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05-30 - Spiritual Empowerment

          The Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, once observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  This is a profoundly simple message.  The only way for us to make sense of the world and our place in it, is if we reflect upon the past. How we got to where we are today depends entirely on the past, that which has been lived.  However, life cannot go forward if we are constantly dwelling over things of a past that is no longer subject to our power.  So, Kierkegaard urges us to keep living for the future; after all, if we do not live forwards, we will have nothing to understand backwards.

          Looking backwards and living forwards is an important concept.  Recently, I looked back at one small reminder of my past.  It was my high school yearbook.  In our senior year of high school, we were asked to put down the dreams, goals, or ambitions of our future lives.   My life today bears little resemblance to what I had imagined it would be looking forward as an 18-year-old.  However, as I now look back on the arc, images, and experiences of my life, I understand from my past the contours of my life today.

          I think our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the moments Jesus’ apostles experienced as they walked forward with Jesus that they did not understood until they looked backwards. There would be many such moments with Jesus.  Jesus’ disciples certainly could not make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion until they looked back upon the cross from the day of Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb.

          Looking backwards to understand our life and then living forward with the confidence and faith is unique to humans.  One dog may learn many tricks, but that same dog cannot pass along its experience, wisdom, and knowledge to another dog not yet born.  We, on the other hand, have the capacity to learn from people separated from us by language, culture, and time.  We are so able because we were all created in the image of God who transcends all boundaries and limitations.

          Our Scripture passage today, transcends all limitations and is as much of the past of Jesus’ disciples as it is of our own past. What did Jesus share that day that was so important to his apostles and to you and me? 

We call the overall context of Jesus’ words, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  The opening to that sermon was given the subtitle, “The Beatitudes.”  Why are they called “The Beatitudes?”  They are only called that because in Latin translation of the Bible, each of the proverbial sayings begin with the Latin word, beati, which translates to the English words of "happy", "rich", or "blessed." 

So, when we see titles and subtitles in the Bible, we need to remember those were added by the editors and publishers of the book we hold in our hands.  They were not part of what God inspired.  I do not like titles and subtitles very much.  I think they tend to diminish our understanding of what God wanted us to know rather than improve it.

What was it that God wanted us to know that day from Jesus on the hillside?  Let’s take a look at what Jesus said.

“1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.  He said: 3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:1-10).

Countless sermons and Bible studies have come from these words uttered by Jesus on that hillside.  Matthew wrote, “His [Jesus’] disciples came to him, 2 and he [Jesus] began to teach them [the disciples] (Matthew 5:1b-2). Others were present but the teaching was for the disciples whom Jesus had called to leave behind their pasts and to walk into the future with him.

In that teaching, Jesus told his disciples about the blessings of being part of God’s plan.  Nine times Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those part of God’s plan.  The first eight blessings were entry into the kingdom of heaven, being comforted, inheriting the earth, being filled, being shown mercy, seeing God, being called children of God, and Jesus concluded repeating the blessing of entry into the kingdom of heaven.

These eight blessings for being part of God’s plan were received because they chose to be born again, only this time by the Spirit of God. Through the spirit of God, those born again would be moved to make poor their own spirit and be made strong in the Spirit of God.  Those born again would have mourned over their sin and adopted a spirit of meekness. Those born again would be hungry and thirsting for right living before God and would have a desire to be merciful. Those born again would seek purity of their mind, thoughts, words, and actions while seeking peace in their own life and the lives of those they loved.

Jesus was teaching that those people who would accept God’s invitation to become part of God’s plan would be radically different from those of the world.  Jesus did not teach that those individuals would become wealthy, healthy, popular, or better looking.  These are all temporal blessings that can be lost.

After teaching about these blessings, Jesus shifted his language just slightly but in a significant manner as he continued to upfold the blessings. Jesus said, “11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 [You] Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). 

Jesus had shifted his language from the abstract to the personal. Jesus shifted from teaching that these blessings were possible to saying “you,” in the plural, “you disciples” have these blessings and you will be further blessed when people insult you, shun you, drive you away, harass you, and say false things about you because of your belief in Jesus.  You will be blessed because you will know that you are speaking the truth about God and the relationship you have with God.

All these blessings Jesus spoke about had been bestowed upon the disciples.  The disciples just did not realize the significance of the blessing in the moment but would come to understand them when they looked backwards onto their life. Jesus then said that in recognition of these blessings you will rejoice and be glad. 

The Apostle Paul, who was not present at this teaching, came to understand it as he reflected upon his changed life after accepting God’s invitation.  Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).

Jesus, having taught his disciples how blessed they were because they had accepted God’s invitation, had one more key part of the plan to explain to his disciples.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a).  We have all heard these words before but what do they mean. Jesus again said, “You,” in the plural. You, disciples, are right now, not someday, not might be, but you are the salt of the earth.  You, this little bedraggled fellowship of fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners are the plan.  You are the salt that will change the world just as salt changes anything it touches.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). 

You are the plan and that should you fail, there would be no change possible to the world.  I seriously doubt the disciples understood the significance of what Jesus was saying to them at this early juncture of his ministry.  I suspect the disciples only understood this teaching when they looked backwards through the lens of the resurrection and crucifixion and looked forward toward Jesus’ call to be his witnesses throughout the world.

“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) meant Christian faith was to be emphasized in simplicity and humility not grandeur.  Christian faith shown by this band of blessed people was to be expressed in worshipping together with expectancy and wonder.  Though they had differences and diversity, they had more in common that they started to think and seek together without embarrassment.  They did not establish a headquarters or form an army. Instead, they became uncompromising people inspired and rejoicing in the blessings given to them by God and they built their life into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship, and work.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) and these disciples came to believe it and act accordingly.  These people created fellowships that became infectious changing the cultural order. That is what salt does – it changes whatever it touches.  They were successful because they believed and acted with hope.

When these disciples looked backwards through their life and their times with Jesus that recalled that their experiences were not a fairytale, or a philosophy constructed by a brilliant mind in the privacy of a study.  What they remembered had occurred.  Because it occurred, they knew there was hope in the future, promise in the future, even if the next step was in the present was a bit uncertain as to the immediate outcome.  But they moved forward because they came to understand they had been blessed by God.

We, who have received Christ, are blessed.  Did you, as a group, know that?  Do you feel blessed to be part of this group?  Did you know that God considers us, as a group, His own children and because He does this group has a place in heaven?  Did you, this group know that God granted mercy and He gave His Holy Spirit to encourage and comfort this group?

We cannot know these truths unless we look backwards and see in the lives of Jesus’ apostles, all who came after them, and all that has occurred in our life the blessings of God.  And in looking back, we realize we are blessed, we have the confidence, the faith, to move forward, not on our own, but as Christ’s church.  We do not seek a fellowship of individuals, but a fellowship of families comprised of brothers and sisters. 

Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message translation of the Bible put Jesus words this way:

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.  14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16, MSG).

          Let me tell you why you are here.  You are here because you are blessed.  God blessed this group to be salt and light in the world.  We are not called to save the world. But we are called to make a lasting difference. We cannot do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That's what being salt, and light is all about. That is God’s plan for us.  So look backwards on your life and then decide if you are willing to live forward as part of God’s plan?  Let us pray.

05-23 - Spiritual Obedience

          We have been talking about our life guided by the Holy Spirit of God.  We are reminded that when we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God to guide us, comfort us, and correct us.

          Last week, we read that Jesus’ apostle, John, shared the need for us to live our life in conformity with the will, the desire of the Holy Spirit. When we do so, then we are at peace in our hearts.  When we do not follow the Holy Spirit, we have a disquieted spirit about us.  In the briefest of terms, John was calling on the member so his community to obey the Holy Spirit of God. 

Oh, how we have come to dislike that word, obey. I worked in a government program that preached “verbatim compliance” with its rules and regulations.  At the same time, our leadership would only follow rules of outsiders imposed on them if they agreed with the rule.  The program demanded obedience within but rejected obedience to others.  That is a conflicted sort of obedience structure but not uncommon in the way of life in our culture.

A family father once noted he experienced a conflicted obedience structure in his own home.  He said, “Father’s Day is only day of the year when I get complete obedience from every member of my family.  I tell them not to spend a lot of money on me—and they don’t.”

                    We could, of course, speak almost endlessly about the downside of disobedience.  Afterall, sin, at its heart, is all about disobeying the boundaries and values established by God because for one reason or for no reason, we do not agree with that boundary or the value placed by God.

          But I think it might be more profitable if we spoke about the advantages of spiritual obedience.  I would like us to explore spiritual obedience through the life and testimony of Jonah.

          As we read earlier this morning, Jonah was a prophet from the Old Testament. Prophets were people selected by God to share God’s warnings and words in the present so that there could be a future. That was the role of a prophet.

          We read selected passage from the Book of Jonah giving us a glimpse into the life of this prophet and giving us a window into the character of God.  We read that, “1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’  3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3).

Jonah was spiritually attuned to God.  Jonah could hear God speak to him and differentiate God’s voice from all others including Jonah’s own voice.  And that voice from God told Jonah that Jonah must go to the city of Nineveh (modern day Iraq) and preach to the people that their wicked behaviors must end, or else God would judge them and cause them to stop.  What exactly would God do is left unstated.

By outward appearances, Jonah gave the impression he was going to follow the spiritual obedience he had toward God.  Jonah prepared for the journey.  He went to the port of Joppa to board a ship that would be a necessary part of taking him closer to his destination, some 500 miles to the east. But instead of paying for passage for a ship heading east, Jonah paid for passage for a ship heading 2,500 miles to the west, to the city of Tarshish (modern day Spain). 

Jonah had a total break in obedience with God.  It seems that Jonah left behind his home, his life, and his calling from God and headed as far from his ancestral and spiritual roots as he could get. Sadly, this type of spiritual break continues to happen even to this day.  People, unwilling to deal with the realities of their life, destroy the manifestation of life by moving as far away from family as possible, severing ties with their past, all in a hope of destroying the life they once lived.  To make such a radical change happens when that person first makes a spiritual break with God.  Jonah broke with God traveled westward in the hopes of escaping God and everything about his former life.

We know from the book of Jonah that God did not break with Jonah. Instead, God caused Jonah to be returned to Him and to his call.  Jonah was tossed into the sea and rescued by a large fish.  After three days in the belly of a large fish, Jonah was vomited onto the shore near the destination of Nineveh, “1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’  3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-3). 

Jonah who had made a spiritual break with God, submitted himself in spiritual obedience to God.  Jonah accepted that God and not he was sovereign.  It was God who placed the call on Jonah’s life.  It was God who caused the storm to envelop Jonah’s ship as it headed westward.  It was God who saved Jonah from the storm using a large fish.  And it was God who caused that fish to go eastward toward Jonah’s destination.

Jonah understood he was a creature of God’s creation and in God’s creation.  God was not a creature of Jonah’s creation.  In that simple understanding to the relationship between God and humanity, we then come to understand that spiritual obedience to God instead of spiritual warfare with God is right and beneficial thing for us.  The words from Jeremiah, then make complete sense, “‘11 For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

In spiritual obedience to God, Jonah preached God’s call for repentance to the Ninevites.  “10 When God saw what they [the Ninevites] did and how they [the Ninevites] turned from their evil ways, he [God] relented and did not bring on them [the Ninevites] the destruction he [God] had threatened” (Jonah 3:10).  God, using the instrument of Jonah, had turned people from their wickedness and gave them a future.

“1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he [Jonah] became angry. 2 He [Jonah] prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Jonah, even though he had been spiritually obedient toward God in one thing, preaching repentance to the Ninevites, still fought with God over the outcome.  Jonah did not want God to be gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love toward those who Jonah deemed unworthy.  Jonah only wanted God to be so toward him and his people. 

God and Jonah then entered a period of dialogue with God asking Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about my graciousness, compassion, forgiveness, and love toward others?”  I want to conclude our discussion about the Old Testament story of Jonah on that question with a note that the key here is that in spiritual obedience we keep talking to God even when, or especially when, we are angry at God. The benefit of spiritual obedience is that God is never the one to break fellowship with us.  If you are struggling with God, keep on talking through the struggle.  Never quit and never forget that we are of and dependent upon God and not the other way around.

Now the story of Jonah and spiritual obedience came back in the New Testament through the life of Jesus.  One day, Jesus was speaking to the religious leaders.  Other people had begun to gather around Jesus and these leaders to listen in on their conversation.  The religious leaders had declared Jesus was able to drive out evil spirits from a possessed person because Jesus was evil himself. 

          As Jesus challenged the thinking of the religious leaders, a woman in in the crowd called out, “‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’  28 He [Jesus] replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’” (Luke 11:27b-28).  Jesus was turning the conversation to spiritual obedience and that a blessed life was to be found in obedience to God.

Jesus continued, “29 ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah’” (Luke 11:29). The story of Jonah was now back into the conversation.  Jesus said, “30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man [Jesus] be to this generation.  The sign here that Jesus was speaking about had nothing to do with Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days and the eventual condition in which Jesus was in the tomb for three days.  Jonah, as a sign to the Ninevites, was a call for the people to repent, to turn away from their ways and follow God’s way.  As a prophet, Jonah spoke in the present so that the people could be assured of a future.  Jesus was preaching to the people in the present so that they could be assured of the future.  I am speaking in the present so that we (you and I) can be assured of a future.  The sign, therefore, was and remains a call to repent, that is to turn toward God.

Jesus revealed this truth in verse 32.  Jesus said, “32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they [the Ninevites] repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32).  The Ninevites repented because of one of God’s prophets, and yet the Jewish leaders would not repent even though the Son of God, Jesus, stood before them.  Truly, Jesus said the men of Ninevites would judge the Jewish leaders and say, “What on earth were you thinking about?”

Jesus offered the Jewish leaders another example to entice them to spiritual obedience.    Jesus said, “31 The Queen of the South (Queen Sheba) will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.”  The point here again was that Queen Sheba, though she was a Gentile [a non-Jew], traveled a long distance to hear Solomon, and the treasures she brought showed her respect for Solomon and the wisdom he possessed. In contrast, the Jews of Jesus’ time were unwilling to travel any distance to hear the King of kings, Jesus, say anything.  The Queen of Sheba’s lavish respect for Solomon stood in stark contrast to Israel’s flat-out rejection of Christ.

Jesus’ point was that spiritual obedience carries with it a future.  Spiritual obedience carries with it heavenly wisdom. Spiritual obedience carries with it evidence and the experience of God’s graciousness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. 

Why on earth would we choose to reject spiritual obedience to God through Jesus Christ?  The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus because they believed in themselves more than in all they saw Jesus do or say.  The Jewish leaders, these learned and highly educated men, rejected Jesus because they thought he was in error.  They thought Jesus was wrong.

And yet, as Jesus debated the Jewish leaders, another group of people, men and women, saw what Jesus did and what he said, and thought he was the truth.  They though Jesus was not just right, but that Jesus was righteous, as one coming from God, that he was the truth.  Jesus was free of error. 

With this second group, Jesus formed a redemptive society.  They were a small fellowship of people who built their lives on spiritual obedience into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship, and work.  This second group of followers to Jesus were thrilled in seeing themselves as part of emerging movement with divine purpose.

This second group, with such people as Peter, Mary, James, Salome, John, and Martha engaged in spiritual obedience to God through Jesus.  Doing so did not make them wealthy, or popular, or give them a simple life but doing so enriched their lives immeasurably with the presence of God.  God working through this ragtag group of men and women turned the world upside down.

Jesus is still issuing a call to spiritual obedience.  Just as we have read in the Scriptures today, as his call goes out there will be only two groups formed.  One group will not be spiritually obedient and face judgment. The other group will be spiritually obedient and blessed with a future, wisdom, and God’s graciousness, compassion, forgiveness, and love.  Which group shall we be found in?  Let us pray.

05-16 - Love in the Spirit

          Last week we spoke about Jesus’ words that we must be born again of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God. We recalled from the first Chapter of the Gospel of John that, “12 To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12).  To be born again involved an action by the Holy Spirit to transform us from one creation into another.

          When people speak about the Holy Spirit or if you are old enough to remember people spoke instead about the Holy Ghost, there is often a sense of confusion in the conversation.  Often, it is not clear what exactly it means to be moved by the Holy Spirit.  Along with this confusion, studies suggest that Americans are adopting in greater numbers the idea of spirituality without a relation to a particular theology.

In that construct of “spirituality,” many Americans believe in a higher power that may be the God of the Bible or may be Mother Nature or may be simply a philosophy of life.  All those manifestations, God, nature, and philosophy are encompassed by the modern term “spirituality,” making it less certain what Christians mean when we speak of being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

          Understanding what it means to be a Christian and the work of the Holy Spirit was also a concern for the early Christian church.  Even during the life of the Apostles, it was a concern.  The Apostle John, extremely late in his life, recognized this concern and authored letters to the churches he had pastored offering a deep understanding of spirituality as conveyed to him by Jesus.

          We read from one of John’s letters today.  We call that letter 1 John because it is organized in the Bible as the first of three such letters from John.  By all appearances, John’s community was struggling because some of the members were preaching a spirituality that eliminated the person and the work of Jesus.

          John wrote to the church, “20 You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:20-23).

          People were preaching a spirituality without Jesus.  The circumstances in John’s community are not unlike the circumstances we find in our nation today.  People are preaching a spirituality without Jesus and even more than that, they are preaching a spirituality without God.

           John shared with his community that, “26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. 27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him” (2 John 2:26-27). 

John wanted his churches not to be led astray by people who were powerful speakers and persuasive personalities, but instead to hold onto to the simplicity of what they knew to be true in their heart about Christ. John did not suggest his church debate or challenge the spiritualists but instead hold onto what was real and remain in Christ.

          I think sometimes there is a desire or “need-like” feeling in the Christian community to examine every spiritual fad or philosophy that comes along give it consideration and to incorporate parts of that spiritual thought that is not offensive into their own life.  John was saying do not consider what is counterfeit.

          Think of what John is saying this way.  Suppose you were in a store, purchased an item for $9 and paid for it with a $50 bill. That $50 bill is all the money you have for the next few days and you still need to buy food with the change.  The cashier hands you back $41 in change, two twenties and one dollar bill.  You look at the two twenty-dollar bills and it is apparent to you that both bills are counterfeit.

          The bills look perfectly fine except the image of the president is not that of President Jackson. Would you want to keep those counterfeit bills?  I suspect the answer is “No.”  You gave the cashier real money with which to meet your needs and received in exchange counterfeit money that is not usable.  This is the key part.  When a bill is counterfeit in one regard is counterfeit in all regards.  You know is real and counterfeit with these bills and so you reject the counterfeit bills.

          John was saying the same thing here.  When we receive Jesus, we receive an anointing of his spirit that teaches us what is real.  Because we know what is real, then we should reject everything that is counterfeit. We should not try to keep the parts of a counterfeit set of beliefs even if they sound nice.  We are to use the anointing of the Spirit and reject entirely counterfeit beliefs in their entirety just as we would reject a counterfeit bill.  We should keep no part of what is counterfeit but should continue to hold fast to what is real.

          Now, from a practical standpoint we understood the $20 bills were counterfeit because they had an incorrect image on the bills.  John, for his part, offered the church some practical markers to know if the spirituality they were following or listening to was real.

          From our reading today, John said, “11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (1 John 3:11).  John was bringing out a foundational point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Namely, that from the very beginning the Jesus preached love and the Apostles taught love and that the prime mover, the source of love, in the Christian context, was God. 

John wrote, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  God sent Jesus in love not because He was compelled by an external force, since there is no force exerted on God.  Instead, God sent Jesus in love, the most powerful force.  We see the power of love repeatedly in the New Testament.

In the Gospel of Matthew, a religious teacher asked Jesus,“ 36 ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ 37 Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment’” (Matthew 22:36-38).  Love is the central theme.

In the Gospel of Mark, a rich young man, observant in the religious practices, asked Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Mark wrote, “Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).  Jesus loved the man and shared that the young man’s love of money overshadowed his love of God and his love for others.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” (Luke 6:32-33).  The kind of love Jesus was talking about was sacrificial not self-serving.

The Apostle Paul famously wrote, “3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  8 Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:3-8).  Love is a force that compels us toward a voluntary obedience to the inner spirit.

The sort of love Jesus and his apostles were talking about here was not a sentimental love.  It was not an erotic love.  It was not a utility love based on what each person could do for the other. The sort of love they were talking about here was a giving love.  This type of love is based upon the regard for the other and not the incidentals such as how pleasant they are or how useful loving them may be to us.  It is a love of the highest order and greatest virtue.

Now, here is a truth we need to keep in mind.  Just because we believe Jesus’ teaching on love and receive even receive Jesus does not mean we are loveable or that we cease being annoying to one another.  Becoming a Christian does not vaccinate us from becoming irritating, or too loud, or too passive, or too whiny, for the likes of another Christian.  What it does mean is that we can love other believers simply because their faith is real.

How is it possible to love those who are at times may present themselves as unlikeable?  We can love because when we receive Jesus, he gives us his Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ will working within us that allows us to love the unlikeable brother and sister in Christ.

When we extend love to another person, as Jesus described, we have not entered a two-person relationship. We have entered a three-person relationship.  There is the one you are expressing love towards, there is you, and there is Jesus. Nothing in us would make it possible for us to be able to love in the manner of Jesus if it were not for the fact that his Holy Spirit is also in us, working in us and reaching out through us.

The first and most telling marker of Holy Spirit in anyone’s life is his or her capacity and demonstration of love for other believers.  Our life with God becomes real when we receive Jesus, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and we can love others who have likewise received Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

John contrasted the profound nature of the commitment to love other believers with profoundly disturbing story of the first human death.  John wrote, “12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his [Cain’s] own actions were evil and his brother’s [Abel’s] were righteous.”  The first recorded human death when one brother killed another.  Love is the force of righteousness and light.  Love is not found in the darkness of selfishness. 

John’s point was that the love for other believers, other brothers and sisters, other children of God, is present within us because the Holy Spirit is within us.  Therefore, John said, “15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.  16 This is how we know what [that] love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:15-16).  Love separates us from hate and indifference and that love is the force and power of Jesus’ all giving spirit.

As the words of the hymn repeat, “Jesus gave it all.”  On the first Sunday of the month, we partake of the Lord’s Supper.  It is then that we celebrate the type of love Jesus gave and John spoke about.  We use bread and the cup as symbols of Jesus’ body and blood given for his followers. At the very moment Jesus shared that bread and cup, he knew then that one of the twelve, Judas, would betray him. Jesus knew one of the twelve, Peter, would deny him.  Jesus knew the other ten would desert him.  Jesus saw their individual and collective need to experience the love of God.

On the night of Jesus’ own betrayal and arrest, Jesus loved in a practical manner.  John wrote we must do likewise.  John wrote, “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).  Having compassion on brother or sister and then acting is the love Jesus shared that evening of his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus loved his apostles and gave to them because the love he was expressing was based upon the regard for them and not the incidentals such as how pleasant or loyal they were or how useful loving them may be to Jesus.

We cannot love like this absent the Holy Spirit.  We cannot love like this believing in some amorphous higher power or the spirit of Mother Nature.  Those belief systems no matter how appealing to the ears they may sound are counterfeit.  The world genuinely dislikes Christians when they say things like that.

John forewarned his community of such dislike.  John wrote, “13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:13-14).  The world does not understand Christians who love but the prospect of Christian love, even though it is hated, does stir the hearts of the unbelievers.

John then unlocked for us the key of knowing the workings of the Holy Spirit within us.  John wrote, “19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence” (1 John 3:19).  John was setting the stage for his community which includes us to know that the Holy Spirit was working within us and that we were at peace with that; meaning we were not working or fighting against the Holy Spirit.  John centered his thoughts and words on our heart as an illustration of peace within us.

 John began with this phrase, “20 If our hearts condemn us.”  What does he mean?  John began with the assumption our hearts were attuned to God will through the Holy Spirit.  This means we are presupposed to love as God would love.  When we do not love as God would love, then, as I can attest, we feel a discomfort that can be felt not just in our mind but in our chest, in our heart.  When we have been unloving toward a brother or sister, there is often a physiological change in our body.  John point was in that experience, the heart, attuned to God, is condemning our actions. “20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).  We know in that moment of disharmony that we have not maintained the peace of the Spirit through love.

The Apostle Paul saw the intended harmony of a Christian this way, “
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).  When we allow the Holy Spirit to work there is within us peace and joy.  Our hearts are settled.

John described it this way, “21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, [if we are at peace and have joy then] we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21-22).

A true spiritual experience comes from God.  All other forms of spirituality, even if they make us friends of the world or give us a feel-good feeling, will fail at the test of sacrificial love that approaches that expressed by Jesus.  We should accept no counterfeit spiritual experiences or philosophies, either in whole or in part.

John gave us this conclusion, “23 [And this is his command: to] believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 John 3:23-24).  Let us pray.

05-09 - One Life; Two Births

Some time ago, I read an article in the magazine, Christianity Today, entitled, “Should Churches Celebrate Mother’s Day During Worship Service?” 

The article provided the perspective of six pastors. I am not entirely sure, but I think I counted seven opinions. 

One pastor, a Methodist bishop, opined “We should not celebrate Mother’s Day.” The bishop said, “One of the biggest threats to theology today is not fundamentalism; it's sentimentalism. Mother's Day appears to be just another occasion to say, 'Christianity is feeling something mushy in your heart.' We all get sentimental about our mothers." 

I think his mother would have said, “I think you need a nap.”  The bishop seemed a bit grumpy and his opinion rather harsh. 

A differing opinion was offered by an evangelical pastor who said, “We should celebrate motherhood. The fifth commandment establishes parenthood as a holy calling. But it also makes good sense to acknowledge ‘cultural rhythms’—like certain secular holidays - liturgically, to recognize there is no place God isn't." 

That pastor seemed much more upbeat and willing to use any type of secular celebration, including Mother’s Day, to speak to the majesty of God.

I prefer the side of the evangelical pastor and believe we should acknowledge appropriate events in the world that surrounds us and use those events as part of our evangelical outreach.  Afterall, Mother’s Day in the United States was first celebrated on May 10, 1908, by a church service at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  It was a day established to honor all mothers, living and deceased. And we should honor our mothers because it was through them that we have life.  Our mothers nourished us even before we were born and began nurturing us after we drew our first breath.

          Jesus used the simple truth of the mother and childbirth relationship to explain a truth about the kingdom of God.  Namely, each of us has one and only one life but it is God intention that we have two births.

          Jesus explained this truth to a man named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, respected for his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and faithfulness in religious practices.

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, beginning at verse 1 we read, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Nicodemus, this important man, knowledgeable and leader, approached Jesus cautiously. John said in verse 2, “Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.” 

The darkness perhaps offered Nicodemus some protection at being spotted with Jesus.  Nicodemus’ cautious approach to learning about Jesus is like the way most people today want to find out about Jesus.  People are more apt to ask you about Jesus, about church, in a casual setting, perhaps at work, over a cup of coffee, at a family reunion, and maybe even today as you gather to celebrate Mother’s Day. 

 People who are curious about your faith are not likely to begin exploring faith by coming to church.  Your friends and family are much more receptive to a conversation with you about your life as a Christian as you live life together.  So we need to be attentive to those opportunities, and see them as Nicodemus coming in the night but speak directly, confidently, and with gentleness about your faith.

John wrote that Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus was acknowledging God existence, that he had seen Jesus do miraculous things, had heard the words Jesus said. And because of Jesus’ words and deeds, Nicodemus knew that Jesus was somehow from God, even though Jesus did not quite fit into the God of Nicodemus’ creation.

Jesus wasted no time getting to the point.  Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus, again, spoke about the kingdom of God.  Jesus was and is about the kingdom and what Jesus said were a stunning reversal of everything Nicodemus ever thought.

 Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus point was being born a Jew, having Jewish heritage and ancestry, counted for nothing.  Although the Jews were the chosen people of God, it would be necessary for anyone, for everyone, to have a second birth to enter the kingdom.   

Jesus was saying, “Nicodemus, you were created by the physical union of your father and mother, but such a physical birth, ‘the will of the flesh,’ while a wonderful moment, will not result in you ever seeing the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus was in shock.

Many people today who would listen to these words would also be in shock.  So many people today, are accustomed to saying, “I am a good person.  If there is a heaven, I expect to be there when I die.”  To which our Scripture today says, “It is wonderful that you consider yourself a good person.  But being good in your mind is not the pathway to the kingdom of God. You must be born from above.”  People would be shocked and confused to hear such words.

In Nicodemus’ confusion, “Nicodemus said to Jesus, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” Nicodemus was relating Jesus’ words to motherhood and physical birth.  Nicodemus correctly understood that we have only one life and only one physical birth. Nicodemus, this learned man, seems to ask Jesus an absurd question.  “Can another have a second birth?”

Jesus was undeterred by Nicodemus’ reply and does not even acknowledge it.  Instead, Jesus persisted and said again, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Jesus repeated that the kingdom of God requires a second birth, brought about from above by the water and Spirit of God.  As in our physical birth, none of us caused our own life to occur.  Our parents brought about the conception of our life and our mothers brought about our physical birth.  In a similar manner, Jesus said that none of us can cause our second birth to occur.  We must be born again, only this time by the power of the Spirit.

Jesus was perhaps reminding Nicodemus that the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, contains these words in the Book of Ezekiel.  “I [God] will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezekiel 36:25).  To be born of the water and Spirit is a life-altering gift from God. The water gives a sense of a life cleansed of impure behavior, while the Spirit reflects a change within.  

What is that Spirit? Ezekiel wrote God’s words down. God said, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).  The Spirit is thus the Spirit of God that is part of that creative and second birth process. When we have born again by the Spirit of God, then we shall enter the kingdom of God. 

Jesus was each person who enters the kingdom of God is like a person who is born for a second time. Only this time, instead of having their life decisions guided by their own will, the person will have their life decisions guided by the will of God.  What Jesus is laying out is upon our second birth, our life will be radically different.

Jesus explained this parable to Nicodemus in verse 6 this way, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” How can you be born of the Spirit? John told us at the beginning. He wrote, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12).  

To enter the kingdom of God, to be born again, we must believe in the person of Jesus Christ. To receive Jesus means to “place one’s faith in him, to yield one’s allegiance to him and thus, in the most practical manner, to acknowledge his claims.” (F. F. Bruce) We are utterly different.

Having shared the truth with this learned Pharisees Jesus said to him, “7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘Youmust be born from above’” (John 3:7).

We should not be astonished at what Jesus had to say.  God did not send his son into the world to have us change a degree or two in the direction of our life.  God sent his son to us that we would change course completely.

So, what is the significance of this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus to us? At its simplest, it means that you undergo a spiritual birth, a second birth, we must believe Jesus and receive his Holy Spirit.  We cannot receive Jesus and be unchanged.

I know you will be surprised to learn that not all churches agree on how this spiritual birth occurs. The Roman Catholic Church believes such rebirth occurs when the priest christens a baby with water. Protestants, particularly Baptists, reject this idea. We hold that spiritual rebirth is a gift received when an individual enters a personal relationship with Jesus. 

When we receive Jesus as Lord, as our King, the one to who we follow and show allegiance to, then we are born again and become part of the kingdom of God. Paul would write, “‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9).

We have but one and only one life, and yet, God’s desire is that we would have two births, one physical and one spiritual.  In the first birth we enter a kingdom of the world.  In our second birth, we enter the kingdom of God.  Jesus, the king, has come and he is calling you to be part of his kingdom. 

It is an everlasting kingdom that is available to everyone but only open to those who have been born from above.  “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

W. C. Fields, a comedian, rogue, and womanizer throughout his life spent his last weeks in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught Fields reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, "I'm checking for loopholes." 

There are no loopholes. There is a kingdom of heaven and the door to it is open to all who profess publicly that Jesus is Lord. While the kingdom will never end, the door to it will not remain open forever. It will close to each person whether by their death or by the return of Christ. 

Jesus’ message to Nicodemus was about life, abundant life now and forever.  Today is Mother’s Day in which we honor the women who gave us life through a physical birth into this world. We should be grateful for the life our mothers gave us and the nurturing we have received. However, our mothers who gave birth to us physically cannot give us eternal life. Our mothers can lead us on the path to the kingdom of God but they cannot hold our hands and bring us into that kingdom. We must be born again to see the kingdom. 

Have you seen the kingdom? Have you genuinely become part of the building of the kingdom of God? Are you allowing the Spirit within you to mold you into the likeness of your king? And if you have, have you also celebrated that decision with a public baptism? These are all elements of know who you follow and celebrating eternal life. Do not wait, the door is open, for how long, none of us knows. Come, be born again, and see the kingdom of God. 

If you have confessed Jesus as Lord and been baptized, then you have a story that to tell someone else. Make a point of being available to someone who comes in seeking answers. Look into the lives of those God places in your path and ask them in your own words if they have seen the kingdom. Share with them what it means to be a Christian. Do not be anxious, the Spirit is within you and will give you the words to say. Amen.

05-02 - I Will or I Won't

          Choice.  Choice is our ability to make decisions when presented with at least two options.  Recently, my wife and I have enjoyed watching reruns of the gameshow, “Deal or No Deal.”

          This was the gameshow in which a contestant chooses one briefcase from a selection of 26. Each briefcase contains a cash value from $0.01 to $1,000,000. Over the course of the game, the contestant eliminates cases from the game, periodically being presented with a "deal" from The Banker to take a cash amount to quit the game.

          “Deal or No Deal,” is a form of choice that each of us in some regard has made in our life.  Once we make the decision, the rules do not allow us to change our choice.

          There are also choices we make daily which are changeable.  These choices involve a difference between what we say we will do.  That is a choice.  And separately we can choose whether we will do what we said we would do.  This is another choice.  When our words and actions match, we are thought of as a person of their word.  When our words and actions do not match, we characterized as “Saying one thing and doing another.”

          I suspect all of us at one time or another have said one thing and done another.  Sometimes it is a good thing we do not follow through with our words. Other times, not following through with our words brings harm to ourselves and others.  Why do people behave differently than we speak?

          There are several reasons we act this way and each of them involves some form of internal conflict.  We say one thing and do another because something within us caused us to change our decision.  Perhaps we realized our verbal decision was not the right choice, so we act differently. Perhaps we learned something new about what we were being asked, we were open to the new information, and decided to act in accordance with the new information. Perhaps we just tell people what they want to hear so they will leave us alone.

          Now when we change our minds, it might be that we had a “change of heart.”  A change of heart is usually one in which we move from a negative perspective to a positive perspective.  For example, we might change have a change of heart and do something we said we would not do.

          Alternatively, when we say we will do something and then do not do it, this change is usually from a positive perspective to a negative perspective.  This type of change is not called a change of heart but a hardening of the heart.

          The pairing and differences between the negative to positive and positive to negative choices was the subject of a parable Jesus told.  There is much for us to learn about our faith walk in that parable.  Jesus told this parable to a group of Pharisees.  We will recall that the Pharisees were the best and brightest minds of the religious leadership of Israel.

          The moment that Jesus told this parable was exceptionally tense.  Jesus had just entered the Temple in Jerusalem, turned over the tables of those selling things in the Temple, and when questioned by the Pharisees by what authority he did what he did, he refused to answer their question.

          Jesus then spoke directly to the Pharisees and told them this story, 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  29 ‘I will not,’ he [the son] answered, but later he [the son] changed his mind and went [into the vineyard and did work].  30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. [‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’]  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”

          A father had two sons and told each to do the same thing, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”  The first son told his father he would not go.  The son’s reply is problematic.  The son had openly defied his father.  This was a form of rebellion against the authority of the family and the son’s response was against his own interests.  Afterall, the son was an heir to the father and stood to inherit the vineyard in which he refused to work.

But after first refusing to work in the vineyard, the son had a change of heart.  When we have a change of heart, we move from going in one direction to going in the opposite direction.  Something occurred within the son causing him to want to do as his father asked.  The son, with a changed perspective, went, and worked in the vineyard.  This son moved from the negative, “No, I will not go,” to the positive, “Yes, I will go.”  Something within this first son caused him to move from his will to the father’s will. 

Now as to the second son, he told his father that he would go and work in the vineyard as his father had asked. The son’s response was accepted as genuine, respectful, and welcomed.  The son was openly in agreement with his father.

But after the father has asked, the son had an inward hardening of his heart.  When our hearts harden, we become inclined to serve our own interests even if we have said otherwise.  In the hardening of his heart, the son decided not to work in the field even though he said he would do so.  This son moved from the positive, “Yes, I will,” to the negative, “No, I will not.” The son moved from the father’s will to his own will. 

          Now, having told the story, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “31’Which of the two [sons] did what his father wanted?’  ‘The first [son],’ they [the Pharisees] answered.”  The Pharisees recognized that doing the will of the father, even if first refusing to do so, accomplished the will of the father.  So, the son who said no and had a change of heart and did go to the vineyard had done the father’s will.  The second son only spoke words of agreement with the father but never did what the father wanted.  The will of the father, that work be done in the vineyard, was thwarted by the second son. There is that sense the second son was a hypocrite because he said he agreed with his father, the positive action, and then did nothing to fulfill his commitment, the negative action.

          With the answer from the Pharisees, the parable was concluded.  It was now left for Jesus to explain the parable to the Pharisees.

          “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.’”

          Jesus had sprung a trap on the Pharisees.  In the story, the first son represented the sinners of society, the tax collectors, hated by all Israelites, and the prostitutes, respected by no one in Israel.  The second son represented the Pharisees, loved, and respected by Israelites for their devotion to prayer and study of the Scriptures.

          Jesus told the Pharisees a hard truth.  The tax collectors and prostitutes were more acceptable to God than the Pharisees.  The people thought of as outcasts and unworthy of God’s love were most worthy. The Pharisees who were at the center of religious life would not be found in the kingdom.

          What accounts for the difference in standing? One group had a change of heart and the other became hardened in heart.  Jesus said this change all began when John the Baptist began preaching the message ahead of Christ Jesus.

          In Chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  There is that perfect nine-word sermon we spoke about last week.  Repent, meaning, have a change of heart and turn from your will to God’s will is the operative action.  It is as if John was saying, “I know you said “No, to the will of God in the past” but have a change of heart and do “Yes.”

          “10 ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked [John].  11 John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’  13 ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.  14 Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’  He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay’” (Luke 3:10-14).  John told people now was the time to have a change of heart, repent, and show it by doing what was consistent with the Father’s will. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven was near.  The time for a proper decision and action had come.

          John said soon the long-awaited Messiah would come with a power message of salvation.  In response to John’s message, the people, including tax collectors and prostitutes began to repent, have that change of heart from “No,” to “Yes,” from the negative to the positive, from following their will to following the will of God.

          But the Pharisees did not accept John’s teachings and they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah.  The Pharisees saw no reason to repent because they believed looking and sounding religious was sufficient for God.

          Jesus saw things very differently.  In Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said seven times, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”  The Pharisees were not following Jesus and thus were not following the will of the Father. What were the Pharisees doing? Jesus said to the Pharisees:

  • “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Mt. 23:13).  The Pharisees hindered rather than help people come to God.
  • “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Mt. 23:15)  The Pharisees converted people to Judaism and then burden them with their demands which were heavy and did not teach them the will of God, which is light.
  • “[You say] ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’” (Mt 23:16) The Pharisees placed the treasure of gold above the treasure of God.
  • “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Mt. 23:23)  The Pharisees did what others could see and then neglected the most essential parts of a godly life; doing justice, loving mercy, and walking faithful with God.
  • “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  (Mt. 23:25) The Pharisees made themselves look good and clean on the outside but did nothing to change the inner being.
  • “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Mt. 23:27)  You look good on the outside but you are dead and decaying within.
  • “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” (Mt. 23:29)  With your pride, the Pharisees tore down others for killing God’s messengers all the while plotting to kill God’s son.

The Pharisees were the second son.  They had said all the right things to convince others, and themselves, that they followed the will of the father, and then did none of what the father willed.  They did only what they willed.  They would not believe John that the time had come to change, and they did not believe Jesus that he was their Savior.

There is but one choice between two alternatives when God speaks to us.  We can follow him or not.  It is not necessary that we followed God in our past in order that we enter the kingdom of heaven.  We can have said “No,” and then had a change of heart and followed Christ.  God is OK with repentance.  It is part of his plan.  What God is not OK with is saying “Yes,” to God and then living in accordance with our own will.

Jesus came to invite each of us to work in the vineyard.  He sent his son in the hopes that we would have a change of heart.  How have you responded to God’s invitation to join him in the work of the kingdom?  Let us pray.

04-25 - Wheat & Tares

          A recently completed Gallup poll found that fewer than half of U.S. adults say they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. To be precise, the Gallup pollsters reported that just 47% of those surveyed — belong to a place of worship. This is the lowest participation rate among adults since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago.

          We did not need a Gallup poll to know that church attendance has declined over the past years.  We know it less by the empty pews among us on a Sunday morning and more by the empty words, the anger, and the lack of truth that surround us.

          We have members of Congress encouraging continued unrest in cities scared by rioting over injustice in the legal system. We social media sharing the concept that everyone has “their truth,” and any challenge to expression of “my truth” should end with the challenger being canceled.  Why are we experiencing such discouraging and divisive trends in society? I believe it all relates back to the results of our opening Gallup poll results: fewer than half of all American adults participate in the worship God.

          I read a quote the other day that takes the Gallup poll results and consequential bad behaviors we are experiencing and summed them up this way, “Every time we turn from the truth of God, we introduce hell into the world.  Every time we call evil “good” and good “evil,” we create little pockets of hell on earth” (Alisa Childers, Another Gospel).  Those are some sobering and somber words to contemplate.

          In fact, those words are so somber, we might choose to be discouraged and disheartened and feel like giving up? This is our choice.  We can open our hands to God and fall at his feet or we can shake our fist at him and walk away.  We have only those two choices.

Now before you make your choice, we need to think about one thing.  Evil and suffering are ugly realities.  They are the natural byproduct of sin.  But Jesus chose to step into muck of the world, became human, lived as we have lived, suffered, and died for us.  He died not as an example for us to follow but as a Savior who would lead those who were willing into a place of peace.

In a world of doubts and shouts about “my truth,” God said, “Wait!  Listen!  I love you. And to demonstrate my love, I am sending my Son to you.  Listen to him.”  This is not “my truth.”  This is “the truth.”

The first words Jesus shared were, “Repent.  For the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 3:2).  A dream sermon, just nine words.

When Jesus taught us how to pray, Jesus made the focus of the prayer on the kingdom. “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Jesus was and is all about the kingdom.  Today, when we read from the Gospel of Matthew, the focus of Jesus’ teaching was on the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus told a story, a parable, to teach us what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, was like. 

Jesus said, ““The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.  26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.” (Matthew 13:24-26).  There are only two seeds, the wheat and the tares.

Jesus would explain that the man in the story is him, Jesus.  The good seed, the wheat, are those who listen to him and follow him.  The field is the earth.  The enemy was Satan.  The tares were those who do not follow Jesus and do evil. 

We could then read verse 24 this way, “The kingdom of heaven becomes real on earth whenever Jesus sends his followers into the world.”

Let’s think about what Jesus said in context to our opening observation, “Every time we turn from the truth of God, we introduce hell into the world.”  Compare that with the sentiment in what Jesus was saying, “Every time we turn to the truth of God, we introduce heaven into the world.”  We become most like Christ and our presence creates a space most like heaven when we enter the world with its pain and suffering, not to be weighed down by it or consumed by it, but to help bear the burden others are experiencing. 

Every time we fight evil with good, we create little pockets of heaven on earth.  So the story Jesus tells makes it clear, there are only two choices, the wheat or the tares. What is the consequence of that choice? There are only two outcomes, heaven or hell.

          So we have an understanding of the first level to this parable.  One choice between two options with remarkably different outcomes.  But there is a second level to this parable. The seed sown by Jesus is represented by wheat.  The seed sown by Satan is represented by tares.  Tares are not just some ordinary weeds we might find in our garden.  Tares were a particular type of plant that resembled wheat.  Tares produce a seed that if combined with the wheat and milled into flour could make the flour poisonous.  In this story, the good fruit of the field grows along side the poisonous, and, to the untrained eye, they look alike.  This means in our life, those who follow Jesus and those who do not may have similar appearances.  The difference will be found in whose voice each listen and the fruit they produce.  So when we come to church as part of the proud 47%, the significance of that decision is that we are choosing to publicly express the desire to listen to the truth and seeking to introduce heaven onto the earth.  The wheat is to be the wheat.  That is the second level of this parable.

          Now in this parable, Jesus said the wheat and tares sprung up side-by-side.  To the untrained eye, the plants in the beginning look similar but to the trained eye they are noticeable different.  In the story, Jesus said, “27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’  The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:27-29).

          Jesus believed that his servants, perhaps Jesus’ apostles, would come to recognize the difference early on between the wheat and tares and would believe it best to rip the invasive tares from the field. This is what we would do in our gardens even it meant sacrificing a few of the plants we had sown.  But this is not the way of God. 

Jesus told his apostles, “37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:37-40).

The desire of God is that none of those who are his, none of the wheat, shall be lost even if that means those who are not his are allowed a time to thrive.  In war, the President and military may speak about collateral damage, meaning the innocent people who died when the enemy was attacked.  God does not believe in collateral damage.  He is unwilling to lose even one who follows Jesus. This is a demonstration of the love of God and gives us the first of two reasons for God allowing the tares to exist for a time.  We will cover the second reason in the moment.

The consequence of God’s love is that none who follow Jesus will be lost, but for a time, the tares, evil, will be present on earth.  Although the kingdom of heaven has been inaugurated through the sowing of the gospel, that alone has not removed evil from the earth.  Some theologians refer to our current state as already part of the kingdom of heaven but not yet fully realized.  We are wheat growing in the field and are already part of the kingdom.  But that one field is shared with the tares which are not part of the kingdom.  This is the not yet part of our life.

In the story, the parable, Jesus said, “30 Let both (wheat and tares) grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explained that, “39 The enemy who sowed them [the tares] is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:39-43a).

Jesus’ explanation means that we will not see the elimination of evil in our time, unless we are here when Jesus returns.  Therefore, we should expect spiritual warfare to be evident in our everyday life.  The Apostle Paul saw this spiritual warfare and the effect it could have on believers.  Paul said, “ We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).

We, who follow Jesus, are not crushed, do not despair, are not abandoned, and are not destroyed by the existence and consequences of the tares in the field. We know that when we are able to share Jesus “we introduce heaven into the world.”

This leads us to our final point which is the second reason God permits the tares to exist for this time. As Jesus told this story, this parable, his audience was a mixture of his followers and non-believers.  The field was already composed of wheat and tares. When Jesus concluded the story, he said, “He who has ears, let him hear! (Matthew 13:43b).  The crowd hearing this story had their hearts tested and were given the opportunity to receive God’s divine revelation, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In hearing that message and receiving it, God’s word has the power to transform the person’s heart and come into God’s kingdom as changed person, a new creating. God has the power to transform the tares into wheat.

Consider for a moment, that Jesus first miracle was changing water into wine.  This was a demonstration of the power of Christ to change one substance into another.  It was a powerful demonstration to bypass the entirety of the growing process for grapes and to take water useful only to wash a utensil and make it into a beverage to celebrate the marriage of the groom and his bride.  For those who have ears and hear the message of Christ, there is the reality of a transformed life from tare to wheat.  God has the power to transform anyone.  This is the second reason God will not remove the tares from the field until the appointed time.

To hear and respond to the gospel means we must stop elevating our opinion, “my truth” over “the truth.”  To hear and respond to the gospel means we changed our mindset from want to God to help us our way to wanting God to be God.

All of us who claim Christ, at one time were tares.  But we heard the message of the gospel and became wheat.  We moved from introducing hell to earth to bringing pockets on heaven on earth.  We must continue to share the message of Christ so that others may be likewise changed and brought into the fullness of the kingdom.

I am glad you are here today whether you are wheat or a tare.  Let us pray together.

04-04 - Easter Sunday

          Welcome to Easter Sunday!  We have been traveling together these past eight weeks with Jesus who had set his face toward Jerusalem, toward his destiny. 

None of Jesus’ disciples who walked that journey with Jesus had any idea of what was about to happen to Jesus, them, or the world. 

No one understood the full meaning of Jesus peacefully entering Jerusalem upon a donkey only to then turn over the tables in the Temple and drive the merchants out with a whip. 

No one understood the testing Jesus underwent at the hands of the best and brightest minds of Israel trying to trap Jesus in his own words or pit the words of God against him. 

At the time, none of the disciples could fully appreciate Jesus washing their feet or given them bread as his body and wine as his blood.

None of those with Jesus fully understood what it meant to be a branch upon the true vine, Jesus, and bear the fruit of God’s plan.

None of the disciples understood Jesus’ prayers of anguish in the garden seeking God’s intervention to remove the cup Jesus was about to drink.  What was in that cup and why was Jesus so upset by what it meant?

And none of the disciples understood the agony of Jesus’ trials before the religious leaders, Herod, and the Romans.

And none understood the unthinkable, the unimaginable horror that the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem had become as he hung on a cross.  Naked. Bloodied.  Barely able to breathe.  Then dead.

Those who had been with Jesus grieved his death.  Each hour of each day seemed like an eternity as those who loved Jesus played and replayed in their minds Jesus’ last words, his last look, and their role in his death. For three days they suffered the all-consuming death of Jesus, their dreams, and their hope.  All of it had been buried behind in a rock tomb.

Three days had passed.  It was time to begin sorting out the shock and trauma of the grief. In that shock, two disciples of Jesus were walking home to a village near Jerusalem named Emmaus.  “14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.” Their grief conversation was probably no different than ours when someone dies unexpectedly, tragically. “If only I had…”  “I should have…”  “then things would be different.”  15 As they [the disciples] talked and discussed these things with each other, [something unexpected, something that could not happen, happened].  Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.  17 He [Jesus] asked them, “What are you discussing [together as you walk along]?”  They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  19 “What things?” he asked.  “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus” (Luke 24:15-24). 

In these a few verses, there is a poignant mirror reflecting the disappointment of what might have been, what was expected to be, and the loss of the future.  We understand the disciples’ feelings and sense of sadness.  When life is not working out the way we had hoped it would or someone important to our life’s story dies, we can become disheartened and discouraged. 

Augustine, a 4th century theologian, observed that when we place our hearts desire on things which can be removed from us, then we become fearful of losing them.  We fear the loss of someone, the loss of health or wealth, status in the community, or whatever we may value, then we can become discouraged when we they are lost.  Augustine thought that there was a better life.  He believed if we placed our heart’s desire on God, something, someone who could not be taken from us, then we would not live through fear. 

The Apostle Paul saw this idea and acknowledged that life can be difficult and have its disappointments.  But that Christians, believers in who Jesus is and what God accomplished in sending him, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

These disciples walking along the road to Emmaus felt crushed, in despair, abandoned, and destroyed.  They felt this way because they did not truly see Jesus as the Son of God and thought too little of God.  They saw God as the giver of a nation not the giver of life.  They did not see God as the one who supplies love, forgiveness, and mercy.

Jesus decided to speak in a way that would shake up these disciples.  “25 He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). 

Jesus was trying to get the recognize him not in the person but in the enduring Scriptures, the Word of God.  Jesus was pointing these weary disciples back toward God and to see what God had accomplished in front of their eyes through the life, ministry, and death of Jesus.  These disciples would later describe these moments of teaching with Jesus as though their hearts were burning within them while Jesus talked with them on the road and opened the Scriptures to them (Luke 24:32).

  This was the effect Jesus desired.  Jesus wanted these downtrodden disciples to become flaming disciples, burning witnesses, with such joy for God that their lives would never be the same.

          There remained only one more thing Jesus needed to do to complete the transformation of these disciples.  Luke said as they [the three] approached the village of Emmaus, the disciples asked Jesus to stay with them.  “30 When he [Jesus] was at the [dinner] table with them [the disciples], he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them [the disciples]. 31 Then their [the disciples] eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).

          Jesus now completed the teaching of the Scriptures through the sharing of the bread, the bread of life.  In that moment of sharing, the blinders that preventing these two disciples from seeing the Scriptures come completely alive within them was removed.  The bread, which Jesus had said was his body, which Jesus had said gave immortal life, made all things understandable.  These disciples were transformed by joy.  The suffering was over, the grieving was over, the fear was over, there was only joy because the disciples recognized Jesus in the bread.

          With this uncontainable joy, these two disciples ran into the night to find the Eleven apostles.  When they arrived, the disciples from Emmaus “35 [Then the two] told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (Luke 24:36).

          The breaking of the bread was and is key for us to see Jesus and understanding the nature of God.  The breaking of the bread was and is key to joy, hope, and life.

          In times earlier, Jesus said, “35 ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.  40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:35, 38, 40).

Jesus then repeated, “48 ‘I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’” (John 6:48-51).

Jesus lifted the disciples from Emmaus and became visible in the breaking of the bread and he can do the same for us.  Jesus called us to pray that we would receive bread daily; seek Jesus daily.  Jesus called us to eat the bread and drink the cup in memory of him but not just the memory of his life, his teachings, but the memory of him in the whole of Scriptures.  He invited us to eat the bread in memory of his death, burial, and resurrection.

Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem that in doing so we could see him, know him, remember him, and find the God he knew and loved.  Jesus’ journey was an ordeal, but it ended in victory. Jesus victory, his resurrection on Easter morning and his walk with his disciples that afternoon, gives us the ability to be joyful people and flaming witnesses to the goodness of God.

This Easter Day let us come and celebrate with great joy the wonders of Jesus as we too will see him fully in the breaking of the bread.  Amen and Amen.