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03-07 - Meal Together

          Jesus had set his face on Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.  Jesus had a message for all Judaism and the stage for that message had been set to occur during the celebration of the Passover.  Jesus arrived in Jerusalem as king, prophet, and priest.  The reaction to Jesus was immediate and intense.  People were turning in faith to Jesus and his message of hope.  But the religious leaders saw Jesus and said, “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (John 11:47b-48).

          We read about the passionate reaction of the religious leaders in today’s New Testament passage from the Gospel of Luke.  There we read, “The chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:1b-2).  Jesus had ignited the passions of the people and the passions of the Pharisees, just not in the same sense and direction.  The Pharisees wanted Jesus gone for a while, but they could not seem to find a way to do it.  Something needed to change for them to have the right opportunity to take charge and control.

          Just when it seemed the obstacles to seizing Jesus had become insurmountable, Satan entered the scene.  Luke wrote, “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present” (Luke 22:3-6).  An insider, a confidant of Jesus, had walked into the camp of the Pharisees offering information and insight into the time, day, and place that Jesus’ arrest could happen without the people knowing.

          Luke’s words remind us that Satan is present in the world. Satan’s approach is simple.  He does not so much lead people to be evil and do bad things as much as he reminds people and encourages people to remain in the world and follow the ways of the world.  We need to remember Jesus’ first sermon of nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”  Jesus came to call people to repent, that is turn from the ways of the world, and follow God.  Satan only needs to convince people to stay in the world to accomplish his goals.

          Luke’s words relative to Judas makes clear that Satan convinced Judas to stay in the world and let the world determine his values and destiny. Worldliness has nothing to do with genuine living.  Judas filled his lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.  Why did Judas allow himself to be dragged back into the world?  Was Judas convinced that a handful of coins would make a difference in his life?  Or was Judas convinced that he could create a crisis and cause Jesus to act as king of force leading the people who loved Jesus to battle for the control of Jerusalem? We are not told why Judas betrayed Jesus and once again embraced the world.  We want to know but God keeps that reason to himself.  Why?  Because the reason for Judas’ betrayal did not make a difference to the outcome.  Isn’t that always true?  If someone betrays you, does it really change how much that betrayal hurts if you knew their motivations? Does knowing the reason for the betrayal change the outcome?  The important thing here was that Judas took his eyes off Jesus and allowed Satan and the ways of the world back into his life.  If Satan opposed Jesus in that manner, Satan would have no problem opposing the church, often most effectively from within the church itself.  If Satan opposed Jesus and the Church in that manner, Satan would have no problem creating trouble within your own family. That is the way of Satan.

          While Judas’ betrayal was unknown to the other apostles, Jesus was aware.  Early in the Gospel of John we read Jesus said, ““Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him” (John 6:64).  Knowing there were only hours remaining before these battles would begin, Jesus wanted time with his disciples.  Luke tells us Jesus sent for Peter and John and said, “’Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’  ‘Where do you want us to prepare for it?’ they asked.  10 He replied, ‘As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.’  13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.  14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:8b-15).

          Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem and in Jerusalem, Jesus would suffer. The coming suffering of Jesus was, therefore, not unexpected.  Jesus suffering was part of the plan.  Long before Jesus arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “31The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8:31-33).  In this exchange, we see that Jesus understood that Satan was working on Peter, trying to get Peter to follow the ways of the world by denying God’s plan. Satan’s tactics are not complex, and his objective is always the same; get people to remain in the world and avoid God’s plan.

          God’s plan was for Jesus to come to Jerusalem, to proclaim the message of hope, to heal those who were sick, and to suffer for the sins of others.  But before the suffering, Jesus desired to share a special meal with his disciples, and he asked Peter and John to make the preparations for the meal.  The meal was the Passover meal that the Jews celebrated, and continue to celebrate to this day, recognizing the release of the Jews from bondage in Egypt.  The Passover meal involved the slaughter of a lamb and the meat roasted and eaten at a meal that evening.  At this feast, the Jews looked forward to a future deliverance by the Messiah.  A symbol of that expectation was to set aside a cup of wine for the Messiah should he come that very evening.

          “14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he [Jesus] said to them [the disciples], ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:14).  “19 And he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).  Jesus used bread as a symbol for his body given over for sacrifice much as had been done for the lamb.  Jesus words changed the Passover meal from a repetitious traditional celebration to a new celebration of life given by Jesus, the Son of God.  Jesus’ words of invitation to eat the bread echo words Jesus had spoken much earlier in his ministry.  Jesus had said, “35 “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry… 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…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 6:35, 38, 39-40, 48-51).

          When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you; do this [eat this] in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), Jesus was inviting his disciples into an intimate relationship with him and into the fullness of life.  Jesus was also building up his disciples for the suffering he and they would experience in the days ahead.  To build them up, Jesus gave his disciples a moment to remember, a moment of great symbolism, to draw strength from and remember that though the disciples may not be able to see Jesus, he was nevertheless still within each of them.

          Moments to remember are important to us.  Those who are married, wear a ring as a symbol of their marriage.  When a married person looks at their ring, they are reminded of a shared life.  The ring is a physical, tangible thing that reminds us of unseen, but the real things embodied by words such as love, commitment, and devotion.  We use the shape of a heart in ways to express love for country, a person, or a pet.  That heart shape reminds us and announces to other people that we have a deep affection for something or someone.  There are symbols all around us to remind us.  At this meal, Jesus desired to share with his disciples a symbol of life.  Jesus took ordinary bread, blessed it before God, broke it into pieces for each disciple, and invited them to eat it. This whole scene was a powerful reminder of a share life given to the disciples by Jesus.  A life that was to be built upon the love of God and the love for one another.  The disciples needed this reminder to help them get through the suffer that lay ahead.

          We are no different than the disciples.  We, too, need to know that Jesus is present in our suffering.  Taking the bread of the Lord’s Table, in whatever form it is offered, reminds us that though we cannot see Jesus, he is nevertheless with us. Eating the bread with others reminds us that we are equal in the sight of God, we are equally frail, and we need one another.

          Having transformed the bread from the Passover meal as a symbol of Jesus body, Luke wrote, “20 In the same way, after the supper he [Jesus] took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20). Some scholars speculate the cup Jesus took here was the one set aside for the Messiah.  Jesus was again making use of a symbol, a symbol that the Messiah, God’s anointed messenger, had come with a new covenant.  God had promised a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah. 31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.  “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

          God’s desire was to forgive the sins of his people and God did that through Jesus.  The Apostle Matthew in his account of the Last Supper recorded the scene this way, “27 Then he [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks he [Jesus] gave it to them [the disciples], saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28). 

          Jesus blessed the cup Jesus and given to the disciples was a symbol for them and for us that God has placed his seal, his authority, on the promise of forgiveness.  God is for us.   The Apostle Paul put it this way, “31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).  The cup offered by Jesus is a symbol that God is for us.

          Jesus desired to have this meal with his disciples because this meal symbolized God’s desire to call his people to his side and let them know that no matter what was occurring in their lives, God was for them. We can come now and share in God’s desire and be reminded of Jesus in us and God for us as we take the bread and drink the cup.  Join me now in the Lord’s Supper, a meal of remembrance and life.  Amen and Amen.

02-28 - Tested

 Last week, we talked about Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem as the true king of Israel.  As king, Jesus was responsible to God alone to know the law of God and follow it flawlessly.  And Jesus did just that.

Even in his youth, Jesus astounded people at the depth of his knowledge of the law.  When Jesus was just a boy, while in Jerusalem, Jesus separated himself from his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph.  “45 When they [Mary and Joseph] did not find him [Jesus], they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him [Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:45-47). 

Jesus possessed the mind of the true king because he could proclaim and teach that law and could judge wisely and righteously. Jesus still is king and Lord.  He is more than able to guide us with wisdom and grace.  We just need to be willing to listen and follow him.

          When Jesus last entered Jerusalem as an adult, the people of the city asked, “Who is this?” and those with Jesus said, “This is Jesus, the prophet.”  As a prophet, Jesus came to bring a message of repentance in the presence that there could be a future. 

Jesus conveyed this message of hope from the very beginning of his ministry.  The first sermon Jesus ever gave was recorded in just nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Jesus carried this message everyday in words and actions.

          Throughout Jesus’ ministry among the people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day confronted him on his teaching.  One such time occurred after Jesus had called Matthew, a tax collector as a disciple. “10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

          Jesus was a prophet calling people to come to him in the present to be cleansed that they may have a future with God.  That is still Jesus’ message today.  Jesus asks us to receive that message and then share it with others.

          When Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem for that final time, Jesus gave the prophetic message in deeds and words to all of Judaism.  Jesus cleared the Temple of those marketing goods, changing money, and selling sacrifices. 

Having made room in the Temple, Jesus then acted as a priest and invited in those who were blind and lame.  Jesus invitation was an opportunity to lift these people up before God so that they could be healed.  This is what Jesus meant when he said God desires mercy not sacrifice. This is what Jesus meant when he said he had come for the sinner not the righteous.  This is what Jesus meant when he established his Church.  The Church, in whatever form, is not to appear like a marketplace in any way.  If it must appear as anything, it should more closely resemble a hospital where those who need healing can find it in and through the body of Christ.

Jesus, who had his face set on Jerusalem, had entered the city, and made know the Word of God.  Jesus made known the presence of God through the healings of the sick.  The people were following Jesus because of the authority of his teaching and the healing power of God that he revealed. Jesus was doing exactly what his Father wanted him to do. 

But there are powerful forces in the world that do not want people to follow Jesus.  Why? Because Jesus offered true freedom and a free people are a dangerous lot.  People who are free in God necessarily are free to reject the control of others.  People who are free in God do what is right and not what others tell them to do. People who are free in God speak the truth regardless of the consequences.  People who are free in God have entered a new kingdom that is built on love, grace, mercy, and hope.

Those powerful forces of the world and worldly thinking came to the Temple not to celebrate Jesus’ arrival but to test Jesus.  Those forces hoped to discredit Jesus and prevent him from doing what God had called him to do.  We live in that same world.  We, like Jesus, will be tested in our faith.  We will be tested on our resolve to stay on track with the call upon our lives. There are powerful forces that will try to get us to deviate from the path God has in mind.  Why?  Because the world does not want free people will follow the will of God and not the will of the earthly powers.

In Jesus first test, these worldly forces tried to invoke the power of earthly kingdoms against Jesus.  Matthew recorded for us these words.

“15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’  18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ 21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’  22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).

There are many sermons which have been derived from Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees over the payment of taxes.  But I think the message for us today rests in a single word and that word is “image.”  Matthew used the Greek word, “εἰκών,” (i-kone') which means image or likeness.  What mattered in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees was image or likeness. When asked whether to pay taxes or not, Jesus asked the Pharisees to look at a coin and tell him whose image was upon it.  The Pharisees said the image of Caesar had been struck onto the coin.  Jesus said then the coin bearing Caesar’s image was Caesar’s and, therefore, should be returned to Caesar.  But then Jesus added that the things of God, meaning the things made in God’s image, should be returned to God.

In making this point, Jesus reminded his interrogators that humanity was not made in the image of Caesar. In Genesis, Chapter 1, we read, “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’” (Genesis 1:26-27).  Jesus wanted God’s people to be returned to God and his kingdom.  Jesus original sermon echoed in the Temple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Repent, return to God, for you are created in his likeness.

How does one return to the image and the likeness of God?  We do so by imitating Jesus.  The Apostle Paul said, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  When we repent and turn toward God, accepting Jesus, then the image of the Son of God, into which true Christians are transformed, become our new image.  It is an image, a likeness that begins with our minds, and follows through with our words and actions.  We are made in God’s image and therefore should be expressing that image.

Now Jesus words were strong, and they silenced his critics, at least for a moment.  Then a second challenge came to Jesus.  This time the powerful forces tried to discredit Jesus using the power of God’s own words.  In the Gospel of Mark we read, “28 One of the teachers of the law [some translations say “a lawyer”] came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he [the lawyer] asked him [Jesus], ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’  29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’  32 ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’  34 When Jesus saw that he [the lawyer] had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34a).

Jesus had cleared the Temple of its marketplace activities making way for healing and teaching to occur.  Jesus then met the challenge of the Pharisees regarding whose image mattered more, Caesar or God’s image.  The answer was clear God’s image mattered because we were made in his likeness. Then the lawyer challenged which of God’s commandment was the most important. The hope of the lawyer was that Jesus would be forced to pit God’s Word against itself and be discredited before the people.  Jesus, knowing the law, said there were two commandments that were most important. Jesus said they were to love God and love one another.  Jesus said all the other commandments depended upon these two. 

If we keep these two commandments fully, then the other commandments fall into place.  If we break either of these commandments, then other commandments fall as well.  I think this is one of the clearest messages to the doubting world.  Many people have said and continue to say, “I’m a good person, I don’t believe in God.  But if there is a God heaven, I expect to be in heaven because I’m a good person.” That is simply, not what Jesus said.

Jesus said God desires that we come to him, now, and come to know what love is.  In knowing the love God has for us, we love God, and we will then have the capacity to love one another.  In love, we will bear his image in the world more fully then ever.  The Apostle John said it this way:

“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).

The image of God is found in those who love God and love others.  And, therefore, heaven is for those who bear the image of God.  We cannot expect to be like God when we reject his existence.  We cannot expect to be accorded grace when we deny there is a giver of grace.

Even the lawyer who seemed not to like Jesus very much understood Jesus message for the lawyer said, “33 To love him [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

“34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34a).  Mark then added, “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34b).  The powerful forces had tested Jesus and were found lacking because Jesus never wavered from his bond with his Father.

We, like Jesus, are tested by very powerful forces of the world.  Those tests will come from many sources and they will cite the power of government, science, academia, and even God’s own Words.  Often times the source of those tests will be from people very close to us. The tests will come from our friends and even our own families.  Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem to be tested and in his testing, he could show those who follow him what to do.  That is the important part of this Jerusalem experience.  We can follow Jesus lead and give answers for our faith in simple ways using God’s Word that shares love and the message of hope.  “So now faithhope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is the ultimate expression of a free people. Let us be free to love as God has loved us.  Amen and Amen.

02-21 - Turning the Tables

          Last week, we began a journey with Jesus as he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus had a fierce determination to go to Jerusalem as part of a divine appointment to bring a prophetic message of judgment.  Prophesy is a statement from God calling the people to change in the present to have life in the future. As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, Jesus revealed more and more about God and the mission and ministry that we are to follow.  That is why I wanted us to celebrate Jesus arrival in Jerusalem today, so that we had several weeks to explore what Jesus taught in the last week of his public ministry, all done in Jerusalem and its surrounds.

          Jesus had his face set on Jerusalem and now he had arrived.  Our New Testament reading from the Gospel of Matthew contained one of accounts of Jesus arrival which we remember through Palm Sunday.

          Matthew wrote, “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’  4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 ‘Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’’  6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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 crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

          Jesus who had his face set on Jerusalem, had arrived in Jerusalem.  There are a couple of things that we need to think about concerning this arrival. Most recently on this journey, Jesus had been sending his disciples ahead of him to prepare people for his arrival. There does not appear to be any advanced warning that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem.  So when Jesus and the noisy crowd arrived at the city, people from the city asked, “Who is this?”  The crowd of people with Jesus shouted in reply, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus was a prophet.

          But Jesus was more than a prophet.  We read that Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem on a donkey was the fulfilment of a prophesy.  5 ‘Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’’  So Jesus was prophet and king.  In Israel, the true king was supposed to be responsible to God alone.  In the office of kiing, he was expected to know and do the Law of God.  He was to be a proclaimer and teacher of the law and one who judged wisely and righteously. The scene as Jesus entered was the fulfilment of prophesy in which the true king came to Jerusalem in a gentle state riding on a humble donkey.  The people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the beloved king of Israel.

          Matthew wrote at the arrival of Jesus, king and prophet, the whole city was stirred up.  The Greek word Matthew used, σείω, (si’-o) meant to be agitated in one’s mind.  Jesus arrival in the fashion of a prophetic king and as a prophet was causing the people to be mentally nervous, restless, and anxious.  What was this character Jesus up to?  The number of permanent residents in Jerusalem then was perhaps 100,000 people.  But Jesus entered days prior to Passover and the number of people likely swelled by another 250,000 people or more who had come to Jerusalem from all across the known world.  Jesus’ arrival and the proclamation of the crowds with Jesus that said he was a prophet made people curious, anxious, and expectant.  They would not have to wait long for things to begin to happen.

The crowds and the inhabitants of the city understood that a prophet was a person who spoke for God and who communicated God’s message courageously to God’s Chosen People – the nation of Israel.  Sometimes a prophet acted out his message symbolically. Isaiah went naked for three years. Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days and then on his right for 40 days more.  Zechariah broke his two staffs.  Ahijah tore his cloak.  In making a spectacle, the prophets aroused curiosity of the people and scorn from the establishment.

          After arriving in the city, Matthew reported that Jesus, the prophet, wasted no time making his way to the heart of the city, the heart of Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem, and arousing the people and attracting the scorn of the establishment.  We read, “12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’’” (Matthew 21:12-13).

          Jesus who had his face set on Jerusalem had set in motion an irreversible collision and judgment upon the institution of religion.  He did so by doing five things.

          First, Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey setting people’s minds to begin to wonder if Jesus was to come as the true king of Israel and cast off those appointed by Romans.

          Second, Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. The practices within the temple were under the administration of the control of the Sadducees, one of the two powerful religious groups.  Jesus, at least for a moment, end the Sadducees’ profits.

          Third, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.  These were men who exchanged, for a price, pagan coins minted by the Romans or other authorities for silver coins approved by the Pharisees, the other powerful religious establishment.  Jesus was ending the Pharisees profits.

          Fourth, Jesus overturned the benches of those selling doves.   Small birds such as doves were sold to the poor for use in animal sacrifices within the Temple.  Disrupting the sales of the birds sent a message that God was not interested in sacrifices.  Jesus had turned the tables on the religious establishment at the very moment the city was filled and overflowing with Jews from around the known world.

          Fifth, Jesus brought all his actions together with his words, the words of God.  Jesus condemned the establishment with words from the Hebrew Scriptures saying those selling, buying, exchanging money, and giving them place to do so, collectively had turned the Temple from a house of prayer to a den of robbers.  Here the word “den” more accurately means “cave.”  The temple, then, was not a place where violent people went to commit violence, but a place where violent people went to hide.  With this context in mind, Jesus’ use of the phrase becomes clear. The buyers and sellers, who represent the powerful Jewish elite, had turned the temple into a “den of robbers.” They do not go to the temple to commit crimes; they commit crimes, and then hide in the temple. The phrase, then, does not implicate the Jewish elite for being robbers, it implicates the entire Judaic system was oppressing the Jewish population in the name of the temple – that is, in the name of God.  Jesus, in one short moment, has indited the religious establishment as corrupt through and through.  Jesus took this action in front of Jews from every corner of the world assuring his message would be heard throughout all of Judaism.

          Jesus had issued God’s judgment.  The religion had become corrupt and no longer represented God.  Instead, religion represented the interests of perpetuating itself and making comfortable the powerful within its apparatus.  Jesus wanted simplicity of a relationship to exist between each person and God, not between each person and an institution.

The Gospel of Mark added that,” 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him [Jesus], for they feared him [Jesus], because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching” (Mark 11:18).  Jesus message had been received by the establishment and, like most prophets, was completely rejected.

But Jesus with his face set on Jerusalem had more to do that condemn corruption.  Jesus the prophet and king was also Jesus the priest.  Priest were official ministers or worship leaders in the nation of Israel who represented the people before God and performed various rituals to atone for the sins of the people.  Jesus wanted to be among the people lifting them up before God.  To this end, Matthew recorded, “14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14). For the moment, the Temple had been transformed from a religious marketplace to a place of healing.  Those who were suffering came and received comfort. The miraculous power of God to heal the wounds and afflictions of the body were on prominent display.  Again, this was all done in the presence of Jews from the four corners of the world so that the good news could be shared everywhere.

Jesus’ behavior was itself designed to by symbolically prophetic.  The people had been waiting for the sign of a Messiah, a chosen-one of God who would usher in a new era.  The prophet Isaiah told the people that they would know the Messiah by what he said and did. Isaiah wrote, “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.  Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:4-6).  Jesus came with power to save the people from their religion and the power to gently heal broken bodies.  The message of Jesus’ actions was an unmistakable declaration that he was the Messiah.  And the people began to love Jesus and worship God with simplicity and brightness. This too should be the hallmark of our worship.  We should worship God through Jesus and avoid the pitfalls of loving our traditions more than loving God and loving one another.  When we focus of Jesus then we know God more fully and understand our role in the kingdom.

          But people love traditions, and they get upset if tradition is changed and things of tradition are no longer valued.  Look at the reaction of the religious establishment to Jesus transforming the Temple from a marketplace to a place of healing and comfort.  “15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant.  16 ‘Do you [Jesus] hear what these children are saying?’ they [the leaders] asked him [Jesus].  ‘Yes,’ replied Jesus, ‘have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” (Matthew 21:15-16).

          Jesus message was clear. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem for a final encounter, a final opportunity for the religious establishment to free themselves of tradition and embrace the simplicity and brightness of God himself.  Jesus entered the city as the true king of Israel able to guide and govern people in the ways of God.  Jesus presented a threat to no one riding gently upon a donkey.  Those who traveled with Jesus sang songs of praise, not of war. They proclaimed a blessing upon those who come in the name of the Lord.  Jesus captured the attention of the city’s inhabitants making them wonder, “Who is this?”  Indeed, “Who is Jesus?”  Those walking with Jesus said Jesus was a prophet, able to speak the words of God the people so desperately needed to hear.  Jesus gathered attention of Jews of Jerusalem and across the world all there in the Temple of Jerusalem.  He offered by contrast the profound difference between the corruption of religion that only helped those who sought to perpetuate its traditions for profits and the compassion of God who caused the blind to see and the lame to walk. Jesus came to Jerusalem to turn the tables against those things which were not of God to make room for those things which are of God.

          This is the message today. Let Jesus turn the tables of your life and our church.  Let Jesus come and heal whatever pain you experience by giving you life eternal. In return, worship him in simplicity. Let Jesus turn the tables and replace whatever is of tradition and not of the Holy Spirit found in the Christian Church.  In return, let us be empowered to heal the needs of other.  If together, we live our lives in this manner, many will say to us, “Blessed are they that come in the name of the Lord.” Amen and Amen.

02-14 - He Set His Face

          This week, some portions of the Christian Community will observe a forty-day period called Lent.  Originally, this forty-day period, nearly eight weeks, was referred to in Latin as Quadragesima and was a period symbolic of Jesus forty-day fast in the wilderness.  Centuries later this time was remained Lenz, meaning the “spring season.”  Regardless of its name, Lent has been a time in which many Christians engage in practices of fasting and self-denial, most simply avoiding indulgent desserts and sweets. As a rule, Baptists do not observe Lent. In fact, some of the early Baptist-minded people took to eating sausage to make the beginning of Lent as a symbolic manner of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church.   When I was a child and Lent would come, my parents would ask, “What are you giving up for Lent this year?”  I would say, “School.”  I was told to pick something else. 

Baptists generally follow the “regulative principle of worship” that says we should practice only what is explicitly commanded in the New Testament.  When it comes to fasting and self-denial Jesus commands that we do it in secret much like we talked about last week when it comes to giving.  Jesus said of fasting, “16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).  So, if you wish to observe some form of fasting over the next forty-days, feel free to do so, just do it in secret.

Having review the history of Lent as originally symbolic of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, is there something we might do over the next forty-days that is commanded in Scripture?  If we look back to Jesus’ wilderness experience, we find some advice from Jesus.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’  Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:1-4). Jesus’ answer was built upon the words of the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy 8:3 “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  Jesus’ teaching is clear.  Jesus wanted us to know the word of God, the story of God.  If we want to do something spiritually profound over the next forty-days, we will gain infinitely more from reading God’s word than from foregoing a slice or two of our favorite pie.

In that vein, I thought we could spend our time over the next eight weeks looking at Jesus’ words as he came to seek and conclude his public ministry.  The Gospel of Luke provides for us a turning point for Jesus and thus a starting point for us.  Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke, verse 51, says, “51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).  In the King James Version of the Bible, this passage reads, “51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 KJV).  Today, I think the King James Version gives us the best insight. 

Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  What does this mean?  Jesus had been to Jerusalem before this moment in his ministry.  What did it mean then that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem?”  In the Old Testament, to set one’s face was often the word given by God to His prophets. We find in the book of Jeremiah the prophesy was given to the city of Jerusalem.  In Chapter 21, verses 9-10 we read, “He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. 10 For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the Lord” (Jeremiah 21:9-10 (NKJV)).  In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophetic phrase, “set My face,” appears 13 times in the form of a judgment.  It would seem then that when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus was acting upon a divine command as though he had been dispatched to Jerusalem with fierce determination. Luke conveys that Jesus understood that a day of reckoning and judgment was to come in Jerusalem.  As we will see in a moment, it appears Jesus disciples believed that the time for God’s power against those who would oppose Jesus had come.

          Picking up again with our New Testament reading today, “51 Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, 52 and sent messengers before His face.  And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.  53 But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:51-54)

          Jesus and the Twelve were on a journey, a journey that would end in Jerusalem.  It was a journey in which Jesus was sent by God to render judgment on Jerusalem.  For a brief moment on this journey, the group was nearing the lands of the Samaritans.  The Jews and Samaritans despised one another.  Nevertheless, Jesus sent two or more of His twelve disciples ahead into the next village, a Samaritan village, to seek a place to stay. As we read, when the villagers found out that a group of Jews, and a Jewish prophet no less sought shelter, the villagers rejected Jesus disciples request for shelter and food.  Luke added that the rejection was “because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem.”  These Samaritan villagers believed that Jesus was only a prophet for the Jews and that Jesus only interest would be in Jerusalem.  These villagers believed, without hearing from him, that Jesus had nothing to offer them and so they rejected Jesus.  Not much has changed in 2,000 years.  Most people who reject Jesus today do so without ever hearing from him.  They reject Jesus through the message brought to them by Jesus disciples.  We need to think about that for a moment.  People reject Jesus not because of what he says or might say to them.  People reject Jesus because of what Jesus’ disciples said to them.  The moment Jesus’ disciples went into that Samaritan village, they were the closest thing to Jesus those people ever met.  The villagers rejected the disciples and thus Jesus.  For the next person you meet, you might be the closest thing to Jesus they have ever met. What a terribly frightening and wonderful opportunity each encounter presents.  Knowing God’s Word and imitating Jesus then becomes a necessity not a nicety.

          In today’s New Testament story, we read that, “54 And when His disciples James and John saw this [the rejection of Jesus], they [James and John] said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them [the Samaritan villagers], just as Elijah did?’” (Luke 9:54).  Now there are a couple of judgmental Christians for you!  James and John, as Jesus would call them, the Sons of Thunder, were outraged that at this moment in time, the Samaritans would dare to reject Jesus.  There must be judgment upon them for the time of judgment had come.  James and John understood Jesus’ focus had changed from teaching, preaching, and preparing for the final act which they believed would be the restoration of the throne of David over all Israel.

          We see that to James and John’s offer of judgment upon the Samaritan villagers, Jesus rebuked them, and said, “‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village” (Luke 9:55-56). Jesus was on a divinely inspired commission to bring a message to the city of Jerusalem.  It was a prophetic message meaning there was an opportunity in the present for people to choose life and avoid judgment in the future. It was and is a message of hope not destruction of people’s lives.  Although Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem for this final encounter, He never wavered from his commission to bring the good news of the kingdom.

          We also read today from Luke, Chapter 10, that after this encounter with the Samaritan village, “The Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. Then He [Jesus] said to them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.’ 12 But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city” (Luke 10:1-12 (NKJV)).

          Jesus sent 70 disciples them “two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). There we are again, the face of Jesus reads prominently.  Jesus had his face set on Jerusalem and Jesus sent the 70 disciples into the Jewish villages “before His face.”  The 70 were to express the presence, the face of Jesus, to the villagers ahead of Jesus arrival.  Those villagers who rejected the message of Christ, the promise of the coming kingdom of God, would fair no better than the inhabitants of Sodom who were utterly destroyed by the judgment of God.

          Luke made clear the tension and urgency of Jesus’ ministry had been heightened.  Discipleship in Jesus was not confined to just following Jesus.  Discipleship now meant following and presenting the face of Jesus to others.  The need to choose salvation sooner rather than later was now imperative.  The outline of church with Twelve apostles and 70 commissioned disciples was also now beginning to take some shape.  The ministry of Jesus was beginning ahead of the final act and all of it was being done before the face of Jesus.

          The ministry that Jesus commissioned was one that started with prayer. Jesus said, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2).  Our ministry must begin with prayer.

The ministry of Jesus is about love, not conquest, “Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  Our ministry must be about love.

The face of Jesus is not about buy allegiance as some kings did. Jesus face was about bidding of peace. “Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (Luke 10:4-5).  Our ministry must be about peace.

The ministry of Jesus is one that expects rejection but even in rejection reminds those who rejected Jesus that they did not reject a person but the kingdom of God.  “10 But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:10-11). Our ministry must be about proclaiming the good news even after we are rejected.

          We are heirs to this same mission and the same call to be the face of Jesus to others.  Over the next several weeks, will be walking along side Jesus as he heads towards Jerusalem. I hope that in doing so we might know his face better and his ministry that he has commissioned us to carry out. It is going to be an extraordinary journey of discover as we come to know that the kingdom of God is here. Amen and Amen.

02-07 - Silent Authority

          In case you missed the announcements on television, today is Super Bowl Sunday. Many people across the country will be absorbed watching the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers square off in the title match.  The Super Bowl is an event full of anticipation, emotion, and noise.  Many years ago, after the Dallas Cowboys had won the Super Bowl, then head coach, Tom Landry, made this observation. "The overwhelming emotion--in a few days, among the players on the Dallas Cowboys football team--was how empty that goal was. There must be something more." 

“There must be something more.”  These are profound words reflecting that the cheers of the adoring fans fed, for a while, the self-worth of the players.  And when those cheers stopped, as cheering fans always stop, emptiness invades and fills the space left behind with the thought, “There must be something more.”  We experience that feeling in our desire for significance in other settings than just the Super Bowl.  When the recurring monotony of work or the stillness of sitting at home because of COVID becomes the focus of our lives, we are compelled to believe, “There must be something more.”  The good news for all of us is that there is something more, something infinitely more satisfying, and profoundly more rewarding than the applause of any person. That something is peace, and it is not a thing, it is a person in the name of Jesus Christ.  He is that “someone” more that each one of us needs.

          In our New Testament reading today, Jesus brings us to a new understanding of our personal search for significance.  Jesus understood our intense human desire for someone to notice us, to desire our company, to enjoy our presence, and even applaud us.  The desire to be noticed and receive attention comes at an early age. Babies learn early that if they cry someone will eventually come and tend to their needs.  That learned behavior does not go away with age.  Children who do not receive sufficient attention from their parents for doing good things may resort to excessive or inappropriate behavior to gather negative attention from a parent.  For many, this behavior response for attention goes on into adulthood.

          Jesus, positioned on the mountainside, was teaching his disciples and the crowd about the principles of Godly behavior and of whose attention matter most in life.  Was it God’s attention or the attention of those who one day might cheer for us? Jesus began with these words, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” We might at first be confused about this teaching because Jesus cautions against showing forth good works and yet if we read a few verses earlier, we would have heard Jesus tell his listeners, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”   Is there a contradiction here between showing your works and not showing your works? The simple answer is “No.”  In the first case, Jesus said show forth the light of God through works.  Jesus was cautioning his followers against the temptation to be being timid in exercising faith.  In this second charge to beware about practicing righteousness before others, Jesus was cautioning against becoming the center of the showing in giving to others. The two cautions combined then sum up to, “Show when tempted to hide; hide when tempted to show.” Therefore, when Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”   Jesus was addressing the motivation for our actions not suggesting or providing justification for inaction.  Jesus message was consistent, His followers must be people of properly motivated action.

        Jesus continued in verse 2, “Thus, when you give to the needy [Note well Jesus did not say, “if you give to the needy.”  He said “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  Giving to those in need requires right motivation for it to be honored of God. Some, as Jesus points out, gave in a manner so that everyone was aware they were about to give.  He described their giving as though they were making a trumpet call.

It is interesting to note here that in the Temple of Jerusalem, against the wall of the Court of Women were thirteen chests, or 'trumpets,' for charitable contributions.  The chests were narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom, shaped like trumpets.  People would put money offerings into these chests.   In the Gospel of Luke, we read, that when the Temple was crowded, “many rich people threw in large amounts.”  Think about that for a moment.  Instead of putting or placing coins into this trumpet shaped receptacle, you throw large numbers of coins into that trumpet.  Do you think there would be a difference in the sound?  Throwing the coins into that metal trumpet, I am sure one would make a sound like thunder.  So, giving to the “sound of a trumpet” was not just an expression, it was what people did in a manner of speaking.  The motivation of the givers was to make sure everyone knew they were making a large contribution so that they could be praised.

Now I suspect that most of us are saying, “Pastor, I got that covered.  I send my tithe in the mail by check or I quietly place my offering in the plate at the rear of the sanctuary.  I do not try to get others to give me applause.”  I would say to you that’s good; but how did you do with the next part of Jesus’ teaching.  Let’s look at verse 3.  “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  That seems like a tall order to do something without letting yourself know you are doing it.  Therefore, Jesus was speaking metaphorically, not literally, and he was continuing to speak about motivation.  Jesus was saying, “While perhaps you are not giving to the needy for the applause of others, neither are you to give and quietly congratulate yourself.  Do not give and then say to yourself with a straight face, ‘What a great person I am!’”  “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Giving to the needy should done for God and not for your own applause.  Jesus finished this point that when you give to the needy do so in secret, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Jesus’ call upon his disciples was that they must be properly motivated and give in the secrecy of one’s heart.

Now the giving that Jesus talked about was most easily understood in the context of giving money.  But giving to meet the needs of others extends beyond just financial needs.  There are many people who have their financial needs met but are in great need of things money cannot buy such as friendship and comfort.  There are many people who need wisdom and counsel as well as love and affirmation.  None of these needs will be met through the offering plate.  These needs can only be met through human contact.  The onset of COVID-19 has made the need for human contact greater with each passing day.  It does not seem possible by just about 1 year ago we were talking about a two-week national pause to “flatten the curve.”  We all did that.  We separated for a two-weeks which became four-weeks, which has become months.  In those months, the nation has seen the following explosion of needs:

Sleeping difficulties – 36% increase

Eating disorders – 32% increase

Alcohol and substance abuse – 12% increase

Anxiety, stress, suicidal ideations, domestic violence, frustration, and hopelessness have all risen. The neediness of the world has increased by every measure in the past 11 months and, the end is not in sight.  How will we respond to the needy?

To understand our response, it would be good for us to go back to that mountainside and learn from our Lord, Savior, and teacher.  Jesus spoke about and demonstrated with his life that giving to the needy was an act of mercy.  Now mercy is not to be confused with kindness.  Kindness is doing good for people.  We send flowers to someone who needs cheering up and it is said that is kind, and it is.  We hold a door open for someone and we are being kind.  In kindness, we sacrifice a bit of our money or a few moments of our time for the benefit of others.  We should be known as people who practice kindness.  But Jesus came to give mercy not kindness.  I do not mean to say Jesus was an unkind person.  I mean to say what I said, “Jesus came to gave mercy not kindness” and called his followers to do likewise.  In our Old Testament reading today from Hosea, God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  What then is mercy that God desires, and Jesus gave?

To act in mercy is to give to someone the very thing they desperately need and that they cannot provide for themselves.  You give someone what they need most that they have no way of obtaining for themselves.  Jesus gave mercy.  He did so not for the applause of others and he did not give to applaud himself.  He gave mercy according to the will of God. For each person on that mountainside and for each person here today and all those in between, Jesus gave.  He gave His life that all those who would profess Him as Lord before man would be made new.  The old would be wiped away, the sins of the past forgiven, and a new eternal life would be born again with God.  The people on the hillside and the people here desperately needed forgiveness and they could not grant forgiveness on their own.  To be forgiven is a gift of mercy to the needy.

We cannot replicate what Jesus did, but we can imitate what Jesus did. We can act with mercy and be forgiving of offenses committed against us.  We pray this every week, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The Apostle Paul said it this way, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be merciful toward others and forgive them in the same way you have received mercy from God with your own forgiveness.  We can be merciful and forgive those who have offended us.  This is an act of mercy given to the needy.

We can imitate Jesus by granting mercy to those who need compassion, company, counseling, and consoling.  We have the capacity to be merciful to those made needy through COVID and reach out to them with our presence.  We can share the hope in Christ that we have, the mercy we received, and help others come to faith.  Nothing could be more important than to be an instrument of ushering another person to eternal life. 

We can extend mercy and help those in need to get connected or reconnected to the body of Christ, His church.  Becoming connected to the body of Christ is to break loneliness and hopelessness and give life meaning and purpose beyond simply existing for another day.  To be part of the Christian church is to be part of a continuous living body that is more than 2,000 years old.  Helping people find meaning is to extend mercy because you will have introduced them to the something more that they need.

In a few moments, I will stand before the cross and we will take the bread and cup as symbols of His gift to us.   The cross, the bread, and the cup make no noise on their own or together.  Yet they are symbols of a quiet thunder that captures our attention that we are in the presence of God and that His gift of grace and mercy is available to us.  It is the ultimate moment of being aware that “there is something more.”  Let us rejoice in the mercy we have received, and the call God has placed on our lives to share with those who are in need.  Amen and Amen.

01-31 - Devote Yourselves in Prayer

          We are continuing to look at Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. As we discussed earlier, this letter was probably the only written part of the New Testament many members of this church ever received. 

Think about that for a moment in context as though you were Paul.  There are a group of people who had followed Judaism, angelology, or paganism who heard someone, other than Paul, preach the message of salvation through Christ and they accepted Jesus.  Now, you have a chance to send them a short letter of fewer than 2,000 words.  For perspective that is about 3 typed pages. In those three pages, you want to encourage these people in what it means to be a Christian, what to do and what not to do, and how to become who they claim to be.  What would you put into those precious few words?  It is a difficult challenge.

Over the last few weeks, we have spoken about some of instructions and topics Paul put in his letter.  Paul said to his readers that they were now “in Christ,” and that their lives needed to be “rooted in Christ.”  Paul described his readers as having died and being raised into new life.  Paul called on his readers to set their hearts on Christ and their minds toward heaven. 

          All of these topics were important and major objectives for those who claimed Christ to understand that they may grow into mature Christians.  Paul’s letter was almost over.  There is a bit more space before he must stop writing.  What then must he include to make his one and only letter to this church complete?  Not surprising, Paul turned to the subject of prayer.

          Prayer.  What is prayer?  The most basic definition of prayer is “talking to God.”  Prayer is not meditation or passive reflection; it is direct address to God.  It is the communication of the human soul with the Lord who created the soul.  Prayer is the primary way for the believer in Jesus Christ to communicate his or her emotions and desires with God and to fellowship with God.  Prayer can be audible or silent, private or public, formal or informal.  And so, Paul began his final major topic this way, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2a).  The Greek verb Paul used for “devote” was plural, meaning devotion to prayer was expected to be an activity of the entire church, not just a few prayer warriors.  Where Paul said, “Devote yourselves in prayer,” we might say, “You must pray together.”

What prayer might Paul have wanted the church to pray together?  I think it is likely the prayer Paul had in mind was the prayer he offered for the church earlier in the letter.  In Chapter 1 of the letter to the Colossians, Paul said, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9b-12).

Let’s look at Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae as a model our own prayers and prayers for our church.  Paul said, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understand that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9b).  Paul and his associates (We) were joined together collectively speaking to God and asking God to intervene in the life of the members of the church and the church itself.  This is the first important point of prayer.  In prayer, we are talking with God.  Conversing with God is an acknowledgment that God exists and that we desire a relationship with him.  In our conversation with God, we acknowledge that God can do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.  And so, in our conversation with God, we ask God to intervene in our life and bring about something we know or are not certain will happen on its own.  Let’s think about this perspective that we are asking God to intervene with a couple of examples.

I think it is fair to say that we would all welcome warm spring days to come sooner rather than later.  Now if we have a conversation with God about the coming of spring, we do not say, “God, we ask that You intervene and grant that when the grass of our lawns awaken this spring that You would make the grass green.”  We do not pray for the grass to display its green color because God’s intervention is not needed.  God made the grass green and by its very nature, when the grass returns from dormancy, the grass will be green.  Grass does not have a will to seek to be anything other than grass and so grass has no choice but to abide by its nature.

But humanity is different from grass. Humanity has a free will with desires of the heart, the mind, the eyes, and all our other senses.  Recognizing that we have a free will, Paul prayed that God would intervene and send the Holy Spirit to church at Colossae and give wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God’s will.  Why?  So that having come to possess wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God’s will, the members of the church at Colossae would voluntarily make God’s will their own.  This is the essence of becoming like Christ. 

Jesus had a will of his own and in a prayer just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus said to God, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36b).  Jesus had the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God and conformed his free will to God’s as a sign of love for God.  Paul’s prayer to the church of Colossae was that God would intervene and give its members the wherewithal to make their will that of God.  Paul made this prayer, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,” (Colossians 4:9b) because Paul understood that absent the continued intervention of God the transformation of the church and its members was not possible.    It was not possible for the church in Colossae to follow God’s will without God’s intervention and it is not possible for us to follow God’s will without God’s intervention. 

Let me share with you some statistics about how we express our will through a study on the behaviors of New Yorkers.  A survey from 2014 found that New Yorkers chose to spend their time in the following ways each day:

Sleeping – 8 hours 33 minutes

Working – 7 hours 31 minutes

Leisure – 5 hours and 23 minutes

Television – 2 hours 48 minutes

Commuting – 58 minutes

Grooming – 43 minutes

Housework – 32 minutes

Reading – 21 minutes

Thinking – 18 minutes

Religion – 9 minutes

It would seem that we have a long way to go before we could say we are involved in continual prayer asking God to intervene in our life so that we can understand God’s will.  We need to accept that absent God’s intervention, we will not individually nor in the collective, act like Jesus and follow God’s will.  We, then, individually and collectively must be in continual prayer for God to “fill us with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.”

But what is the consequence of knowing God’s will?  Why would we want that for ourselves and our church?  Paul explained in verse 10 of Chapter 1, that with God’s intervention asked for through prayer then “10 You may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (Colossians 1:4).

Whether we are conscious of it or not, humans seek to define a legacy for ourselves.  Our legacy is how we want to be known and how we wish to be remembered. Some people want their legacy to be felt long after their death.  You can see examples of the desire for a long lasting legacy by looking at the pyramids of Egypt, the granite monuments in your local cemetery, and trust funds established in memory of the founder.  Paul’s model prayer, the one he prayed for the church at Colossae, includes an understanding of legacy.  He prayed that the church would know God’s will so that it could be said about that church that “They lived a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” 

Paul’s words would make for an interesting message on a church sign as an expression of the mission of the church. I did a study one time about mission statements for churches.  Some of those statements were quite short, “Making Disciples.”  Other statements were long, “Turning the hearts of youth and families to God and each other. Developing our God-given potential in order to win in every area of our lives. Advancing the Kingdom of God, first throughout our circles of influence, then the nations abroad.” Not one of them said, “Living a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing him in every way.”  Yet, that is God’s word and desire.  And we will not live a life worthy of the Lord unless God intervenes because we ask him to do so.  Paul prayed this prayer for his friends in Colossae and instructed them to pray this continually. It was necessary for them and it is necessary for us to pray continually that we our legacy will be “They lived a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (Colossians 1:10).

In living a worthy life, Paul said the church would know they life was worthy by “bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10b).  The church must bear fruit.  There must be action in response to the acquiring knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s will, otherwise such wonderful insight is wasted.  As our earlier statistics as to how New Yorkers spend their time suggested, we prefer entertainment to prayer.  We generally prefer everything else to God and bearing fruit.  Marva J. Dawn is an American Christian theologian, author, musician and educator, borrowing from the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that “Television has habituated its watchers to a low information-action ratio, that people are accustomed to ‘learning’ good ideas (even from sermons) and then doing nothing about them.”  The test of faith is whether we ask for God’s intervention through prayer and then accept and follow through the wisdom he sends to us.  We can know if we passed this test of faith if there is fruit in our life and the life of our church that is pleasing to God.

But Paul understood that good works would not win over some people to Christ.  The culture of Paul’s day, including the culture in Colossae was antagonistic, and even hostile, to both faith and good works of the church.  Does that sound familiar?  Christians then (and now) were met with resistance and adversity. Therefore, they needed God to intervene not to silence the hostility but instead to strengthen the church “with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).  God is not going to change the situation surrounding the church by making the meanness, arrogance, viciousness, and indifference of the world simply go away. If God has not done that since Adam and Eve first sinned it seems unlikely God will do it today.  Instead, God strengthens his chosen people to endure and have patience until the day he sets everything right again.  In the meantime, God uses his people to be instruments through which the world can experience the presence of God and ask why? In their asking, God’s people can then share the news that God has shared with them.  That is God’s plan.  There is no alternative plan.  As God’s chosen people we need to be in continual prayer to ask for the strength and power to endure and be patient in the work of God’s plan.

Finally, Paul prayed that the church at Colossae would be a giving church not in the sense of finances but a church “giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12).  Why did Paul pray the church would be joyful to God?  There is only one reason.  Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s intervention into the world.  The Apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:1,14, 17b).  “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).  Jesus came that the church members at Colossae and us could know God, receive God, and have eternal life.  This life we are living in this moment, however glorious it may be, is not the end of the story.  There is more life to come only in that life, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).  Knowing our identity and our destiny should be the source of great comfort.  In our comfort, we should be joyful and thankful for God’s ultimate intervention in our life by sending Jesus Christ.

Paul’s message was simple.  “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).  Let’s do this together that we may know God’s will, live a life worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work, have great patience, and be joyful.  Amen and Amen.

01-24 - Things Above

          One of the most powerful desires that humans have is to be consistent with themselves. Behavioral psychologist, Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”[1]  The point being made is that we want to live a life that is consistent between our present and our past.  While we may make incremental changes in our life over time, we will do so in such a way as to avoid the appearance of being inconsistent with our past life.  We will maintain a sense of consistency in our life, that is, unless we reach a turning point.

          Now, a turning point in our life, is one of those moments where for reasons of physical, emotional, or spiritual activity we make a sudden and abrupt break from our past.  I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a turning point was in high school. A friend of mine was a good solid, clean cut student.  One day he sustained an injury to his knee.  His injury slowed him down and he could not do all the things he had been doing before being injured.  He would require surgery.  After a short period of recovery following his surgery, he was expected to be able to resume all the activities he did formerly.  He would return to being fully consistent with who he was before his injury. Because of surgery, my friend was given narcotics to alleviate the post-surgical pain.  My friend was never the same.  He changed in so many ways, most notably with a compelling desire to use drugs, cocaine primarily.  With that change, came a different way of acting, dressing, hairstyle, language, associates, and ambitions.  I now realize my friend, influenced by drugs, had gone through a turning point.  My friend’s former life was done, and he was on a new life.  We remained friendly but we were never close friends again.

          I use this illustration as a way of casting in our minds the idea of a turning point in our life in which the former things are abandoned in favor of new things.  A turning point represents a dramatic shift that alters virtually everything about one’s life, whether that is for the good or the bad.  Our Scripture reading today from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae began with a discussion of a turning point in the life for the members of that church.  It was a turning point from worldliness and towards God.

Paul wrote, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

          Paul’s words began with a reminder that his readers had just passed through a turning point.  Paul said, “Since, then you have been raised in Christ.”  The radical change had been made.  His readers had been raised.  There is a sense that his readers had been born again, this time spiritually in Christ. They had accepted Christ as their Lord. This is something new, something that at that time no one ever heard about before.  Paul’s readers had practiced Judaism, Angelology (the worship of angels), paganism, or emperor worship and all the symbols and people who they had shared those practices with were still present in their lives.  But Paul’s readers had changed. Paul’s point was a call for his readers to forget all that they had done in the past because they had been raised to new life in Christ. 

To know how to live that new life, Paul said his readers must do two things.  First, they must “Set their hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).  To set your heart on something is to put all your emotional energy and desire into a particular aim and resolve to let nothing stop you.  To have your heart set on something means that you believe this and only this aim will satisfy your inner longing.   Paul’s charge was to make Christ and his will the love of your life.

          The second thing Paul said his readers must do is to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  To set your mind on one thing and not another is to give the full weight of your thoughts and contemplations to understanding the one and not the other. Paul called on his readers to engage their minds and acquire the mind of Christ.  Paul made a similar appeal in his letter to the Romans when he wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).  Paul’s point was that since you have passed through this turning point, know the mind of Christ so that you can then know God’s will for your life.  Paul’s call was that his readers to put their full mind into knowing God’s will.

          Paul’s readers had spiritually gone through a turning point and Paul was instructing them that now their emotional and intellectual beings must be focused on the things above not the things of earth.  We say something similar every Sunday in the Lord’s prayer.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are asking and praying that the things, the passions of the heart and mind that abound and are evident in heaven will replace the things found on earth.

          Paul had laid out the two things followers of Christ must do; set your heart and mind on things above.  Now why is that so?  Paul made this dramatic and shocking statement.  “For you died” (Colossians 3:3a).  There are few statements in life that cause us to stop in our tracks then when we receive notification that someone has died.  You answer the phone and the person on the other end says, “There just is no good way to tell you this but ‘so and so’ died this morning.”  At that instant, your active relationship with that person is over and it becomes the point at which nothing can be changed.  The personality, passions, and purposes of that person abruptly ceased and cannot be resumed.  There is no more dramatic turning point for the human body than death.  Paul was saying to his readers, “You died when you accepted Christ.  Your relationship with who you were is over.  The personality, passions, and purposes of that person have ceased and cannot be resumed.” “For you died” (Colossians 3:3a).  Paul’s words are jarring, and I believe he intended them to be so.

          Can you imagine making a phone call to a friend after you accepted Christ that goes like this.  The conversation begins as your friend answers the phone, “Hello.”  You reply, “Hey John, its George.”  “George, what’s up?”  “John, there just is no good way to tell you this but I died this morning.” John, stunned by the news, says tentatively, “What do you mean you died this morning?  Are you alright?”  You reply, “I died this morning when I accepted Christ Jesus as my Lord.  I am more than alright.  I was raised from the dead and now my heart and mind are set on Christ.  My personality, passions, and purposes will be his and not mine.  I am more than alright.  In fact, I would like you to die and join me in new life.”

          That would be one strange conversation but essentially that is what Paul wants us to understand.  To accept Christ is to die and be raised into a new life in Christ.  We see this death and resurrection in the act of baptism. When we are baptized by immersion, we are making that public proclamation that we died and now we are alive in Christ.  Baptism by choice is the symbol of a turning point moment in life and a symbol of our independence from our old life.  We are now free to be radically inconsistent with our past and adopt new and always changing patterns in a new life.

          Paul said, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:3-11). 

After announcing the death of his readers, Paul reminds his readers of the things that are earthly that died with them.  Such earthly things include sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying, and being divisive toward people who are not like you.  Some or all these things were part of the life and history of member of the church and now that they were dead their active relationship with these things was over and should not be resuscitated or resurrected. There are two keys points here. When we come through a turning point and our old ways are dead, then they are dead always.  We must not act a new way in church and the old way when we are out of church.  We cannot be divided by living as a new person and trying to live the life of a dead person.  Second, and very encouraging, is the reality that none of these earthly behaviors disqualifies us from a life in Christ.  Having been sexual immoral, impure, lustful, possessing evil desires, being greedy, or angry, malicious, slanderous, or being a lar or being divisive disqualify us from being in a permanent active relationship with Christ in the present and forever.  The spiritual turning point, a spiritual death and rebirth, in Christ was intended specifically for sinners.  Jesus said, “31 Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Paul then continued that after laying to rest all of the earthly things, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:12-17).  The behaviors that Paul cited here are the product of a new life.

          In emergency medical response, there are some telltale indicates that responders hope to see to indicate “signs of life.”  The top three are consciousness, breathing, and pulse.  There are lesser signs, of course, but these are the top three.  By analogy, Paul’s point was there ought to be signs of life in the Christian whose heart and mind are set on things above.  When someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to see and experience compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Those attributes reflect a consciousness, a sign that the life of the Christian is in Christ and Christ is in them. Moreover, when someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to find forgiveness expressed as an outgrow or consequence of having been forgiven by God.  Forgiveness is the breath of God coming into our body and exhaled to others. Forgiveness is a sign of continued repetitive life that should be to the Christian just as respiration must be found in the body itself.  Finally, when someone comes upon a Christian, they ought to find the virtue of love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.  To a Christian, the love of Christ expressed through the shedding of his blood is what unites us to him and to one another.  The blood of Christian is what gives and sustains life. There is not a part of our human body that is not sustained by our blood and so it is with the Christian.  There is not a part of us that is not sustained by the love of Christ.  Paul’s list are the signs of life in Christ.

Are their signs that you have died and signs that you have been raised again? Or is there a confusing mixture of death and life?  Do we sometimes feel like we are alive in Christ and are compassionate, loving, and forgiving?  These are the times we are keeping our minds and hearts focused on Christ.  These are signs we have gone through a turning point in our life.  These are the signs of life that we have been raised again into a new life.  This is the good news of life.  When our life is so mark by Christ, then our hearts will be satisfied.  If this is where you are today, then you must continue to press on toward the prize. Do not give up and do not turn back. Press on.  If this is not where you are today, turn around, God is behind you waiting for you.  Turn and worship Him.  In worship we receive the guidance we need through God’s Word, we become more aware of others, the need for prayers, and worship presents us the opportunity to set our hearts and minds on the things above and truly be alive in Christ.  Let us all give thanks that we are alive in Christ. Amen and Amen

[1] Cialdini PhD, Robert B. (2009-05-28). Influence (Collins Business Essentials) (pp. 57-58). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition