Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beat It Into Their Heads Continually: Easter 2017

On Monday, I drove to Austin to visit one of our members who had had open heart surgery.  As I got about half-way there, KSBJ played out on my radio, so I began searching for a Christian radio station in Austin.  Fortunately, I found one.  However, this station was not like KSBJ.  KSBJ is a listener supported station with no commercials.  The station in Austin had commercials, so along with local businesses, local churches also ran ads.  Not surprisingly, many of those ads were about upcoming Easter services.  One ad did catch my attention.  A church was advertizing its Easter activities complete with a helicopter that would be dropping 20,000 eggs for their egg hunt.  I heard that ad several times during my trip, so I know the number and the event is accurate.

I must admit that there was a small part of me that thought about calling up Christa and saying, “How much do you think it would cost to get a helicopter to drop the eggs for our egg hunt, and do you think the congregation would go for it?”  But there was a larger part that began seriously thinking about what this congregation was doing.  I mean, I’m all for getting people to come to your church and to church activities.  I have absolutely no problem with that in the least, but this seems like a different kind of animal.  If this church is bringing in a helicopter for its Easter egg hunt, what are they going to do for the sermon?  Will they have a live-re-enactment of the resurrection complete with the ground shaking, angels appearing and rising into heaven, with smoke and loud music and the like?  Will the message of the resurrection take a back seat to a helicopter with 20,000 eggs?  It seems like there is a strong possibility of that happening.  It seems way too gimmicky, in my opinion.

So, there will be no helicopter here today.  There will be no lights, or re-enactments, or smoke, or manufactured ground shaking.  For as awe inspiring as such things might be, I know of no one’s life who was changed by seeing a helicopter drop 20,000 eggs. I know of no one who had a change of heart by packing an Easter basket with eggs.  I know of no one who found the peace that passes all understanding by watching the gimmicks of congregations.  But I do know of many, many people who have had lives changed, hearts melted, who have found peace by encountering the risen Jesus.  And it is my hope and my prayer that each of us here today encounter Him.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, today we are presented with momentous news.  The one who died on the cross has been raised.  The tomb is empty.  Death is undone.  Open our hearts and our minds so that we might see what you have accomplished through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

500 years ago, Martin Luther kicked off a huge event in history that we will be celebrating later this year.  Historians call it the Reformation.  Those of us whose churches found their beginnings at this time in history remember how one man dared to call the church back to its foundational beliefs.  It was the radical notion that God had acted through Jesus Christ to bring about our salvation through no action of our own but solely by the grace of God.

Luther himself talked about God’s action in this way in his commentary on the book of Galatians, “Here I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel, which teaches me, not what I ought to do, (for that is the proper office of the law), but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me: to wit, that He suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel wills me to receive this, and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consists. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”  Yes, Luther said, we must beat the Gospel into folks’ heads continually.  Therefore, this morning, I brought a baseball bat...  I bet you some of you are wishing we had a helicopter with 20,000 eggs right about now.

Please stop getting up to head to the exits, I’m putting the bat down.  Jesus didn’t condone violence, and I’m not about to start that now.  However, I am not going to apologize for using Luther’s quote because the Gospel is indeed so radical that we need to hear it over and over and over and over before it really starts sinking deep down within the very fabric of our heart and soul.  We need to have it repeated over and over and over so that it weasels its way deep into our hearts and transforms them.  We must hear the Gospel over and over and over again because it goes against the way the entire world works.

So, let’s begin there.  How does the world work?  I want you to think about your life for a moment.  I want to think about all the things you engage in.  Think about work.  Think about school.  Think about family and friends.  Do you realize that you are in a constant state of working to justify yourself?  Perhaps you have never thought of it that way, but let me show you what I mean.  If you are in school, why do you work to get good grades?  You are showing justification that you have mastered the material and are ready to move to the next step.  If you are working, why do you work hard and put in the hours you put in?  You are working to justify why the company should give you a paycheck, allow you to keep your job, and even perhaps give you a raise.  You are justifying your position to those for whom you work.  And even if you are self-employed, you must justify your work to your customers.  If you are a handyman, you’d better do a good job or else no one will be calling you.  Yes, even within our engagements with family and friends, we are constantly trying to justify ourselves.  As a parent, I am constantly asked, “Why?” by my children.  That question is nothing more than them saying, “Justify why you are telling me what you are telling me.”  And if you don’t think you have to justify yourself even within your immediate relationships, get angry about something and let your tongue slip.  See if you don’t have to quickly justify what you said.  Or guys, leave the toilet seat up several times in a row.  One more example, and then we will move on.  This example is front and center in our society even though we might not realize it: sports.  If you play any sort of team sport, you are in a constant state of justifying yourself for playing time.  You are having to prove over and over and over why you should be playing and why the guy on the bench shouldn’t.  And if you slip up; on the field or in your character, you are out of luck.

Have I shown you enough?  Do you see how you and I are in a constant state of working to justify ourselves?  Do you see how the world is set up so that we must continually justify ourselves?

Now, let’s shift to religion.  Did you know that just about every single world religion is in the self-justification business?  The emphasis of just about every single world religion is: if you do x, y, z, then you will receive the blessings of God.  If you do not do x, y, and z, you can expect God’s punishment.  If you keep failing, try harder.  You must justify yourself and prove that you are worthy of God’s blessings.

Here is what Christianity says.  Christianity says, there is no way that you can justify yourself before God.  God has said that we must do x, y, and z, but God’s standards are so high that if we break x, y, or z, we have dug ourselves a hole and no matter how hard we try we can never, ever justify ourselves.  We are indebted to God for our failure to live as we should.

Most of us know this at a very deep level.  Sure, we try to fool ourselves.  We put on some brave faces and some brave phrases.  We like to think that “I’m okay and you’re okay.”  We like to believe, “You are perfect just the way you are.”  We like to tell ourselves that we are basically good people who just make a few mistakes along the way.  Yet, when we examine our lives, we know this isn’t the case.  When we really think about how we act and what we do, we know that we hold everyone else to a standard that we ourselves don’t even live up to.  Maybe this is why we try to keep ourselves so busy these days.  Maybe this is why we work so hard and play so hard and keep our brains engaged with our cell phones.  The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to think and reflect upon who we are and why the world is the way it is.  The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to reflect upon how indebted to God that we are because of our shortcomings.

But here is the good news.  When every other world religion would say, “Try harder.  Work harder.  Pay your own debt.  Do more good than evil.”  Christianity says: God, knowing that we could not cover the debt, took on human flesh, became like us, experienced all that we experience, but lived without sin.  God came down in human flesh and became the sacrifice of atonement to pay our debt.  God came down in human flesh and took the punishment that was meant for us because God loved us so dearly.

Some may quibble at this thought, but what parent doesn’t do this for his or her young children?  If your kids were walking in the store and they accidentally broke an item on the shelf, would you allow your kid to be arrested and charged with vandalism?  No, you would pay for the item because you love your kid.  God desires all people to be His children, so He came into this world to cancel our debts–to pay for them Himself by taking the wrath of God upon Himself so that we would not have to face it.

This is what Jesus spent His whole life teaching and preaching.  This is what Jesus spent His whole ministry working toward.  His life was one great trajectory toward the cross where He justified us before God the Father.  Christianity says: you do not justify yourself; God the Son justifies you–makes you right by His actions.  You are made right with God by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.  This means, you are now made right with God by trusting in what Jesus does instead of what you do.  Let me say that again: you do not justify yourself like the world demands you do.  Instead, you are justified by Jesus’ on the cross.

This is not the way the world works.  This is not the way every other world religion works.  It is contrary to almost everything we have been taught.  Who would come up with such a scheme that is so contrary; that is so backwards?  It’s crazy and would have been rejected if not for one thing:

The resurrection.

I bet you were wondering when I would actually get to why we are here today.  I bet you were wondering when we would get to the empty tomb.  Well, here it is.  You see, the resurrection is the Father’s stamp that says, “You see.  Everything that Jesus said was true.  Everything He said about being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; everything He said about being the Son of God; everything that He said about salvation coming through Him as the way, the truth, and the life; everything that He said about being the light of the world; yeah, all of it is true.  All of it.

This means you don’t put your hope in your actions.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to do good things.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to follow the rules and laws in the Bible.
You don’t put your hope in the world telling you to justify yourself.
You put your hope in Jesus.
You put your hope in what He has done.
You put your hope in the cross and in the resurrection.
You trust in Jesus, not in yourself.

Oh, and that is so hard.  It is so hard to trust in someone else.  It is so much more instinctual to pave our own way; to walk our own path; to take everything into our own hands and do it ourselves.  It is so much more instinctual and in accord with the world to present our own defense; argue our own case; present why we should be in the right; to justify ourselves.  In fact, we keep wanting to go back to that.  We keep wanting to do it all on our own.  We need to have the gospel beat into our heads continually.  Where is that baseball bat?

No.  We don’t need that baseball bat.  We need Jesus.  We need to be reminded about Him.  We need to hear over and over and over again how much He loves us.  We need to hear over and over again how He was willing to suffer and die for us.  We need to hear over and over again how He loves us when we are unlovable.  For as we hear about how He died and rose for us; as we think about the cross and resurrection, as we think about Jesus, He moves down into our hearts and makes His home deep within us bringing us peace; bringing us hope; bringing us joy.  It’s Jesus who changes us; not helicopters; not 20,000 Easter eggs; not lights and smoke; not even ourselves.  Just Jesus.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, give us Jesus.  We know He is alive.  We know He has risen from the dead.  We know He longs to dwell in our hearts.  Lead us to trust in Him.  Beat it into our heads that we can trust in Him instead of ourselves.  And lead us to the hope, peace, and joy that is only found in the cross and resurrection.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus' Wondrous Love: Maundy Thursday 2017

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

These sentences are the reason today is called Maundy Thursday, from the Latin mandatum, from where we get the English word mandate or command.  Jesus leaves no wiggle room in how we are called to act as His disciples.  He leaves no doubt as to how we are to treat one another: Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  Period.  Mic drop.  There is nothing more to say.

And there would be nothing more to say if, and it is a big if, we actually followed what Jesus said.  There would be nothing more to say if, following the example of Jesus we spent all of our time in our church and in the world loving one another.  There would be nothing more to say if people walked into our churches on a regular basis and were blown away at how we acted toward each other.  There would be nothing more to say if those who are outside the church looked at us and said, “Those Christians are not like anyone else.  They are different through and through.  They don’t argue.  They only disagree.  They never gossip about one another, they only talk respectfully about one another.  They never assign ulterior motives to anyone, they put the best possible spin on each other’s actions.  They don’t point fingers and blame, they forgive and work toward common goals.  Their community is unlike any other community.  They are different.  They truly love one another.”

You know as well as I do, that those outside the church do not say that about us.  You know as well as I do that folks say almost the exact opposite.  “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.”  “The church is just like any other organization–they fight, they argue, they want money, they want time.  There’s nothing different about them!”  Sam Harris, a prominent atheist writer penned these words, “Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.”  These are all observations you probably have heard–at least you should have heard if you do not wear rose colored glasses in regards to the church.  If our governing command given by Jesus Himself is, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another,” then we have failed.

And it is not really a surprise.  Our hearts are not geared to love as Jesus loved.  What do I mean by that?  Close your eyes and take a look around the room where Jesus and His disciples are eating the Passover meal.  Look at Judas who will betray Jesus into the hands of the Jewish Sanhedrin and then Rome.  Look at Peter who will deny Jesus three times.  Look at James and John who will fall asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray.  Look at all the other disciples who will turn and run when Jesus is arrested, leaving Jesus to stand alone to face the coming ordeal.  Look at all of those faces who betrayed, denied, disobeyed, and ran.  And pretend that you knew they would do the same to you.  Pretend like they would abandon you, deny you, betray you, disobey you.  Would you still wash their feet?  Would you still serve them?  Would you still love them?  Even though you know, you absolutely know that Jesus told you to love them, would you love them?  Would you be willing to die for them?

I think it would behoove us to be honest with ourselves.  No.  We wouldn’t.  We wouldn’t want to love them.  We wouldn’t want to serve them.  We wouldn’t want to wash their feet.  These people would be hurting us deeply.  They would be dishonoring us.  They would be causing us emotional pain, and our hearts would not want anything to do with them.

The great George Strait once sang a song that applies here, “You can’t make a heart love somebody.  You can tell it what to do, but it won't listen at all.  You can't make a heart love somebody.  You can lead a heart to love.  But you can't make it fall.”

Why do we know that we are supposed to love one another but fail to do so?  Why do we fully acknowledge that Jesus is a perfect example and yet fail to imitate Him?  Our hearts aren’t like Jesus.  We are not like Jesus.

You see, in reality, we are much more like Peter.  No, I am not going to go through all the details of Peter’s three years with Jesus here.  I am simply going to focus on what Peter does in this text that is before us this evening.  Jesus is being Jesus.  Jesus is putting this love one another thing into practice.  He is humbling Himself and doing something no respectable Rabbi would ever, ever do.  No rabbi would wash his disciples’ feet.  No.  The reverse ALWAYS took place. Always.  But in the kingdom of God, the greatest is the least, and the least is the greatest.  This reversal is too much for Peter to handle.

Peter looks at Jesus and says, “You will never wash my feet.”

Peter knows this is not the way the world works.  Peter knows that what Jesus is doing is so contrary to everything he has ever known.  Peter knows that the powerful are served by the powerless.  Peter knows it was his job to wash Jesus’ feet and not the other way around.  Peter has a problem with grace.  For grace turns the world upside down and gives honor, love, and respect when it is not earned.  Grace gives love, honor, and respect when it is undeserved.  Peter knew he didn’t deserve what Jesus was doing.  Peter knew that he had done nothing that would warrant Jesus’ washing his feet, and so Peter rejected what Jesus was doing.

I told you earlier, we are like Peter.  For the most part, Christians have a problem with grace as well.  We have a problem with Christ washing us.  We have a problem with Christ dying for us and saving us on His own merit–with nothing added on our part.  Let me rephrase that: we have a problem believing that there is nothing we have to do to be saved.  We want to add qualifiers to grace.  Sure, Jesus died for us, but there is still stuff we have to do for our salvation.  Jesus forgave our sins, but if we don’t live a holy life, we won’t get to heaven.

The reason we think such things is because it gives us a sense of control.  If it’s all up to Jesus, then everything is out of our hands.  Everything.  Everything rests on Jesus and what He has already accomplished, and so we place our trust in Him–not in ourselves; not in our ability; not in our accomplishments; not in how good we were; not in how much money we’ve given away; not in how well we’ve treated others.  It all rests on Him, and for those of us who like control, this is very, very disconcerting.  I have no control over whether or not I get to heaven.  It’s out of my hands.  And face it, we don’t generally like depending on others when it comes to the most important things in our lives.  We want to do things ourselves.

Jesus’ response to this is not compassionate.  It’s harsh.  “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” If you didn’t quite get that, let me break it down.  There are those people who come before God and submit to God’s will.  They bow at their Maker’s feet and say, “God, I submit to you and what you have done, are doing, and will do.  I give my life to you and willingly serve you.  Speak for your servant is listening.”  These are the folks who understand grace and know that there is nothing God cannot ask of them.  And then there are those who God looks at and says, “You are only interested in serving yourself.  You are only interested in getting the things that you want.  You are only interested in preserving yourself, your wants, your desires, and I will let you pursue them.  I will give you up to your desire and your selfishness.  Go on your way.”  You see, God loves us enough to let us go.  He loves us enough to let us pursue our deepest heart’s desire–even if that leads us away from Him.  Jesus tells that to Peter.  If you want to do things on your own; if you don’t want me to serve you and wash you, you will end up on your own.  You will end up separated from me because you are acting selfishly.  You are free to go on your own, but there are consequences.”

Peter’s response shows that he still doesn’t get Jesus.  He still doesn’t get grace.  Peter is still self-centered.  Peter says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  If a little bit is good, a lot must be better!  Give me more, and more and more!!  How many stories have we heard like this?  Peter’s response is like the lady who asked her husband to wash the clothes while she went to the grocery store.  She came back home to find half of the house covered with soap suds.  “What did you do?” she demanded.  Her husband replied, “Well, I read the directions on the soap.  It said one cup will get your clothes clean.  But my work clothes were extremely dirty.  I figured that if one cup was good for regular clothes, then ten cups would be better in getting my clothes clean.”  The results were actually disastrous!!

Ah, but in Peter’s case, the disaster is actually related to his soul.  “Jesus, I want more of a share with you!!  If by washing my feat, I get a share, then wash my head and my hands and I will have an even bigger portion!”  You see, Peter was still under the impression that Jesus was going to be the ruler of Israel.  Peter thought Jesus was going to establish an earthly kingdom, and Peter wanted more of it.  He wanted a bigger share in that kingdom.  He wanted more power and prestige.  Oh how we fall into that trap as well.  Jesus, I will believe in you because I want what you can offer.  I will believe in you, Jesus because I know you can give me my deepest heart’s desire.  I know you can give me wealth, status, and privilege.  Jesus, I know you can give me health and make all my family healthy.  Jesus, I know you can give me the perfect life, and I know that if I pray enough, believe enough, give enough; if I promise to use what you give me wisely, then you will give it all to me.  Wash me through and through so that I can benefit!

Peter’s selfishness is shining through.  It’s a testament to the fact that even though a person walks with Jesus on a daily basis for years, listening to Him, eating with Him, watching Him perform miracles, and the like, one can still have a selfish heart.  And that is the reason our churches are no different than any other organization.  That is the reason we do not follow the command to love one another as Christ loved us.  Our hearts are still selfish.  And simply telling people to love one another isn’t going to work.  “You can lead a heart to love, but you can’t make it fall!”

And so, our hearts are in need of change.  Our hearts are in need of a fix so that we stop focusing on ourselves and our wants and our desires and what we can get.  Our hearts need transformation.

“Just as I have loved you...”

That phrase sticks out.  Because Jesus washing the disciples’ feet tonight is not His ultimate act of love.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love is an act that melts the most hardened heart.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love is an act of selflessness that when contemplated leads a person away from himself or herself and toward God.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love comes as He opens His arms on Golgotha, looks at those who are crucifying Him–looks at you and at me–and says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  And then He faces the wrath of God on our behalf–faces the punishment for our sins–dies in our place so that we might have eternal life.

When you love someone and pour out yourself for them, sacrifice for them, and show them undeserved love, it melts that other person’s heart.  It changes them because they want to love you in return.  Some of you have known such love.  Some of you may still be searching for it.  Look no further than the cross.  Look no further than the one who pours out His life for you.  Look no further than Jesus, the God who came to earth because He wants to live with you for eternity.  Through Him you were created, and through Him you are redeemed and made a part of the family of God.  And through Him you find boldness, and strength, and a deep desire to love like He loved.  And this is how His commandment to us will be fulfilled.  We will begin to love one another as He loved us when we come to see what He has done for us; when we can see what He has done on the cross; when we can see His wondrous love.  Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

If They Only Knew... Palm Sunday 2017

As I prepared for my sermon this week, I began pondering and imagining what Jesus was thinking on this day.  I wondered what He thought as He sent those two disciples to appropriate that donkey and colt.  I wondered if He watched them walk away to fulfill that mission and thought to Himself, “If they only knew...”

For I am sure those two disciples were excited at what Jesus had commanded them.  I am sure their hopes suddenly soared.  “Did you hear what Jesus told us to do?  Did you know the significance of His order?  He’s told us to go get Him a donkey to ride on!!  Do you remember what the prophet said?  Do you remember that the prophet said that our king, our deliverer, would come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?  Do you remember that prophecy?  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I remember the first time I heard the Rabbis talking about how our deliverer would come.  I remember being instructed to watch eagerly for the one who would enter into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Oh, today must be that day!!  Today must be the day that our freedom is birthed!!!  Jesus is going to enter Jerusalem on a donkey!!!”

The other disciple, perhaps also growing excited says, “Yes, we have been waiting for so long.  Since the Babylonians defeated us, we have been waiting for this day.  We have been subjected to the Greeks and to the Romans.  We have had to deal with their puppet kings.  A pox on Herod and his craziness.  A pox on Caesar.  A pox on Pilate.  Jesus has the power to overthrow them all.  Remember how He calmed the storm?  What army can stand against one who can control the forces of nature?  Remember how he cast the demon out of the man and made it enter the herd of pigs?  Can you envision Jesus making a whole legion of Roman soldiers cast themselves into the sea?  No one would even have to fight in battle.  And if we actually had to fight?  Well, remember how Jesus healed and brought the dead back to life?  Imagine an army that all wounds are suddenly healed and the dead are raised to fight again.  Invincible. That’s what we would be.  With Jesus as our king, the people of Israel will inherit the earth!!!”

“And we will be remembered as the disciples who brought Jesus His donkey!!”  Perhaps they laughed at this thought.  Perhaps they then turned their attention to the task at hand and with a bounce in their steps that could not be missed, they brought the donkey and colt to their master, and Jesus, knowing their thoughts said to Himself once more, “If they only knew...if they only knew that indeed I am their deliver.  I am indeed their Messiah.  I am indeed their King.  I am here to set them free, but it is a freedom that goes far deeper than what they think.  They dream of being free from rulers, from foreign powers, from Gentile armies, but even if I were to drive all those folks away, they would still be in bondage.  For there is a power that is so pervasive yet so subtle that it enslaves everyone.  These two disciples believe that if only I became the King of Israel and drove out Israel’s enemies, then their lives would be perfect.  Just get the right person in power, and everything will be happy and holy.  They are putting their trust in earthly kingdoms.

They have learned nothing from their own history.  No matter who has been king of Israel, people have always struggled.  My Father had to keep sending prophets to correct the people for their errors.  Putting a new king in place did little to affect the people’s hearts, for their hearts still yearned for wealth, for health, and for prosperity.  Their hearts still yearned for the comforts of this world.  They made idols out of these things and failed to yearn for my Father.  They are corrupted by the power of sin, and I must free them from that power.

For once they are free from the power of sin, then their hearts will yearn for my Father.  Their hearts will yearn to love Him.  And when their hearts yearn for God, they will no longer look to kings and armies to make their lives better.  They will no longer seek satisfaction in money or possessions.  Their hearts will no longer be governed by greed or anxiety or self-centeredness.  Their hearts will be my throne.  I will live with them and in them, and they will be free from the power of sin.  It won’t matter who sits on the throne; it won’t matter how many possessions they have; it won’t matter whether they are slave or free, male or female, they will find their freedom in me.

Yes, I will be their king, but I will not take the throne in the manner they think.  My path is not toward a palace.  I will not be clothed with expensive robes.  I will not dine on fine food and drink fine wine.  My path will be one of suffering and death.  My path will take me to the cross.  There, I will take all sin into myself–I will take the power of sin into myself, and I will defeat it.  If they only knew...”

And Jesus mounted upon the donkey and began the trek into Jerusalem.  And I pondered and imagined what He thought as the people lined the road and cheered Him on.  I pondered and imagine what He was thinking to Himself as the crowds laid palm branches in His path along with their coats.  They were laying out the proverbial red carpet for Him.  And they were shouting!! Yes, they were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Their cry was a cry of revolution.  “Praise be to the promised descendant of King David who was foretold long ago as the one who would defeat our enemies and help Israel become great once again!”  Ah, the crowd knew who Jesus was.  They too had heard of His miraculous deeds of power.  They too had heard of His powerful teaching.  They too knew He was from God, and they believed He was now here to deliver them from the hands of their enemies.  Rome stood no chance.  The puppet king Herod stood no chance.  Pilate might try to wield the might of Rome and the legions, but God had appointed His Messiah.  No one stood a chance against the Messiah.  And so they shouted!!  So they proclaimed!!  So they paid homage to Jesus!!!  Their king was coming!!!

And I cannot help but think Jesus simply thought, “If they only knew...
“For I will not be the king that they expect.  The crowd has fallen into the same trap that my disciples have fallen into.  They believe that earthly kings and rulers can make their lives change.  They believe that earthly kings and rulers can make them free.  But their hearts will still be in bondage to sin.  Their hearts will still be in chains.  And we will see just how chained they are.

In the coming days, I will teach and I will heal.  I will challenge the principalities and powers.  I will challenge their false idols, and they will hate me for it.  They will turn on me because I will refuse to become who they expect me to become.  And when I don’t give them what they want; when I refuse to live up to their expectations, their cries and shouts will change.  No longer will they yell, “Hosanna!”  Instead, they will yell, “Crucify!”  The ones shouting for my rule today will be crying for my death at the end of this week.  The power of sin will corrupt them so thoroughly that they will not even treat me as a human being–though I have done nothing wrong.  If they only knew...”

And as Jesus came into Jerusalem, I am sure He knew that the city was now on a razor’s edge.  He knew that the crowd’s actions had left the city full of tension and anxiety.  The crowds had welcomed Him like a king.  Would a revolution begin?  Could the city expect bloody battles?  Would swords be drawn and blood be spilled?  Would Jesus be the catalyst?  And those who did not know of Him were asking, “Who is this man?  Who is the one that the crowd’s welcomed in such a manner?  Who is this man who is welcomed as a Jewish Messiah?  Who is this man that rumors spread about sick being healed, demons being cast out, dead being raised, storms being stilled, and thousands being fed?  Who is this man?

“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

And once again, I can imagine Jesus thinking, “If they only knew...yes, I am a prophet.  Yes, I am from Nazareth.  Yes, I am from Galilee.  But this world is not my home.  I am not from here.  I AM.  Yes.  I AM.”  (And for those of you who did not catch that reference, in the Old Testament of Scripture, God refers to Himself as “I AM.”) I AM God’s only begotten Son who has come into this world to free my people from the power of sin.  I AM the King of kings and Lord of lords who will set my throne in my people’s hearts.  I AM the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world and open the family of God to anyone who trusts in me and what I do.  I AM the redeemer of the world who will save my people not because of who they are because they are sinful, self-centered, and vain–I will save them because of who I am: gracious and forgiving even when people turn on me.  I Am following my Father’s will because He does not want to see anyone perish but wants all to have eternal life with Him.  I AM the light of the world who shines in the darkness and helps people see the reality of God.  I AM destined to die so that anyone who trusts in me will live.  If they only knew...”

Indeed, if we only knew...if we only knew..., but sometimes I wonder if we want to know.  I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is.  For if He is the Lamb of God who has come to redeem us by grace alone–through no work of our own, then we cannot boast in what we do.  We cannot become self-righteous and think that we are better than anyone else.  For God did not pour out His love because of us but in spite of us.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He has died for me and granted me salvation by Grace alone, then there is nothing He cannot ask of me.  If He indeed is the King of kings and Lord of lords, if He is the King of Heaven and Earth, I owe Him my total and utter allegiance.  My life no longer belongs to me.  I have no control or charge.  I serve and honor Him alone and am bound in service to Him.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He has become my Lord and my Savior, then I find my meaning, my purpose, and my identity in Him.  I lose the privileges of being male or female.  I lose the privileges of race and ethnicity.  I lose the privileges of wealth and status.  I lose the privileges of education and knowledge.  For I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live but Christ who lives within me.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He is Lord of my life; I now live for God.  I no longer live for myself.  I no longer live for money, wealth, status, privilege, knowledge, power, control or anything else.  I live for God and seek His purpose and His will in everything that I do.  And that means I love what God loves.  I seek what God seeks.  I long for what God longs for, and that means care and concern for this world–for God loves the world.  And so I am called to love it.  I am called to care for it.  I am called to make sacrifices to preserve it and all that live within it.  And that means I care deeply for those created in God’s image.  I cannot wall myself off with other Christians and simply wait for Jesus’ return.  Because I love what God loves, I seek to bring other people into the family of God.  I seek to bring God’s love and God’s compassion to those in need.  I seek to feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Love of neighbor becomes the second most important thing I do in life after loving God.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He is Lord of my life, I cannot keep silent about what He has done in redeeming the world.  With every breath, I long to sing His praise and worship Him at every opportunity.  With every breath I seek to tell others of God’s great love.  With every breath, I long to tell His story of redemption.  I cannot keep silent.  I cannot just go about my life with indifference.  I must strive to point to and to worship my God and my King.

Do we really know this Jesus who enters into the streets of Jerusalem this day?  Do we really know the extent of His love, His mercy, and His grace?  Is He just someone we appreciate and try to implement a teaching or two of His?  Or is He the Lord of our lives?  Are our hearts His throne?  And do we long to cry out Hosanna?  Will you raise your palm branches?  Will you put your coat down in front of Him?  Will He be your Lord and your Savior?  May our hearts respond with a resounding, “Yes!!!”  Amen.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 5

Samson is now a prisoner.  The phrase “how far the mighty have fallen,” is appropriate here.  Samson who once was God’s-chosen, Nazirite judge of Israel is now relegated to grinding grain in a Philistine prison.  Some might consider this justice.  After all, Samson was not a very good judge.  He was extremely self-centered.  He broke his Nazirite vow on numerous occasions.  He handled dead bodies.  He engaged in parties where alcohol was present.  He visited prostitutes.  He welcomed violence and rather enjoyed toying with the Philistine leaders and others.  Not too many people would consider these actions godly.

And his arrogance and sexual appetite finally got the best of him.  He revealed to Delilah the secret of his strength, she arranged to have his hair cut, and the Lord left Samson.  This is an important sequence of events to remember, because, as we pondered last time, the Lord didn’t leave Samson when he broke portions of his Nazirite vow early in the story.  Why did he leave after Samson’s hair was cut?  It may just be that it was because Samson thought he deserved his power and strength.  It may just be because Samson had fully turned away from the Lord, and the Lord had to humble him to bring him back into a fuller relationship with Him.  Sometimes, the Lord must break us to remake us.

And our lesson starts with Samson being ultimately humiliated.  The Philistines are celebrating a festival to their false god–Dagon.  In the midst of their revelry, they decide to humiliate Samson even further.  They have him dragged out to the festival that he might entertain them.  But catch their reason for doing so.  They don’t just want to make fun of Samson.  They begin with these words, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.’ 24When the people saw him, they praised their god; for they said, ‘Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.”  You see, this story is not simply a battle between Samson and the Philistines.  It’s really a battle between God and all the false gods.  It’s a battle between God and Dagon.  It’s a battle between God and self-centeredness.  It’s a battle between God and lust.  It’s a battle between God and arrogance.  The Philistines believe that they have won.  The Philistines believe that victory has been achieved, and they are the ones who now suffer from arrogance and over-confidence.

How so?  At the end of last week’s lesson, the Bible records that Samson’s hair began to grow.  Now, think about this.  If it was revealed to you that the secret to your enemy’s strength was that his hair had never been cut, and you managed to cut it and subdue your enemy, would you allow his hair to ever grow back?  No.  Not if you were worried that he might regain his strength and come after you again.  You would keep his head balder than bald.  But the Philistines didn’t.  They were sure and confident in their victory.  They were now the arrogant ones.  They were now the ones who were sure of themselves and were reveling in their victory.  Their god had been victorious.  There was nothing more to worry about.

But their arrogance would come back to haunt them–just as Samson’s arrogance got the best of him.  Samson was brought out before the Philistines, and he asked one of the attendants, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.”  Samson had a thought growing in his head–one last thought of defeating his enemies.

The attendant put Samson’s hands on the pillars, and Samson prays.  “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.”

For perhaps the first time, he is exercising faith.  Some commentators have argued that the request of verse 28 is simply a vengeful one–and it is true that there is no mention here of rescuing Israel, only of revenge for Samson’s eyes.  But against this, first, there is a new-found humility here.  Samson recognizes that the God of Israel is sovereign–remember he is standing in the temple of the god whose followers he has spent his adult life sleeping with.  Further, Samson know not only that God is his God, but also that he is the saving, covenantal, relational God of his people, Israel.  This is a very different Samson to the one who presumed “his” strength, and who demanded that God give him water without thanking him for his power.
And second, Hebrews 11:32-34 says that Samson was a man of faith, and surely this is the only place in the story where it could be said that Samson exercised faith!  Most interesting is the reference in Hebrews 11:34: “they were made strong out of weakness.”  This is a great insight.  Samson had been humbled into the dust and had seen his weakness.  Thus, this last request is a departure from his previous feats of strength.  In...[verse 28], Samson first asks: “Remember me,” which is a humble request for attention.  He knows he is quite forgettable, and that God has every right to ignore him.  Second, he asks: “Strengthen me just once more.”  Here (at last) is an acknowledgment of his dependence on God’s grace.  Samson’s real temptation had been to believe that we are blessed by God because of something great and deserving in us–complacently to see what he had been given by grace as rightfully his, to use as he wished.  That, rather than Delilah, was his real sin!  It is so hard to remember that we do what we do only because of God’s grace, and that God’s grace is given so that we might do what is pleasing to him and in the service of his people.  (Keller: Judges for You.)

And God’s grace is indeed poured out on Samson one more time.  The power of the Lord comes over him, and he pushes on the temple pillars–and the temple comes crashing to the ground.  Samson prays that he might perish with his enemies, and that is exactly what happens.  In his death, Samson is victorious.

The most important moment of Samson’s life is his death.  The most faithful event of his life is the manner of his death.  And the most triumphant episode of his life is his death, as he at last, and at the last, performs the role of beginning to rescue God’s people that God had explained to his mother when his angel announced Samson’s miraculous birth.  (Keller, Judges for You)

It is important to recognize that Samson did not fully defeat the Philistines by his actions: that would be left up to King David later in Scripture.  It is also important to recognize that Samson’s downfall was brought about by his disobedience.  Both of these things show that Samson is a very, very flawed hero–a very, very flawed person of faith.

But in many ways, Samson’s end is a picture, a shadow of Jesus’ death.  Tracing it allows us to grasp more deeply what the cross is about, and to worship the one who died for us.  First, both Samson and Jesus were betrayed by someone who had acted as a friend–Delilah, and Judas.  (Judas was, of course, not as close to Jesus as Delilah to Samson–but the One he betrayed was far purer and more deserving of loyalty than Samson.)  Both were handed over to the Gentile oppressors.  Both were tortured and chained, and put on public display to be mocked.  Both were asked to perform (though Jesus, unlike Samson, refused.)  Both died with arms outstretched.
And both appeared completely struck down by their enemies, yet both in their death crushed their enemy–Samson, the Philistines and Dagon; Jesus, the ultimate enemy, Satan.  As Samson brought the temple crashing down around Dagon and his followers, the spiritual power and apparent triumph of Dagon was reversed.  Samson brought about permanent alienation between cultures, so that Israel would become distinct, no longer unknowingly and inevitably under the Philistine’s power.
On the cross, Jesus brought the power of Satan to nothing, disarming him.  How did the cross achieve this?  It took away the penalty for our idolatry–death–so that Satan could no longer successfully prosecute God’s people.  And it took away the power of sin in our lives, enabling the Spirit to live in us to break the lure of idols in our hearts.  Samson prefigures Jesus’ triumph, at the cost of his own death, over Satan.  As Samson killed many as he died, so it took the death of Jesus to “kill” Satan–the unseen power of idolatry, and the power of death itself...
In short, we have in Samson, more than any of the other judges, the pattern of “the victorious defeat.”  Rejected, beaten, chained, all alone, and finally dying under an avalanche of his enemies, Samson triumphed.  God delivered his people through the victorious defeat of one Savior.  David Jackman writes: “[The Samson narrative] begins with a strong man who is revealed to be weak, but it ends with a weak man who is stronger than ever he was before.”  (Judges, Ruth, page 243)
It is the gospel!  Jesus became weak to become strong.  But there is, of course, one last, crucial difference between Samson and Christ.  With Samson’s burial, his rule was over.  His story was finished.  But with Jesus’ burial, in many ways the story had only just begun.  He rules beyond the grave, not just before it.  The One who became weak to save will rule in strength and power eternally.
Becoming and continuing as a Christian is about the same pattern–becoming weak to become strong.  Only those who admit they are unrighteous receive the righteousness of Christ.  Only those who know their life and strength are theirs purely because of grace are not living in the grip of fear, boredom, and despondency.  Only those who know their own weakness are able to know God-given inner strength; the strength which enables us to avoid the pitfalls of Samson’s life: pride, lust, anger, vengefulness, and complacency.  (Keller, Judges for You)

Only when we admit that we need a Savior–that we are weak but He is strong, do we come to the place where we find hope.  For we arrive at the foot of the cross.  We arrive at the place where we look up at the One who died on our behalf when we were weak.  We see Christ crucified, and we see that He hung there for us.  And he whispers in his pain and agony.  He looks deeply into our eyes and says, “Be patient for I am dying for you. I am dying to win your heart, and soon you will see the victory.  Soon you will see the power that I will have work and live in you even in your weakness.  For today, it is the cross, but in three days, I will rise.  And if you trust in me instead of yourself; if you trust in my grace, you will rise as well.”  May we admit our weakness and trust in Jesus’ strength.  Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Expect to Suffer: Romans 8:18-25

Today we tackle one of the pervasive lies that has been spread about Christianity.  It’s a lie that actually has great appeal, and there are many churches who have grown very, very large because of that lie.  It’s a lie that captures the imagination because it feeds our need and desire to be safe, secure, and have control over our lives.  It is the lie that says: if you become a Christian, then you will never suffer and you will only have blessing upon blessing in this life; things will always turn out great for you; you will find yourself healthy, wealthy, and with fantastic relationships.  In a word: no.  This message is not the message of Christianity.  It incorporates part of the Christian message, but it misses the entire message, and it can have very negative effects.

Why would I say that?  More than a few times I have counseled people who have held this particular understanding of Christianity.  Their lives were going along swimmingly; fantastic.  They were riding huge waves and enjoying life, but then a monkey wrench was thrown into their plans: maybe it was the loss of a job; maybe it was a diagnosis of cancer; maybe their spouse filed for divorce.  Suddenly, their entire view of the faith came crashing down.  Every time, the same questions are asked: Why is this happening?  I thought I was doing everything right?  I thought my faith was strong?  Why is God allowing this to happen to me?  Why do I have to suffer?

At this point, it is hard to undo what has been done to this person theologically.  It’s hard to go back to the very beginning and deal with the problem that nearly every person on this planet has to deal with: the problem of suffering.  It’s hard to look a person in the eye who expects God to protect them from suffering and tell them: when you become a Christian, you should not expect to avoid suffering.  In fact, when you become a Christian, you should expect to suffer.

This is exactly what St. Paul was getting at when he ended his teaching on what it meant to be a child of God with these words, “...if, in fact, we suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him.”  Paul is hearkening back to earlier in the book of Romans when he talks about Jesus as our representative.  He is going back to the thought that when we are joined to Jesus in baptism, whatever happens to Jesus happens to us.  Jesus died, therefore, we have died and we will die.  Jesus was raised from the dead, therefore we have already experienced the resurrection and one day we will be raised from the dead.  What Paul didn’t go into earlier in the book of Romans, he begins going into now: Jesus suffered, therefore, we also suffer.  If what happened to Jesus happens to us, then we can expect suffering just like Jesus suffered.

This oftentimes raises an important question: why did Jesus have to suffer?  There are actually two reasons, one that applies to us and one that doesn’t.  We’ll take the one that doesn’t first.  One reason Jesus suffered is for the redemption of the world.  Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to make us right with God.  When he suffered on the cross, he had heaped upon him the sins of the world–your sin, my sin.  He faced God’s punishment for those sins on our behalf, and he suffered for us.  This is not the suffering we face.  We face the second type of suffering–the suffering that comes by living in a world where the power of sin is still operative.  Remember, sin is not just the things that we do.  Sin is also a power that is unleashed and is working in the world.  It is corrupting the world, and it is corrupting us.  Jesus entered into the world, and sin did its best to corrupt him.  Sin did its best to turn him away from the Father.  Sin tried many and various things to corrupt him: it appealed to pride and power; it made Jesus face death; it brought persecution upon him; it confronted him with disease and demonic power; it unleashed the fury of nature; and Jesus faced it all.  Jesus experienced the suffering that the power of sin has in the world.  And if Jesus experienced this, we can expect it as well.  Sin will unleash its power upon us to try and corrupt us and alienate us from our heavenly Father.  We can expect to suffer.

And the question is: is it worth it?  Is it worth going through this suffering?  Is it worth it to deal with the headaches and heartaches?  Is it worth facing disease and the death of our bodies?  Is it worth having people make fun of us?  Is it worth it to deal with the fallen nature of humanity and turn the other cheek?  Is it worth it to stand on principle and face alienation?

Paul answers that question next: 18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  When my children were younger and had to get their vaccination shots, Dawna and I promised them: if you hang in there and don’t fight, we will get you an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen.  My kids dreaded those shots.  They didn’t want the needles and the injections of the medicines that burned going in.  But they knew there was something at the end that was better.  They knew there was something they could look forward to.  They knew that there was something great to be had if they made it through the pain.  This was a very effective plan on Dawna’s and my part until our youngest came along and decided that he didn’t like ice cream.  Thankfully, he liked french fries...

But I digress.  Paul is essentially making the same point.  He is saying: compare what you are going through now with the reality that will come later.  What happens down the road; what happens when the glory of God is revealed will make these sufferings pale in comparison.  When we enter into the fullness of the promises of God, everything that we have experienced will become clear.  Everything that we have experienced will fade into a distant memory.  We will look back and say, “Man, that wasn’t fun, but I get it now, and I wouldn’t trade it in the least because what I know now and experience now puts that into perspective.”

Paul then adds, that the entire creation is watching us and what God is doing in us as He redeems us: 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  You see, the creation is also infected by the power of sin.  Creation is not what it was meant to be.  I know that many people look at nature and see beauty and wonder and that “everything works in harmony.”  Well, if harmony means that there is a constant battle for survival–that the rule of thumb is kill or die, then I guess nature is indeed a thing of beauty.  Folks who think nature is just wonderful or beautiful are observing it from civilization and for only small glimpses.  They are not seeing prey trying to avoid predators. They are not seeing plants raising their defenses against infestations.  They are not seeing how everything in nature is simply trying to survive.  And despite nature’s best efforts, things still die.  Things still decay.  This is not the way God intended nature to be.  And in this snippet, Paul personifies nature.  He indicates that nature has some sort of awareness and consciousness.  He indicates like others who wrote Scripture before that nature is longing for redemption.  And Paul says that nature is looking for the children of God to emerge.  Nature is looking for us because it can then see that the process of redemption is underway.  It can see that the battle it is currently engaged in will have an ending.  Its suffering will one day end as well.  There is something to look forward to.

This is probably why Paul turns to the next analogy: 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  I’ve never been through labor.  I don’t want to go through labor.  I watched Dawna go through it and then end up having an emergency C-section.  No thanks.  You ladies are wonders of God’s creation when it comes to birth.  I didn’t have to go through it to see that labor pains suck.  And if there weren’t some sort of pay-off in the end, I’m not sure anyone would ever endure them.  If there weren’t a baby wrapped in warm cloths handed to you after all was said and done, no one would purposely endure them.  But when your child is placed in your hands and you look at that child’s beauty and marvel at this new life, all that pain becomes worth it.  All that agony fades into a distant memory.  This is what was waited for.  This is what was anticipated.  Moaning and groaning is proper when going through the process, but when all is said and done...there is joy–pure, unadulterated joy.  Paul says we are still in the labor process.  The full redemption of our bodies and this world has not happened yet, but the process has begun.  Our suffering is a part of that process, and Paul gives us the antidote to help us through it.

24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  You see, hope is the antidote.  We know there is something at the end.  We do not have it yet, but we know it is coming.  We know that it is just around the corner.  Dawna and I adopted a rather interesting method of giving our children birthday presents.  Rather than go out and choose something for them, we take them to the store and allow them to choose their gift.  As their birthdays approach, they become more and more excited.  They generally know what they are going to pick out ahead of time.  They generally know what gift they will choose, but they don’t have it yet.  It’s not in their possession yet, and so they live in hope.  They live in expectation.  They live with growing excitement as each and every day brings them closer to their birthday.  If they already had their present in hand; if they had already received it long before their birthday, they wouldn’t have the excitement.  They wouldn’t have the hope.  They wouldn’t have anything to look forward to.  But because it is not in their possession yet, they have hope.  They know it’s coming; they know our promise is secure; so they patiently and excitedly wait.

This is exactly what we do as Christians as well.  We have a sure and lasting hope.  We have a sure and lasting promise.  We don’t have it yet.  But it is coming.  Each day draws us closer.  Each day is one more step toward the full redemption of this world and our bodies.  Each day brings us closer to the promised resurrection and fullness of joy of being in the presence of our Father, our Daddy as Paul reminded us last week.  We long for it, but we are patient as we wait.  We endure the sufferings of this world because we know there is more to come.  And we look to the author and perfecter of our faith as we do so.

Jesus is extremely crucial to this whole process.  In fact, it is Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that is in Paul’s mind as he writes these words.  You cannot have the resurrection without the cross, and you cannot have the cross without the resurrection.  They both go hand in hand.  They both must be held in tension.  Both provide the Christian with the answer as to whether or not suffering is worth it, and the answer is a resounding yes.  The cross shows that God is not above our suffering; God is not removed from our suffering.  God suffers with us and like us.  God knows pain.  God knows agony.  God knows injustice and hatred.  God knows what it is like to die.  God has experienced it with us.  Yes, God understands our suffering because He’s been through it himself.  And if God didn’t prevent Himself from suffering, we should not be surprised when He doesn’t prevent us from suffering.  There is more to the equation: there is resurrection.  There is re-birth.  There is renewal.  The resurrection is the promised hope.  It is what we can look forward to–a new body free of pain, injury, hunger, want; a new body that will never die; a new body that will experience the love and fulfillment of God.

We must not be fooled by anything that minimizes the cross or the resurrection.  We must not be led astray into accepting any form of Christianity that promises that we will never suffer or that our hope is in something less than resurrection.  We must not lead people astray and offer them false hope.  When we become Christians, we will suffer.  That is a given, but we can endure because we also know what is in store.  We know that there is resurrection in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Part of God's Family: Romans 8:14-17

No one gets to choose whether or not to be born.  No one.  Birth is an involuntary event in our lives.  Our parents made that decision for us, and this also means that we didn’t get to choose our family.

We did not get to choose our father.
We did not get to choose our mother.
We did not get to choose our siblings.

Like it or not, we are stuck with our families for better or for worse.  For those of us who were born into relatively stable, happy families, we can consider ourselves blessed.  I was extremely blessed to have a family who loved and supported me–who gave me appropriate discipline but was never abusive; who knocked me down when I became too prideful and built me up when I was feeling down.  After the typical sibling rivalries with my sister, we grew close and still maintain a very good relationship.  I value highly my family.

But not every family is like this.  In fact, there are some families where the exact opposite things happened.  There are some families where people are abused physically and mentally.  There are some families where children are ignored; unloved; and the minimum of care is given to them.  There are some folks who have good relationships with their mothers but horrendous relationships with their fathers and vice-versa.  There are some families where brothers and sisters war with each other for attention and affection and, if the parents die, for whatever monetary gain they can appropriate.  When such things happen, the term family takes on a very, very negative meaning.

And it is with such matters in mind that some well meaning theologians and pastors have commented that the church should do away with any sort of language that talks about our community as a family.  Because some folks have had negative experiences with families, we shouldn’t talk about ourselves as a family.  Because some folks have had negative experiences with abusive fathers, we should not talk about God as the Father.  To a lesser extent, the logic follows that because some folks have had a negative experience with mothers, we shouldn’t refer to God as Mother either.  I know that the intent here is well meaning, but that then means we will have to disregard some very important pieces of scripture that reveal to us the nature of God and our relationship toward Him.

One of those pieces of scripture is in front of us this morning.  It’s a very small paragraph from the eighth chapter of the book of Romans, but these few sentences are profound in what they say about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  Paul begins with these words, “14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  This is not an inclusive statement.  It is an exclusive statement.  If you are not led by the Spirit of God, you are not a child of God.  But if you are led by the Spirit of God; if you have Jesus as your representative; if you trust in Jesus’ actions instead of your own actions when it comes to being right with God; then you are a child of God.

These words hearken back to the story of the Exodus when God was leading the people of Israel by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.  God adopted the Israelites as His children and was leading them to the Promised Land.  They were under His care.  They were under His provision.  However, at this time in biblical history, the family was limited.  Only those who were circumcised and descendants of Abraham were allowed in.  No one else could be added.  Until Jesus. When Jesus came into this world and made us right with God through His death and resurrection, the family of God became open.  No longer was there any physical restrictions to entrance into the family.  Didn’t matter if you were circumcised or not.  There were no longer any blood line restrictions to entrance into the family.  Didn’t matter if you were a Jew or not.  Entrance into God’s family was not by physical birth–it was by spiritual re-birth.  It was by a heart that came to trust in what Jesus accomplished in His life, death and resurrection.  For all of us who here today call ourselves Christian, we became a part of this family because of Jesus; because we place our trust in Him.

What does this mean?  Verse 15, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’   I heard a heart wrenching sermon illustration this week as I listened to a pastor preach on this text.  A family had traveled to Russia to adopt two boys.  When they entered the orphanage and were led to their sons, they were disturbed by what they didn’t hear.  For you see, the orphanage was quiet.  It was full of babies.  Full of infant children laying in their cribs.  But they made no noise.  They rocked themselves back and forth, but there was no crying; no cooing; nothing.  The pastor explained: whenever infants get no attention, they learn not to cry.  They simply stay silent because their cries do no good.  These children had learned that no one cared.

The couple were led to the two boys that they would eventually adopt.  They spent several days with those boys giving them attention and affection.  Finally, the day came that the parents’ dreaded.  They would have to leave these two boys and return to the United States as they awaited the final paperwork to be handled.  They hugged and kissed the boys and told them their goodbye’s.  And as they walked back through the silent orphanage, one of their boys let out a blood curdling cry.  For the first time in his life, their son-to-be knew he was loved; knew he was cared about; and he cried out for his family.

When we receive the Spirit of God, we do not fall back into fear and subdued quiet.  We do not worry about whether or not we are saved.  We do not worry about whether or not we will ever get to heaven.  We have a Father who cares.  We have a Father who loves.  We have a Father who provides.  We have a Father who grants us every right and privilege that comes with being His child.  And so we cry out to Him.  We yearn for Him.  We yearn for His presence.  We yearn for His touch.  We yearn to experience holy time with Him.  And so we cry out, “Daddy!  Father!”  For you see that’s what Abba means.  Abba means Daddy in Aramaic.  We have the privilege and honor to come before the creator of the universe with no need to use majestic language.  We don’t have to pray saying, “Heavenly Father.”  We don’t need to flatter God by saying, “Almighty Creator of the universe.”  We can simply say, “Daddy.”  This is the spirit of adoption that we have received.

Of course, some may ask, “How do you know?  How do you know that this is true?”  Paul answers, “16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”   There is no scientific proof for this occurrence.  There is no legal document that is produced to show that God has adopted us.  The sign and seal of this transaction takes place in the very depths of our hearts.  The Holy Spirit and our own spirit testifies to whether or not we are children of God.  Deep down in the recesses of your heart, you come to sense the Spirit’s presence.  You come to sense the Spirit’s affirmation.  You come to realize your adoption into God’s family as the Spirit of God confirms and affirms you.

Now, you may say, “Pastor, I haven’t felt this.  Am I a part of God’s family?  Am I a Christian?  If I don’t sense the Spirit of God in me, am I doing something wrong?”  There are two things to consider: first, I think we must all ask ourselves what we are trusting in at any given time in our lives.  We must examine deep within our hearts and ask ourselves, “Am I putting my trust and faith in Jesus and His action?  Am I being led down the path to trust the things of this world?  Am I looking to Jesus for my safety, security, and hope, or has money, possessions, the government, or some other such entity clouded my thinking?”  The world will try to pull us away from Jesus, and during these times, we oftentimes lose our conviction that we are indeed children of God.  Secondly, if we have examined ourselves and found that indeed we are trusting in Jesus, we must be patient and be quiet to hear the Spirit’s voice.  Patience is not a virtue that many have these days in this world of instant gratification.  Quiet time and space is a rarity.  Turn off the television.  Take a walk without your phone or MP3 player.  Let your heart and mind turn toward Jesus.  Practice being in Him with quiet, and you will hear the Spirit confirm you as a child of God.

And now, let us turn to the final verse: 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  As we look at this verse, let me first make a disclaimer.  We will be dealing with the concept of suffering next week, so I am going to give that part of this verse short shift this week.  My apologies for those of you who may not be here.  I am not ignoring what Paul says.  I just know where he is going.  What I want to focus on here is that Paul says we become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

We are so divorced from the ancient world that we don’t grasp the radical nature of this statement.  You see, when it comes to the inheritance of property in our culture, we believe in splitting things evenly with our children.  I have three kids.  When Dawna and I wrote our wills, we gave 1/3 of our property and money to each child.  We believe in the concept of fairness and that each child should receive an equal share.  Most of you probably have done the same thing with your property and money.  This was not the way things were done in the ancient world.  Let me repeat that: the concept of equally splitting an inheritance was not the practice in the ancient world.

In the ancient world, a family’s power was tied to the amount of property and wealth that the family accumulated.  Therefore, when an inheritance was left, one heir was designated–usually, it was a male.  That heir received the vast majority of the family’s property and wealth.  Let’s say a family had six children.  The heir would receive 90-95% of the property, and the rest of the children would divide the remaining 5-10%.  The heir got almost everything.  Period.  In this fashion, the family could retain its power and influence in the ancient world.

Paul says that when we enter into the family of God, we become co-heirs with Christ.  Whatever Christ inherits, we inherit.  Doesn’t matter if you became a part of the family a long time ago or if you just came into it.  Doesn’t matter if you are male or female.  Doesn’t matter whatever kind of status you had in life.  You are an heir.  You have access to the inheritance.  This is how much God loves you and cherishes you as His child.  Eternal love.  Yours.  Eternal provision.  Yours.  Eternal life.  Yours.  And not only do these things happen when you die.  No.  You begin to experience them right here and right now.  When you are made a part of the family of God you can count on God’s love, provision, and fulfillment right now.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this family?  Who wouldn’t want to have a Father like this?  We all know that our families in this life are imperfect.  Even if you had the greatest parents in the world, they still die.  I cannot tell you how many times friends of mine on Facebook post a statement that reads, “Post this if you would like to talk to your dad or mom one more time.”  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard children–even spouses–say, “I was so mad at my parents or spouse when they died on me.”  Yes, most of these folks worked through such things, but the point I am trying to make is this: our families at some point will let us down.  They will not bring us the fulfillment that we oftentimes place on them.  They will not always be around to love and care for us.  And so we should not put our ultimate trust in them.  Hear that again because for those of us who have good families, I am not telling anyone to stop trusting their families.  What I am saying is that we should not put our ultimate trust in them.  We should put our ultimate trust in the one family unit that will not disappoint.  We should put our trust in the one Father who will never let us down.  I am saying that we should put our ultimate trust in being a part of the family of God with God as our Father, Christ as our brother, and the Spirit of God who leads us into our daily lives.  It is this family and this family alone who will never disappoint.  Claim your inheritance.  Trust in Jesus.  Be a child of God. Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 3

When last we left Samson, he had killed 30 men to fulfill his part of a lost bet with 30 guests at his wedding.  These men had manipulated Samson’s wife into telling the answer to his riddle, and after paying his debt, Samson, in anger had returned to his parents’ home for some time.  We don’t know exactly how long Samson stayed with his parents, but his lust for his bride-to-be won out, and he eventually returned to her home to see her once again.

However, this trip was all for naught.  When Samson arrives, he is greeted by her father who tells him, “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister prettier than she? Why not take her instead?”  Now, this was a perfectly legal custom in those days.  If a groom did not take his bride, she was given to the best man.  Dad did what he was supposed to do given the circumstances around his daughter’s wedding.  And by offering the younger daughter, he is doing what a traditional Philistine would do to satisfy a suitor.

However, Samson isn’t having any of this.  This, in fact, simply makes Samson angrier, and he makes a rather curious statement–especially for a chosen judge of Israel, “This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.”  There is no thought of forgiveness.  There is no thought of reconciliation.  There is a definitive break between Samson and the Philistines.  He blames the lot of them for the loss of his bride-to-be, and he commits what he himself calls “mischief.”  Mischief?  This is not exactly a trait that we admire these days.  This is not a trait that we hold up as a virtue.  We rather frown upon mischief makers and believe that God does as well.  But Samson is undeterred from his desire for revenge, and so he burns the Philistines’ crops.

The Philistines, in revenge burn Samson’s bride and her father.

Samson, in revenge, strikes “them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”
The violence is ratcheting retaliation after retaliation.  Without forgiveness and reconciliation, it is a familiar story to us, both within family structures and on national levels.  Each action prompts a reaction, which brings its own reaction, and the seemingly unbreakable cycle continues.  And so, the Philistines take up arms and make camp in Judah, “to take Samson prisoner...to do to him as he did to us.”  (15:10) Judah is so keen to remain at peace with them that they have no idea that God has raised up a judge to save Israel (v10)!  And when they discover that he has, they send 3000 men to hand the judge over to their enemy!  They may bear the name of God’s people, but they would rather live at peace with the world and worship their idols than be freed to worship God–and they would rather cut down their own rescuer than risk confrontation with the world. 
  So they tie up their own judge and take him to the Philistines.  Again, though, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power.”  Samson breaks his bonds, and “finding the jawbone of a donkey”–a dead animal, though Samson seems to have left his Nazirite vow well behind by now–“he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men”, taunting them as he kills them. 
  Now, for the first time, Samson speaks to the God who has chosen him, and empowered him.  But his prayer is neither humble nor faithful: he basically demands that God help him, and complains that he doesn’t (v18)–which is remarkably clueless of him, since it is God’s Spirit which has rescued him from a lion, from a lost bet, and now from a thousand Philistines.  Samson uses God’s strength, but he doesn’t depend on God except when he is in extreme situations (he won’t speak to him again until 16:28, when he is blind and trapped).  Yet God is at work through Samson, and provides the water he needs.  Thus refreshed, Samson led Israel for twenty years”.  But it is not the leadership of the earlier judges.  He has not saved Israel from spiritual or physical oppression–it is still “the days of the Philistines.”  (Keller, Judges for You)

It is worth taking a little bit of time now to think about how God is at work in all of this process.  It is worth taking a little bit of time to think about what is going on in all of this gratuitous violence, sexuality, selfishness and deceit.  It is worth thinking about God’s role in this cycle of revenge.  From our vantage point, we may recoil at what is going on.  We may shake our heads in bewilderment and God’s seeming blessing on these murderous actions.  We may consider that our wisdom is better than God’s–after all “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  That may be true, but we need to consider that God’s wisdom is above our wisdom, and God’s work in the world is not like our work in the world.

As we look at this story, we must remember that...in all this, God is at work.  Why can Samson kill the lion?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  Why is he able to strike down thirty Philistines and steal their clothes?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  God is giving Samson super human strength–the one thing he needs (other than his own character flaws) for him to cause the division between Israel and the Philistines which God’s people, though they don’t realize it, desperately need it.  God is starting to save his people by divorcing them from their marriage to their idols and to the world around them.  (Keller, Judges for You)

This is important for us to realize as a church.  For we are to be both loved and hated by the world at the same time.  We are to be both loved and hated by our surrounding culture.  We must be, as Jesus said, “be in but not of” the world.  How does this happen?  We are to be loved by the world because we, as a church, should be willing to pour ourselves out for the world.  We are to love the unlovable.  We are to provide for those in need.  We are to look at our surrounding community, and give until it hurts.  When folks think about our congregation, they should think, “Man, the amount of care, compassion, and money they pour out into our community is amazing.  We don’t know what would happen to our community if that church were to close its doors.”  Sadly, most churches are not invested in such a manner in their communities.  If we were, we would be more loved.

But we would not only be loved, because we would also be hated–for our values would not stack up with the values of the world.  We would also have a prophetic voice calling people away from their modern-day idols.  We should be front and center telling the world, “Sports and athletics will not give your children life-long satisfaction and character.”  We should be front and center telling the world, “The idea that sex is simply a physical act with no emotional involvement and that it doesn’t matter who you have it with is fine, ignores its purpose and devalues both the act itself and the people who engage in it.  Sex is reserved for marriage alone as a gift from God.”  We should be front and center condemning rampant materialism and saying, “Money is a false god who will destroy you if you make attaining it your purpose in life.”  None of these messages is popular in our culture and society today.  Folks hate it when you put such boundaries upon them.  Yet, we don’t announce such things because we want to be liked.  We announce them because we are convicted that such truth leads the world away from idols and toward the true God who can satisfy; who can bring fulfillment; who can bring peace.

This is the first lesson we are to learn from Samson’s story.  The church cannot seek to be liked by the world and accommodate the world.  We must be both loved and hated by the world.

The second lesson is the grace of God that is poured out toward flawed people like you and I–how God can even use our mistakes, sinfulness, and rebellion to work His good.

But how can God use such flawed people–people like Samson–to get his work done? Shouldn’t he only work with people who are good, godly men and women?  Shouldn’t he only use the people who have the right beliefs, and the right behavior? 
  The problem with this is that it puts God in a box.  It would mean he is limited by humans, and is only allowed to work when people are being good and making godly choices.  It would mean that God does not work by grace, taking the initiative to save; but that he works in response to good works, waiting for people to help him to save. 
David Jackman describes how Judges “shoots holes through all of that:”  “It is above all a book about grace, undeserved mercy, as is the whole Bible...That is not to play down theological accuracy or to pretend that it doesn’t matter how we behave..[We will still suffer from our sins].  But we can rejoice that he is also in the business of using our failures as the foundations for his success.  Let us never imagine that we have God taped, or that we know how he will work, or when.  As soon as we start to say, ‘God cannot or will not...until...’ we are wrong footed.”  (Judges, Ruth page 22). 
  The amazing truth is that God works through sinners, and through sinful situations.  He keeps his promises to bless his people in the dark and disastrous periods of our lives, as well as through the times when things are going “right.”  Not even our own sin will stop him saving us, or using us.  Mysteriously, often unseen, and usually far beyond our comprehension, God works through the free (and very often flawed) choices people make: “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.”  (Romans 8:28) Amen.