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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.


03-28 - Innocence Found Guilty

          In literature, a good story is comprised of five elements.  They are character, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution.  The characters, of course, are the individuals that the story is about. The author of the story gives us enough information about the characters that we can visualize each person.  The setting is the location of the action.  The plot is the actual story around which the entire story revolves. Every story has a conflict to solve.

The plot is centered on this conflict and the ways in which the characters attempt to resolve the problem.  The solution to the problem is the way the conflict is resolved.  In good literature, it is important that the resolution fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity and solve all parts of the conflict.

          In a really great story, the resolution, the ending is a surprise ending.  It is an ending no one could foresee coming.  Such endings cause us to think, did we miss the signs of the coming ending as the story unfolded?  Could the ending have been different?  What if the characters had behaved differently, would the ending have been as we thought it ought to end?  And finally, we are left with the lingering question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          We are here today to explore part of the greatest story ever told.  The story includes characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution and a surprise ending. And we will indeed be left with the question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          This is the story of Jesus’ trial and we come to explore it on the day in which the Christian Church celebrates Palm Sunday, a day of triumph marking Jesus’ kingly entry into Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. But was the triumph of Jesus to be found in his coming to Jerusalem with palm branches waving or is the triumph to be found in his trial?  The answer may surprise you.

          Let’s visit that setting for a moment.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “They [Jesus’ disciples] brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’  ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’  10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’  11 The crowd2s answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matthew 21:7-11).

          Jesus coming into Jerusalem was a noisy and joyous. People waved palm branches and placed their coats on the ground ahead of Jesus.  It was a marvelous moment in history as people celebrated the arrival of a man of peace, wisdom, and compassion.  The people saw Jesus as their coming prophet and king.  After Jesus arrived, he called to his side those people who were ill and whose bodies were broken, and Jesus healed them. 

The hope of the people rested in Jesus as God’s anointed one who would usher in God’s kingdom.  The sense of the people was that nothing but good could happen from hereon.  The hero of the story, the kid from the small town, was about to make it big.  This is how we might write the story.

          But the author of the Jesus story, introduced the conflict into the story for his readers.  In just a matter of a few days, the hero, Jesus, had been arrested.  In the dark of night, men armed with clubs and torches seized Jesus.  He had been betrayed by one of his twelve closest friends.  Betrayed by a kiss.

One pastor described the setting of betrayal and arrest this way. “There comes an orange snake eastward through the night.  A snake of fire, a long snake of torches.  Perhaps the disciples glace down from the Mount of Olives and see it and do not understand.  Jesus understands.  It winds the same path they themselves have followed from the city.  It winks through the trees in a smooth and silent, serpentine approach.  It is a fatal snake.  It kills by kissing.”

The snake struck and Jesus was bound.  The disciples with Jesus, his friends, ran into the night. And the one friend who had vowed to fight for Jesus’ sake even if it meant his own life cowered and three times denied knowing Jesus.

          The people living this story were confused and their faces were downcast.  How could things have gone so badly?  This was not the expected outcome of such a great start to the week.  The Son of God does not end up bound by rope and leather! The Son of God does not stand trial! The Son of God cannot be betrayed! Something was very wrong.

          The people had forgotten what they did not want to believe.  This Jesus, this Son of God, had told them, “31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him’” (Luke 18:31-33a).  Those who heard these words, as well we, have a shared habit of discounting and forgetting the words of a story that do not fit our expectations. But these expectations about Jesus had been told and retold for centuries.

          In the book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, we would find that the God’s anointed one would be “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3, 7).

God does not surprise us in the sense of doing something unexpected.  God reveals what he will do before he does it.  God does this so that we can know which events are of God and which events are not.  The arrest of Jesus was not a surprise to God and Jesus, and neither would the trials be a surprise.

          I use the phrase the trials of Jesus because Jesus was subjected to judgement four times.  First, the arresting officials, the religious leaders, put Jesus on trial.  In the darkness of night, the religious leaders called witnesses to accuse Jesus of all manner of things, but the witnesses could not keep their stories straight. 

Then the Chief Priest intervened and asked questioned Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” dragging out the “s’s” much like the hiss of a snake.  “Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am.’ 71 Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips’” (Luke 22:70b-71). 

The first trial was brief with the prisoner being found guilty.  This sentence of death was a foregone outcome before the trial began because the religious leaders focused on only one thing, putting out the light of Jesus Christ.  The light of Christ had been shining brightly upon the religious leaders, too brightly, just as innocence shines upon the guilty.  They dearly wanted to put out the light.

          But the religious leaders were crafty and cunning. They wanted others to do the work to dispense with Jesus.  And so, Jesus’ second trial was needed.  Luke wrote, “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’  So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.  Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man’” (Luke 23:1-4). Much to the surprise of the religious leaders, Jesus second trial had ended with an acquittal; Jesus was innocent according to Pilate.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          “But they [the religious leaders] insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’  On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he [Pilate] sent him [Jesus] to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time” (Luke 23:5b-7).  Pilate, perhaps wanting to get out of the middle of a Jewish matter, sent Jesus on to Herod.  And so, Jesus underwent a third trial.

          “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he [Herod] had been wanting to see him [Jesus]. From what he [Herod] had heard about him [Jesus], he [Herod] hoped to see him [Jesus] perform a sign of some sort. He [Herod] plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him [Jesus]” (Luke 23:8-11).  The third trial of Jesus had been completed.  The verdict – Jesus was innocent.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          Instead of being released, Herod “Dressing him [Jesus] in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:11b).

          Jesus was experiencing the trials of life and the injustice of the world.  Despite being found not guilty twice by the authorities of law and order, Jesus was no closer to being free now than when he first began.  The world is like that.  Even when the right people make the right decisions, injustices still exist and circumstances do not change.

          Luke tells us that after the third trial, “13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him” (Luke 23:13-16). 

Pilate reminded the religious leaders tha Jesus not guilty and that he intended to release Jesus.  This is the story Luke’s readers would expect.  When we are judged innocent, we expect to be released.

          “18 But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us! ‘19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)  20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ 22 For the third time he [Pilate] spoke to them [the religious leaders]: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore, I will have him punished and then release him’ (Luke 23:18-22).  Again, the verdict had been issued in Pilate’s second trial of Jesus.  Jesus was not guilty and would be released.  The conflict in the story seemed resolved.

          “23 But with loud shouts they [the religious leaders] insistently demanded that he [Jesus] be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:23-25).  The surprising end of Jesus’ fourth trial had been revealed.  Pilate decided that a man named Barabbas, guilty of murder, would be sent free as though he were innocent.  An innocent man, Jesus, would be executed as though he were guilty.

          The Apostle John saw this scene this way, ““19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21).

          The religious leaders hated the light.  They screamed down the sweeter truth; they condemn Jesus to death in order to put out the light.  They wanted dearly to put out the light.  The guilty person was set free, and, in his place, the innocent man was condemned to death.

          Even though the Scriptures and Jesus foretold what would happen, the conviction and sentencing Jesus to death was a surprise ending. Why would a man guilty of death be set free as though he was innocent and a man innocent of any crime be put to death as though he was guilty?  The story does not make sense, unless we realize that God is the author of the story.

          The arrest, trials, and conviction of Jesus explains God’s plan of salvation.  God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it.  Jesus who is sinless would take on the penalty of those guilty of sin.  And those same sinners would be cleansed of their sins and set free as though they had never sinned.  This is God’s way of telling the story of what he wants for us. 

God wants us to accept Jesus and that our record of sin be exchanged for his record of being sinless.  The wages of our sin would be upon Jesus even though he is innocent.  This exchange may not seem fair, and it is not, toward Jesus. But God’s desire was not to be fair but to be willing to love us and offer us grace despite our weakness and despite our failings. 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  This is the surprise ending of the story and the true triumph of Christ.  Celebrate with Jesus and receive him into your life. Amen and Amen.

03-21 - Intimacy with God

          I wanted to begin our conversation today with a concept that is as old as humanity itself.  The concept is called intimacy.  Intimacy, according to the dictionary, is a close familiarity, or friendship, a closeness.   God shared with us his description of intimacy in Genesis, Chapter 2 through the institution of marriage.

God’s Word says, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).  God showed us the ultimate expression of intimacy by two people coming together to become one such that there is nothing unknown between them.  It is a relationship such that the joy of one becomes the joy of the other and the sorrow of one becomes the sorrow of the other.

          The Apostle Paul would later pick up this verse on intimacy and apply not only to the relationship between man and woman but also to Jesus’ relationship with those who would believe in him.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31). 

Paul’s point was that Jesus’ relationship with his followers was intended to be as intimate as the relationship of marriage.  The relationship is between two people coming together to become one such there is nothing unknown between them.  It is a relationship such that the joy of one becomes the joy of the other and the sorrow of one becomes the sorrow of the other.

          As we have been walking through the last week of Jesus’ life, we have witnessed an ever-growing intimacy between Jesus and his disciples.  We sat at the table in which they ate together.  Jesus washed the feet of each disciple.  Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples calling the bread his body.  Jesus took a cup of wine and gave it to his disciples calling the wine his blood.  This is intimacy.

          After supper Jesus began to teach the disciples describing their relationship as he as a vine and they as branches.  Jesus called the disciples his friends because he had taught them everything his Father had revealed to him.  He said to his friends to follow what he taught them so that they would share in each other’s joy.  This is intimacy.

And now the time had come for Jesus to share another layer of intimacy, a spiritual intimacy, with his disciples through prayer.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that after supper and a time of teaching, Jesus and his disciples went to a garden, on the mount of olives, to a placed called Gethsemane to pray.

          The name Gethsemane is derived from the Aramaic language and means “oil press.”  Biblical scholars believe then that the garden into which Jesus entered was largely filled with olive trees.  It was a familiar place to Jesus and his disciples.  It would be a quiet place in the dark evening hours in which to pray.

          As Jesus and the now Eleven disciples entered the garden and grove of trees, Jesus said to the disciples, “Sit here while I pray” (Mark 14:32b).  Jesus going to be by himself to pray was not in itself unusual.  There are accounts elsewhere in the gospels of Jesus seeking time to himself to be with God.  And here, Jesus entered the lovely woods, dark and deep seeking time to pray on what he knew would become the darkest evening ever.

As Jesus went to leave the company of the Eleven, Mark records that “33 He [Jesus] took Peter, James and John along with him” (Mark 14:33a).  This was not the first time that Jesus took with him these three disciples.

One time, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the house a man named Jairus. Jairus had sought out Jesus to heal his daughter was gravely ill.  Before Jesus could arrive to the girl’s side, the girl died.

The Gospel of Mark recorded that moment for us, “37 He [Jesus] did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He [Jesus] went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ 40 But they laughed at him.  After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished” (Mark 5:37-42).

          On another occasion, a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, Mark recorded for us that, “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus…As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant” (Mark 9:2-4; 9-10).

          Now as Jesus was entering Gethsemane he was coming to the end of his ministry. And so, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, these closest of friends, with him as he prayed.  The four men walked a short distance and Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled. [He said] 34 ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them [Peter, James, and John], ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  35 Going a little farther, he [Jesus] fell to the ground” (Mark 14:33b-35a). 

Jesus was sad, exceedingly sorrowful, as though the sorrow itself would be the cause of his own death.  Jesus likely felt a tightness in his chest, a shortness of breath, an anxiousness, and exhaustion.  This was a side of Jesus the disciples had never seen but it was important for them and us to see it.

We can understand this scene because all of us have either been similarly distressed or been with a loved one similarly distressed.  There is in those moments nothing left that we do not know.  In anguish, there is intimacy.

Intimacy, some express have come to give it meaning by through the phonetics of the word, intimacy, thinking of it as “Into me see.”  In anguish we see to the very core of the person. In agony, Peter, James, and John could see into Jesus in a way that was not otherwise possible.  The intimacy with Jesus was complete for these three disciples could see into the very depth of Jesus, the Son of God.

What the disciples saw was their friend, laying upon the ground in distress and in that distress, they heard him pray, “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). What can we say about Jesus’ prayer? What do we see inside of Jesus in this moment?  We should use care in trying to overanalyze the mind of Jesus.  It would be best to stay with what we see and know.

What we know is that in distress Jesus gave us an example to follow. In distress, in anxious anticipation of difficult circumstances, we are to draw our closest friends to our side and use our time wisely and pray to God, perhaps more deeply than ever before. Jesus did. 

We are to pray to God with an intimacy.  Call him, “Abba,” as a child would call out “Daddy.”  Jesus did.  We are to affirm our belief in God, in the goodness and righness of God, as the one who can do anything.  Jesus did. 

We are to state clearly what is grieving us, what cup are we about to take that we would rather not.  Jesus did.  We are to affirm to God our understanding that there are two wills in play, his and ours. We are to affirm to God our desire is to follow his will even if our body wants to something different.  Jesus did. 

In his distress, Jesus showed us that in our distress, we need to turn toward God, affirm our relationship as his child, express our emotions, leave nothing hidden, and ask for the own spirit, our will, to be strengthen by his, whatever the outcome may be.  Jesus did.

After a time, Jesus got up from the ground and returned to his friends.  “37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,’ he said to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  39 Once more he [Jesus] went away and prayed the same thing” (Mark 14:37-39).  “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Jesus prayed and the disciples slept.  Jesus was concerned that the disciples, Peter especially, were not preparing themselves for the spiritual battle that lay ahead.  The disciples slept because they did not see the battle that was coming.  While they had an intimacy with Jesus, they did not see that Jesus’ sorrows were soon to be their sorrows.

After praying for a second time, Jesus returned and “40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him” (Mark 14:40).

Jesus left the disciples and again he prayed, “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). The disciples continued battles with sleep and failed to do the will of Jesus. 

But the behavior of the disciples, did not discourage Jesus from doing what he knew to be the next right thing.  This was another example for us in our walk with Christ.  While we should seek support from our friends in our faith walk, we cannot allow their spiritual sleepiness to overcome our desire to be with God.  We must continue to seek God even when our friends are not able or unwilling to do so. As Jesus did, we also must not stop encouraging our friends from pursuing their walk in faith. 

In my twenties, I was not active in the church and not active in my walk with God.  My then girlfriend, now wife, said to me, “Why don’t you join me and come to church rather than sleeping in on Sunday morning?”  She did what Jesus did.  Jesus encouraged his disciples to stay awake and pray.  This is what my wife did.  My wife helped change my life and you can do the same by helping others awake from their spiritual slumber.

After praying for again, Jesus was prepared for what was to come. Jesus had been fully intimate with God and Jesus’ will was now the same as the will of Abba.  When I read this passage again this week, of Jesus in the darkness of this garden and grove of oil trees, I was struck with the sentiments and the resolve found in a passage from a Robert Frost poem. 

Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Strengthened by prayer, the time had come for Jesus to leave the serenity of the dark and deep grove.  Jesus had promises to keep and miles to go before he would sleep,

Mark said, with great resolve, Jesus “41 Returned for the third time [to his disciples], he said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!’” (Mark 14:41-42)

The desire of God is that we would have an intimate relationship with him through Jesus.  In that relationship, we would come to know that God sees deeply and fully into us and invites us to look deeply into him. 

God knows that all of us will experience joys and triumphs in this life and he wants to share in those celebrations.  God also knows that all of us will experience painful and sorrowful moments and God wants to help carry us through those times. 

Jesus showed us the way because he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  Let’s follow the way of Jesus and be intimate with him so that we may have peace in all circumstances.  Amen and Amen.

03-14 - Love: The First Fruit

          Many people walk through life seeing each of the events, moments, or activities as separable for the other.  I remember growing up and my mother telling me that a family we knew was in financial trouble.  My mother explained to me that the family lived under the impression that if they had checks in the checkbook, they thought that meant they had money.  What my mother was words in jest spoke some truth. The family simply lived each decision in the present without regard to how each action fit the larger narrative of their life.

          But we know too well that life is not just a series of unconnected events.  Each event and activity impinge upon the next shaping what we do in the present and influencing our lives for whatever future we may have.

That same principle is true when we read the Bible.  The Bible is not just a collection of stories unrelated to a larger narrative.  The Bible is a progressive revelation of God to humanity.  The Bible is a complete story in which one event impinges upon the other.

Last week, we spoke about Jesus gathering with his disciples for the Passover meal, a meal celebrating the past and looking forward to the promise of the future.  That future was revealed by God as a coming covenant in which God would make provision for the forgiveness of sin.  Jesus used the symbolism of the Passover meal to inaugurate the Lord’s Supper and in doing so seal the new covenant of God with his blood represented by the fruit of the vine.

Jesus’ behavior was not accidental or spontaneous.  Jesus’ actions were part of God’s larger narrative that was unfolding at an ever-increasing speed in these final moments in Jerusalem. Jesus used rich words to explain what was happening when he took a cup gave it to his disciples, 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.  29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:27b-28).

After celebrating this new covenant with the fruit of the vine, Judas departed to betray Jesus, and Jesus sat down with his disciples and taught them using these words, ““I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1).  In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was viewed as the vine.  In Psalm 80, we read, “8 You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.  9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land” (Psalm 80:8-9).  The Psalmist gave a description of the nation of Israel that would be seen as having a relationship with God as a vine planted in the promised land by God. 

Jesus said, “I am the true vine.”  Jesus’, God’s Son, represented a fuller experience with God marked by a personal and intimate relationship.  No longer was the primary relation between God and humanity to be seen through a nation.  It would now be seen through a person, through Jesus.  We hear those words so often; I wonder at times if they have any effect on us.  Do we recognize that God who created all that there is, desires us?

Jesus’ words, “I am the true vine,” would have been shocking to the Eleven disciples sitting with them.  Jesus, not Israel, was the true vine having a relationship with God, just like a gardener is to a grapevine.  Jesus explained further, that “2 God cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). 

The disciples must have thought, “If Jesus is the true vine and we are apostles of Jesus, then we must be branches in Jesus.  But are we then branches bearing no fruit to be cut off or branches to be pruned to bear even more fruit?”  This is a challenging question.  Am I in the will of God or am I outside of God’s will?  To be within the will of God is safety, joy, and hope.  To be outside the will of God is to be in freefall, sadness, and hopelessness.  There may have been a moment or two of reflection among the disciples before Jesus spoke again.

When Jesus did speak, he said, “3(But) You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).  Perhaps at that moment, the Eleven were beginning to understand what Jesus was doing hours earlier when Jesus washed their feet.  Remember events are not unconnected.

A few hours earlier, “3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.  6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  7 Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’  9 ‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’  10 Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’ 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean” (John 13:3-11).

          The sense here about being made clean is that Jesus had freed the Eleven from the corrupt state of desiring sin.  The basin of water and the towel were symbolic of the work already done in the disciples by them hearing and responding to the word of God. Because they had received God’s Word they were cleaned and were part of the fruitful branches of the true vine, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, God’s intention for the life of the Eleven was not to cut them off, but to prune them that they might bear even more fruit.

          Jesus’ words that “3(But) You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3), must have come as a relief.  They were still part of God’s desire.

          But to remain part of God’s plan requires that we remain connected to God.  We understand this principle.  I worked 30 plus years for the Federal government.  I retired seven years ago and was separated from that vine.  As a result, though I was once part of the life of that organization for many years, my separation means I no longer have a part in the plans of that organization.  With this principle in mind, Jesus said to the Eleven, “4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  5 “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:4-5).

          Jesus words reveal the simple truth that to be and remain vibrant in our life with God, we must remain attached to Jesus every bit as much as a branch is to a vine.  We know this to true from the physical world.  No branch on its own can produce fruit.  A branch separated from a vine looks fine immediately after separation but then begins to wither under the elements and influences of the world. In short order, that branch is dead. This physical truth teaches us a truth about our spiritual life. 

I know too many people who have separated themselves from a relationship with Jesus.  Rarely did that separation begin abruptly.  It is usually began with the words or sentiment that, “I need a short break from church.”  Then the few weeks missed going to church becomes several weeks, then a few months, and then several months.  That separation usually resulted in the end of reading the Bible, the end of listening to Christian music, and the end of prayers. 

The longer that separation went on the more the world influences the thinking of that individual.  Relationships with the Christian community became more distant and less intimate, often more judgmental.  These steps of separation are predictable and consistent with branches separating from the vine that enter a withering process.  Many of us have seen this process unfold within our families and is difficult to know just what we should do.

          Fortunately, Jesus gave his disciples and us the direction to follow in our lives regardless of the circumstances that surround us. Jesus said to his disciples, “8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).

          There it is said again.  A simple statement of life’s purpose.  Bear much fruit, accomplish many lasting things, by thinking, acting, and speaking the words and mind of Jesus.  Do these things and God is glorified and is fully pleased with us. Our life need not be more complex than that simple recipe.  “Got fruit? Connect to Jesus.”

          Even though Jesus made it simple what was expected to live a full rich life in God’s favor, he recognized that humans need more specifics.  So Jesus continued to provide these instructions in his final hours and minutes with his disciples.  Jesus said, “9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:10-13).

          Jesus uses the word “love” eight times in these few verses.  I think we can then conclude that love is central to his point.  Love has been central to Jesus’ reason for coming to Jerusalem at this moment in time.

When Jesus was coming into the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey, could see the city ahead of him and he wept over it and said, “42 “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). 

Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem but knew many would reject him and the city itself would be destroyed.  Jesus cried because he loved.  Love expressed deeply and passionately brings us to tears because we peace for someone more than anything else.  We should ask ourselves, “Who do I cry for like Jesus?  When do I cry on behalf of someone else because I want peace restored to their life?”  When we cry in that manner, that is love.  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Love so passionately that you cry for someone.

          When Jesus was challenged by a lawyer in the Temple before the people as to which was the greatest commandment, Jesus said love God and love one another were the greatest commandments.  Jesus was unashamed to publicly state his love for God and love for other people.  He set himself up to be challenged and he welcomed it.  He loved God and wanted people to know it.  He loved people and wanted the world to know it.  That is love.  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Be public about your love.

          Jesus said love does not get any better than to give one’s life for his friends. Jesus would soon do just that and go to the cross for his disciples.  Jesus also went to the cross for you and me.  To give of yourself to another, to make a personal sacrifice of time, talent, treasure, or anything else you value is love.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”  Love is found in doing for others.

The disciples would come to love because they all gave to others until their lives were taken from them.  You and I are here, in faith, because of the love of one of those Eleven men.  Someone shared the love of the gospel message with you because in love someone shared it with them.  That unbroken chain of sharing goes back to one of the Eleven who sat with Jesus and heard the words, “13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Love by giving to others.

To further strengthen the disciples in fulfilling God’s desire, Jesus said, “16b I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16b).  There are three things that we need to say in concluding on our conversation here today.

First, Love is the first fruit.  But in Jesus final thoughts on this matter, Jesus brought back the connection of fruit to the branch to the vine.  We, therefore, recall Jesus said, “5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  We must remain connected to Jesus to bear the fruit God desires.

Second, Jesus said “Ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).  Jesus was saying to his disciples, “You may ask in my name because you are a branch connected to the vine, which is cared for by the Gardener, God. You may ask because you have a relationship with God through Jesus.  And because you ask, God will answer.”  Believers can ask of God because they are connected to God through the Jesus.  This is the branch, to the vine, to the Gardener connection we enjoy.

Third, Jesus said, “whatever you ask, God will give you.”  I think many people have taken these specific words too literally making the words seem untrue.  I am confident that I could pray to God and ask to win the Powerball Lottery and my chances of winning will not have improved one bit.  I am confident that I can pray to God and ask we never have winter again and the chances of living warm year-round will not have changed a bit. 

Now the reason God will not answer such petitions is not because he is unable to make these things happen.  The reason these petitions will go unanswered is they have nothing to do with bearing fruit. The promise of answered prayer here is made to the disciples who remain united to Jesus as the fruit-bearing branch is united to the vine.  Therefore, here, whatever we ask God to help us fulfill the bearing of fruit will be given to us.  Our prayers and petitions made in response to these words of Jesus, should be centered on producing the first fruit of love.

Love must be at the center of the Gardener, Vine, branch, and fruit relationship. Jesus made this point again with his final words, Jesus said, “17 This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). 

Got fruit? Connect to Jesus.  Love.  Amen and Amen.