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May 21 - What Breaks Your Heart

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to make a blood donation.  The process is the same for each person.  You begin with a stranger asking you series of questions about your travels to other countries, the medications you take, illnesses you may have had, the amount of time you may have spent in prison, and your sex life.  After completing the questions, the stranger then pokes your finger to gather some blood, takes your temperature, checks your pulse, and your blood pressure.  With questions and examinations from outside your body, the stranger is trying to look inside of you.  They want to answer two questions:  First, “Are you healthy enough to give blood?”  Second, “Is your blood healthy enough to give to someone else?” 

In a general sense, this is the process used throughout our life by strangers – they try to know us be examining us from the outside to the inside.  We see this examination process used throughout Scriptures.  When Israel wanted a king, the elders looked at a man named Saul.  Scripture said that Saul was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.”  The people desired Saul because of his youth, is good looks, and his height.  Saul was a disaster as a king.  When God charged the prophet Samuel to find someone to replace Saul, Samuel, a prophet of God, saw a young man Eliab.  Samuel looked at this young man and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”  But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  God does not care what you or I look like.  Our height, weight, skin color, hair color, or any other visible characteristic is unimportant to God.  Unlike man, God looks from the inside to the outside.  The Lord looks at your heart and mine.

The heart in the Bible is not simply the organ that sits in the middle of our chest to pump blood.  The heart in Scripture means the inner self that thinks, feels, and decides.  In the Bible, the heart experiences all emotions; love, hate, fear, sorrow, peace, and bitterness.  In the Bible, the heart thinks, it imagines, it remembers, it speaks to itself and it makes decisions.  In the Bible, the heart reflects someone’s personality, sincerity, hardness, maturity, and rebelliousness.  The Lord looks at your heart and mine because He is not a stranger who can only look at the outside.  God is always looking at the inner person.  We read these words about God’s relationship to each person here from Psalm 139: God…For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed body.”  God knows you and me from the inside.  He knows what we do before we do it.  God knows what we will say before we say it.  Note, however, God does not keep us from doing or saying things that displease Him even though He knows what we are going to do or say.  This is one of the mysteries of faith.  If God knows that someone is going to say something hurtful or do something that is evil, why then does it not silence that person or stop them?  If I am about to do or say something harmful, why doesn’t God just stop me?  Why does he let me choose?  The answer is fairly simple.  If God stopped us from speaking or acting, then our actions would no longer be free and voluntary.  If God forced me to speak and act in only one way and against my will, then I would not be free.  If God took away my freedom, then I could never experience love.  God understands that love cannot be forced; it must always be free and voluntary otherwise it is not love.  Love compels God to grant us freedom to love, the choice to love Him, and to love others through our words and actions.  Yet that freedom also gives us the choice to harm others through our words and actions.  God is always working within our hearts to move toward love.

   What is within our hearts is the focus of our Scripture readings today.  I would like us to explore for a few minutes our Old Testament reading from the Book of Nehemiah.  We read from Chapter 2, but I would like to begin briefly with a couple of verses from Chapter 1.

The setting of these words is about the year 445 B.C.  The political superpower of the day was King Artaxerxes of Persia; modern day Iran.  In the first chapter, we learn that Nehemiah, a Jewish man, is in Persia where he meets some men who recently came from Jerusalem.  There had been war in Jerusalem.  Nehemiah asks, “How are the Jewish people doing in Jerusalem?”  We pick up the response in Chapter 1, verse 3.  “They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’”  Nehemiah wrote, “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

            The conditions described by these men rested in the heart of Nehemiah.  The heart that sensing part of our humanness that contemplates, sifts, reflects, thinks, and reacts.  Nehemiah’s heart broke at this news and he wept.  He saw in the broken wall a people no longer able to defend themselves.  Other people, stronger people, could come and go from the city and do as they willed to these people.  The Jews of Jerusalem would not only lose their identity but also their freedom to worship God in the Temple.  Nehemiah’s first response when this news came into his heart was to go to God.  He gave up eating for a time and just prayed that God would redeem the people of Jerusalem.  When I read this passage, I began to ask myself, “When I hear news that distresses me or causes my heart to break, is my natural reaction to fast and pray?”  Honestly, my answer was “No.”  I am still far too prone to try to fix things in my own strength, on my own schedule, and in my own way more than I am prone to pause, to sit down, to weep, to fast, and to pray.  Taking the time to pause, sit, weep, fast, and pray allows God the time to work within us and become the central part of the answer.  Taking the time also reminds us of who we are in relationship to the problem.  Note in the final verse of Chapter 1, Nehemiah wrote, “At the time, I was the cupbearer to the king.”  Nehemiah’s job as cupbearer was to taste and serve wine to the king.  If Nehemiah lived or did not get sick then the king drank the wine.  Nehemiah, in his time of reflection before God, recognized the conditions in Jerusalem that broke his heart were far bigger than he as cupbearer to the king could fix.  In his own strength, on his own schedule, and in his own way, Nehemiah was not capable of healing the pain that broke his heart or helping the people of Jerusalem.  Only God could change both situations.  This is an important lesson because too often we face heart breaking circumstances and conclude we cannot fix such a large problem so we do nothing about it.  We are right in the respect we cannot fix it on our own but we are wrong in the respect to do nothing.  Nehemiah understood he could not fix the problem but he knew in his heart that he could be an instrument of God to help.

            In our reading today from Chapter 2 we see the heart of Nehemiah exposed as he was serving wine to King Artaxerxes.  At the end of verse 1 Nehemiah wrote, “Now, I had never been sad in his [the king’s] presence before.  So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’  Then I was very much afraid.  I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’”  Nehemiah could not shake the distress of his heart.  He could not let go of a burning desire within him that the situation in Jerusalem needed correction; God’s people were in danger.  This situation was so pressing on Nehemiah that the concern of his heart was now clear on his face.

“4 Then the king said to me [Nehemiah], ‘What do you request?’  So I prayed to the God of heaven.”  Here again we see that when Nehemiah needed understanding and direction for his life, his first thought was to pray to God for wisdom.  Nehemiah was willing to let God lead him.  Nehemiah prayed to God so that God could guide Nehemiah’s thoughts and so that God could work on the heart of the king.  I cannot say I ever recall having my boss ask me, “What is bother you today?” and me to at once go to prayer.  Nehemiah, however, understood God needed to help answer the king’s question, “What do you request?”

 We read in verses 5 through 8 that after Nehemiah prayed he asked the king to send him to Jerusalem to repair the walls and gates of the city.  He asked the king to give him letters granting him safe passage and letters for the timber he would need for the gates.  In turning over this situation to God, Nehemiah came to understand the beginning of God’s plan to fix the problem.  Nehemiah needed time off from work.  He needed permission to go to work on the problem.  He needed resources for the project.  He needed the authority of the king.  And then we read at the end of verse 8, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”  God graciously intruded into the life of Nehemiah because Nehemiah chose to invite God.  God gave the initial call on Nehemiah’s heart but Nehemiah chose to ask God into his life even further.  God moved Nehemiah to tears for the people of Jerusalem.  God caused Nehemiah to be willing to forgo the comfort of his life in the palace of the king to live and work in city that lay in ruin from war.  Nehemiah understood the brokenness he felt in his own heart was God’s compassion for the people in Jerusalem.

What breaks your heart?  What is that God has laid on your heart that concerns you even to the point of tears?  In stillness and quiet, where has God said to you, “Do you see what is happening there?  Do you see that person who is in trouble over here?  Are you listening to what is happening in your own family?  Do you see those people who have no hope?  They are people I love; I want you show them My love.”  What breaks your heart?

Your heart and my heart, the place of compassion, care, and ministry is what Jesus came to reshape.  In our New Testament reading today, we read for the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus said to all those who would listen, 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Jesus knew that our human desires would conflict with those God gives us.  Jesus encouraged us to examine carefully what we treasured.  When Nehemiah was confronted with the news about the situation in Jerusalem, he at once went to prayer with God.  Nehemiah lived a comfortable life.  He lived in the palace.  He drank the wines meant for the king.  The king and queen knew him personally; he lived among the treasurers of the earth.  Yet he was willing to give those things that rust and moths destroy for the work and will of God.  Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where is your heart this morning?  Is there a conflict between your earthly treasurers of such things as money, comfort, peace and quiet and the treasurers of heaven – a close relationship with God, the ability to forgive, compassion to heal, hope in the future, wisdom for living, and salvation for your soul?  Jesus’ words call us to sort through those two types of treasure.  He calls us to see where our heart rests.  Nehemiah understood the need to sort through our heart but he knew that we must do that with God.  Nehemiah repeatedly prayed for God to make clear the better choice.  Then God being God, allowed Nehemiah the freedom to choose whether to follow God’s desires or his own desires. 

We have the same freedom and the same calls placed upon our hearts today.  Nehemiah chose God and began to serve those in need as God wanted.  We will talk about what happened next to Nehemiah because even though he decided to follow God not everyone was happy with his decision.  Verse 10, Nehemiah wrote, “When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.”  We can always expect when we follow God, even when we are reaching out to those in need, some people will be unhappy with us.  We will talk more about that another time.

For today, it is enough for us to ask ourselves, “What breaks my heart?  Who is God pointing out to me asking – Will you show them My love?”  We should do as Nehemiah; sit and pray for God’s guidance.  Let’s do that now as we pray together.

May 14 - The Nature of Church

Today, we take time as a nation to reflect and honor the moms in our life with the celebration of Mother’s Day.  The modern celebration of Mother’s Day began with a young Appalachian homemaker, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis.   During the American Civil War, Ms. Jarvis called for a "Mothers Friendship Day.”  She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides.  After the war, she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors.  It was Jarvis' daughter, Anna Jarvis, who finally succeeded in introducing the concept of Mother's Day as a day to “honor mothers, living and dead."  Because of her efforts, the first Mother’s Day was observed on May 10, 1908, by a church service at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  At the outset, Mother’s Day was a time for Christians to celebrate motherhood.  Women who sought to nourish, care for, and educate all without distinction of side or strength started this day.  It was not about greeting cards, flower bouquets, candy, or dining out.  It was about Christians honoring mothers and celebrating the very best nature of motherhood.

What then might we say about Godly motherhood?  Proverbs tells us that, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  Godly mothers, therefore, bring discernment and understanding to life.  Godly mothers are teachers seeking to raise up those under her care.  They speak the truth in grace, even when the truth may be difficult to hear.  Godly mothers care deeply and love those under their care.  What does such wisdom, kindness, and care produce?  For the children of godly mothers, there is security, self-esteem, confidence, pride, and feelings of importance.  Godly mothers bring balance and completeness to the lives of her children.  They bring support even when others are critical of their children.  They bring comfort and even humor through their wisdom. 

How does a Godly mother do all of this and more?  She does this by placing God first.  Let me explain that statement a bit. One of the issues I discuss with every person I walk with through grief is an issue of identity.  In many ways, when we lose someone very close to us, we struggle with the question, “Who am I without this person in my life?”  That is a question of identity.  When we are grieving the loss of someone, we can come to believe that we are the grieving widow, widower, son, daughter, or friend.  Grief becomes our identity and we begin to conform our behavior to that identity and we act consistent with our own and other people’s expectations of grief.  Grief is not an identity for God’s people.  For God’s people, our identity, even in grief can be expressed this way, “I am a child of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.  Jesus Christ lives within me.  God has promised to always be there.  He is with me right now, and, oh, by the way, I am grieving.”  Our identity is always defined by our standing with God, no matter what else may be going on in our life.  A Godly mother always understands that her identity does not come from her parents, husband, children, job, or anything else except for her relationship with God.  Most simply, a Godly mother puts God first.  From this identity, from this position of strength in her relationship with God, she can care and support her children.

A Godly mother is confident that she is a creation of God and loved by Him.  In her confidence with God, she is comfortable knowing that women and men were each made by God to complement one another.  She is confident and comfortable being a woman.  A Godly mother knows that as she and her husband each seek to get closer to God, they become closer as wife and husband.  A Godly mother understands the nature of service and sacrifice for others.  She understands the need to love God and others.  A Godly mother knows that she can be used of God as instrument to change the world.  This has been true throughout history and most true when we consider the motherhood of a young girl named Mary of Nazareth who when she learned she was to become the mother of Jesus said humbly, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).

Now in Christian culture, the character of a Godly mother has been used to describe the nature of the Christian church.  How is a local Christian church like, or unlike, a Godly mother?  First, the local church is unlike a Godly mother because a mother is a single body and spirit and the local church is comprised of many people.  However, Christ calls the local church to act like one body and spirit.  In acting like one, Christ does call the local church to “open her mouth with wisdom, and [to have] the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  I have been in some local churches where they describe themselves as “a friendly church,” where the people practice speaking with wisdom and kindness.  God is noticeable first in that church.  You ever notice that no church ever describes themselves as a self-serving, mean-spirited group?  Yet, I have also been in some churches that describe themselves as “a friendly church,” where that label of self-serving and mean-spiritedness could apply because wisdom and kindness, like that found in a Godly mother, are absent.  God is an afterthought in that church.  The feeling you get in those two different environments is easily noticeable whether you are a discerning Christian or a seeking non-believer because we know when God is first or God is missing.

In our reading today from the apostle Paul’s letter, he said to that church, be a Godly mother, be a Godly church and “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  The Greek word translated in our text to welcome does not mean to greet someone with a handshake or a nice smile alone.  The word used for welcome means to grant that person access to your own heart and take them into friendship.  The local church must be like the Godly mother and show heart for those who are under the care of the church.  Now we might think that Paul was speaking about only those people who came to organized worship services; I do not believe that to be true.  Paul was speaking about anyone and in any locale where the local church met people.  Geography did not matter; what mattered was that as the church met people.  This means for us we want to welcome everyone into this building but moreover we need to welcome those outside this building.  So, when we are in Troy serving a meal we must be welcoming others as a Godly mother.  For some people we meet there, we are the only idea of church they have ever known.  We are the church that meets their needs, eats with them, talks to them, and prays with them.  It is important to listen to Paul’s words, “Welcome them as Christ welcomed you.”  Extend to others what we ourselves have received.  Why did Christ do this and why should we follow him?  Paul said, “[It is done for] the glory of God.”  Like the Godly mother, the local church must see itself as God’s creation first.  Our identity is not, “We are a small church located in Latham, NY.”  Our identity is “We are children of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.  Jesus Christ created us and lives within us.  God has promised to always be there and asks us to follow Him.  He is with us right now, and, oh, by the way, we are smaller than some churches in Latham.”  The local church is like the Godly mother who seeks to nurture, support, and love those placed in its care.

What then does that nurture, support, and love look like or feel like?  Paul continued in our reading today, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [the Jews] on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs [in the Old Testament], and in order that the Gentiles [everyone else in the world] might glorify God for his mercy.”  Paul’s point was that Christ welcomed you into fellowship with Him, with God, by being a servant.  We need some care here because we might simply see Paul’s words to say Jesus lived as a servant living each day at the beck-and-call of anyone.  This is not true of Christ.  Jesus was and is the King of Kings and Lord of Lord yet He step down from that position took on the role of servant to God.  He was obedient to God.  Jesus served the people as God wanted so that God through Jesus could show in a most personal way God’s love for them; for you and for me.  The nature of the Godly mother, the nature of the local church is to do likewise.  We are to make God first in the life of the church and then serve as He would have us serve that through our witness to others people would come to know the love God has for them.

A Godly mother loves her children to encourage them, that they may thrive in life, and to comfort them when things are difficult.  A Godly mother’s love gives rise to hope.  I saw the converse of this, the opposite case, with children who had been abused and neglected.  They had no spirit, no goals, no dreams; they could not make loving attachment to others because they had no hope.  Life had no purpose to it. 

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”  Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Man cannot live without hope.”

The message Paul had for us in our reading today was that Jesus showed God’s mercy so that all might have hope.  God is the God of hope.  The message for the church then was and is, “Welcome people as Christ welcomed you so that through Christ you can display and bring hope to others.”  The Apostle Peter told his churches, “Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have.”  Each person who has accepted Christ and is part of this church, has that some responsibility to welcome others in all locations and to explain the hope that you have. This is the role of a Godly mother and this is the role of the church.

Today, let’s honor our mothers.  This week, let’s reflect on our role in the church and see how we play a part in extending wisdom, teaching and showing grace, being truthful, being confident in God’s leadership, and understanding that God offers us an opportunity to change someone’s world with hope.  Paul concluded, on this day, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

May 7 - Life Changing Grace

            I read an interesting book the other day.  The book was written in 1961 about state of American churches.  The author noted that attendance among churches had never been higher in American history.  Tithes and offerings in the collection plate had never been so plentiful.  The rate of adding new church buildings across the nation had never been so great.  And the author concluded that the American churches had never been in so much trouble.  He saw that the individual commitment, involvement, and participation by members of those churches in the true mission of the Church was missing.  He concluded that absent a significant shift, a significant renewal in radical nature of God’s work through Jesus Christ, churches in America would begin to falter and attendance would decline.  The author said that to avoid the inevitable decline, the ministry of Christ, the message of Christ, must involve all places (not just in the church building); it must involve all times (not just Sunday morning); and it must involve all Christian persons, male and female, congregants and pastors, old and young.         The essence of the author’s observation was that the Church had failed to keep God’s mission in its sights and was, as they say, looking at the tree and missing the forest.  God mission throughout history is to redeem people, to bring them back from destruction, to teach loving ways, and to give them hope.  This should be why we come together on Sunday mornings, to experience the presence of God, to be renewed by the presence of God’s people, to be made ready to carryforward God’s message of peace and hope to others.  Our personal and continual renewal with God does not end here in this sanctuary, it begins again each time we meet.  Each person here today is being invited by God to become an agent of God’s creative work; to seek the lost, to feed the hungry, to make friends with those who are lonely, and to build an ever-larger community of people. 

Since this is so, it would be important then for us to spend time focusing on God’s mission and our response.  Let’s do that today as we explore our New Testament reading in Romans, Chapter 3.  The Book of Romans is more accurately viewed as a letter the Apostle Paul wrote in about 60 A.D. to the growing collection of churches in the city of Rome.  The people of those churches were mixed heritage.  Some, called Jews, grew up in Jewish households and had been part of a synagogue.  The Jews knew God’s law; what we think of as the Old Testament.  Those words, that law, shaped the Jews’ understanding of sin.  The other people in the churches of Rome, called Gentiles, grew up in households that believed in many gods and had small temples in their own homes or went to a temple in the city to worship their own gods.  The Gentiles knew little or nothing about the Jewish law.  However, together these people, the Jews and the Gentiles, heard the story of Jesus from Paul or others.  They heard about Jesus’ teachings.  But most importantly they heard about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the power of the resurrection to save people from eternal death and to bring people into God’s loving presence.

            Paul wrote these words to the people of the churches of Rome.  “19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”  Paul’s point was simple: God’s word defines what is holy, what is acceptable; not man’s words.  So, the message was simple, “People trying to set standards of what is good need to stop talking and recognize that God has said what is God true, holy, and acceptable and everyone will accountable to God for what they think, say, and do.  Paul continued, “20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”  Paul’s point again was simple, God’s law is there to make clear to us what is sin.  Sin is a topic people today do not like to talk about unless it is about someone else’s sinful behavior.  Paul’s point was stop talking and recognize that you and I know from God what is sin.  Paul said, “And we cannot overcome the sin in our life and earn God’s favor by working hard to follow the law.”  In some ways, Paul sounds a little hopeless.  “God defined what is sin.  Sin keeps us from God.  We cannot fix the problem of sin in our lives.”  That does not sound too promising; but it is the reality.  We cannot fix the sin our lives.

            Paul then continues with these words, “21 But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  There is that all important word of Scripture – “but.”  Paul was saying separate from the law, separate from the does and don’ts, God was telling anyone who would listen that He had a way of making everyone right with Him.  He had people write down His plan in the Old Testament and he had other speak about out all through history.  God had you and me personally in mind when He created his plan to deal with our sin.

In verse 22, Paul made clear the remedy for sin and the source of hope. “22 This righteousness [this becoming right with God] is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  We need to take a minute or two to talk about these three verses.  First, Paul said we cannot earn or work our way out of our own sin and become right with God but God can make you right with Him by you having faith in Jesus.  Getting right with God then is gift.  And Paul made it clear whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, you are all in the same boat; you are all sinners and you are all able to be redeemed by God.  This is important.  It does not matter how you have lived your life in the past.  It does not matter whether people called you the good kid, the conscientious worker, and loyal friend or whether others labeled you as the troubled youth, the difficult neighbor, or any other name you want to add; we are all the same to God.  We are all sinners and separated from God and we cannot fix that.  The good news is that God grants us grace.  God sent Jesus to clean away the accumulation of sin, wipe the slate clean, to take us away from eternal life in hell, and set on a new path, to teach us a new way to live and love, and be with God always.  How?  Jesus gives the simple invitation and command.  He said, “Come, follow Me.”  This is God’s life changing grace.

I came to appreciate the meaning of God’s grace in an unusual setting.  Several years ago, I was working for the United States Government. In my job, I handled a lot of information the Government considered secret.  Some of that information dealt with people seeking to do harm to our country.  One time, I collected some information on an individual that was a concern.  He was involved in supporting people living in the United States who wanted to commit acts of terrorism.  In fact, he was the spiritual counselor to these would be terrorists.  I traveled to the city where this man lived so that I could meet him.  I met him in a small room with just a small table between us. I talked to this man about a lot of things.  We spoke about his family, how he spent his time and his money.  We spoke about where he worked.  I asked him about the people he met and their activities.  Most of what he said is still secret to the government.  However, one of his activities I can speak about involved his counseling people who were in difficult circumstances, including young men in prison.  He told me he made it clear to those men that they must be honest with him.  That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  Be honest.  However, with him being honest carried a threat.  He said to these young men, “If you mislead me in anyway, just one time, just one slip of the truth, one lapse of judgment, (one sin against me) I will cut you off forever. You will be dead to me.”  His personal belief was this, “I shall not forgive your sin against me.”

In the middle of that interview, seated at that small table, I felt an overwhelming understanding of God’s grace.  I thought what if God would treat me this way; one mistake, one misleading statement, or one lie and I was dead to God?  What a hopeless existence!  Fortunately, God had a different plan and God is a God of grace.  In my profession of faith in Jesus Christ, God granted me grace and forgave me of my sins; not some of them but all of them.  God moved me from death to life; this is the good news of the gospel.  Then I thought, since God granted me grace, since God gave me peace, who then am I to withhold grace from another person?  Who am I that I would have an unforgiving nature toward another?  God’s plan was and is Jesus.  This is the good news of Jesus.  I should forgive others because God forgave me.  I should give grace to others because God gave grace to me.  But, more than that, since I received this good news, then I should share that good news with others.  God changed my life not because of anything I did but because of the grace He gave me.  There is no difference between Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, worker or unemployed, God will grant each person life changing grace through Christ.  This is what I came to realize about God’s grace during an interview of a man who sought to harm others.

How did God give me and you this life changing grace?  Paul wrote in verses 25 through 26 this is how God did it, “25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  God applied my sins and your sins to the account of Jesus and through the cross, through the death of Christ, forgave and forgot them.

Jesus understood my sin and yours as well had a price and He was willing to pay that price through his body and blood.  Jesus understood that God’s grace would be poured out to all through his giving on the cross.  Jesus explained his part of the plan with the bread and cup.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

Today, we have an opportunity to come to the table and be reminded of the life changing grace of God.  Let us pray.

Apr 23 - We Are Moving - Join Us

            Last Sunday, we celebrated the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  We read about his appearance before the women outside the tomb and then with his disciples in Galilee.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was and remains the single act of God above all others that shows the power of His love.  To those who love Jesus, the resurrection gives hope in all circumstances.  In Jesus’ resurrection, we are also assured a place in heaven with God.  Therefore, part of the resurrection of Jesus in part deals with our mortal life, our time here on earth, and in part deals with our immortal life, our life after we die.

Let’s talk a couple of minutes about our life after death.  Earlier this week, I was asked whether when someone dies do they go to heaven?  I said I have to admit I have no first hand experience about heaven so my answer must rely upon the testimony of someone who has been to heaven.  Now, there are some people who have had near-death experiences and describe what they believe to be heaven.  But Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except for Him.”  Jesus remains the only person who has walked this earth that can speak about heaven.  To answer the person’s question about what happens to us after death, I shared these words from Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16. 

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades [hell], where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham [a chosen man of God from long ago] far away, with Lazarus by his side.  So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’”

According to Jesus, heaven is real and it is a place of comfort and rest in the presence of others of faith.  Jesus also made clear that hell is real.  The good news then is that heaven awaits those who have faith in God.  Jesus promised those who followed him that at the time of their death, Jesus would bring them to heaven to be with him.  This is the assurance brought by Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus affirms all that he said is true.  When we die, we will be on the move either to heaven or hell.

Now, you might be saying to yourself right, “Well Pastor that is a nice and comforting thought that there is a heaven, but I am not anxious to go there right now.  What is there about Jesus’ resurrection that deals with my life on earth?”  We can begin finding that answer in our New Testament reading in the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, verses 1 through 10.

            Our New Testament reading today comes from the hand of a man named Luke.  Luke was not an apostle of Jesus.  In fact, there is no evidence that Luke ever saw Jesus.  Luke, however, was a doctor who wrote down the stories of Jesus provided to him by those who knew Jesus well.  Luke’s writings are found in the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts.  We should think of these books as two volumes giving us first the story of Jesus and second, the acts of Jesus’ disciples.  We read in the book of Acts, these words: 

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering [that is Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial] he [Jesus] presented himself alive to them [his apostles] by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them [the disciples], he [Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  Jesus was with the disciples for forty days to teach them and counsel them for the next part of the journey.

So [One time] when they [the disciples] had come together, they asked him [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  [Basically, they still were looking for an earthly kingdom in which God ruled on earth.]  He [Jesus] replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  Jesus saying politely, “It is none of your business when God act.  That is His business.”

Jesus said in the meantime, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Jesus said that God had a mission for his disciples to do.  These are important words and we should not read them too quickly.  God has something for each one of those disciples to do.  God wanted the disciples to be witnesses.  Now what is a witness?  The word “witness” is sort of a “churchy” term.  We are most familiar with the term witness in the courtroom setting.  We understand a witness in court tells the judge or jury the truth about what they saw someone do or what they heard someone say.  Christian witnesses do the same thing; they tell others the truth about God’s action in and through Jesus.  But more than that, Christian witnesses must also imitate Jesus in their everyday actions.  They must represent Jesus to others even without words. 

This was the mission of Jesus’ disciples and that same mission applies to us as well.  God has a mission you and me to be witnesses as well.  He wants us to live a life that encourages others, that shows God’s love for others, that shows God’s character to others.  Not all of us are able to do the same job on that mission.  But each of plays an important part on that mission.  Jesus said when you imitate me and love others, then “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  This means Christians must love people [all people] as Christ as loved them.  We must be forgiving people.  We must forgive those who offend us.  We must be at peace, be patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and keep in self-control.  These are qualities that you must show to others in your behavior.  When Jesus said, you will be my witnesses He meant people will hear you speak about me but more importantly they will see you behave like me.  The resurrection of Jesus opened the door for the Holy Spirit to give us the power to imitate Jesus.  When we all imitate Jesus then we not only encourage others but can be encouraged by others daily.

Now, Jesus was specific with his disciples about being his witnesses.  He said to them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  At that time, Jerusalem was very hostile to Jesus and his followers.  The leaders in Jerusalem had killed Jesus and thought the whole “Jesus Issue” was over.  Jesus said to His disciples, “I want you to start in Jerusalem!”  I wonder if his disciples were thinking, “So let me see if I have this right.  You want us to imitate You in the very city where the city leaders put You to death!  Do we have that correct?”  And I think if they asked Jesus that question, He might have said, “You have it completely backwards.  I do want you to start in Jerusalem.  I do want you to imitate Me in that very city but not because it was here that the city leaders put me to death but it was here that I arose from the dead.”  Speak the truth about Me and imitate Me with love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, faithfulness, peace, and self-control.  When the time comes, then I want you to leave Jerusalem and go further out to the lands surrounding Jerusalem and then onto the end of the earth.

When he [Jesus] had said this, as they [the disciples] were watching, he [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he [Jesus] was going and they [the disciples] were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  We learn two important truths in this passage for our life here on earth.  First, Jesus will come again.  When?  We do not know.  We only know that He will come from heaven to earth again.  Second, we learn that followers of Christ should not be standing around.  I want to speak a bit about this last point.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, set forth a mission for the disciples; “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Jesus words meant they must active and moving to do the mission.  Yet we have in our Scripture reading today this image of the men of Galilee standing looking up into the heavens and the angelic visitors saying to them, “What are you doing standing around?”  A disciple of Jesus, a church of Jesus, cannot do the mission and stand still.  The mission involves movement and flow.  How do we personally become active in that mission?

            First, make it clear you are a Christian and you want to imitate Christ.  You can do that by simply moving forward; invite Jesus into your life, walk forward before others, and be baptized.  Jesus emphasized the need to be public about faith in him and in the significance of believers’ baptism.  When we accept Jesus before others and are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are saying I want to live the life God has for me and begin imitating Jesus. 

After accepting Christ, start walking the walk.  Each of us must openly show love and kindness to those who are closest to us.  Stop for a moment and think about the people who are close to you.  Those people could be your spouse, children, brothers or sisters, friends, parents, people you live with, they could be your coworkers, your neighbors, or the people seated next to you in the pew.  You decide who are the closets people to you.  Got a picture of them in your mind?  Now think about the words you use with them, the tone of those words you use, the topics you talk about and ask yourself, “I am showing love in these conversations?  Am I being kind, gentle, patient, and forgiving?  Do I sound like Jesus?”  Do not say to yourself, “I could be all that if it wasn’t for the way they acted toward me!”  God’s mission for you does not depend on the way people act toward you.  What matters is this, are you following Jesus with those closest to you?  Now for some people, to act begin acting only with kindness, gentleness, and patience might cause others around them to say, “What has gotten into you?” 

This leads to the third thing we can do as individual followers of Christ; after we start walking the walk we need to start talking the talk.  We need to start telling others whatever we know about Jesus and how He has changed our lives.  We do not have to be able answer all questions about Jesus.  We only need to explain why we are hopeful because of Jesus.  If all we know is that Jesus was born, lived, died, and was resurrected from the dead and in that we have hope then talk that talk.  God has a mission for you and me; but we cannot be sitting still or standing looking up into heaven.  We must be ready to move forward as a follower of Christ, to walk the walk, and talk the talk.

            If you have never come forward to express your decision to become a Christian, please do so as we sing our last hymn.  That is step one and it may make you feel a little uneasy but I assure you it is a moment of great joy.  Do not think say to yourself like I did, “When I get my act together and I am a better person, then I will come forward.  Christ never asks that of us; He just says, Come.”  If you have already taken this step and moved in this manner, then this week I want you to think about how you are doing on step two walking the walk – every day imitating Jesus in your words and actions; especially with those closest to you.  If you need to make a change – just do it.  If you need to be more loving and kind with someone, don’t wait for them to change; you change.  God gave you the mission to imitate Jesus; let’s all get walking. Think also about step three; talking the talk.  If talking about Jesus is not happening in your life each day, start.  Start praying a short prayer each time before you eat and do it whether you are home or out in public.  Start by reading a short passage from the Bible each day and talk to someone about what you read.  If you want to help with getting started, give me a call.  We need to walk the walk and talk the talk.

  God gave you and me a mission and assures us full life her on earth and a place in heaven. Let’s not stand around; let’s get moving.  Amen and Amen.

Apr 16 - Do Not Fear - Jesus Is Here

Some two thousand and so years ago, the first day of the week was beginning to dawn over the ancient city of Jerusalem.  The past few days filled the city’s inhabitants with turmoil.  It was the festival of the Passover and many people from across the known world were in and around the city.  The Jewish leaders arrested a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and gave him over to the Roman governor for execution.  Jews did not give Jews over to the Romans; why did they do so with this man?  The Jewish leaders said he disrespected the name of God by claiming to be God’s Son.  They could not dismiss him as a lunatic or demon possessed because this man, Jesus, healed those who were ill and even raised some from the dead.  The leaders said to one another, “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 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).”  Think about that for a moment; a world in which everyone believed in Jesus Christ.  The same Jesus Christ whom we have walked with these past weeks who said at the very beginning of his public ministry:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  Imagine if everyone acted upon such beliefs.  The leaders in Jesus’ day could not imagine it; and so to prevent that from happening, Jesus was killed.

Those words, Jesus was killed, seemed to his disciples so hard and so final.  The Romans executed Jesus is such a cruel and humiliating manner; nailed him to a cross.  Humans always show their power by inflicting death.  God always shows His power by bringing life.  God’s Word reminds us how different God is from us:  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  God’s ways are as different from human ways as life is from death. 

Please turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 28, to see how different God’s ways are from human ways.  We enter this account knowing that death and fear enveloped Jesus disciples.  All they hoped for had been taken away so quickly and so violently.  What was there for those who loved Jesus to do?  There was only one thing; they grieved in the quiet of locked homes and rooms.  In the early morning of the first day of the week, the day following the Sabbath, some women decided to act like Jesus for Jesus.  They wanted to show mercy to Jesus by caring for his body.  So, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.  Just after sunrise, while it was still dark, the women made their way to Jesus’ tomb.  As they came to the tomb, there was without warning a great earthquake.  Then they realized this was no ordinary earthquake.  For an angel of the Lord, had descended from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”  Pause for a moment and consider the scene.  Amid despair, confusion, and grief for those who loved Jesus, God acts in a spectacular way.  God sent an angel to the entrance to Jesus tomb.  Two very distinct reactions are reported.  First, for those who love Jesus, they take it all in capturing the details of God’s messenger.  He came from heaven.  He rolled back the stone.  He sat on the stone.  His appearance, his face, was like lightning and his clothes were brilliant white.  There was nothing about God’s messenger that escape the attention of those who loved Jesus.  They knew something miraculous was happening.  The second distinct reaction came from those who did not love Jesus.  In the presence of God’s messenger, they fainted away as if they were dead.  These guards who had no faith in God and perhaps even having had a hand in the torment to Jesus, experience fear so intense that they lose consciousness.  The appearance of God’s messenger could only mean they had been wrong about Jesus and judgement was upon them.  This is difference between believers and non-believers.  Believers desire the presence and wonder of God coming into their lives; non-believers do not think such presence is possible until it occurs and then they are terrified.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid [like the non-believers]; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead [God shows His power by bringing life], and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”  The words from the angel, “This is my message for you,” is not the message of the angel himself, for they only present a message given to them by God.  So, the message from the angel is the message from God.  God sent the angel to give His resurrection message.  “Humanity killed my son; I have raised Jesus back to life.”  God raised Jesus from the dead and He was outside the tomb even before it was opened by the angel.

 The women inspected the tomb as the angel had invited them to do.  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.  So they left quickly with fear [perhaps of those who do not belief] and great joy [God made all things right], and they ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet.”  To take hold of the feet of Jesus, the women necessarily had to drop the full jar of unused spices.  The spices were unneeded.  The jar of spices represented the ways of the past.  The way of Temple sacrifices.  The jar of spices represented the way of death and the pain of grieving without hope.  Jesus defeated death; he did not require spices.  The women lay on the ground holding firmly onto the feet of hope.  Scripture says, “the women came to Jesus, took hold of his feet, [and then a bit curiously], and worshiped him.” 

What is curious about worshipping at the feet of Jesus?  The women often sat at the feet of Jesus as He taught.  They anointed his feet with perfume.  They even washed his feet with their tears and wiped them dry with their hair but now they worship Jesus at his feet.  But worship was an act expressed only to God.  The women now understood, Jesus was indeed the Son of God and He too was worthy of worship.  The gap between believers and non-believers just grew a little wider.  Believers now worshiped the living person of Jesus Christ while those who did not believe in Him lay spiritually motionless as though they were dead.

 After a few moments of worship, the women who had been both fearful and overcome with great joy heard these words from Jesus, “Do not be afraid [hold onto the great joy and leave behind all fear for you have hope]; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

Jesus had no need for the women’s original mission of anointing his body with spices.  He required something else of them.  Jesus required them to proclaim his life.  He required people to proclaim their love for him and to follow him because he was on the move.  The day of worshipping God only in the Temple were over; something greater than the Temple was here.  His message was to tell my disciples to meet me in Galilee.  With haste the women left the presence of Jesus.  Knowing Jesus Christ had risen from the dead changed the lives of these women forever.  They had an immense joy in their hearts that no one could take away.  Each one of them was still subject to the human conditions.  They would celebrate births, marriages, and family gatherings.  They would still experience hunger, thirst, feel physical pain, and yes, grieve the loss of those who died.  But they were changed people because they saw all life through the lens that Christ had risen from the dead!  All of life was different because they knew God loved them.

In their love for Christ and for the disciples, the women made known the extraordinary joy they experienced at the tomb.  They told the disciples to make way to Galilee.  “16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him [Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.  [Note here that some of the men were unsure; shall I worship Jesus?  He is standing before me but shall I worship Him as I have worshipped God?]  Jesus’ understood their doubts and removed them when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  [Only someone who is truly the Son of God can possess such authority; Jesus was worthy of worship.  The disciples never doubted again.]  Jesus had a message for them, “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Teach them what I taught you. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The message from Jesus was simple.  Go and teach.  Bring the good news of my life, death, burial, and resurrection with you wherever you go.  As you through life, use those moments to see God at work.  As you experience the highs and lows of life, teach people by your thoughts, words, and actions to experience life knowing that I have risen from the dead.  Keeping telling people just how much God loves them that He would send his only son to show the way to live, love, and worship.  Then Jesus add these final words in the Gospel of Matthew, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

My friends, we need to put on the shelf the full jar of spices as a sign that Jesus is alive and here among us.  Whatever holds us back from experiencing the fullness of joy in life needs to be left at the tomb of Jesus.  Whatever makes us fearful needs to be left along the trial from that tomb to the places Jesus has called us to serve.  We need to walk with the courage of the charge Moses gave to his people, “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread [of them], because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”  It is time to pick up a new mission for your life remembering Christ has risen!  It is a time to remember the simplicity of the blessings Christ offers because Christ has risen!  It is time to remember that every step you take, every experience of your life is more sacred because Christ has risen!  Christ has risen! [Christ has risen indeed!]  Let us pray.

Apr 9 - Triumph in the Trials

            Each person who has walked this earth has desired something.  Those desires may change with time, but at any moment of our life we desire something.  That desire may be as common as having something to eat, getting a good night’s sleep, some privacy, a good job, a warm home, and the list could go on.  Sometimes our desires are grand and life altering as well such as to become President, or become an astronaut, or doctor, or pastor.  [Today, we had two people, Lilly and Eric, who showed they had life altering desires because they desired to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all through baptism that they had given their life to Him.]  We learn that even before sin entered the world people had desires.  Scripture, “When the woman saw that the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  We are born with desires.  Jesus, son of God and son of a young girl named Mary, had desires as well.  He desired Jerusalem.  He desired to conclude his earthly ministry in the city of Jerusalem where He could bring the message of peace.  He desired Jerusalem where he could become the way of peace between all humanity and God.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”  He desired Jerusalem where God’s will which is above all other lesser desires could be fulfilled.  Jesus desired Jerusalem because He was the light of the world to pierce the darkness of sin and in that city, he could call his followers to reflect his light.   Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Jesus desired Jerusalem.  For in Jerusalem, those who opposed Him would convict him as a criminal and would whip him, beat him, spit upon him, mock him, and kill him.  Jesus was the light and said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”  Jesus desired Jerusalem because there he could show that “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Jesus desired Jerusalem.  Please turn with me Matthew Chapter 21 as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem.  “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”  This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”  The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”  11 The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

            Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem.  Over the next few days in Jerusalem, Jesus would challenge the understanding of the religious authorities.  He challenged them with His innocence to believe in a simple faith in God and not a complex set of religious practices and traditions and works.  The religious authorities for their part desired to arrest Jesus for challenging them.  Jesus chased out those selling things within the Temple to restore the Temple to a house of prayer.  The religious authorities desired to kill Jesus.  The tension built within the city and then finally, the authorities had their opportunity and in the darkness of the night they arrested Jesus.  “People love the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”  Within hours of Jesus’ arrest, he was beaten, flogged, crucified, stabbed with a spear, died, and was buried. The evil men of Jerusalem dearly desired to put out the light.  Starting with Jesus, persecution began.  His followers would be next.

            If we turn back a few chapters to our New Testament reading this morning from Matthew Chapter 5, we would find that in the opening to Jesus’ first sermon, he declared persecution would come and that it would be a blessing.  Let’s look at verses 10 and 11: “10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  These words are hard to understand.  Why would someone persecute a follower of Christ?  Why do some people seek to harm Christians by insulting them, saying false things about them, physically hurting them, and in some cases, killing them?  How can undergoing such treatment by others be considered a blessing?

Let’s start with why people persecute Christians.  There are two reasons for persecution of Christians that I want you to consider.  First, people who hold power over others always demand others to conform to the ways of those in power.  This is true in all levels of society.  For example, it is true in the classroom at school; the teacher demands the students conform to the rules of the teacher.  The police demand drivers conform to the traffic laws.  The Federal government demands Americans follow the policy decisions of the President and his administration.  Similar standards were expected in Jesus’ day.  When it came to belief in God though the powerful determined what was permitted.  The Roman emperor, the supreme governmental authority, decided which religions were lawful.  If what you believed was not from one of the approved religions, then you were a criminal.  If you wanted to follow one of the lawful religion, you were expected to conform to the rules set by the leaders of that religion.  In Jesus’ time, Rome said Judaism was a lawful religion.  While Jesus was a Jew, He also challenged the authority, righteousness, and requirements of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus would not conform; he refused to color within the lines.  The Apostle Paul would later write, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  We cannot know God’s will, if we live by the world’s standards.  When we chose to follow God’s standards we are also saying we will not follow many of the world’s standard.  This places us at odds with powerful of the world or today the loudest people of the world.  Jesus’ point was that if you are the target of abuse by the world then you know that you are following God’s standards and therefore, God will bless you.

            The second reason Christians are persecuted, made fun of, mocked, and ridiculed is that their presence convicts others of their sin.  Jesus remained silent before his accusers and it drove them mad.  Jesus judged the guilt of others, not by speaking, but by being perfectly innocent.  Innocence accuses its accusers.  They hate it.  They scream to drown the sweeter truth; they condemned Jesus to death in order to put out the light.  They want dearly to put out the light.”  Look at what Jesus said to those who desired to follow him.  Just a couple of verses down from where we left off in Jesus’ first sermon, “14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Jesus came into the world as the light of the world.  When we imitate Him, we are representing Him as the light of the world.  If we represent Jesus, then we bring the sense of hope to others and we also bring a sense of conviction to those who are selfish or mean-spirited or involved in sin.  We can expect not just rejection from self-centered people but also persecution.  The presence of persecution means that we are following God’s will and he will bless us for it.

            Mistreatment and ridicule are not easy things to endure.  It is not comfortable for people to point at you or post vile rants about you on Facebook or through other means.  Jesus never promised that following him would be easy or that crowds would cheer our arrival.  What he did promise was a place in heaven for those who endure, for those who became more like Jesus even by experiencing mistreatment.  Jesus desired Jerusalem and he died for his desires.  The apostles desired to share the good news that Jesus died and was raised from the dead.  The apostles were killed for their desires. 

What do you desire?   If Jesus asked you right now, “What is the desire of your heart?” Would our desire involve Him?  If not, why not?  If the desire of our heart involves Jesus, then are we willing to be mocked as God works through us to achieve that desire?  Are we willing to have people laugh at us and call us silly to achieve that desire?  Are we willing to have false things said about us for the desires of our hearts?  If we are, then God is ready to bless us with continually hope through the trials and triumph of eternal life.   

I will close with this story.  One day before dawn, a young boy in India, Sadhu Sundar Singh, woke his father to announce that he had seen Jesus Christ in a vision and heard his voice. He told his father that henceforth he would follow Christ forever. Still no more than fifteen, he was utterly committed to Christ.  His father pleaded and demanded that Sadhu give up this absurd conversion Christianity. When the boy refused, his father gave a farewell feast for his son, then denounced him and expelled him from the family. Several hours later, Sundar became ill and he realized that his food had been poisoned.  His life was saved only by the help of a nearby Christian community.  On his sixteenth birthday, following the desire of his heart, Sundar was publicly baptized as a Christian in the parish church in Simla, a town high in the Himalayan foothills.  He had decided to follow Jesus despite all of that was against him.  The hymn, I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, is attributed to Sadhu Sundar Singh.  The hymn is an expression of the desire of his heart and a celebration of triumph in the trial.  He wrote, “I have decided to follow Jesus.  Though I may wonder, I still will follow.  The world behind me, the cross before me.  Though none go with me, still I will follow.  Will you decide now to follow Jesus?  No turning back, no turning back.”

If you have never been invited to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, I want to extend that invitation to you this day to say, “It is desire of my heart for Jesus to come into my life.”  If you never have been given the chance to stand before others and say, “I had decided to follow Jesus and it is the desire of my heart for others to know,” I want to extend the invitation to you to do that today.  If you have been a professing Christian and not made the decision yourself to be baptized, then I want to extend the invitation to you today to say, “As a Christian, it is the desire of my heart to be baptized.”  All of us have desire.  God’s desire is to bless you through all circumstances.  What is the desire of your heart?  Let us pray.

April 2 - Peacemaker

            About every year for the last 30 years, my wife and I have vacationed in Maine.  We spend part of our time walking along the beach.  We enjoy our time together, the gentle breezes, the sights and sounds of the beach are pleasant and reassuring time.  In a comparable way, we have been walking these past few weeks with Jesus on the road to Easter morning by talking about his first sermon.  Jesus said, ““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  These are the gentle breezes of Christianity because Jesus was describing behaviors we must have directly with God.  Jesus was encouraging his listeners, and us, to pursue a deeper relationship with God in the spirit, with humility, with meekness, with a hunger and thirst for God, by showing others mercy expecting nothing in return from them, and by being pure in our hearts.  These are the gentlest parts of the road we walk with Jesus.

            There are other parts of the road to Easter morning that are more difficult to walk.  This week we will walk part of that road.  I liken this part of the road to an experience I had walking along the beach when I was a teenager.  One afternoon, my best friend and I were walking along the stone seawall that ran along the beach.  The tide was very high; right up to that stone seawall.  The ocean was very stormy.  This made the waves very large.  We enjoyed walking along that wall watching the waves crash on the stones, occasionally splashing our feet with water.  We thought we understood the nature and difficulty of walk along the stone seawall.  Then, without warning, an exceptionally large wave came rolling in.  We did not see it coming until it appeared above our heads.  The wave hit, we stood on the wall for a second or two before the force of the wave pushed us off the wall into the rocks below.  When the wave receded, we got ourselves out of the rocks, counted the bruises, cuts, and scraps, and began walking on an entirely different path.

            Our New Testament reading today, forcefully moved Jesus’ audience, and now us, on an entirely new path in the walk with Jesus Christ.  It is a much more difficult part of the walk.  In our reading today, a wave of sorts comes over the heads of Jesus' listeners and moves them to a new more challenging path, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”  First, this blessing is significantly different than the others because this time God’s blessing involves my personal conduct with other people; even or especially with those with whom I may disagree.  God’s blessing to me is dependent upon making peace.  We and Jesus’ original audience recognize right away this is a different path from all earlier blessings that dealt primarily with a personal relationship with God.  Secondly, in this teaching, Jesus said God creates a new identity for the peacemaker; they become His children.  To Jesus’ audience this point was radical departure for their lives.  People were known by their father and often limited to the class in which they were born.  James and John, fishermen, were the as sons of Zebedee, also a fisherman.  Peter was first known as Simon bar Jonah; Simon son of Jonah.  Levi (later known as Matthew) son of Alpheus.  People challenged Jesus’ authority to preach; referring to him as the carpenter’s son.  In Jesus’ day, the station in life of your father decided the station in life for his children.  Jesus was offering people a new lineage; they could become children of God with all the hope and potential that lineage meant.  Jesus’ teaching had taken a very radical turn.

            What does it mean to be a peacemaker?  The concept of peace in the Hebrew mind to whom Jesus spoke was characterized in the word Shalom.  The word Shalom meant to be whole, complete, safe, secure, and unharmed.  Pause and think for a moment how different that definition is from the peace.  Today, many think of peace as the end of war or absence of violence.  In Jesus’ times, a Roman philosopher commented on peace saying, “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”  Jesus’ call to be a peacemaker is not simply a call to just avoid conflict or stop war.  A peacemaker is a person of action bringing wholeness, contentment, tranquility, order, rest, and security to a situation.  This is Shalom.

            In his public ministry, Jesus was a peacemaker and showed peacemaking in part by avoiding violence with everyone.  He also brought wholeness to others.  In one case, a man with leprosy approached Jesus.  Leprosy is a contagious skin disease that could result in loss of fingers and toes.  More than that, society demanded those with leprosy stay outside the city.  They could not come to the marketplace or worship with others or live among those without leprosy.  Jesus touched the man with leprosy, restoring not only the man’s skin, but also restored the man’s ability to unite with others.  Still later, Jesus was walking along and he saw Levite, the tax collector.  Tax collectors did not have a skin disease but they were unwelcomed among their own people.  Jesus reached out to Levite calling him to follow and to live with Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus made Levite whole and united him with other people.  Jesus was not in personal conflict with either of these people but Jesus could see the absence of Shalom in their lives.  Jesus could see that their condition, an illness in one case and an occupation in the other case, left these men without Shalom, peace.  Therefore, to bring Shalom, peace, into the life of someone else, to be a peacemaker is not always about resolving a conflict with another person, it has more to do with bringing the presence of genuine harmony, understanding, and goodwill between people.

            Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers and then one day he asked his disciples to learn firsthand what that meant.  He sent his disciples out in pairs.  Each pair was to take a different road, to a different town or village.  They were not to take any detours on the way nor were they to take anything with them other than the clothes on their back and the spirit of God in their hearts.  Once at a village, Jesus told them when you enter a house, say these words, “Peace to this house.”  Jesus wanted his disciples to approach each person they met with a message of peace, Shalom.  Think for a moment if we approached everyone we ever met from this day forward and began with a message of peace; being a peacemaker right from the beginning.  The disciples did as Jesus, the Son of God, asked of them.  Jesus said those who do the will of the God shall be called my brother and sisters.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.  We have the same opportunity to become the children of God.

            What then do we do with Jesus’ words to be peacemakers?  Certainly, if we have a conflict with another person, then we need to work in earnest to resolve that situation.  We want to remember the blessings we have with God and breathe in His grace, and then in that conflicted situation breathe out his love, mercy, and forgiveness to others through our words and actions.  It is not easy to make peace but it can be done.  But more than simply staying free of conflict, we need to ask ourselves, “Who has God placed in my life who lacks peace?  Who is it in my life who is restless, anxious, isolated, hurting, or grieving?  Who is it in my life that lacks hope?  What village, group, or family is God spending me to with nothing but the clothes on your back and the spirit of God in heart  and saying when you meet them, say, “Peace on this house.”  Please do not over think what Jesus asks of us.  We are to bring peace consistent with God’s will and within the power God has given us for that situation. 

I learned that lesson some years ago on an airplane flight.  I was traveling on an airplane to Charleston, SC.  I had to stop and change planes in Charlotte, NC.  As we started to approach Charlotte, the plane began to a slow descent.  The women seated next to me said, “Doesn’t it seem to you that this airplane is going terribly slow.”  Then she added, “I am worried that I will arrive too late.”  I asked her, “Do have a connecting flight that the flight attendant could check on for you?”  She began to cry.  She said “No.  She had received a call last evening to tell her that her son had suffered a rupture of an aneurysm in his brain last evening.  His condition was grave and she was just trying to get to him - before he died.”  This women lacked Shalom, peace.  For a moment, I did not know what to do or what to say.  I felt helpless.  She was obviously upset and I believed that I possessed nothing to help her.  I then felt moved by the Spirit of God.  I reached out and put her hands into mine - we sat quietly for a moment - and then offered to pray with her.  We prayed aloud and silently until we landed.  We left the plane went together to the baggage claim area.  We waited for her luggage to arrive and for the person that was meeting her at the airport to come for her.  We hugged - and I left - never knowing the rest of the story.  But then I don’t think it was God’s plan for me to hear the rest of the story.  It was His plan for me to share His love and in a very small way - give her a moment of refuge and peace.  He did not ask me to move a mountain, or give up all my possessions, or go to the cross with Him.  I was not in conflict with this woman but for a few minutes, God asked me to enter someone’s life and offer peace.  Who needs a few minutes of peace from you?

Now Jesus understood that each of us needs peace so that we can offer peace to another.  So on the evening in which all sense of peace among His disciples would be lost, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples and said, “‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  Then he took a cup and when he had given thanks, he gave the cup to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”  Jesus wanted his disciples to have peace.  Jesus wants you and me to have peace.  Come let us be blessed at the table of the Lord and receive peace from the Son of God, who seeks to be the peacemaker for each of us.  Let us pray.