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Nov 18 - Being Oddly Thankful

Psalm 1:1-3

Colossians 1:1-13


            This Thursday our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  A couple hundred million people will feast all day long on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, cranberry sauce, and a variety of pies.  In many locations, a prayer will be offered before the feasting begins, in many other places, no prayer will be offered.  Millions of people will travel the day before and the days after Thanksgiving to be with their families.  Then when the meal is finished, millions of people will venture out at night in search of those retail stores offering extra special Black Friday sales.  If we step back for a moment, we see something unfold before us.  We see that nearly the entire country is committed and conforms to near simultaneous and common celebration.  And because it is such a common practice, most people do not want to miss out celebrating Thanksgiving in some way so that they are like everyone else.

            If you could ask that couple of hundred million people, “Who started this Thanksgiving Day celebration?” The most common answered you would likely hear is that Thanksgiving started with a group called the “Pilgrims.”  Now here is the surprising part about the Pilgrims.  When they wanted to be thankful to God, they did not feast on great tables of food.  Instead, they fasted; they would not eat.  When it came to the option of doing whatever the rest of the world was doing, the Pilgrims did the other. The Pilgrims were concerned their children were becoming too much like the world, so they left Europe to come to the lands of the Americas to be free of the world’s influences.  The Pilgrims were concerned that organized churches of the day demanded that they believe not only in the Bible but also in other teachings of the church.  The Pilgrims believed that should follow only the Bible.   When it came time to celebrate thanks before God, the Pilgrims issued the word to their people to attend a meeting from 9:00 in the morning until noon “to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”  [I am not sure how you would feel about a three hour sermon.] 

The Pilgrims had definite beliefs and were willing to stand by their beliefs even if the price was high.  As a group, they were unwilling to see their beliefs erode and so they set sail for a new land.  The Pilgrims were thankful when they landed in Plymouth in 1620.  But the 102 Pilgrims who were thankful they landed in late 1620, only 55 were alive just a few months later.  Illness had taken nearly half of the people in just a few mouths.  And yet, the Pilgrims were oddly thankful.  They had beliefs that mattered and lived by those beliefs even when the cost was high.  The Pilgrims were odd and did not conform to the world.  A great Christian scholar once wrote, “A person with a definite belief always appears bizarre [odd], because he [or she] does not change with the world.”  Everyone believes in something and that something drives their decision and choices.  What you believe in may be very common and what you believe in may make you thankful or it may not.

But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this; you are odd.  You are odd because you have definite beliefs that are in many ways very different from the world.  Nobody wants to be different.  We want people to like us, and one of the safest ways to do that is to blend in, to be like everyone else. But following Christ has never been about just “blending in.” Following Him means to be like Him, to respond to life and relate to people the way He did. Inevitably, there are times when doing that makes you different.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this as well; you are odd also because you can be thankful in all circumstances.  You might be saying, “Wait, Pastor.  Right now, life is tough.  Someone I loved is no longer in my life.  Perhaps they died, or they left you to live elsewhere.  Maybe you are without a job and you do not know how you are going to make it through the month.”  We could go on with the list.  I think you get the point.  Some care is needed here.  As Christians we are not thankful for difficult circumstances, but we can be thankful even in the middle of difficult circumstances.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you are very much a Pilgrim and you can be oddly thankful because God is with you in all circumstances of life; good and not so good.

We see this odd thankfulness unfold in our New Testament reading today.  That reading was from a letter that we call Colossians.  Why do we call the letter Colossians?  Simply because it was written to people in the city of Colossae making those people known as Colossians.  The letter is written by a man named Paul.  Paul, and Paul’s companion, Timothy, were familiar with the people called the Colossians.  Through Paul’s ministry, people in Colossae repented; they turned to a new different direction in their life.  They turned from doing things their own way to doing this Jesus’ way because they came believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through Jesus they are free from their sins.  Now Paul was happy to be a Christian even though being known as a Christian, having those definite beliefs, led to Paul being beaten with iron rods, whipped, and having large stones hurled at him.  Paul was a pilgrim and so he was odd thankful.  Paul wanted his friends, the Colossians, to know why he was thankful.

I invite you to turn in your Bible and join me as we read and talk a bit about some of what Paul wrote.  I will be reading from the New International Readers Version of the Bible today.

Paul opened his letter in the style of ancient writings by introducing himself.  He said, “I, Paul, am writing this letter. I am an apostle of Christ Jesus just as God planned. Our brother Timothy joins me in writing.  We are sending this letter to you, our brothers and sisters in Colossae. You belong to Christ. You are holy and faithful.  May God our Father give you grace and peace.”  Paul was connecting with the people in Colossae just as we connected with each other earlier in the service as we greeted one another.  To Paul, his friends in Colossae were new family members, brothers and sisters, and they all equally belonged to God.  Paul was saying, “I acknowledge your dignity and the beauty God sees in you because you were made in the image of God.”  No matter what was going on in their life, for Paul these people were family and God gave each of them dignity.  The world did not see these people in that way and sadly, many of you know the world does not offer dignity to you.  In fact, the world does not believe much in protecting the dignity of another person.  Studies show that even the word “dignity” is being used less and less each year.  That is the world.  Well, allow me to echo Paul’s oddly thankful beliefs.  I am glad and thankful to call each of you brother or sister and I want you to know that no matter what your circumstances may be at this moment, whether good, fair, or not so good, you have dignity as God’s child and you are worthy of respect, compassion, and comfort.  And is my hope that you genuinely sense those feelings here because we are not like the world.  We seek to be like Jesus.

Paul continued with his letter, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.  We thank him [we thank God] because we have heard about your faith in Christ Jesus.  We have also heard that you love all God’s people.”  Paul, along with Timothy, are oddly thankful because news had reach them about their friends.  News that their friends were placing trust in Jesus and not in false beliefs.  They were placing trust in Jesus and not in wild pleasures.  They were placing trust in Jesus and not in hatred, revenge, or anger.  And how did Paul know for sure these people were people of faith in Jesus Christ?  Paul told us.  He said news had reached Paul that his friends in Colossae were “loving toward all of God’s people.”  The people of Colossae held strong beliefs that were different from the world around them.  So different, so odd were their beliefs, that they loved other people.  Paul was thankful that he could see that his friends were willing to love people in the name of Jesus, through the power of Jesus, and in faithful obedience to Jesus.  We can be odd and love other people in our circumstances.  We can love others despite our circumstances.  We can love others as an expression of our thankfulness to God for loving us.  That is what Paul saw his friends doing.

Paul continued to encourage his brothers and sisters.  He said, “Your faith [in Jesus] and love [for others] are based on the hope you have.  What you hope for is stored up for you in heaven.”  Heaven is the place of God.  Heaven is where there are only circumstances of joy and peace.  There are no struggles with sin, illness, or anger in heaven.  Paul wrote to his friends, “You have already heard about it. You were told about it when the true message was given to you.”  Paul wanted his friends to hold onto the promises of the future.

Now someone who received Paul’s letter or someone reading it now might say, “Heaven sounds great but what do I do until I get there?”  Paul wrote in the middle of verse 9, “We keep asking God to fill you with the knowledge of what he wants.”  God wants something very specific for your life.  God has a plan for your life.  He wants something for you and something from you.  He wants that for you and from you now; not in heaven.  Paul was praying his friends would be listening for God.  You see we are odd.  We believe that God will speak to us.  I know I am thankful that God does speak to us and that on a several occasions I was listening to Him.  I am sure there were other moments when He spoke, and I was listening to someone else or more likely talking.

Paul continued, “We pray he will give you the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. 10 Then you will be able to lead a life that is worthy of the Lord. We pray that you will please him in every way. So we want you to bear fruit in every good thing you do. We pray that you will grow to know God better. 11 We want you to be very strong, in keeping with his glorious power. We want you to be patient. We pray that you will never give up.”  In this life, we need wisdom and understanding in all circumstances.  I think every person here has said many times, “Lord, what am I supposed to do now?”  Paul said God will lead you to do the next right thing that it worthy of him.  God will give you the strength to do it and the patience to see it through until it is time to take the next right step.  Just don’t give up.  This is how we can be thankful in all circumstances.  Because God is there to give us wisdom in our circumstances.  He is there to lead us out of difficult circumstances.  He is there to slow us down so that we can enjoy the good circumstances of life  He is there to help us never give up.  This all sounds so very odd to the world.

Our friends, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, needed great wisdom in their difficult circumstances.  They needed patience and they needed the strength not to give up.  The Pilgrim’s leader, William Bradford, wrote, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of God have all praise."  Everything we do should reflect the very best of the light of the Gospel and regardless of the immediate circumstances we may find ourselves in, we should give all the praise and thanksgiving to God.

            As we approach Thanksgiving this year, look at life, all of life with a Christian view of being oddly thankful.  Think about all that you have been blessed with and see God through it all.  Be willing to ask for his wisdom, guidance, and patience in your circumstances knowing God will answer you through the Bible and through his church.  Don’t give up.  Love other people with light of hope that burns within you.  Do not hid that light.  When Thanksgiving Day comes, certainly approach the day grateful for whatever meal you may have and with whomever you share it with, but think deeper.  Give thanks to God for your salvation, for the blessing of being in his church, for the blessing of grace, and the blessing of peace.  Pray for family and friends, even difficult ones.  Pray that God will continue to move to be oddly thankful and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.  Amen.

Nov 4 - Hope in the Healing

Psalm 147:1-7

John 5:2-15

            We have been talking for a couple of weeks about hope.  Hope is essential to our life for without hope life seems to lack purpose and meaning.  Hope has only one source, that is God.  God always instills hope and never takes it away.  Yet, despite God’s grace in giving us hope, we still can feel hope leave us.  Sin we commit, or sin others commit against us, depletes hope within us.  We learned that forgiveness restores hope lost through sin.  Forgiveness of offenses between us is possible because God forgave us.  We then are empowered to forgive each other and restore hope.

Other difficulties in life deplete hope.  Medical issues and illnesses deplete our hope.  Bickering and endless conspiracy theories between our political parties depletes hope.  Harsh words between racial groups deplete hope.  And the violence inflicted upon people of faith, as was the case a couple of weeks ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh depletes hope.  How is hope restored when lost through such diseases of our bodies, our minds, our spirits?  How is hope restored when lost through diseases of anger and jealousy and mistrust of our neighbors, and our countrymen?  In a word, we must be healed to have hope again.  In being healed, then we are empowered to extend healing to others.  What is the source of such healing?  It is God who brings such healing because God is the source of hope.

Psalm 147, our Old Testament reading today, describes the workings of God.  The psalmist wrote, “Praise the Lord.  How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”  Why is that so?  The psalmist explained: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel.  He heals the brokenhearted and [he] binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and [he] calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.  The Lord sustains the humble but [he] casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp.”

            The psalmist laid out that God is mighty in power and deed and he uses that power to build, gather, heal, bind, determine, call, understand, and sustains those who come to him.  God’s actions bring together that which is broken.  God wanted people to see his power to bring healing in a personal and lasting manner so he sent his son, Jesus, to bring hope and healing to the people.  Jesus healed people of illnesses as a sign of his identity as God’s Son.  Jesus healed people of their brokenness as a sign of God’s power to save.  Jesus did not heal all people of all brokenness because not everyone asked him to do so.  That is a funny thing about Jesus’ authority and God’s power to heal.  As powerful as God is, God will not build, gather, heal, and bind the brokenness of our life against our will.

            We see this limitation on healing played out in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus preached and taught the people with whom he grew up.  “And they took offense at him.  Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’  He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.”  This little story shows us that Jesus did not just enter a town and suddenly everyone was healed.  Healing occurred through personal interactions between Jesus and those who had the faith to believe He could heal.  Because there were few willing to be healed, few were healed.

            This theme of faith-based healing was prominent in our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of John.  Let’s see how faith played out with Jesus.  “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.”  John was painting a picture of a great many people distressed by severe physical limitations all collected by a pool of water, a public bath if you will.

            If you are using a King James Version of the Bible you will see why these people lay near this pool.  In verse 4, it would say, “4For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”  If you are using a more contemporary translation of the Bible you will see that there is no verse 4.  Your Bible goes from verse 3 to verse 5.  The reason is many contemporary scholars believe verse 4 was not part of John’s original writings but was added by scribes years later.

            Either translation in use, we have the scene of a great many people distressed by severe physical limitations all collected around a pool of water waiting it would seem for a moment of turmoil within the waters as a signal that the first one entering those waters would be healed.   Illness, injuries, and insults to the body had diminished the hope of these people.  Now it would seem all that could be done was wait by the water.

John acquainted us with one of those waiting in verse 5, “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.”  .”  Into this man’s life, a figure entered in the person of Jesus.  “He [Jesus] asked him [the man], ‘Do you want to get well?’”  In other translations, Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole?”

            Jesus took the initiative and contacted this man who was paralyzed for some 38 years.  But in that contact Jesus asked what at first might seem like an odd question, “Do you want to get well?”  We could envision the paralytic man responding sarcastically, “No, I lie around here for the view!”  But Jesus question was a serious moment from self-reflection by the man.  “Do you want to be made whole?”  This question needs to be asked because sadly there are hurting people who do not want to be made well.  Their pain is real, but their discomforting circumstances have been come their identity and their pain has become their excuse for the way they live.  They do not want to change the way they live and therefore, do not want to be made well.

            Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made whole?” was intended to have the man confess his fears, his faith, and his hopes.   The man gave Jesus his answer in verse 7.  “Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’”  The man does not directly answer Jesus’ question and instead offers the reason why he has not been healed.  It would seem when the waters are stirred, this mass of humanity, blind, ill, lame, and paralyzed lurch forward in chaos trying to be the first in the pool and thus healed.   This man could not get into the pool faster than anyone else because he has no one to lift him over the others. The man painted a macabre scene of twisted bodies all trying to push their way into the water in the belief that at certain moments the water was curative.  There is not any evidence the story about the healing waters of the pool was true.   It may well be simply folklore.  But for this man, that had become his only hope.

            In this scene, Jesus wanted the man and us to understand the power of wholeness is found in God, not in some water in a pool.  Jesus wanted the man to see that hope is found in being made whole.  Verse 8, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured [he was made well]; he picked up his mat and walked.”  Jesus had performed a miracle.  The miracle was a concrete example of the presence of God’s power in Jesus.  This healing miracle was visible expression of compassion and love.  It was a display of hope in the present and in the future with God.  John does not record the man’s response.  For 38 years, the man could not move off the mat by himself.  We can well imagine a sense of relief, awe, and joy in the healing.  We can also well imagine the true sense of hope the man now had in the future because of man named Jesus.

            What then does this passage tell us about hope and healing?  There are three points to consider.

First, when Jesus came to earth there were an abundance of people with illnesses, disease, and pain.  Jesus took the initiative and offered healing to those who expressed faith.  Jesus did not suspend or eliminate all illness, disease, or brokenness.  He offered healing as a concrete way of showing God’s love and compassion for people.  So, healing must be rooted in the love, power, and presence of God. Jesus offered healing to move people toward hope.  Jesus offered healing to make people whole.  Jesus did not offer healing so that people would live forever upon this earth.  Everyone Jesus healed, even those he raised from the dead, all eventually died.  Therefore, the wholeness offered by Jesus must be something that lasting longer than our physical life itself.  Wholeness is restoration of the soul that transcends the pain of illness and life.  God sent Jesus to meet us where we are and to offer us eternal life.  This brings us to our second point; we will not heal alone.

Jesus approached the man on the mat, an invalid of 38 years, who was laying by the pool, waiting for the water to stir and looking for someone to put him in it.  The man understood that healing and hope cannot be achieved alone.  The man knew that just laying on a mat would not heal him.  The 38 years he spent laying on a mat proved that point.  The man knew he could not get into the healing waters without someone to lift him.  Hope and healing require community.  When Jesus entered the man’s life God was present and the aloneness ended.  Jesus was not going to lift the man into the pool and heal the man in the way he had imagined.  Jesus was going to make the man whole by bringing God into the act and ending the aloneness.  This leads to our third point; do we want the healing Jesus offers?

            God took the initiative to offer hope and healing.  Jesus entered the aloneness of people in pain.  But there was an important question that needed answering.  “Do you want to be made whole?”  Where there is no faith, there is no healing.  But Jesus’ offer of wholeness was not about physical health, it was about wholeness of our spirits.  Jesus offered a new way of life with hope from God in our circumstances and the capacity to share that hope with all other people in our lives.  Do you want to be made whole?

            Hope, healing, and wholeness are rooted in God.  God sent Jesus to break into the aloneness of pain.  Jesus asked us to join him being made well.  These three steps apply to you and me today just as much as it applied to the man lying beside the pool.

            Jesus gave those who accepted his offer of hope and wholeness an enduring symbol of remembering his purpose and his call upon their lives.  We call it the Lord’s Supper and we have it laid out before us.  Jesus gave his friends this meal of remembrance and hope with the bread and cup.  Jesus reminded those of faith that he came from God and broke into the aloneness of all pain.  The bread and cup reminded Jesus’ friends they were well in God’s eyes.  Jesus reminded his friends to take the initiative and share the hope of God with all they meet.  This meal is not finished until we reach out to the poor, strangers, lonely, weak and hurting world around us with the same love and healing power that is at work within us.

            This day, we too can be friends of Jesus and remember and share that our God builds, gathers, heals, and binds the brokenness of our life.  Let us pray.

Oct 28 - Hope Found in Forgiveness

Leviticus 16:20-22

John 8:1-11

Several years ago, I started working with another church at the Troy Area United Ministries to serve dinner.  The only thing the workers there knew about me before I arrived was that I was a Baptist minister.  When I arrived, some people were very scared of me and concerned about what I might think of them.  As I got to know the crew, they shared that they believed Baptist ministers were angry men, speaking about hellfire and brimstone saying things like, “You are all sinners.  Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.”  We were able to share a good laugh over the anxiousness caused by having a Baptist minister working on the crew.  But we also talked about the fact that it is true we are all sinners.  I recently saw a list someone complied of all the sins identified in the Bible.  The list identified 667 different behaviors that are sinful.  I do not know if the list is correct.  It really does not matter.  It is impossible to deny that sin is part of our lives; it is part of living.  And so, “Yes you are all sinners and I am right there with you.”

The eternal consequence of sin is hell, an unchangeable hopeless place.  The earthly consequence of sin similarly involves the loss of hope, but unlike hell where hopelessness is unchangeable, on earth hope can be restored.  Last week, we began speaking about hope.  We recall that people are created for hope.  Throughout our life we move from hope to hope.  Hope is what excites us and hope is what motivates us.  However, in our living day-to-day our sense of hope, our movement from hope to hope, gets disrupted and dims when we sin and when we are on the receiving end of sin.  From the list of 667 sins we would find that our hope dims because of adultery, anger, assault, bitterness, deception, falsely accusing, holding a grudge, selfishness, threatening, etc.  I think you get the point. 

Last week, I spoke with someone last week, we will call her Rose who lost hope.  Rose lives alone.  Rose’s close friend of many years became angry at her for reasons which are not clear.  Since that then, this close friend has stopped talking to Rose, will not return her phone calls, stopped checking in to see if she was all right.  Because of this mistreatment, because of this sinful behavior, Rose lost hope and then began believing that everything else in her life was falling apart.  Sinful behavior had diminished and nearly extinguished Rose’s sense of hope.  Life becomes unbearable without hope.

Hope is central and essential to our lives.  God created us to move from hope to hope and therefore only God can provide a means of restoring hope in our lives.  And God’s means through which hope is restored in the face of sin is called forgiveness.  Forgiveness allows there to be another chance.  Forgiveness holds out the possibility, the promise, and the reality that individuals, marriages, families, neighbors, friends, churches, and whole communities can be renewed, can mend what we have broken, can find what appeared to be completely lost, can build a bridge to that which seems permanently severed, can re-member and restored.  Forgiveness brings the comforting fire of hope back to flame and allows us once again to move from hope to hope.

Forgiveness leading the restoration of hope is God’s plan.  Forgiveness was central to God’s development of his special relationship with the Hebrew people.  We recall from our Old Testament reading today that Aaron, the chief priest of the Hebrew people, was to lead to the atonement of sin among the Hebrew people.  He was to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”  This was the means of forgiving sin between the people and God.  This is called Yom Kippur and is still celebrated in the Jewish community today.  Yom Kippur is coupled with Teshuva, a time to repentance and forgiveness between and among the people.  It is the time to stop the sinful behavior, confess the nature of those behaviors, express regret, commit to stop the behaviors in the future, and to seek forgiveness.  God’s plan was for the restoration of hope by having his people turn away from hurtful, harmful, sinful behaviors and to seek forgiveness for the past.  Our bulletin today carries an image with the words, “Forgiving the past creates hope for the future.”

When the time was right, God advanced his plan of forgiveness and hope from the Hebrew people alone to all people.  He did not extend the practice of laying the sins of the people on a scapegoat and sending the goat into the wilderness.  God’s plan was much more personal and much more complete.  God sent his son, Jesus, into the world.  Jesus came to reveal the character of the invisible God to all the people and lead the people to understand the nature and extent of God’s forgiveness.  Jesus also came to take the penalty of all our sins upon himself, freeing us to live new lives restored in hope.  Our New Testament reading today gave us a wonderful insight into the power of forgiveness and its relationship to hope.

The story began this way.  “At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts.”  Jesus was in the place of prayer and worship of God.  The sanctuary of the Lord is the first place we should want to go when hope is dimmed and the last place we want conflict.  That was true then and remains true today.  It was to the temple that Jesus went to be with the people and there John wrote, “he [Jesus] sat down to teach them.”  This is a wonderful scene.

Suddenly, noise and harsh words intrude that sacred space.  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.”  The women had sinned.  She had engaged in adultery by having sexual relations with a man who was not here spouse.  Adultery is listed in the top 10 of the 667 sins in the Bible.  Adultery represents a violation of God’s design for marriage that a husband and wife are to cleave together; there is not to be three or more people in a marriage.  On a human level, adultery was and is a serious breach of trust.  This woman’s sin, no doubt committed in private, was now on public display.  Now that her sin was publicly exposed she could see her relationship with God, her husband, her family, neighbors, and friends was ruined. 

John wrote, “They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’”  This woman was in a desperate situation and now found herself threatened with death.  This woman’s fate, her life, was in the hands of Jesus.  Things must have seemed quite hopeless for her.  A person without hope is already crushed and, in many ways, is experiencing death.

John’s next two words are most important, “But Jesus.”  These words, “But Jesus,” signals to the reader that but for Jesus, the situation was completely hopeless.  “But Jesus,” was a signal that something unexpected, something not of human thought and human origin was about to take place.  “But Jesus,” was sign that hope was still present.

“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.”  We do not know what Jesus wrote.  Whatever Jesus wrote did not break the fixation the crowd of religious people had in demanding an answer from Jesus as to the fate of this woman.  The crowd, really a mob, was only interested in trying to use the situation to steal the hope other people were placing in Jesus.

“7 When they kept on questioning him [Jesus], he straightened up and said to them [the religious leaders], ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”  “But Jesus,” reminded the mob that we are all sinners and are all subject to the weight and consequence of sin.  Sounds like that scary Baptist minister coming out of Jesus, “You are all sinners.  Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.”  “But Jesus,” made the point to the mob that on another day, another moment in time, they could be standing alone, accused and hopeless because of their sin.

John wrote that upon hearing Jesus’ words the mob began to break up and people “began to go away one at a time [with] the older ones first.”  It was unfortunate the mob left because they did not see firsthand the rest of the story.  There was another “But Jesus,” moment in which Jesus showed how hope can be restored.

John wrote, the mob “began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”  “But for Jesus,” the woman was alone.  Physical death did not seem likely, however, the woman remained hopeless before God, her husband, her family, and her neighbors.  Her very private sin was still very public.

John wrote, “10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they?  [Where is the mob?] Has no one condemned you?”  Jesus’ questions are, of course, not seeking information.  They never are.  Questions from Jesus are always confession seeking.  They seek the person receiving the question to speak aloud what is going on in their life, in their heart, and in their thoughts.  Jesus questions get people to engage in open conversation with him.  They are designed to help us speak in an authentic manner and this is important when we pray.  What does it mean to be authentic in prayer?  We need to be real with God.  We need to think about God as being as close to us as the woman was to Jesus.  We need to honest about our feelings and our failings.  We need to approach God just as we are and to seek direction on honoring him with our lives.  In this scene, Jesus wants to woman to talk to him authentically about her circumstances.  To reflect on the most important moment of her life.  “Is there no longer anyone here to condemn you?”  11 “‘No one, sir,’ she said.”

I can imagine the seconds of silence now ticked away between this woman and Jesus.  Each second feeling longer and weightier than the last.  Finally, Jesus broke the silence, “Then neither do I condemn you.”  Jesus had forgiven the woman of her sin, restoring her before God, and renewing hope.

Jesus instructed the woman on how to live again with hope.  Jesus said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  This was the hope the woman needed.  I can well imagine the woman who entered the temple with tears of terror and regret now leaving the temple with tears of joy and relief fueled by hope.  Hope is the confident expectation of a future filled with promise and meaning because it is secured by God.  The forgiveness the woman received gave her the courage to face life ahead knowing she was accepted by God.  God’s forgiveness gives hope.

God’s forgiveness of us empowers us to forgive others and restore hope.  Forgiveness must be at the heart of our relationships with one another because it is at the heart of our relationship with God.  When I perform a wedding ceremony I issue a pastoral charge to the couple upon them from Scripture just before they share their vows.  I share with them these words, “Come now and ‘…clothe yourselves with compassion, with kindness, with humility, with gentleness and with patience. Bear with each other and forgive any grievances that may arise. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3).  We love and we forgive because we hope. We hope because God has forgiven us.

Forgiveness does not make the past disappear.  Forgiveness allows the past to be the past.  Forgiveness allows the future to be lived with hope.  Because Jesus died for you, because he forgave your sins, you will not go to hell.  Because Jesus forgave you, you have the power to forgive one another.  You and I have the power of hope.  Let us then use it and forgive and the Lord has forgiven us.  Let us pray.

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.