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03-03 - My House Is for All

          We are continuing our journey through each day of what many in the Christian community now call Holy Week or Passion Week.  Last Sunday, we spoke about Jesus’ decision to make an unmistakable entrance to Jerusalem. Crowds saw Jesus as the king come to establish a restored earthly kingdom of Israel.  The Pharisees and Sadducees saw Jesus as a threat to their status, the Temple itself, and to the nation of Israel.  Jesus saw His entry into Jerusalem as a cause for grieving because everyone missed seeing God was among them.  It was a very emotional day for everyone.

After resting for the evening in Bethany, a town about 2 miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples retraced their steps back to Jerusalem on the next morning, what we would now call Monday.  On this day, there would be no riding on a donkey, no palm waving crowds, and no encounters with the Pharisees along the route to the city. But it would be a tremendously passionate week and one that would have much meaning for the people then and for us now.

What exactly happened on Monday?  While the gospels differ somewhat in the sequence of events, it seems clear that two things of significance happened.  One event was private to Jesus and his disciples, and it involved a fig tree.  The other event was very public and involved a temporary stop to sacrificial activities with the Temple of Jerusalem.  These very different events had a common message.  We will look at the fig tree event first, then the Temple activities, and then conclude with the fig tree.

I want to use the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, as our primary source of events for this day.  In looking at Mark, we will find that Mark presented his readers with what some theologians call, “A Goldened Oreo Cookie.”  Mark uses Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree as the outer layer of the cookie, the events in the Temple as the sweet filling of the cookie, and then uses Jesus’ second encounter with the fig tree as the remaining layer of the cookie.  What even kids understand is that the center of the Oreo cookie is the main attraction. Our conversation will follow similar lines with the Temple clearing as the center of Jesus’ activities.

The gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus left Bethany, Jesus became hungry.  Seeing a fig tree in the distance, Jesus went to find out if the tree had any fruit.  This is Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree. When Jesus reached the tree, he found the tree had nothing but leaves, because Mark says it was not the season for figs.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples heard Jesus say to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14).  In reading the account of Jesus and the fig tree in the Gospel of Matthew, we would find no commentary about Jesus’ state of hunger, or on whether it was fig season.  But we do have Jesus saying to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again” (Matthew 21:19). Neither Luke nor John recount an event with a fig tree in their gospels.  What is going on here that the original readers of Mark and Matthew would have understood? 

First, fig trees, in and around Jerusalem, sprout leaves in March and yield two types of figs.  The early figs appear as knobs on the older branches.  Those early figs appear before the tree sprouts new leaves.  The early figs are not ripe until late spring.  The second figs appear on new branches in late spring and are harvested from August to October.  The fig tree described in the gospels was full with leaves so the tree could have or should have been early figs as knobs on the old branches of the tree.  But the tree did not have any early figs, and did not have summer figs because it was not yet the season for summer figs.  The tree only looked inviting with its leaves, but it bore no fruit. 

Second, the first readers of this story, the Jewish ones in particular, would know that fig trees and figs relate to Old Testament prophecies about God’s judgement upon Israel.  The prophet Jeremiah is most relatable here.  Jeremiah said that God would judge Israel for being unfaithful.  In that judgement, Jeremiah said, “13 I [God] will take away their harvest”, declares the Lord.  “There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them” (Jeremiah 8:13). Jesus’ encounter with a barren fig tree sets the stage and helps the disciples recall that God will judge Israel for unfaithfulness. Jesus’ words in this encounter with the fig tree reinforce that sense that a divine pronouncement of judgement has been made against Israel. 

Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree may seem like a small episode of prophesy but as the outer layer of cookie, this encounter was preparing the reader for something much more important to follow.  There was coming a greater encounter and reminder of God’s judgement as the group moved forward to the Temple.

After the encounter with the fig tree, Mark reported Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and made his way to the Temple and its outer courts.  The Temple was the prized centerpiece of the Jewish religion and its sacrificial practices.  The Temple at this time had just completed a 46 year long rebuilding program to make its splendor pronounced and awe inspiring.  This week of celebrating the Passover, the Temple was busy with visits with Jews from across the known world.  Mark said that as Jesus entered the outer court of the Temple, Jesus acted decisively and without warning.  As soon as Jesus enter the Temple courts, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there” (Mark 11:15a).  What were they selling?  Namely, there were people selling and buying sheep and cattle for sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus drove them all out the Temple court, the buyers, the sellers, the cattle, and the sheep.  Jesus here ended the buying and selling of sacrifices in the Temple.

Mark then said, “Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers” (Mark 11:15b). Moneychangers were there to exchange pagan coins, for a fee, for the silver coins made by the Temple authorities and acceptable for offerings to the Temple.  Jesus sent the coins of the world and the coins of the Temple scattering and mixing across the courts of the Temple, effective ending the exchange of money.

Mark then said Jesus overturned the tables of “those selling doves” (Mark 11:15b). Doves were reserved for sale to the poor to offer as sacrifice in the Temple.  Here too, the tables with the coins from dove sales were overturned effectively ending the sales of doves.

Then Mark said, “And [Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts” (Mark 11:16).  Everything associated with the sacrifices within the Temple ended abruptly on that Monday. With everyone’s attention focused on Jesus, Jesus said this, ““Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).  “Is it not written,” is another way of saying, “You know that it is written,” it is written in the Old Testament, the prophesies of Isaiah of God’s desire for the Temple and Jeremiah of God’s judgement upon violators of God’s desire.

First, let’s look at Isaiah, Chapter 56. God revealed through the voice of Isaiah God’s desire for the Temple.  God said the house bearing His name would be open to all, Jews and foreigners, who would bind themselves to the Lord, who would love the Name of the Lord, who would serve the Lord, who would keep the Sabbath, who would hold fast to God’s promises. Each person would be accepted and honored within this Temple, for God’s temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.”  But Jesus observed that it was not a house of prayer for all nations, because not all were welcomed.  First, non-Jews were excluded.  In the context of that period, how could the non-Jewish world encounter God and revere him without being able to access God’s house?  There was no alternative to them.  Second, even Jews could not access the Temple without spending money on sacrificial animals and without providing a separate Temple tax.  God’s house was no longer as God desired, God’s house was a money making machine.

Through Jeremiah we would hear the prophetic words of judgment for failing to do as God desired.  “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.  9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord (Jeremiah 7:2b-11)

          Jesus words, “den of robbers,” invokes all what God had said through Jeremiah with a recognition that the leaders of the Temple were engaged in worthless and useless activities designed primarily to line their pockets with money.  The leaders of the Temple, Sadducees and Pharisees, were acting as though the Temple was a safe haven that shielded them from accountability.

          The combined effect of Jesus’ actions and statements in the Temple were to first stop all sacrifices and offering of gifts to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why?  Because worship of God was to be and must be for everyone without regard to giving favor to any man.  Second, the leaders of the people were charged and indicted as mere robbers who conspired with each other to impoverish the people they were supposed to lead.  The call upon them to “Repent” had gone unanswered and now God’s judgement would be upon them. 

Did the leaders repent?  Not at all.  Instead, the religious leaders were furious at Jesus’ actions and words vowing among themselves with murderous breaths to kill Jesus just as soon as they could do so secretly for the leaders feared the people. 

This is the sweet part of the Golden Oreo cookie – the very heart of the day.  Jesus clearing of the Temple and proclamation that God was to be worshipped by all was the central message on Palm Sunday and was the central message of this day.  Worship of God cannot and must not be restricted and turned into a money-making machine.

          After this encounter and the indictment of the religious leaders the Jesus and his disciples returned to rest in Bethany.  The ending of the story occurs with a return to the fig tree which in the gospel of Mark occurs the following morning.  In the gospel of Matthew, the conclusion of the fig tree occurs on the same day as the first encounter with the fig tree.  The conclusion with the fig tree is very much the second cookie of the Oreo as it draws emphasis to the filing in the middle, namely, the cleansing of the Temple.

          Mark wrote that when Jesus and the disciples encountered the fig tree again, “20b They saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”  The judgement upon the fig tree was symbolic of the judgement coming upon the unrepentant religious leaders and their fruitless worship practices.  Like the fig tree with its lush leaves was very much like the adorned Temple and practices of the Sadducees and Pharisees.  Both were fruitless.  The return to the fig tree finding the tree withered was symbolic of what would happen to the Temple and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  The day was coming in which that whole system would wither and die.  As we mentioned last week, that happened in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  Since that time, nearly 2,000 years there has been no buying and selling of cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices.  There have been no moneychangers.  No merchandise that needed to be moved.  The system of the Temple simply withered and died.

          The heart of the story of the fig tree and the Temple is again the worship of God. God desires earnest prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer that we recite calls us towards ACTS.  In prayer, we offer Adoration of God.  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Holy be your name over all the earth.  It is an act of worship to adore God.  In prayer, we offer Confession to God.  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We are acknowledging to God the need for our forgiveness and restoration.  It is an act of worship to confess to God.  In prayer, we offer Thanksgiving to God.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are giving thanks to all that God has provided to us, is providing, and will provide to us.  It is an act of worship to give thanks to God.  In prayer we give to God our Supplication, our requests.  “Give this day our daily bread…Lead us not into temptation.” We are asking God to sustain our bodies and protect our souls.  It is an act of worship to ask God for mortal and eternal protection.

          God’s house shall be a house of prayer, a place of worship, where we are free to adore God, confess to God, give thanks to God, and seek God’s help.  Jesus’ clearing of the Temple was to show what God desired from people of all nations, simple, unencumbered worship.

          Let us then be glad that we are here today in God’s house cleared by Jesus so that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can worship our wonderful Father and our Savior his Son.  Amen and Amen. 

01-21 - God or Traditions

          I suspect that most here today have seen in whole or in part a presentation of Fiddler on the Roof. There is a part of the play and movie in which the central character, Tevye, (Tev-e-ya) spoke of traditions. He said, “Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years.  Here in Anatevka (Anna-tef-ka) we have traditions for to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes.  For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl...This shows our constant devotion to God.  You may ask, how did this tradition start?  I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition...Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

          Traditions.  What are they?  The dictionary says that traditions are “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.”  Everyone has a set of traditions.  Growing up we had traditions for major holidays.  For Christmas, I remember a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and opening our stockings in bed on Christmas morning.  In theology, a tradition is a little different. A tradition is “a doctrine, a set of beliefs taught by the church, believed to have divine authority, coming from God, but [There is always a but.] which is not found in the Scriptures.”  What might be some of these traditions of the broader Christian Church not found in Scripture?  Those traditions include the observance of Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Advent, and Christmas just to name a few.  Strictly speaking, none of these cherished traditional observances have a specific foundation in Scripture.  This is why some Christian groups do not observe any of these practices.  Today, Baptists tend to pick and choose which traditions they want to follow, of course, in their own way.

          Traditions in church may or may not be helpful in our faith journey.  How can traditions be harmful?  Our friend Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof shared with us the danger of traditions when he said, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."  Traditions become very harmful when they replace the authority of God and God’s Word. Traditions become harmful to our faith walk when we follow our traditions and not Scripture as the guide for our behavior and conduct.  Traditions become harmful when the tradition themselves and not Scripture serve as the basis for our ethics, our Christian Ethics.

          Traditions was one of the things that Jesus fought against all throughout his public ministry.  In Jesus’ day, there were two major camps of tradition among Judaism.  There were the traditions of the Pharisees and the traditions of the Sadducees. These groups had divergent beliefs. The Sadducees, primarily the keepers of the Temple practices, believed only in the words of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  The Torah, the written word, was binding on their beliefs and practices.  All other religious writings by the prophets and others while perhaps of interest to the Sadducees were not binding.  The Pharisees believed that the Torah, Psalms, and words of the prophets were part of the God’s Word as well as how those words had been practiced as conveyed through oral tradition.  There in lay a significant difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees.  What Scripture to follow?  What oral tradition to follow as though it was Scripture? And, most importantly, who gets to decide what oral tradition is and how it is to be followed?

          The Roman historian, Josephus, reported that the Pharisees had great influence over the common people who respected their piety and gave great credibility to their words.  The Sadducees did not enjoy such popularity with the masses and only had influence over the rich.  This gave each sect a unique adherent constituency, the Pharisees with the multitudes and the Sadducees with the wealthy.

          Over time, the Pharisees and Sadducees each courted the favor of the king seeking a power advantage over the other group.  At one point in their history, the Pharisees fell from favor with the king of Israel who then crucified 800 Pharisees in front of their families.  In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees and Pharisees had come to a balance of power, each holding to their own traditions, and having a combined ruling council of Pharisees and Sadducees called the Sanhedrin to resolve any differences peaceably.  We will have a little more to say about the Sanhedrin later.

          So, into the tension of power over traditions, Jesus entered the scene with the gospel message, with miraculous healings, and a growing following of people.  Earlier today we witnessed the clash, seemingly a simple clash, with Jesus and traditions when we read from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7.  Mark wrote, “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law [Sadducees?] who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his [Jesus’] disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)  So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He [Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:1-8).

          A seemingly simple and minor infraction of a common tradition held by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the ceremonial cleansing of one’s hands before eating, led to an indictment by Jesus that, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” In Jesus’ view, the Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders of the people, had done as Isaiah had prophesied and Tevye sang about, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”  Jesus had pointed out that the heart of the conflict between Him and the Pharisees and the Sadducees was and would be, “Who should be worshipped God or man? Whose word should be followed, God or man?  Would our ethics or public and private behaviors be derived from Scripture or human tradition?” 

I think in many ways Jesus would point out to us that the very same conflict today.  Is our life going to be informed and be based on the holy ground of the voice of God or will our life be based on the shifting sands of the voice of human tradition?

          Jesus was blunt about what He thought of the Pharisees and Sadducees for following their traditions over words of Scripture. Jesus called them [the Pharisees and Sadducees] hypocrites.  To be clear, hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform.  The Pharisees and Sadducees claimed the moral standard of being upright and holding to God’s word but they practiced their beliefs without regard to what Scripture said.  In fact, Jesus was accusing the Pharisees and Sadducees of following their own traditions in public to gain the praise of other men.  To this Jesus said, when people seek the praise of other people, then they will receive no reward from God.  Jesus, in calling the Pharisees and Sadducees hypocrites, took these two groups who coexisted with uneasy tension, and managed to unite them with a common and intense hatred of Jesus.

          I have no doubt that Jesus understood his words would infuriated the Pharisees and Sadducees.  But Jesus needed to tell the truth because Jesus could do nothing but tell the truth.  Yet, Jesus was still willing to teach the Pharisees and Sadducees the error of their ways so that they might repent.  Jesus taught the Pharisees and Sadducees not by parable but with plain language. Jesus said, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you [Pharisees and Sadducees] say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you [Pharisees and Sadducees] have handed down. And you [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:9-13).

          What is Jesus talking about here?  First, we need to know that there was a Jewish tradition of taking something and declaring your intent to make that thing, be it an animal, a vegetable, or precious metal as a religious gift, a Corban, reserved for God.  Once reserved to God under this tradition, then the giver could not be released from that commitment even if that asset was needed to care for one’s aging or sick parents.  Jesus pointed out that this tradition, however good it seemed on the surface to devote something to God, conflicted with God’s command that children honor their mothers and their fathers.  Jesus said, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:13). Simply, the Pharisees and Sadducees were turning the Word of God upside down and substituting their own traditions for what God desired of them.

          What then are we to do with Jesus’ teaching as we seek to follow proper Christian Ethics?  I think there are three things we must be willing to do.

          First, we must subject our behaviors to examination to ensure we know why we are doing them and that they are consistent with Scripture.  Allow me to illustrate with an example outside of church.  Shortly after I was promoted to a supervisory position in the federal government, a member of my staff brought a letter to me to sign.  The letter granted government approval of a plan presented by a contractor.  I said to the staff member, “Why are we doing this? Why are we approving this request?” She replied to me, “This is the way we have always done it.”  I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?”  She replied to me, “This is what your predecessor wanted us to do.” I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?”  Looking a bit frustrated with me, she thought for a moment, and then said, “I have no idea.” I said to her, “Good answer.  How about we find out together what we should be doing?”

          We need to be willing to submit our personal decisions to act or to not act against the Word of God. “Why am I doing what I am doing? Why am I not doing what I am not doing? What is my motivation to act the way I am acting?  Am I acting this way to be praised by others?  Am I not acting in the way God wants me to act because I am seeking to escape the scorn of others?”  If we want to live a life that flourishes with God and follows Christian Ethics, then we need to know what Jesus said and what Jesus did.

          Second, corporately, as a church, when we meet for worship, we are doing two very different things at the same time.  In one context, we are organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening to renew and enrich our lives with a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We want worship to be a wonderful and meaningful experience.  We want to be challenged and we want to be uplifted.   The assembling of the body of Christ into the public setting should be a cause for joy. That is first purpose of worship.

          However, at the same time we are seeking to uplift the faithful we are also organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening for those people who do not usually attend worship.  We ask of ourselves, “How do we include those seeking the joy of worship into the family rather than exclude them?  The Pharisees and Sadducees thought Jesus’ disciples should be excluded from dining because their hands were not ceremonially clean.  These groups used their traditions to keep the things [people] they believed were impure from contaminating that which had been made holy. Holiness does not work that way. Jesus touched the leper, and the leper was made clean, Jesus was not made sick.  Holiness works the same way.  Holiness transforms whatever it touches.  We must ensure that our traditions, or behaviors, as a church are not stumbling blocks to those seeking God’s grace.  That is our second purpose when we worship.

          Finally, we should be able to see from this short passage that Jesus stood out from the crowd.  But why did he stand out?  Did Jesus stand out because of what said?  In part, yes, he did.  Did Jesus stand out because of what he did?  In part, yes, he did.  But I think the thing that cause Jesus to stand out head and shoulders above all others was that Jesus lived out the word of God in both what he said and what he did. Jesus was accused of being many things. He was called mentally ill, demon possessed, a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel, and a revolutionary.  But no one ever called Jesus a hypocrite.  Jesus did as he said he would do.  Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors seeking to transform their lives and make them holy.  Jesus visited with the Pharisees and Sadducees answering questions in the hopes of making their lives holy.  Jesus raised up those who were troubled to lead them to holiness, and he humbled those who were proud to lead them to holiness.  Do we stand out from the world around us?  Do people hear our words and see our deeds and give the glory to God? 

          Sadly though, the traditions of the man and not the Word of God were too attractive to Pharisees and Sadducees.  These groups feared Jesus’ popularity and self-testimony 

that he was the Messiah and the Son of God.  And so, the Sanhedrin, the best and brightest of both the Pharisees and Sadducees met not to resolve differences between them.  Instead, the Sanhedrin met in unity to confront Jesus for his beliefs. The verdict of the Sanhedrin was Jesus believed what He said, acted accordingly, and gave weight only to the Word of God.  This the Pharisees and Sadducees could not accept and so they set in motion their desire to kill Jesus and end the conflict.  But.  There is always a but.  But God chose to show the Pharisees, the Sadducees, as well as Jesus’ followers that holiness cannot be corrupted.  God chose to raise Jesus from the dead demonstrating Jesus was who he said he was and that the traditions of men were nothing but vanity before God.

          Friends, let us not be found vain before God.  Let us live out God’s word, standing out in the world because we follow Jesus in word and in deed.  Let others see that God’s Word is the holy ground upon which we stand and that God through Jesus Christ has made our hands holy giving grace to others by what we do in Jesus’ name.  Amen and Amen.

12-17 Christ Our King

          We are in the fourth week of our celebration of Advent.  We have come to see that Advent is about preparing our hearts to receive the miracle of Christmas Day.  It is for us to see the wonder of the Son of God coming into the world as a baby being born, born also as the Son of Man.  It is for us to experience the joy in the prophecies, the promises of God, fulfilled in the coming of this baby, and in the words of promise Jesus would speak to the people of his day.  It is for us to experience the comfort and peace in known that this baby came as our priest, to intercede for us, that in following Jesus we would have great confidence that Jesus would lead us right into the throne of God’s grace.  These are the things we experienced these past three weeks.  Today, I would like us to look at one final blessing in the birth of Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, prophet, and priest.  And that is that Jesus came as the king of a new kingdom of God.

          Now, culturally, people living in the United States have some difficulty with understanding the notion of a true king.  After all, every July 4th, we proudly and loudly celebrate Independence Day in which the American colonists declared their independence from England’s King George III.  In the United States, we are inclined to make kings out of people and things that entertain us.  Michael Jackson was named the King of Pop.  Louis Armstrong was named the King of Jazz.  Football is named the King of Sports.  And in comedy, there was a group called the Kings of Comedy comprised of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.  All these kings are very accomplished and talented entities but none of them is a true king.

          What then in the original Biblical context is a true king?  A king was a male monarch, a supreme ruler, having dominion over a given territory of land and people living upon that land.  A king had that dominion, held that rule, for life. The king’s words were the law of the land.  Whatever the king demanded was to be given to him because, after all, it was his to begin with.  There was no higher human authority than the king.  Of the 195 countries in the world today, there are only seven countries considered absolute monarchies.  They are Brunei, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Eswatini (Swaziland), and Vatican City. 

In Biblical context, the Hebrew people did not have an earthly king to start out.  The Hebrew people were governed by judges.  But then the people cried out for a king and despite warnings from God, the people chose a king.  His name was Saul.  Why Saul? Because the Bible tells us that Saul was handsome and “and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). Well, at least they had some good reasons for choosing Saul as king.  For the people of Israel, the king was to serve God and rule over the people with righteousness.  But alas each of Israel’s kings had difficulties governing because they had difficulties with sin.

God then decided to act decisively and to send his Son to earth, as a human, to come as king and speak of the kingdom of God. But the kingship of the Son of God, the Son of Man, would be far different than people expected.  The people of Israel were looking for God to send a king, but an earthly warrior king who would fight their battles and once and for all time set the lands of Israel free from foreign, pagan, kings such as the likes of the Roman emperor Caesar.  The people wanted to have their king again.

But, as we know, there are the fantasies of people and the reality of God.  In that reality, God sent his angel to a young woman named Mary who told Mary that she would give birth to a son who “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32b-33).  So, a king was coming.  We also learned that “1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1-3).  The Magi, pagans themselves, realized that a new king had been born to the Jewish nation. The Jewish nation that longed for a great king to restore Israel, including its current King Herod, was not aware of the birth.  King Herod, though the King of the Jewish people, was not of the Jewish bloodlines. The Romans had appointed Herod to rule over Israel at their direction.  Hearing the news of a new King of the Jews was very disturbing to the present king.  So disturbing was the coming of a new king to Herod, that Herod ordered the execution of all boys two years old and young in and around the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Herod hoped in doing so the new King of Jews would lay among the dead boys.

So, Jesus’ entry to the world was marked by joy of his birth as well as sadness following a murderous rage both fueled by a desire for a king.  But what of Jesus’ kingship?  What was the reality of that kingship?  Our New Testament reading today put Jesus’ kingship into context.  Scripture says, “1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.  5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”?  Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?  6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Hebrews 1:1-3).  The Scripture here made clear that God, the Sovereign, the ultimate Majesty, had decided to speak through and rule through his own Son. God’s Son received the anointing of God as king and was to be worshipped by all of God’s angels because God’s Son was superior even to the angels.  To the ancient Israel minds this statement is quite significant and telling.  For in antiquity, it was believed that every nation state was under the guidance and protection of its own angel.  There was even the idea that the fate of one nation’s battle against another nation was determined by a heavenly battle between their respective angels.  Therefore, to say that all angels are to worship God’s Son was another way of saying God’s Son, Jesus, was the king over all nations.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when Jesus began his public ministry he began with a royal command.  Jesus began with a kingly order, but it was unlike any previous royal command, and was universal, meaning Jesus’ command applied to everyone.  What did Jesus command?  Jesus commanded, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Jesus’ first command to “Repent,” that is to turn from one’s own ways and turn toward God, should have been a signal that there was something different about his kingdom and him being king.  Jesus’ command to “Repent,” was not about land acquisition or domination over the people.  Jesus did not say, “Gather your swords and let’s get those Romans out of here!” Instead, Jesus said, “Repent,” and “39 Do not resist an evil person. (Matthew 5:39a).  Jesus would go on to issue other royal commands that established a very different sort of kingdom indeed.  Jesus commanded such things as:

  •  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:16)
  • Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:33)
  • Make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19)
  • If you love me, keep my commands. (Jn. 14:15)

There are more of Jesus’ commands, but we get the picture that Jesus was a different type of king and one who was calling people to join a new kingdom.  It was not a kingdom of brutish conquest, it was a kingdom built upon the restoration and redemption of souls.

          Despite Jesus’ teachings and commands, many people insisted on seeing Jesus as an earthly king of territory and conquest.  For example, one time, Jesus fed 5,000 men plus women and children.  “14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15). The people were overwhelmed by Jesus’ miraculous feeding and thought, “Ah, if we could just make him our king, think of the life we could live by the things this guy could do for us.”  Jesus would have not part of earthly plans for his kingdom was different.  But the people would did not understand.

          The ending of Jesus’ public ministry began with his arrest not by the Romans but by the Jewish religious authorities, people who should have been looking for God to send a king.  Instead of welcoming Jesus as king, the religious authorities became jealous of love and following of Jesus’ disciples for Jesus.  The religious leaders were angry at Jesus for his teachings and uncomfortable with Jesus’ challenges to their understanding of Scripture.  So, the religious leaders arrested Jesus and once Jesus was bound hand and foot, the religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Governor claiming Jesus guilt of all sorts of crimes including claiming Jesus said he was the King of the Jews.  Pilate spoke to Jesus about the claims of the religious people.  33b “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”  35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said” (John 19:33b-38).  Jesus confirmed to Pilate that he, Jesus, had been born to speak about the kingdom in which Jesus was king but it was a different kingdom than would be found on earth.

          Pilate argued with the religious leader insisting again and again that there was no basis of a charge against Jesus that merited death.  12b But the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 20:12b).  Pilate then asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.  “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. (John 20:15b).  And with that statement from the high priest, “We have no king but Caesar,” the crowd shouted to destroy Jesus.  “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” the crowd shouted.  They wanted Jesus out of their brutish savage kingdom.  The crowd had chosen sides and they had chosen to remain an enemy of God. 

And yet, in that same moment of intense hatred and shouts to “Crucify Him!”, Jesus was willing to transform any of those present to come into His kingdom. Jesus would do so by loving them, forgiving them, and renewing them to be of the right spirit and personhood. Jesus would later bring one person into the kingdom.  A thief was crucified next to Jesus, and said to Jesus,42 “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  43 Jesus answered him [the thief], “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).  Jesus’ words are profound because they mean that Jesus was born to establish a new kingdom and upon Jesus’ death, the king, would open His kingdom to all those who would repent and follow him.

What then are we to do with our spiritual understanding of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom?  I think there is only one thing to consider.  Are we willing to be part of the kingdom of Jesus Christ?  We are not forced to be part of the kingdom.  We can live our lives without being subject to the commands of the king.  In fact, more people live outside the kingdom than live within it, so we would have plenty of company.  Living outside the kingdom of God is living in a fantasy.  If you don’t believe me that many people live a fantasy, then I encourage you to pick up a newspaper or scroll through a newsfeed on your phone and see for yourself the number of people who are making things up as they go and forcing other people to celebrate their delusions.  Life outside of God’s will is a fantasy.

Or we could accept for ourselves the reality of God.  We could accept that reality that God who created all things as good has called us into his kingdom.  This God who invites us sent his son, Jesus, to be our king. Jesus, in his own words, came to be a king of a different kingdom, a kingdom founded on bring each member of the kingdom into a right relationship with God so that they could experience the treasures of the kingdom: forgiveness, peace that surpasses all understanding, love, and eternal life.  Life lived within God’s will following our king, Jesus, is the reality that we should seek and encourage others to celebrate.  Amen and Amen. 

12-10 Christ Our Priest

          We are in the third week of our celebration of Advent.  It is that time of year in which we celebrate that Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, changed the world forever.  In our first two weeks, we saw that Jesus, the Son of God came to earth as the Son of Man, fully human and yet fully God.  Jesus lived the human experience, including the experience of death that we would have life abundant now and forever.  Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, also came to give the prophetic word of God as God’s final prophet.  Jesus’ words called people, including us to action in the present, so that we could be assured of a future.  This week we will look at how Jesus changed the world by filling the role as the final high priest.

          Now, Baptist struggle a bit with the idea of priests and the priesthood because, well, we don’t have any person who serves in the Baptist tradition as a priest. I am not a priest.  I serve as a pastor.  We Baptists hold to Scripture that Jesus came to fulfill the role, once and for all time, as of our priest.

          So according to Scripture, what was the role of the priest.  Under the Old Testament, God had set forth the Law, the commands of what the people of Israel must and must not do.  We saw that law structure in Genesis when God said to the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:16a).  The man and woman were free to not sin by refraining from eating that fruit or were free to sin by eating the fruit.  This was the original law.  We, of course, learn later that the couple ate that fruit, choosing to sin, and thus break the law.  As evil behaviors from that point spread further, more elements, more commands, were added to the law, to constrain evil.  We can think most famously of the Ten Commandments as part of the structure of the law.  But the choice for the people was the same.  People were free to choose to sin or to not sin.  To atone, to address, those occasions when people sinned, a system of ritual animal sacrifices emerged.  The sacrifice was intended to serve as an atonement from choosing to sin. Those sacrifices were a religious rite performed on behalf of the sinner by someone designated as a priest.

In this sense, the priest represented the people to God and interceded with God for the people and even the nation of Israel. Over and over, for hundreds of years, the priests of Israel sacrificed animals and burned them as an offering to God for the forgiveness of the sins by the priests themselves, the congregation, and nation of Israel.  This was the system when the people had the choice to sin or not to sin.

The apostle Paul would later say that the choice to follow the law or not, the choice to sin or not sin, had left him a slave to sin.  The law, Paul would say, was holy, righteous, and good and showed that with the choice to sin or not sin, we were helpless against sinning and had become slaves to sinning.  And so, with this slavery to inevitable sin, there was a near endless repetition of priestly sacrifice for the sin. 

          But then something happened.  Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man came into the world as human and divine came as a priest.  Now, Jesus was to be a different sort of priest to be sure because Jesus never performed the priestly sacrificial function of the Jewish religion.  And yet Jesus was considered a priest because Jesus represented, was the intercessor, for the people to God.  Let’s look at today’s Scripture readings to understand Jesus’ role as priest and why it matters today.

          We read from the Book of Hebrews last week, and again this week, these words from Chapter 2 of the Book of Hebrews, 14 Since the children have flesh and blood (you and I), he (Jesus) too shared in their (our) humanity so that by his (Jesus’) death he (Jesus) might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).  The writer of Hebrews is saying here that Jesus came to break the power that was leading people to be slaves to sin.  The babe that we celebrate this Advent came to change the world and grant us a new kind of freedom.

          The writer of Hebrews continued, “17 For this reason (to break the power of the devil and sin), he (Jesus) had to be made like them (us), fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17a).  To change the choices of humans, Jesus, the Son of God, needed to come as a human himself, the Son of Man.  This is why we Jesus was born.  Having been born as a human, Jesus, the Son of God, “might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” (Hebrews 2:17b). A role Jesus would take on to change the world for humanity would be as a high priest.  Jesus would represent people to God and Jesus would do so faithfully, that is without sin, and Jesus would represent the people to God.  How would Jesus accomplish this role differently from the priests of the past?  What would be world changing in Jesus’ way of addressing sin?  The writer of Hebrews says, “He (Jesus) might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17c).  Jesus, the Son of God, would be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people.  The atoning redemption of humanity from all its sins would be made by Jesus, the high priest himself, the sinless Son of God and the Son of Man.  Because Jesus was the Son of God, nothing greater could ever be offered to address the sins of humanity and because Jesus was the Son of Man, the sacrifice could only be offered one time.  When Jesus completed his work of changing the world, Jesus would ascend into heaven and once again take up his seat of honor and glory.

          Jesus changed the world through his sacrifice but how then does what Jesus did directly change us?  It does so in the most important way.  As we discussed, under the law, we were free to sin or to not sin. That was our choice.  And we know that under the law, we became slaves to sin. But under the grace of Jesus, through his one-time perfect atonement for our sins, there was a new freedom because Jesus we were made free from sin.  Under Christ, we are free from sin by believing in Jesus and by following Him, making Jesus our choice, we become free from sin.  The Apostle Paul says in following Jesus we are, “Set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22). 

We need to breathe for a moment and take in how Jesus, the priest changed the world.  Jesus came to deal with the problem, the human condition of sinful choices.  This is why Jesus said so famously to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).  Jesus is the way to freedom from sin and to God.  And in the course of their time together, Jesus, the Son of Man, had shown God to his disciples, because Jesus was also the Son of God, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3).  Jesus had changed the world giving us the freedom from sin by following Him into the very presence of God.         

We then read in Hebrews, Chapter 4, “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess [faith in Jesus Christ]. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).  The call from Scripture then is to remain in the freedom from sin that we have by following Jesus, the perfect, sinless high priest, who offered as a sacrifice for sin, himself, perfect and without blemish.

The writer of Hebrews then went a little further and said, “23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:23-27).  From this passage, we come to understand that Jesus who lives intercedes for us.  Jesus represents us to God and therefore, we no longer need an earthly priest to represent us to God.  Hence, in Baptist traditions, we do not have priests because our intercessor, our priest, is Jesus, who offered himself once for all time.

What then are we to do with the spiritual understandings we have gathered from these Scriptures.  I think there are two things for us to consider.

First, for the unbeliever, they still only have the freedom of choice in life to sin or not to sin.  For the unbeliever, they are not allowing their world to be changed by Jesus.  As such, the unbeliever will predictably choose sin. The truth of that statement is found throughout the Bible.  Unbelievers are slaves to sin and have freely chosen to reject God.  What is the “So What?” for the unbeliever?  Jesus, the prophet and priest, shared with the believer and nonbeliever their respective destinies in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus said, “19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  (We learn later the rich man lived the life of an unbeliever.)  20 At his [the rich man’s] gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his [Lazarus’] sores.  (The name Lazarus means “God has helped,” a name given by Jesus to show Lazarus lived as a believer.)  22 The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his [Abraham’s] side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  25 But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he [Lazarus] is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:19-25).  The parable goes on from there, but this part of the parable shows the destinies of the believer and the unbeliever.  Here, Jesus showed to all that in mortal life, a believer may, and often will, experience difficulties but in eternal life the believer will only experience good things.  In a similar way, Jesus shows that whatever joy the unbeliever has will happen in this life for in the next, the eternal life, the unbeliever will only be agony. Why is agony the fate of the unbeliever? Because the unbeliever has rejected God, has rejected the completed work of Christ, has rejected the pathway of grace God offered, and has simply sinned without redemption.  If you have not accepted Jesus as your savior, your high priest, as the atonement for your sins, please, I beg you, do not wait. Celebrate the joy of Advent by accepting what Jesus has done for you now and for all time.

          The second thing we learn today is that the believer in Jesus has made a life choice to chose between freedom from sin by following Christ.  Freedom from sin is not the same as choosing not to sin.  To choose not to sin is to fight temptation on your own which is a plan destined to fail.  To choose freedom from sin in Christ is to let Christ be your intercessor, the last and highest priest.  In choosing freedom from sin, it is Jesus who gives you strength and power through his Holy Spirit to follow Jesus thus living a life free from sin.  And, yes, when, we in our humanness and frailness do sin, believers receive grace from Jesus to redeem them from that sin because of that perfect sacrifice from sin given by Jesus upon the cross, once and for all. 

Let’s celebrate our freedom from sin in the birth of your Savior, High Priest, and Redeemer, Jesus.  For Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life.  Amen and Amen.

11-26 Humanity of Jesus

Today, marks the first Sunday of Advent.  But what does that mean?  The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word, Adventus, which means “the approach” or “the arrival.”  For Christians, of course, Advent is the time in which we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  What we celebrate is the singular event of God, who is divine and exists outside of creation, coming into creation, unto the earth, in human form, to become a being who subject to elements common to each and every one of us. We celebrate that the Son of God came to earth as the Son of Man, as the Gospel writer John said He became “flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  I wonder at times whether we have heard those words, or words like them, so often that we no longer take in the fullness of those words.

God has always existed and was never subject to conditions and dimensions of His own creation.  With Advent, we begin our celebration of God’s decision to enter His own creation as one of us, as a human.  This God-human being would retain an inner essence of God, never losing His divine nature, but He would at the same time take on the outer fragility of human life, being subject to hunger and thirst, cold and heat, physical comfort as well as pain and death itself.  In many ways, the idea of the Son of God and Son of Man breaks the back of words.  I think Isaiah came closest to describing who this person would be when he wrote,”6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  We would come to know this Son of God and Son of Man as Jesus of Nazareth. Today, I would like to focus on the significance of the humanity of Jesus, the Son of Man.

What might we say about the humanity of Jesus?  We can say that in Jesus’ day, people had little difficulty accepting the humanity of Jesus.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  People were there to see that birth.  Jesus had a woman who was called his mother and a man who was called his father. Jesus physically grew up in his hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus was known as a young boy able to hold deep conversations with scholars and teachers about the Scriptures in the Temple of Jerusalem.  Jesus ate food and drank wine.  Jesus slept.  Jesus wept. Jesus bled.  Jesus died.  It was easy for people who saw Jesus to believe that Jesus was a man.  What was more difficult in Jesus’ time was for people who saw Jesus was to believe that Jesus was divine, that Jesus was Son of God. In fact, it was so hard for some people to believe Jesus was the Son of God that they killed him to prove to themselves that Jesus was just a man.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, people of the early church began to believe that Jesus not a man after all, but Jesus was only God.  He appeared in be human form but was not himself human at all.  Others though that Jesus was only God, and that Mary was a surrogate, contributing nothing but giving birth to God.  Others said Jesus was God and man, but Mary must also have been born supernaturally and remained sinless, otherwise Jesus would have acquired Mary’s sin at his own birth from a naturally conceived mother.  There are, it seems, a near endless variation of stories and theories about whose birth we are celebrating.

We Baptist have our own take on Advent and the birth of Jesus. Our approach is quite simple.  Our approach is to ask, “What does the Bible say?” and then say, “I will choose to believe what the Bible says.”  What would we then read?

  • “14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  A virgin will conceive, become impregnated like all other women but in a supernatural manner.  Her child will be a boy.
  • “6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The boy will be seen as God.
  • An angel said to the virgin, 35, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).  The boy born to a virgin will be the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Baptists are simple folk.  We accept what the Bible says.  This boy will be both the Son of God and the Son of Man.  He will be born of a human mother who was made pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Now, isn’t that much easier to accept what God says?

          But why does it matter that this boy, Jesus, was the Son of Man?  Again, we return to the Bible.  In the New Testament letter we call Hebrews, the writer says, “5 It is not to angels that he [God] has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place [Old Testament – Psalm 8:4-6] where someone has testified: ‘What is mankind [humans] that you [God] are mindful of them, a son of man [those born human] that you [God] care for him?  7 You [God] made them a little lower than the angels [human]; you [God] crowned them with glory and honor 8 and put everything under their feet.”  In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them [humans]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while [divine made human], now crowned with glory and honor because he [Jesus] suffered death, so that by the grace of God he [Jesus] might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:5-9).

          Now that is a lot in just a few verses, but we as Baptists are happy to receive a lot if what we are receiving comes from God’s Word.  To receive a lot from the Bible is not a burden, not like it is when in school we receive a lot from a teacher.  Instead, to receive a lot from the Bible is a joy.  What did we receive?  There are four things we should bear in mind.

          First, humanity was created by a caring God. That means our life begins with joy in knowing God cares.  Humans were crowned with glory and honor and we were given dominion over the earth.  We are not here by accident or because we evolved from some troop of apes through a process of nature.  We are the crowning achievement created by God.

          Second, God caused Jesus to come into the world, and for a time caused Jesus to join humanity before Jesus returned to His place of glory and honor in heaven.

          Third, and this is an important point.  Third, God caused Jesus to come into the world, to become human, so that God in human form, could suffer and experience death. Death is not experienced in heaven. It is only experienced on earth. Jesus came to experience the harsh reality of death as a human.  That’s heavy stuff and we will talk more about that in a minute.

          Finally, the fourth thing we accept from Scripture, and we understand that our celebration of Advent brings to us, is that Jesus, the Son of God, was made lower than the angels for a little while, made the Son of Man, so that Jesus could suffer a human death, and in doing so, became the way for us to receive God’s redeeming grace.  Jesus’ death brought us grace.  We will talk more about that as well.

          Four things that we must consider from the Bible alone.  We are created and loved by God.  Jesus was born human.  Jesus died a human death.  Jesus came into his glory again and is now the way of redemption by and through God’s grace.  There is a lot to the Christmas story.

          The writer of Hebrews went further concerning Jesus’ birth and death on humanity.  He wrote, “10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory [In redeeming people to God], it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their [human] salvation [Jesus] perfect through what he [Jesus] suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy [Jesus] and those who are made holy [saved people] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them [saved people] brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11).  This is a crucial bit of Scripture for it tells us that those people who come into God’s presence do so only through Jesus because Jesus makes them holy.  The effect of Jesus’ birth as a human and subsequent death was to make a way for people to be holy again, meaning purified from sin.  To be brought into the presence of God does not happen because you were a good person, or kind, or charitable, or that you attended a Baptist, Roman Catholic, or Non-denominational church.  To be brought into the presence of God happens because you were made holy by Jesus and that Jesus calls you brother or sister.  Those are not my words, or those of some Baptist book or website.  Those words we have plainly seen come directly from the Bible.  God makes clear that we are free to accept those words or reject those words but the one thing we are not permitted to do is change those words.

          So our Advent celebration brings with it an understanding that the Son of God came into the world as the Son of God and the Son of Man, bearing the name Jesus. And in that coming into the world, Jesus did so to die, making the way to come into God’s eternal presence by being saved and being made holy by God’s grace.  This is what is occurring through the birth and death of Jesus. But why is it happening?

          The writer of Hebrews helps us there and gives us an answer as to why this is all happening.  Let’s look at verses 14 through 17 of chapter 2.  “14 Since the children have flesh and blood [people], he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his [Jesus’] death he [Jesus] might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he [Jesus] had to be made like them [the people], fully human in every way, in order that he [Jesus] might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he [Jesus] might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14-17).

          The birth of Jesus was as we said it was in the beginning.  God, who was and is outside his creation, entered his creation, but God did so to engage in a spiritual battle against the devil of this world. The battle was to save those people seeking God.  This is why the Gospel of John describes Jesus coming into the world as a light shining in the darkness and as true light, not the false light of Satan (John 1:4, 9).  In the same Gospel of John, we would later and again read, “19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). The coming of Jesus into the world was like light coming into a completely dark room and that light was a signal to all that a spiritual battle had begun.  God had invaded territory the enemy, Satan.  The invasion from God would overwhelm Satan and would once and for all time break the power of Satan has over the people.  That happened by Christ dying for everyone, to pay for their sins, your sins and my sins, once and for all time.  After the completion of that death, Jesus would be restored to his full glory and status in heaven pioneering the way, blazing the trail, for others to follow to God.  Jesus, because he was made in human form, would move us from darkness, sin, enslavement, and fearful to be holy and set apart again for God.  That is why Jesus was born.

          It is important for us to see the necessity that Jesus was human as well as God.  Jesus, the Son of God, came in human form to experience human life and human death and for the people to see him back into life again. Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection to life again breaks human fear of death, it breaks the grip that sin has on our life, because are no longer deceived and now clearly see that all life, now and eternally, is guaranteed by Jesus.  This is what we celebrate in the Advent season, that the humanity of Jesus changed the world.  Have you allowed the humanity of Jesus to change you?  Let us pray.

11-19 Lord of the Harvest

          This Thursday, our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  As a nation, we will gather and consume great quantities of food, turkey, all the fixings, and pies.  We will watch on television the Macy’s Day parade, a football game or two, we will sleep, and then some will venture out late at night to see if they can capture a deal on some new merchandise at a Black Friday sale.  This is our modern-day Thanksgiving Day.

          Now most people are familiar with the "First Thanksgiving." In 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts celebrated their first harvest.  The Pilgrims held a feast; inviting the Wampanoag Indians, who had helped them adapt and survive, to join the feast. The Pilgrim's Thanksgiving in 1621 was more than likely a continuation of a traditional harvest feast they had experienced in Europe, then it was a time to celebrate God’s provision.  When the Pilgrims wanted to be particularly expressive of their thankfulness to God they fasted, they stopped eating, so that they could devote themselves to praise and prayer.

          Later in our history, Presidents George Washington and James Madison each asked for the nation to celebrate a day of thanksgiving. But it was not until 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that set-in motion the annual celebration of a Thanksgiving Day.  There is no mention in Lincoln’s proclamation about feasts, parades, football, sleeping, or shopping.  Lincoln then said this: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  Lincoln also asked the people of the United States to pray that God would “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

The Thanksgiving Day Lincoln envisioned was focused upon the entire nation pausing for one day to acknowledge God’s blessings amid the strife of a civil war.  It was a call for the nation to praise God for what God had done through His mercy. It was a call for the nation to pray for those who were suffering and to pray that God would heal the wounds of the nation so that all could enjoy peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. For Lincoln, Thanksgiving Day was not about food, it was about the work being done by the God, being done by God, and would be done by God, the Lord of the Harvest.

          We come to understand the fullness of work of the Lord of the Harvest that Lincoln contemplated by reading the Bible.  Our New Testament reading from the Gospel of John is a particularly good place for us to understand the work of the Lord of the Harvest and a response of thanksgiving.  In the fourth chapter of John, we would read the Jesus and his disciples stopped at a well that had been first established by Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.  After stopping at the well, Jesus sent his disciples into the neighboring Samaritan town for food.  This was the first time since Jesus called the disciples that Jesus sent them on their own. It was also at this point, as Jesus’ disciples had departed that a Samaritan woman came to the well with a jar to draw water to bring home. In John’s gospel, we are provided a wonderful dialogue between Jesus and this Samaritan woman, and I encourage you to read that passage from beginning to end.  As you do, you will come to see that the last words that Jesus and the Samaritan woman exchanged were these, “25 The woman said [to Jesus], ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’   26 Then Jesus declared [to the woman], ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he’” (John 4:25-26).  This is a dramatic conclusion and revelation by Jesus that He is the one anointed by God to bring the message of salvation. The Samaritan woman understood the significance of Jesus’ announcement.  There are many sermons that can be derived from Jesus’ encounter with this woman.  But today, I would like us to begin at the end of that encounter.  And that ending began with Jesus’ announcement that He was the Messiah and the near simultaneous return of Jesus’ disciples from the town to the well.

          John wrote, “27 Just then his [Jesus’] disciples returned and were surprised to find him [Jesus] talking with a woman [a Samaritan woman no less]. But no one [none of Jesus’ disciples] asked [the woman], “What do you want?” or [asked Jesus] “Why are you talking with her?”  I suspect that no one needed to ask these questions because likely the questions, each of which contained an air of condemnation, were written on the faces of Jesus’ disciples.  We can say a lot with facial expressions.  I think the woman got the point that as far as Jesus’ disciples were concerned it was time for her to leave.

          John continued, “28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’” The woman, left in haste leaving behind her water jar, went to the town and began giving her testimony to her neighbors by acknowledging a sign that this man at the well knew everything about her. Who could know everything about another person except perhaps God?  Because of this sign in knowing everything, the woman asked her neighbors to consider the possibility that this man she met at the well could be the Messiah.  Jesus testified to this woman he was the Messiah, but she only offered in testimony to her neighbors the possibility that Jesus could be the Messiah.  We are left to wonder why she was not direct in share Jesus’ own testimony that He was the Messiah.  Regardless of the reasons, the Samaritan woman’s neighbors responded to her question of possibility, “Could this be the Messiah?”  And so John wrote, “30 They [the woman’s neighbors] came out of the town and made their way toward him [Jesus at Jacob’s well].”

          The Samaritan woman had done what needed to be done.  She stirred up the imagination of her neighbors to the possibility that God was at work in their lives.  She planted and made alive within them the seed of faith and now the people were responding to see if any of what she said could be true.  For if God was at work in their lives, then truly their lives would be blessed.

          John continued the story this way.  “31 Meanwhile [back at Jacob’s well] his [Jesus’] disciples urged him [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, eat something.’  32 But he [Jesus] said to them [Jesus’ disciples], ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’  33 Then his [Jesus’] disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’”  You imagine Jesus hanging his head just a bit, perhaps holding his head in his hands in disbelief at the denseness of his disciples thinking.

          Jesus broke the frustrating silence and answered, “34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).  Let’s pause here for a moment.  What is food?  We have Thanksgiving Day coming up in which tremendous quantities of food will be eaten, somewhere on average between 3,500 to 4,000 calories per person that day.  So food is any nutritious substance that people eat or drink to maintain life and growth.  Jesus’ disciples wanted Jesus to eat some food.  But Jesus said His food, what maintained Jesus’ life, was not to be found on a dinner table. Jesus’ food was to do the will of God who sent Jesus and to finish his work.  Jesus was perhaps harkening back to the Old Testament words that, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3b).  What truly sustained Jesus was God and God’s Word and not bread, or fish, or meat. What refreshed and renewed Jesus was not protein but the proclamation of God.  Jesus wanted his disciples to pay attention to the work of God that was all around them and for which Jesus was calling them to become part of doing.

          To shift the disciples’ attention away from perishable food and onto to the impressible food of God, Jesus said to them, “35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’?” (John 4:35). This is a rhetoric question that Jesus did not expect his disciples to answer because there was and is an understanding that in nature there was a measurable separation of time between when one plants seeds and one can expect to harvest a crop.  We know that when we start enjoying the fresh vegetables of the summer, that someone had to have planted seeds months beforehand.  But Jesus wanted his disciples to know that is not how the harvest of God works.

          John wrote, “35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’?  [But] I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together” (John 4;35-36).  I think as Jesus said those words, “Open your eyes and look at the fields,” Jesus was pointing to the road coming to the well that was now beginning to fill with people coming from the town to Jesus at the well.

          Jesus had had the encounter with the Samaritan woman and as soon as she heard the word that Jesus was the Messiah, she went at once to her neighbors sharing the word about Jesus and immediately her neighbors responded to come and see. The seed had been planted and the eternal harvest was about to happen all in a matter of minutes.  Jesus was glad at seeing the people coming out to him and so too would have been the sower, the Samaritan woman.

          Jesus continued with his disciples, “38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for” (John 4:38).  John said that Jesus sent the disciples into town for food.  And all the disciples came back with bread and perhaps some meat. These are the same disciples that when they met Jesus’ excited found their brothers and best friends and said, “Come and see we have found the Messiah!”  That was food from heaven in which the seed was planted and harvest happened within minutes.  Now when Jesus sent the same disciples for food, to do the will of God, not one of them shared with anyone in the neighboring town that the Messiah was at Jacob’s well.  Why did they not share what they knew to be the good news of the Messiah?  We are left to speculate.  Jesus concluded with his disciples saying, “’Others have [now] done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor’” (John 4:38b).

John concluded the story, “39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’  40 So when the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they urged him [Jesus] to stay with them, and he [Jesus] stayed two days. 41 And because of his [Jesus] words many more became believers.  42 They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man [Jesus] really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:38b-42).

Now harvest described to us in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John is a Thanksgiving story of an eternal significance brought about by the food that never perishes, that is God’s Word. Jesus disciples thought Jesus’ mission to them in going into the town was about obtaining food upon which to feast and be satisfied for a few hours.  The Samaritan woman understood Jesus was about quenching a thirst and hunger that is eternal.  She spoke to as many people as she could and they sought out Jesus. 

What then shall we do with our upcoming harvest celebration, our next Thanksgiving Day story.  I think there are two things for us to consider. 

First, I would encourage you to enjoy the turkey dinner and family gatherings.  But we should remember that the food we eat that day, or any day, only sustains our bodies. What sustains our lives now and forever is the food God provides through His Word.  So as we feast on perishable food for our bodies let’s not neglect the sustaining food of God for living.  Let’s follow Abraham Lincoln’s charge to make the day a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to GodWhy should we do that?  If you believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, then be very thankful for you have been harvested into eternal life.  Give thanks to God that someone sowed the seeds of faith for you and you have been saved.

Second, I want to encourage you to look around at those people seated at your Thanksgiving Day table or those people you encounter elsewhere this week.  See that some of them do not know Jesus in any meaningful way.  People need to know the Lord and they need to know that you love them enough to share God’s Good News with them.  Be like the Samaritan woman and invite those who do not know God to join you in your joy for God.  Invite those who have become separated from the church to return.  With Advent approaching, we are entering a time of year in which the hearts of the people are stirred toward God.  Those seeds have been sown and it is up to you to reap the harvest. Invite those you know to join you at church.  Offer to pick them up.  If you have accepted Christ, then your food is to do the work of Christ.  Think how blessed and thankful you will be if God works through you to bring another soul to salvation or to bring a wounded Christian back to church.  We should rejoice and be thankful that we know Jesus and that we can share that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world.  Now that is harvest celebration, a Thanksgiving Day for which we can eternally thankful.  Amen and Amen.

11-12 - Grace Ain't Fair

          Isn’t it true that we all want life to be fair?  I can say with confidence that I have never met another person who said to me, “I insist that you treat me unfairly”  When we were kids and we had to share a candy bar with a brother or sister, we wanted the bar to be divided in half because that was only fair.  Of course, if we got more than half of the candy bar then we were okay with that as well.

          Afterall, isn’t it Biblical that life should be fair.  In the Old Testament we read, “19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury” (Leviticus 24:19-20).  This Old Testament law was intended to keep things fair.  When you sustained an injury, you could not demand a greater penalty from the offender than injury.  The law stipulated an eye for an eye, so as to prevent someone who lost an eye from taking the life of the one who caused the injury.  The law called for fairness and was intended to curb the natural desire for revenge.

          We want things in life to be fair.  But for many people, life or at least a part of life, has been or seems unfair.  People have suffered, and may still be suffering, some injury or loss because of the unfairness of another or the unfairness of circumstances.  Perhaps a loved one has died, and it feels terribly unfair that they died.  Perhaps they were laid off from a job and poor performing co-workers got to keep their jobs.  It was not right.  It was unfair.  Perhaps someone just cannot seem to get the government or an insurance company to correct a problem they have been experiencing and it is unfair that they are being penalized.  There are a great many reasons why moments and events in our life seem terribly unfair.

          I would like you to take a moment right now and think of the most unfair person in your life.  Now wait I said think about them.  I did not say look around the room to see if they were here today!  So think of the most unfair person you know.  Think about how they have not “played fair” and have not been in balance.  Do you have a good mental image of that person?  Now, I am guessing that everyone has a different person in mind which means there are a lot of unfair people in the world.  But what I wonder is shouldn’t we all have the same unfair person in mind?  Some of you might be say, “What did the pastor say?”  How can we all know the same unfair person?

          Well, let’s look at our thinking about fairness.  We think it is fair when someone treats us like we have treated them. We are good people, fair people, so when we treat people well and fairly, then we hope others will treat us well and fairly.  However, it would also be true that if we treated someone badly, then we should expect and accept that are within their rights to treat us equally badly in return because doing so would be fair.  The idea of an insult for an insult is fair even under the Old Testament law.  Do we see how fairness works?

          Now suppose someone responds to an insult with goodness.  Under the idea of insult for insult which is fair, to respond with goodness to an insult would mean the response was a different sort of unfair treatment.  Don’t get confused because we are about to transition from thinking in human terms to thinking like God.  

          In the way of God, unfair response is to give goodness, whether good is received or insult is received.  In the way of God, God unfairly gives without regards to the scales of giving ever being balanced.  In God’s way, God when wounded unfairly responds, and heals the wounds of the attacker. When we think like God, then we realize that we all know the same most unfair person there ever lived. His name is Jesus.

          Let’s see how it can be that Jesus was unfair in the way he responded.  Listen to Jesus’ words about being fairness and being unfair from our New Testament reading today.  Jesus was speaking to his disciples and said to them, 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).  Do you get the breathtaking sense that in the way of God, a response of grace and mercy instead of fairness and justice was what Jesus wanted from his disciples?  Jesus did not want his disciples to be fair.  Jesus wanted his disciples to have a special, Godly way of unfairness.

          Let’s look a little deeper.  Jesus began with talking to his disciples about fairness and justice when he quoted from the Old Testament saying, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” (Matthew 5:38).  You can just picture Jesus waiting for his disciples to nod their heads in agreement with this ancient standard and agreeing, “Yes, we must be fair with one another.”  When everyone’s attention fixed on Jesus and the ancient standard of fairness was firmly in their minds, Jesus then said that all important word in the Bible, “But.”  Remember to circle and underline in your Bible the word “But” because that word means something important is about to be said, “39 But I [Jesus] tell you [my disciples], do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, [don’t be fair and hit them on the right cheek but instead give a Godly unfair response and] turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, [give a Godly unfair response and] hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, [give a Godly unfair response and] go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:39-41).  Jesus was calling on his disciples to not be fair and trade insult for insult.  Instead, Jesus wanted his disciples to abolish that ancient standard they had in their minds and give goodness in response to insult.

          You can just imagine the astonished looks on the faces of Jesus disciples as the full weight of what Jesus said had begun falling upon them. Jesus wanted his disciples to exchange goodness for insult.  How in the world could they do such a thing?  Why in the world would they want to do such a thing?  Where did Jesus get such an idea of exchanging goodness for insult?

          Where did Jesus get that?  Jesus got that from God’s Word, s Bible such as is found in the prophesy of Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah, concerning Jesus himself.  In Chapter 50, Isaiah wrote of the Messiah, “6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.  7 Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced.  Therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:6-7).  In Isaiah 53, we would also read of the Messiah, “4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).  The Messiah rather than respond against insult with insult would respond with goodness by taking upon himself the penalty owed by others.  Jesus’ call upon his disciples to exchange goodness for insult was a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do for his disciples.  When it would have been fair for Jesus to strike back with an eye for eye, Jesus would be unfair in a Godly sense and an offer goodness in exchange for each wound he received.

          I am not sure the disciples would have understood the fullness of Jesus’ words.  I am not sure I fully understand the full weight of Jesus’ words.  Jesus was calling upon his disciples to be merciful, not fair.  Jesus was calling on his disciples to be gracious, not fair.  So radical was Jesus’ call that Jesus immediately expressed his call to his disciples again this way, “43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).  Jesus was explaining to his disciples how to act like God with mercy and grace.  What is mercy?  Mercy is God withholding from us what we deserve for our insulting God.  Jesus was telling his disciples, now as a child of God, act with mercy and withhold from another what they deserve because of their insult to you.  What is Grace?  Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve based on our behavior. Jesus was now saying to his disciples since you are children of God give grace to those who do not deserve it, who in no way earned it.  Mercy is taking care of what is there, and grace is taking care of what is not there. There is no fairness in what Jesus was calling his disciples to do because Jesus did not intend to give them what they deserved or only the grace they had earned.

          Over and again, Jesus challenged his disciples to be merciful.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Mt 5:7)
  • But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Mt 9:13 & 12:7)
  •  “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mk 5:19)

Jesus continued to explain to his disciples what he asked in this manner.  46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).

Jesus was describing fairness as sinners see fairness.  Jesus was describing fairness the way the world sees fairness.  The best the world can do is make fairness mean equal; good for good, and bad for bad. Jesus was saying God who is perfect gives better than that, God gives mercy where justice is due and grace where condemnation is earned.  Now, Jesus said, “Seek to perfect like God.”

          Jesus displayed that the perfection of God.  The Apostle Paul taught the church see what Jesus did, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8). Paul wanted the church, you and me, to know that Christ did not treat us fairly.  Jesus did not give good because he received good.  He did not give righteousness because we deserved it.  Jesus gave us righteousness at the very moment we were his enemies.  When Jesus was being nailed to the cross, Jesus begged God for the forgiveness (mercy and grace) to those holding the nails and swinging the hammer.  We can think of sin as nails and hammer blows to Christ on the cross. 

I cannot imagine my fate if God dealt fairly with me.  And so, when I consider the mercy that I have received for what is there, sin, and the grace I have received for what is not there, unrighteousness, I am convicted that I must not be humanly fair toward others but must be God like with mercy and grace and forgiveness towards others.  The Apostle Paul gave us some help with how to act.  Paul wrote, “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” (Colossians 3:12-13).  If God has treated me this way, who am I to withhold such a gift of mercy, grace, and forgiveness from another.  Think of the impact each of us can have by genuinely receiving the gift of grace and sharing it with a world that, at best, can give good when good is received and bad when bad is received.  Let us then go and share with each other and those around that special sort of Godly response to unfairness expressed with the power of mercy and grace we have received from God through Jesus Christ.  Amen and Amen.