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04-17 - Nature Announces the Empty Tomb

          Jesus was dead.  His body had been taken from the cross and laid in tomb hewn from rock. A large stone had been placed over the entrance of the tomb.  The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had ordered soldiers to secure the tomb and to guard it. Soldiers placed a seal of Roman authority upon the stone to prevent the opening of the tomb and then they stood watch. Pilate made it clear that Jesus’ tomb was not to be disturbed by any man or woman. Jesus’ tomb was not to be touched in anyway.

          Then a series of curious things happened.  On the third day following Jesus’ death, in the early morning hours, as darkness was just giving way to light, there was a quaking of the ground.  That was not unusual, earthquakes happen in and around Jerusalem.  But this quaking of the ground was different, it was no ordinary earthquake.  It was a violent shaking and quaking of the ground in one spot, the tomb of Jesus. This was the second earthquake in three days.  The first one occurred three days earlier as Jesus died.  But this latest quake was occurring where Jesus’ lifeless body rested. The guards at Jesus’ tomb were fully alert, anxious that the ground was shaking again, but confident they would survive this quake as well.  Then suddenly an angel appeared to the guards.  The soldiers saw the angel who appeared in brilliant white searing light; a light so intense it was as it the guards could feel the light.  The guards witnessed the angel break the seal on the stone of Jesus’ tomb and move the stone as though it were but a pebble.  Then the angel sat upon the stone staring at the guards as if to say, “Yes.  I did that. What are you going to do about it?”

          The guards overwhelmed by nature’s quaking and the supernatural presence of an angel shook violently themselves.  Overwhelmed by the brilliant light of the angel, overwhelmed by the power of the angel to cast aside a large stone, and overwhelmed by the failure of their mission to secure Jesus’ tomb could only respond in one of three ways.  They could fight.  They could flee.  Or they could freeze.  The body of the guards would not respond to fight or flee.  All the guards could do was freeze and shake in fright.  The color from their faces drained away and their appearance became grey and blue as though they were dead.

The guards knew in that moment the fearsome, awesome power of the one true God to cause nature itself to move at his will.  The guards’ response is what it will be like for all those who deny God when judgment comes. For those who deny God and thus defy God, there will not be any time for smart words, sassy comments, or questioning of God.  There will not be an ability to fight or to flee.  There will be just total and complete fright, a violent shaking of their being, at being so very very wrong about God and how they spent their life.

Easter morning, God was revealing that the resurrection of, the presence of the resurrected Christ, was supposed to be an earthshaking and overwhelming event unequalled in history in the history of the world – and it still is.

04-10 - Why the Cross

          The Cross.  We use a cross to adorn hats, shirts, flags, and covers for our books.  The Cross. We use a cross in jewelry, license plates, and even for our food.  The Cross. We use a cross as a nearly universal symbol of help even among combatants of the world.  The Cross.  Why the cross?

          For centuries, the cross was not seen in such friendly and pleasant terms.  For centuries, the cross was a universal symbol of brutal power used to punish and publicly torture an enemy.  The cross was used in ancient Persia, India, and China.  The cross was used by the Greeks, Romans, and even the Jews. Execution upon the cross was a horror. The pain was searing.  The humiliation was complete.  The sense of abandonment seemed unending.

          We know that Jesus faced death through the cross.  While upon the cross, Jesus spoke only a few times and only a few words each time. Jesus said,

  • Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
  • Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
  • Woman, behold thy son! and Behold thy mother! (John 19:26-27)
  • My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
  • I thirst. (John 19:28)
  • It is finished.  (John 19:30)
  • Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.  (Luke 23:46)

From the scene of Jesus upon the cross, I want to focus on the only words Jesus spoke in the Aramaic language, the language of the common people. Jesus said in Aramaic: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Forsakenness is such a terrible state of mind and being.  In forsakenness, there is the sense of complete and utter abandonment, a sense of isolation and aloneness.  In relationships, you are forsaken by the actions of another because they have chosen to renounce you. 

The words, “My God, my God, why – why have you forsaken me?” spoken by Jesus are very troubling.  Jesus’ question makes you wonder did God abandon Jesus?  Wasn’t Jesus being faithful to God’s will by going to the cross? And yet Jesus’ question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” seems to express a feeling that God has abandoned Jesus at his hour of greatest need.  It brings us to ask ourselves, “If God abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need, then will God also abandon me in my times of greatest need?”  These are fair questions.  We have been often told that Jesus felt a profound sense of separation from God at this point.  We have been told that Jesus was crying out in the sense of isolation with the sins of the world upon him.  We are told as sin and God could not bear to look upon Jesus and so Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I struggle with such reflections because they seem to set God to be at war with himself.  Such reflections imply that God in heaven and God the Son were not one.  It was as though the power of the cross to harm, humiliate, and isolate its victim was greater than God himself.

I think there is a different way of looking at the scene upon the cross.  It is way to see the scene as one in which God is not at war with himself.  It is a way of seeing Jesus’ words of lament and sorrow as words spoken to reassure and comfort his followers.  Jesus’ words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” are words that foretell what was to come and that God is with us always – including our darkest hours.

Let’s begin by looking going to the scene on the cross the last seven things Jesus said. 

  • Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
  • Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
  • Woman, behold thy son! and Behold thy mother! (John 19:26-27)
  • My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
  • I thirst. (John 19:28)
  • It is finished.  (John 19:30)
  • Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.  (Luke 23:46)

At the beginning of the ordeal on the cross, Jesus spoke intimately to his Father, as a child would to a parent.  He says, “Father, forgive them.”  At the end of the ordeal, Jesus spoke again to his Father intimately with his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Sandwiched between those two intimate statements is the text of today’s message.  The words seem less personal, less intimate, beginning with, “My God, my God.”  God is the Father to be sure and God is Jesus’ father.  However, in context, Jesus never refers to God as “My God.”  Jesus always refers to God as “Father” or “My Father.” So did Jesus really speak to God about his condition from the cross to God when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  If Jesus was speaking to God, then would it not make more sense for Jesus to be as intensely intimate as possible?  If he wanted to beckon to his Father, would he not speak the word “Father,” and not the word, “God”?  And if Jesus felt abandoned by his Father halfway through the ordeal on the cross, why would his final words be expressed intimately, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”?  Perhaps then, Jesus in speaking these words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” was not addressing himself to God at all.  Perhaps instead, Jesus was instead speaking to his disciples and to us.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are the first verse of Psalm 22, written about 1,000 years before Jesus was born.  The psalm begins, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” and then almost immediately begins describing the crucifixion of a man: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.  “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”  Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.  10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.  11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.  12 Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.  13 Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me.  14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.  15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. 17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:7-18).  The scene created by these words spoken 1,000 years before Jesus is unmistakably a crucifixion.

Jesus, who is on the cross, being crucified, can speak only a few words.  Each word he does say comes at the price of excruciating pain.  But here in just one sentence, Jesus using the opening line to Psalm 22 is opening the minds of the common people at the foot of his cross. Those who knew this passage could see the Psalm’s description of a crucifixion played out in real life with Jesus upon the cross.  But Jesus may have wanted his followers to see the other parts of the psalm. Perhaps Jesus was preaching Psalm 22 as his final sermon from the cross.   If that might be the case, let’s look at how the psalm continues after the description of a man being crucified.

Verse 22, this man upon the cross says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.”  He is describing to those who are listening that the name of the Lord is holy, and that Lord is to be praise in the most difficult circumstances.  Despite the pain, the man, here played in real time by Jesus, would remain one with God.  Jesus never waivered in his believe in God and God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Verse 23 says, “You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”  The psalmist, and now Jesus, was telling his followers that God is to be glorified in all circumstances, even through the pain of the cross.

Why amid this torture could Jesus be so confident of the love the Father has for him that he could continue to honor God?  Listen to verse 24 says, “For he (for the psalmist God, for Jesus his Father) has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”  Jesus was telling those at the foot of the cross, those who were say to him, “If you are the Christ let God save you.” – that in fact God has heard him and would save him.  Jesus’ Father, God, had not despised Jesus, as his tormentors would want him to believe. God has not hidden his face from Jesus. God was in him, and he was in God. 

The psalmist continued in verse 25, “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.”  Jesus was affirming to all that from God, his Father, comes the source of his praise.  It was from God that comes the message of his heart.  Jesus said as much all throughout his ministry and Jesus was not changing his message now that he was upon the cross.  Jesus came from heaven for the purpose of that ministry and for the purpose of the cross itself.  It was in the garden of Gethsemane he spoke these words found in Mark 14:36, “Abba, Father, everything is possible with you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Jesus kept his oath, his vow, even under extreme conditions of the cross.  Jesus gave his life by following God’s will.  Jesus’ life was not taken from him.

Verse 26 he declares, “The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him— may your hearts live forever!”  Who are the poor?  Are they literally those without money?  Or are they those who are poor in “self?”  They are humble and have yielded their pride.  They are those who find in themselves nothing, and in God they find everything.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  This is the good news that Jesus preached repeatedly.  Come to God empty and you will be filled.  Come to Him filled – filled with yourself – and you will be turned away empty – empty of him.  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus was using Psalm 22 to declare to those who are hungry for righteousness will be satisfied in and through him.

What then is the response by those who find God through Jesus Christ?  Verse 27 tells us, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.” Here, Jesus used the words of Psalm 22 to declare that despite what may be his condition at the moment, his name would go out to the ends of the earth.  Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.”  Paul told us, “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Why shall such honor be given to him?  Verse 28 says, “for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.”  Though Jesus gave his life, it was not taken from him because he had all authority. He told Pontius Pilate, “You have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”  He told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Jesus was now approaching the conclusion through verse 30 and 31 of the psalm. Verse 30 says, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.” To his followers at the cross, Jesus was telling them his story was going to continue.  Jesus’ story would not die out.  If you want to know if that is true, just look around the room.  We are here as testimony to the prophesy spoken of by Jesus. He story did not die on the cross.

Finally, Jesus through the last verse of Psalm 22, “31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!”  Jesus was making clear that his mission would be completed through the cross even to those unborn at the time of his death.  The sermon, Psalm 22, with its crucifixion scene and proclamation that God had saved him was complete.  And with that Jesus spoke again from the cross saying, “It is finished.”

Why the cross?  Why the question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  To these questions we must answer, God prove everything through the cross, the terrible instrument of beastly men, was transformed by God into the universal symbol of love and help.  God had not forsaken Christ as so many want us to believe.  Instead, God was with Christ.  And if we believe in Christ, God will not forsake us.  God proved this with his power to raise Christ from the dead. God will do no less for us through the grace poured out to us through his son, Jesus.  That is why we needed the cross. Amen and Amen.

04-03 - What Was Jesus Thinking

          We are looking at the major events of Jesus ministry between the time of his final entry to Jerusalem and his resurrection.  Previously, we spoke of the day of palms as Jesus entered the city.  Last week we talked about Jesus’ use of a basin and towel to wash the disciples’ feet as a means of sharing the good news of God’s love that cleanses of sin and grants us salvation through redeeming grace.

          This week I want us to look at Jesus’ words and deeds in sharing the bread and the cup at the meal with his disciples.  This moment with Jesus and his disciples would be later called the Last Supper.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches refer to this meal as the “Mystical Supper,” owing to the believed transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.  The Russian Orthodox Church call this meal the “Secret Supper,” believing the word “secret” more accurately reflected the way the bread and wine were transformed.  We Baptists, of course, and some other Protestant denominations do not refer to this moment as the Last Supper and do not believe Jesus changed the bread and wine at all.  We Baptist, call this meal the Lord’s Supper and believe the bread and wine remain bread and wine were used symbolically by Jesus to represent his body and blood.

          The earliest reference in Bible to this meal appears in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church. Paul wrote, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

          I cannot help but imagine that when Jesus spoke the words about giving his body and blood at that meal, the disciples must have thought, “What on earth is Jesus talking about?”  I must admit that after years of participating in the Lord’s Supper, I find myself at times participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unthinking manner.  I find myself not asking the question, “What was Jesus’ thinking?”  I find myself not contemplating the importance and radical nature of Jesus’ words and actions.  I think we could benefit today by asking ourselves, “What on earth was Jesus talking about?”

          The Gospel writer Luke began to set the scene for this meal in the upper room.  Luke wrote, “31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.  34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.’”

          Jesus was talking about his own death.  Death for the Jews, as we discovered in our recent Bible studies, was something of dread and fear.  For in death, many Jews believed, and some still do believe, that everyone, the righteous and unrighteous, went to Sheol or Hades.  Sheol was a place of nothingness.  The psalmist wrote, “5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.  Who praises you from the grave [Sheol]?” (Psalm 6:5).  Isaiah wrote, “18 For the grave cannot praise you, death [Sheol] cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18).  For many Jews in Jesus’ time, death meant separation from God and an eternal state of nothingness.  For Jesus to speak of his own death meant to the disciples had to contemplate that Jesus would be separated from God.  With Jesus separated from God and Jesus separated from them, the greatest thing that had happened in their life, the greatest person who had ever been in the life and in the life of Israel would be over.

          We see this sense of despair expressed by two of Jesus’ followers after Jesus was crucified.  They were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  As they walked their faces were downcast.  In their conversation with someone who appeared as a stranger to them, these followers of Jesus said, “19b He [Jesus] was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him [Jesus] over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19b-21).  For these followers of Jesus, death was all consuming.  Jesus’ death ended all hope.  Death meant eternal separation from God for Jesus and the end of the dreams for Israel.  These followers were downcast and defeated.

          And so, we can see that coming into this meal, the disciples were anxious and upset about Jesus’ prediction of his death and separation from God.  After Jesus death, the disciples’ anxiousness had become a sense of utter defeat.  We see two bookends encapsulating much of that last week of Jesus life.  One bookend we could label “Doom” and the other “Gloom.”

          We know in life that bookends are used to help hold together a group of books between them.  As such, the bookends are not nearly as important as the stories within the books that rests between the bookends.  In the case of Jesus’ disciples, one of the important things that stories resting between the bookends of doom and gloom concerned the evening meal, the meal we call the Lord’s Supper.

          Each Gospel contains an account of the time spent during that meal.  The Gospel of Mark is likely the earliest of the Gospel accounts. Mark wrote, “22 While they [Jesus and his disciples] were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he [Jesus] broke it [the bread] and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body’” (Mark 14:22).  It is very easy to imagine the disciples saying to themselves, “What on earth is Jesus talking about when he said, ‘This is my body.’”

          What on earth was Jesus’ thinking when he said, “This is my body.”  Was Jesus saying this bread was now literally his flesh as though torn from his side?  We Baptists do not think so.  We believe the bread was still bread.  So, if the bread remained bread, what was Jesus thinking when he said, “This is my body”?  Let’s consider three things Jesus might have been thinking by using one thing, bread, to represent another thing, his body.

          First, Jesus blessed the entirety of the bread, then he broke the bread.  I believe this was Jesus’ way of showing that He had come to be a blessing to anyone who would freely receive him.  Jesus had previously said, “’33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…’ 35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life’” (John 6:33, 35).  Jesus words at this find supper affirmed He came from God to be the blessing of life to all who receive him.

Second, the blessing of Jesus, this life-giving bread, was from Jesus to his believers, directly.  Jesus did not give the bread to anyone else to distribute.  Jesus broke the bread and gave it to anyone who would receive.  The blessing of Jesus is not a commodity to be stingily shared by religious leaders.  Jesus actions and words convey his thinking that no one may stand between him and the believer.

          Finally, Jesus gave the bread to his disciples, calling it his body, to show his mind, his will, that he was about to give his physical body over to his tormentor of his own will.  Despite what may happen to him in the hours to come with his arrest, trial, flogging, and crucifixion, it was important for his disciples to know that no one was taking Jesus’ against his will.  Jesus gave himself in the bread and would give his body over to death because doing so was the will of God who sent him.

We understand the convention of one thing representing another.  When two people marry, typically they give each other a wedding ring saying, “I give this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity.”  We see in the ring that the two have become one. The bread used by Jesus was symbol, a reminder, of Jesus love, his fidelity, and his capacity to sustain his followers through all the joys and hardships of life without him present.

What on earth was Jesus thinking when he said, “This is my body”?  Jesus was thinking, “I need to show you that I love each of you, personally, and that I came to give you life now and forever if you will just receive me.  Please see my commitment of love through the bread.”

And so, the disciples ate the bread.

After eating the bread, Mark said, “23 Then he [Jesus] took a cup, and when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he [Jesus] gave it [the cup] to them [his disciples], and they all drank from it [the cup].  24 ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples] (Mark 14:23-24).

What on earth was Jesus thinking when he said, “This is my blood.”  Was the wine now blood?  We Baptists do not think so.  We believe the wine was still wine.  So what was Jesus thinking when he said, “This is my blood?”

When we think of blood, we think of it as the red fluid circulating throughout our body that supplies oxygen and nourishment to every cell.  We see blood in context to life.  But in Biblical concepts, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures, the overarching meaning of blood is that it refers to death.

Cain killed Abel.  “The Lord said [to Cain], ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’” (Genesis 4:10). Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. To cover up their crime, the brothers slaughtered a goat and dipped Joseph’s coat into the blood to prove to Joseph’s his death.  The Hebrews sacrificed animals saying the blood, the death of the animal, made atonement for sin.  Finally, Moses sacrificed an animal and sprinkled the blood upon the Hebrew people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:8).

So when Jesus said, “This is my blood,” the Hebrew mind was predisposed to see the blood as a sign of death.  Jesus was expressing in words and actions what he was thinking, namely, that he was about to die and that his blood would be the seal of a covenant between him and God.

          What was a covenant?  In this context, a covenant was an unbreakable agreement between the believer and God.  Jesus, by giving his blood, by dying, the believer in Jesus’ as savior and Lord had entered an unbreakable relationship giving the believer peace and eternal life with God.  Jesus established this relationship not because of our good works but did so for the goodness of God who sought doing good for us.  This is what the cup should mean to us.  It is a sign of peace and unity.

          What on earth was Jesus thinking when he said, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.”  Jesus was thinking about you and me.  Jesus was thinking that between the bookends of doom and gloom there is an incredible love story that gives life.  Jesus wrote that story that we could be lifted up and given peace.  The downcast disciples experienced the love story at the table.  Luke wrote, “30 When he [Jesus] was at the table with them, he {Jesus] took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30-31a).  Those downcast disciples were transformed in recognizing Jesus at the table and immediately shared the news of great joy “35b How Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (Luke 24:35b).  Let us come now and recognize Jesus in the bread and know that Jesus was thinking of you and me when he offered his body and blood.  Amen and Amen.

3-27 - Love Languages

          Several years ago, I phone my friend, Frank, to check in on him.  Frank and his wife, Jane, were in their 90’s at the time. Frank said he and Jane were doing well and, in fact, they were just about to sit down to have a conversation about the purpose of language.  Frank then asked, “George, would you like to come over and join us in the debate?”  As tempting as Frank’s offer was to converse about the purpose of language, I declined.  I just wasn’t feeling it at the time.

          But the idea of understanding the purpose of language is not a frivolous one.  Language is essential to us.  Language is informative, it is expressive, and at times it is directive.  Language can be conveyed verbally, artistically, by facial expressions, and even occasionally by hand gestures.

          The creator of language in all its varied forms is God. The first page of our Bibles tells us that God used language and spoke, “Let there be light and there was light.” God saw the light and called it good. God created man and woman and gave them the capacity for language.  God gave us language so that we could be informed, that God would be expressive towards us, and that God could give us the direction we need.  But at the heart of God’s use of language toward us and for our benefit, is to convey in as many ways possible that God loves us, and that God wants us to love each other.

          Listen to how Jesus’ follower and dear friend, John, explained to his church God’s use of the language of love.  John wrote, “7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).  John used language that was informative, expressive, and instructional to convey that God is love and that we who have been born of God through Christ are to love.  And, perhaps most importantly, John said that God expressed his love not in a single sentence but in a single life, the life of his Son.  “10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Jesus was and is the embodiment of God’s language of love for us.

          Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian marriage counselor, has concluded after years of study and counseling that there are five distinct love languages created by God to be used to convey love.  These five love languages are: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Gifts, and Physical Touch.  Dr. Chapman said that we may relate in some way to all these forms of love language, but each of us has one language that speaks to us the most.

          Jesus used these love languages continually with all the people he met but perhaps never more profoundly than when Jesus and his disciples gathered in the upper room to share that final Passover meal.  John who so eloquent wrote that “God is love,” painted the scene of a loving setting in that upper room.  John said, “1It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1)

          John was making it clear to us that Jesus’ primary purpose of gathering his disciples in that upper room was love.  Earlier we sang about the love in this very room was enough for one like me, for all of us, and for all the world.  We can think of those lyrics as the scene in the upper room played out.  Everything Jesus would say and do in that very room was motivated to convey God’s love to the disciples in the memorable and indelible ways. 

The first love language Jesus used with his disciples was quality time together. John said that Jesus knew his arrest was imminent and that his life would be taken.  In that knowledge, Jesus decided he would spend his last hours with his disciples, away from the crowds and the noise of others, giving them his undivided attention.  Jesus, in spending time with his disciples, touched their hearts in a way that mattered, a way that made the disciples know that they were important and special.

          John recalled that, “2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:2-3).  Jesus knew that even though he loved Judas as much and in all the ways he did with the other disciples, Judas opened his heart to Satan.  Satan’s approach to language is to take all the languages of love and twists each of them.  Quality time must be given upon demand.  Touch is always sexual.  Acts of service must have expected.  Words of affirmation are to be continual and ever greater.  Gifts are expected to received and when given must be adored regardless of their quality.  Judas choose to live by a perversion of love, a love of self over others.

          John wrote that Jesus’ knowing the time had come for him to return to the Father and knowing of Judas’ betrayal of love, “4 Got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5).  Jesus had engaged in expressing love using three love languages.

          First, Jesus engaged in an act of service by caring for the needs of his disciples.  People’s feet in Jesus’ day were subject to considerable amounts of dirty and filth as they walked within their own village and between villages.  Washing a person’s feet was usually offered by the host of a gathering by ordering a servant to perform that task.  Using a servant, meant the act of foot washing was an impersonal act between the host and the guest.  Foot washing was a job for the servant.  But when Jesus, the leader of the group, stripped down and washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus made the foot washing an act of service used to express love.

          Second, in washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus necessarily rubbed, massaged, and dried his disciples’ feet.  Jesus loved his disciples through physical touch.  Proper and loving physical touch brings about a deeply intimate connection often causing the recipient of the proper touch to feel a sense of peace and serenity.  Jesus wanted his disciples to know one at a time that he loved them.  We sang about this feeling earlier today when we sang, “Then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same.  He touched me, O, He touched me, and O the joy that floods my soul!  Something happened, and now I know, He touched me and made me whole.”

          Through the foot washing, Jesus expressed love to his disciples as an act of service and physical touch but a greater expression of love, a love expressed by a gift, was also given in the foot washing.  To understand that expression of love we need to read a bit more about what John wrote.

          John wrote that as Jesus was washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus came to Peter. Peter said to Jesus, “6b “’Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  7 Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’” (John 13:6b-8).  It was in this moment that the foot washing was no longer about removing physical dirty from the soles of Peter’s feet.  The foot washing symbolized the acceptance of Christ’s offer, his gift, of salvation.  Jesus wanted Peter to understand that Jesus offers a gift to those who would receive him, a gift of eternal life.  To have eternal life, one must accept the gift.  To refuse the gift, as Peter suggested he would do, “you shall never wash my feet,” was to reject Christ and his offer of salvation.  In rejecting Jesus’ foot washing, Jesus said to Peter then “you have no part with me.”  What Jesus was saying to Peter, and the others may not have been understood at the time but promised that the soon would understand.

          Jesus, through the foot washing, was showing a third love language, the gift of eternal life by being washed of sin by him.  This gift became understood after Jesus’ death and resurrection and was proclaimed by all the disciples.  Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

          There was one more expression of love for Jesus to share with his disciples in this moment.  John wrote, “12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their [his disciples’] feet, he [Jesus] put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he [Jesus] asked them. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:12-17).

          Jesus used the power of words to affirm to his disciples that they shared the intimate relationship with the Son of God.  That through that relationship, they had been blessed with unique privilege in the kingdom of God.  Not only that, but that they could extend and expand that blessing if they would willing shared love with others.

          What can we make of this moment in the upper room with the washing of the disciples’ feet?  I think there are three things we should carry with us today.

          First, God loves you.  I don’t mean that in some flippant way as often love is used today, “Luv ya!”  “Luv ya more!”  I mean God through and through loves you.  He sent Jesus to express that love because we can best understand love from when it is expressed by a person.  Jesus expressed that love through all the ways we can receive it. He loved by giving his time.  Jesus loved by doing acts of service and touching those around him.  He loved by sharing the gift of salvation, an assured place at God’s table.  Jesus loved by being the Word of God and affirming that we, ourselves, can be lifted up and be children of God.

          Second, we need to grab hold of the reality that we have been redeemed.  To be redeemed means we have a new life. The old life, past mistakes, errors, and disappointments have been wiped clean.  To be redeemed is to be washed clean – fully.  When we are fully washed, redeemed, the allure of Satan’s twisted words about ourselves and others can be cast aside.  When we are redeemed, we are no worried about the future or our destiny. Knowing we have been redeemed is a blessing and gives us peace.

          Third and finally, we need to recognize the world is exceedingly hungry for love that is proper and pure.  Because we are blessed by the love of Christ and our redemption in Christ, we can serve others in love.   We can make the existence of Christ in this world real as we share quality time with others.  We speak to others of the reality of Christ when we extend our hands to those in need and affirm them with the physical touch of the body of Christ.  We lift others up when we do acts of service for them without expecting anything in return.  We can encourage people through the circumstances of life with positive words of hope.  And we can most importantly, share the gift of redemption through Jesus with them. These are the ways we can bring the basin and towel from that upper room to life in and through us.

          Let us pray together knowing God loves us, has redeemed us, and calls us to serve one another.

03-20 - Cheers, Jeers, and Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-13 - What to Pray For

         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

03-06 - What is Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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