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Apr 14 - Does It Matter

Luke 19:28-48          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apr 7 - Why Suffering

Matthew 26:57-67

Matthew 27:27-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibis, 30.

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

[4] Ibid, 30.


Mar 31 - The Basin and the Towel

John 13:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            A poet explained it this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 24 - Am I Accepted?

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.