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Feb 17 - I am the Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 10 - I am the True Vine

John 15:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 3 - I Am the Bread of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 30 - The Work of Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

As we the best moments of Christmas Day, we quickly realize the Christmas season is closing, the year 2018 is coming to an end, and a new year will soon arrive.  The arrival of a new year serves as a fresh starting point with millions of people.  Many will make one or more new year resolutions.  The top resolutions for Americans 2018 starting with the most popular were: Eat better — 37 percent; Exercise more — 37 percent; Spend less money — 37 percent; Self-care (e.g. getting more sleep) — 24 percent; Read more books —18 percent; Learn a new skill — 15 percent; Get a new job — 14 percent; Make new friends — 13 percent; New hobby — 13 percent; Focus more on appearance — 12 percent; Focus on relationship — 12 percent; Cut down on cigarettes/alcohol — 9 percent; Go on more dates — 7 percent; and Focus less on appearance — 3 percent.  These all seem like good things to do.  But it should not be much of a surprise that all 14 resolutions I mentioned benefit the resolution maker.  The intent is to make for a healthier, wealthier, and happier resolution maker by self-focused activities.  It is not a bad thing to improve oneself but to what end.  If someone successfully kept all these resolutions, then what?  Other than the pursuit of self, what do these resolutions offer?

I did some searching for new year’s resolutions that benefit others.  Most of the suggestions fell into these broad categories.  Say “Thank You,” more often; Offer help to strangers; Donate stuff you don’t need; Volunteer; and then my personal favorite – Be more honest.  I like the qualifying word of being “more” honest.  Adding the word “more” allows for a few lies along the way to avoid the unpleasant messiness that comes with just being honest.  These resolutions do seem a bit more focused on others but seem to have a little in common with one another.

So with this mixture of thoughts swirling about Christmas Day being passed and new years coming, I wondered what insight might be offered to us in the Bible following Christmas Day and the start of something new.  Curiously, the Bible contains very little about Jesus immediately after his birth.  In fact, the Gospels for the most part start with Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry, likely at age 30.  There is 30 years of near silence after Christmas Day in the Bible.  Curious, isn’t it that from birth to age 30 Jesus is virtually unknown?   But just as curiously, what little was said about Jesus after his birth and before his ministry began with his baptism is very powerful.  Today, I would like us to focus on brief passage and see the power that story has to shape our lives today.

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, starting at verse 41.  As we get to that passage, we need to keep in mind that Luke was not present when the events we are going to read about took place.  Luke never met Jesus.  Luke became interested in the story of Jesus and sought out witnesses to Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  One of the witnesses was likely Mary, Jesus’ mother.  With Mary’s help, Luke wrote about Jesus’ birth.  Luke wrote about Jesus’ start in ministry at age 30.  And Luke wrote about exactly one event between birth and age 30.  To select just one story over that 30 years span would suggest that one story was exceptionally meaningful to the entire story of Jesus.  If so, then there should be some important truth for us in that story.

Luke began the story this way.  “41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.  42 When he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”  Passover was the celebration of God freeing the Hebrew people from Egypt.  God commanded the Hebrew people to celebrate Passover every year and that command continues to be followed until this present time.  We also might find it interesting that Passover occurs in the Jewish month of Nisan [Nis-an], which God said to the Hebrew people “is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Exodus 12:1).  In many ways then Passover was a new year celebration and Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and many other family members and friends made their way from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate as God had instructed.  Centuries later, the Jewish people introduced Rosha Shana as the New Year’s Day for its calendars. 

Luke continued, “43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they [Mary and Joseph] were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he [Jesus] was in their company [think caravan], they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him [Jesus] among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him [Jesus], they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him.”  The celebration of the Passover was complete, the caravan assembled, and started back to Nazareth.  Historians tell us that women and children traveled in one part of the caravan while men traveled in another part.  Jesus being 12 may have fit with either the women and children or with the men perhaps leading to the confusion of his parents about his whereabouts.  Whatever the reason, Mary and Joseph did not realize Jesus was absent for a day.  Once they realized Jesus was not with them, Mary and Joseph spent the next day retracing their steps to Jerusalem.  And then in Jerusalem, they spent a day searching the city for him.  Luke said, “They found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished.”

This is a great scene.  Jesus is seated among the Jewish teachers.  Being seated was the position rabbis took when teaching.  Luke said that Jesus was asking the religious leaders and teachers questions and they were amazed at his answers.  Luke gives the impression Jesus was asking and answering his own questions with such insight that everyone was just mesmerized.

That is the scene Luke painted to come to the defining moment of this passage.  Mary said to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”  At this point, Mary and Joseph were a tangled ball of emotions.  They had been panicked, worried, and fearful about Jesus’ absence and now at finding him they are astonished, relieved, frustrated, and angry all at the same time.  Mary wanted to know why Jesus put them through such an ordeal.

The words that follow are Jesus’ first recorded words and the only words we have from Jesus for the first 12 years of his life and for the next 18 years.  The twelve-year-old Jesus replied with two questions.  49 “Why were you searching for me?”  Jesus question challenges Mary’s need to be anxious and to search.  Anxiousness comes from fear, uncertainty, potential danger, and great worry.  The opposite of anxiousness is peace.  Jesus’ question suggests that Mary should have been at peace and did not need to search.  She, perhaps more than anyone else, should have had a peace knowing exactly where Jesus would be; namely the Temple.  Her mental anguish of anxiousness was unnecessary, and searching was a waste of energy.  She should have known where Jesus was.

To accentuate his point, Jesus said to Mary and Joseph, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  Other Bible translations put it, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?”

These words, “I had to be about my Father’s business,” become the defining words of Jesus.  Jesus said, “I had to be…”  These words, “I had to be…” mean there was no alternative.  The use of these words, “I had to be…” means the person is driven to do something by the priority of their life.  We might think of it this way.  Each of us could say, “I had to… keep breathing yesterday to be here today.  If I wanted to stay alive to see today, the one thing I had to do was keep breathing.  I could have gone without water, food, sleep, and a myriad of other things.  But if I did not keep breathing yesterday, I would not see today.”  This is the sense of this phrase Jesus was using.  “I had to be…”  He was driven, focused, single-minded, compelled, and even propelled toward something.  What was it?

We see the object of his need in the second half of his statement.  “I had to be…about my Father’s business, or in my Father’s house.”  Perhaps with Passover, the Hebrew new year, and borrowing from our modern traditions about new year’s, Jesus’ single lifetime resolution would be, “I resolve that I must be about my Father’s business.”  If we pause for a moment and think about what we know of Jesus from the moment he began his public ministry, everything he said and did falls back to this statement he said as a 12-year-old.  Every Jesus said and did was done because he must do be about his Father’s business.  Jesus was pointing his earthly parents toward God showing that he had an intimate personal relationship with God by calling him Father.  He had a powerful connection to God that compelled what he said and what he did.

It makes sense then why the only story of Jesus’ early life recalled for us in the Bible is this one.  Because this story tells us that Jesus had to be about his Father’s business.  Jesus did not have mixed feelings about that call upon his life.  Everything he did came back to this single purpose.

Now that we have looked at these few but powerful words from Jesus’ early life what message is there for us?  Do we have peace in what we have to do with our life?  How do we have peace in our hearts like Jesus had?  Sadly, many people struggle with finding that peace.  They live lives that are a tangled ball of emotions.  They are anxiously searching for something and they do not know where to find it or if they will ever find it.  They are left often struggling with the question, “What on earth am I here for?”

  Now here is the good news.  Jesus in doing his Father’s business, said our life can be as clearly defined as his, have meaning, purpose, and peace.  That in following Jesus, we too become children of God and he becomes our Father.  We can have an intimate relationship with God.  Jesus invites us to receive the Holy Spirit so that our lives can be moved like his to be about God’s business; our Father’s business.  We do not need to live a tangled ball of emotions. 

Sometime ago, I met a person who was very naturally upset over the death of a loved one.  After a few months of knowing this person, they confided to me that they thought about taking their own life.  The person said, “I just do not see the point in living anymore.  I lived for this other person [the one who died] but now they are gone.  I lived these last few months because I feared if I took my own life, my pet would be put to sleep because no one would want it.  So I stayed alive for my pet.  But now I just don’t know if that is enough to keep me going.  I have no purpose for being here.”  There were a few moments of silence between us as those words sunk into my mind.  Then I said to this person, “I can see that you are in great pain and are very anxious about your present and your future.  But might I point out that your purposes for living, the person you loved and your pet, would one day die.  Have you thought about a living your life for a purpose that does not die and cannot be taken from you?  Have you thought about living your life for God?”  The person was quiet for a few moments and then said, “I have never thought about doing that.  I am not even sure how to do that.  Could you teach me?”  This person is beginning to come to understand what it means to live a life for God’s purpose.

“God did not create you or me to be a defeated, discouraged, frustrated, wandering soul, seeking in vain for peace of heart and peace of mind.  He has bigger plans for us.  He has a larger world and a greater life for us” (BGEA).

God does not want us to live a life of a tangled ball of emotions or to live our life for ourselves.  God wants us to know that we cannot be separated from Him.  God wants us to live a life with a simple but forceful focus of being like Jesus, following him, not in a casual way but in a very deliberate way.  He wants us to imitate Jesus as though we had to.  God wants us to live our life for the great purpose of being about His business as his child.

At our Christmas Eve service, I quoted a poem entitled The Work of Christmas.  I believe it could well describe our Father’s business.  It could well describe our forever new year’s resolution.  It could well describe a life lived on purpose for God.  It could well describe what we can say to all who will listen to us, “This is what I had to do…” 

 The poem goes like this.  “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart…And to radiate the Light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.

Once the angels, shepherd, wise men, kings and princes were gone, Jesus said he would do all of these things and more because these things are his Father’s business.  Let’s make doing the work of God, our Father, our new year’s resolution and join Jesus by do such things as these as we pursue a life lived for God.  Amen and Amen.

Jan 6 - The Jesus Question

 Matthew 16:5-16                

        Every day we are faced with asking or answering questions.  They are often simple questions.  “How are you?  Did you sleep well?  What would you like to eat?” Questions are essential to acquiring information to make decisions. 

        At other times, we ask questions as a means of conveying our feelings to another person.  In many of those cases, those questions are not questions at all.  “You don’t expect me to pay for that?  How could you?  When will you ever learn?”  We are not looking for an answer to any of these types questions.  We are simply using a question to express an emotion.

        Clearly then, questions are part of our life.  Mothers know this well.  One study showed mothers get asked up to 300 questions per day.

        Questions are also an essential for our faith journey.  We want to know, “What on earth am I here for?  Is there more to life than life?  God, are you there?”  We need questions to sort through the circumstances of life and find meaning. 

        And when it comes to our faith journey, no one can ask questions like God.  The first question we have from God is to Adam.  “Where are you?”  Adam was hiding because he had sinned against God.  God’s question made Adam think about his decision to separate himself from God.  “Who told you that you were naked?”  God’s follow up question to Adam.  It is a question proving Adam’s transformation from a sinless naked person to a sinner.  “What are you doing here?”  God asked his chosen prophet Elijah after Elijah ran and hid from the duties God had given him to do.

        “God questions” should cause us to slowdown, to think, and to get our bearings.  We find in the New Testament that Jesus asked a lot of questions.  I did not do the count myself, but someone counted that Jesus asked 307 questions to those following him and those challenging him.  Jesus asked questions to provoke thought, seek transformation, challenge traditions, and to activate faith.  Jesus wanted his disciples to change their pattern of thinking so that they to see the world, their relationships, and God from a different vantage point. 

        Let me give you an example of a simple question that challenges our thinking and requires us to see things from another vantage point.  Let me ask you this, “What is the purpose for having brakes on a car?”  Tradition and conventional wisdom would cause us to say, “We have brakes on our car to stop our car from moving.”  That seems like a reasonable reply and we are comfortable in moving on to the next question with that answer.  Let me offer you a different response to the question, “Why do we have brakes on a car?”  We have brakes in our car not to stop it but so that our car can go fast.  Doubt me?  I can prove it.  Suppose you have a car in the parking lot and you discover it does not have any brakes.  How fast are you going to drive that car?  You are not going to drive very fast, if at all.  But with our brake system in our vehicle operating correctly, we have little fear driving our cars 65 miles per hour or more.  So are brakes to stop our car from moving or do the brakes allow our cars to go fast?

        This was just a simple illustration of the concept that questions can challenge our view of the world.  Jesus used simple questions to challenge the views held about love, faith, goodness, joy, and God.  Today’s passage from the New Testament has eight questions from Jesus to his disciples.  His questions provoke thought and seek transformation.  Jesus’ questions challenge assumptions and the worldview of the disciples and then his questions activate the faith of the disciples.  Jesus’ questions build upon each other leading to the most important question Jesus had for his disciples.  It is the same question each one of us must answer for ourselves.  Shall we take a look at the Jesus questions?

        Our passage is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16, starting at verse 5.  Matthew wrote, “When they [Jesus and his disciples] went across the lake [Sea of Galilee], the disciples forgot to take bread.”  The disciples had neglected to bring the basic provision of life; food, namely, bread.  One of the disciples had discovered this oversight and prompted a conversation about the discovery.  You can hear the conversation.  “We do not have any bread.  Thomas, wasn’t it your turn to bring the bread?”  Thomas replied, “No.  I brought the bread the last time.  Andrew, wasn’t it your job?”  Andrew, hearing Thomas’ response, might have said, “What?  Who?  Me?”  And the mindless conversation went on.  We have all been involved or at least a witness a circular argument of questions without answers.

        Jesus, meanwhile, was listening to the unproductive chatter of his disciples and used it as an opportunity to elevate the conversation.  He said in verse 6, “Be careful.  Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Yeast is that ingredient in small quantity added to large amount of flour and water becomes activated transforming the flour into bread dough.  The warning abou the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day, then would be to exercise care in adopting the thinking and traditions of those leaders.  Only a little of Pharisees and Sadducees thinking could change or corrupt the way the disciples were beginning to see the world, their relationships, and God.

         One of the great features of the Bible is the honesty with which people are shown.  Jesus had just sought to elevate the conversation and Matthew gave us their honest reaction in verse 7. “They [the disciples] discussed this [what Jesus said] among themselves and said, ‘It is [He is saying this] because we didn’t bring any bread.’”  It seems like the disciples missed Jesus’ point.

        Recognizing the disciples did not get the point of his statement, Jesus went back with questions requiring a higher level of thinking to try again to elevate the conversation and move it from bread for the disciples stomachs to bread for their spiritual life.  Matthew wrote in verse 8, “Aware of their [his disciples’ continuing focus on bread] discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?’”  Jesus was provoking his disciples into kingdom thinking.  When Jesus first began preaching the word of God, his message was simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come.”  Here, now with his disciples, Jesus was again provoking them to kingdom thinking.  In his question, Jesus was ask, “How is it that you can talk about bread to eat when you could talk about and with the bread of heaven?”

        We might be tempted to ask ourselves, “How is it possible the disciples were consumed talking about bread for dinner and did not understand the significance of Jesus in their presence?”  But I wonder if in asking ourselves that question that we think too highly of ourselves and too little of the disciples.  How much time to we spending in kingdom thinking, thinking about the presence of God in our life, as compared to the time spent thinking and talking about bread, meat, potatoes, pasta, dieting, and calories?  How much time do we spend in church meetings talking about floors, carpets, chairs, paper products, vacuum cleaners, size and shapes of bulletins, as compared to our collective work in the kingdom?  I suspect Jesus could just as easily say to us, “Why are you talking among yourselves about trivial things of life and not the kingdom of God?”

        Matthew offered no reply to Jesus’ question.  Verse 9 continued in rapid succession with more Jesus’ questions.  “Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 [After remembering what you saw] how is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread [for dinner]?”  Jesus was provoking his disciples to remember the miraculous feedings of thousands of people with small loaves of bread.  Jesus challenged his disciples to remember that all those people ate and were satisfied and still there were twelve baskets full of bread remaining.  The miracle of the bread showed most simply the transforming power of God flowing through Jesus.  Small cakes of bread multiplied through Jesus.  Jesus was and is the sign from heaven of God.  Jesus was and is the sign of the presence of the kingdom of God.  The bread to eat was but an instrument or tool used of God to speak about his kingdom.  Jesus had told his disciples, “I am the bread of life.”  The bread that fed the multitudes was a symbol of the overwhelming nature God’s provision for eternal life through Jesus.

        Verse 11 again, “‘How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?’  But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’  Then they [the disciples] understood that he [Jesus] was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Jesus’ questions had broken through ending the discussion of physical bread by provoking kingdom thinking, by seeking transformation, and challenging traditions and traditional thinking.

        Having done all that, Jesus felt the disciples were now prepared for the fundamental question of an active faith.  It is a question that each of us must answer as well.  Verse 13, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’”  The term “Son of Man” was introduced here by Jesus to speak about himself.  In simpler terms, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”  Jesus wanted the disciples to report what people were saying to the disciples about Jesus.  In reply, the disciples shouted out, “Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  The disciples had heard a lot of different replies about Jesus’ identity.  All in one form or another were prophets.  A prophet is one who receives God’s words and shares them with the people seeking them to change their present behavior in order to have a future with God.  Jesus certainly was doing the work of a prophet.

        Even today, if you ask people who is Jesus, they would say things like, “He was a nice guy who had the power to heal people.”  “Jesus was a greater preacher who could keep his audience’s attention.”  “He was a good guy who taught people to be kind and compassionate to one another.”  These statements are true enough, but do they clearly say who Jesus is?

        Jesus is aware of what people today say about him just as he was aware of who people thought he was then.  While interesting to hear the disciples report, Jesus was most interested in having his disciples speak their hearts and minds as to who he was.  So, in verse 15, we have the ultimate Jesus questions, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”  Everything about the life of the disciples turned on the answer to this one question.  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus’ questions had provoked thinking, sought to transform his disciples, challenged their understanding of traditions, and now his question, “Who do you say I am?” activated Peter’s faith.  “You are the Son of God.”  How did Peter say those words?  What emotion and emphasis did he use in saying those words?  Did he shout them with fear, “YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD!”  Or did he say them more quietly, humbly, and reverently, “You are the Son of God.”  We do not know how Peter said the words, but we do know he said them, and Peter’s life turned and changed forever.  In that moment. Peter placed his faith, his hope in the present and for the future, in Jesus hands.  He said Jesus was not only a prophet able to speak God’s words, but also as a priest who could intercede for Peter with God.  Peter also saw Jesus as lord of his life, king if you will.  In saying Jesus was the Son of God, Peter saw Jesus was prophet, priest, king, and he would see Jesus as sacrifice. 

        Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”  That is a question you and I must answer for ourselves.  Is Jesus just a teacher, preacher, and healer or is something else.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  That means he is the king of kings, the Lord of lords.  In my believing, Jesus has promised to live within me to guide my life.  In living my life with Jesus, I am now made a child of God and though one day I my body will cease to function as it does today and people will say of me, “He died,” because of my faith in Jesus, I will still live in presence of God.  And when my memory and spirit weakens, Jesus reminds of the miracle of the bread.  He uses bread to remind me in the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  It is at the table Jesus places bread, a symbol of his body.  There he places the cup, the symbol of his blood.  It is there I can take the common elements of life, a bit of bread and a sip of juice, and remember that these are but symbols of the beauty found in the kingdom of God.  Jesus refreshes me at his table.  He reminds me of what he has done.  He provokes my thinking about kingdom, he seeks transformation of my life, he challenges my assumptions, and he activates my faith.

        How about you?  How have you answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”  If you have said, “Jesus you are the Son of God,” then come to the table.  If you have not answered Jesus’ question, I encourage you to examine what is it that keeps you talking about bread and not receiving Jesus as savior and lord.  Beware of the yeast of this world.  Just a little bit of the world will corrupt you and leave God to ask, “Where are you?”  If this is where you are at, talk to me or another Christian about what it means to receive Jesus.  We don’t want you to miss the kingdom of God.  Let us pray.

Dec 23 - The Smell of Christmas

Luke 1:5-17

Matthew 2:7-11

For the last five weeks, together we have been on a journey toward Christmas Day.  We have thus far experienced the sounds, tastes, touch, and sights of the Christmas story through our senses.  Today, we will conclude our journey with the opening and closing passages scenes of the Christmas story.  In doing so, we will employ our sense of smell and perhaps we will gain for ourselves another dimension to the greatest story ever told.  That story is the story of God sending His son to live the perfect sinless life that through Him we would experience God himself.  That His son, Jesus, would give up his sinless life on the cross to cover over our sins.  That in that exchange, our sins become his and Jesus’ perfection becomes ours.  In that exchange, we are then able to be at peace with one another and in God’s presence forever.  The story of Jesus began with the Christmas story and it was marked at the beginning and the end with the sense of smell.

Now our sense of smell is most important to us.  On the most basic level, our sense of smell serves to help us determine what is safe.  When we smell smoke, we know there is the potential for danger.  We use our sense of smell to know what foods are safe for us to eat.  Think of a simple example.  You go to the refrigerator.  You see some leftovers and you wonder, “Are these leftovers still good?”  What do you do?  You peel back the covering on the food and you sniff the food.  Is the odor pleasing and excites your appetite or is there an unpleasant stench causes your stomach to turn?  We depend upon our sense of smell.

Just as important as our sense of smell is to our safety, our experience tells us that our sense of smell is linked closely with our memory and our emotions.  A certain scent can make us feel a certain way.  Perfume makers depend upon our sense of smell to draw out from us certain emotions such as sex appeal, power, vitality, or relaxation.  Our sense of smell can bring us back in time by triggering powerful memories.  We walk into a house and smell a fresh baked apple pie and we think, “I remember when my mother used to make such a pie.”  I encounter this experience of smell connected with memory often when I work with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.  In grief, people can become very emotional when they smell a food item that their deceased love one enjoyed because in the instant of smelling that food they are mentally and emotionally flooded with memories of that person.  Articles of clothing that have the scent of that loved one are cherished items because grieving people can choose to smell the clothing and remember.  So, our sense of smell is important to our sense memory and emotions.

Knowing then how important our sense of smell is to us, let’s explore, how the Christmas story began and ended with smell and let’s experience the story in a new way.

The opening to the Christmas story began in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, beginning at verse 5.  I invite you to turn to that passage.  The story began with an announcement to a man named Zechariah, a humble priest.  Luke wrote, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.  Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.  But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.  Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Lk 1:5-9).  The Christmas story thus began in a most formal place, the Jerusalem Temple, and began with the smell of burning incense.

The incense used in the Temple was a formula designed by God and given to Moses.  The Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin [a fragrant oil or resin], onycha [an ingredient from shellfish of the Red Sea] and galbanum [a gummy substance from shrubs of Persia] —and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred” (Ex. 30:34, 35).

God asked that the Hebrew people burn incense.  It was both a symbol of obedience and symbol of a relationship between the Hebrew people and God.  That obedience and relationship was most profoundly seen in prayer to God.  So the smoke and the aroma of burning incense was often seen as prayer rising to God.

In Hebrew, the word for incense is formed from four Hebrew letters.  The ancient rabbis taught that each of those four letters stood for a different character trait desired of God for each person.  The first letter, Tav, stood for holiness.  The second, Dalet, stood for purity.  The third, Teit, for pity.  And the last, Qof, for hope.  The rabbis saw the equal part combination holiness, purity, pity, and hope as the character with which we must approach God in prayer and the character that God reinforces in us from prayer.  The incense burned by Zechariah created the atmosphere and aroma of prayer.  The aroma, the smell of incense burning, was considered by the Lord to be holy.  The smell remained the same through the centuries connecting Zechariah with all generations back to Aaron, the brother of Moses.  The aroma of incense produced comfort and memory on a relationship with God and with family.

The opening scene to the Christmas story with the aroma on burning incense reminds us that we are in a relationship with God.  And in that relationship, God desires that we would seek holiness, purity, pity, and hope.  As we breath in this scene, it triggers our memory that God is the God of our fathers and mothers, grandparents, and all other ancestors back to the beginning of humanity.  And there is comfort in remembering.

Luke continued with the story in verse 10, “And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.  [We see most directly the connection the aroma of incense and a prayer life.]  Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” [The connection of incense and prayer, the relationship between God and humanity is reinforced and so we can breath in this scene a bit more.]  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…17 And he will go on before the Lord…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 

The aroma and the scent of this announcement in the incensed filled room of the Temple is that Zechariah’s son shall prepare people for the coming of the Lord himself.  We breathe that experience into our lives and we remember.  We breathe that experience into our lives and we can relive the emotions of that moment; the awe and wonder that God would come among the people.

This scene is the beginning of the Christmas story, rich in history of traditions and history of the Hebrew people and the good news of the coming of the Lord.  It was an announcement made in the most formal setting of the Jewish faith, the Temple.

The concluding scene to the Christmas story, is also rich in fragrance but the locale in which it plays out could not be more different from the opening scene to the story.  For that scene, let’s move to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, beginning at verse 7.

We pick up the final scene of the story in the power center of Jerusalem, with a king named Herod.  Magi, or wisemen, from the east have come to the center of power looking for the child born a king.  There is at least some assumption here that the Magi expected to be welcomed into the presence of this child.  Instead, the Magi are met with confusion, fear, and disbelief that a new king has been born.  With secrecy and suspicion and sabotage in mind, Matthew revealed to us the concluding scene of the Christmas story.  In verse 7, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’  After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them [the Magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The final scene of the Christmas story was not like the opening scene in the Temple of God.  The final scene took place in a home.  The final scene was not like the opening scene with a solitary Jewish priest.  The final scene took place among non-Jewish people.  The final scene was not like the opening scene with a group of people surrounding the Temple in prayer.  The final scene was played out with a murderous king in the background seeking to destroy the new born king.

But the final scene of the Christmas story was like the opening scene because they both involved worship of God.  Zechariah was steadfast in worship of God in the Temple and the Magi were overjoyed to worship God in a simple home setting.  The final scene was like the opening scene because those who came to worship did so with frankincense and myrrh.  The desire of those worshipping was to put forth a pleasing aroma to God in recognition of God’s gift.  Jesus was welcomed with the fragrance of worship. 

The final scene reminds us of the beginning.  The God who chose the Hebrew people was the same God who was calling the Gentiles to his son.  There is but one God worthy of worship.  God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son who was now as at home in the Temple as he was in a simple house.

The aroma of worship was and is important to the story of that baby who became our Savior.  We see that continuing in the gospel story itself.  In the gospels, there is a woman who poured a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus and the fragrance of worship filled the entire house.  Jesus said that she was preparing his body for burial and that wherever the gospel was preached people would speak of what she did in memory of her worship of Jesus.

The apostle Paul encouraged the church at Ephesus and encourages us “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1, 2).  We are to be like God and see that Jesus offered himself in worship to the Father as an offering of incense displaying holiness, purity, pity, and hope. 

Paul encouraged all churches to give “thanks be to God, who always leads us in victory through Christ. God uses us to spread his knowledge everywhere like a sweet-smelling perfume.  Our offering to God is to be the perfume of Christ that goes out to those who are being saved and to those who are being lost.  To those who are being lost, this perfume smells like death, and it brings them death. But to those who are being saved, it has the sweet smell of life, and it brings them life” (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

The Christmas story is fragrant and aromatic.  It is a story of worship among the Jewish people extended to include all the peoples of the world.  The Christmas story extended the aroma of worship from the Temple to our homes.  The aroma of our prayers should be that of seeking holiness, offering pity, seeking purity, and joyously recognizing the hope with have in a God who loves us and sent His son to us.  The aroma of our lives should be an expression of life toward others.  Our life seeking to imitate Jesus should be fragrant and sweet to those who love the Lord and yet with gentleness and respect should remind those who have rejected God that they are choosing to surround themselves with the smell of death.

This week let us enjoy the smells, fragrance, and the aroma of Christmas as God intended and then let us be that sweet fragrance of life to others.  Amen and Amen.

2018 Blue Christmas

We read in the ancient Scriptures these words of wisdom, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear and a time to mend, and a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:1-7, adapted).  The words of Ecclesiastes speak of seasons of opposites: birth and death, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, tearing and mending, silence and speaking.  We are all here today because a season of opposites has come upon us.  We are here because a season to grieve the death of loved ones is present in the same season in which we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, our eternal hope.  It can be a trying season.  We feel the weariness of life because of grief and may even wonder how anyone around us can rejoice.  And yet we know that we cannot complete our grieving unless we can also celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Grief can cover our sense of future, promise, and joy which are in their very nature are essence of why we celebrate a birth and the very source of our healing from grief.

As I thought about this season of opposites, my mind turned to find a way to see it, feel it, sense it, smell it, and taste it.  My thoughts turned to experience the seasons of grief and celebration through the physical season we are in which we call winter.  The winter season is mostly distinguished by the coming of snow.  When the winter snows come the landscape around us is covered in a thick blanket of white.  Pathways that we once walked easily have disappeared.  Under the white snow, shrubs and plantings that were once so distinctive blend together.  Shapes and contours of life that were once so clear and now blend under the weight of the snow into dull curves. 

Grief is very much like a blanket of snow.  Grief covers us, every part of us.  The pathways of life, the things we once did with easy and without thought, are now difficult to see and even hard to walk.  The distinctive shapes of our life’s dreams and plans have been covered over.  We cannot seem them.  It is hard to know where to begin again.  It is hard to know even if our long-held plans will once again emerge from under the snows of grief.

Yet in the season of winter snow, just as in our season of grief, we are compelled to venture forward into it, whether we want to or not.  Friends encourage us to dress for it snows of grief, assuring us if we just spend enough time in it, the grief will pass away.  Hesitantly, reluctantly, we step from the warm and familiar of our past into the grief of our present and doubtful future.  As we do, we quickly discover the snow of grief is much deeper than we thought it would be.  The coldness of grief is much more biting than we imagined.  The wintery wind of grief much more penetrating than we expected.  We begin to believe our friends are mistaken.  For the longer we spend in grief, the more difficult it seems that our experience becomes.

Slowly though we are compelled to move forward into that snow of grief.  We begin searching for the pathways of life we once knew so well.  We find them, we think, but they do not feel the same because someone who walked those paths with us is not there.  Our footing even over familiar terrain does not feel the same.  We look for reassurances that we are doing this right but we can only see the footprints of where we have been.  There are no footprints to follow ahead of us.  As we step forward, it seems we sometimes land on spot that is firm and at other times we place our foot in a hole covered by the wintery snow of grief.

Our grief walk is tiring.  Around us it is very quiet.  The snow has silenced many things and it muffles the voice of the one which wish most to here.  There are, however, two sounds that we have become very aware of.  One is our own breathing.  It seems louder somehow, more labored.  The second sound it that of the never-ending voice in our heads saying to us, “Why?  Why did this happen?  God, are you there?  I should have…I could have…” and the voice repeats beginning again with Why?” 

We are also more aware of others in the distance making their way through the same snow grief.  We think they are having an easier time.  They seem to be able to get further along and are moving faster.  We feel like we are walking and stumbling along they are skiing.  We catch a look or comment from a friend or family member wondering perhaps when after all this time we are not skiing along as well. 

We are tired and almost convinced it would be all right to lay down rather than press on.  And yet, something within us says there is more to do.  Robert Frost put it this way, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.  And miles to go before I sleep.”

This is the experience of grief expressed through the imagery of the winter snows.  Yet amid this scene, there is one very important thing going on that has escaped our immediate attention.  No matter how much it may be snowing or how thick the clouds may be that surround us, the sun still shines just as brightly as it did before the clouds brought the snow.  We may not see the sun, we may not feel the sun, and though it may seem dark, we should not conclude the sun is not there.  The sun remains our constant companion even if feeling distant.  Our experience tells us that the sun is more powerful than the thickest cloud, the coldest wind, or the deepest snow.  The sun always prevails over the darkness.  It is the sun that melts away the snows  and will expose the land to be greened again.  It is the sun that frees the waters of snow-covered frozen lakes.  It is the sun that restores the definition to muted shapes around us.

In a similar manner, grief can overshadow our view of God.  We may not see God’s hand at work in our life when we grieve.  We may not feel God’s presence in our season of grief but would should not therefore conclude God is not here.  To make sure the world knew God was always there, God gave us the opposite season of grief.  He gave us life in Jesus.  For in Jesus, “there is life, and that life is a light for the people of the world.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not defeated it.”  As the sun overtakes the winter snow, so shall God overtake our grief.  He did so by sending His son, Jesus, a baby, into the world that through his coming despair would melt giving way to hope.

And so we come here today, seeking to acknowledge even though this is season of grief, it is also time to celebrate the season of hope.  God sent Jesus to bring hope to the living. God sent Jesus to bring hope to us.

The apostle Paul, a man familiar with grief, wrote, “Do not be moved from the hope held out in the Gospel.”  The hope of the Gospel is this:  God sent Jesus to let each of us know that God sees us, hears us, and that God wants us to see and hear him.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel, the hope of Christmas, is this:  Jesus lived the human life like we are living, complete with moments of great joy and tears, times of companionship and aloneness, so Jesus knows our highs and lows.  Yet Jesus in living did what we are not able to do, he did not sin.  Because of his living as we did and his sinless nature he is uniquely able to speak to God for us and about God to us.  Hope.

The hope of Christmas is this:  Jesus died for you and for me and in doing so can give us his sinless image before God.  Hope.

The hope of Christmas is this:  Jesus arose from the dead into a new life.  Because he did, we can live a new life in him now and eternally.  Hope.

The hope of Christmas is this:  God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  Hope.

The hope of Christmas is this:  You shall one day celebrate Christmas again with our loved ones who have died.

You are here today because God sees you and hears you and he moved you to receive the hope of Jesus in this your season of grief.  Let us pray.