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03-20 - Cheers, Jeers, and Tears

          We are in the season of Lent.  Lent is notionally the 40 days prior to Easter Sunday.  Many Christian Churches observe Lent as a somber and contemplative period marked by penance, fasting, and self-denial.  I know it will come as no surprise to you, but we Baptist are different from most everyone else.  We do not strictly observe Lent.  I do not want to change that Baptist tradition, but I do want to use the weeks of Lent this year to focus our attention on the events of Jesus’ last week of ministry. 

Did you know that the last week of Jesus’ life in the flesh is the major focus of all four Gospels?  Nearly one-third of the Gospel of Matthew (21-28) and one-third of the Gospel of Mark (11-16) deal with Jesus’ last week.  About one-quarter of the Gospel of Luke (19-24) addresses Jesus’ last week and almost one-half of the Gospel of John (12-20) focuses attention on Jesus’ last week.  There are 89 chapters in all four Gospels and 29 of those chapters deal with Jesus’ last week, the time between what we call Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.  I would like us to use the weeks of Lent to talk about some key events from those 29 chapters beginning today with the event we call Palm Sunday and ending four weeks from now with Easter Sunday.

The first event, Palm Sunday, often is called “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry” to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ entry is passionate story found in all four Gospels.  And while the title, “Triumphal Entry” may be appropriate, I would like us to explore Jesus’ final entry to Jerusalem through the passions of those present.  I would suggest there were three passionate responses to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Those responses were “Cheers, Jeers, and Tears.”

Let’s start with Cheers!  Cheers represent a passionate response intending to demonstrate encouragement and express praise and joy!  Cheers are a wonderful, often spontaneous, outburst of joy.  We cheer to celebrate great moments in sports, theater, or politics. Cheering is a contagious group event that often sweeps up and excites even those who may have had only a causal interest in what was occurring. 

Allow me to illustrate.  I remember my son and daughter-in-law telling a story of the time when they went to Disney World.  Almost a year in advance they made reservations to go to the Beauty and Beast Castle and the “Be Our Guest” restaurant.  When they arrived, my son could barely contain his excitement about being in the Beast’s Castle.  Our daughter-in-law was happy to be there but rather reserved about it.  Then an announcement was made, “Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce our host, The Beast.”  Immediately upon the conclusion of that announcement, our daughter-in-law began to shout with great joy and excitement, “The Beast is here! The Beast is here!”  The anticipated excitement our daughter-in-law felt from my son and others had become contagious to our reserved daughter-in-law and others who shouted with joy.  By analogy, this was the scene of the cheers as Jesus entered Jerusalem.

The Gospel of Matthew and Mark said, “And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna!  ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’  10 Blessed is the kingdom of our father David That comes [c]in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:8-10). 

The Gospel of Luke said upon Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, “The whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, 38 saying: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” (Luke 19:37b-38).

The Gospel of John said that people heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and so “13 They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’  The King of Israel!’” (John 12:13).

The people were overjoyed that their king had arrived.  A man from God had arrived to finally change their world.  They believed Jesus’ entry meant Jesus would be their king and bring a swift end to the domination of Israel by the Romans. The idea of Jesus as an earthly king of Israel was not a new concept.  Early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus fed 5,000 men plus women and children with five barely loaves and two small fish, the lunch of a small boy.  John wrote in his gospel account, that after the meal was complete, “14 Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’  15 Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:14-15).

But here, now, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people saw that no force was necessary to bring Jesus into his kingship.  Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on a colt just as had been foretold in the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).  And so, the people burst into cheers.

But not everyone cheered as Jesus’ entered Jerusalem. Some people jeered at Jesus upon his arrival.  Jeers are often rude and mocking remarks typically made in a loud voice expressing displeasure with whatever is occurring.  Jeers are often critical of whomever is the focus of the attention.

Who would be jeering Jesus?  The Gospel of John brings our first insight into the answer to this question.  Jesus had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead and many people began to believe in Jesus. In John’s Gospel we would read the Jewish leaders said to one another, “48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation’” (John 11:47-48).  There it was.  Those in power and control of the religious beliefs and community of Israel became fearful. These leaders feared three things. First, “everyone will believe in Him (Jesus).”  If people believed in Jesus, then they would not believe in them (the religious leaders). Second, the “Romans will come and take away our temple.”  Jesus had already made it known that was going to happen.  Jesus had said, “23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).  The religious leaders feared the time of the Temple with its cultic practices of animal sacrifice was over.  Something greater than the Temple was here, in the person of Jesus.  If Jesus was allowed to be continued, the Temple and all the privileges the Romans gave to Jesus leadership to administer the Temple practices would be gone.  Third, the religious leaders feared the Romans would come and destroy the nation. The Jewish leadership saw that the people believed Jesus was a king.  The Romans would never allow such a king to exist and would come in force to crush the country.  John said the religious leaders were so upset at Jesus that, “53 From that day on they plotted to take his [Jesus’] life” (John 11:53).

So, we learn that the religious leaders were upset and agitated even before Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.  On the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to the cheers of his followers, “39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” (Luke 19:39).  The Pharisees were telling Jesus, “Be responsible and get your disciples under control!”  The Pharisees command to Jesus was a rebuke of Jesus himself.  “You call yourself a Rabbi and Teacher! Hardly!  Get yourself and this rabble under control!” the Pharisees jeered. 

The jeering of Jesus would continue in the days ahead.  The Pharisees would assemble a crowd of people who on command would jeer at Jesus saying, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”  The behavior of the Pharisees led to Jesus being mocked and jeered at by Roman soldiers and a thief upon the cross. 

Jeering is a contagious behavior of a mob.  Mobs are dangerous because they act in fear.  People were and remain afraid of Jesus.  I think many people today reject Jesus from a sense of fear. They often express their fear indirectly by changing the subject or say something like, “I think Jesus was a good guy, but I don’t believe in God.”  It takes a humbling mind for people to realize their weaknesses, and to arrive at the conclusion that they are not able to save themselves. Genuinely thinking about Jesus what He said and did made people in Jesus’ day afraid, and it still does.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem there were the cheers of the crowd and jeers from the mob.  But amid the cheers and jeers there was one person in tears.  Luke wrote that amid all the noise of joy and anger, “41 As he [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it [the city]” (Luke 19:41).  Amid the cheers and jeers, Jesus was in tears.

This was a very emotional scene. Luke said Jesus wept.  The English word, “weep” here does not do justice to what was occurring.  The Greek word Luke used was klaiō (κλαίω) (klah'-yo), means to sob, to mourn, weeping as the sign of pain and grief like those who mourn for the dead. The crowd cheered the arrival of their future king to the city, the religious leaders jeered his arrival, and God tears and cries.  Jesus revealed to us that God is a god of emotion.  He feels and cares deeply.  He cried as we do when someone we love has died.  Why did Jesus cry?  Jesus cried the people of the city did not see why Jesus had come.  The crowd could not see.  The religious leaders do not see.  They were blinded by their own ambitions, agendas, and desire to control God. They do not see that their long-awaited Messiah, the one who would break the bonds of spiritual enslavement, was before them. 

Jesus could see what was going to happen because of their blindness and ambition.  The Jews would revolt militarily against the Romans in 66 A. D.  It would be a disaster for the inhabitants of the city.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote, “While the sanctuary was being destroyed …pity for age nor respect for rank was shown.  On the contrary, children and old people, laity and priests alike were massacred.  The emperor ordered the entire city and temple to be razed to the ground, leaving only the loftiest towers … and the portion of the wall enclosing the city on the west… All the rest of that surrounded the city was so completely razed to the ground as to leave future visitors to have no reason to believe that the city had ever been inhabited.”  Jesus prophesy of tears as recorded by Luke, was “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:42-44).

          Cheers, jeers, and tears.  The first two behaviors, cheers and jeers, were the human responses to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.  Tears was God’s response.  Jesus, God in the flesh, cried because people did not recognize Him and the salvation through grace he was offering to those who would believe in him.

          What does this story tell us?  The story tells us that you and I have a savior and a God who cries for us?  We have a savior and God who cries for our families and our neighbors.  Why?  Because God wants everyone to be saved.  God’s passion for us is so intense that He expressed it in tears.  Scripture says repeatedly:

  • The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8)
  • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  (John 6:40)
  • Who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
  • For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
  • Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)
  • For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
  • But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

          The list of Bible references goes on demonstrating God’s desire is that everyone be saved.

          Jesus came to Jerusalem to be seen as the savior coming to each person who would receive.  Jesus comes peacefully as savior.  He is not impressed by cheers and is not deterred by jeers.  Jesus comes to each of us in tears of passion for us.  He knows that if we do not accept Him in the day of his coming, our enemies will tear us down just as they did to the city of Jerusalem.  We must not let jeers of ridicule from some prevent us from accepting Jesus nor should we accept Jesus just because others cheer Jesus.  We should accept Jesus fully and completely in our lives because we can trust a man and God who would cry for us.  Cheers, jeers, and tears.  What will be your response?  Let us pray.

03-13 - What to Pray For


 Last week, we started a discussion on prayer asking, “What is prayer?” and “What is prayer for?”  I began last week by sharing with you that the topic of prayer was borne out of work that I completed on creating an experience to discover inner peace.  Today, I provided you a copy of the invitation and outline of that experience which I hope to begin in late April.  We talked last week and will do so again today that inner peace and prayer are connected.  No prayer, no peace.

          How are peace and prayer connected?  Let me offer one familiar illustration of the connection between prayer and peace.  One night long ago, some words were shouted from heaven to those on a hillside near the town of Bethlehem.  The words from heaven were an answer to the prayers of many. From the heavens, it was heard, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  These words were the words of angels upon the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.  The child was a boy who would be named Jesus.

For centuries, the people of Israel prayed for peace.  In that moment on the hillside of Bethlehem, God did not answer the prayer for peace to fall upon the earth as though it was rain.  Instead, in that moment, God’s own Son was born to be peace.  Jesus was an answer to prayer.  Jesus was and is peace and Jesus came to share that peace in human form that we could know true peace.

Peace is essential to life and was found in the essence of creation itself.  The opening words of the Bible are בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים בְּרֵאשִׁית, (re'shiyth bara’ ‘elohiym), “In the beginning God created.”  Literally, there was God and then life and time as we know it began. In the beginning, everything, God, humanity, and nature were at peace.  But it did not stay that way.  Once peace was disturbed by sin, people began to pray.  A wise and learned man once told me that the core of every prayer is an expression to God that peace would be restored whether it is peace of mind, peace in the body, peace about a decision, or peace in a relationship. Peace is at the heart of all our desires.

It would seem then anything we might consider that brings us peace would be worthy of prayer.  Isn’t it true that last week we read that Jesus said to his disciples, “13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name” (John 14:13).  We see those words of Jesus expressed in greeting cards, in exchanges in church settings, on tee-shirts, and coffee cups.  Certainly, if we think something will bring us peace and we ask God for it, isn’t obligated to give it to us?  We would like to think that is so, but it is not true for one key reason.  Our coffee cups cut short the full quote of Jesus’ words, “13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).  We do need to pray about anything and everything, but the product, the result, of our requests to God must necessarily glorify God and bring peace for the subject of our prayer.

I think people drop the second half of that verse from the Gospel of John because it is hard to understand.  Prayer can be hard for us to understand because many of our prayers seem good, noble, and right and yet they do not seem to be answered.  When our prayers seem to be unanswered, then we can lose faith and wonder about God’s promises or His goodness.  When our prayers seem to be unanswered, we might wonder did I do something wrong or am I not do something right that God is not hearing me?  We wonder, “Am I the reason God did not do what I asked?”

I think these questions are natural when we do not see God do as we ask, even when what we ask for seems like a good thing.  In my experience, these deep questions about the effectiveness of prayer tend to surface most often when the subject of our prayers is someone we love.  Most, if not all of us, have faced or will face such a moment when the subject of our prayer is someone whom we love who is gravely ill. We pray for the life of our loved one to continue, which is a good thing.  And yet sometimes our loved one does not recover and dies.  We think and even ask aloud, “What happened to my prayer?” 

The Apostle Paul shared with us some insights into this moment of struggling between life and death.  “21 For to me, [Paul said] to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:21-23). Paul was explaining that life in the body is precious and gives us the opportunity for fruitful labor which would include ministry but also includes loves, family, friendships, and fellowship.  So, praying for continued life in the body is appropriate and we should pray for our loved ones who are gravely ill. But Paul also said, to depart this life is to live with Christ which was to Paul better than living in the body.  Paul said he was torn, he was in conflict, as to which life, the life in the body or life in Christ, was the right answer for him in that moment because both forms of life are good. 

What do Paul’s words then tell us?  Paul tells us we should make our loved ones who are gravely ill the subject of our prayers and make our appeal on their behalf known to God.  And yet, Paul points out, that we must recognize that in our praying, we are leaving to God to wrestle with the conflict for our loved one as to which life is the better choice for them, which life will bring the greater peace for our loved one.  Sometimes, God sees that the choice of peace for our loved one is that they depart and be with Christ.  If the very essence of every prayer is to bring peace, then our petition for God to bring peace to our loved one was answered.  Answered prayer is not always easy for us to accept.  For Paul’s words help us to understand that our prayers in these critical moments of life are answered and that answer does bring peace for our loved ones for whom we prayed.

Prayer can be hard for us to understand because many of our prayers seem good, noble, and right and yet they do not seem to be answered.  We remember, Jesus said, “13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).  Sometimes, we ask for things we think are good but God sees that they are not, in fact, good and the answer from God is “No.”  Consider for a moment the prayer of James and John.

James and John were brothers and were among the earliest followers of Jesus.  James and John would become two of Jesus’ twelve apostles.  Not only that, but James and John along with Peter were part of the innermost circle of Jesus’ Apostles.  James and John were present when Jesus raised a child to life.  They were present when Jesus was transfigured, and his glory shone as bright as lightning.  James and John were present when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.  James and John knew Jesus better than any other set of Apostles.

One day, “35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him [Jesus]. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’”  Does that sound familiar?  James and John were asking the Son of God for something.  That is called prayer.  “36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he [Jesus] asked.  37 They [James and John] replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’  38 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said” (Mark 10:35-38a).

James and John asked for a good thing.  They wanted to be as close to Jesus as possible with one on his right side and the other on his left side.  But Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.”  Meaning, James and John had no real idea as to the significance of their request.  James and John did not or could not foresee all the implications of their request for themselves or the impact granting their prayer would have on the lives of others. Look at Mark 10:41, “41 When the ten [other apostles} heard about this [James’ and John’s prayer to Jesus], they became indignant with James and John”  (Mark 10:41). James and John asked for a good thing but granting their petition would not bring about peace that God desired. Jesus’ answer to James and John was thus “No.”  Sometimes, even when we ask for good things for ourselves, the answer is “no” because we don’t really know what we are asking for.  God protects us from our own prayers.

Prayer can be hard for us to understand because many of our prayers seem good, noble, and right and yet they do not conform to God’s desires.  What then can we do to shape our prayer life and obtain the peace that prayer is intended to bring?  I think there three things that will help us.

First, we need to pray was Jesus instructed us in what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  We talked about that last Sunday.

Second, we need to pray for specific things that Jesus said were inherently part of God’s will for our lives.  Let’s look at that point just a bit.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we have recorded Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talked throughout the sermon about seeking after righteousness.  Jesus said to his disciples.

  1. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6)
  2. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).
  3. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20)
  4. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

The point seems clear.  Seeking righteousness, seeking a right relationship with God that then leads to right relationships with other people, is not only a good thing that brings peace but asking for, praying for, the righteousness of God is inherently in the will of God.  In fact, Jesus said in this sermon on righteousness, that “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7).  In context of what Jesus was saying, the “it” is not anything, the “it” here is God’s righteousness.  We should ask and pray for righteousness to be poured into our lives and God will do so because Jesus’ promised to live in a righteous manner is inherently part of God’s will.  Now, here is some more good news.  In righteousness we will be satisfied.  If we are satisfied, we have peace.

          Let’s look at one more example of prayer guaranteed by Jesus. Jesus said to his disciples, “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you… and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:12, 16b-17) Jesus told his disciples that loving each other was a new command.  In fact, so significant was this command that Jesus said the single criteria the world would use to know who Jesus’ followers were was their love for one another.  And so, we have this statement from Jesus about prayer that is bound between two “Love Each Other” bookends.  Jesus’ words create a “love, pray, love” relationship. This means, the pray for anything part of the love, pray, love statement is not that for a anything imaginable.  The “pray for anything” of this love, pray, love statement is that we pray for help to follow Jesus’ command to love one another. Love each other, Jesus said and then pray for anything you need to follow that command and God will give it to you.  We should ask and pray for the spirit of love to be strengthened within us. Ask that such a spirit be poured into our lives and God will answer such a prayer because Jesus said such prayers are inherently part of God’s will.  If we pray for a spirit of love towards others, God will answer that prayer and we will have peace.

          We need to pray for those things such as righteousness and spirit of love that the Bible guarantees will be answered.

          Third, and finally, we should pray for our own eternal life. One time, Jesus met a Samaritan woman a well.  Jesus asked the woman for a drink of water, but the women declined Jesus’ request. Jesus then told the woman, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water…[For]

Everyone who drinks this water [well water] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 13-14). 

Jesus was sharing with this woman that eternal life is available if we ask, read that as pray, for it.  We should be praying continually for Jesus to be in our life as that deep well that we can go to every moment of every day to be refreshed as we encounter life in this world whether it is a moment of joy, challenge, or repetition.  We should pray that God refreshes us to that we do not lose sight of our own salvation and eternal life.  I can think of nothing more important for peace than knowing our life is eternal.  To know our life is eternal is the ultimate answer to all our prayers.  For in eternal life, we know that enemies of God, who are enemies of us as well, are destined to fail.  For we know, that with eternal life good will triumph, love will prevail, and death will be swallowed up.

          Prayer can be hard for us to understand but that should not keep us from praying.  We need to pray and feel God’s peace.  We need to pray and let God decide the best answers.  We need to pray for righteousness for ourselves.  We need to pray for the spirit of love that we can love one another.  We need to pray for the ultimate victory in Christ through eternal life.  In prayer, we will have peace.  Let us pray now.


03-06 - What is Prayer

          This past week, I had a chance to complete some work on a project that I have entitled, “A 40 Day Journey of Discovering Inner Peace.”  It is my attempt to create a 6-week experience for people desiring inner peace.  I will be providing information and invitations to join this experience next week. I hope that we can start the 6-week journey beginning April 26. 

My approach in creating this experience is not novel or innovative.  It is Biblical.  The Biblical development of a life of inner peace focuses on doing those things that build our spiritual life.  The goal of our spiritual life is to become spiritual mature.  The goal of spiritual maturity is not my idea.  That comes from the Bible as well.  The Apostle Paul expressed the idea of spiritual maturity leading to inner peace this way, “11 Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).  Paul said God’s desire is that we work together to attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  Paul meant most simply that God’s desire is that we would become fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.

Paul observed that if we reach for the goal of being fully alive, fully like Christ, “14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).  Being fully alive in Christ removes the anxiousness of the world and replaces that anxiousness with a profound inner peace.  To have inner peace is a gift from God.

One of the key disciplines in becoming fully alive, fully like Christ is prayer.  And so, I would like us to take a couple of weeks to talk about prayer.  I would like us to come through a conversation about “What is prayer?”  and “What is prayer for?” 

Now, prayer is something that most of us became acquainted with as children.  I can recall as a child being faithful in saying the same prayer every night before going to bed.  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my Soul to keep; If I should die before I 'wake, I pray the Lord my Soul to take. Amen.”  I grew up in New England where apparently scaring kids into believing they might not make it through the night was considered good parenting.  The softer version of that prayer goes something like this, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, thy angels watch me through the night, and keep me safe till morning's light.  Amen.”

Praying as a child, with whatever words were used, was and is an important spiritual exercise, much like learning to crawl is an important exercise to our physical development.  Learning to pray at a young age helps us understand the idea that God is available to us and that in God there is comfort.  As we physically develop, we do not want to forget how to crawl, but we want to mature and be able to walk and run.  So, too it should be in our spiritual life.  We remember the important lessons of our childhood prayers and develop into greater spiritual maturity as we come to understand what it means to walk this life like Jesus.

Jesus’ disciples wanted to know how to pray more fully and completely like Jesus.  Jesus’ disciples saw something in Jesus’ life that was remarkably different, and they correctly attributed part of that difference came from Jesus’ prayer life.

          We read earlier today that Jesus told his disciples, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

          Jesus’ teaching on prayer began by correcting practices with which His disciples would have been familiar.  The disciples saw the Pharisees pray and the people, likely including Jesus’ disciples, saw the Pharisees as properly religious.  But Jesus’ words point to a problem with the behavior of the Pharisees. At certain times of the day, all activities in Jerusalem would stop, and people prayed wherever they happened to be at that moment.  Jesus’ words suggest that the Pharisees managed to time their daily activities to be in the public square at the time of prayer.  The prayers of the Pharisees then were more of a show for others and not borne from spiritual maturity.  Jesus was making the point that our motivation for praying, our goal in praying, matters.

          Secondly, Jesus said that repeating the same words over and over in prayer becomes babble.  I remember growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition and going to confession with my classmates.  We would go into the confessional and in the private and darkness of that confined space, tell the priest what we had done wrong.  The priest would then tell us to pray a set number of “Our Fathers” and some many “Hail Mary’s.”  We would then exit the confessional, take a place in the pew of the church, and see how fast we could recite the words of those prayers.  We all seemed to be able to repeat the required number of prayers and leave in under 60 seconds.  We were babbling and our prayers really meant nothing.

          Having corrected the view of what the disciples may have witnessed, Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 5:9-13).

           Jesus’ prayer was a model of how we should pray.  Since Jesus was the most spiritual mature person ever, we might ask, “What then is prayer?” and “What is prayer for?” 

We get some insight into the intent of a spiritual mature prayer in the opening line.  Jesus began with a petition to God.  “Hallowed be your name.”  Jesus was acknowledging that God’s name must be hallowed.  The word hallowed means to separate from something from that which is profane, irreverent, disrespectful, or secular.  Jesus began the prayer both acknowledging that God’s name must stand separate to be holy and asking God to make God’s name separate and pure.

          Jesus’ disciples might have recognized the concept of God making his name hallowed through the words of the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel.  In Chapter 36 of Ezekiel, God said, “22 “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name [I will hallow My name], which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy [I will hallow My name] through you before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:22-23).

          Jesus began his prayer, the model of our prayer, by acknowledging and asking God to show how God’s name is separate, holy, and apart from everything else. The name of God here meaning everything God stands for and is about is holy and hallowed.  When we pray maturely, we begin by asking God to make his presence in this world felt and to bring us with him, planting our feet on higher ground.

          Jesus then said, pray “thy kingdom come.”  This is another petition, a request of God.  Lord, come and make your kingdom, the one in which you directly rule over the lands, a reality in my lifetime.  That is what Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray would happen. Jesus petitioned God further and said God let “your will be done on earth as your will is done in heaven.” In heaven, God’s will is a joy for all to follow.  Following God’s will leads to worship and peace.  Jesus was telling his disciples, petition God, ask him to make that sort of kingdom happen on earth just like it is happening today in heaven.  The psalmist expressed that sort of living this way, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  When we pray maturely, we ask God to bring that kingdom of joy, peace, and unity found in heaven to earth - now.

          Jesus’ petitions to God were occupying that higher ground and yet Jesus knew that until God acted on those petitions, we have smaller needs as well.  Jesus said, pray this way, “11 Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 5:11). Lord, give us what we need to sustain ourselves in the present while we await your kingdom and your will to be done on earth.  Make provision for us God so that in our maturing in faith and spirit our bodies will remain healthy.  Let your provision for us God be evidence that your name is to be hallowed by all. It is alright to pray for sufficient provision for the body.

          Jesus then told his disciples to pray for provision for their soul.  Jesus said, God, “12 And forgive us our debts,” forgive our sins that drain our souls of life.  But we are not to ask for forgiveness shallowly or without regard to our own behavior.  So Jesus said ask for forgiven because you “have already forgiven your debtors, those who have sinned against you.”  This is the prayer of the spiritually mature.  Jesus noted this point in verses 14-15, “14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).  God’s name is not hallowed if he forgives us without repentance or if we withhold forgiveness from another.  We must forgive so that our prayers mean something.  We want our prayers to hallow God’s name and not make God’s name or grace seem hollow.

          Finally, Jesus said, “13 And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).  This is a petition, a request of God, that we stay close to him so that we, on our own, do not falter by the temptations that are before us.  Please Lord, don’t let me stumble.

          Jesus’ model prayer is a communication between those who believe in God and God himself in which the believer asks.  The believer asks God for things big and small but always for the purpose of making God’s name holy in this world.  We know the latter to be true.  We find Jesus again speaking of prayer to his disciples.  Jesus was soon to be arrested and crucified.  Jesus told his disciples, “13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).  Jesus, though he would be separated from his disciples, continued to remind them that to ask, to pray, was to seek glory for God.  The product of every answered prayer is that God is glorified.  When we pray for healing and healing comes, God is glorified.  When we pray for provision and we receive, God’s name is hallowed.  When we pray for calmness, and we receive, God’s name is to be seen as holy.

          Why and how do we know such a connection between us and God exists that our prayers mean something and are heard?  Jesus showed us that connection at the Passover meal.  Jesus said, “26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28). Jesus was creating a life sustaining bond between the believer and God using his body and his blood as a seal of the covenant between the us and God.  The believer was free to petition God and bring glory to the name of God.

Participating in the Lord’s Prayer and Lord’s Supper hallows the name of God by making God evident in the world.  Participating in the Lord’s Prayer and Lord’s Supper develops us within and without, becoming more fully alive like Christ. Participating in the Lord’s Prayer and Lord’s Supper brings us a profound sense of inner peace.

Come, let’s pray and come to the table of peace. 

02-20 - The Very Words of Jesus

          The last couple of weeks we used a Greek word, koinonia, to describe the intimate sharing of your lives with Jesus Christ and with each other.

Today, I would like us to look at a Latin expression to focus our thoughts on Jesus as the center of our koinonia, fellowship, with God.  The Latin expression is ipsissima verba.  Even if you are not familiar with phrase in Latin, I am certain everyone is familiar with what the meaning of the phrase.  Ipsissima verba, translates into English as “the very words.” Ipsissima verba then refers to the exact wording of a conversation.  Every so often, when my children were young, I found myself speaking ipsissima verb, when I would say, “Because I said so!”  Those were the very words my father spoke to me years earlier.

Today, I would like us to spend some time today with the ipsissima verba of Jesus Christ as he taught his disciples.  Sometimes when reading the Bible, I catch myself not giving due reverence for Jesus’ words.  I take for granted that we have Jesus’ words and I forget that these words are words of the Son of God.  I forget how blessed we are to have books that we can read or listen to and draw in what God sent His Son to share with us.  The words of Jesus were not preserved so that Jesus could become a subject to be studied.  Instead, Jesus’ words have been preserved that we could become united with God and one another here on earth in the here and now and for all eternity.  Ipsissima verba, the very words, of Christ are life giving.

As we come to look at Jesus’ words today, we will gather them in from the Gospel of Matthew primarily from what Matthew recorded in Chapter 5 through 7 of his Gospel account.  We now call those chapters the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is about 2,000 words, which is a little shorter than our weekly sermons.  Up until the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ only recorded sermon in the Gospel of Matthew was nine words long, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  In those nine words of Jesus, only one word was an action word for the hearer.  Jesus’ word of action was “Repent.”  Oh, how people mock that word in the modern world.  Repent today carries a sense of judgment and condemnation.  Jesus’ word, “Repent,” has been used by many as a weapon to verbally assault those perceived as sinners before an angry God.

What was and is the reality of Jesus’ word, ‘Repent?”  As Jesus used the word, “Repent,’ it meant “change your mind for the better.”  When people first heard Jesus say, “Repent,” they might have been tempted to ask, “Change my mind for the better you say?  What is the better thing than what I am doing?” Jesus gave them the answer, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’”  Jesus’ first sermon of just nine words consisted of a one-word call for action and eight words giving the reason to answer that call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

The very words of Jesus were not to condemn those hearing the words.  The very words of Jesus were intended to help bring them into the kingdom. The implication of Jesus’ call was that those hearing his words were close to the kingdom of God but at great risk of walking right past the gate leading to that kingdom they so desired. 

Let’s look at why Jesus understood those hearing his words were at risk.  The ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, to those who would listen were these, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus’ call to the people to change their thinking makes sense.  Jesus was saying that those hearing his words needed to change their thinking because they were about to walk past the narrow gate that leads to life.  Jesus was saying to those hearing his words, that they, with the encouragement of others, had helped them find the wide gate and broad road, but that road is going nowhere good for them.  Jesus was saying to his listeners they needed to change roads.  Repent, change your thinking, get off the road that you are on and enter through that small gate to that narrow road that leads to life.

These 43 words of Jesus, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14), came the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  And much of what Jesus had to say in that sermon was drawing out in that sermon was the difference between being on the broad road on being on the narrow road.

The broad road had rules and laws to follow.  The people Jesus spoke with understood rules.  We understand the concept of “rules of the road” as well.  We know in the United States, you drive on the righthand side of the road, you signal your intentions, you maintain a safe distance, etc.  We follow the rules of the road whether operating a vehicle on the roadway or a shopping cart in the supermarket.  We share an understanding with Jesus’ first listeners that the road has rules that are for the good of those traveling that road.  But here is the thing to keep in mind, as good as people thought the broad road was with its rules was, Jesus very words said to his listeners that the broad road did not lead to life but to destruction. There was instead a better path to follow.

Let’s look at a bit of the ipsissima verba of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount calling people to life on the narrow road, that better path.

Jesus said, 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’” (Matthew 5:21). Jesus was acknowledging what people knew and had been told.  The rules of the broad road said, “You shall not murder.”  People thought, if I have not plunged a knife into someone else on the broad road, I have met the rules of the road and I stand good and proper before my fellow travelers and most importantly, before God.

And with that thought, we remember Jesus’ first sermon with its action word, “Repent,” have a change of mind.  Jesus acknowledged his followers mindset about murder as they traveled the road and called for a change of heart saying, “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).  The narrow road to life, the kingdom of heaven, was different.  The road to life was not about right rules, it was about righteousness.  The narrow road, the pathway to God, requires a heart that foregoes choosing anger and malice toward others.  Instead, of choosing anger, in righteousness choose reconciliation.  Instead of choosing malice, in righteousness choose peace.  In ipsissima verba, in the very words, of Jesus, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (Matthew 5:25a).  To hear Jesus words and act in accordance with them is to follow the narrow road of righteousness for the kingdom of God is righteousness.  It is a road that is about turning your back on anger, offense, malice, and murder so that you can pursue reconciliation and peace.

Repent, have that change in mind, that the kingdom of heaven is near and it is found by the small gate leading to the narrow road. Do you get the sense of the change Jesus was saying was required of those seeking God?  For on the wide gate and broad road to destruction and narrow the road to God.  Jesus then gave another example of the differences between the roads.  Jesus said, “27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”  Again, the rule of the road on the broad road was stated.  People knew the rule that they must not break their vow to their spouse and have sexual relations with another person.”  On the narrow road of righteousness, Jesus said, “28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).  In righteousness, we honor the institution of marriage created by God and our own marriages when we are fully faithful.  That means we are faithful in thought, faithful in speech, and faithful in action. Living righteously is a response of our entire being to live faithfully to God’s words for in that faithful living we have life.

Let’s look at one final ipsissima verba example.  Jesus said, “33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King” (Matthew 5:33-35).

Jesus again approached setting the healthy conditions of righteousness.  “Again, you have heard that…”  Jesus was making clear he knew what his disciples had been taught about oaths. He was aware that people then (and people today) take oaths of honesty.  Oaths are elaborate and seek to establish an understanding from the oath taker of the importance of speaking truthfully.  There was an is often associated with an oath a penalty for failing to speak truthfully.  Oaths seek to establish that whatever is said from that point forward will be the truth.

          Jesus says though there is righteous way to life.  “34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34, 37).   Jesus was saying the mark of righteousness was not marked by being truthful only when you are under an oath.  Righteousness is present when you always speak the truth and that you speak that truth as simply as “Yes’ or “No.”  In righteousness, you do not try to equivocate or shade your reply.  Be as simple and as direct as possible.  For speech can become a source, a toehold, for the devil.  Do not allow more to come from you than ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’

Righteousness, walking the narrow road, then is living a life in which even the toeholds of sin are kept out of one’s life.  One commentary put the morality check people perform to assess what they are about to do by asking themselves one of three questions:

The morality of caution: “Can I get hurt?”  The approach is to use a personal cost-benefit analysis.  If there is a cost to me by what I am about to do that I know may not be right?  Can I take some actions to minimize my risks?  If I can keep from hurting myself, then I will do it.

The morality of concern: “Can I hurt others?”  This is a cost-benefit analysis that includes the other person.  I may conclude others will be hurt but then I am deciding for them what is hurt and how much can they handle for what I want.  If I can accept their hurt, then I will do what I am contemplating.

The morality of personal relationship: “Can this hurt our relationship?”  There is still some essence of a cost-benefit discussion where the person is considering the potential for pain in their life and the life of others but it is not righteousness.

For those on the narrow road, Jesus was saying the proper question to ask yourself is, “Is this a righteous thought and righteous speech and righteous action?  Will may thoughts, words, and actions preserve what God has created and bring reconciliation and peace to myself and others?”  When we can answer yes to those questions then we are on the right road, the narrow road to life.

The ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, again were these, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

We are all here today because we have expressed a desire to change our minds.  We know that the broad road at times is filled with anger, malice, untruthfulness, personal ambitions, and calculations about harmful behaviors.  We know that broad road is not the pathway to life. We know that intellectually, emotionally, intuitively, and spiritually.  We want to know where the small gate and narrow road is to walk with God. We do not want to guess at it.  We are all here today because each of us can say, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, repent, change your minds and follow me.” To follow Jesus on that narrow road to life, we must know the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus.

One time in Jesus’ ministry, a great many of his disciples left him never to return.  The very words of Jesus were challenging, and these followers decided the path on the broad road was easier even if it led to destruction.

When Jesus saw these people leave, Jesus turned to his apostles and asked, “67 ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’  68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67-69).

We are here today because we believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God come to speak words to us that bring us to enter the small gate and walk in righteousness upon the narrow road to life.  I want to encourage you to read the words of Jesus and be refreshed and emboldened for life. Amen and Amen.

02-13 - Fellowship with Each Other

          Last week we started a conversation about a concern coming to the Apostle Paul from the church that he planted in Corinth.  The concern was that the believers in that church were divided and not getting along. Paul concluded the primary source of their problem was a spiritual one.  Namely, that the members of that church had wavered in their fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and, as a result, the relationship between the believers faltered.

          Paul used a Greek word for fellowship.  He used koinonia, meaning a close sharing and caring relationship.  Paul encouraged the members of the church in Corinth to be united in fellowship with God because of the work done by Jesus Christ on the cross. 

Paul also encouraged the members of the church to remember Jesus through the sharing of the bread and cup of communion for communion is an intimate fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and is an ideal expression of fellowship between believers.  In communion, we see Christ in God and God in Christ.  In communion, we see Christ in us and us in Christ.  In communion, we see we are united one to the other through Christ.  Communion, the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, is a key moment of the Christian experience and gives us a visual expression of koinonia, an intimate fellowship and act of sharing between believers.

We need fellowship between believers.  We always have we always will need it.  It is with communion in mind that I want to share with you some words I wrote about eleven years ago about communion.  My wife found a copy of my remarks a few weeks ago and believe these words are still true today.  The day I shared them was June 11, 2011, to be precise.  The occasion was Sunday morning at the beginning of the worship service at the Latham church.  The prior Sunday we had celebrated the Lord’s Supper in worship as we had done so for many years.  Unbeknownst to the congregation, the individual who prepared the bread for the communion service was ill with a severe intestinal flu.  Much of the bread used in the communion had become contaminated with the virus.  The days following that Sunday most in the congregation became ill, some so seriously ill that they required hospitalization.  This is part of what I said that day:

“This last week many in the congregation experienced illness that source of which seems inescapably linked to last week's worship service. In some way an unseen virus entered our midst and infected the people we love.  Most people have recovered from the virus and have regained their physical strength.

While the virus was unpleasant it did last only a few days and we need to guard against future outbreaks. More importantly, however, we need to guard against an even more deadly unseen virus. That is the virus of fear. This is a virus that is brought to our minds by Satan himself. He wants us to be fearful of getting sick again. He wants us to be fearful of being in the presence of one another. He wants us to fear common meals and the joy of sharing the Lord's Supper. Satan would use this virus to accomplish his goals and keep us apart. He would use the virus of fear to try and stop our efforts to reach out to the community.   

The antidote to the virus of fear also cannot be seen but it is far stronger than fear. It is faith. Faith itself cannot be seen, weighed, or directly measured. But it can become manifest when we trust in God. For when we trust in God, we are fearless. We know there are illnesses in the world, but we are not persuaded by the fear they can create because our faith overpowers that fear.  So today we move forward unwilling to give one inch of ground to the enemy of God.  We will celebrate the advancement of this congregation in knowledge, holiness, and compassion.”

          We did battle with a virus eleven years ago and we have been doing battle for two years with another virus for these past 2 years.  Both viruses are serious, but neither is as near as deadly than virus of fear and anxiousness among those who believe in Christ.

          Our New Testament reading today, from the Book of Acts, gave us a glimpse into the overpowering strength of Christians to combat fear and replace it with fellowship.  Luke wrote, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

          The early church had reason to fear.  Their leader, Jesus, had been crucified.  Yes, he had been raised from the dead but there was reason to fear similar treatment for his followers.  The Apostles, Peter and John, had been arrested.  We would read in Chapter 4 of the Book of Acts that, “1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day” (Acts 4:1-3). Sadly, being arrested for leading a worship service is not just something from the past.   Arrests still happen, even in Canada, where pastors were arrested for offering in-person worship services for their congregations.

          At this same time, the early church was getting formed, there was a man named Saul who was inciting people to persecute the followers of Jesus.  Saul’s behavior led to the death by stoning of a follower of Jesus named Stephen.

          The followers of Jesus had good reason to be fearful of gathering and being known as Christians and yet that fear was overpowered by a behavior known as koinonia, fellowship.  We need to let that sink in for a moment.  So great was the love these first Christians had for God that they could only make that love make sense on earth by expressing love toward other believers.  Luke said, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship [koinonia]” (Acts 2:42).  Despite the fear, the earliest Christians gathered in devotion toward God and each other.  The gathering of Christians from the church of Jerusalem was not some occasional event by a few of the leaders or those who were thought to be in a pastoral role. Luke used words such as, “Everyone,” “All the believers,” “Anyone,” and “Every day,” to describe the scope and frequency of these gatherings.  Faith was overpowering fear and anxiousness.  Faith in Christ was drawing people together as though there was an irresistible attraction. Luke used words such as “common,” and “together,” to express the unity that came when they placed faith in Christ and not fear in what might be or may be the response from those who were opposed to Christ.

          What did these early Christians do when they were together?  How did koinonia express itself by their conduct?  Luke used the words that these early Christians listened to “apostles’ teachings,” “broke bread,” “sold possessions,” “gave to those in need,” and they “praised God.”  Fellowship was not just a single act; it was an entire lifestyle of actions. Fellowship was not simply exchanging Sunday morning pleasantries.  Fellowship was fearlessly spending every day working to find ways to connect with other Christians for any form of encouraging, grace filled, and uplifting behavior.

          What was the resulting feeling that the early Christians received from devoting themselves to koinonia?  Luke used such words as, “awe,” “glad hearts,” “sincere hearts,” and “joy.”  These words were all positive and encouraging words that expressed a lightness far removed from fear and disagreements.  Koinonia, is a spiritual gift from God, given to the followers of Jesus Christ.

          When we start talking about spiritual gifts some people start tuning out because too often the conversation about spiritual matters gets so vague or so weird that people are not sure what anyone means anymore. Recognizing the risk of us not understanding spiritual gifts, I want to offer a simple clarifying illustration using a natural gift that we do understand.  Several years ago, a friend gave Becky and me a gift of five of his paintings.  He was an accomplished artist and so we were happy to have those paintings and hang them on the walls of our house.  If you know me well, you would know how much I dislike putting nail holes in the walls of my house.  So, putting five holes meant I really liked these paintings.  But these gifts, as beautiful as they are, do not do anything. They are passive.  The do not generate any pleasure on their own because they just hang on the walls.  Becky, I, or someone else must look at the paintings before the value of those gifts can be received as we enjoy them.  If these painting given to us as a gift were instead packed away in our basement where no one would look at them, then the gift would have no value.

          Spiritual gifts follow a similar pattern in life. If we are given a spiritual gift, its value is not realized until it is put to use.  If we receive a spiritual gift and simple bury it by never using it, then we take the value out of the gift.  A spiritual gift, like a natural gift, must be exercised or used as intended for its value and usefulness to be received.

          God gave Christians the spiritual gift of fellowship [koinonia], an active sharing of life, with him through Jesus Christ. We must actively receive Jesus for God’s gift to be realized.  Otherwise, God’s gift will mean nothing to us, and our lives are unchanged.

          Once we receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are enabled with the spiritual gift of koinonia, fellowship, only this time for living life with other believers.  But here again, we must actively and deliberately use that gift with other believers for the gift to be realized.  Fellowship is not a spectators’ sport.  We must use the gift.  Fellowship requires that we be actively engaged with one another in specific activities in order to reap the many benefits God intends.  What are those activities that enable the spiritual gift of fellowship?  Luke mentioned five enabling activities.

  • First is membership.  Fellowship is for people who have become members of the church.  Fellowship is a blessing for those who gather in the name of Christ. Fellowship is a Christian-to-Christian experience and is there for members of the Church to receive.
  • Second is actively participating together in the development of our spiritual character. The early Christians “42a devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” and “47 praising God.”  We enable the spiritual gift of fellowship when we begin our time together seeking God’s presence and end it with praising him for our time together. If God is not involved in what we do, then it is not fellowship.
  • Third is engaging everyone in fellowship; not just a few.  I am not sure how many people recognize the unusual blessing God has given this church.  This church is blessed to have six generations in its membership.  From youngest to the most senior among us we have the Gen Alpha, iGen or Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.  We are blessed with the vibrancy and playfulness of youth, the idealism of emerging adults, the steadiness of those experienced in life, and wisdom only possible through years of living.  Most churches may only have two or three generations of people, we are blessed with six and can enjoy the fullness that God intends for us.
  • Fourth is engaging in breaking the bread, a phrase carrying the double meaning of participating in the Lord’s Supper as well as enjoying a good meal together. Enjoying either meal is a time of recognizing we are alike.  We all have the need to be refreshed with nourishment for our bodies and for our souls. A good meal brings about laughter and conversation and tears down the walls of misunderstanding.
  • Fifth is caring for the physical needs of others in the fellowship.  The early Christians sold property and their homes to provide comfort to each other.  The principle in play was the more we care for our own, the more credible our testimony becomes to others about our faith in Jesus and the love of God for all.

These five activities marked the early church and gave definition to the word koinonia. These activities led to a people who were joyful, glad in heart, sincere in heart, and in awe of what God did and was doing.  We too have such fellowship and joy.  Our pathway to enjoy even greater fellowship is to pursue our fellowship with God to the utmost with love and devotion.  For wherever love abounds and the virus of fear cannot stay.

I am glad you are here today that we may be in fellowship with each other.  Let us all be devoted to God through Jesus Christ and to one another that we can enjoy the spiritual blessing of fellowship reserved by God for us.  Let us pray.

02-06 - Fellowship with God

          Despite what some on social media may say or what the news may suggest, we live in marvelous age that people of the past could only but imagine. 

From a purely material perspective, we have adequate shelter against the elements.  We have an abundance of food and water.  We have things which transport us, services that care for us, and things that entertain us.

          From the intellectual perspective, we have schools, colleges, universities, and online institutions all complete with literally millions of books and articles.

          From the spiritual perspective, we have a buffet of belief systems ranging from religions, crystals, stars, books, and self-help philosophies with which we can safely choose.

          Yet, despite our abundance of things, knowledge, and spiritual offerings many people are dissatisfied with life.  Instead of fulfillment, there is loneliness.  Instead of peace, there is distress.  Instead of calm assurance about the future, there is timidity and anxiousness in this life and about the next.

          The anxiousness and lack of peace is translating into more aggressive behavior not just among adults but among our children.  A teacher in a local high school shared with me some observations about the aggressive behavior of children.  The teacher shared that the number of fights per day in the school is much higher this year than ever before.  The principals and teachers believe that the children are bringing the stress of our new COVID home and social lifestyles into the schools where it is then offloaded.

          We now live in an age of outrage.  The outrage on nearly every topic has begun to shift the central focus of lives from what we hold in common to what we hold in our differences.  How we differ is becoming more important than how we are similar.

          What is the antidote for this growing separation?  I would like to suggest the antidote is found in a change of heart expressed by the ancient Greeks in a single word, koinonia.

          Koinonia is defined simply as fellowship.  It is the close association between persons, emphasizing what is common between them and by extension, participation, and sharing, contributing, and gifting in one another as an outcome of such close relationship.  The word koinonia in its various forms is used over 40 times in the New Testament.  I would like us to take some time over the next couple of weeks to come to know what the Bible intends for us to understand about fellowship.

          We begin today with the perhaps the highest order of koinonia, fellowship, expressed in our Scripture reading by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth.  Paul had established the church of Corinth on his second missionary trip.  Corinth was generally a wealthy city with a melting pot of cultures, philosophies, lifestyles, and religious beliefs.  I offer that description not just for the historical setting of Paul’s words but to see that our society differs from Corinth perhaps only in scale.  Paul was now away from the Corinth on his third missionary trip when unsettling news reached Paul.  The people of the Corinth church were beginning to separate and divide into different camps and groupings.

          Let’s look at Paul’s opening words from his first letter to the Corinthians.  “I always thank my God for you [the followers of Jesus in Corinth] because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He [God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).

          Let’ start with Paul’s last word here.  “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  Paul made clear to the Corinthians that God acted on their behalf.  How so?  God was the one who called each member of the church to come into fellowship, koinonia, with his Son, Jesus.  Humanity’s embrace of God begins when they accept fellowship, that close association and sharing, with Jesus.

          Jesus was and is essential for the relationship with God.  Why is that so?  God is holy. God is without sin.  God is divine.  We are not holy.  We do sin. We are human.  Jesus is holy.  Jesus is without sin.  Jesus is divine and human.  Jesus who is one sent by God to serve as a bridge between God and us, between the holy and the sinner, the divine and the human.  Through Jesus we can receive from God and be forgiven our sins and brought into holiness.  Jesus explained the relationship between sinner and God this way, “22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23).

Sometimes the Bible can be a little hard to follow because of its reliance on pronouns.  If we added a few names and more descriptive words to what Jesus said and reduce a the number of times you, we, and they were used, Jesus words, actually a prayer, might sound more like, “22 I, Jesus, have given those who fellowship with me the glory that you, God, gave me, that my friends may be one with me as God and I are one— 23 I in fellowship with my followers and God in me —so that my followers may be brought to complete unity with God, Me, and each other” (John 17:22-23).

The unity of God, Jesus, and the believer is the central theme of the gospel.  This unity, this sharing and close association, is the highest form of koinonia, fellowship.  Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians was that “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  It did not matter what the person’s standing was in life, the common action was God calling and each member responding to a fellowship with Jesus. Paul would later write, “28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Fellowship with God and Jesus meant fellowship with each other regardless of any other social, racial, economic, political, or I suppose we could add today, vaccination status, that humanity wanted to construct.  The divine-human fellowship was and still is the vision of satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, and assurance.  God knows humanity desperately needs fellowship with him and each other. 

          But there was a problem in Corinth.  Paul wrote, “11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11).  There was a problem with the fellowship between believers in Jesus Christ.  The koinonia, the fellowship between believers, perhaps the second highest level of fellowship, was fractured among the believers in Corinth.  Those in the church of Corinth, instead of enjoying satisfaction, fulfillment, peace, and assurance were beset with dissatisfaction, loneliness, distress, and anxiousness.

          Paul concluded that a breakdown in fellowship between believers was not caused by some personality differences among a few people but was caused by a spiritual issue.  Meaning, the breakdown between people was a symptom of a breakdown in the highest order of fellowship, koinonia, with the person of Jesus Christ.

          Paul said, “10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul”; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas (or Peter)’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’  13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?’” (1 Corinthians 1:10, 12-13).

Paul was bluntly reminding the Corinthians that the unity that had, the peace they enjoyed, came through Christ alone.  It was God working through Jesus that brought each member of the Church into unity with God and because God did that for each person, each person was brought into unity with each other.  The Corinthians had taken their eyes off the person, the work, and fellowship with Jesus Christ.  As a result, their unity with each other began to fall apart.  Personal preferences or personal backgrounds which had been given over to the unity with Christ began to reemerge and those differences came to be seen as important.  The loss of focus polarized the church.  The koinonia, the fellowship with Jesus had weakened and as a result the fellowship between members of the church was in tatters.

          Paul’s words reveal to us that koinonia, is a spiritual partnership or fellowship of believers.  It is not to be something loose or at arm’s length. This fellowship involves is an active engagement with God and other believers.  It is much more than mere attendance at church meetings or for church suppers.   If we truly recognize the value that God Himself has placed on this partnership with Him through Christ, then our response should be shown in the sincerity of our love for the Lord and each other.

          What was Paul’s remedy for this situation?  Paul concluded the folks at Corinth needed to reconnect with the power and unity of Christ. Paul wrote, “17 Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).

          Paul reminding people of the basic truths of their faith.  The cross, both awful and wonderful, both to be feared and to be loved, was man at his worst and God at his best.  It was through the cross that koinonia, fellowship between the Holy God and the sinner was possible.  For God sees the sinner through the cleansing power of the cross. Jesus on the cross took the sins of those of the Corinthian church and in exchange, Jesus gave those same members his own record of sinlessness.  Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the sins of those in the Corinth church.  We might visualize this form of koinonia as the vertical post of the cross, connecting God and humanity.  Because the relationship with God was right, the relationship with other believers could be made right.  We might visualize this form of koinonia in the horizontal beam of the cross.  Paul wanted the people to remember the truth that the power of the cross brought about fellowship with God and each other.

But Paul was not done with reminders of koinonia.  Paul continued later in his letter that the fellowship with Jesus could be experienced over and again.  Paul said, “16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?  17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

          Paul was reminding the Corinthians that fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and each other, could be experienced with the full senses every time they took of the bread and cup.

          Paul’s words about koinonia apply to us as well.  If we want to experience satisfaction and fulfillment in our lives, we must ensure our fellowship with Jesus is firm.  We should contemplate that the cross is not a piece of jewelry or a decorative ornament.  The cross is how we have been saved.  The cross is how we have a sinless record before God.  The cross is how we have fellowship with God through Jesus.  We can see that every time we look at the cross.

Likewise, if we want to experience peace and assurance in our lives, we can come to the Lord’s table and take the bit of bread.  We can experience the bread with our senses and be reminded that it is Jesus feeds us and strengths us.  We can also take the cup and experience Jesus as he changes us, renews us, and refreshes us.

          Let us enjoy today koinonia as we come to prepare ourselves to renew our close association with Jesus and each other at the table he has prepared for us. Amen and Amen.

01-30 - Glorify God

          A man was nearing the end of a long and eventful week.  He was tired but there was so much more to be done.  His week had started with such joy and celebration.  Singing had filled the air around him.  The man and his closest friends had gathered for dinner.  As they ate dinner that evening, the man told his friends that he was going to die – and very soon.  His friends were in shock.  The man’s friends wondered why he would say that he was going to die and how did he know? 

          The man continued and said, “God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.”  (John 13:32) The man of course was Jesus Christ.  The friends he surrounded himself with were Eleven of his Twelve disciples, the Twelfth disciple, Judas, had left to betray Jesus.  The meal they shared was the Passover Seder.  It was meant to be a time of joy and celebration, retelling the story of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. The story retold during the meal hinted at the hope that God would send the Messiah.  It was the Messiah that was addressing this small group.  Jesus knew within the next few hours he would be arrested, tried, sentenced, crucified, he would die, and he would be buried.  The words he spoke to his disciples would be critical to survival of their faith in the face of what by all appearances would be a defeat of everything Jesus had done.  The words that Jesus spoke are words that we need to hear in this world that is so much opposed to the message of the gospel.

          Jesus’ words to his disciples, his friends, were difficult to hear.  Jesus had shared with them his inner most thoughts about what lay ahead for him.  Jesus said, “27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28).  Jesus was troubled by the pending cruelty of the cross.  Jesus was distressed that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny him, and all other disciples would desert him at the moment of his arrest.  Despite all that disappointment and pain, Jesus asked a question that may be on the minds of his disciples, “Shall I pray to God to spare me all of that agony?” Jesus said he would not do so.  Jesus made it clear that he came to earth for this purpose, to voluntarily give up his life, as an atonement for the sins of man, including those of you and me.  Jesus’ prayer then would not for his own release from pain but a prayer that he would remain faithful to God’s purposes and to bring glorify his Father’s name.

Instead of walking away from the coming storm and agony Jesus walked right into it.  Jesus submitted himself to God and now he was glorified because of it and so too was God. Jesus was affirming that his nature and that of God’s are one.  God and Jesus are separate beings with separate wills and yet Jesus’ thoughts, words, and actions exactly express those of his Father.  In doing what God wanted, Jesus glorified the Father.

What does that phrase, “The Father is glorified” mean?  John here is using a Greek word for glorify that means that these actions reflect very great honor onto God because they reveal his intimate and intrinsic nature.  The greatness of God, the magnificence of God, is manifest, that is made visible to all who can see, and they are perfect.  Nothing can be added, and nothing can be taken away.  Jesus was saying that through his decision to voluntarily give his life as an atonement, God will be honored because God would accomplish a great act through Jesus obedient death.  The act we now call atonement. 

Atonement is the act of bringing reconciling sinners with a Holy God. Atonement is the single act that brings us into the presence of the one true holy God through the love sacrifice of Jesus, his Son.  Atonement is a word allows, “At-one-ment”, unity with the Father.  God took the initiative to bring us to him but not that he needs us.  God took the initiative to bring us to him because we need Him.  It cost God the life of his Son to do that.  We cannot imagine doing what God did and so we find it difficult to understand why God atoned for our sins and in this way. It’s okay, we do not have to understand God’s ways, but we should respect and honor his ways.  We should praise God for His work through Jesus on our behalf.  When we do, we glorify God’s name.

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he was called to glorify God and God would glorify him.  Jesus, having told his disciples what was to become of him, taught his intimate friends that they must love one another as he has loved them.  He called on them to follow in his pathways for he is the truth, the life, and way.  He promised them a comforter and helper, the Holy Spirit, to remind them of his commands to them.  He encouraged to see themselves as connected to himself as though they were branches to the vine.  He urged them to do as he has done so that they may remain in him and he in them. And he told them that when they did the things that he asked them to do, the world would hate them for it, but that they should recognize that the true hated of the world was not directed at them but focused on Jesus and God who sent him.  We should not forget that point as we share the Gospel.  Jesus told them to do those things they had seen him do for others.  Perhaps we could see his teaching as an instruction in WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do.”

          Having shared his inner most thoughts with his friends, Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).  Jesus was asking God to strengthen his will and spirit to remain perfectly aligned to God’s will that through his ordeal of arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial Jesus would show the inherent qualities and character of holiness.  Jesus wanted God to become visible through those events but not for the sake of glorifying himself but that people would glorify God.

How then was Jesus to accomplish this mission of glorifying God, let’s look at verses 2 and 3. “For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:2-3). The first thing these verses tells us is that God gave Jesus authority over all the people of the world. 

There is no one who shall not be present themselves to Christ.  Paul tells us, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-10). All will bow to the authority of Jesus. 

The second point brought out in this Scripture was that Jesus can give eternal life to each person.  Eternal life is available for each of us but to receive it requires submission to Christ.  For those who believe in Jesus as the son of God, and their Lord and Savior, the man who died for them, comes the joy of knowing the true God now and for all eternity. Whether we accept what Jesus did for us or reject the thought he did so, we are told that each person will bow before Jesus.  Some will bow before him as see him as they have known him, Savior and Lord.  Others will bow before him and see him as their eternal Judge. 

Jesus finished this part of his prayer by again reflecting on the glory of God.  He says in verses 4 and 5, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:4-5). Jesus' mission on earth was accomplished by showing the very nature of God and now Jesus earnestly sought to return to the Father and to the glory he had before the world even began.

How do we apply this text to our lives?  What can we gain out of it to live our life in the here and now?  There are two things that we should discuss.  The first is that Jesus came to bring us eternal life.  We are different from God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom has always existed, even before the world.  We, however, were born into this world.  We have a beginning to our life.  Jesus did not come to change the way we started, but he did come to change the way we are to live.  He came to reveal God to us, to have us know God and to call us into a relationship with God.  The knowledge of God here is not some abstract knowledge but one of joy!  I know God!  Therefore, I have peace in my life.  The relationship requires that we gladly accept his love and his intimate fellowship. When we accept Christ, it is just a beginning.  It is a very important new beginning, which Jesus describes as a new birth.  We are born into a new life that is different from the one we were living.   Our lives from that moment are free and eternal. 

This brings us to the second point of the text. If we are free and we are saved and we are eternal and Christ is in us and we are in Christ, what is our mission in life to be?  What is the overarching way to our life?  Perhaps it is to live our life by the wristband, WWJD.  It is a good place for new Christians to start but there may be something deeper than that.  Everything that Jesus thought, said, and did was to bring glory to God.  Perhaps then, our text is telling us that we should live our lives as through we were wearing a wristband with the letters, WIGG – “Will It Glorify God?”  We could look at those letters, WIGG, and assess our thoughts, our words, and our actions.  Will what I am thinking, saying, or doing glorify God?  It is a question that can stop us in our tracks.  Will it glorify God when I speak harshly to another person, particularly if they are a fellow believer?  No. For the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8).  Will it glorify God if I hold onto past hurts so that that I can retell them to others?  No.  For after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10). Will it glorify God imagine or chose to believe ill of another?  No. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.  (Psalm 37:30-31) Will it glorify God when I complain that I last while others are first?  No. For the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16).  For these situations, the answers are easy.  We cannot glorify God when we act like the world. 

This may be why the world has such a dislike for Christianity.  We invite people to come and know Christ, be saved, and live at peace with one another in love and yet we ourselves do not live in that manner.  So what are we to do?  Deep down, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I living a life that glorifies God?” Wherever we are not, there is sin that we must have cleansed from our lives.  John tells us in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Wherever sin is present, glorification of God cannot occur.  We can start this instant and ask God to cleanse of that sin and live freed to live our life to the glory of God.  The apostle Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  WIGG - “Will it glorify God?”  If our actions will Glorify God, reveal God in us, then we should think it, speak it, and do it.  If not, then we should cast it aside.  Now that is WJD, “What Jesus Did!”  Let’s glorify God today.  Amen and Amen.