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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.

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 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.