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Mar 24 - Am I Accepted?

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 17 - Never Forget What Really Matters

            If you watch or read any of the news these days, you might quickly conclude that everyone seems to have strongly held beliefs about everything.  Want to talk about immigration along southern border of the United States?  The conversation quickly turns to a split as to whether the situation is a humanitarian crisis or a national security emergency.  Want to talk about climate change?  The conversation turns to a split between those who believe we are finished in12 years and those who believe the whole matter is just fake.  It seems that there are fewer and fewer topics people can discuss in the public square without the whole matter devolving into a disagreeable contest.  The rigid tone of such public conversations can and has invaded private conversations within our families.  Why does it seem that our society is becoming more argumentative?

            I believe many of the arguments and the harsh tone of the public and private conversations come about because we no longer know what really matters most.  When we do not have a common view of the things that matter most, then every idea becomes in the that moment the most important idea.  When all ideas and concerns are considered equally important, then none of them are really very important at all.  As a result of not knowing what really matters, in the public square, we have small groups of very vocal people all arguing that their own point of view is necessarily the most important view of the day.  Because we do not know what really matters, in our private conversations, we have husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and cousins, arguing over money, arguing over memories of who said what and when, and who is the better person.

We, humans, are easily led to misplace what is important.  We can see our natural capacity to divert from what is important in the story of the first couple, Adam and Eve.  God told the couple they could eat from anything in the garden except for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was only one important thing in the life of the first couple; only one.  But the Bible says, “When the woman [Eve] saw that the fruit of the tree [of knowledge of good and evil] 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.”  The most important thing in the life was obeying one command from God.  “Do not eat of the fruit from one specific tree.”  The first couple replaced that single command with self-centered desires as the most important thing in their life.  They disobeyed God and sin came into the world and sin has never left the world.  An early Baptist theologian said when the couple ate the forbidden fruit, they “lost the knowledge of good and evil.”  He said, “Accordingly they were rightly removed and robbed of this knowledge of good and evil by God and have become as a horse and a mule in whom there is no understanding.”  Said another way, when we do not focus on the most important thing, the things that really matter, then we become and act as dumb as a donkey.

I do not know about you, but I prefer not to be a dumb donkey.  So, what are we to do?  I think being just weeks away from Easter, is the right time to check for ourselves to see if we know what is most important in life.  This time of year produces a natural desire within us to think more deeply.  We should take advantage of the stirring within us and ask, “Am I focused on what really matters?”  And our Bible readings today, get us quickly to the heart of what is important and what really matters.  I think if we bring our New Testament reading into our life, we would not be a dumb donkey.  I invite you to turn to that passage in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12.

Jesus was engaged in teaching teachers.  This was a challenging conversation, but Jesus was making his points.   We come to our passage at Mark, Chapter 12, verse 28.  “28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them [Jesus and the teachers] debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he [this teacher of the law] asked him [Jesus], ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’”  At this time, the Rabbis had compiled an impressive list of commandments, number some 613 separate commandments.  Two hundred forty-eight (248) commandments were positive things for the people to do and 365 commandments prohibited people from doing things.  The teacher was asking, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus did not hesitate.  Jesus said, “29The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’”  According to Jesus, there is nothing more important that to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”  The question for us then is, “Do we live our life focused on the most important thing or do we believe other things or ideas in life are more important than loving God and one another?”  I think it is quite evident that loving God and loving others is not the most important thing for most people.  God created beautiful scenery for us to admire, ample food for us to eat, enough water for us to drink and yet people spoil his creation with murder, greed, lies, infanticide, sex with whomever, and worship of false gods.  We consistently make other things more important than loving God and others.

If we do not want to continue to live separate from God’s will, what then does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?  Let’s begin with the heart.  The heart in the Bible is not simply an organ that pumps blood through the body.  Biblically, our heart is the center of your passions.  It is the center of our innermost being.  We must love God with all our heart.  We have all heard the expression “our heart of hearts.”  It means what we believe so deeply that when we think about our beliefs or if those beliefs are challenged, we feel a physical effect in our heart.  It is the place where our beliefs and doubts exists - unmasked by our concerns for how we may appear to others.  If you study people, you would find we experience our feelings toward something a split second before we can intellectualize it.  This understanding - our feelings toward something - is the message sent by our ‘heart of hearts’.  It is a pure - basic feeling.  We know at the core of our being that following that pure response is the right thing to do.  God says love me that way.  Pure.  Always.  Passionately.  Do not pause and allow a questioning process to begin or we end up apply conditions to our response.  Love me with that intensity that causes your heart to race.

How about our soul?  First, our soul is the enduring part of our life.  Our soul is vitality of life.  Our soul is what survives our body.  It is what moves the body to engage in those things that please God.  To commit our soul to God is to work through the challenges of life always moving toward what God wants.  We don’t shrink when things get tough.  The Bible said, Jesus was deeply troubled in his spirit as he came to the garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Jesus soul, his spirit, moved his body forward into the garden.  The Bible says, “Going a little farther, he [Jesus] fell with his face to the ground [his soul moved him] and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’”  Jesus was seeking God and God’s will even when it was most difficult because focusing on God was the most important thing to God even if it meant enduring pain.  We on the hand want to avoid pain whenever and wherever possible.  Have a disagreement with someone at church; we stop attending rather than work to preserve the unity of believers.  Having trouble in our marriage; we sulk, complain to our friends, glare at our spouse; do the work of reconciliation as God wants; we say. “No thanks.  That would be uncomfortable.  Too much trouble.  No guarantee it would work out the way I want it to.”  Disappointed that things not the way you want them to be in life; conclude God is not all powerful, why else would such evil and pain exist, rather than recognize that evil exists because we have not made God most important in our life.  Make God the center of your soul.

We are to love God with all our mind.  God has given us an intellect and a mind.  Do we use it to develop our understanding of God and his ways?  Do we read God’s word just to read it?  Do we think about what God has done and the life he has given us?  What are we taking into our life as a source of knowledge?  We need to be honest with ourselves and with God.  How much of everyday do we spend thinking about God?  Want to do something productive for your mind?  Begin reading the psalms.  Read one in the morning and think about it for the rest of the day.  Read it again in the evening and think about how the God of that psalm revealed himself during the day.  Repeat that exercise the next day with another psalm.  I think you will be amazed at how different your thinking will become because you are using your mind to love God.

We need to love God with all our strength.  Our strength is anything tangible entrusted to us by God.  That includes our physical capabilities, our time, our talents, and our treasures.  Do we give our time and physical presence to God by worshipping him every week?  Do we give our talents in singing to God or playing music or sharing a prayer or words of testimony, by celebrating being in worship?  When we are focused on God as the most important part of our life, we want to celebrate and use strength to show how glad we are to be in worship.  Do we give from our wallets what is fair and loving toward God or do we parse out a little from our abundance?  When it comes to giving our strength, we need to keep in mind the words from a hymn we like to sing.  The refrain is, “I surrender all.  I surrender all.  All to Jesus, I surrender.  I surrender all.”  Those are the words.  The words are not, “I surrender 10%.  I surrender 10%.  10% to Jesus, I surrender.  I surrender 10%.”

I read a short story about an interaction between a man and God.  It goes like this:

God: I’ve kept a list of everything you’ve ever asked Me for.  Some requests I granted.  Some I denied.  Look over the list and add to it anything you would like to ask Me for now.

Man:  Will You give me everything I ask for?

God: Yes.

Man: But you did not do that before.  I asked for lots of things You didn’t give me.

God: Every unanswered request was not a true prayer.  Those petitions did not come from your heart.

Man: I don’t understand.

God: You will.  Complete the list.  Ask for anything you want.

So the man worked on his list.  He wanted his children to become Christian, give up on drugs, have wonderful marriages, a good career.  He then put on this list for himself that he would have good health, a good pension, no headaches.

God: Look deep into your heart.  See if there are more desires you have not yet expressed.

The man returned to his list adding he wanted a life full of meaning, a wonderful church, love from his family, to be a good grandparent, to be content, to feel joy and hope and love.

Man: I’m finished, God.  I can’t think of anything more to add.

God: You haven’t yet discovered your heart.

Man: What do you mean?

God: I told you I would give you whatever you want.  Is this what you want?

Man:  My list is complete.  I have written down everything I want.

God: Then I will give you everything on your list.  But on one condition: you will never hear My voice again.  I will withdraw all sense of My presence from you.  You will never know Me.

Immediately, the man torn his list into little pieces and then he fell to his knees.

Man: God, these are second things, all of them.  I see it now.  Yes, I want them.  But they mean nothing if I don’t have You.

God:  You have discovered your heart.  You will now meet Me as your guide into love, your healer of selfishness, your king with all power, your friend in the highest place, your donor of life.

“‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’”  Jesus said, “29The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Let’s tear into pieces the list of things we thought were most important and let’s love what is most important, God.  Amen and Amen.

Mar 10 - I am the Resurrection

John 11:17-44

            We are completing today an exploration of Jesus’ “I AM,” statements with Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  This claim by Jesus is key to a faith journey.  It was and remains a dividing point between those who know about Jesus and those who know Jesus.  Those who know about Jesus see him as a historical figure who lived a simple life and was a great teacher of ethical living.  These folks know about Jesus’ teachings that life is lived to the fullest with expressions of mercy and being a peacemaker.  They know that Jesus taught not to judge others, but instead people should feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care for the sick, and comfort to those imprisoned.  Those who know about Jesus enjoy life lived in such a manner because it is honorable, and they would be correct. 

What then is the difference between those who know about Jesus and those who know Jesus?  The difference lies in whether one believes Jesus when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  These words are difficult for many to accept because Jesus is saying, “I am in both realms of existence.  I am in the realm of the living upon this earth and I am in the realm of life after death.”  We must let that sink in for a moment.  “I am in the realm of the living upon this earth and in the realm of life after death.”  This is not a moral teaching, it is claim of being God.  This means Jesus either is God, or he is out of mind.  

  Christian author C. S. Lewis said it well, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Therefore, to believe Jesus when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” is an act of great faith propelling a person from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus.  In that knowing Jesus, in believing he came to realm of earth from the realm of heaven as God’s Son, is to know Jesus not as a moral teacher but to know him as savior.  To know Jesus as savior is know and experiencing personally God’s love.  It is to know within our being, peace.  It is to know within our being, mercy.  It is to know grace.  When we know Jesus as savior, then we know love, peace, mercy, and grace deep within us because Jesus is with us.  He is with us in this realm of living on earth and we will remain with him in the realm of life after death.  Neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus because in Jesus’ own words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

I invite you to turn with me to Jesus’ most powerful words found in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11.  We will start at verse 17.  This is one of the more famous stories in all the Gospels.  The story centers on a family of two sisters and a brother; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  The family lived in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem.  The family was financially secure and were known to the religious elite of Jerusalem.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were very close friends of Jesus.  While Jesus was elsewhere, Lazarus became deathly ill.  His sisters saw Jesus as a healer of those living in the realm of this earth and so they sent word to Jesus to come quickly and heal Lazarus.  By the time the messengers found Jesus, Lazarus had died.

Verse 17, “On his arrival [in Bethany], Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.”  Verse 20, “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’  25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’”  We see most clearly that Jesus’ words are not an ethical teaching.  Instead, his words are about faith.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Jesus was saying to Martha that he had authority in the realm of the living upon this earth and in the realm of life after death.  While death moved the soul, the spirit, from one realm to the other, Jesus had the power of resurrection, that is to return that person’s spirit and life to the body in which they previously lived and died.  Jesus words means that those who believe in him never die, there are always alive.

Jesus finished his words to Martha with, “Do you believe this?”  Indeed.  This was and remains the fundamental question of faith, “Do you believe this?”  Do you believe in what Jesus said?  If you do, then everything Jesus said about Christian way of life takes on far greater significance because it is no longer a lifestyle choice from many to choose from.  It is the only way of life to be lived in this realm and the next.  Suddenly, Jesus teachings to his disciples carries tremendous weight.  He said to them, “27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  We must then cling to a savior of the body and soul.  Who is that savior?  The man who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’”

Each of us must answer that question for ourselves. In verse 27, Martha answered, 27 “Yes, Lord.  I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  Martha had spoken her mind, but I am not sure her words reflect a heart that yet fully knows Christ.

The story continued, “28 After she [Martha] had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. ‘The Teacher is here,’ she said, ‘and is asking for you.’”  It is curious that Martha in Jesus’ presence called Jesus the Son of God but now after walking home in grief she tells her sister Mary, Jesus, the teacher, is here.  She says nothing of Jesus’ being the resurrection and life or that Lazarus would live again.  Grief is our emotional response to death; to the death of a loved one, death of marriage, death of position in life.  Grief is powerful because it consumes our thoughts, both awake and asleep.  Grief relentlessly causes us to question everything thus making us certain of nothing.  Martha’s grief was profound and singularly focused on the absence of her brother and she seems at the moment to be unaffected by her encounter with Jesus.

 “29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.  32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”

Mary lands on Jesus the very same statement with which Martha greeted Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”  The response this time from Jesus was different.  “33 When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”  Mary, unlike Martha, was not alone.  She was accompanied by others and all were crying and wailing at Lazarus’ death.  The scene was loud and chaotic.  It represented the best of the tradition of that time.  The sound and noise of the mourners proclaimed, “All is lost.  Lazarus is no more.”  The scene effected Jesus.  John said, “Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”  What did that mean?  The Greek words John used here meant a deep anger welled up inside Jesus.  A deep anger because people were grieving?  I do not think so.  It seems more likely Jesus was angry that people grieved without hope; that his message of the resurrection and life he shared with Martha had gone nowhere.   

Jesus reply was swift and pointed.  34 “‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.  ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.”  The deep inner emotions coursing through Jesus could no longer be held in and they became visible to all.  John wrote, “35 Jesus wept.”

A few minutes pass as the mourners and Jesus’ disciples made their way to the cemetery.  Martha had joined the group.  As they arrive at the cemetery, we pick up in verse 38, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.”  Again, the expression, that Jesus was “deeply moved,” in the Greek words that John used meant a deep angry welled up inside of Jesus.  This is an intensely emotional scene pitting the belief that death was final against life eternal.  Verse 39, Jesus said, “‘Take away the stone.’  But, Lord,” said Martha, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’  Jesus replied, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’”  Martha was struggling.  She knew about Jesus.  She could recite words about him, but in that moment, she did not truly know Jesus in her depth.  She still believed more in the power of death than in the power life from God.

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’  43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’”

While I can create in my mind a movie of this scene, I cannot fully bring into that experience the mixture of intense emotions among those present at the cemetery.  The sounds of weeping and wailing over the death of Lazarus ended abruptly and was replaced by stony silence.  I can imagine Mary and Martha looking at their brother being let loose from his bindings with overwhelming joy that he is alive and then turning, looking at Jesus, with overwhelming fear.  I can imagine the sisters hugging their dear brother with tears of relief flowing down their faces and then turning toward Jesus with mouths open and falling at his feet with tears of worship and a song upon their lips, “Emmanuel, Emmanuel, His name is called Emmanuel.  God with us, revealed to us, His name is called Emmanuel.”  This is such an intense scene.

Returning the living spirit of Lazarus to the dead body of Lazarus was the powerful sign that Jesus is a personal savior for those who love him.  Jesus words and actions showed that he has dominion over the body and the spirit.  He is in the realm of the living upon this earth and he is in the realm of life after death.  Jesus encourages us to know him deeply as a personal savior.  Someone who brings into the core of who we are God’s love, mercy, peace, and grace.  Yet, if we reject knowing him, and only know about him, we will face a Jesus just judge, with an anger welled up within him.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?’”  Do you call Jesus your Savior?

Feb 24 - I am the Way

John 14:1-7

            We are continuing to explore Jesus’ claims about himself through his “I Am” statements.  We have talked about Jesus’ statements, “I am the good shepherd, I am the true vine, I am the bread of life, and I am the gate.”  Today, we are talking about one of the most powerful “I am,” statements in the Bible, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to Father except through me.”  This statement, “I am the way,” is powerful for the believer in Jesus because it frees the believer from wondering, “Do I have the right answer for my life and my eternity?”  The statement, “I am the way,” is powerful for those who do not believe in Jesus because it suggests that other religious or non-religious practices are without merit.  The statement, “I am the way,” is powerful because it removes the idea that God is impressed by our own goodness as a means of earning God’s grace.

            The statement, “I am the way,” is the single greatest statement of direction for our life.  There is story of the late Billy Graham that is often told.  He had arrived in a small town for one of his famous crusades.  He came out of his hotel with a letter he wanted to mail.  A young boy was walking past, so Billy Graham asked the boy for directions to the post office.  After getting the directions, Graham asked the young boy if he was coming to the crusade meeting that night to hear him speak about how to get to heaven.  The young boy thought for a moment and then said, “No.”  Billy Graham asked him why he did not want to come.  The boy said, “You don’t know the way to the post office, how would you know the way to heaven.”  We may be directionally challenged in life and have become overly reliant of Global Positioning Systems to get us to the nearest post office, but the way to heaven requires no technology.  It only requires Christ.  Before the first disciples of Jesus attracted the title “Christian” (Acts 11:26), they were frequently known as those who belonged to the “Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4). This is an appropriate term, not only because they belonged to one who called himself the “way” (John 14:6), but also because he called them to a distinctive way of life as his followers.  Let’s explore Jesus’ words as he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

            Let’s turn to the Gospel of John, Chapter 14.  The scene behind this passage was somber.  Jesus and his disciples had celebrated the Passover meal.  Then Jesus said one disciple would betray him.  Immediately, Judas departed the scene.  Then Jesus said Peter would soon deny knowing Jesus and the other disciples will desert him.  Things are happening quickly with Jesus and his inner circle of followers and none of it sounded very good.  In many ways, it sounded like circumstances were spinning out of control.  The disciples must have thought, “How in the world could things be going so badly so quickly?  How can it be that they would fail the person they called Master, Lord, Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of the Living God?  God help us!” The words Jesus then gave his disciples at that moment served to comfort them and are often cited to believers in times of greatest distress.

            Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”  The disciples were anxious and shaken by Jesus’ prediction of betrayal, denial, and desertion.  There was a sense of impending doom.  Each of them probably had shortness of breath, chest pains, rapid or fluttering heart rates.  They felt nauseous.  Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” meaning do not let your emotions override your understanding.  Jesus words were intended for the disciples to control their bodies, to control their thoughts, and to confront their fears.  This was necessary so that the disciples could hear again the truth: “You believe in God, believe also in me.”  Despite the betrayal, denial, and desertion the fundamental truth of the eternal relationships was unchanged.  God was unmoved by the chaos of the circumstances.  He was still God, still present, and still in charge.  No matter what was going on God would remain true.  Hearing Jesus’ words, “You believe in God,” and remembering, Jesus then affirmed to the disciples that he is unmoved by the betrayal, denials, and desertions.  For Jesus said, “believe also in me.”

            Jesus was about to undergo a most grueling and gruesome physical, emotional, and spiritual trial through his arrest, beatings, torture, and death.  And yet, his concern remained for the wellbeing of his disciples.  His love was over flowing for them.  Jesus did so because of his great confidence in God and his intimate relationship with God.  We can claim these same words for ourselves in our own trials whether of our own making or by circumstances of others or illness, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me [Jesus].”

            Jesus then spoke about what was to happen to him and how Jesus’ journey would be of benefit to the disciples.  Jesus said, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Having helped the disciples to calm their bodies, control their thoughts, and confront their fears Jesus refocused the disciples view from the disturbing scenes that would unfold on earth to the pageantry that those actions would unleash in heaven.  Jesus would undergo an ordeal and trial of the most severe kind.  What man meant for evil against Jesus, God meant for good to bring life to many people (Ex. 50:20).  Jesus trial and death would open his Father’s home for those who would follow Jesus.  And more than that, Jesus promised that his separation would be momentary and that he would return to bring his disciples to his Father’s home.  God would not forsake Jesus and Jesus would not forsake his disciples.  This was Jesus’ promise then and it remains in place today for us.

As the disciples took in Jesus words, one of them, Thomas, wanted more from Jesus.  Thomas wanted more specifics as to exactly where Jesus was going so that he and the others could go to that same destination and be with Jesus.  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Thomas is often labeled as a “doubter,” but this may be an undeserved title.  When Jesus wanted to return to Judea to be with his friend Lazarus, the disciples said, “But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” (John 11:8)  Then, Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).  Thomas was not willing to shrink from the journey to Judea and it appears that Thomas wanted to follow Jesus wherever it would seem Jesus was now going.  Thomas’ question then, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” shows courage and determination, not doubt.

            In reply to Thomas’ simple question to clarify the location of Jesus’ destination, to know the way to follow him, Jesus made a powerful statement of faith, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Jesus words fell upon Thomas’ ears, “I am the way…to the Father.”  When those words are absorbed, life becomes clear, “Live your life by following Jesus and destination of your life’s journey is God himself.”  How simple.

            If you struggle with that thought, think about Jesus statement as a simple mathematics problem.  When we know that 4+4=8, then we know as well that any other answer to the question, “What is 4+4?” is necessarily wrong.  If someone says, “4+4=7” we are confident that we have been given the wrong answer.  In mathematics, 4+4=8, is a simple right answer; meaning there is no more than one right answer.  When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” he was giving his disciples a simple right answer.  So Jesus’ statement brings much comfort to the believer because we know then that any and all other answers explaining the mystery of God and the pathway of life to heaven are wrong.

            This explains why the followers of Jesus were called the people of the Way.  Jesus’ disciples greatest desire was to live a life of the Way.  What did that mean to them and what does that mean to us today?  If I say, “Yes Lord, I want to follow You, be saved, and be ushered in the presence of God.”  What is the Way of Jesus?

            The way of Jesus involves discipleship.  If we want to know the Way, then we must spent time learning the way.  The way of Jesus is spelled out for us as a fulfillment of the Old Testament and revealed through the New Testament.  The Bible is our source for understanding Jesus.  I have three recollections of the Bible as a young child.  In the first, I recall we had a Bible in our house, but we did not read it because it was the Bible.  The book somehow seemed sacred and therefore should not be opened.  This is childish thinking.  In the second, I recall when my eldest sister was a teenager, she and her friends were doing a Bible study at our kitchen table.  I asked my mother if that was something they were allowed to do; to read the Bible and talk about it.  I was assured it would be alright.  My thoughts were changing.  In the third recollection, I charged out a book from our public elementary school library.  It was an oversized Bible with the full text and illustrations.  I put that Bible on a television table, so I did not have to hold this heavy book while I started reading it.  I remember my father wondered aloud if I would become a priest.  The point is, we must be willing to overcome whatever obstacles exist in our life, real or imagined, and read God’s self-revealing word.  This is fundamental to the way of Jesus which involves discipleship.

            The way of Jesus involves a lifestyle.  Jesus loved God and his neighbors.  This love is not something he just thought about in his head, it is not something he felt in his heart warming his body, Jesus expressed love for God by his actions.  I read the other day, “Behavior never lies.”  Jesus did as God asked him to do even when it was difficult.  He showed love in his behavior.  Jesus loved others providing healing and relief.  He had compassion toward others.  He went the extra mile for others.  He encouraged others, particularly those who were on the fringe of society.  We must live the lifestyle of Jesus.  We cannot walk the way of Jesus in our heads alone.  It requires us to show our love of God by gathering every Sunday to worship him.  We show our love by praying at every meal and as we get our hands dirty compassionately serving others, or as we stand in the place of those who have needs.  Behavior is necessary to live the lifestyle of Jesus.

            The way of Jesus involves loving our enemies.  Jesus set the example when from the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  Jesus’ response was not to return hatred for hatred but to absorb the wrongdoing and return it with forgiveness and love.  Jesus saw the redemptive power in interrupting the vicious cycle of trading insult for insult and hurt for hurt by absorbing the wrong and responding to it with the willingness to forgive.  The way of Jesus involves forgiveness.

            The way of Jesus involves peace.  Jesus was not a passive person although he was non-violent.  Jesus instructed his followers to turn the other cheek and seek to recover fellowship with those who separated themselves from them.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., described it this way, “The nonviolent resister (the person of peace) is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.”  The way of Jesus is spiritually dynamic always seeking to persuade his enemies that he is mistaken and that fellowship, life, and love are possible.  The way of Jesus involves loving seeking and maintaining peace.

            The way of Jesus involves prayer.  The way of Jesus is humble, self-giving, self-sacrificing, and loving.  It is giving and generous without regard to strict rules of equal exchange.  But it is also a way that depends entirely on prayer.  It is a way that depends upon God for guidance, direction, strength, wisdom, wit, patience, self-control, attitude, and encouragement.  The way of Jesus cannot be lived apart from him and his holy spirit.  The power to absorb the abuse of others and return forgiveness is impossible without God.  The way of Jesus involves prayer.

            Jesus said, “You know the way.”  “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  ““Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”  Together we are called to be people of the way with discipleship in Jesus, a lifestyle (a behavior) of Jesus, a love for our enemies, a desire for peace, and heart for prayer.  No one comes to God except through the way of Jesus.

            This week, let’s take an inventory of our progress on the way.  Where we are engaged in the way be encouraged.  Where we are short, let us change.  We are the people of the way; so let’s live like it.  Amen and Amen.

Feb 17 - I am the Gate

            We are continuing to explore what Jesus said about himself using the statements, “I am.”  As the image in our bulletin depicts, moving left to right, Jesus said about himself, “I am the good shepherd, I am the true vine, I am the bread of life, I am the gate or door, I am the way, the truth, and the life, and finally, I am the resurrection.”  Jesus was using figures of speech when describing himself with these words.  Figure of speech should not make us nervous.  We use a variety of figures of speech in our everyday conversations.  “I’ve told you this a million times!”  That is a figure of speech called hyperbole.  When I was a teenager living with my parents, my father said to me on more than one occasion as I stood in front of the television, “You make a better door than a window.”  He was using a metaphor.

In our Bible passage, Jesus said of himself, “I am the gate,” or in some translations, “I am the door.”  This too was a metaphor in which two things which are unlike each other are compared.  In this case, Jesus compared himself to a gate in a sheep’s pen.  In this case, the figure of speech was used to open people’s eyes to a truth that is hidden right in front of them.  Truth can be hidden from us for two reasons.  One reason is that we lack knowledge to understand what we are observing.  The second reason is we are looking a scene but we unwilling to see it differently than we have thought about in the past.  The Greek philosopher, Plato, in his work, The Allegory of the Cave, explained that we most often see life played out in shadows and silhouettes.  The figures casting the shadows are behind us.  From those shadows in front of us, we try to understand what those figures look like behind us.  We are in many ways filling in the blanks and gaps between those shadows because we are blind to the truth.  If we live that way long enough, then we forget that the shadows are not real and we become blind to the truth that cast those shadows.  In our Bible passage today, Jesus used a figure of speech to improve the spiritual understanding of those willing to be taught the truth and to challenge the spiritual blindness of those unwilling to be taught.

Our passage today is found at the very beginning of Chapter 10 from the Gospel of John.  Before we look at that passage we need to spend a minute looking at the end of chapter 9, as our gospel writer, John, was describing the response to Jesus’ healing of a man blind from birth.  A nameless man went to the synagogue to share the good news that he had been cured of his blindness.  But the religious leaders, the Pharisees, did not believe the man’s claims.  No amount of evidence seemed to convince the Pharisees the man had been healed.  Enraged by the man’s continued insistence he had been healed, the Pharisees kicked the man out of the synagogue building and out of the community of the Jewish people.  The man could now see but was a complete outcast.  In Chapter 9, at verse 35, we find that Jesus once again encounters this isolated man.  What happens at this juncture in Chapter 9 leads right into our passage in Chapter 10.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  36 ‘Who is he, sir?’ the man asked. ‘Tell me so that I may believe in him.’  37 Jesus said, ‘You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.’  38 Then the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’  40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, ‘What? Are we blind too?’  41 Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’”  As Chapter 9 ended Jesus’ was charging the Pharisees with spiritual blindness for being unwilling to see what is going on before them.

This leads us into our reading today at verse 1 of Chapter 10.  “‘Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.”

Jesus used a scene familiar to the Pharisees.  The scene involved a shepherd, sheep, a pen for the sheep, and a gate to that pen.  Jesus’ point was to every sheep pen there is only one true entrance.  The shepherd of the sheep enters and exits through that one gate.  He calls his sheep and leads them into and out of the pen.  The shepherd leads the sheep during the day towards food and water and then back to the pen in the evening for rest and safety.  The Pharisees would have seen shepherd and sheep engaged in this ageless dance countless times.  The Pharisees would also have understood that the shepherd and sheep scene was often used to describe God’s relationship (shepherd) to the Hebrew people (sheep).  But in Jesus’ scene, he added a twist.  Jesus said there are other people interested in the sheep but for very selfish reasons.  They want to steal and slaughter the sheep for the money or the meat.  They are thieves and robbers.  These people will not use the gate.  They know their motives are selfish and so they seek to keep their motives hidden from others, particularly those at the gate to the pen.  They avoid the gate.  So they sneak into the pen by climbing over the wall.  The Pharisees understood Jesus’ words.  What the Pharisees claimed they did not understand was how the scene Jesus painted related to them or their behavior.  The Pharisees could not make a connection between the scene Jesus’ painted and their previous conversation.  The Pharisees were unwilling to open their minds and hearts to see things as Jesus saw things.  The Pharisees preferred to look at shadows and believe them to be real rather than looking toward the light and seeing things for what they are.

With great patience, Jesus took another step to explain more precisely the truth.  “Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’”  A gate or the door is the point of entry to a space that is enclosed.  Gates or doors control who may enter or who may exit that space.  We all understand a gate or a door.  The sheep pens of ancient Israel had gates or doors to them at the opening to the wall or barrier.  Jesus his previous painting of the sheep pen very personal by making himself the gate to it.  Jesus did not change the motif that the sheep represented God’s chosen people.  This was a critical point since Jesus had placed himself personally into the story of God’s care for his people.  Jesus was essentially saying to the Pharisees, “I know you see the shadows as to how God leads his people, how God will save his people, but now turn and see that I am the one casting those shadows.  Turn from the shadows and see the reality that, “I am the gate for the sheep.”

Now having the Pharisees’ attention, Jesus continued, “All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”  Jesus’ was blunt.  Those who came before him, whether claiming to be the Messiah or claiming that listening to them brought peace and safety were no different than robbers and thieves; they were or are only in it for themselves.  There are so many people today who seek people to follow them and be influenced by them.  Of a recent list of the top 40 most influential people in America, no more than 4 were Christian.  Most of the people on the list were entertainers offering their own philosophy of life seeking people to abandon their faith; they are spiritual robbers and thieves.  Jesus said we can know who the robbers and thieves are because they avoid the gate and come over the wall. 

Why do these people avoid the door and try to enter the enclosure another way?  Let me give you an illustration from my family.  I have two sisters.  One sister, Marie, is 14 years old than me and the other sister, Sue, is 12 years older than me.  Late one night, or more accurately in the very early morning hours, the sister, Marie, arrived home from a date.  She was well past her curfew and everyone was asleep.  That was her first mistake.  Her second mistake was Marie left her house keys in her bedroom.  She would have to knock on that door and wake my father, the gatekeeper, to open door.  She wanted to avoid that door.  So Marie climbed up onto the roof of the porch.  My sister Sue’s bedroom had window that looked out onto the porch roof.  Marie’s plan was to wake Sue and have her open the window so Marie could come into the house through the window and avoid the door.  Marie knocked and successfully woke Sue.  Unfortunately, in her half-asleep state Sue thought Marie was knock on the door downstairs.  Sue got out of bed walk past the window with Marie looking in and went down the stairs to the front door.  Once at the front door, she opened the door and started calling for Marie, “Where are you?”  Not long after, lights came on; the doorkeeper awoke.  Jesus point was clear.  Those seeking for themselves will avoid the door or gate because they do not want to engage the doorkeeper and have their lives examined.

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”  Jesus established the sole means by which the sheep (those moved by God) can have salvation is through him.  “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).  Jesus’ words would have fallen hard on the Pharisees.  They thought they understood the shadows and that their interpretation of God through their practices brought salvation.  Jesus was saying, “Look not at the shadows, turn and look at me and understand.”  “They [the sheep, God’s called] will come in and go out, and find pasture.”  Those who have salvation will experience both safety and peace and will be nourished in abundance.  “10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The Pharisees’ minds were spinning.  How could Jesus be right?  To accept Jesus’ words would be to reject their understanding of the shadows.

What then do Jesus’ words mean for you and me?  I want to focus on just two points.  First, we recognize that Jesus came to move us from spiritual shadows of God.  People see and sense God but mostly as though they were looking at shadows and trying to understand what and who cast those shadows.  People fill in the gaps to make themselves comfortable and then they will worship the shadows as the truth.  Jesus says, “Turn from the shadows, come into the light and look at me.”  The Apostle Paul turned from the shadows and looked at Jesus.  When Paul did so, he said, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15a).  The Apostle John turned, saw Jesus and said, “He [Jesus] is full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  “We have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life…We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1 & 4).  The testimony of the entire New Testament is one in which people were moved to stop looking at the shadows and instead saw the reality of God in Jesus.  Is your life lived looking at the shadows of God instead of the truth of God through Christ?  If you are, then you are experiencing spiritual blindness.  Turn and look at Jesus.

This brings us to our second point.  When we have turned from the shadows, and look at Jesus, I mean really look at him, we realize that we are outside the kingdom of God.  We may have thought otherwise and may have thought we were in good company, but we are outside the kingdom of God.  When we look at Jesus, then we realize that the only means into the kingdom, the way into safety, salvation, is through him as the gate.  And there is only one gate.  That gate is Jesus. 

One time when the apostle Paul and his companion Silas were imprisoned “without warning, a huge earthquake struck! The jailhouse tottered, every gate flew open, all the prisoners were loose.  27-28 Startled from sleep, the jailer saw all the doors swinging loose on their hinges. Assuming that all the prisoners had escaped, he [the jailer] pulled out his sword and was about to do himself in, figuring he was as good as dead anyway, when Paul stopped him: “Don’t do that! We’re all still here! Nobody’s run away!”  29-31 The jailer got a torch [to shed light on the shadows] and ran inside. Badly shaken, he [the jailer] collapsed in front of Paul and Silas. He led them out of the jail and asked, “Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?” (Acts 16:26-31 MSG). Paul and Silas said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved.”  Most simply, do not avoid the gate but enter through the gate known as Jesus.  Pass through and believe in him.  Be comforted that through that gate is life, abundant today and eternal.  Jesus is the reality that we seek.  In him, there are no shadows.

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”  Turn to him then be saved and have life, and have it to the full.  Amen and Amen.

Feb 10 - I am the True Vine

John 15:1-11

            It is always a good occasion to share our worship service with the leaders and scouts of Troop 279 and Pack 66.  When we are together, it reminds the church of our responsibility to the community to assist in every way possible in the development of boys into young men of character.  When we are together, it reminds the scouts of the nature and beliefs of the church that makes the Troop and Pack possible.  I believe the relationship between the church and the scouts is a very positive and encouraging one.  There is an African Proverb about relationships.  It says, “If you want to go fast, go it alone.  If you want to go far, go with others.”  We hope this church goes far as we go together with the scouts.

            Everything about the life of each scout, leader, parent, parishioner, and pastor here today is measured and ruled by our relationships with one another.  That is not new thought or truth.  How far one goes in their life always has been about the relationship and role we have with others.  The boys are the sons of parents.  Those are relationships.  The boys have leaders who give them direction, and, in some cases, the boys are leaders who give direction to others.  Those are relationships.  Some boys may have brothers or sisters.  Those are relationships.  Members of the congregation have relationships with their family members and with one another as a church.  Everything about our life is measured and guided by our relationships to others.

            Today, we read a passage from the Bible that talked about the primary relationship in life.  It is the one relationship that is central to our entire existence; namely, our relationship with God.  Everyone, whether you believe in God or not, has a relationship with God.  That is part of what we read from the Bible earlier today.  You have in your bulletin as an insert that Bible passage.  I would invite you to look at it as we explore a bit what those words meant at the time they were spoken, what those words mean to us today, and what difference those words should make in our life.

            This Bible passage comes from what we call the New Testament.  The Bible is comprised of two principal sections: The Old Testament and the New Testament.  There are 39 separate books in the Old Testament and represent the history of God working in and through the Hebrew people.  There are 27 separate books of the New Testament which tell us about the life of Jesus Christ and the development of the early Christian church.  The Christian church, regardless of whether it is a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Lutheran church all agree that Jesus is God’s Son.  That is the relationship of God and Jesus, Father and Son.  Jesus was so careful about his relationship with his Father that Jesus only did what his father, God, wanted him to do.  He always obeyed his father, God.  Jesus never wasted time getting around to doing what his father wanted.  Jesus always showed his love for his father, God.  Now, let’s have a show of hands; please raise your hand if you have always done exactly what your father told you to do, when he told you to do it, and how he told you to do it.  I think we can see that Jesus was a very special individual.  Our passage today comes from the New Testament book called John, after the writer, John, a follower of Jesus.  John gave us words from Jesus Christ about what our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus, and our relationship with one another.

            Let’s see how this passage began.  We are reading from the fifteenth chapter of the book of the New Testament called John.  There are 21 chapters in total.  At this point, Jesus was speaking with eleven of his closest friends.  Jesus called these close friends his apostles.  There was Peter and his brother Andrew.  There was James and his brother John, who wrote this book.  There was also Philip, Nathanael, Matthew, Thomas, James (a second one), Simon, and Thaddeus (also named Judas).  Jesus had twelve apostles, but one of them named Judas, had separated himself earlier in the evening to betray Jesus’ location to the Roman authorities so that soldiers could be sent to arrest Jesus.  So in this scene, Jesus was talking to the people closest to him.

            Verse 1 from our reading began with these words, “I am the true vine.”  Let’s just pause for a moment.  Jesus said, “I am the true vine.”  Now Jesus did not suddenly become a talking grapevine.  He was using the image of grapevine to illustrate a point about the relationship that he had with God and with his eleven apostles.  Jesus knew that the apostles understood the basics about growing grapes or other plants that bear fruit.  This was a safe assumption because raising crops and fruits was done by most people in Jesus’ day.

            I found it interesting that the scouts have merit badges that deal with growing plants that produce fruits.  But of the 138 merit badges available in scouts, I found just 2 dealt with growing plants that bear or produce a fruit or vegetable.  One is called Gardening and the other is called Plant Science.  They not, however, popular merit badges.  The Gardening merit badge is one of the least popular badges, ranking 129th out of 138 badges.  Plant Science is only slightly more popular at 121st of 138 badges.  If a scout did complete these merit badges, then they would learn how seeds germinate and plants grow which produce food to eat.  The scouts would also realize that some seeds do not germinate, some plants produce shoots or branches that produce food, and plants produce some branches do not produce food.  There is a lot to be learned about life in watching and participating in the creative process of gardening or growing plants.

As we return to the passage, we remember hear again Jesus’ words, “I am the true vine and my Father (God) is the vine grower.”  Jesus was the true vine, the prized possession of the vine grower, the gardener, God.  This was a way of Jesus expressing through a familiar garden setting his relationship with God.  “I am the true vine and my Father (God) is the vine grower.” 

Now Jesus relationship with God does not end there; it has a purpose.  Jesus said in verse 2, “He (God) removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  If we were scouts taking the Gardening merit badge, we would know that plant or vine has branches coming off it and the fruit is formed on those branches.  The gardener prunes, or cuts off, the branches or shoots that do not produce fruit in order to make the vine stronger.  The gardener would also trim away unnecessary parts of the branches that are producing fruit.  The gardener does this pruning so that the branch will produce even more fruit.  And if we did not already know it, we would learn that the fruit must be consistent with the vine.  A grapevine will produce grapes.  A pumpkin vine will produce pumpkins.  But tomatoes will not grow from a watermelon vine.  The fruit must be consistent with the nature of the vine.

After Jesus reminded his disciples of the art of growing, he said, “You (his disciples) have already been cleansed [pruned] by the word [by my teaching] that I have spoken to you. Abide in me [remain faithful to what I told you] as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides [remains] in the vine, neither can you [produce fruit] unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Now what Jesus laid out here is not in the merit badge for Gardening or Plant Science.  What Jesus was saying to his closest friends was there is a design to God’s relationship for every man, woman, boy, and girl.  The relationship is simple.  God is like the vine grower, Jesus is the vine the gardener planted, and people are the branches coming from the vine.  The vine grower sees everything and cares for the vine.  The vine gives strength to the branches and nutrients to the branches.  Why does the vine give strength and nutrient to the branches?  So the branches produce fruit consistent with the nature of that vine.  Who enjoys that fruit?  It would be the vine grower; in this case, God.

The scene Jesus painted with his words was simple to understand.  There was a vine grower (God), the true vine (Jesus), the branches (Jesus’ followers), and the fruit they produced.  The scene described the relationships that connected each person with God through their connection, their relationship with Jesus.

Jesus had constructed or painted a scene of relationships using a gardening experience to show that everyone has a relationship with God.  Now not everybody understood the scene Jesus constructed.  So to help people understand the scene, Jesus took the time to carefully deconstruct that scene.  He said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Fruit will not grow on branch that is separated from the vine.)  Jesus continued, “Whoever does not abide in me (does not do as I ask) is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, (do what I ask, then) ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father (God) is glorified (praised) by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”  Branches that are not attached to the true vine cannot bear the fruit of that vine.  We know this is true.  If a branch becomes separated from the vine, the branch will wither and die.  The hope that that branch would ever produce fruit is lost.  Jesus was encouraging his apostles to understand their relationship with God through him.

So what do Jesus’ words mean to you and to me?  This is one of those timeless messages from Jesus that requires little interpretation.  Jesus’ words mean to us that we have a relationship with God.  It is as though there is a vine grower (God), there is a true vine (Jesus), and there are branches that get their sustenance for life from Jesus because they are connected to Jesus (that would be us).  Those branches either produce fruit or do not.  Those branches that get no sustenance from the vine (Jesus) because they are not attached to Jesus (that would be those who do not do what Jesus asks) produce no fruit and sadly wither away.  Those branches (that would be those who do what Jesus asks) get their sustenance from Jesus produce fruit.  Where we fit in this scene depends on what type of branch we are; one that is connected to Jesus or one not connected to Jesus.

For us as branches to hold onto a relationship with Jesus as the vine, to follow his lead, to be sustained by him, means we will bear fruit consistent with Jesus as the vine. This leaves us one final question to explore?  What is that fruit we should be producing?  Jesus does not say here specifically what he meant by fruit.  So, if Jesus is the vine, and I am the branch, what fruit should I produce?  Well, we know the branch produces what is found already within the vine.  The fruit we produce then must reflect the nature and character of Jesus.  The nature of Jesus was that of compassionate servant of others.  He saw people in physical need and felt compelled to help them.  He saw people suffering because they did not know the truth about God and so he taught them.  Jesus was patient, kind, gentle, and merciful.

            The people who wrote the New Testament did a lot of writing about what fruits we ought to produce for God.  I end today using the words of just one of the writers.  He said, “We [who are branches on the vine of Jesus] all have different gifts. Each gift came because of the grace God gave us. Whoever has the gift of prophecy [preaching] should use that gift in a way that fits the kind of faith they have [always shares the good news of the God]. Whoever has the gift of serving should serve. Whoever has the gift of teaching should teach. Whoever has the gift of encouraging others should do that. Whoever has the gift of giving to help others should give generously. Whoever has the gift of leading should work hard at it. Whoever has the gift of showing kindness to others should do it gladly.

Your love must be real. Hate what is evil. Do only what is good. 10 Love each other in a way that makes you feel close like brothers and sisters. And give each other more honor than you give yourself. 11 As you serve the Lord, work hard and don’t be lazy. Be excited about serving him!” (Romans 12:6-11).  Can you imagine a world where we all produced fruit like that?  God can and he invites you to be a strong branch on the vine producing such fruit.  Let us pray.

Feb 3 - I Am the Bread of Life

            We are continuing to explore the identity of Jesus using Jesus’ own words.  Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, the true vine, the bread of life, the gate, the way, and the resurrection.”  These were expressions of the nature Jesus was claiming.  They are claims and identities that excited some of his followers, confused other followers, but always seemed to incite his detractors.  These identities meant something in Jesus’ day and today Jesus’ claims should mean something to those within and outside the Christian community.  Today, we are exploring Jesus’ claim, “I am the bread of life.”

            Bread.  Bread is one of those foods that has exceptionally wide use within virtually every culture of the world.  We know that bread does not occur naturally; humans must work other natural ingredients together to produce bread.  Bread is thought to be one of the oldest and continuous forms of human developed food.  Bread has been with us and will be with us in the future as a fundamental staple of our lives.  Let’s begin with what Jesus said about bread and why Jesus’ words matter to us.

            We start in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, verse 35.  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  What do we make of Jesus’ statement?  What did Jesus mean when he said, “I am the bread of life.”  How can someone be bread?  How can bread be alive?  Now, some people, often on social media, will take a statement from the Bible, such as this one, and then apply some meaning to it.  But we are smart enough to know you cannot take a statement from the Bible without understand the context of those words.  We need to reflect on such questions as who was speaking.  Who was listening?  What happened to prompt these words?  What followed in response to these words?  Once we know the context of the words, then we can decide about what those words mean.

            Context matters.  Let me give you a quick example.  A few years ago, I was at a business in Clifton Park.  I needed to use the bathroom.  I entered the men’s room and discovered three men were already in the men’s room.  One man was completely naked.  One man was getting undressed and one man was getting dressed.  Now confronted with this situation should I have left the men’s room or remained?  The answer is I remained.  Why?  Because the business was Planet Fitness.  I had just completed working out and entered the men’s locker room.  The man who was naked had just come out of the shower after working out.  One man was getting dressed to leave and the other was changing into his gym clothes to begin working out.  There was nothing wrong with the scene; what was missing in the initial telling of the story was the context.  Context matters.

            In our scripture passage context matters.  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  What was the context?  What was going on to make him say such a thing at that moment in time?  First, we should note that a day earlier, Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people bread and fish starting with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus then left the crowd of people with their physical appetites satisfied and went with his disciples in their boats went further along the Sea of Galilee.  But the crowd of people did not want Jesus to leave them, so they march along the shoreline to the place where Jesus landed.  The crowd of thousands were looking for more bread.  When Jesus met the crowds and realized they want bread for their stomachs, Jesus said to them, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  Jesus was telling the people the bread they need is God given and is not made with ingredients of the earth but comes from heaven.  This bread of God is complete.  Once taken in, God’s bread gives life to those who eat it and God gives it, as a gift, to the entire world.  Jesus was telling the crowds and his disciples of a blessing from God far beyond bread for the stomach.  The people were so excited.  Bread from heaven.  Bread that could make and keep them alive.  Hunger would be over.  With great enthusiasm the people shouted back to Jesus, 34“Sir, always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  I am sure Jesus words were not what the people had expected.  The crowd wanted bread that would forever satisfy their physical life.  Jesus offered eternal satisfaction of their hunger and thirst for God, for meaning and purpose in life, by coming to Jesus and believing in him.  Jesus surely disappointed many in the crowd; there would be no miraculous free lunch of bread and fish today.  Jesus confused some; “I thought we were talking about bread but now we are talking about God.”  Jesus intrigued a few; “Rabbi, tell me more about bread that gives eternal life.”  Jesus words separate out those who have opened themselves up to God call.  For the crowd was comprised of three kinds of people.  The first group we might call users of Jesus.  The users were people only interested in the free lunch.  The second group we might call buddies of Jesus.  The buddies of Jesus enjoyed the lunch.  They enjoyed Jesus’ ability to preach, teach, and tell stories.  Jesus was a cool guy.  The third group were his brothers and sisters.  They were the men and women who understood that Jesus was not just another Rabbi.  He was not just a miracle worker and healer.  They understood Jesus was someone through whom God became real, personal, and intimate.  They wanted to follow Jesus.  They believed in Jesus even though his promise of eternal life could not be proven until death.

Picture the scene.  Jesus just said, ““I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  The large crowd of people, users, buddies, and brothers and sisters, all murmuring to others of their group with their disappointment, confusion, and fascination about what Jesus said.  To the side stood the religious leaders, wary crowds and suspicious of Jesus.  And wondering would Jesus say or do next?

We see in verse 36 Jesus has more to say.  But what he has to say will eventually separate the crowd.  Jesus said, “36 But as I told you, you have seen me [you saw a sign of my authority from God in feeding the multitudes] and still you do not believe.  [You do not believe in the truth I share with you about God and myself.] 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”  Jesus made it clear to the crowd, not all of you will be moved by the Holy Spirit to come to me.  Jesus was saying that many in the crowd will resist God’s invitation and moving in their life to accept the truth about God and Jesus. But for those who accept the invitation, Jesus will never push away.  The crowd was a about to get smaller.

Jesus explained, “38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.  [Jesus was saying, “I do not speak my own words but God’s words to you.] 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.  [Those coming to me are not lost.  They will have eternal life and they will be raised into new life.] 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”  Accepting the God’s invitation to follow Jesus and believe in him guarantees eternal life with God.

As we return to our picture of the crowd, we can well imagine the murmuring is now grown even louder and may even be a bit unruly.  Those intrigued by Jesus are more alive than ever with excited expressions on their faces of joy.  They are talking loudly with perhaps hands raised to the heavens.  The buddies in the crowd had scowls on their faces saying to one another, “I thought Jesus was going to take charge of the country and kick the Romans out.  We thought we would be living large.”  The users of the crowd were angry as though they had been given a fake lottery ticket.  There would be no free lunch for life.

As the discontentment of the crowd increased, John wrote in verse 41, “At this the Jews [the religious leaders] there began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?’

43 “‘Stop grumbling among yourselves,’ Jesus answered. 44 ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life.”

Jesus repeated his claim, “I am the bread of life,” to accentuate the message in between the first time he said those words and second time he said them. Reducing this message technique to a simple visual picture, you might think of it as a sandwich. The first expression of “I am the bread of life” is the bottom slice of bread on a sandwich.  All that follows that first statement is meat of the sandwich or in our case the meat of the message.  The second expression of “I am the bread of life,” is the top slice of bread of the sandwich.  Giving the message this way focuses our attention on what lies between two identical statements; the meat.  The meat of Jesus message was this, God calls and invites each person to believe in Jesus.  In accepting the invitation, Jesus receives that person as a brother or sister and will not push them away.  In accepting God’s call and following Jesus, that person, that brother or sister has eternal life with God.  On another occasion Jesus “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:50). This is the good news of the Gospel; that we can become brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Now what happened to those who heard Jesus say these words directly to them?  Verse 66 revealed the crowd’s reaction, “66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him [Jesus].”  Those who were users and buddies of Jesus turned away from Jesus and abandoned their plans to follow him.  God had moved them to hear Jesus words, but they were not interested in believing Jesus and giving their life him.

What then does this passage, these words of Jesus, mean to you and me?  What does this story mean for our relationship with God and with other people?  There are three things we can draw from Jesus’ words.

First, Jesus reminds us that everyone hungers and thirsts.  We know this is true for our physical life.  Everyone gets hungry and thirsty and seeks food and drink for their bodies.  There are no exceptions.  Just as true, everyone is hungry and thirsty for a life of meaning and purpose.  This is a spiritual hunger and thirst in each of us.  There has never been a time in human history where people did not earnestly desire to satisfy their spiritual longing.  Those desires have been expressed in a multitude of ways ranging from worship of animals to building of pyramids to being here in this sanctuary.  People have always sought to satisfy their spiritual life.  It has been said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  The problem we all face is that our physical hunger and thirst become so great, that we are willing at times to eat soiled food and polluted water.  The same is true of an unsatisfied spiritual hunger and thirst. 

Second, the one true God stirs our spiritual life and invites us to come and follow Jesus.  Many respond but do so as users.  They associate with Christ for the benefits in the here and now.  They are interested in the free lunch program of the Christian community but do not genuinely accept Jesus.  Some respond but do so as buddies of Jesus.  They attach themselves to the good sayings and good times of Christ and shun the difficult parts of their walk with Jesus.  But a few people respond and embrace Jesus as the answer to their spiritual longing.  They hold onto to Jesus as one would with a brother they longed to see.

Third, for those who become part of Jesus’ family and believe in him, they have the assurance of purpose, of meaning, and of eternity for their life.  In receiving that assurance through the love of Christ, they are freed.  Freed to love others.  Freed to forgive others.  Freed to be the hands and feet of Christ.  They live life satisfied knowing they are Jesus’ sibling and God’s child.

God is calling each one of us to him through Jesus.  How shall we respond to that call?  Shall we be known to God as a user of Jesus who just associate with him?  Shall we be known as a buddy of Jesus who attach to the good and shun the work?  Or shall we be known as a brother or sister of Jesus willing to walk where he calls us to go?  Jesus will reject the users and his buddies, but never will he reject a brother or sister. 

In a moment, we will take the bread and cup.  Symbols of Jesus.  Symbols of his body and his blood.  Jesus offers the bread and blood for his family.  If you are in Jesus family, then you have eternal life, you are freed to love others, and you are welcomed to come and eat in remembrance of the bread of life, our brother, Jesus.”  Let us pray.