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May 27 - Simply Salt

Leviticus 2:11-14

Matthew 5:13-16

 

It is Memorial Day weekend.  We take time as a nation to remember those who served our country and those who lost their lives in the pursuit of our freedom and liberties.  Musician Billy Ray Cyrus sings a hauntingly beautiful song for Memorial Day that says in part:

 

All gave some and some gave all
And some stood through for the red, white and blue
And some had to fall
And if you ever think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some gave all

 

Memorial Day itself began simply as Decoration Day.  As a nation, we first observed Decoration Day on May 30, 1868.  People gathered at Arlington National Cemetery and placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.  Memorial Day, born in a nation divided, was simply a day of remembrance and reconciliation.  Over time, we have expanded the concept of Memorial Day.  We have made Memorial Day into a holiday with parades, backyard barbeques, retail store sales, weekend getaway, and of course, the first day of the fashion year in which we can were white clothing.  We humans tend to complicate our lives over time.  We do this with our homelife, our holidays, and unfortunately, we do this with our faith.  This is one of the reasons why we have spent the last few weeks talking about simplicity of God’s desire for our life; to act justly, love mercy, to walk humbly with Him.  God’s desire is that we would lay aside ceremony for mercy and traditions for simple acknowledgement of God as central to our lives.  God wants us to take time to rest from the “hurry scurry” of our lives and remember Him.

Today, we have the opportunity in this sanctuary to rest in one another’s presence, to rest in the presence of God, and to look to unwind the complexity of church and faith that we could regain the simplicity of God’s desire for our daily lives.  Today, I would like to see how God preserved the simplicity of his desire through the ageless and natural substance of salt.  Salt is a substance common to all human histories.  In its most ordinary form, salt is the chemical combination of the elements of sodium and chloride.  Salt gives our bodies the sodium is essential for life.  Without sodium, we might live for a week or so and not very well.

God chose salt as a simple reminder of his presence and his commitment.  In our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Leviticus, God commanded through Moses that the people of Israel should season offerings of grain with salt.  God instructed that the nation, the people of Israel, must not leave out, must not forget salt, because it would remind them of the salt of the covenant of your God.  Simple.  The people of Israel were to mark their worship observances with a seasoning of salt.  Salt showed the bond, the covenant agreement, between God and the Israelite people.  Salt signified God’s agreement that the nation of Israel would be His people and He their God.

It should not surprise us the Bible and histories of the nation of Israel tell us that over time offerings to God became much more complex and involved.  By the time God sent Jesus, the Temple of Jerusalem, the place of offerings, had undergone expansion.  The construction project had been going on for 46 years!  The system governing offerings was most expensive.

Knowing all of this, Jesus gathered the people to a simple grassy hillside to speak to them about God’s simple desires.  We heard Jesus words this morning.  He said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Salt was the physical evidence of God’s covenant.  Salt was the physical reminder of his presence among the people and the responsibility of the people to represent God to others.

What then do we make of Jesus statement that, “You are the salt of the earth.”  First, we see that Jesus says, “You are.”  He is speaking in the present.  He did not say, “You were,” as though he was speaking about some past glory.  He did not say, “You will be,” as though he was speaking about a future period.  He said, “You are,” meaning right now God’s desire is for you to be like salt.  What does that mean?

We use salt as a seasoning.  God told the Israelites to season their offerings.  Salt, as a seasoning, changes whatever it touches.  If you are not sure that is true, then do a little experiment.  Prepare some food (French fries, steak, broccoli) all without any salt at all.  Eat one-third of each item and remember how each one tastes.  Then salt rest of the food.  Eat half of what remains on your plate and note the significant difference in taste in the food that comes from the salt.  With the final food portion, I challenge you to scrap off the salt or eat around the salt so that you can relive the taste of the food before you seasoned it with salt.  You find it is impossible to do so because the addition of the salt has changed the substance of the fries, steak, and broccoli.  This, of course, is a bit of a silly example of what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth,” but serves to remind us that salt once added changes the substance of what it touches.  So if we act like salt, whatever we touch, changes.

What does this mean for us?  If we claim a relationship with God through Jesus, then we have been changed and we are to season with Christ’s love those whom we touch.  So in our lifetime, how many people will we touch?  How many will we have contact with, have some sort of interact with?  I read a study that says, on average, in a lifetime, we will touch 80,000 people.  Some of those people we will touch but once and others we will touch daily.  But overall, each of us will touch 80,000 other human beings.  The desire for God is for us to show his presence in our life to others.

A couple of weeks ago we had a workshop for small churches.  One of the issues small churches can face is a belief that they are too small to make a difference.  Consider the math for a moment.  A small church of 30 people, on average, has the capacity to touch as many as 2.4 million people.  Now we know that math breaks down a bit since there are not 2.4 million people in the capital district, but the point of the math is that it shows just how much impact a small group of people can make who are seeking to be the salt of the earth.

Some years ago, when I was working for the Federal government, I was responsible for security at several nuclear facilities throughout the country.  One day a mail handler asked my secretary if he could speak with me.  She ushered the man into my office.  I knew the man from our passing in the hallways but no more deeply than that.  The man was nervous given the difference in our positions, but after introducing himself to me, he pulled out a small pamphlet with a question on it. The question was "Do you know if you're going to heaven?"  He asked me did I know if I was going to heaven.  We had an enjoyable conversation and I told him that I believed I would go to heaven.  However, this experience taught that this man was not sure that I was a Christian.  Why else would he have asked me that question about going to heaven?  He had come into my office to season me with the salt of Christ’s love because he cared about me and had not seen me season him with the salt of Christ’s love before this day.  It was sobering moment for me to recognize that Jesus does not want us to be a full container of salt that is sealed tight.  We must be opened and used to season other people’s lives.

Jesus said, “13 “You are the salt of the earth.  But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  Ouch!  This business about being salt is serious.  We need to be mindful of God’s simple desire for our life to be the salt of the earth.  Sometimes we question ourselves, “Why am I here on earth?  What is my purpose?”  “You are salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  “That is your purpose.  Now share God’s love found me with the 80,000 people you touch.”  Salt changes whatever it touches so long we use the salt.

Now many things happen when salt touches something.  Salt obviously seasons what it touches, but salt also preserves, purifies, heals, and creates thirst.  Our purpose as Christians and as a church is to serve others through words and actions.  Our words can heal those struggling with life’s difficulties.  That comes from the salt of Christ.  We can encourage others with a just a warm greeting.  A couple of weeks ago, someone shared at a Bible study that they met a person on the street earlier in the day who was crying.  This was one of the 80,000 people that we will meet in our life.  The person telling the story said they stopped to ask how they could help.  This is being salt by encouraging others.  In that interaction, the person in need was changed because they knew there were people, Christians, who genuinely wanted to help.  And that life changed again because the Bible study group prayed for that person and placed their needs upon God’s throne who will answer all prayers.

As a church, we are engaged in local missions.  As we are traveling this life together, we are seasoning the lives of others with the salt of Christ’s love.  In some cases, we are preserving the lives of people with food, shelter, clothing, and dignity.  For others we are bringing healing from grief and turmoil.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” so think about the opportunities you have to season the lives of others with Christ.  In case we did not understand fully Jesus’ call to do so, Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world.”  Being a Christian is not an invitation to work for the Secret Service.  We are to visible.  We need to reflect the light of hope that we have in Christ.  We need to reflect to others the joy that comes from knowing that our future is assured.  I recently met a man who said, “I have great peace because I no longer need to be concerned about what happens to me when I die.  I know that big question has been answered for me by Christ because I know I will be in heaven with him.  Having the big question resolved, I can now live a life peacefully honoring God through Jesus and sharing that joy with others.”  Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So this weekend, Memorial Day weekend, some of us will participate in a cookout, a parade, or just a time spend time in the company of a few people.  Whatever the setting, know that God has given you the authority and the responsibility to season other people with his love.  God has given you the authority and responsibility to be a light to that gathering and show his love to others.  We can do this simply through our voice, our expressions, and the subjects we choose to speak about.  So, let’s remember to season each touch with those we meet with the salt of Christ’s love.  And I know if we season with Christ’s love each touch we have in the life of another person, then people’s lives will be changed and God will be glorified.  Let us pray.

May 20 - Jesus - Lord of the Sabbath

Isaiah 45:22-23

Romans 14:5-12

 

In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on the simplicity of God’s desire for our lives.  We heard God say, “What do I require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with Me” (Micah 6:8).  He further said, “I desire from you mercy, not sacrifice; acknowledgment of me, not burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  Last week, we saw the simple outworking of faith, the acknowledgement of God, through a nameless mother on behalf of her daughter afflicted with an impure spirit.  Simplicity.  It is essential for us to understand the life God desires for us.

Therefore, today, I would like us to continue to explore God’s simple desires for our life.  In exploring God’s simple desires, it is my hope that together we will keep on learning the way God wants us to live and that together we might do some good as we travel this life.  The simple desire we should explore today comes to us in a single word that has carried with it over the centuries a great deal of complexity.  The word is Sabbath.  It comes from the Hebrew word, “sabbat,” which means to sit or rest.  We find the word most notably in the Ten Commandments.  The fourth commandment handed down by God to Moses states, ““Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

The Hebrew people the Sabbath denotes Saturday, the seventh day of the week, or, more precisely, the period from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.  God said, “Remember the Sabbath day by making it holy.”  God wanted the people of Israel to cease their work activities and rest.  They were to spend their time remembering the creativeness and grace of God.  It was also to remember that God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Over the centuries, people being people, wanted increasing specificity as to what it meant to cease work, rest, and make the day holy.  So, the religious scholars composed more rules about what the people could and could not do.  In some cases, the scholars exempted themselves from some of the commands imposed on others.  Things have not changed much in human nature in this regard.  It would astound us by the laws passed by Congress that do not apply to Congress.

By the time of Jesus public ministry, the number and types of rules imposed on people of Israel was extensive.  The Ten Commandments had grown to 613 commandments.  The definitions of what constituted work included 39 separate categories and more do’s and don’ts.  I once had a lawyer tell me a law is not a law until someone is brought to court and charged with breaking the law.  If the court finds the person guilty, then the law is a law.  If the court finds the person innocent, then the law is not yet a law.  This same principle applied to the rules for the Sabbath.  The rules required enforcement for the rules to be rules, so the religious leaders enforced the rules for the Sabbath.

The simple command expressed by God, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” had become quiet complex and that the focus of people’s attention shifted from resting, remembering, and honoring God to doing and not doing those things that honored the rules.

When see Jesus entered the picture, we begin to sense what happens when simplicity cuts into complexity.  Jesus’ behavior to the ruler makers and the rule look much like the example of a hot knife going through butter.  Jesus just cut right through everything.

The rule makers said on the Sabbath you could not do anything that resembled work that you did on the previous six days.  The rule makers knew and saw Jesus heal people with illness or deformed bodies giving freedom to those people confined by their diseases.  The rule makers knew Jesus healed people in multiple settings during many days of the week.  The rule makers never objected to Jesus healing people, until Jesus began healing people on the Sabbath.  The rule makers were outraged when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath because Jesus did not cease his work; meaning the activities he did on other days of the week.  The rules were that important to the rule makers.  Healing the ill, unmistakable evidence of God at work, meant nothing compared to the rules developed to enforce remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy.  Jesus told the rule makers that the Sabbath was made for man and man was not made for the Sabbath.  Jesus’ words remind us that the Sabbath is a blessing to humanity.  The rule makers had changed the Sabbath into a curse for humanity.  People suffered under the rules created for the Sabbath.  Jesus looked to free people from rules that constrained their lives and restore a time of remembering and honoring God for the Sabbath.

When we read the Bible, we find Jesus engaged in three activities on the Sabbath.  First, as I mentioned, Jesus granted mercy to those who came to him and he healed them from their diseases.  God said, “I desire mercy,” and Jesus remembered and honored his Father by granting mercy with healings.  Second, Jesus attended the synagogue on the Sabbath.  In several spots in the Bible, we find that on the Sabbath, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach, or in other places in the Bible it says he began to read the word of God aloud.  Jesus taught that joining in corporate worship, speaking about the God, honored God and kept the day holy.  Third, Jesus ate dinner with those who would invite him in.  Having dinner with friends or even those who did not like Jesus was not about the food it was about the opportunity to fellowship, to teach, to share the truth about God, and to encourage one another.  I searched for more examples of what Jesus did on the Sabbath, but this is what I found.  Jesus did three things.  Jesus showed mercy to others.  Jesus shared in the celebration of God with others in worship and reading God’s promises.  Jesus fellowshipped with other people to remember and celebrate the blessings of God and opened their lives to one another.  I think these simple acts bring to mind what our Old Testament reading from Isaiah called for God’s people to do.  God said, “Turn to me and be saved, for I am God, and there is no other.  My word will not be revoked.  Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.”  Jesus honored the holiness of God by remembering Sabbath.  Jesus showed his love for God in worship and by hearing and speaking his word.  Jesus showed God to others by showing mercy.  Jesus showed the love of God present within him by spending time and encouraging with those who loved him and with those who did not.

This seems so simple, why do we even need to talk about?  Because despite Jesus example, we humans are hard to teach.  We heard in our New Testament reading from Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, an undertone of problems in living as simply as the example presented by Jesus.  It is quite possible that within a matter of a few years since Jesus resurrection from the dead, rules makers had returned to the scene on how to honor God.  We seem to like rules; at least the ones we make for other people to follow.  And by this time, Christians began the movement away from celebrating the Hebrew Sabbath on Saturday and began celebrating instead the Lord’s Day on Sunday.  This shift in days was to remember the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, was resurrected into new life the day after the Sabbath or Sunday. 

So Paul needed to help the church work through honoring God who sent their Savior and Lord.   Paul wrote, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike (meaning everyday is sacred). Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”  Paul was laying out the case that what matter in life was not our differences in whether we celebrated everyday as a gift from God or we celebrated a Sabbath day as a gift from God.  What mattered was our common desire to make God the center of our celebration.  If you celebrated God’s provision with a meal that included meat or celebrated God by fasting and not eating, then it was acceptable to God because you made God the focus of your celebration.

            Paul continued, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, then we live for the Lord; and if we die, then we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, [it does not matter] for we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”  Paul was saying in a broader way, live your life in the way that honors Jesus Christ, your Lord.  Live as He lived, honoring God and doing God’s will.  When it is our time die, die as Jesus did, honoring God.  The specific ways we live, and even die, is going to vary from person to person.  But that does not matter if we are honoring God and remembering his grace.  It does not matter how we rest in the Lord, it only matters that we do.

            Paul finished his thought and said, “10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written: “‘As surely as I  live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me;     every tongue will acknowledge God.’”  12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

            So, what does this all mean to us this day?  I think we can listen to Paul’s words, look at Jesus example, and God’s commandment and ask ourselves some simple questions.  Did I offer mercy to others as God asked me to do?  If I did, if I lived for the Lord and as he did, then I remembered the mercy God gave the Hebrew people in removing them from the bondage of slavery and the mercy God gave me in forgiving my sins through Christ.  Did I acknowledge God by worshiping Him and hearing his words of promise?  If I did on one day of the week or every day of the week, then I remembered the holiness of God and celebrated his grace.  Did I fellowship with others and share in their lives and they in mine and see God’s blessing in this fellowship?  If I did, then I remembered that God is at the center of my life and that I want to love Him and those He places in my life.  Making God the center of our life through mercy, worship, and fellowship are simple steps of living as God intended and giving an account of our life to God.  Let’s keep our lives simple before God.  Amen and Amen.

 

May 13 - A Mother's Persistent Faith

Mark 7:1-30  

Today is Mother’s Day!  The first ever official Mother’s Day observance occurred on May 10, 1908, at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  The day was a simple service to recognize and honor all mothers, living and dead.  So, Mother’s Day in the United States started with a church service. 

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a Mother’s Day proclamation.  His proclamation directed “Government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”  The government changed Mother’s Day to be a patriotic service.

In 2017, Americans changed Mother’s Day a bit and spent $24 billion on Mother’s Day.  We spent $1.9 billion on day spa treatments, $2.1 billion on greeting cards, $2.6 billion on flowers, $4.2 billion on dinner, and $5 billion on jewelry.  Mother’s Day changed to be a very large retail enterprise.

As we, in this setting, continue to explore the simplicity of God’s desire for our lives, how might we view such occasions as Mother’s Day?  Should we see it as a church service, a patriot celebration, or retail extravaganza?  Perhaps, God wants us to understand and honor mothers today through the simple examples He provides in Scripture.  Let’s look at one such example from our New Testament reading today and see what God intends for us.  Please turn with me to Chapter 7 in the Gospel of Mark.

This passage in Scripture offers us many lessons but the one I want to focus upon today we see through the contrast Mark shapes for us.  The first part of the passage, verses 1 through 23, sets foundation for today’s teaching.  Let’s look briefly at the first part.  In the first 23 verses, we find several key players: the Pharisees (Jews religious leaders), teachers of the law (the most learned Jewish scholars), Jesus’ disciples (an odd collection of fishermen, tax collectors, dreamers, and zealots), and, of course, our central character, Jesus.  As the scene opens with verse 1, we find, “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.”  Mark adds that the Pharisees and scholars practiced ritual washing hands, utensils, and cookware.  Now we are not talking about hygiene and personal cleanliness, we are talking about ceremonial cleanliness.  To come to the marketplace and brush up against a Gentile, a non-Jewish person, would make the Pharisees feel unclean or impure requiring a washing.  The manner of washing must be precise, otherwise while the skin may be clean the impurity would remain.  The Pharisees are upset that Jesus’ disciples are impure and eating leading to an inward impurity.

As we move to verse 5, we find the Pharisees cannot contain themselves about their observation and speak to Jesus.  “So the Pharisees and teachers of the law [the best and brightest of men of Israel] asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’”  The Pharisees want Jesus to correct his disciples and have them follow the example the rules set up by the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  This is very typical human behavior.  We are most comfortable when other people act like us.  When people do not act like us, there is a human tendency to question the person’s purity and fitness.  That was true in Jesus’ day and remains true today.  If you doubt my statement is true, listen to any debate today on such topics as abortion, capital punishment, immigration, or global warming where people differ and see how quickly the debate moves from discussion of views to personal attacks.  Personal attacks occur because we want the other person to think, speak, and act like us.

The Pharisees had defined personal purity, human likeness of God to them, by specific practices in ceremonial cleanliness.  Following these procedures showed the depth of commitment of the people of Israel to follow God and represent God to all other people.  The Pharisees and teachers were attacking personal fitness and purity of Jesus’ disciples because Jesus’ disciples acted differently from them.

Jesus replied to the charges against his disciples.  Jesus said in verse 9, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”  Jesus explained to the Pharisees, the Teachers of the Law, his disciples, and the crowds surrounding them the way God sees things.  In verse 14, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.  Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. [Your hands and the food you eat will not separate you from God or godliness.]  Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them [makes them unlike God].”  Jesus further explained this to his disciples in verse 18, “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” Verse 20, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”  Jesus was making the point that showing a love for God and others has nothing to do with the cleanliness of one’s hands but instead has everything to do with the cleanliness of one’s heart.  So in the first part of today’s story, we learn that the best men of Israel mistakenly following traditions of the past, of cleanliness, of condemning other, as a means of showed their faith in God.  And this open sets up our Mother’s Day story found in verses 24 through 30, where we learn what God is like and what he wants from us.

            We find at the beginning of this part of the story that Jesus has moved on to the city of Tyre, which is in modern day Lebanon.  He has moved from Jewish Galilee into a pagan, or Gentile, or Greek part of the land.  Jesus was among people who do not act as the people of Israel.  Jesus was among people who do not believe in God as do the people of Israel.  Jesus was separated from the best men of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the law as he could get.  The only people with Jesus were his own disciples.   Verse 24 says, “Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.”  We do not know why Jesus wanted his presence kept private, but he did.  But as we read on, we see, “He could not keep his presence a secret.”  In fact, the Bible says there was a woman, a mother, who as Greek, meaning not a Jew, who as soon as she heard about Jesus’ reputation for healing, ran to find him.  This nameless mother had problem.  An impure spirit had control over her daughter.  The Gospel of Matthew also contains this story and reports that when the woman saw Jesus she cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”  The impurity of this girl could not be denied because her entire spirit was impure.  You could wash this girl’s hands, the plates she used, the pots she cooked with and her impurity would not change.  It would not matter what foods she ate her impurity would not change.  An impure spirit had overtaken this mother’s little girl.  The woman believed Jesus was a person of God who was more powerful that the impure spirit.  She believed that the purity of Jesus could drive out the impure spirit within her daughter.  Love drove this mother to find the purity to heal the impurity of her daughter.  This mother is such a contrast to the beliefs expressed by the best men of Israel who believed Jesus was impure himself.

Mark says in verse 25, the woman willingly fell at Jesus’ feet to plead her case.  This mother assumed a posture of submission, humility, and prayer before Jesus.  She was not trying to control her daughter’s life.  This mother was willing to humble herself that her daughter might be freed to be herself again.  This mother’s posture at the feet of Jesu was such a contrast to the posture of best men of Israel who in pride stood and stayed their distance from Jesus. 

The Gospel of Matthew says, “Jesus did not answer this mother [and moved away from her.]  So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”  This mother was persistent in expressing her faith in Jesus and pleading that Jesus heal her daughter.  The mother kept asking even to the point of annoying Jesus’ disciples.  This mother’s persistence in seeking Jesus’ goodness was such a contrast to the persistence by the best men of Israel who looked to deny that Jesus had any goodness at all.

I do not think Jesus ignored this woman because he was not interested in her and her daughter.  I think Jesus wanted his disciples to see the contrast between the faith, posture, and persistence of this woman and that expressed earlier by the best men of Israel.  I think Jesus wanted his disciples to see how following the traditions of men in washing hands, plates, and pots had nothing to do with changing one’s life.  Instead, Jesus wanted his disciples to see that coming to God humbly had everything to do with changing one’s life.

Having allowed the situation and the contrast to build, Jesus now spoke to the mother.  In verse 27, Jesus expressed the beliefs of the disciples who believe this woman should be dismissed.  He said, “First let the children [the child of Israel] eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs [to those not of Israel].”  These harsh words reflect the attitudes of the Jews towards the non-Jews; they believed that God only concerned himself with them, the Jews.

In verse 28, we find this love driven, submissive, humble, and persistent mother shows that she is street smart and not a quitter.  The mother replied in verse 28, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  She is saying, “I know that I am not a child of Israel but hear my plea, “Show me mercy by healing my daughter because I know you are able.”  This mother understood that human traditions was not the message and hope of humanity.  Hope comes from mercy.  Mercy is the essence of God.  This mother understood and believed that God’s mercy table was big enough to extend even to those considered by some as mere dogs.

Jesus, in the company of his disciples, told this mother, “For such a reply, [for such a statement of faith] you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”  Mark wrote, “The mother went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”  Jesus granted this mother mercy.  The impurity within her daughter was removed by the purity of God through Jesus.

What then can we learn this Mother’s Day from the example of this nameless mother?  What did she discovered about God and how does her discovery affect our lives today?  There are three things we should see.

First, God is not interested in our past, so why should we?  God was not interested in the past of the best men of Israel.  Those men were absorbed by the traditions of their past and they missed God in the present moving among them in person of Jesus.  The woman who came to Jesus was unconcerned about her past.  So what that she was a pagan and should have nothing to do with Jews such as Jesus.  Her past was unimportant to her and it was unimportant to God.  Jesus was there in the present and she recognized him as Lord.  We should not be concerned with our own past as somehow making us unable to approach Jesus.  Our past ends and life begins anew when we turn to Jesus.  We also learn that should not concern ourselves with the past of others.  It is none of our business for we are not the gatekeepers for others to come into the presence of God.  This nameless mother put her past behind her, turned to Jesus and he received Jesus in the present moment.  We must do likewise.

Second, we saw plainly that love within this mother’s heart drove her behavior and so love must drive us.  Love must be the motivation and come out of us through our thoughts, words, and actions.  Scripture tells us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And in showing God’s love within us, the Bible reminds us “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).  We cannot try to control other people and say we do so out of love.  That is not love.  We listen to others with respect, patience, and kindness.  We must walk them, pray for them, submit ourselves to God for them, and even seek mercy for them.  This nameless mother loved.  We must do likewise.

Third and finally, this nameless mother returned to her home and shared the good news of Jesus with others.  We are not just to hold onto the blessings of our relationship with God through Jesus.  We are to share that blessings with others.  This nameless mother shared her experience with others even though they might not believe in God.  She did so because she wanted others to know the love God has for them.  We must do likewise.

This Mother’s Day let’s celebrate motherhood not as a church service, or as a patriotic celebration with flags, or as a costly commercial event.  Instead, let’s celebrate Mother’s Day as a day of rebirth.  Let’s forgot the past that burdens us.  Let love motivate our life toward others.  Let’s open our arms to receive and share God’s blessings with others.  This nameless mother did so.  We must do likewise.  Let us pray.

May 6 - The Cross, Baptism, & Lord's Supper

Matthew 3:13-17

1 Corinthians 11:23-29

           

The last few weeks we have been talking about the simplicity of God’s desires.  God is focused and he wants his people to be equally focused.  We heard from our Old Testament readings that God say he requires three things from his people, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”  (Micah 6:8).  Simple. Clean. Clear.  When we hear those words, “To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” there is really no need to amplify what God said because any attempt to do so who only make the command more complicated.

We also heard God say in the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice; acknowledgement of God, not burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Again, this is a very simple expression of God’s desire for everyone.  It is a reminder of his earlier call to love mercy and walk humbly with God.  Simple.  Clean.  Clear. 

So, I want us to talk about the simplicity of God’s message.  Why is that important?  Because sometimes we humans tend to take what is simple and make it complex. 

I remember one time when I worked for the Federal government, I received a recommendation to change the use of one of the Federal buildings.  The building as it was windowless.  The walls and roof were three feet thick of reinforced concrete.  There was only one doorway into the building.  There was desire to reuse this building but the equipment to go into the building was too large to fit through that one door.  This in engineering circles is known as a “problem.”  The engineer for this project recommended cutting a new large opening through the building’s 3-foot-thick wall to get the new equipment into the building.  Doing so would be complex and, at that time, would require about $250,000 just to open the wall and restore wall once the equipment was in place.  I toured the building with the engineer and listened to his complex and expensive plan to remove and replace the wall.  And then looked up and asked the engineer a simple question, “Why couldn’t we just lower the equipment through the large roof hatches in the building?”  You see, those who designed the original building made the 3-foot thick roof removable.  The answer to the problem was simple, clean, and clear.  All that was needed was to first look up. 

We need to remember that God desire for our walk with him is to first look up and see that his plans for our life are simple, clean, and clear.  We do not need to redesign and remodel God’s original plans.  We do not need to make things complicated.  However, we do need to look up and focus on God.

Therefore, I think we could all profit by talking simply about some of the foundations and practices of our faith.  Today I would like to begin with the foundational belief of the cross and two of our practices, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Let’s begin with the challenge of the cross.

The cross is a symbol.  The cross is a symbol for the sin in our life.  It is a symbol for those moments in which we chose options, actions, and words that did not honor God.  The cross is a symbol that such sin affects our life now and separates us from God.  In short, the cross reminds us that poor choices have consequences.  We can choose sinful options, but Bible tells us the consequence of choosing sin is death.  Finally, most importantly, and most joyfully, the cross is a symbol of Jesus’ decision to take the consequence of our sin upon himself.  Think of it this way.  The cross is a symbol to remind us that Jesus takes our sin onto his account as an act of love for us.  Then God takes Jesus’ record of a perfect life and places it upon our account.  By doing this, God thus accepts into His presence those who believe in Christ as though they lived the perfect sinless life of Jesus.  As Baptists, we believe that the work of the cross, this exchange, is called grace.  God gives to us grace when we place our faith, our trust, in Jesus.

So, the cross is a symbol of the foundation of our faith that Jesus in love for us, died for our sins, and in our belief in Jesus love, we receive God’s grace now and forever.  Simple.  Clear.  Clean.

How then do we who have chosen to answer Jesus’ call to follow him, to believe in him, show our decision and celebrate the grace we have received?  Jesus asks to show and celebrate that grace by imitating him.  And Jesus set out two important ways to celebrate the blessing of God’s grace.  To look at the first way we imitate Jesus and celebrate grace, let’s turn to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, starting at verse 13.  Matthew recorded for us,“13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.”  Jesus had baptism in mind.  Baptism, by John the Baptist, occurred in the River Jordan and was done as an outward sign of a person’s decision to repent, that is to look up to God and turn from choosing the sinful options of life.  In verse 14, Matthew wrote that when Jesus arrived at the river seeking baptism, “14John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”  John recognized that Jesus had no need for baptism because there was no sin in Jesus’ life.  “15 Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’”  Jesus wanted to show his willingness to set the example for his followers of making an outward public act of commitment or recommitment to look to God.  “Then John consented.”  Having been baptized, Jesus called on every person who believes in Him to make the decision for themselves to be baptized like he was baptized. 

So, at the foundation of our faith is the practice of public baptism.  When we choose baptism, we are saying, “Lord, I believe in you, I want to obey you, and I want to imitate you.”  Simple. Clear. Clean.  The act of baptism the Bible says is a symbol of being buried with Jesus (going under the water) and being raised from the death by the glory of God (coming up out of the water), and walking in a new way of life (exiting the water).  Baptism is a powerful public symbol of our standing, looking up, and saying to God, “Thank you for the grace of Jesus Christ; bless me as I follow Him.”  Simple.  Clean.  Clear.

As we look at the second way we imitate Jesus and celebrate God’s grace, we turn to Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.  Please turn with me in the New Testament section of your Bibles to 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, verse 23.  Paul, a baptized follower of Jesus, wrote, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” 

So, at the foundation of our faith is the practice of remembering Jesus through the sharing of bread.  The bread, Jesus says, is a symbol of his body.  We are to remember that Jesus gave of himself as a blessing so that others, you and I could receive God’s grace.  For believers, taking the bread is a humble way of looking up to God and saying thank you for sending Jesus.

Paul continued to outline this celebration of grace in verse 25.  He wrote, “In the same way, after supper Jesus took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”  The cup is a symbol of Jesus blood that seals a new agreement between you and God.  It is an agreement that when God looked at you, He would see Jesus’ perfect sinless life.  This is not a magic trick or deception of God.  This covenant is God acting with grace toward us.

So, at the foundation of our faith and the celebration of God’s grace, is remembering Jesus through the sharing of the cup.  The cup is a symbol of Jesus’ blood that guarantees God’s forgiveness of our sin.  Simple.  Clean. Clear.

In his conclusion on celebrating the Lord’s Supper, Paul said in verse 28, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.”  Paul wanted his church to remember the significance of the bread and cup as a sign of their relationship with Jesus.  Paul wanted his church to remember their baptism and the new life they have with Jesus.  The Lord’s Supper is a time to reflect that we are different from the world because of the love and presence of Christ.  Paul wanted his church to remember the grace God gave them.  Paul wanted his church to examine themselves for anything that keep them from doing that would please God.  Finally, Paul wanted his church to remember that everyone who believes in Jesus is invited to share in the bread and share in the cup.  If there is a quarrel among them, then they needed to reconcile with one another.

There is simplicity in the cross, of baptism, the bread, and the cup.  These symbols are the foundation of what we believe because they all center on the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus says to you and me, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).  The cross gives us birth in a new life through God’s grace.

Jesus says to you and me, “Believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16).”  Baptism says to all, “I decided to follow Jesus.”

Jesus says to you and me, “Take and eat in remembrance of me.”  The bread reminds us God loves us and blessings of grace.

Jesus says to you and me, “Take and drink in remembrance of me.”  The cup reminds us we are united with God and as one body through the blood of Jesus.

Jesus’ words to you and me about the cross, of baptism, the bread, and cup call us to look up to God; to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  How will you respond to Jesus?  Let us pray.

Apr 22 - The Language of Mercy

Today, we are exploring language.  Language comes in many forms and serves many purposes.  Of course, we when we think about the linguistic languages used within the world.  The top 5 world languages are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, and Portuguese.  You each received a worship bulletin today that guides us all with a written language.  At this moment, I am using spoken language.  The spoken language has been historically the most powerful means of communicating a message.  Here is an excerpt of powerful spoken language:  Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.  And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today!

            Even though this speech was giving 55 years ago, the spoken words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still have great power.

            Beyond the written and spoken languages, we have emotional language.  In the book, the Five Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman a marriage counselor, offers that all people have an emotional language specifically associated with feeling loved.  He concludes there are only five such languages.  Those five languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.  I highly recommend Dr. Chapman’s book for anyone, whether married or not.

            So, we humans have the written language, the spoken language, and emotional language.  Today, I want us to look one more language; the language of mercy.  This language is not of human origin.  It is one of God’s languages and He wants us to learn it.  Please turn with me to Hosea, Chapter 6, where we will receive our first course in the language of mercy.  In this passage, we find Israel deciding to return to following God.  In verse 1, we read, ““Come, let us return to the Lord.  He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.  Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him.”  This is human language written and now spoken conveying Israel’s decision to again follow the Lord after experiencing pain in their lives for not following God.

            God gave his thoughts on Israel’s plan.  Verse 3, “What can I do with you, Ephraim and Judah (read Israel)?  Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.  [It is here one moment and then vanishes as though it was never there.]  Therefore, I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth— then my judgments go forth like the sun.”  God is quite clear that through his messengers, the prophets, God wanted his people to change; there was time for the people to come back to him before experiencing the pain from separation.  Yet they did not change and so to avoid further difficulties with God, Israel planned to speak to God through their language of worship practices, festivals, sacrifices, and burnt offerings.

Israel’s choice of language did not impress God.  God explained in simple terms his desired language.  God said in verse 6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”  God wanted Israel to learn the language of mercy.  This is not what Israel expected.  Sacrifices and offerings were important parts of God’s law for the Hebrew people and the Israelites believed sacrifice and offerings was the best way to redeem themselves before God.  Would not it make sense performing more of sacrifices, more offerings, would help Israel quickly get back into God’s good graces? But God’s reply was, “I do not want to see them.”  In a similar setting in the Old Testament when the Israelites again sought return to God, God said it more pointedly.  God said, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.” (Amos 5:21-23) God wanted something different.

God wanted the people to show their knowledge of God by showing mercy.  But God needs nothing, including mercy, so to whom was to be the object of Israel’s mercy?  The answer was plain.  God wanted his people to know him and to show the effect of knowing him by expressing mercy to one another.  The people were to worship God by being merciful to one another.  The more merciful people were to one another the more they honored God.  Think about that formula for a moment.  If you want to honor God, then know him and share mercy with his people.  The more merciful you are, the more you show how well you know and honor God.  Why would God think in those terms?  Because every human being bears the image of God.  Giving mercy to lift another human brings honor and glory to the image of God.   This is not how human think and express themselves.  This is the divine language of mercy.

What then does a merciful person look like?  What does the language of mercy look like, sound like, and feel like?  Please turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 9, verse 9 as we explore those questions.  Matthew wrote, “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.  While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’  [Why does your teacher eat with whose conduct does not merit God’s grace?]  On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”  We can draw some key understandings from this short passage.  First, the Pharisees, faithful observers of sacrifices and burnt offerings, did not understand the language of mercy.  We know this because Jesus told them to go and learn what it means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Second, Jesus showed the language of mercy by reaching out to the marginalized people; tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus did not just speak to them, he ate with them.  Here is the thing we cannot miss.  Mercy involves goodness and kindness in moral behavior, a loving and compassionate heart that is associated with dedication to God.  It does not mean Jesus adopted the lifestyle of the tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus’ mercy, his presence, connected the tax collectors and sinners to him, to share in his knowledge of God; to know God’s nature and will.  Third, mercy removes boundaries between people.  Jesus presence connected those separated from society to the fabric of God.  Finally, mercy looks to bring healing.  Mercy looks to relieve the human frailty and hurts of those bearing God’s image.  The tax collectors and sinners needed spiritual healing.  The simple expression of mercy by Jesus opened the door for spiritual health.

Let’s turn again to Matthew Chapter 12 for another example of mercy.  Jesus and his disciples were walking by a grain field on the Sabbath.  The disciples were hungry and grabbed some grain, stripped the husks from the grain, and ate them.  The Pharisees were outraged not because the disciples helped themselves to the farmer’s grain.  The Pharisees were outraged because the disciples did the work to husk the grain on the Sabbath, a day free from work.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees to understand that the Sabbath was not a burden to God’s people, it was a relief.  The disciples did only enough to address the hunger of their bodies.  In verse 7, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, ’you would not have condemned the innocent.”  If we read further we would find to accentuate his point, Jesus then healed the crippled hand of a man; more work in the mind of the Pharisees, more mercy by Jesus.  Again, God’s desire is the more mercy shown to another of his people, the more understand and honor given to God.

Jesus repeatedly showed mercy.  When he was not teaching the language of mercy, he was showing it.  Jesus taught:

  • Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven in merciful.  (Luke 6:36)
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
  • In a parable, Jesus said, “Shouldn’t you have mercy on a fellow servant as I have had on you?”  (Matthew 18:33)
  • To a man healed of demon possession, Jesus 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.”  (Mark 5:19)
  •  If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift;” give mercy then offerings.

Jesus showed mercy when he:

  • Healed people of physical illness, demon possession, blindness, and deafness,
  • Raised from the dead a young girl, a young boy, and his friend Lazarus.
  • Forgave the sins of a paralyzed man, a woman caught in adultery, those nailing him to the cross, and his disciple Peter for denying him.

You might be thinking, “Pastor, this is all wonderful, but I do not feel God’s power to heal or to raise people from the dead.  How do I show mercy?”

First, know God.  Know that he has and will continue to give you mercy.  The greatest act of mercy from God to you is salvation in Christ.  

Second, if you are saved, then look to see how God has equipped you to do at this point in your life to share mercy with others.  We profess every Sunday that we will forgive (grant mercy) to those who have sinned against us.  Do we just say those words as some form of ritual or do we do those words as a way of worshipping God?  God has blessed every believer with the power to forgive; grant mercy.  The Bible says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Third, God has equipped each believer to serve others.  Donating time, treasure, talent, and tears to helping others is granting mercy.  How do you spend your time?  Are you spending it to lift up those are down?  If you are, then this is mercy.  How do you spend your treasure, your money?  Are seeing the difficult circumstances in others to get food, clothing, to be clean, and helping them?  If you are, then this is mercy.  Do you have a skill or talent to guide or encourage another person?  If you do, and you use that talent freely, then this is mercy.  Are you willing to share the sorrow of another person even if it reduces you to tears to do so?  If so, then you are showing mercy.

The examples of mercy we can show are endless.  If we know God, then we want to show mercy.  If we show mercy, then we honor God.  God said, and Jesus repeated, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Let us pray.

Apr 15 - Doing What Is Required

            Today, I would like us to go straight into our Old Testament reading from the prophet Micah. I invite you to open your Bibles and join me in turning to Micah, Chapter 6, beginning with verse 1.  Micah is prophet.  A prophet is a person chosen by God to speak to the people urging them to change their present behavior so that they would have a future.  A prophet speaks to those who think themselves faithful to God pointing out that from God’s perspective something is wrong in their thinking, words, and action.  Prophets are just difficult people to deal with because they are shining God’s light onto ungodly ways. 

Micah is such a prophet.  As we come to our text today, we see that God wanted Micah to speak against the nation of Israel.  In the scene, Micah appears like God’s attorney at civil trial; God is the plaintiff and Israel is the defendant.  The charge is breach of covenant or breach of contract.  The covenant or contract between God and Israel was simple.  God would bless and prosper the people of Israel and, in turn, Israel would live as God’s people.  Israel through the combination with their worship and the ethical quality of their social life the nation of Israel would bear witness to all nations the identity and character of God.  The nation of Israel was God’s ambassador; his representation to a foreign world.  This was the covenant or contract. 

Let’s read the trial transcript as God speaks through his attorney/prophet, Micah.  Verse 1, begins: “Listen to what the Lord says: ‘Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.’”  The courtroom scene is set.  God charged Micah to speak on his behalf.  Israel sits at the defendant’s table.  The mountains and hills, created before humanity, sit as jurors.  Micah begins in verse 2.  “Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.  For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

In verse 3, Micah speaks God’s words aimed at Israel, “My people, what have I done to you?  How have I burdened you? Answer me.  I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.  My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered.  Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”  God, through Micah, is recounting the blessings of the covenant with Israel.  God redeemed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, sent godly leaders in Moses, as well as Moses brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam.  God stopped those plotting against the Hebrew people and safely guided the people from the wilderness into the land flowing with milk and honey at Gilgal.  God asks, “How have I now become a burden to you, Israel?  I have done nothing but bless you so give me a reason you are weary of me.”

On a personal level, we can relate to this story.  Every person here lives their life under several covenant agreements.  Some have a covenant as husband and wife.  You pledged that you would love and honor each other.  Some have a covenant with an employer or clients to do certain tasks and exchange for compensation.  Children and parents have covenants about behavior.  We have covenants with banks and apartment owners to pay mortgages or rent in exchange for a place to stay.  We understand covenants.  And it is always difficult when someone confronts us with the truth when we have broken the covenant.  The more personal the covenant the more unsettling our feelings about breaking it.  If we get behind on our rent, the landlord sends a “Past Due” notice.  It is uncomfortable, but we know we must make up what we owe but no more than what we owe.  When we fail in an intimate relationship, when we fail to honor and love our spouse or partner or when we fail to honor our parents or fail to encourage our children, the “Past Due” notice is very emotional and personal.  The scene played out before us is a very personal one.  Israel stands accused of breaking the personal covenant with God.

In verse 6, a reply from Israel recognizes it has failed and comes forth to make amends to God.  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before the exalted God?”  To bow down is a public act of worship but Micah gives no reply on behalf of his client, God.  So Israel tries to add to the bargain with God.  “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”  Israel adds that to bowing down the offer to slay and burn as a sacrifice the best of our newly born livestock.  Will that mend the covenant?  Still no reply from the plaintiff.  Perhaps then more is required.  Israel speaks and adds to its offer, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?”  Yes, Israel thinks, that should do it.  A sacrifice in overabundance should cover my errors.  Isn’t that the way we try to handle brokenness in our relationships?  We want to go over the top.  Some years ago, NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant had engaged in an extramarital with a 19-year-old girl.  When the affair became public Bryant publicly apologized to his wife and then gave his wife a 8-carat purple diamond ring valued at $4 million.  Bryant was trying to go over the top.

Israel has offered to bow down, sacrifice calves and 10,000 rams, and to pour out 10,000 rivers of olive oil.  They are reaching the top but still there is no reply from the plaintiff.  Israel now goes over the top.  In fact, Israel’s next offer is so over the top that to follow through with it would destroy whatever remained of the covenant.  Israel says, “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  Let that sink in for a moment.  The question posed to God is, “Shall I kill my firstborn child, the innocent children of my household, as a way of removing my own sin?”  Human sacrifice were common among the nations surrounding Israel.  Israel is saying, “Lord, if I become like the rest of the world, would that make things right between us?”  Do you get the sense of how far corrupted Israel’s thinking has become?  Do you see how far from God they were?

In listening to this painful series of offers to publicly bow down, sacrifice animals, oil, and now human sacrifice, it struck me how complex and convoluted Israel presented life with God.  They wanted live as they pleased and then do things to make up for their behavior.  Is that the image they thought God wanted other nations to see?

Let’s see as Micah, the plaintiff’s attorney, replies.  Verse 8, “He [God] has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  [Why do you think such public displays of excess and evil would mend the wound you created in your relationship with God who blesses and loves you?]  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

This last sentence is so important because it summarizes God’s simple desire found throughout the entire Old Testament.  God only asks for three things.  First, Israel must act justly.  God asked that Israel make decisions that follow the moral law set down by God.  At this time, in Israel, everyone did what was right in their eyes.  The world lives that way now.  Absolute standards now longer exist.  The poet wrote, “We believe everything is OK as long as you don't hurt anyone, to the best of your definition of hurt, and to the best of your knowledge.”  God called Israel to act justly and accept that God sets the standard for what is OK.  Second, Israel must love mercy.  Love here is an active verb meaning Israel must not be passive and only find enjoyable (love) receiving mercy but to be active in granting mercy.  Mercy encompasses showing a character of charity, grace, kindness, and hospitality.  The Hebrew word for mercy, חֶסֶד, hesed, appears nearly 250 times in the Old Testament.  God called Israel to love giving mercy.  Finally, Israel must walk humbly with God.  To walk meant to follow the leading of God and to go with God.  Yet Israel’s movements must be marked by humility, meaning in submission to God.  This is where the problem always comes in.  Some parts of our human development remain childish.  We like to play follow the leader, if we are the leader.  When we are the follower, we will follow for a while and then demand to be the leader or grow bored with following and go on our own way.  God called Israel to follow Him.  The entire Old Testament summed up so beautifully and simply, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  Alas, Israel did not.

Fortunately for us, God justly and mercifully sent Jesus.  Jesus humbled himself as he walked his mission for God.  Jesus, called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us,” came as in human form and the perfect image of God.  Jesus came to set up a new covenant.  Not a covenant between a nation and God but a covenant between each individual and God, through Jesus.  The image and spirit of God would not be shown to the world through a single nation of people but through people who cross all human boundaries of culture, sex, language, ancestry, national boundary, skin color, or any other ways humans can conceive of sorting people.  Those who followed Jesus would be his ambassadors to people who did not know Him.  There are no boundaries to God’s invitation.

As we see how Jesus’ mission plays out, let us turn to our New Testament reading from the letter Paul, born a Jew, now a Christian, wrote to a man named Titus, born a Gentile, now a Christian, living on the island of Crete.  I want us to see the continued simplicity of God’s desire for our lives.  Paul wrote, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  Paul said, It [God’s grace in the person of Jesus Christ] teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions.”  Jesus, fully human and fully divine, showed us how to turn our backs on godless and selfish living.  You see the possibility of doing what is right is present, but it is not the only option.  Jesus showed us how to say, “No” to the sinful options in our lives and he showed us how to say “Yes,” to the desires of God.  Paul continued that in place of ungodliness and worldly passions, Jesus taught us “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  We know what it means to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God because Jesus did it.  We can read the New Testament and see, hear, and feel the life of Christ and know what it means to live self-controlled, upright, and godly.  We can do this daily because we can pray to Jesus for guidance as we look to follow him, to imitate Him.  Jesus calls us to do so not out of fear of God but out of thankfulness for the salvation God sent in and through Jesus.  Jesus set forth a new covenant of forgiveness for you and me and asks us to not just to hold onto that blessing but to share that blessing with others.  This is God’s plan for each person here today. 

The end of verse 12 and verse 13 says, to us live “self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age live, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”  Jesus empowers us to be the light into the world, not as a nation, but as individual people called to be Christians.  Jesus empowers us as Christians to be a church and in the collective show God’s love in the world in ways we cannot do on our own.  Simple, isn’t it? 

Christian writer, Henri Nouwen, put it this way, “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

This week, let us be true ambassadors of Jesus by letting Him show forth though our lives by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with Him.  Amen and Amen.

Apr 1 - A Full Jar of Spices

It is the first day of a new week.  So why are we here?  What has caused us to come from our homes this day to this place at this time?  Why do we take our hard-earned money to buy an abundance of flowers to decorate this space?  Why do come to recite words from an ancient book, sing songs, share personal details from our lives with one another, eat bits and pieces of bread, and with profound respect drink a tablespoon or so of grape juice?  Why do we do so on this day?  Why are we here on this first day of the week?

It might surprise you that we are here because of a full jar of spices.  Say what?  Yes, it is true.  We are here this day because of a full jar of spices.  How can this be true?  Allow me to share with you the story of the full jar of spices.

Our story begins some 2,000 and so years ago in the ancient city of Jerusalem.  I am sure that very few, if any of us, have ever been or will ever go to Jerusalem.  Yet, what happened there all those years ago, in one way or another, changed every person’s life on earth.  As it turns out, our story started on the first day of the week.  On that day, those many years ago, the ancient city of Jerusalem was overflowing with people.  It was an odd mixture of people.  Mostly, the city swelled with Jews from every country and province of the known world.  There was also a sizable contingent of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem to enforce peace.  The Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover, recalling a time in which their God, called Yahweh, led them out of Egypt and into lands the Jews would call Israel.  A man, in his early thirties, caused quite a bit of turmoil that day.  He came riding into the city on a donkey as the man’s friends shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna!”  They even threw their coats on the roadway and cut palm branches and laid those before him as he rode into town.  His friends were excited because they said this man, Jesus from the town of Nazareth, was the Messiah. 

The Messiah.  The person sent by God to redeem Israel.  But alas, not everyone was excited to see Jesus.  The Jewish leaders said he insulted the name of God by claiming to be God’s Son.  The leaders could not dismiss him as a lunatic because this man, Jesus, healed those who were ill and even raised to life some who were dead.  The leaders said to one another, “Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation (John 11:47-48).” 

Oh, yes, there was the Temple.  There loomed over the city the silhouette of the Temple.  Jesus upset people about the Temple as well, “Once, as Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  Jesus even said he was greater than the Temple and that if someone were to destroy the Temple, in three days he would raise it up again.  While this all happened, there sat of the shelf a full jar of spices.

Jesus returned to the Temple the next day.  What he saw there upset him.  There were merchants and bankers selling and changing money within the Temple itself.  Jesus overturned their chairs and tables scatting coins everywhere.  He even grabbed a whip and drove out the salesmen and bankers shouting, “It is written. My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers!”  Oh, the people ran, and the Jewish leaders boiled with anger.  Jesus had gone too far.  They must deal with him.  Despite the anger of the day, there sat motionless upon the shelf a full jar of spices.

   The next two days, Jesus taught in the Temple.  Things were quiet.  You ever notice how things get quiet just before mischief is about to happen.  I do not know a parent who has not said to their children in a distant room, “You’re awfully quiet in there.  What are you up to?”  It was quiet around Jesus those two days because one of his friends agreed to betray him to the Jewish leaders for a small amount of money.  Most of us have experienced the betrayal by a friend.  The gain for our friend is always very small for such a deep wound to us.  In the quiet of those days of betrayal, the jar of spices sat as a silent witness upon the shelf.

On the evening of the fifth day of the week, Jesus ate dinner with his friends.  He washed the feet of his friends, even the one who was working to betray him.  Then he took bread.  He blessed the whole of the bread, then broke it so that each piece would carry the blessing of the whole.  He gave the bread to his friends and said, “Take and eat.  This is my body.”  He then took a cup of wine and blessed the cup.  He gave the cup to his friends and said, “Drink from this cup all of you.  This is my blood which I will shed to forgive your sins.”  Jesus friends ate and drank, even though they did not know what it all meant.  Meanwhile, there sat the jar of spices, full and unbroken.

Events happened quickly after the meal was over.  Jesus and his friends sang a song and went out to pray under the olive trees.  That was the place of the betrayer’s trap.  Soon the Jewish leaders came and arrested Jesus.  They put him on trial and then brought him to the Romans.  With a little convincing, the Romans agreed to kill Jesus by nailing him to a cross.  A few hours later, Jesus died, and the earth shook violently.  The jar of spices tipped over, but it remained full and did not spill out.

Jesus was dead.  To our ears, those are such hard and final words.  Sunset would soon come and the day of Sabbath would begin.  Two men, strangely enough Jewish leaders, took Jesus’ body from the cross and brought it to a nearby garden.  There the men quickly wrapped Jesus body in linen and covered it with myrrh and aloe.  They placed Jesus’ body in a new tomb of rock.  Their practice was much like we read in our Old Testament reading today about King Asa.  We read, “They buried him [Asa] in the tomb that he had cut out for himself in the City of David, [Jerusalem]. They laid him on a bier covered with spices and various blended perfumes, and they made a huge fire in his honor.”  When the men closed Jesus’ tomb with a large stone, there was no huge fire in his honor.  There was only a full jar of spices on the shelf.  

For those people who wanted Jesus dead there was relief; they had restored law and order.  For those who loved Jesus there was only terrible lonely grief.  For them, the beauty and the mystery of the last three years seemed like a distant dream and bright dreams of their life with Jesus in the future were violently shattered.  There was no hope.

What was there for those who loved Jesus to do?  The Gospel of Mark tells us that the women who followed Jesus intended to do the only practical thing possible; care for Jesus’ body one last time.  We read from the Gospel of Mark, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.”  So, at last we have in hand, our full jar of spices.  The women needed it to anoint the body of Jesus.

Mark continued, “Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they [the women] were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’”  While prepared to anoint a dead man, they were unprepared to move the stone sealing the tomb.  “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”  What did the women make of this discovery?  Perhaps they wondered who else was there to anoint Jesus’ body.  What other reason could there be for entering a tomb so early in the morning?  Those questions would need to wait.  There was a mission to carry out.  With spices in hand, the women bent down and crawled through the opening to the tomb and into the burial chamber.  “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.”

The first observation reported by the women was not that they found lifeless body of Jesus but that they found a living being within the tomb.  They were unprepared for this discovery and were frightened.  This young man had a message for them, “‘Don’t be alarmed.  You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.’”  This young man in white understood the purpose of the women’s visit to the tomb.  He said, “I know you have come to care for the body of Jesus.”  Their jar of spice was at the ready, evidence of their mission of love for Jesus.  But the young man had news for the women.  He said, “He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”  The women could see that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb.  There was no body to anoint with the spices.  The body of the person they loved was no longer there.  It was all so confusing.  The young man said, “He has risen!”  What does this mean, “He is risen!”  People do not rise after being flogged, crucified, and stabbed!  What does the young man mean, “He has risen!”

Before the women’s questions move from their head to their lips, the young man spoke again.  He knew they had a mission of caring for the dead and now he began speaking to them words of a new mission.  He was saying, “I know you had a mission to care for the dead but now “go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He [Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”  The meaning of “He is risen!” is now clear.  Somehow Jesus was alive and on the move.  He was making his way to Galilee.  The mission of the women changed from caring for Jesus’ body to carrying the message to his followers, “Go! He is risen! You will see him!”  An in that instant of time, God’s mystery unfolded, and grief was replaced by an overwhelming sense of excitement, awe, and fear.

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone.”  The women stopped to talk to no one as they hurriedly retraced their steps to be with the disciples.  They had a new mission.  To speak the truth, “He is risen!  He is alive!”

What of the jar of spices?  It remained full and unused.  The spices were unneeded.  It is because the jar of spices remained full that we are here this morning, on the first day of the week.  The early Christians chose the first day of the week, not the Jewish Sabbath, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and it then became the day for Christian worship and celebration.  The apostle Peter said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” 

The full jar of spices stood for the ways of the past.  The way of Temple sacrifices and the way of death.  Jesus defeated death; he did not need burial spices. Scripture tells us, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That, dear friends, is why we are here.  To celebrate with songs, testimony, prayer, and our presence the mystery of God in bringing hope to you and me through Christ Jesus.

While Jesus has no need of spices, he does want something.  Jesus desires you and me.  He wants living people of faith to proclaim, “He is risen!”  He wants people to show his love in visible and meaningful ways into a world that seems ready for death not life.  He wants you and me to follow him because he was on the move.  We are here to worship and celebrate life.  We need to put on the shelf the full jar of spice that stands for our ways of the past and we need to pick up the new mission in Christ; for He is risen!  Amen and Amen.

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