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Oct 14 - God: Can You See Me & Hear Me

Psalm 139: 1-12

Colossians 1:15-23

I want to set the stage for our time together with a true story.  The story comes from Europe around the year 1200.  The story involves an experiment ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II.  It seems that the Emperor wanted to know the original language of mankind.  He thought that God gave humanity a language at birth.  And that the language God gave humanity must be either Hebrew, Greek, or Latin?  He just was not sure which language it was.  So, Emperor Fredrick had several newborn babies imprisoned immediately after their birth.  He assigned women to feed the children, clean them, and bathe them.  However, the emperor order that the women not make any sounds or gestures of any kind in the presence of the babies.  The emperor believed that by doing so, the babies would grow and speak the language that God instilled in each baby by birth and not the language they heard from their care takers.  Does anyone know what language the babies came to speak?  It was not Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or any other language at all because every baby died.  They did not die due to lack of food or bodily care.  They died because they had no hope.  Their caretakers were forbidden any words, expressions, or gestures all of which communicate to an infant hope.  The experiment did show that we are not just one more animal inhabiting the earth whose only interest is food, water, and reproduction.  We are unique in all of creation because we are made in the image of God.  And hope is part of the original language God shared with humanity and without hope there is no life. 

People are created for hope.  And because we are created for hope and created to share hope, I would like us to explore several dimensions of biblical hope during the next few weeks.  The existence of hope gives meaning to our lives and so we need to see how God is ultimate the source of all hope.  Knowing and then speaking God’s language of hope is essential for our lives, for our lives as Christians, and for the life of this church.

People are created for hope.  Throughout our entire life we move from one hope to another hope.  I want you to let that sink in for a moment.  We move from hope to hope.  We are constantly acting and responding to expressions of hope.  Hope is what excites us and motivates us.  Let me give you just a couple of examples .  Anyone ever purchase a lottery ticket?  Did you purchase it as a donation so the state had enough money to give away as a prize to someone else?  Of course not!  You purchased it with the hope that you would win.  You mix the ingredients to bake a cake.  You put it in the oven and hope it comes out just right so everyone can enjoy it.  Maybe today on your way to church you were thinking about the people who might be at church.  In that moment, you might have said in your own words, “I hope ‘so and so’ is there because I enjoy their company.”  Or perhaps in the alternative you said, “I hope ‘so and so’ is NOT there today!”  I think you get the idea.  If we examine our lives, we will find that we move from hope to hope.

Now circumstances can come into our life that diminish hope.  When hope grows dim we may feel sad, angry, jealous, depressed, resentful, defeated, or bitter.  If hope is extinguished we not only live each endless day in hopelessness, but we live each day thinking about living each day in hopelessness.  When we are convinced there we no longer can move from hope to hope because there is only darkness then we become very much like Emperor Fredrick’s babies and are at grave risk of death.

Today I want to talk about the greatest risk to our sense of hope.  The greatest risk to hope is expressed in a single word, invisibility.  What do I mean by invisibility?  By invisibility, I do not mean that we become like the scientist in the movie who created a secret formula to make himself invisible to others.  By invisibility, I mean we have the sense that others have chosen to make us invisible; as though we do not matter or even exist.  This sense of invisibility, this sense of walking through life alone, extinguishes hope.  Perhaps you have experienced such a sense where you did not seem to matter to anyone.  Maybe you are feeling a bit invisible in your relationships with your spouse, your children, or with your parents.  Perhaps you are feeling as though it does not matter what you say at home or work or school, no one cares what you think.  You have been made invisible by others.  The things you love, like, and care about simply do not matter to anyone else.  It is frightening to be made invisible by others because in that invisibility we sense no hope.  To live in this way is not the way God intended us to live.  But here is something important to know.  Even when others make us feel invisible, we are not.

Our Old Testament reading today from Psalm 139, a beautiful passage of Scripture, instructs us that we matter and are never invisible to God.  Let me read part of that passage for you.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

            No matter what, we are not invisible to God.  Now, when I was growing up as a child, this thought of God always watching me, was driven home by the church.  But the idea conveyed to me was that God was there always seeing me with a book writing down every mistake and misstep I made so that he could punish me.  That was the image of God I received.  Even the religious cartoons I watched, “Davey and Goliath,” reinforced this image as Davey’s dog, Goliath, would often say, “God’s not going to like that, Davey!”  But the psalm is not talking about God as some ultimate policeman hovering over us.  The psalm is talking about God as the ultimate companion walking with us in life.  Even in the darkest moments, God can find us.  Even in the moments when we seek to run from him we discover God is already waiting for us to arrive at the very place to which we ran.  Why is God with us?  God is there because he created us as people of hope and God is with us to move us from hope to hope.  This movement from hope to hope is the essence of the flow found in Psalm 23. 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.

            The flow of the psalm is from hope to hope.

            These psalms are such wonderful words.  And yet throughout the generations there still developed within humanity a sense of darkness and misunderstanding about God and his presence with us.  After all who had seen this God moving them from hope to hope?  How could people know this God of hope in the same manner they knew themselves if they could not see him?  God understood our need to move from hope to hope and so God acted.  In sweeping, beautiful poetic terms, God’s actions are unfolded for us in the book we call the Gospel of John.

John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:1-5, 14, 18)

God knowing our need to move from hope to hope understood the spiritual darkness that surrounded his people and so he sent his light into that darkness.  He sent Jesus, his son, the personification of hope.

It is that same Jesus that Paul wrote about to the church at Colossae.  In our New Testament reading from Colossians, Paul began with these words, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.”  We must pause for just a moment to take in what Paul said.  Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.”  Now in one dimension, Paul’s statement does not make any sense.  Critics today might saw. “How can something that is invisible have an image at all?”  Of course, the answer to such a critique is that as the image of God, Jesus is an exact, visible, representation of God character not his appearance.  Paul said in verse 19, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus].”  In Jesus, the attributes, the character traits of God become fully visible. 

John would later write to his friends, “That which was from the beginning, [Jesus] which 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. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”  Paul and John are making it clear that invisible God became visible in the flesh in the person of Jesus and everything about Jesus displayed God’s character.  Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Now what does Paul say about this person Jesus, “[He] is the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”  Jesus is first among all things and he is the creator of all things, including the creator of you and me.  We are part of the creation fashioned by and through Jesus.  This means through Jesus we not only see an image of God, but we also know that God sees and hear us.  Jesus makes God known and visible to us and us known and visible to God.  We are not invisible and cannot be made invisible to God.  And because God is able to see us always he is able to move us from hopelessness to hope and then from hope to hope.

In verse 23, Paul states clearly the source of God’s hope.  He 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 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 the Gospel 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 the Gospel 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 the Gospel is this:  Jesus established his church [his gathering of people] here on earth to be his visible image for all future generations.  Jesus empowered the church with the Holy Spirit to give life and hope to each member of his church and to cause his church to be a continuous beacon of hope into an otherwise dark world.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, you, me, the Church.  That is the hope of which Paul speaks.

People are created for hope and the original language of humanity is hope.  God moves us from hope to hope.  You are here today because God sees you and hears you and he moved you to receive the hope of the Gospel.  You are here today because God desires that you see and hear others as he sees and hears others and that in your seeing and hearing you would share hope with them.  This week let us open lives to be moved by the hope of Jesus and to share that hope with someone else as we walk from hope to hope.  Let us pray. 

2018-10-07 - Breaking Bread

            In the Old Testament account of creation, we learn that the first man and woman were in Eden where they were free to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The serpent, representative of the devil, enticed the couple to eat from that tree.  “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  Man and woman, equally made by God, equally disobeyed God by eating what they had been commanded not to eat.  What was the consequence?  “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”  The first spiritual consequence of sin was division within humanity, here shown by a separation of man and woman by coverings.  The intimacy this couple once knew is shattered. 

We then recall, “ Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”  The second spiritual consequence was worse that the first.  Sin created within man and woman, equally, a desire to separate themselves from God; which is to break fellowship with God.  The man and his wife were hiding from God.  They who now have knowledge of evil, who have sinned, understand the majestic nature of God’s goodness and could not bring themselves to be in His presence. 

We know from personal experience that broken fellowship, a broken friendship is a painful matter.  The psalmist expressed the pain of broken fellowship this way, “If an enemy was insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide.  13 But it is you, a man like me, my companion, my close friend, 14 with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship.”  The spiritual consequence of sin is always broken fellowship with God and someone we love. 

In Genesis we would read, these words, “But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’”  “But the Lord God,” are important words.  They mean that except for the action of God, humanity’s fellowship with Him and fellowship between man and woman would remain forever broken.  God seeks to reconcile.  Perhaps then, in our relationships, the person who makes the first move in repairing broken fellowship is the person closest to God.

Being in fellowship with God is what God wants.  From our passage in Chapter 18 of Genesis we learned that God is always seeking to reconciliation of relationships.  The passage began with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham.”  Abraham responded to God’s presence by bowing down low, a sign of humility and said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed.”  Abraham more than anything else wanted to fellowship with God.  He had a deep-seated need to do so.  Everyone, those here today and even those who have vowed never to step into a church, have the same need to be in God’s presence and will at the appointed time come into God’s presence.  However, those seeking God’s presence now, recognize the need and the desire to be with Him.  Abraham recognized the need and wanted his time in God’s presence to be pleasant and refreshing so he suggested they dine together.

            .  God seeks to reconcile.  The Bible tells us that at the right time, God made provision to restore fellowship with all of humanity.  He sent Jesus with the mission to restore all forms of fellowship; between humanity and God and within humanity.  He came to address sin, once and for all time and for all people.  The wonderful experiential knowledge that restored fellowship with God was even possible came through the resurrection of Jesus.  If the resurrection never happened, then the restoration of fellowship with God never happened.  But the good news is Jesus did rise from the dead and, therefore, we can have fellowship with God through Him.

            Jesus knew we needed ways of expressing and remembering the restoration accomplished by God.  On the night Jesus was betrayed he used bread to teach and remind us our sins have been dealt with, we can have fellowship with the Almighty, and we can restore fellowship with one another.  Jesus gave us the breaking of bread, a symbol of his body, as a means of reminding us that he must be central to our lives and is central to our relationships.  He must be first in our lives over any passions, arguments, causes, or events.  We must dine together.  In our New Testament reading today we saw how central the Lord’s Supper was to the life of a reconciled church.

Please turn with me to the Book of Acts, Chapter 20, starting at verse 7.  In the pew Bibles, this passage is on page 140 of the New Testament section.  Our author, Luke, wrote, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.”  Verse 7 continues, “Paul spoke to the people.”  The proclamation of God’s Word was central to the early church.  Now in the midst of celebrating God’s word, Luke observed, “There were many lamps in the upstairs room where they we were meeting.  [No doubt those lamps were generating some added heat.]  Seated in a window [probably trying to get some air] was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on.  [You can almost see this young man, perhaps a teenager, tired from working that day, warm from the lamps, trying to listen to Paul, and all the while drifting off to sleep.]  When he [Eutychus] was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!’”  Let me make three quick points.  Through Paul, the young man experienced and the congregation witnessed the power of God like few others.  God, using Paul as an instrument, resuscitated and brought Eutychus back to mortal life.  That is just an awesome moment from the history of the church.  Second, we need to be mindful of our youth that worship services keep them engaged or at least keep them away from open windows!  Third, the warning from this account offered by the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon still applies, “Remember, if you go to sleep during the sermon and die, there are no apostles here to restore you!"

            Finally, Luke brings us to the conclusion of this account that after the miracle, “11 Then Paul went upstairs again and broke bread and ate.”  Think about this scene.  Paul is giving his farewell sermon.  A young man falls out of a third floor window to his death.  Paul interrupted the service to rush down to the street with all the member of the church.  He threw himself on the young man who was now dead and restored his life.  The group of worshippers were exhilarated and overjoyed.  But when they reassembled they did so not to celebrate the miracle but to break bread.  Neither death nor life would keep them from fellowship with God through the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper.  It seems that the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of bread, was more significant to Paul and the early church than the miracle of restoring mortal life.  Take that in for a moment.  What we will do here in a few moments when we share the Lord’s Supper is spiritually more profound and more significant than anything else we could do or witness today.  It reminds us that Christ died for us and our separation from God is over.  It means the divisions between us and within our families need to melt away.  It means Christ came back to life and now sits with God speaking on our behalf.  It means Christ will come again.  If you have never publically acknowledged Jesus who made this possible, listen to this invitation in Jesus’ own words, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”  Dine with him.  Jesus is inviting you into fellowship with Him, with the person seated next to you, and with me.  That is the power of the Word of God and the spiritual significance of what we are about to do.  Come to the table, let us break bread, let us be blessed, and reconciled to God and one another.  Amen.

2018-09-30 - Biblical Generosity

Luke 14:1-14

Tony Campolo is a well-known American preacher.  Some years ago, Tony was invited by a Christian group to speak at their annual conference.  On the day of the conference, the master of ceremony gave Tony a glowing introduction and then asked Tony to lead the group in a prayer that God would provide the funds for the orphanage this group financially supported.  Tony made his way to the pulpit and considered how best to pray.  Tony looked around and realized the people in this group were financially stable, with a few appearing to be wealthy.  When Tony arrived at the microphone, he paused for a moment, and then said, “I will not lead this group in prayer.”  Tony continued, “I will not pray that God would make the funds available for this orphanage because God has already answered that prayer.  In this very room is enough money for the orphanage and before I begin speaking we are going to take a collection.”  A few people chuckled at this amusing thought.  Tony said, “I am not kidding.”  Taking a breadbasket from the table, Tony said, “I am taking all the money out of my wallet and donating it to the orphanage.  I am now going table by table and asking each of you to do the same; empty your wallets of all cash into the basket.”  Tony went table to table and took up an offering.  When it was counted, there was more money than the orphanage needed for the year.  Tony then gave his prepared remarks to the group.  That group has never invited Tony to return.

            Tony was correct.  God gifted that group with the resources needed to accomplish the purpose he called them to fulfil.  The group lacked for nothing in the moment except an understanding of generosity.  We are similar.  God has gifted this group with the resources needed to accomplish the purpose he called us to fulfill in the season of this congregation and in this season of our lives.  We must then make sure we understand generosity as God understands it.  A key message in our New Testament passage today is understanding generosity which must be at the heart of who we are in the collective as the Church of the New Testament and who we are individually as Christians.  The passage brings us to the crucial message in three steps.

            Please turn with me to our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 14, starting with verse 1, that together we may gain the insight from the Holy Spirit and carry out the principles of Godly living.

            Step 1.  Luke, Chapter 14, verse 1, Luke wrote, “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee [a religious leader], he [Jesus] was being carefully watched. There in front of him [Jesus] was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body.”  Luke quickly set the stage.  It was the Sabbath, a day ordained in the Law of Moses as one which must be kept holy and for which the many traditions, customs, and rules were developed to restrict people from doing work on that day.  Seated before Jesus was a seriously ill man.  The man had two symptoms of his illness.  One was that he was suffering.  Second, the man was retaining fluid and his body was swollen.  Modern medicine would tell us this man most likely had a serious heart disease.  Regardless, of the underlying cause, the key point of this scene was that the man before Jesus and the Pharisees was suffering and the man could not fix this suffering on his own.

            Luke continued, “Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they [the Pharisees] remained silent.”  Seeing the man before them all, Jesus wanted the religious people, those who knew the Scriptures well, to focus on the question which is more important, “Following the law or ending human suffering?”  The experts refused to answer because they had lost sight of the purpose of the law.  The experts saw God’s law given to the Hebrew people the way we see laws passed by our legislatures.  Laws today are guideposts that set minimally acceptable behaviors in society.  The law sets forth the minimum we must do.  When on the roadways, as a minimum, we must follow traffic signals and speed limits.  When paying taxes, as a minimum, account for our income, be honest about our deductions, and then pay the corresponding tax.  I think you get the idea.  The law sets the minimum acceptable behavior.  The religious leaders saw the law with all their developed traditional practices as the minimum acceptable behavior.  Following that law, they believed in their minds that you could not heal suffering on the Sabbath because they would be considered work.  Yet deep down within their hearts, they knew they would not wish themselves to suffer another day if they could be healed.  The conflict between their head and the heart caused their mouths to close and they said nothing.  Isn’t that the way it works with us?  When we are honestly conflicted between what we think has become acceptable and what we know in our hearts to be wrong, we tend to remain silent.  Silence in the face of suffering only prolongs the suffering.

            As we return to Luke, we read, “So taking hold of the man, he [Jesus] healed him and sent him on his way.  Then he [Jesus] asked them [the Pharisees and experts on the law], ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’ And they had nothing to say.”  Jesus pointed these men to their hearts knowing full well all of them would have rescued the child or animal from the well.  The religious people before Jesus had forgot that God’s law was not about setting minimum standards.  It was about revealing the nature of God and set Israel apart from all other nations by following God.  They had failed to see that one could follow the God’s law and heal on the Sabbath because doing so would reveal the goodness and love of God.  Our behavior as Christians is not to be about meeting some minimum standards of conduct.  The Bible says, “"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”  With God there is no conflict between head and heart.  We must act justly and love mercy.  These are the qualities of God shown brilliantly by Jesus.  But should a conflict arise between head and heart, we must follow our hearts for the Lord says, “Trust in your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”  Christians and churches God makes with them must be have heart.  Our hearts must always be turned to ending the suffering of others.

            Step 2.  Having moved the conversation to the heart, Jesus wanted the religious people to see an issue with their hearts.  Luke wrote in verse 7, “When he [Jesus] noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”  The religious leaders had a heart disease.  It was called pride.  The disease of pride is still with us.  Jesus’ words reminded the religious leaders and instructs us to be humble.  We must not seek honors but give honor to others and let God honor us.  Jesus, Son of God, gave up all honors of heaven to live among us as a man.  That is humility. 

Jesus’ words on the law and giving honor to others reminded the religious leaders and instructs us of God’s timeless command.  “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  The simplicity of life Jesus emphasized in the first two parts of today’s passage, set the stage for the final step.

Step 3.  “12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed.  Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”  Step 1: Get your heart and mind aligned to God.  Step 2: Get your pride in check.  Step 3: Practice generosity.

            Now when we speak about generosity, a conflict enters between our hearts and our minds in a unique way.  When generosity is mentioned it is not our mouths that tend to stay closed; it is our wallets.  Generosity makes us think the conversation is all about money.  People get a little uncomfortable when you talk about their money.  It is important to note that Jesus did not say to his host, “Give me your money, give your money to those who have none, give away all your money and become destitute.”  Jesus said none of those things.  What Jesus said was this, “When you give a banquet [when you use the wealth you have to celebrate], invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind [seek those who are suffering], 14 and you will be blessed.”  Jesus’ point was generosity is expressed when you give where repayment is not possible or expected.

            Allow me to illustrate.  My barber is a young man who is all of 24 years old.  He is a Christian.  We enjoy sharing perspectives and life experiences with each other.  He shared a story with me that fits this practice of Jesus words here.  This young man told me that sometime ago he was passing through Chicago by train on his way home.  He had a layover in Chicago with an hour or so between trains/  He had about $20 left in his pocket.  As he looked around the station, he noticed some homeless people.  So he decided to use his $20 on meals at McDonald’s for the homeless.  He enter the restaurant and purchased four meals.  He intended to give three meals away and keep one for himself.  When he exited the McDonald’s the homeless people he seen earlier had disappeared.  So he left the station and asked those passing by for directions to where the homeless stayed.  Several blocks later he found a homeless man under a bridge.  He asked the man if he was hungry.  The man said he was.  The young man then asked, "Can we eat together?”  The homeless man said he would like that.  And the two men ate together under a Chicago bridge and they shared stories from each other’s lives.  The young man told me he felt blessed.

            The young man held a luncheon and invited those who could not repay him to dine with him.  He was generous.  He was generous with his money, his time, his talent, and his tears.  He shared life and hope under a bridge.  He did not sit in a place of honor.  He told me the place he was to sit was thickly covered with bird droppings.  The man he dined with made it a seat of honor though when he placed the only clean cloth the man had over the bird droppings so the young man had a clean place to sit.  The young man was following Jesus call.  For Jesus was calling on the religious leaders to share more than dinner; he was calling on them to share humanity.

Christian generosity is measured by our spending.  How do we spend our treasure, our talents, our time, and our tears all reflect our inward nature of Christ.  Three steps are required.  “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  We should all think about how we must get our hearts and minds aligned with God.  We must get our pride out of the way.  We must get generous as God has been generous with us.  Let’s pray.

Sep 23 - Eye for an Eye

Matthew 5:38-48

This past week I officiated at a funeral service.  A common feature in a funeral or memorial service is for the pastor to offer grieving words of comfort from the Bible.  The 23rd Psalm is a favorite because it speaks to God’s presence in every season of our life, including walking in the shadow of death, and ends with the knowledge that we will be in God’s presence forever.  Other passages reassure us of God’s presence with the words, “Do not fear for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10).  Jesus’ reassuring words comfort us.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:27).  “As My Father has loved Me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9).  “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:19).

We enjoy the comforting words of God.  Such words encourage us to move through life’s struggles. The words assure us that we are loved.  And it is pleasing to bring those words into our life.  Some of these words and phrases are so comforting that people will even wear the words on their bodies.  I did a check on Amazon and found bracelets with such sayings as: “With God all things are possible,” “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”  These are words of comfort.  We will rally around them and adorn our bodies with jewelry inscribed with these words.

But there are other words in the Bible.  They are challenging words.  Many of them are from Jesus.  In the Gospels of the New Testament, there are words that we might wished Jesus never said.  We heard some of them in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew.  Here is just a few:

  • If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
  • If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Wow!  These are not comforting words.  These words challenge us to the core of our being.  I suspect most of you do not want to be slapped once, let alone offering your other cheek to be slapped.  Can you imagine going to an attorney’s office and saying, “I am being sued and the other party wants to take my house.  I need your services so that I can give them my car as well.”  If you are looking for a new business, I have one for you.  When I searched on Amazon for bracelets with Bible verses, I did not find any that said, “Love your enemies.”  I did not find any that said, “Pray for those who persecute you” or “I if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the left also.”  No one has thought of selling jewelry with such sayings, so the business field is wide open.  I suspect though you would not sell many bracelets with such sayings.  We like to be reminded God’s comfortable words, but we seek to avoid the hard sayings that challenge us.

            Today, I would like us to do some hard work and look at some of the words we might wish Jesus never said.  I would invite you to turn to our New Testament reading from Matthew, Chapter 5, starting with verse 38.  Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’”  These words are found in three places in the Old Testament law of Moses.  The concept of an “eye for an eye,” was later called in Latin, Lex Talionis or the Law of Retaliation.  The principle was that person who injured someone could be penalized by being injured in the same way.  The intent behind the principle was to establish a check against inappropriate or excessive punishments by the authorities or enforcers of the law.  If I did something to cause you to lose a tooth, the authorities could not punish me by taking my life.

            Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”  Jesus was saying, “You know well the principle used by the courts of equal response to an injury.  But in your relationships with other people, you need to reject that principle.  “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

            Jesus was laying out an unequal response to personal insults.  Slapped once; don’t slap back as may be consistent with the law of retaliation.  Instead of retaliation, show the other person your willingness to be unmoved by an insult.  Sued for your shirt, show them you are generous and gift them your coat.  When asked carry someone’s burden, carry it twice as far as anyone expected.  Someone wants to borrow something from you, gift it to them instead of loaning it. 

Jesus, I wished you never said these things.  An eye for an eye or slap in the face for a slap in the face sound so much better to me than not responding.  To not strike back goes against what my father taught me.  He said, “Do not throw the first punch but if the other guy throws the first punch, it is all right for you to throw the second punch.”  Jesus words to turn the other cheek makes one wonder was Jesus laying out here that Christians are to be weaklings and pushovers?  That is how we might see things in our humanness.  This is organized weakness.

But the character of strength Jesus wants from us is far from being weak.  The strength of character to withstand an insult or gift an undeserving person a treasure is radical and strong and Godly.  Where does such strength come from?  It comes from a relationship with God.  It comes by imitating Jesus. 

The Apostle Peter struggled with following Jesus’ words of turning the other cheek.  When the Jewish and Roman authorities were arresting Jesus, Peter acted by cutting off an ear of one of those who came to lay hands on Jesus.  But later Peter would write, “When they hurled their insults at him [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he [Jesus] entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:23-24).  Peter saw that Jesus convicted those who abused him by being perfectly innocent.

It is hard in our modern times to visualize the response Jesus asked of his disciples.  People pushed today push back twice as hard in response.  So how can we see what Jesus asks of us?  On a grand scale, I think there is a blessing for us all in the memory of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  The words and video of that time are accessible to us.  The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the case for the power in turning your cheek.  Dr. King once wrote in part, “The alternative to violence [the slap on the cheek; the taking of what belongs to you] is nonviolent resistance…This is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence. His method is passive or nonaggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.”  Dr. King understood turning the other cheek releases the spiritual power of God and thus emphasizes the evil of the aggressor.  Many times, the other cheeks of the civil rights marchers were more than slapped but in the end the power of God prevailed, and the actions of the aggressors were judged wrong and the wrong was corrected.

On a more personal scale, anytime someone is disagreeable toward us or insulting toward us, we can follow Jesus’ model by not trading insult for insult.  Instead we can acknowledge the painfulness of their insult or hostility knowing the words of Proverbs that “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

            Jesus words are hard words to follow but not impossible.

            Now just when we thought that Jesus pushed us to a new understanding of Godly behavior with hard commands, Jesus continued with some more words we wish he did not say.  Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  Now, the Bible says that we should love our neighbors, but it does not say to hate our enemies.  Hating one’s enemies was a developed thought; not a Biblical command.  So ingrained was that thought that Jesus corrected it with force.  “You have head that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you [this is wrong], love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Really Jesus!  You want me to love my enemies and that you want me to pray for them as well.  Why in the world would I want to do so?  How in the world can I do so?  The simple answer is, you cannot.  You cannot love your enemies and pray for them, unless you belong to Jesus.  To love and pray for your enemies is completely unnatural and beyond human authority or strength.  To love and pray in this manner means we have the power of the Holy Spirit.

            Listen to see how Jesus explains it.  “He [God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

            Jesus point is that God loves.  He sends the sun and rain on the good and evil of the world.  He is perfect.  He does it to bless those who love and to encourage those who do love toward love.  He is perfect.  To be perfect like God, then we must have part of God within us.  To be perfect like God, then we need a new spiritual heart.  This is what it means to accept Jesus into your heart.  You are changed from within.  Now God demonstrated his own love toward us, in that while we were yet dinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  That is the perfect love.

            Jesus taught about that kind of love and his love remains unchanged.  Jesus loves you when you are faithful and true.  And He loves you even when you turn your back on him.  Jesus loves me when I worship him and when I crucify him again with my sin.  And when we hurt him, he prays, “Father, forgive them.”  Jesus teaches us love is not a feeling that comes and goes.  Love is not an emotion we fall in and out of.  Love is not simply a reaction to someone else’s behavior.  Love is a commitment and acceptance of God into your life and allowing his presence to become our presence with those whose care for us and those who do not.

            These are the words Jesus said.  We may wish he had not said them but he did.

  • If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
  • If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Ultimately, this is what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbors, the good ones and the unkind ones.  Let us pray.

Sep 16 - Beloved

Matthew 12:9-21

1 John 3:1-3

Some years ago, I participated in a leadership training class.  The instructor spoke about solving problems.  He started with solving what are known as “simple problems.”  Now a simple problem is defined to be those problems for which there is just one right answer.  He said, “Problems with one right answer are essential for one generation to pass key knowledge elements of its culture on to the next generation.  No culture can teach its language, mathematics, history, science, or morals without using primarily single right answer problems.”  He said, “One of the positive results from getting single right answers is that when you know the simple right answer then you have also eliminated the ‘world of wrong alternatives.’”  For example, when you know 4+4=8, you know that all other possible answers are wrong.  This is a great relief.  You do not have to worry about the millions of other potentially, ‘right’ numbers because all of them are wrong. 

If we understand the principle of simple right answers, then we can understand a profound truth about our life.  We can understand that truth that we are loved.  I have met great many people in my life, but I have never met one person who did not want to know they were loved.  I have never met a person who did not express in one way or another the desire to know that they mattered.  The desire for each of us to know that we are loved is like an unquenchable thirst.  Whether we are nine days old or ninety years old, we thirst to know we are loved.  That thirst is so strong that we if we do not find clean water that quenches that thirst, we become willing to drink polluted water in the hope that satisfies us.

So, we thirst to know that we are loved.  God knows this about us.  God knows that without love, without the hope love gives us, we can lose our grip on life itself.  If we are attentive to what God has said, if we are attentive to His Word, we will realize that God gave us the simple answer to our thirst for love and the hope that comes from that love.  One of the most often verses from the Bible, the revealing story of God, gives us the simple answer to our thirst for love.  “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.”  God’s son has a name.  His name is Jesus.  And so, we can make this powerful verse most personal we can do so by saying it this way, “God loves me so much that he sent Jesus to tell me and to love me.  In loving Jesus, I will not be lost but have an eternal life of hope.” 

God loves you and gave his Son, Jesus, as a sign of his love.  All of God’s Word points to the simple right answer of Jesus as the satisfaction of our thirst for love.  What a relief that is.  No matter what, we are loved by God and we see that love in the person of Jesus.

Jesus affirmed the he was God’s love.  Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Here Jesus gave his disciples and us the simple right answer to our relationship with God.  Jesus statement does not burden us, it should not to intimidate us, it does not to exclude us – but instead gives us an infinite measure of peace and relief.  If you want to know and feel God’s love, then you can experience it through Jesus.  Knowing this single, right answer, we no longer need to worry about the millions of other, potentially “right” answers that come our way.  They are all wrong.   Jesus once said to a thirsty woman at a well “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.”  Jesus was not speaking of physical thirst, he was speaking of our thirst for true love.  In this woman’s life she had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man who was not her husband.  She was thirsting for love but had not found true love with men until she met Jesus, then she knew God loved her.  Her thirst for love was now satisfied through Jesus and such love would not be withdrawn as had happen by so many of her former husbands and relationships.

A simple right answer to our thirst for love is found in Jesus.  But we are frail humans and we wonder does God really love me?  Will he continue to love me no matter what?  The Apostle Paul who tormented Christians before he experienced Jesus’ love knew the answer to that question.  Paul said, “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture.  None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love we have in Jesus” (MSG 8:31-39). 

There are many voices pounding on our ears these days with quite the opposite message.  The world shouts, “You are no good, you are ugly, you are worthless, you are a nobody – unless you can prove otherwise.  Prove that you are worth something, do something relevant, spectacular or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire but just know we may take that love away later.”  God says, “I love you.  You cannot earn this love.  It is my gift and I will not take it away from you.”

Our reading today from the letter we call 1 John reinforces our understanding of being loved.  The opening words we read said, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”  This is a great spiritual mystery is it not?  God chose to love you and me.  One writer of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, wrote, “And I wonder, “Why [God] are people so important to you?  Why do you even think about them?  Why do you care so much about humans?  Why do you even notice them? But you do!” (Psalm 8:4)

The mystery is that God does notice you, he has chosen you, and he does love you.  But here is something else important.  Because God has chosen you, does not mean he has rejected someone else.  Some of us may remember or still experience the sometime painful experience of choosing sides.  Usually two “captains” emerge to represent each team.  Then the pool of players stands before each captain as the choosing begins.  The longer we stand in that pool of players, the more rejected we feel.  To be chosen and loved by God is radically different because instead of excluding some, God choses to include all others equally.  We heard Jesus say earlier, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  No one is excluded.  We could say it this way as well, “I am the one way to God, to real truth, and to real life.  Anyone and everyone who comes to me will be accepted by God.”  There is no rejection in Jesus.

This is why John, in his letter, said in being chosen we have our true identity, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  We are children of God and loved by Him.  That is our identity.  Let that soak in for a moment.  We hear a lot on the news about identity theft; the taking of someone’s private information usually for financial gain.  We hear a lot on the news about identity politics; the effort to divide and group people by race, social standing, disabilities, ethnicity, sex, gender, etc.  The world seeks to steal and divide people.  God says, “Wait!  Stop it!  Your identity is as my children!”  And that is what we are!

John wrote, “The reason the world does not know us [this] is that it did not know him.”  Most of the world does not understand your identity because they do not know God.  But if you have accepted the love of God through Jesus, then you have one profound identity, you are God’s child.  Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are then able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.  In our trust of God’s loving relationship with us, we are then able to look beyond the identities the world tries to impose on us and others and we can love others because we know they are precious to God.  John would write later in this same letter these words, “Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child. And so everyone who loves knows God. This is how God showed his love to us: He sent his only Son into the world to give us life through him.  True love is God’s love for us, not our love for God. He sent his Son as the way to take away our sins.  That is how much God loved us, dear friends!  So we also must love each other” (ERV 1 John 4:7, 9-11).

This is another simple right answer to life.  So let me summarize this point.  We are loved, so we must love.  We are blessed, so we must bless others.  We all need each other’s blessings.  As I said earlier, I have met and talked to thousands of people in my life.  All of them expressed in one way or another a desire to be loved.  Not one of them though would be brought to life through curses, gossip, accusation, or blaming.  We bring others to life by blessing them.  This should not require effort.  Do not look for a program or formula for blessing others or see blessing others as simply a call to spend more money.  Blessing others should be a natural outflow of our life requiring no effort at all.

John continued his simple message in verse 2 from today’s reading, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.”  John emphasized again that we are chosen, loved, and blessed by God.  We should love and bless others as God has loved and blessed.  But there is something we must not forget.  Though chosen, loved, and blessed by God, we are not God.  John said there are many things about today and tomorrow that have not been made known to us by God, and we need to accept that fact.  We are not God and we cannot act as though we are.

There is an old joke about a woman who goes to heaven.  She is met by Saint Peter who says to her, “Let me show you around.”  As St. Peter showed this woman around heaven they end up in the cafeteria and St. Peter suggested they grab a tray and get some lunch.  While standing in line, this man burst into the cafeteria dressed in a white coat.  The man grabbed a tray, cut in front of everyone else, he said under his breath he had so much to do today, and then grabbed his food and hurried out.  The woman was befuddled and said to St. Peter, “Who was that?”  St. Peter replied, “Oh, that was God, pretending to be a doctor.”  We are not God and so we must not pretend to know all the mysteries of life.  We are not God and so we must not act as the final judge of people.  We are not God and so we must not presume we see all things clearly.  The Apostle Paul put it this way, “12 For now [in this time of imperfection] we see in a mirror dimly [a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma], but then [when the time of perfection comes we will see reality] face to face. Now I know in part [just in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].” (AMP 1 Corinthians 13:12).

We are chosen, loved, and blessed.  We are not God, so some things, some experiences are a little blurry to us, somewhat of a riddle but at the right time we will see things most clearly.  Until then John said we wait, “Knowing that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

It is my hope this day, that we come to understand that that our time on earth is part of a much larger story than our birth and death.  We are part of God’s love story.  In that story, God has shown over and again his love for people and his desire for people to love him and one another.  God knows we have a thirst for love and that we will drink in anything to have that thirst quenched.  God didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity to set it right once and for all. That is how much God loves you and love me and he loves those outside this place.  God’s love will never change.  Today, know that God loves you, has chosen you, and has blessed you and wants you to love and bless others.  Let us pray.

Sep 2 - Jesus Encounters Two Thieves

Luke 23:32-43

There is a Christian children’s book entitled, “The Legend of the Three Trees.”  The book tells the story of the dreams and life of three trees; an olive tree, an oak tree, and a pine tree.  Borrowing from the story of the dreams and life of the pine tree, the book tells us that a pine tree grew high upon the mountainside.  The tree stood tall and proud.  Many times, it saw people in the valley looking up.  The pine tree hoped that its towering branches would remind people of the glory of God’s creation.  It dreamed that it would always stay on the mountain and point people to God.  One night, a fierce storm shook the mountain.  The pine tree bent and swayed in the powerful wind.  As thunder shook, a bolt of lightning flashed from the sky and splintered the pine trees trunk and, with a great crash, the pine tree fell to the ground.  The pine trees dream crashed down with it.  It knew that then it could never point people to God again.  Then one day, some Romans soldiers came for the forgotten pine.  From the pine’s trunk, they made a cross and they placed Jesus on it.  That day, Jesus died on that cross to take away the sins of all who believe in Him.  Jesus fulfilled God’s plan for Him and God’s plan to bless us.  And ever since that day, the cross points people to God as a symbol of His great love for us.  The pine tree’s dream came true, it would forever point people toward God, just not in the way it imagined.

The cross, made from a tree, does point us to God.  That is the scene of our Biblical passage today.  It is a scene of three cross.  Jesus was nailed and bound to the center cross of the three crosses.  On each side of Jesus, were two nameless men.  The conversation among the three men was and is one of the most important we have ever been privileged to hear.  That conversation determines the way the live and our ultimate destiny. 

Let’s turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 23, starting a verse 23, for the account of this conversation painful held on the crosses on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem.

32 Two other men, both criminals [some translations say robbers, thieves, or even rebels], were also led out with him [Jesus] to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they [the Roman soldiers] crucified him [Jesus] there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” 

This was a gruesome scene.  Men were being put to death by binding them with nails and rope upon a cross made from a tree; there to hang until dead.  It may take a few hours or it may take a few days for death to come from crucifixion.  In this setting, Jesus began the conversation with a prayer of blessing on those gathered to execute him.  In the full power and authority of the Son of God, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

At the very moment of utter violence and sinfulness, Jesus interceded for his tormentors and prayed to God, his Father.  He asked that the sins of those who offended God be cancelled.  He prayed that they be pardoned for their offense.  Jesus did not shout these words at God.  He quietly prayed these words to God, just loud enough for those around him to hear. 

Jesus prayer was for the life of those who actions diminished his own.  While Jesus prayed this pray for those nailing him to the cross, his prayer is universal and applies whenever someone seeks to diminish Jesus.  So, we need to recognize that Jesus was speaking those words for us as well.  He spoke that prayer for us for those moments of weakness when we sin, in those moments of unbelief we deny our Christian faith, and for those moments of indifference we withhold our love from another person.  When those things happen, perhaps if we listen carefully enough, in our hearts, we might hear Jesus say just loud enough for us to hear, “Father, forgive him, forgive her, forgive them.”  For the nature of Jesus is to bless us.

The story continues in verse 35. “35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”  36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”  38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.”  Although Jesus offered forgiveness, not everyone wanted forgiveness.  The rulers and soldiers cared nothing for Jesus’ prayer and cared nothing for God’s forgiveness.  They were too interested in showing their power over their enemy, Jesus, as they worked to take his life.  They would not stop and listen to Jesus’ prayer that God forgive them.  They were too involved in mocking Jesus.  This mocking continues even to this very day.  If you are not sure of this, read a newspaper or checkout social media feeds.  There are plenty of stories of people mocking Jesus.

Verse 39 opened the intimate conversation among the three condemned men and it started with mockery of Jesus.  “39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him [Jesus]: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”  This criminal was experiencing the agony of the cross.  Yet, he chose to use his energy to petition Jesus with insults.  He appeared to ask for divine intervention to free himself, but he does not believe in Jesus.  He chose to use his final breaths to join the religious leaders and soldiers to mock Jesus.  With his own words and by his own actions, this thief upon the cross separated himself from Jesus.  And so it is with us as well.  The Bible says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).  Nothing can separate Jesus from us, except for us.  If we never accept him, Jesus will not force us to accept him.  The thief on the cross encountered Jesus and the thief had a choice; reject Jesus or accept Jesus.  This man rejected Jesus and perished.  Before we think too harshly of this thief, let us contemplate the words of the poet:

I see the crowd in Pilate’s hall, I mark their wrathful mien;  Their shouts of “Crucify!” appall, with blasphemy between.

 

And of that shouting multitude I feel that I am one;

And in that din of voices rude I recognize my own. 

‘Twas I that shed that sacred blood, I nailed him to the tree, I crucified the Christ of God, I joined the mockery.

 

Around the cross the throng I see, mocking the Sufferer’s groan; Yet still my voice it seems to be as if I mocked alone.[1]

 

The words strike hard and cause us to think, “Do I mock Jesus when I am unforgiving or when I do not love those who need love?  Do I mock Jesus when I cause tension in my own home rather than making peace?  Do I mock Jesus when in public I refuse to pray before a meal or for someone in need?  Jesus will never act to separate himself from us, but he lets us keep the ability to separate ourselves from him.  This thief chose the path away from Jesus and that remains a choice we too can make.

            “40 But the other criminal rebuked him [the first criminal].  ‘Don’t you fear God?” he said. ‘41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’”  The second thief understood that God will not – He cannot – overlook sin.  He will deal with it.  The second thief was rebuking the other thief urging the man to refocus his heart and mind from rejecting Jesus to accept the forgiveness Jesus offered.  The second criminal used the breath of his life to speak of Jesus.  On what do we spend our breath?  Do we waste it on idle chatter, gossip, biting comments, snarky insults, useless Facebook postings, and meaningless or meanspirited Tweets?  Or to we use our breath to encourage others, to sing songs of praise to God, or to share the gospel of hope with others?  These are the choices we have.  What determines which path we take is whether we fear the power and are in awe of the wonderfulness of God.

            The second thief, soon to be out of strength, turned to Jesus.  “42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”  Unlike the first criminal who thought little of Jesus and asked little from him, the second criminal thought much of Christ and asked much from him.  The second criminal simply prayed, “Remember me.  Remember me and not my sins.  Remember me and not my crimes.  Remember me.”  What a simple, eloquent, and humble petition.  The second thief was intimate with his savior and called Jesus by name.  He knew that the story of Jesus would not ended on the cross made from a tree.  He knew that Jesus was going to die but that Jesus would have a kingdom after death.  The second criminal knew something about the coming kingdom.  He knew that judgment awaited and that Jesus determined who could enter the kingdom.  The second thief knew that that being in the presence of Jesus – in his kingdom – was not the result of work, for the thief bound to the tree could do no work.  This thief knew the kingdom was for those who had faith.  He knew that prayer expressed in the name and to the person of Jesus would be answered and would bring him peace.

            Jesus responded to this prayer.  Verse 43, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  In that instant, two prayers from the crosses were answered.  Jesus’ prayer, “Father forgive them” was answered for the second criminal’s sins were forgiven.  The criminal’s prayer was answered. “Remember me.”  Today he would be in paradise with Christ.  Forgiveness and paradise are available to us all.  We need only repent and seek Jesus as our savior.

            Upon the tree that day, the tormentors howled and cursed the Son of God.  They jeered and mocked him believing bound to the cross Jesu was powerless.  Victory would soon be theirs and this troublesome preacher would be forgotten.  Yet in the midst of all that unbelief and horror, two men prayed.  One said, “Father, forgive them.”  The second man prayed, “Remember me.”  God answered those prayers.

            God stands ready to answer those same prayers for you and me.  If you have not proclaimed Jesus as your Savior, then pray right now, “Jesus, remember me.”  Know that in doing so, you have chosen life.  If you have already accepted Jesus and the life he offers, I urge you right now to think of someone you love who has not accepted Jesus.  Pray for them and call them today.  Have the faith of to speak the testimony of the dying thief upon the cross.  Encourage them to know that God stands ready to answer their prayer and to save them.  Let them know that Jesus wants them to join him in paradise.  This is the message of hope and peace from the tree fashioned into the cross that forever points the way to God.  Amen.


[1] L. E. Maxwell, Born Crucified, quoting Horatius Bonar (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 68-68.

Aug 26 - Jesus Encounters Peter, James, and John

Matthew 17:1-9

Last weekend, I officiated at a wedding.  There was a moment in the ceremony when the bride and groom stood before me and their guests that was particularly symbolic.  The couple held hands, facing each other.  The groom was dressed in a well-fitting tuxedo and the bride in an elegant form fitting gown.  We were outside and under a massive oak tree on the lawn of a stately mansion.  This single tree cast shade on the 150 or so guests as the sunshine danced upon the surrounding fields and flowers.  There was a gentle breeze flowing over us.  It was quiet except for the words of the ceremony.  It was at this point, as I looked at the couple that I shared these words, “Here is the shape of spiritual beauty that God sees and for an hour has shared with us.”  I encouraged the couple and all married couples to “hide this image in their inmost heart.  Make real this ideal in their united life and their home will be a dwelling place of contentment and joy.”  It was a perfect moment of understanding God’s intentions and reassurance of His presence and love.  There was such clarity of God’s intent for marriage.  Such moments clearness are not everyday occurrences.  Whenever we have a moment of clarity as to God’s purpose or God’s design for our life, they are often called “mountaintop experiences.”  Such experiences, whether occurring on the lawn of an estate during a wedding or a quiet walk along the ocean or literally on a mountain top give us burst of insight into God.  Such experiences come almost without expectation.  Those moments do not last for very long.  They happen, we remember them, and those moments encourage us and strengthen us for the days ahead.

Our Bible reading today, is a mountain top experience both in the literal and figurative senses.  Even though the passage describes the mountaintop experience of someone else, God invites us to join them and capture for ourselves a sense of God’s wonder, encouragement, and strength for the days ahead.

I would invite you to turn to the account of this experience in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 17, starting with verse 1.

Matthew wrote, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”  Right away, we see that Jesus took the initiative to give his disciples Peter, James, and John a mountaintop experience; literally.  Jesus brought the three men to the top of a high mountain.  In the Bible, a mountain top is often the location for the most profound encounters with God.  The mountain top is often the boundary between earth and heaven.  Let me give you two examples of mountaintop experiences from the Bible that are significant to our immediate account.

The first mountaintop experience involves a man named Moses.  Moses was the man who God called to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt.  One day, “Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”  When the Lord saw that he [Moses] had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”  And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’  ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he [God] said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”  God granted Moses a mountaintop experience and drew Moses closer to Him.  It was a sacred moment.  Moses was so overwhelmed by the sacredness of the moment that he hid his face.

The second mountaintop experience involved a man named Elijah.  Elijah was a prophet of God who called the people of Israel to repent, to turn their lives toward and over to God.  At one point in his life, Elijah was very depressed.  He felt very much alone.  He felt that he was following God but was achieving little if anything lasting.  He believed others were out to get him.  The Bible says, in this state of despair, “Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.  And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  Then God spoke to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”  Elijah’s mountaintop experience showed Elijah and us that God speaks in the quiet moments.  While God can speak through thunder, earthquake, or fire His preferred method is to speak softly to those who seek Him.  I can speak from personal experience that whenever I have felt God speak into my heart, it has always been brief and profoundly moving.

So we have two examples from the Bible of mountaintop experiences, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  The opening words of our text said, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he [Jesus] was transfigured before them. His [Jesus’] face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” 

Let’s take that in for a moment from Peter, James, and John’s perspective.  This man, Jesus, who they have been with for a couple of years suddenly begins to glow from his face in such a manner that it looks like the sun.  The radiance of his face is so bright that Jesus’ clothing, whatever color they were, now look as though they are ultrabright white.  This is a mountain top experience like no other.  It is as though Jesus, God in human form, fully human and fully God, was allowing only the fully God side of him show.  The brilliance of God, the fire that would not consume the bush on the mountain, appeared again.  The fire this time consumes neither the body of Jesus nor his clothing.  This was a sign of God’s presence that could not be imitated or explained.  Peter, James, and John saw an unmistakable sign that he was God.

Before Peter, James, and John could even absorb the mystery before them, Matthew wrote “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”  This is getting more unworldly by the moment.  On this mountain top, Jesus serves as the boundary between those of earth, Peter, James, and John and those of heaven Moses and Elijah.  These men of history, Moses and Elijah, who had mountaintop experiences of their own are now conversing with Jesus in the presence of Peter, James, and John.  While these men are taking the scene in, Matthew’s readers and particularly for us, we are left to ask, “Is this real?  How can this be so?  How does someone change appearance and how do people from history appear to come back to earth?” 

Most of us here are realists.  We want to understand how things work, why they work, and we want to be able to repeat experiences at our own will.  So we are confronted by this scene because it cannot be explained or repeated.  This leaves us to ask, “Is this scene a fantasy or is it fantastic?”  What separates fantasy from Biblical fantastic comes down to a single word; faith.  By faith, the fantastic things of God are accepted as truth, even though we cannot dispassionately prove them.  This trust in God, this faith, is the foundation under everything that makes life worth living. Faith is our handle on what we can’t see or what we cannot fully understand. Faith is what distinguished our ancestors, Moses, Elijah, and now Peter, James, and John and set them above the crowd.  By faith, we come to see in this scene that what is apparent on the surface of life has been moved aside to reveal the ultimate depth of what is behind them.  We are seeing depth of Jesus and the dimensions of earth and heaven revealed.  You and you alone must decide by faith whether this account is the truth. 

Think about faith this way.  The entryway to this church consists of two doors.  If the doors were just place over the opening to the church, most of us would not have the strength to lift the door and move it aside so we could enter the building.  We simply could not do it.  Instead, the doors are mounted on small hinges.  With those hinges in place, all of us can open those heavy doors and enter.  Faith works the same way.  For people without faith, coming to understand the fantastic nature of God is as challenging as trying to move aside a heavy door that just lays across the opening.  They cannot do it and therefore, never see what is inside.  For people with faith, just a little faith, that same door is easily opened and we begin to see the marvels of God that are behind the door.  This scene on the mountaintop says to us, “Use a little bit of faith to open that door and understand something far bigger is at play around you.  Jesus is not just some extraordinary teacher, miracle worker, prophet, priest, or would be king.  Jesus is God in human form. His glory is shining through his face and clothing.  He is in the presence of mortals, Peter, James, and John speaking to those who have already lived, Moses and Elijah.  This means Jesus, God among us, is the pathway between earth and heaven.”  For us, this scene challenges us toward faith.

For the disciples on that mountain top, the challenge is what to do in this scene.  Peter, who is often prone to jump into the situation with both feet, breaks the ice.  In verse 4, “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’”  Peter’s response was emotional.  This moment is so fantastic that Peter does not want it to end.  We all want mountaintop experiences to continue if possible.  Why?  Peter said it best, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  Who would not prefer to stay on a mountaintop surrounded by the presence of God rather than be in the valley surrounded by the trials of life.

But the mysteries of God had not fully played out on that mountain.  We see in verse 5, “While he [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!  When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”  I believe from that cloud God gave the shortest and most powerful sermon on record.  If you want to know God, follow God’s three words sermon to Peter, James, and John concern Jesus.  God said, “Listen to him!”  “Listen to Jesus.”  Can you imagine what the world would be like if we just “Listened to Jesus?”

As we conclude today, I want to reflect for a moment back on what Peter said.  Peter said, “Lord, it is good to be here.”  I can tell you standing before you that it is good to be here in this place of worship.  It good to come here and to be in the company of fellow believers.  It is good to be here surrounded by love and to have the opportunity to encourage and be encouraged.  It is good to be here.  But today’s Bible account did on the mountain top and our purpose in life is not to stay here.   

 Verse 7 says to us, “But Jesus came and touched them [Peter, James, and John].  ‘Get up,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’  When they [Peter, James, and John] looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  [Then they went down the mountain.]  Jesus was saying to his friends, “Yes, I know it is good to be here, but our work, the work of living, is down there.”  Jesus knew his place was among the people who needed the good news of salvation.  And so it is with us.  We must listen to Jesus who calls us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  We must listen to Jesus who calls us to love, to merciful, and to become peacemakers.  This is all work in the valley not on the mountain top.  We know that it is good to be here among our family.  But Jesus encourages us to it is good to be here but it is better to be out there.  So, in the words of Jesus, “Get up.  Don’t be afraid.”  In faith, listen to Jesus and share with others our experience of the fantastic God who loves us.  Amen.

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