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Aug 5 - Jesus Encounters - Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

July 29 - Jesus Encounters - The Nameless Woman

John 7:53-John 8:1-11

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 22 - Jesus Encounters - The Man No One Wanted

Mark 5:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15 - Encountering Jesus - Nicodemus

John 3:1-16

This past Thursday evening, Becky and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary by attending a play entitled, “Jesus,” at the Sight & Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  The play retraced Jesus’ steps from the calling of his disciples along the sea of Galilee to Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.  There were two things that stood out to me that evening.  The first thing concerned the audience.  The second thing concerned the show itself. 

The audience, 2,000 people, was diverse.  The audience included men and women, boys and girls from every age; young children to great grandparents.  The audience included people of every different skin color, hair color, and different language.  Although the audience was diverse, the audience shared a common faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Although common in faith, you could not tell who was a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or any other Christian denomination you could mention.  Although diverse in many regards but common in faith, you could not tell who held membership with the Democratic party, the Republican party, or any other political party you could mention.  The only thing clear about this diverse audience was they had a common faith and that they were peaceful with one another.  It was a very pleasant scene and was a taste of what the Christian life could be like and should be like.

The second notable thing that evening was the performance itself.  While the music and acting were emotional and uplifting, the thing that stood out most to me from the play was the presentation of Jesus’ power to change lives.  Seeing familiar scene from the Bible come to life in three dimensions brought new awareness of the significance of Jesus’ healings, conversations, and prayers.  For whenever someone encountered Jesus, their life changed.  That change was always with greater freedom and always in greater wonder of God.

We have been talking about encounters with Jesus these past two weeks.  We spoke about the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist and Jesus and a fisherman named Andrew.  Both John and Andrew were commoners, having no social or political standing or power.  In that regard, they were like everyone here today.  But John and Andrew in knowing Jesus, became free.  They were free from the common worries about what to eat, what to wear, what to drink, and where to live.  They needed food, water, and shelter but they were not anxious about such matters.  Instead, they trust God would meet those needs.  John and Andrew were free from the continual desire to sin because they knew the forgiving God through Jesus.  These men knew God was at work not just in some abstract way but in a very personal way that could be seen, heard, touched, and experienced.  These men lived for God.  They wanted to share the common faith and be at peace with others; just like Becky and I experienced with that diverse audience at the theater.  Encounters with Jesus changes lives always with freedom and greater wonder of God.

Today, I would like us to explore another encounter with Jesus.  This time the encounter is between Jesus and a man of influence, power, and authority named Nicodemus.  In that encounter, we will come to realize that encountering Jesus is best described and is no less significant than if we were born again.  In seeing this encounter unfold, we are more able to come to trust our lives to Jesus, to have freedom and forgiveness for ourselves, to be more in greater wonder of God, and come to peace with those around us.

Our encounter today comes from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, at verse 1.  Verse 1 reads, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.” John introduced his readers to Nicodemus, an important man in Israel. Nicodemus was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures and was a leader of the people.  He is the man who was aware of Jesus but had not encountered Jesus.  This was all about to change.

In verse 2, John wrote, “He (Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night.” Nicodemus approached Jesus with some caution.  The darkness offered him some protection from being spotted with Jesus.  This was important since earlier Jesus had overturned tables in the Temple and used a whip to drive away those selling wares within the Temple.  Further Jesus called the religious leaders, including Pharisees like Nicodemus, thieves for corrupting the Temple by allowing merchants to sell things within the Temple.  So, Nicodemus was both sure he wanted to know Jesus better and unsure about being seen with Jesus.  This is a common experience today as well.  There are many people who want to know Jesus, but they do not want other people to see them in a church.  Why?  Because they fear rejection by their friends and families for associating with Christians.  We can learn something from Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus at night.  Some people will not come to church because they fear rejection by their friends.  So, we, the church, the people, need to make our faith accessible to people in places other than the church.  We need to be able to share our faith in all settings of our life.  We need to share our faith over a cup of coffee, at a ballgame, or in our home.  This is one reason we host a meal and Bible study outside the church itself.  When we do these things, we are creating space for people to come and see who this Jesus is even if they are afraid of the reaction of others.  Nicodemus had come to see who Jesus was outside the prying eyes of other religious leaders.

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Nicodemus shared an important truth here.  Either we believe the evidence of Jesus’ miracles and teachings and believe Jesus is somehow from God or we believe Jesus was a fraud.  There is no middle ground.  Nicodemus believed Jesus was from God, but Nicodemus was not sure how Jesus fit into the God of Nicodemus’ mind.  It is okay if we do not understand everything there is to understand about Jesus.  If we understood all things and there was absolutely no mystery to Jesus, then we would be God.  So, since we are not God, we do need to be open to the unfolding mystery of God through Jesus.

While Jesus was a mystery to Nicodemus, Nicodemus was not a mystery to Jesus.  Jesus knew he must challenge Nicodemus as to what it meant to be with God.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  Encountering Jesus was no less significant than being born a second time.  Let that sink in a little.  Encounter Jesus and believe in him and you will be born again.  And if you are born again, guess what, you must grow up again but this time understanding the love God has for you.  The possibilities of this second life are immense because you will live your life in a different way fueled by the spirit of God.

Nicodemus was unable to allow this thought to sink into his mind.  In verse 4 he said to Jesus, “How can someone be born when they are old?  Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”  The well-educated religious leader could not understand Jesus’ words.  Jesus remains a mystery and his words are so confusing that Nicodemus tries to reject Jesus words.  Isn’t that true of us as well?  Isn’t it true that when we cannot understand what is going on, why something happened or did not happen, that confuses us, we do not try to understand God’s plan as much as we just reject the circumstances.  If faith and trust in God are not our guide, then we will reject what we are unsure of.  But faith is holding tight to God in the face of uncertainty.

Consider a story of great faith.  Think for a moment of the Christmas story.  An angel told Mary that she would have a son and name him Jesus.  Mary did not say, “What are you talking about?  Surely, this cannot happen because I am a virgin.”  This would have closed her heart and mind to the unfolding mystery of God.  Instead, Mary asked, in faith, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”  This question is an expression of faith that seeks to encounter more of the mystery of God, not close it off.  Are we open to God’s mystery for our lives?

Now, Jesus would have no part of Nicodemus’ unwillingness to explore the mystery of God.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”  Jesus repeated that in order to encounter God you must be born again through the power of God’s Spirit.

Nicodemus understood that if what Jesus says is true, then Nicodemus must open himself to receive the Spirit of God.  He could not expect to receive God’s grace because of who his family is, his role in the religious life of Israel, by how many good things he did for others, or by how much money he gave to the Temple.  He must be born again.  The same is true for us as well.  We must be born again.

Finally, in verse 9, we see a change began to come over the well-educated Nicodemus.  Nicodemus once confused and rejecting Jesus’ words was now open to learning.  He says in verse 9 the words Mary once spoke, “How can this be?”  How can one be born again?  How does God make provision for us to be born again?  Help me Jesus in my unbelief.

Jesus gave Nicodemus an explanation from the Hebrew Scriptures that would appeal to Nicodemus’ sense of history and prophesy and then Jesus summarized his answer in verse 15 as to how this can all happen, “Everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  This is how one is born again!

To be born again, is to believe and act on the belief that God’s gives life now and life eternal through Jesus.  Believe in Jesus, receive him, and you will be born again.  Now, Nicodemus, and each of us, we must choose.  Jesus is either from God as he says he is or he is a fraud.

The Apostle Paul would later write, “‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (born again).”…“Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-13, ESV)  There is no distinction among believers for the same Lord is Lord of all.  That is what we saw in the audience at that theater and that is what God wants for us as well.

God intends for us to be joyful in encountering Jesus and to be blessed.  Unfortunately, not all people see Jesus as a joy.  Take the case of Charles Darwin, the primary advocate for evolution.  Darwin said he could "Hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.” You see Darwin was a bright man, and at one point was considering the ministry. He is saying, “Since my family chose not to believe, I do not want the words of Jesus to be true, because if they are true, then my family is hopelessly in hell.” Darwin was resisting the offer being born again for fear of what it meant to others because of their unbelief.  It does not matter what we want to be true in life, it only matters what is true. We believe what Jesus says is true, and therefore, we can be born again into hope.  We see this hope expressed in the final verse of reading today, “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.”  It is through Jesus that we are born again into abundance life today and for all time.

What happened to Nicodemus because of his encounter with Jesus?  We learn that Nicodemus was born again and moved from the shadows of night into the light of day.  He came to love Jesus in a very personal way.  We learn that Jesus was crucified and died upon the cross.  He was the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.  After Jesus died, “Joseph of Arimathea [a Pharisee like Nicodemus] asked Pilate [the Roman Governor] for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he [Joseph] came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.   40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.  41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:38-42).  Nicodemus loved Jesus because Jesus was God’s expression of love for the world.  Nicodemus loved Jesus because he had been born again into a new life.  In taking Jesus’ body, Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows and into the light for all to see he was a believer.

We should be grateful for the mortal life we have.  But to have the abundance of life now and forever more we must receive Jesus and be born again.  We should not wait in making our choice.  The door to the mystery of God is open, for how long, none of us knows. Come encounter Christ, be born again, and see the kingdom of God. If you have confessed Jesus as Lord and been baptized, then you have a story that to tell someone else. Make a point of being available to someone who comes in seeking answers. Look into the lives of those God places in your path and ask them in your own words if they have seen the kingdom been born again. Share with them what it means to be a Christian. Do not be anxious, the Spirit is within you and will give you a way of saying, “You must be born again.” Amen.

July 8 - Encountering Jesus: Andrew

John 1:29-42

No matter what our age, we have a view of who we are, what we have achieved, and what we hope to do.  There is the arc to our life.  There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In every arc of life there are notable events that we believe gives shape to that arc.  Social scientists look at these events and see how those events shape vast numbers of people.  For those born before 1945, the Great Depression, World War 2, and the movement of people from the farm to the city helped shape that generation.  For those born between 1945 and 1964, the Baby Boomers, competition, optimism, television, and affluence shaped that generation.  Those born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X, the rise in divorce rates and latchkey children, corporate downsizing, and the introduction of computers shaped those lives.  For the Millennials, heavy parental involvement in their lives, everyone gets a trophy mentality, consumerism, and the Internet shaped and continues to shape their lives.  This is what the social scientist tell us about the arc of life for each generation.

            But in the sophisticated historical analyses of major events and underlying currents of social change, social scientist miss the obvious.  The arc of your life and mine is shaped less by events and more by a person.  There is always a person (or two) in our life that had the greatest influence over who we are.   Yes, there are the forces that influence our personal life but there is always a person who influenced us in a way that all those social forces cannot account for.  In fact, you first went to a church because of the influence of another person and you remain here because of the influence of a person.

            It is the personal encounters of life that matter most as to who we are, what we have achieved, and what we hope to do.  The person of greatest influence in all of history is Jesus Christ.  Jesus has influenced more people, more organizations, more societies, and more nations than anyone else.  Last week, we spoke about the first-person Jesus influenced.  His name was John the Baptist.  Although there were powerful movements of religious and political thoughts in John’s life, it was Jesus who shaped the arc of John’s life.  But in that shaping, John and Jesus walked separate paths from one another.  Today, I would like us to look at the first person to walk in life and have his life shaped during the 3 years of Jesus’ public ministry.  His name was Andrew.

            The Gospel of John gives us the story of Andrew’s encounter with Jesus in Chapter 1, starting at verse 29.  As this scene opens, we find ourselves in the wilderness of ancient Israel, along the River Jordan; a place we can still find today.  The river serves as a boundary line these days between the modern nations of Israel and Kingdom of Jordan.  It was in this remote location that we find a man named John engaged in baptizing people of all social class.  John’s baptism, being submerged under the waters of the river, was an outward sign of a decision by those being baptized to repent; that is to change the direction of their life from self-oriented to God-centered.  When John baptized he called on people to show evidence that God was at the center of their lives with conduct different from other people.  John was a powerful speaker with a personality that could attract others to hear his message to change.  One of those people who heard John’s message in the wilderness was a man named Andrew.

We learn elsewhere in the Bible that Andrew was a very ordinary person.  He was a fisherman, physically strong from throwing nets into the Sea of Galilee and pulling them onto the shore or into his boat.  He lived in a small town of Bethsaida, in the northern part of Israel.  Yet, as we open our New Testament text today we will discover this ordinary person, Andrew, is 85 miles south of his home along the river Jordan.  That would be like walking from here to West Point-Lake Placid.  We find that Andrew is a disciple, he is now following John the Baptist.

Verse 35, “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples [Andrew being one of them], and as he [John] watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.”

Let’s take a moment and look at what we know about Andrew from this short passage.  Andrew was present at the side of John the Baptist, supporting and serving John’s historic mission to all the people calling them to focus their hearts and minds first on God and then live with others from God’s perspective.  At first, Andrew was unnamed; he was just a disciple of John’s standing next to John who preached about the coming kingdom of God.  Yet, when Andrew heard John’s testimony, that Jesus was the God’s Lamb, Andrew knew then that Jesus was a person through whom Andrew could experience God in a personal and powerful way.  Elton Trueblood, a Christian philosopher, wrote, “because persons are superior, in kind, not only to all things but even to all ideas, I need a person to whom I can give myself and thereby find myself.”  Jesus was God incarnate, meaning in the person.  Andrew could see that following the person of Jesus was superior to any thing, any idea, or any other person. 

When Jesus realized Andrew was following him, Jesus asked, “What do you want?” Andrew’s reply, “Where are you staying?,” suggests Andrew desire was spend time wherever Jesus called home.  Isn’t that true for us as well?  When we want to know someone and spend quality time with them we do so in our homes.  So, Andrew went and stayed with Jesus wherever Jesus called home at that moment. 

Our Gospel writer John gives us a little detail that shows how life changing this encounter was to Andrew.  John added these words to the account of Andrew’s meeting Jesus.  “It was about four in the afternoon.”  Think about that for a moment.  The Holy Spirit was inspiring John to write about the mission and ministry of God’s Son, Jesus, and in the arc of that story, John takes energy and space to note the time of day Andrew encountered Jesus.  The moment was so significant that the time of day must be recorded.  We do remember even small details about the people who had the greatest impact on our lives.

Andrew spent the day with Jesus.  He had a life changing encounter.  What did Andrew do because of this encounter?   Verse 41, “He [Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him [Simon], ‘We have found the Messiah!’”  The encounter with Jesus had changed Andrew’s life.  Andrew could not imagine keeping secret his belief in Jesus, so he went with haste to find his brother and tell him the news.  Verse 42, “He [Andrew] brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”  Andrew the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist had become the first disciple of Jesus and the first to share the good news of what it meant to be wherever Jesus was.  Jesus had reshaped the arc of Andrew’s life.  You cannot encounter God and remain unchanged. 

To whom did Andrew share that news of his encounter?  It would be his brother, a very dominate personality; so dominate that Andrew is introduced to us as Simon Peter’s brother.  We learn though that being the dominate personality in the room meant nothing to Andrew.  Knowing that his role was to follow Jesus and then introduce others to Jesus was foremost in his mind.  That simple desire shaped the arc of his life.  Andrew showed us the Christian character is more often found in the small acts of life being inconspicuous at times and yet ministering to others as God sees them.  The Christian character is not about being the biggest voice or the most prominent person in the room.  Small voices matter and that sharing the experience of Jesus is not just something to do, it is a need within each Christian.

Andrew, in our Scripture today, said in a small voice to his brother, “We have found the Messiah.”  With those few words, the model for sharing the experience of Christ was born.  It is what each of us can and must imitate today; invite others we know to experience the person of Jesus.

Later in the New Testament, we see Andrew appear again and the impact of Jesus’ encounter upon him.  Some 5,000 people had gathered to hear Jesus teach and now they needed food.  Jesus said to his disciples, “You feed them.”  His disciples were dumbfounded.  How could they feed 5, 000 people?  Andrew appeared with a small boy at his side and said to Jesus, “Here is boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Andrew, the follower of Christ, did not understand how all things would work but he was willing to introduce people to Jesus.  Andrew wanted others to encounter Jesus.  Andrew understood that even small offerings in Jesus’ hands could yield mighty works.  It does not take much to change someone’s life.  I am learning that through ministry of those suffering in grief.  We cannot solve the big problem that people face; the loss of someone they love.  Yet, in small things, such as our presence in Christ, becomes a great comfort and serves as a reminder that God is real and present in this world.  Are we following Andrew’s model and being faithful in doing small things for others with great love?  This is to be part of the arc of every Christian’s life.

We have one final example of the impact of Andrew’s encounter with Jesus.  Jesus was again speaking and some Greeks approached one of the disciples, Philip, and asked if they too might meet Jesus.  Philip, unsure of himself, sought out Andrew.  Andrew brought Philip and the Greeks with him to meet Jesus.  The character of Andrew was that of someone who was willing to invest time in other people.  Andrew wanted Philip to overcome his uncertainty and become a more productive disciple.  Andrew put aside whatever occupied him at that moment and helped Philip bring people to Christ.  It is part of having a Christ centered focus to life and with that perspective knowing how to treat other people.  We need to make ourselves available to others.  What we know and our experience with Jesus is of great value.  But it is only valuable if we use it and share it with someone.  If we hold onto what we know and do not share it, it does not have the full value God intended.  Andrew understood.  His focus was on God by encountering Jesus. 

We can learn much from Andrew.  The first and most important thing was we need to be open to an encounter with Jesus.  Second, in opening himself to Jesus, Andrew was willing to listen and spend time with the authentic person of Jesus.  Too many people in Andrew’s day and far too many today think they know Jesus without ever having met him.  Andrew willingly accepted Jesus invitation to “Come and see.”  We must be open to the authentic Jesus.

Thirdly from Andrew, we learn that Andrew wanted others to come and see Jesus.  Andrew’s desire for others to come and see was everything to him.  Andrew was willing to invite others even if he became overshadowed by their personalities.  Andrew was willing to be faithful in small things; he knew small things in God’s hands yield great results.  Andrew was willing to mentor others; he knew the power of ministry only increases when we equip others to meet their full potential.  Andrew was a sharing individual because his heart was focused on God, he was experiencing God in a personal way through Jesus, and he was willing to then see others as God sees them and minister to them. 

Someone has influenced your life more than any idea or thing.  Who was it?  Someone influenced your life such that you are here this day to join others in worshiping God and hearing his word proclaimed.  Who was it?  Now that you are here, you know that someone, in the person of Jesus, can influence your life and literally save it for all eternity if you will come and see him.  Have you?  If you are struggling with the answer to that question, “Have I opened myself to Jesus,” please speak with me.  Knowing that answer means everything.  If you have had an encounter with Jesus as Andrew did and believe as Andrew believed, then follow Andrew’s example of faithfulness, patience, and concern for others from a God centered life, rich with our personal encounter with Jesus.  May God bless you this week to do small things with great love as you come and share from your life the authentic person of Jesus.  Amen.

July 1 - Encountering Jesus

Matthew 3:1-17        

Just over 40 years ago, we heard five iconic tones project from the movie screen signaling a science fiction close encounter of a third kind; namely contact with aliens from outer space.  The movie tells the story of expectations and life changes as different individuals lived through contact with an alien lifeform.  Everyone changed who experienced an encounter.  This is the very definition of an encounter.  It is a moment when you come upon or experience the unexpected and it changes you.

This summer, I would like us to explore some encounters in the Bible between different people and the person called Jesus the Nazarene.  All these encounters had two things in common.  First, each encounter reveals important aspects of Jesus’ character, person, and mission.  Second, there was something unexpected in the meeting and person who encountered Jesus was never the same again.  The person changed from within and it became clear in the way they lived.  A real encounter with God produces more than just emotions, it results in change. You cannot encounter God and remain the same.  Somewhere within each of us there is a deep desire to experience an encounter with God.  It is my hope that in exploring the encounters with Jesus, we could have a fresh encounter with God and do some good as we travel this life together.

A man named John was the first person to have an encounter with Jesus.  John was a significant person from history.  Ancient historians wrote about John calling him a good man who commanded the Jews to be virtuous and revere God.  The Qur'an, writings sacred to Islam, says that John was pure and devout toward God.  He was dutiful to his parents and supremely knowledgeable of the Scriptures.  The four gospels of the New Testament each describe John as a godly and righteous person.  We know this man John most because he called people to be baptized as a sign of their decision and commitment to repent from sinful ways.  Hence, we call him and know him as John the Baptist.  John was and remains an enduring figure of history.

At the time of John, there was a great and growing expectation that God was at work in a new and powerful way.  There was a hope that God would send his Messiah to Israel. The expectation caused some people to become engrossed in ritual practices as a means of preparing.  Other people immersed themselves in the study of God’s word.  Many thought the idea of a Messiah meant a conquering king would lead the people to victory against the Romans.  Others thought God would unleash his judgment and fearsome wrath.  Separate groups within Israel took the same Hebrew Scriptures, focused on specific passages, and ended up with very diverse views of what it meant that God’s Messiah was coming.  We really are not much different today.  We still have differing interpretations of the same Scripture.  And so, we can look either at our differences or at what we share in common.  Different views for sure, but common point was that the people in John’s day believed God was at work and there was great expectation of what he could and was doing.  This is where I fear we might be very different today from our ancestors.  Do people live our lives with expectation that God is doing something and is inviting us to be part of it?  My fear is that many people do not expect God to do anything. If we do not believe God is or we do not believe God is doing something, then we will never have an encounter with God.  Why would we encounter God if we do not believe his is here?  I believe God is and that God is very engaged in this world and particularly involved in this church.  I believe that because there is a sense of hope.  Hope cannot be found without God present and therefore, encounters with God are not only possible they are expected.  How about you?  Have you asked yourself lately, “Am I looking to encounter God?”

As we saw in our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist expected to encounter God.  John’s expectations drove him to become a fiery preacher.  John went to the wilderness and began calling upon people to “Repent.”  He said, “Make way for the Lord and make straight the pathways for him.”  John’s point was that the Lord was at work and coming soon.  His warning was, “You had better get the obstacles out of your life that were in the way of being with the Lord.  Repent of your sins, before it is too late.”  John appeared to be of that group that believed in the coming judgement of God through the Messiah.

John seemed quite convinced that the time of judgement and wrath for sin would happen very soon.  John was urgent in his appeal.  When he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming he got very worked up.  Listen to how he speaks to the most religious people of Israel. 

  • You brood of vipers! You are all snakes! Who warned you to run from God’s judgment that is coming?
  • Change your ways!
  • Don’t think you hide behind Abraham, that won’t work.
  • The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
  • I baptize with water for repentance but the one who is coming … He will use an unquenchable fire!
  • Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!

There is power, fury, wrath and judgment in John’s words to the best and most religious of Israel.  John was saying those who do not have a spiritual life in God will soon receive God’s unquenchable anger.  And yet look at what Matthew says at the beginning of verse 13, immediately after this hell and brimstone speech, Matthew says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee.”  We have this worked up preacher sharing his expectation of God’s coming action with fire, judgment, and wrath and Matthew says in sharp contrast, “Then Jesus came from Galilee.”  Matthew’s words about Jesus’ arrival are soft and easy and stand in contrast to hard words of John.  The contrast signals that John was about to have an encounter with the God in the flesh and it would come to change John’s life.  Whenever there is an encounter with Jesus, lives change.

            Matthew wrote in verse 13, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.”  John was in the wilderness shouting to all who would listen that the kingdom of God was near and now Jesus came to John to show him the king had arrived to claim his kingdom.  Jesus came to give John the encounter John wanted others to experience.  Yet when Jesus asked John to baptize him as John had done for so many others, John, at first refused to do so.  “No Jesus.  I cannot baptize you because you are king of the coming kingdom!  I, John, should have you baptize me as a sign of my entry into God’s kingdom!”  We read in verse 15, that Jesus said, “‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.” 

John’s consent to baptize Jesus, teaches us that we need to be open to Jesus leading.  Wonderful things happen when we cooperate with God.  I have shared in the past that when I was in my mid-20’s, single, and unsure of what I should be doing with my life, I prayed for God’s direction.  The answer from God was simple.  “Stay put and wait for Me.”  Now looking back, I see that even though I was not part of a church, I was open to God’s leading.  I stayed put and waited; for what I was not sure.  Within a couple of months, I met Becky who would become my wife.  She led me to join her at her church, a Baptist church.  It was there I encountered Christ.  It was from that encounter I became involved in adult Bible studies and teaching Sunday school.  It was from that encounter I became involved in church as the Treasurer, Financial Secretary, and Trustee.  It was from that encounter that I became a church Deacon and spiritual program leader of the church.  From that encounter, I felt and heard the call to the pastorate.  I did not expect any of these things from God’s response, “Stay put and wait for Me.”  But my life changed because of an encounter, not with aliens, but with God through Jesus Christ.

What did John experience from being open to Jesus’ leading?  Look at what happened in verse 16.  “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”  John heard, touch, and saw the fullness of God.  John heard God the Father say, “This is my Son.”  John touched the Son of God as he pushed pulled Jesus under and out of the waters of River Jordan.  John saw the saw the spirit of God descend on Jesus from heaven like a dove.  John encountered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

John’s encounter with Jesus meant his message was true, the urgent need to repent to change was true, the kingdom of God was near and found in the person of Jesus.  While history records for us that John called for people to virtuous, reverent to God, dutiful to our parents, and devout in our practices, that is not the key message from John.  His ensuring message, reinforced by his encounter with Jesus, was urgency.  John was saying, “Time is precious and short.  Do not delay a moment in entering the kingdom of God.  Make straight your paths for the Lord.  Change your attitude toward and about God and live a life that shows the goodness of God.  Hurry up!  What are you waiting for?”

But many people in John’s times and a great many today, do not genuinely change.  They do not genuinely move toward God with any urgency.  Some say to themselves, “I’ll think I will just wait and ponder this whole notion of God before I decide what to do with my life.”  The truth is they never really think about God and never change.  Others say to themselves and others, “I do not see the point in listening to the message.  I am a good person, as I define good, and God loves good things, so he will have to accept me.”  Think about that sort of thinking this way.  Suppose you are home one evening, reading a book or watching television and there is a knock on the door.  You go to the door and there stands a neatly dressed person carrying a suitcase.  The person says, “Good evening.  You do not know me, and in fact, until this point in my life, I have rejected everything about you, but I have been a good person.  Now, please step aside and let me in because I am here to live with you from now on.”  Honest show of hands, how many of you would step aside and let to this person into your home to live with you forever more?  As we can easily see, no one would do so.  Why then would God accept someone into his eternal kingdom of life who rejected him in the temporary life on earth?  To not accept God is to reject God. We are not born into acceptance of God.  This was John’s point to the best of Israel when he said, “Do not think you can say, ‘We have Abraham as our father!’”  You must personally accept God.  You are not born into accepting God and your parents cannot do it for you.  John’s enduring message was “Hurry up!  Make straight your paths and accept the coming of your Lord.”

            Now enduring lesson from John’s life is that accepting God does not mean we will live an easy life of luxury and have no doubts about how God is working.  There is still evil in the world and difficult circumstances that test our beliefs.  Not long after John encountered Jesus, John was arrested and put in prison.  Why?  John criticized the earthly king, Philip, because the king married the divorced wife of his brother.  We understand that prison is a difficult circumstance of life.  It was particularly true in ancient times where the prisoner had no rights at all and depended solely upon his family and friends supporting him with food and clothing.  From the depths of prison, John began to wonder in his mind, “Was I mistaken?  Is Jesus the person who God was sending?  Where is the wrath of God?  Where is the judgement of God?  Why is God not cutting down those who have reject him?  Was I mistaken?”  I have never met a person without doubts and questions about the specific ways of God.

But John showed us what to do with our doubts.  Matthew recorded for us in Chapter 11, “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’  Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”

The earthly ministry of Jesus to the world was not about condemnation, wrath, or judgment.  Jesus’ ministry then and now is to encounter the good news of God and come to him through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it but instead to save it.  For those who encounter Jesus and accept him, there is peace and abundant life with God in all circumstances on earth and eternally in death.  For those who reject an encounter with Jesus, there is life on earth and judgment in death. 

Time is short.  We would do well to listen to the words of John as he came to encounter Jesus, “Hurry up!  Make straight your paths before the Lord.  For this kingdom of God is near.”  Amen and Amen.

June 17 - The Forgiving Father

Psalm 51:1-2 & 10-12

Luke 15:11-24

 

Today is Father’s Day.  This is the day that our country sets aside to celebrate fatherhood.  The first Father’s Day celebration began in 1910 as a church service in Spokane, Washington.  Each father at church that day received a red rose.  Each person at church that day received a rose to pin on their clothing to honor their father.  They received a red rose for those whose father was living and a white rose if their father was deceased.  Celebrating Father’s Day today rarely involves a church service or the sharing of red and white roses.

 

In many ways, fatherhood has come under attack in the United States.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the social norm was that fathers were competent and wise people able to rationally solve problems.  Television show entitled, “Father Knows Best,” captured the essence of the social norm in those decades.  Today, pop culture promotes the idea “Father Knows Nothing,” with the cultural icon being Homer Simpson as standing for fathers.  Most television shows and commercials today convey fathers as incapable of caring for the children or unable to deal with the remote control for the television.  That is significant negative messaging to our children about fatherhood who watch on average 3 hours of television per day.

 

In the church environment, fathers are missing.  In every denomination of Christianity, men are the shrinking minority of attendees.  While this is significant, it has profound consequences for the future of the family and faith.  Studies show that if mom and dad attend church regularly, then 33% of their children will attend church regularly as adults.  If mom attends church regularly and dad does not, then only 2% of their children will attend church regularly.  The Bible says to us, “Fathers, don’t make your children angry, but raise them with the kind of teaching and training you learn from the Lord.”  God understands that mothers are very important but as dad goes, so goes the spiritual life of his children.  It is therefore important that we as a church encourage not just the fathers here but the all the men.  Because God calls all men of faith to represent the image of God to all children, whether that child is their child or not.  It is important then that we all have a proper image of a father to represent because we cannot impart to others what we do not have ourselves. 

 

What image of men and fathers then might we think about today that would help all of us understand the image of God, our heavenly father?  What image might help encourage Christian men to fulfil their role of representing God?  I believe listening and exploring a story would be a good approach.  Who better to tell that story about the image of God the father than God’s only son, Jesus.  Unfortunately, many people have mischaracterized Jesus’ primary story about a father and made it about the sons in the story.  How did that happen?  Because in many ways the editors of various Bibles have led us a little astray by adding a title to Jesus story such as, “The Parable of the Lost Son,” or “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.”  Such titles shift our focus onto the sons in the story and away from the father who is the central character.  So, I would invite you to turn to Jesus’ story of a father found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15, beginning at verse 11.  We will try to keep our attention focused on the father.

 

Jesus began the story this way, “There was a man [there it is the central character] who had two sons [the supporting characters].  The younger son said to the father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’  So he [the father] divided his property between them [he and his younger son].”  Jesus began this fatherly story with a confrontation between the younger son and the father.  The man’s son has made a bit of an outrageous demand.  The younger son demands inheritance from his father, now – even though the father is very much alive.  The man’s own flesh and blood, his boy, wants now what should not be claimed until after the death of his father.  The son is rebelling against the father.  Rebellion among young men and women against their fathers and mothers is nothing new.  It is common to all cultures and families varying only by the degree of rebellion.  Every here rebelled against parental authority in some way even if done in secret.

 

How does the father handle rebellion?  He does so by still being true to his own character.  The father loves the son more than he does possessions, so he gave to the son what the son asked.  The man does not rage against his son.  The man does not disown this family member who looks to disown him.  Jesus reveals the nature of the father; he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Through the parable, Jesus is revealing the nature of his father, God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  This is the nature all men must look to imitate.  We must be calm when confronted.  We must be able to be peaceful in our dealings.  We must be able to show self-control and keep our anger in check.  And we must be willing to love the children God has placed in our lives whether the child is ours or not.  That is what we learn about the Father and fatherhood in the opening.

 

Jesus continued the story with two scenes playing at the same time.  In the first scene, Jesus said, “Not long after that [confrontation and property settlement], the younger son got together all he owned and set off to a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.  So he [the young man] went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to the fields to feed pigs.  He [the young man] longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”  The young man has gone from riches to rags, from plenty to starving, from a family to aloneness.  Things are desperate for this younger son.

 

Jesus continued with the first scene.  “When he [the young man] came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against you.  I am no longer worth to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’  So, he [the young man] got up and went [began walking back] to his father.”  The young son recognized because of his behavior, he has lost the right to be the son of the man he once called “Father.”  The son also reveals that he understands the nature of his father to be a merciful person because he knows his father will help him.  This is the nature of God, to be merciful.  This is the nature God wants for all men to be merciful and caring.

 

The second scene is subtle.  It deals with the father.  While the son squandered his wealth and the father’s life continued.  In that life, the father held true to his own character and, most importantly, never stopped loving his son.  The father waited and watched, hoping that one day his son to appear upon the horizon.  The father stayed faithful as the absence of his son moves from days into week into months.  This is the character of God.  God is faithful and patient.  He does not cutoff from redemption those who are alive; even those who squander their inheritance, live wildly, live sinfully, live in rebellion.  God wants and waits for them to come to their senses and return to him.  I worked with a man who was unhappy about a decision his son made.  The man told the son that he was no longer part of the family and no longer his son.  The man, now dead, never had contact with his son again.  This is not the example from God.  God is patient and waits for us to come back.  He does not change his character.  He stays unchanged by our hurtful rebellion.  This is one of the points Jesus was making in the second scene.

 

Jesus then brought those two scenes to a close and brought the central character, the father, together again with his youngest son.  “But while he [the young man] was a long way off [from home], his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.  He [the father] ran to his son, threw his arms around him [his son] and kissed him.”  Jesus painted the picture that one day as the man continued scanning the countryside he saw a figure off in the distance.  He could see it was the silhouette of a young man.  As the man studied the figured, he could see the young man was thin, filthy, poorly clothed, and struggling to walk on bare feet.  The father then realized the young man coming toward him was his youngest son.  In this moment another character trait of the father appeared.  Jesus says, the father was compassionate; meaning the man looked to soothe the situation and is emotionally gentle.  The man, the patient, loving, slow to anger, compassionate father, ran toward his son to greet him.  Before his son could even speak, the father threw his arms around the now slender frame of his son and kissed his son.  At that moment, the father’s joy overflowed.  Jesus’ point is that God is compassionate and is overjoyed whenever we make the choose his righteousness over all other things we could choose.  All of us can now see that whatever faults we may in our life, our compassionate God will forgive, if we turn to him.  For men and fathers, the message is imitating God by being the compassionate person of the house who brings calmness to situations not fear.  We need take on the righteousness of God and make that our guiding principle for life.  We need to lay aside pride and lead the celebration of righteous decisions by our children or any child God has placed in our life.  The reunion of the father and son is more about the behavior of the father than to the son.

 

Jesus then said at verse 22, “The father shouted to his servants, ‘Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him [my son].  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’  So, they began to celebrate.”  The son’s rebellion was over and he has been redeemed.  In the father’s joy, he gave his son the best robe - a sign of dignity and honor; he put a ring on his son’s finger - a sign of authority; and placed sandals on his son’s feet - a sign of that his son shall walk with his father forever more.  When we turn to God, God will celebrate and give us dignity, honor, authority, and fellowship.  The charge on all men, all fathers, is to be the guardian of dignity, honor, authority, and fellowship for those God has placed in your path. 

 

Scripture reminds us, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in love” (Psalm 116:5), and so we should imitate him with compassion, graciousness, calmness, self-control, and love toward others.  Young men and young women will push the boundaries of life; we know this well.  They will want a life that is seems free of constraints and many will rebel.  But here is the truth.  All fathers and all men who serve in the roles of a father will act following their own spiritual life.  We can only impart what we possess.  If we have little or no relationship with God, that is what we will share with others, particularly our children.  We must ourselves come into relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  In that setting, we will experience the joy of the Lord.  We will have in our spirit the great joy of being chosen and will develop a deep trust that we are precious in God’s eyes.  Once we know this to be true, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.  This is the message of the parable.  This is the hope for us all.  This is the charge placed upon all men as their lead children into the path of God’s righteousness.  Amen and Amen.

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