part:

Jesus, friend of sinners; We have strayed so far away; We cut down people in your name; But the sword was never ours to swing.

Jesus, friend of sinners; The truth's become so hard to see; The world is on their way to You; But they're tripping over me.

Always looking around but never looking up; I'm so double minded; A plank eyed saint with dirty hands; And a heart divided.

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners; Open our eyes to the world; At the end of our pointing fingers; Let our hearts be led by mercy.

Jesus, friend of sinners; The one who's writing in the sand; Make the righteous turn away; And the stones fall from their hands.
 

John wrote in verse 9, “When they heard it [what Jesus said], they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.”  One at a time, God’s Spirit convicted members of the mob of their own sin.  The text says, the elders meaning the scribes and Pharisees were the first to leave the Temple.  Jesus never asked them to leave just to throw the stone if they were without sin.  So their departure was an unfortunate moment because they missed the opportunity to see the reflection of God more clearly.  The Scribes and Pharisees did not need to leave.  They could have stayed and listened to Jesus’ teachings.  They were convicted of their own sin, but their pride got in the way of finding the forgiveness of that sin.  People today do the same thing.  People know that they are separated from God, their behavior is ungodly, and yet their pride keeps them from finding the healing and forgiveness of God.  Their own pride clouds and further distorts the reflection of God they see.  We are witnessing this in the scene as the eldest members leave the Temple drawing with them the younger.  We adults, who no longer think as a child, must be the example for our children.  We need to put away selfishness and pride for time with God that those who are younger may follow.

In our scene, Jesus, the woman, and those who came to hear Jesus speak of God remain.  The writing has stopped.  In verse 10, we see one of the most beautiful and reassuring scene in Scripture. “Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”  The moment grows quiet again, for there was a problem that remained for this woman.  She was an adulteress; that was never denied.  Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Jesus was without sin and was, therefore, free to cast the first stone.  Jesus could condemn this woman.  The danger has not passed.  But God’s Word says to us, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

So Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”  This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is the polished mirror.  This moment of forgiveness is what it means to encounter Jesus.  It is the moment when the sinner, this nameless woman, you, and I are brought to see God more clearly; and through the power of Godly silence and Godly words, she, you, and I are born.  Our lives are made different.

If we are in Christ, there will be no accusers or stones for us to face because we are saved.  We are saved not because of the good things we did in life.  We are saved because Christ paid the price for our sin on the cross, and because we publicly said, “Jesus is my Lord and my Savior.”  Have you genuinely given your heart over to him and made a public decision to follow him?  Have you chosen to express that decision through baptism?  If you have not, why wait?

The familiar story today is about mercy and justice; it is about love and forgiveness; it is about life and death; it is about the unruly nature of mobs and the righteous behavior God wants from us; but mostly is it about the good news of salvation in Christ expressed through God’s words and his divine moments of silence.  It is about encountering Jesus that we might see the reflection of God more clearly than ever before. May we, in our own words, retell this story to someone this week and live out God’s word.  Amen.

July 22 - Jesus Encounters - The Man No One Wanted

Mark 5:1-20

            I want to begin today with a little story.  Some of you may have heard this before but it bears repeating.  On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew.

Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life-boat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a symbolic life-boat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

This little story relays to us the unfortunate truth of life saving stations called churches.  Churches tend to move to what is comfortable and forget the reason church came into being.  We sometimes think that church is an organization of people who band together because of their common interest in Jesus Christ.  Church is not that.  Church is a divine institution, a product of God’s will.  We exist as a church because of God’s desire to love us and have us share with other the knowledge and experience of God.  This means we are to put in check our logical desires to be comfortable and instead, respond from the heart to God’s desire to save the lost.

Our New Testament reading today shakes Jesus’ disciples and shows the heart of God is towards the lost.  We become aware of this message through the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man no one wanted.

At the point of this encounter, Jesus’ ministry with his 12 disciples, had been an amazing journey.  Jesus has healed people of illnesses and disease.  The crowds were following him and excited about his teachings.  Jesus had named the 12 as apostles and these apostles can see they were special in Jesus’ eyes.  This was wonderful and exciting to be with Jesus.  We know what it is like when church is going well.  Lots of people are present, with good music, and kids.  It is a wonderful experience and it is comfortable and comforting.

It is at this very point of comfort that Jesus decided his apostle need to understand what following Him really means.  So, Jesus told the 12 to get in a boat and head to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.   Leaving the crowd behind, they began to go across the sea.  Not long thereafter a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Jesus got up, shouted at the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”  The disciples then were not just afraid they were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  The disciples were coming to see that being called a disciple of Jesus was not a membership in a social organization, it was a calling placed upon them by God.  To follow Jesus, was to live in the will of God.

As we turn to our New Testament reading, (Mark 5:1-20) the disciples go from comfort and the storm on the sea to an encounter a man no one wanted.  Mark wrote, “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.”  (The Gerasenes region is a land of people different from Jesus and his apostles who are Jews.  These people were pagans.  Jews did not associate with the pagans.)   “When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”

We encounter the man no one wanted.  Jesus’ disciples did not want this man; he was a pagan.  The pagans did not want this man.  He was possessed.  He shouted all night long.  He was physically strong, but no one could control him.  His neighbors tried to chain him, but he broke the chains.  The people of Gerasenes had some peace with this man because the man decided to live among the dead in the cemetery.  But the man was not at peace because even there he cut himself with sharpened stones.  Perhaps the man was cutting himself like many do today hoping that by cutting they will somehow find relief and healing for their emotional pain.

This is a fearful and uncomfortable scene.  The scene is a long way from the adoring crowd, friendly faces, and cheers as another miracle was performed.  Things were not orderly and clean.  The little band of 12 disciples were out of their comfort zone.  And now their leader, is out of the boat heading in the direction of this man no one wanted; heading toward a strange and uncomfortable person.

But you see there was one person who wanted this man.  Jesus did.  Jesus was and is the shepherd of the flock who looks for the one lost sheep.  Jesus told stories that when he finds that one sheep, he is happier about that one sheep than the ninety-nine that did not wander off.  Jesus approach to the man no one wanted was teaching his disciples what it meant to follow him.  Following Jesus is not neat and clean.  To follow Jesus is messy.  Ministry is messy.  This was the lesson the people in life saving station story forgot.  I suspect a great many churches have forgot ministry is messy.  It can be uncomfortable to deal with people no one wants.

Mark continued in verse 6, “When the man saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.  He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  In God’s name don’t torture me!’  Can you for a moment picture the faces of Jesus disciples?  Here is this man they are following confronted by a man screaming at the top of his lungs that Jesus is the Son of God and that he begs Jesus not to torture him.  I would guess one or more of them were checking the distance back to the boat to make an escape.  This is not neat, orderly, or fun.  It is downright scary.

Jesus is unmoved by the scene.  Jesus knows that this man is wanted by God.  Jesus knows this man is hurting, confused, and alone.  Jesus saw the man needed healing, not physically, mentally, or emotionally but spiritually.  So, Jesus said to the spirit within the man, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”  With Jesus permission, the spirit left the man and went into some nearby pigs.  The herd of pigs, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.  The man no one wanted was now calm, rational, and thoughtful.  The man dressed in some decent clothes and then sat down with Jesus and the disciples.  When someone has a genuine encounter with Jesus, they are changed.  You cannot encounter God and remain unchanged.  It is impossible. 

The man no one wanted was changed because he encountered Jesus.  Moreover, Jesus had modeled for his disciples and for his church that they are not just God’s agent to bring the good news to those who are ready to receive it but they are to help and to heal those people no one wants. 

Some months later, Jesus would tell a story of a man who prepared a great banquet.  Those the man first invited to share in the banquet were healthy and vibrant people, but they refused the invitation.  They were just too busy.  So, the man sent his servant out with these instructions, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”  The servant did as he was told and the banquet hall got messier and the lost came.

As we return to the story, we see that the local townspeople Gerasene have arrived.  They were afraid of Jesus.  Perhaps their fear was that Jesus’ actions will lead to more pigs drowning; that would be bad for business.  Perhaps they were afraid that more possessed like the man in the cemetery would come and looking for help and healing; that would be very messy.

Regardless of the source of their fear, Jesus’ purpose and mission in the cemetery that day was complete.  The lost sheep was saved.  Mark wrote in verse 18, “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.  Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.”  So, Jesus showed the man, his disciples, and his church what to do when someone was helped, healed, and saved.  They are to become part of the divine church and you are to call them into the mission. Jesus said to this man, “Go and tell others what the Lord God has done for you.  Be excited among the people you know.  Share the experience and joy of your encounter with Jesus.”

Folks, there are many people who live among the tombs of homelessness, lonely despair, grief, illness, and family tragedies.  People who live such lives need to meet Jesus Christ and allow that encounter to transform their lives.  How does that encounter happen if not through you, me, and the Church?  The answer is, “It won't happen.”  Who will bring them to Christ if not you, me, and church?  To be true to Christ, we need to be the people and a place where not just human beings can come but those who struggling with life can come and receive healing, compassion, and love.  It is a sacrifice for sure.  That is the mission of this life saving station.  And the sacrifice Jesus asks of us to be uncomfortable at times and be engaged in the messiness of ministry is a sacrifice much smaller than the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  Let us pray.

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