Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Clifford Washburn Funeral Sermon

 What does a person say at a funeral for a man who was not able to do anything in his entire life?  What does a person say at a funeral for a man whose greatest accomplishment was being able to roll over as an infant and young boy?  What is a person to say at a funeral for a man who was never able to walk or talk or work or even dress himself?  What does a person say at a funeral for a man who was never really able to do anything more than eat, sleep, and look around the room when he was awake?  Is there anything to say?

 So many of our funerals make the one laying in the casket out to be larger than life.  I have two things to say on this one: one a serious comment and the other a joke.  Please hear the one and forgive the other.  The serious point: at my previous congregation, I remember officiating at a funeral where one gentleman stood to give a tribute to the deceased, and he spoke for 45 minutes about how great a guy this man was.  This man was followed by a pastor who was a friend of the family who spent another 35 minutes talking about how great this man was.  I shook my head wondering if the town of Seguin would continue to exist without this man so great an noble was he, and I asked myself if this was what funerals were about.  First point.

 Second point, the joke.  I have told this joke at several funerals, and it bears relevance here as well.  A young minister arrived at the funeral home to conduct the service for a member of the community.  The minister climbed into the pulpit and proceeded to spend half an hour extolling the virtues of the man who lay in the casket.  He proclaimed about how wonderful a husband this man was–doting on his wife, taking her on exotic vacations, lavishing her with fine gifts, and treating her as his queen.  The minister spoke about how wonderful a father this man was to his children–offering firm yet fair discipline, never missing a sporting event, bragging on his children at every turn.  The minister then proceeded to tell of how this man was a wonderful churchman–rarely if ever missing a Sunday, sitting on the front pew, tithing his income and then giving a bit more, making all church activities.  Finally, the minister spoke of how the man was a tremendous, yet generous businessman–making his business strong, treating his employees fairly, upright and honest at all times.  After the service, the young minister shook hands with the widow, and left.  All of the attendees greeted the widow and walked out the door.  The widow continued to sit at the front of the funeral home chapel waiting.  After 20 minutes or so, the funeral director approached the widow.  He said, “Ma’am, I figured you need this time to grieve.  Stay as long as you like.  If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.”  The widow looked up at the funeral director and sweetly said, “Yes, there is one thing.  Can you please open the casket so that I can make sure that’s actually my husband in there?”

 So often, we turn funeral services in to such endeavors.  We see the life of the deceased with rose colored glasses.  We see all the good things; all the good things they have done; all the great things they have said; all the precious moments we have shared.  The memories flood our hearts and minds, and we make those people out to be more than they really were.  And there is no possible way we can do that with Clifford.  There is no way we can make him out to be larger than life.  Cerebral-palsy will not allow us to do that.  The fact that he was bedridden for most of his life will not allow us to do that.  The fact that he had seizures daily will not allow us to do that.  The fact that he could not say anything more than “nom, nom, nom” or on a really good day to sound out “O mom” will not allow us to do that.  And maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t do that at all.  Maybe just maybe we should turn the attention away from those who have died and instead focus on the One who will make them rise again.

 St. Paul says this morning in the 8th Chapter of the book of Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

 “...all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to His purpose.”  Now, let me be very clear about this verse.  St. Paul does not say that all things are good.  No.  There are things that happen in this life that are tragic.  They are mystifying.  They are evil.  Clifford being born with Cerebral-Palsy was not good.  Him having to be rushed to the hospital on a regular basis was not good.  Him being unable to walk and talk and leave his bed was not good.  Clifford dying at 28 years old is not good.  If you think these things are good, then I suggest you might need to see a psychiatrist.  And St. Paul would be one of the first to call these things bad as well, but I think he would then say, “But they work together for good for those who love God who are called according to His purpose.”  They work together for good.  Bad things will point us toward good.

 You might wonder just how this is possible.  Paul’s next statement leads us toward the answer, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”  On the surface, this might not make much sense, so let me reframe this comment for you within the larger context of the Christian story.

 Christianity is not alone in the world’s religions when it suggests that God took on human flesh and lived among us.  There are other world religions where the gods come to earth and humans, but Christianity is unique in what it proclaims about what happened when God came to earth.  For you see, when God came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God came to be a part of our condition not to be apart from it.  This means, Jesus of Nazareth–the God incarnate, came into this world and experienced all that we experience.  He hungered; He thirsted; He was sick; He was imprisoned.  In addition to this, Jesus–the God incarnate–was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, tortured, and crucified.  On the cross of calvary, God died.  Let me say that again, on the cross of calvary, God died.  No other religion will ever say that God died, only Christianity does.  Once more, Christianity does not sugar coat this; yes, we know that Jesus’ death was a part of God’s plan of redemption for the world, but Christianity does not call the brutality of what happened to Jesus good.  There is absolutely no sign that the disciples were happy about Jesus’ being arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and crucified.  In fact, the Bible tells us quite the opposite: they were scared; they were devastated; they lived in hiding.  The death of God was a traumatic event where it seemed like evil had triumphed.

 But that was before the great reversal.  That was before the earth shook and the stone was rolled away.  That was before the dead came to life, and the Father raised the Son.  All of the evil that had been done to Jesus was unmade.  All of the pain and agony and injustice was reversed.  Death had suffered a major blow.  The last word was not death, but life.  Jesus became the first flesh that was raised from the dead, and the promise for those of us who trust in Him is that we are joined to Him as brothers and sisters and what happened to Him will happen to us.  From death will be resurrection.  From despair will spring hope.  From darkness will spring light.  All things whether good or evil will be brought to resurrection.  All things will work toward good: new life: hope.  This is the promise on which we stand.

 “...all things work together towards good.”  So, is this it?  Do we simply await for God to make all things new?  To undo the bad that happens in our world?  Are we left to simply cry our tears thinking God will one day act but is powerless to act right now?  Of course not.  God continues to act; not always in the most miraculous of ways, but in real, concrete fashions right here and now.  For you see, God left specific instructions to His church to feed those who were hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, clothe those who are naked, and visit those who were sick and imprisoned.  And He left His followers with the following words, “Whenever you do this to the least of these, my brothers, you do it unto me.”

 “Whenever you do this to the least of these, my bothers, you do it unto me.”  If there is anyone who represents the least of these, it is Clifford.  One who could not walk or talk or care for himself.  One who could literally do nothing without the assistance of another.  The care and concern we show towards people like Clifford reflect our deepest understanding of the Christian faith; for if we understand Jesus’ words, we know that we are not simply taking care of Clifford, we know we are taking care of Jesus. 

 I guess what I am trying to say here is, God used Clifford to expose us all to Jesus.  God used Clifford to give us an opportunity to take care of Jesus.  God used Clifford to give us an opportunity to show that God is living and active through His people.  “...All things work together toward good.”  When we take the Christian faith to heart, we know this to be true not only in the future, but right here and right now.  Clifford may not have done much of anything in his lifetime, but he moved hundreds of people to show God’s compassion and fulfill the command to “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”

 At this point, you may be in agreement.  You may know about the people who helped build the Washburn family a home.  You may know about the people who have worked to make sure the family was provided for when health issues arose.  You may know about all who offered their support of time, money, and prayer.  You may say that this is all well and good, but Clifford still had to suffer; Clifford still had to die.

 Yes.  He did.  That’s why we are here today.  We are grieving his death.  But this service isn’t just about Clifford.  Clifford isn’t the main focus here.  The main focus is on Jesus.  The main focus is on the good news that Paul declares about those who find themselves in Jesus.  “..those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  You see, God never abandoned Clifford.  God loved Clifford.  Jesus loved Clifford.  Just as He loved the world.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”  God sent the Son into the world to save Clifford.  And Clifford heard Jesus call his name on March 26, 2004 as Clifford was baptized into the body of Christ.  Clifford became a child of God; not by his own work or merit, but because of what Jesus did on the cross at calvary.  Through Jesus, Clifford was justified or made right with God and became a brother to Jesus.  And this means the same thing that happened to Jesus, happened to Clifford.  As Jesus was glorified and raised to eternal life, so now Clifford has been glorified and raised to eternal life.  He is now able to walk, and talk, and run, and play, and sing with all of God’s creation–maybe even doing a bit of harmony with Elvis. 

 “...all things work together toward good for those who love God.”  This means that when we too trust in Jesus and His work, we will share in eternal glory.  We too will be redeemed and given eternal life.  We too will be reunited with those who have gone before.  Sure, we grieve this day, but we do not grieve without hope.  We grieve with a vision of what will be.  We grieve with a vision of the time when we will be in God’s presence–when we will see God and then Clifford able to do what he never could do in this life.  It will be a wonderful sight.  A sight when the goodness of God is fully revealed.  It is a sight that fills us with tremendous hope.  In the days ahead, hold onto that hope.  Amen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Too Much Religion?

 Mark Edwards in his commentary on the book of Mark says these words in regards to our Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter, “The world has never had a problem with religion in moderation.  It has no problem with too much wealth or power or sex or influence, but it has a problem with too much religion.”

 You don’t even have to leave these four walls this morning to realize the truth of this statement.  Now, this doesn’t apply to all churches, but it certainly does to this one.  What do I mean?  Well, just let someone stand up this morning and begin waving their hands or dancing to the music, and tell me what would go through most of your heads?  Let someone shout out “Amen” to a particular point in my sermon, and tell me what most of you would think.  Heck, just let me try to ask you a question in the middle of my sermon and expect you to answer.  Why is it that I have to repeat a question several times before anyone is brave enough to speak?  “That’s not how we do it here,” is often repeated.  Translation: generally, we’re not comfortable with being too demonstrable with our faith.  We are happy to sit.  We are happy to listen.  We are happy to sing a little bit, but to go above and beyond?  To become exuberant?  To have someone other than the pastor pray?  To talk about how God has moved in our lives?  Not generally gonna happen.

 Society tends to feel the exact same way.  There is an unwritten rule out in the world these days: believe what you want, but don’t try to convince anyone else that your beliefs are right or true or good for everyone.  Keep your religion to yourself.  It’s better for everyone that way.  Aside from the fact that such a rule is a belief in and of itself that is being imposed upon others, society is quick to demand that we religious people put our faith into action by helping others as long as we don’t try to convince others to believe like we believe.  In other words, we are invited to respond to the recent flooding in our communities by donating of our time, money, and goods, but the moment we try to do so in the name of Jesus or God, we are essentially told, “Don’t push that!!  Just help out.  Shut up about your beliefs.”  The world doesn’t have a problem with religion in moderation–it does with too much religion.

 In some ways, it’s not difficult to understand why.  We know the dangers of too much religion.  We’ve seen people who are so convinced of the rightness of their religion and the wrongness of others that they are willing to fly airplanes into buildings, commit atrocities like cutting off people’s heads, bomb buildings, protest at funerals, and verbally abuse others.  The vast majority of people condemn such behavior.  The vast majority of people want no part of such behavior.  The vast majority of people want to see such behavior gone from the planet so that we can live in peace.  If people only toned down their religious beliefs, then all this stuff would stop–at least, that’s the hypothesis.  But what if the hypothesis is wrong?

 Today, we begin the final chapters of the book of Mark–the passion of Jesus.  Chapter 14 begins with some daunting sentences, “14It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’” We know from our travels through Mark that the chief priests and the scribes are Jesus’ enemies.  They do not like Him because He is a threat to everything they stand for.  Jesus has undermined their thoughts about what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like.  He has taught a very different understanding of what it means to be right in the sight of God.  Jesus has revealed the selfishness of their hearts and has shown that they are more interested in money than in getting people to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The chief priests and the scribes hate Jesus, and they want to get rid of Him, but they cannot do so openly.  Their actions would cause a riot because Jesus was popular with the people.  As Edwards again says in his commentary, “The resolution to kill Jesus is an official decision as opposed to a popular decision.”

 As of this point, we might say, “Well, here is further proof of the hypothesis.  The chief priests and the scribes had too much religion.  If they didn’t have too much religion, they would not have tried to kill Jesus.”  Yes, you have some evidence, but let’s press onward.

 Mark now shifts the scene to a house–the house of Simon the Leper.  This house is in Bethany, and Jesus and His disciples are there for dinner.  It is during dinner as Jesus sat at table that an extravagant event takes place.  A woman enters carrying an alabaster jar.  She breaks the jar, and pours the contents all over Jesus’ head.  Now, let’s examine the details of this more closely.  For you see, it was a social taboo for a woman to interrupt a meal of Jewish men unless she was serving food. 
This woman stepped all over societal custom.  Not only did she break society’s unspoken rules, she did something rather lavish.  Those around observed that the perfume that was used could have been sold for over 300 denarii.  It was a rare perfume that had come from India.  This was the equivalent of a year’s wages.  Imagine taking a year’s worth of your income and putting it into a jar, breaking the jar and then pouring the entire amount on someone.  That is what this woman just did!  And she broke the jar too so–there was no going back.  There was no saving anything that was left over.  There was a totality to her gift.  She was giving it all!  And, since most women had no ability to come up with this much money in that day, it was probably a family heirloom that had been given to her.  It not only had monetary value; it had sentimental value.  So, let’s put this into a bit of perspective: this woman stepped all over societal customs to lavishly dispose of a jar of perfume that cost a year’s wages that was probably a gift to her or her family by pouring the entire jar onto Jesus’ head.  Extravagant?  You bet.  To the extreme.

 Now, the fallout to her extravagance is almost expected.  There is an uproar, especially among the disciples.  They complain.  “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor!”  And they scolded the woman. 

 Jesus turns the tables on them, and harshly.  Why?  Let me read to you Edward’s commentary once again.  Please listen carefully:

 We cannot know whether their indignation is owing to genuine concern for the poor, or whether, as is often the case, the poor are simply used as a pretext for other motives.  Whatever their motives, they regard the costly devotion of the woman as a “waste.”  Their condemnation obviously demeans the woman and her gift.  In asserting that there could be better use for the money, however, they demean Jesus as well, whom they regard as unworthy of such extravagance.  The world has never had a problem with religion in moderation.  It has no problem with too much wealth or power or sex or influence, but it has a problem with too much religion.  That is evident here.  The unnamed woman deems Jesus worthy of her sacrifice, whereas the disciples do not.

 Is it any wonder why Jesus turns the tables on the disciples?  Is it any wonder why Jesus praises this woman?  She is willing to pour great extravagance upon Him.  She is willing to spend a year’s wages on Him.  She is willing to shower Him with an affection and love that those most closest to Him could not or would not.  She deemed Him worthy of such a gift, but the disciples did not.

 Now, I don’t want to be too hard on the disciples because ultimately, this story is about Jesus, and there are some who have taken issue with Jesus’ words in response to the woman.  “7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”  Some use Jesus’ statement to relieve themselves of the responsibility of caring for the poor, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.  Not in the least.  Edwards says something rather interesting about this in his commentary, and we turn to it for a final time.  “In placing himself above the poor Jesus places himself above the great commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Why would Jesus do this?

 Well, Jesus said there was only one other commandment greater than love your neighbor as yourself.  Do you remember what that commandment was?  I do.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.”  This woman was putting that into practice.  She was pouring out extravagant love upon Jesus–the God incarnate.  It is no wonder that Jesus said that her actions would be told wherever the Gospel was proclaimed.  This kind of love for Jesus is rarely found throughout the scriptures.  Loving God with this kind of extravagant love is not easy to set forth because it comes at a great cost.  Most of us aren’t willing to pay that cost.  The disciples weren’t willing to pay that cost.  And that’s why we generally appreciate a moderate amount of religion.  It doesn’t cost much.  Extravagant religion costs much.

 And you might point out to me right now that this is the problem.  Those fanatics who practice too much religion are willing to die themselves.  They are willing to die as they kill others.  They think other people deserve to die and are heathen.  They think other people need to be punished and driven to believe like they believe.  We need to keep such religion in check.  We need to keep people from becoming too religious!!

 Now, wait just a second because there is an alternative to this.  Extravagant religion does not by necessity lead to a person killing another person.  The extravagant religion the woman showed in this snippet from Mark did not kill anyone at all, and she is but a pale comparison to the heart and core of the Christian faith.

 But, you might say that there are more than a few Christians who go around spewing all kinds of hate and violence toward others.  There are Christians who protest at funerals holing up signs that say, “God hates fags.”  There are Christians who kill abortion doctors.  There are Christians who are racist and sexist and homophobic.  They think they are right about everything and that God only loves them.  They think everyone else is going to hell and that they need to scare them into believing as they believe.

 You are correct, but do not confuse their brand of Christianity with what Jesus practiced.  Because it was Jesus who practiced a truly extravagant faith–a faith that far surpasses what the woman did to Him.  For you see, if there ever was a person who could point the finger at the rest of us, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could condemn the rest of us to hell for not following what God demands, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could accuse us of missing the mark in loving God and loving our neighbor, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could judge us for our failure, it was Jesus.  If there ever was one who could scold us and make us feel unworthy of the love of God, it was Jesus.

 But what did Jesus do?  Did He scold us?   Did He condemn us?  Did He judge us and call down God’s wrath upon us?  No.  No He did not.  Not in the least.  He stretched out His arms and died for us.  He faced God’s wrath for us.  He paid the price for us.  He allowed Himself to be betrayed, condemned, judged, beaten, tortured and crucified.  And on the cross, He looked down at those who killed Him, He looked down at us and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  He loved us with an extravagant love.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.” 

 Extravagant religion led Jesus to die for you.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to love you when you were unlovable.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to forgive you when you didn’t deserve it.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to save you when you had failed. 

 Does this kind of love move you?  Does this kind of extravagance touch you to the very depths of your heart?  If it does, then you will find something dramatic happening within you.  You will find a wellspring of love swelling up within you.  You will find that you have an extravagant love of God–an extravagant love of Jesus.  Your heart will be filled with a desire to love and serve and give to Him.  Your heart will be filled with a desire to love like Jesus loved, and you will look at those who disagree with you; you will look at those who have hurt you; you will look at those who are in great need; and you will begin to love them with that kind of extravagant love.

 This kind of love is much needed in the days ahead in our community.  As we reach out to those affected by the recent floods, it is our call to bring Jesus’ extravagant love to them–to help them know that God is not punishing them; God does not hate them; God loves them.  God cares for them.  God wants to shower them with an extravagant love, and He will use you and me to be a part of that.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thought of Heaven Leads to Care of Earth

 One of the criticisms that has been leveled at Christianity, and sometimes it is rightly leveled, is that Christians spend so much time thinking about heaven that they neglect what is going on around them in this world.  The famous illustration of this is a Christian who tells a hungry person, “Be of good cheer, God loves you.  Jesus died for you, believe in Him,” and then neglects to offer any food to that hungry person.  Although I am sure this has happened at one point or another, I personally have yet to see it happen.  In fact, most Christians that I know understand very well that our trust in Jesus means a radical reshaping of our lives and our priorities in this world and a deep desire to seek God’s kingdom and work towards God’s kingdom right here, and right now.  Some folks might get caught up in the biblical stories about the future return of Jesus to the detriment of this, but this morning, I would like to show how our faith leads us to concrete action.

 We pick up in our biblical text where we left off last week.  Jesus has been responding to his disciples’ comments and questions all through this chapter of Mark beginning with His response to a commentary about how wonderful the temple building is.  Jesus says the temple will be destroyed because it is beautiful on the outside but corrupt on the inside.  The disciples want to know when these things will take place.  Jesus begins painting a picture of what that will look like including wars, rumors of war, nation turning against nation, earthquakes, and famine.  He then talks about what will happen to the disciples in that they will experience persecution, betrayal, and death. 
 Jesus then gives some specifics.  There will be an abomination of desolation who stands where he should not be.  Believers should run when they see it because its arrival will issue in a horrible time of persecution that has not been seen since the creation of the world.  Throughout all these things, false Messiahs will spring up trying to lead people astray, and Jesus commands his followers to stand fast and not be led astray.

 Today, we read even more about these coming times.  Jesus says there will be great upheaval even in the natural world.  The sun will not shine.  The moon will turn red.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the heavens and the earth will be shaken. The Son of Man will be seen coming in the clouds–all will see Him.  Here, Jesus is picking up on the language used in the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Daniel.  There is a continuity between the past and the future.  All of this is God’s story coming to fruition.  It is culminated by the Son of Man sending the angels to gather the elect from the four corners of heaven and earth.

 Jesus then includes a bit of a parable.  It’s simply a common sense reference to the world around them.  Most of the trees in Israel were evergreen, but the fig tree was one of the few deciduous trees.  People watched the fig trees to see when they started budding out.  When these trees began to bud, everyone knew winter had come to a close and summer was on its way.  It’s like us down here–when we see the Pecan trees budding out, we know winter is over and spring has sprung.  Analogous to this is how we should understand seeing these signs of the final days.  When we see these things happening, we know the end is just around the corner–or at the gates, as Jesus says.

 And now we actually come to a very troublesome statement.  Jesus says, “30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  It’s a bit of a head scratcher, and biblical scholars are all over the map with this one.  Some believe that “all these things” refers to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. and that everything Jesus has said to this point applies to that historical situation.  Other scholars parse Jesus’ teaching here and say that “all these things” only refers to the destruction of the temple but not to the desolating sacrilege and the celestial signs.  Other scholars rightly point out that the historical record doesn’t match up with the prophesy and are left with a bit of a conundrum since it doesn’t seem like these things have come to pass and yet “this generation will not pass away.”  Can we have any confidence in what Mark is telling us if there seems to be a contradiction here?

 Let me try and smooth this out a little bit but focusing our attention on the words “this generation.”  Translating the Bible from Greek to English is not an exact science, and we need to be aware that the Greek word genea–which is translated generation can have several meanings.  Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary gives the following definitions:

1.fathered, birth, nativity
2.that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
 a.the several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
 b.metaph.  a group of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character  esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation
3.the whole multitude of men living at the same time age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied by each successive generation), a space of 30 - 33 years.

 It could very well be that Jesus is using the term “generation” not simply to refer to the people who are living around Him at that very moment.  It could be that He is using generation in a much broader term.  Let’s just consider that possibility as what Jesus means because it is consistent with how Jesus uses the term “generation” throughout the book of Mark, and it does help us resolve a problem with consistency.  What consistency?  Look at what Jesus says a short time later, “31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  If we hold generation to a much broader term–a term that is not confined to a period of 30 years or so but is much, much longer, then these two statements are not contradictory.  If you are still confused about this, I’ll be happy to speak with you about it later brining in other biblical references to paint a broader picture, but for the time being, we need to move on and get to the crux of this teaching.

 Jesus finishes with these words, “33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about these verses in his commentary: The parable focuses on the doorkeeper, who has but one “charge.”  The Greek word behind “charge” is exousia, the same word used of Jesus’ divine authority.  Here it connotes the responsibility that legitimizes the doorkeeper’s position, which is to watch.  Living faithfully in the present, being attentive to the signs, and being ready at any hour for the return of the master is not one job among others; it is the doorkeeper’s only job.  Disciples are like doorkeepers; their single vocation is “Therefore keep watch”, whether “in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn”. ...The end is unknown and will come suddenly: live in constant readiness."

 Now, at this point, it would be tempting to simply end right here and tell you to keep ready by working and doing what Jesus commanded.  That would be the easy way out, but let’s take a moment to deal with the reality of what actually happens, both in the biblical narrative and in our own lives. 
 I’m going to fast forward through the book of Mark to the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  I want to read to you a snippet from Mark chapter 14, which we will be visiting in a week or so:

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

 Do you see what happened to the disciples?  Do you see what happened to them when they were asked to keep watch at Jesus’ time of greatest need?  Were they able to accomplish the command of Jesus?  Were they able to stay awake and keep watch?  No.  They couldn’t.  There were other things that crept upon them and overtook them in the midst of everything that was going on.  They became distracted by their physical and mental needs.  They failed miserably.

And we are very much like them.  We fail as well as we are consumed by the many voices and many activities of this world.  We fail to put our faith lives first.  We are grasped by the lure of fun and games.  We are torn away from worship and grasped by the sporting gods.  We are overcome in our weariness and pull the covers over our heads instead of coming to receive the Lord in the Sacraments.  Distracted, we miss the reality of our Lord’s call to us.  Jesus says, “Be aware; stay awake; keep watch.”  And we fall asleep and become distracted.

 Why?  Why did the disciples fall asleep?  Why do we?  I want you to stop for just a moment here and go back in time.  Think about the time you first fell in love with your significant other.  Think about what it was like longing to be with them. Think about those moments you spent during the day in eager anticipation of an approaching phone call; waiting to check the mail box (or in these days, your email); or working diligently to look nice for a date.  Why did you spend so much time obsessing over these moments?  Why did you eagerly wait and watch?  Because you loved the thought of being reunited with the one you loved.  You were consumed by the chance to be with the one who made you feel whole and complete.  You couldn’t wait for the reunion, and nothing could deter you from this.

 Why did the disciples fall asleep?  Their hearts did not truly love Jesus.  Why do we fall asleep?  Honestly, neither do we truly love Jesus.  Our hearts are not captured by Him and His love.  So, what does He do?  What does He do for His disciples?  What does He do for us?  “There is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus spoke those words, and then He followed through on them.  When you did not love Jesus and were unwilling to devote yourself to Him and keep watch for Him, He decided to show you just how much you were worth to Him.  He decided to show you just how valuable you were to Him.  He decided to win your heart by laying down His life for your own.  He loved you with a love beyond all measure and stretched out His arms and allowed them to be nailed to a cross to win your salvation.

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.”  God sent the Son into the world not to condemn you but to save you–because He loves you.

 Ponder that for a moment.  Ponder the Son’s deep love for you.  Ponder Jesus’ great love for you and see if that moves your heart.  Knowing the lengths He was willing to go for you, does that make you want to love Him?  Does that make you want to serve Him?  Does that make you want to be reunited with Him?

 If the news that Christ laid down His life for you hits you right where you live, your heart desires this reunion.  Your heart longs to be with Him.  Your eyes lift to the skies as you await His eventual return.  But they do not simply look to the skies.  They look around the world.  They look around at what the world is, and your heart says, “Is this what I want the Savior to see?  Do I want Him to see poverty?  Do I want Him to see pain and death?  Do I want Him to see anger and division?  Do I want Him to see hatred and sorrow?  Do I want Him to see warfare and destruction?  Do I want Him to see these things that are contrary to His will?  Do I want Him to see me frustrated and angry that these things are happening but doing nothing because I am unable to sense that I am making a difference? 

 When you met your significant other, did you want him or her to come over and see a messy house?  Or did you want it to look its best?  You know the answer to that question.  When you truly love someone, you want to present the best for that person.  You want them to know you care–particularly if you know that the house actually belongs to the One who is coming.  You feel no duty to do this and be involved; instead you do such things because they are simply the right thing to do.  Christians should never, ever turn their backs on this world.  For it is the same world Christ died for.  It is the same world Christ loved.  We should love it too and work for its betterment.  Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2016

It's not Luck. It's Redemption.

 I want to begin this morning by assuring you that you are indeed one of the luckiest beings to ever exist.  Now, you might be going through an awful lot in your life right now and you may beg to disagree with me, but I would like to lay out a few facts for you this morning to help you see why you are extremely lucky.

 First off, do you know that you live in a universe that is perfectly tuned for your existence?  What do I mean by that?  Let me quote to you what John Lennox wrote in his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God:

 Theoretical physicist Paul Davies tells us that if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by 1 part in 1016, no stars could have formed.  Again, the ratio of the electromagnetic force-constant to the gravitational force-constant must be equally delicately balanced.  Increase it by only 1 part in 1040 and only small stars can exist; decrease it by the same amount and there will only be large stars.  You must have both large and small stars in the universe: the large ones produce elements in their thermonuclear furnaces; and it is only the small ones that burn long enough to sustain a planet with life.

 To use Davis’ illustration, that is the kind of accuracy a marksman would need to hit a coin at the far side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away.  If we find that difficult to imagine, a further illustration suggested by astrophysicist Hugh Ross may help.   Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon (380,000 km or 236,000 miles away), then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size.  Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles.  Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out.  The odds are about 1 in 1040 she will.

 Those odds are almost incomprehensible, and let me now say that this is just one–yes THIS IS JUST ONE mechanism that requires fine tuning.  There are several others which are also inconceivably small.  If you struggle with math and the odds, let me be blunt.  We should not be here.  There is literally a zero chance that all the things that should happen for a universe to sustain life could actually come together and happen–and yet it did.  If you believe that this universe is here by chance, then you have more faith than I do because the odds are not in your favor.

 But, this is not the end of our luck because we are highly privileged in this universe on this particular planet.  You may scoff at such a statement because you might say: with all of the billions of stars and billions of planets in the billions of galaxies, surely there are other planets with life on them.  Quoting Eric Metaxis in his opinion piece to the Wall Street Journal: “astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.”

 Well, it just so happens that Carl Sagan was quite wrong.  There are not simply two important criteria for a planet to support life.  As astronomers and physicists continued to study the conditions that made for life as we know it, more criteria started to come to light.  The numbers grew from two to ten; then to twenty; then to fifty; to the present day where we know that there are more than 200 known parameters needed for a planet to sustain carbon based, intelligent life.  What does this mean?  It means that the SETI project–the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a waste of money.  The odds are almost nil that there is another planet in the universe that life as we know it exists.

 So, to reiterate the point that I began with, do you know how lucky you are?  Do you realize how special you are?  And, given the non-existent chance that this universe just happened and was a product of chance; and given that this universe very much looks like it was finely tuned for life by some sort of intelligence; and given that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and eats like a duck, then it is a duck, then this universe and this planet were put here by some sort of intelligence.  Why is all of this important?

 Let’s now turn to our biblical text this morning from the 13th Chapter of the book of Mark.  Last week, we saw how Jesus spoke about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and how God had turned His judgement toward that Temple because it was rotten on the inside even though it was a structure of absolute beauty and magnificence on the outside.  The disciples asked when these things would occur, and Jesus began to teach them.

 First, Jesus said that there would be false Messiahs, then wars and rumors of war; there would be earthquakes and famines.  The disciples would be handed over to councils and synagogues and beaten.  Families would turn against one another, and these would be the beginnings of the birth pangs.

 Some scholars have tried to link these things with the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D., but as I have continued to study this text and read the commentaries, I am not sure that these statements of Jesus and the temple destruction walk hand in hand.  Why?  First off, we know that there are still stones standing upon stones in Jerusalem.  You have heard of the Wailing Wall, no doubt?  Secondly, if Mark knew about the destruction of Jerusalem, he probably would have written this section differently because the city was destroyed by a great siege and then with a horrendous fire.  There is no mention of this.  Thirdly has to do with what Jesus teaches today.

 He begins with these words, “‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains...”  How to interpret Jesus’ words here depend greatly on what exactly the “desolating sacrilege” is.  Walter Liefield in the Expositors Bible Commentary says this: The first word of the phrase, bdelygma (abomination) suggests something repugnant to God, while the second, eremosis (desolation) suggests that because of the abomination the temple is left deserted, desolate.  The holy and pious worshipers vacate it.

 The question is, has such a “desolating sacrilege” appeared in the Temple?  That is a matter of historical debate–if what Jesus is saying here has already come to pass.  If it hasn’t yet come to pass, then this is a future event–an event that we must be watchful for because it’s going to be bad.  It’s going to be bad, but it is not going to be the end of the days.

 Some of you who might have gotten caught up in all the rig-a-ma-roe about the end times might be scratching your head at that comment, but hear me out.  Look at what Jesus says and then ask yourself, “If what Jesus is talking about is the very end of the world, then why run?”  Why flee to the hills if this is the end of the world?  Why come straight down from the house tops and flee without going in to get anything?  Why take off straight from the field without going back into the house to get your coat if this is the end of all time?  Why try to save yourself–if this is the end of the ages?  At the end of the ages, there will be no escape.  At the end of the world, it doesn’t matter if you run or if you stand still, you are screwed!!!

 But Jesus encourages His followers to run when they see this desolating sacrilege.  It is one of those moments when you have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  This is a moment to run!  –Because there will be great suffering; for everyone.  There will be such a suffering as has not been seen since the creation of the world.  This means, things are going to get really, really bad.

 Last week, I talked about those preachers who paint a rosy picture of following Jesus–how He will make your life absolutely perfect; how He will make you healthy, wealthy, wise, and loved.  Somehow, I think those preachers missed this part too.  There will be suffering, and then I think we get to the crux of the matter.  Jesus says, “21And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.”

 This is the second time in a few short verses that Jesus warns against false Messiahs and false teachers, and this time He places that warning in conjunction with suffering and the threat of death.  I don’t think there is a coincidence in the placement of this teaching.

 You see, more than any other time in people’s lives, people question the goodness and graciousness of God in the midst of suffering.  More than any time in people’s lives, people question the love and mercy of God when they experience suffering.  “Why has God done this to me?” is a pleading question.  “Has God abandoned me?” is another gut wrenching plea.  As I have talked with people whose bodies are wracked with pain; whose bodies are being devoured by cancer; who are sitting at the bedside of a dying spouse; who are shedding tears next to the casket of a child taken far too early, they want answers.  They want understanding.  They want to know the meaning and purpose behind all these trials and tribulations.  Oftentimes, I don’t know.

 And when things are falling apart in society, people want solutions.  When terrorism hits close to home; when stock markets crash; when people lose their jobs; when the Supreme Court overturns what many consider common sense values; when churches see more empty pews than full ones; people want answers.  People want solutions.  People want someone to swoop in and make everything right.  When anxiety rises because of suffering and perceived threat; people want a savior, and anyone who comes along with a glib tongue who seems to give them the answers they want can easily lead them astray.

 Just believe enough, and your problems will vanish.

 Just give enough, and your cancer will cease.

 Just change the core of your teaching, and your church pews will be filled.

 Just vote for me, and I will make all the problems disappear.

 Trust what I tell you and do what I say, and all will be well.

 The words are seductive, especially when you feel like you are abandoned; especially when you are hurting; especially when you are in the despair of suffering.

 But do you know how special you are?  Do you remember how the Creator of this universe has designed this universe for life?  Do you remember how the Creator designed this planet for you to live on?  Do you remember that given the odds, you shouldn’t even be here?  You are a special creation.

 And if you have difficulty remembering that, let me tell you how much the Creator cares for you.  You see, the Creator knows about your suffering.  The creator knows about your pain.  The creator knows about your despair, and He is not above it.  It pains Him to see what has happened to His creation.  It pains Him to see how people are in agony and the trials they face.  And He knows the cause.  He knows that the creation does not live in accordance with the Creator’s will.  He knows that creation has rebelled against Him and lives apart from it.

 And so, He enters into creation.  He becomes like you and me, clothed with human flesh.  He lives the life we should live, and then He faces death.  He faces the ultimate in suffering.  He faces the brokenness of human relationships as He is betrayed, denied, and abandoned.  He faces the injustice of the human “justice” system as He is falsely accused and sentenced to death.  He faces the pain of human brutality as He is tortured, mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross.  He faces abandonment by God and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”  He feels utter darkness; utter punishment; utter abandonment.  He dies in such a state and is buried in a tomb.  The God who created this universe with you in mind has entered this world and suffered as we suffer; died as we die.  He is not above our suffering, and He has taken that suffering upon Himself.  And He redeems that suffering.  He changes that suffering.  He changes that brokenness.

 For on the third day, He rose again from the dead to transform all that was evil into good.  He rose again from the dead to make darkness into light, despair into hope, evil into good, hate into love.  This is the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. 

 Anyone else who promises you salvation is a false Messiah.  Anyone else who claims to offer you true freedom or redemption is a liar.  Anyone who demands something from you without first laying down his or her life for you isn’t worthy of consideration.  They want your trust with no cost to them.  Jesus wants your trust, and He has already given His life for you.  He has told, shown, and done everything for you already.  In the midst of your trials and tribulations, never forget this.  Never forget the one who has already died for you and has shown you what the end will be.  Hold on to Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, April 4, 2016

It Ain't About the Building

 I remember walking into the St. Louis cathedral in New Orleans.  I was on a candidacy retreat during my internship year in seminary.  I know there are probably other cathedrals and other churches that are larger and more ornate, but this is probably the largest one I have ever been in.  And I can remember being awestruck by the facility.  I can remember being awestruck by its beauty.  I can remember looking up in wonder and awe at the architecture and decorations.  It is one of those buildings that just make you stop and stare–which I did for several minutes.  Perhaps you have encountered a building that made you do such a thing.  Perhaps it is a church or religious shrine.  Perhaps it was a giant sky scraper in the middle of a city.  Most of us, at some period in time have felt such a thing with such human constructions.

 I want you to take the remembrance of that feeling, and multiply it 100 fold.  Take that awe and wonder and push it almost to its limits, and then you may get some of the feeling that is behind that anonymous disciples’ comment about the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple in Jerusalem was a massive complex.  From what we can gather from historical sources, it fully consumed 1/6 of the city of Jerusalem at the time–imagine a church building taking up 1/6 of an entire city!!!  It consisted of 35 acres of land roughly a mile in circumference, and it could easily accommodate 12 football fields.  The stones that made up the temple were absolutely huge!!  Mark Edwards in his commentary says this, “At least a few stones measured 42 feet long, eleven feet high, fourteen feet deep and weighed over a million pounds.”  Imagine putting that kind of structure together with no heavy equipment!!  And it wasn’t just the size that made the temple structure impressive.  According to ancient sources, it was extremely beautiful.  The stones and decorations literally made the temple light up in the sun.  There were ornate columns, gold overlays, and precious stones included in the decor.  Arguably, it was the most impressive place of religious worship in the known world.

 It is little wonder that as Jesus and His disciples sat on the Mount of Olives looking over this complex, one of the disciples remarked, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  We often are impressed by the work of our own hands.  And when we combine that work with the idea that God lives in this building–we can start to believe things that are completely wrong.

 I think that’s what is behind Jesus’ remark back to this disciple.  For Jesus does not see what this disciple sees.  He does not see the beauty.  He does not see the immensity.  He does not see the grandeur.  Jesus sees something very, very different.  “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

 I can imagine the intake of breath amongst all the disciples at that moment.  I can imagine them becoming bewildered.  Destroyed?  Torn down?  This immense thing of beauty?  No one would ever do that, would they?  Surely they would respect the beauty.  Surely they would respect our belief that God was there?  Surely God Himself would protect such a place dedicated to Him. 

 But God does not see as mortals see.  For we must remember that in the two previous chapters, Jesus has exposed the fact that what was going on INSIDE the temple was not honoring God.  Jesus has exposed the fact that the temple was actually a robbers’ den.  Jesus has exposed the fact that the temple authorities were more concerned with the worship of money instead of the worship of the living God.  Jesus has exposed that the temple authorities are keeping the Gentiles from worship, and they are devouring widows homes instead of taking care of them as prescribed by God’s law.  The facade of the temple might be an absolute thing of beauty, but inside, it is as rotten as it comes.

 Oh how often does this take place in our congregations these days?  Oh how often do people become impressed with church facilities?  I mean, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people talk about church campuses that are huge in size–those mega-churches that have giant sanctuaries, book stores, coffee shops, gymnasiums, and immense classrooms.  There is a sense of awe at such size.  And I have also heard countless comments about the beauty of churches–from the simple white frame country churches to the ornate cathedrals, I have heard people remark about how beautiful church buildings are.  I have had numerous experiences of people standing in the midst of a sanctuary for several moments in complete awe of how well things are taken care of.

 But here is an interesting thing of note: despite the beauty of our churches and the immensity of our buildings, there has been a steady decline in church membership and attendance in our nation.  Despite the millions of dollars we spend on our facilities to keep them maintained and beautiful, people are walking away from the church!  Why?  Do we suffer from the same thing that the Temple suffered from?  Are we beautiful on the outside, but corrupted on the inside?  Will our buildings be torn down to the point where one stone will not be upon another or one board nailed to another?

 Let’s put that question on hold for just a moment as we continue on through the text.

 The disciples as a whole were rattled by Jesus’ comment, and they ask Him about it.  “When are these things going to take place and what kind of sign will we see?”

 Jesus begins with these words, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 Of note here are these things: there will be people who falsely claim to be God.  There will be war and rumors of war.  There will be earthquakes.  There will be famines.  Good intentioned Christians oftentimes point to these things happening and say, “Are we living in the end times?”  Look carefully at what Jesus says about these things.  Look at how He describes them, “These are but the BEGINNINGS of the birth pangs.”  These signs and portents are not the end times, they are the beginnings.  There is still a long way to go.

 And Jesus explains further, “‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

 Let’s now return to my question before we entered the text.  I asked, “Why is it that our buildings make people awestruck, but we are declining in membership and in worship attendance?  Are we, like the Temple, beautiful on the outside but corrupt on the inside?”

 Jesus gives us some of the marks of discipleship here.  And they are not pretty marks.  Disciples are dragged before councils and synagogues to be beaten.  They stand before governors and kings and proclaim their faith.  They are put on trial, and do not prepare speeches–they rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance.  They face division in their families.  They are killed.  They are hated because of Jesus’ name.”

 Let me stop right there and ask you: how many people do you know who bear these marks of discipleship?  How many people do you know who face such division and derision?  How many people have you ever come across who were persecuted because of their faith and their relationship with Jesus?  Personally, I don’t know of a single person who bears these marks.  And I wonder what that says about us?  I wonder what that says about the church?

 Maybe it is a sign that we aren’t as good as we thing we are.  Maybe it’s a sign that we put too much stock in the external things instead of the transformation of our hearts.  Maybe it’s because we are caught up in worldly goods and worldly measures of worth.  I mean, think about what kind of houses and buildings we admire.  Think about who Hollywood parades on movie and television screens.  Oh sure, every once in a while, you get a show like “Honey Boo Boo,” but let me ask you this, for those of you who watch the show: Is Momma June held up as an example or as something to deride?  The world gets caught up in beauty, in power, in wealth, on all things superficial.

 And there are many in the church who are extremely influenced by such things as well.  I mean, contrast Jesus’ words this morning with the words of those preachers who proclaim, “God wants you to have victory in all your relationships; with your bank account; with your job; and with your health.  Believe in Jesus and have enough faith in Jesus, and these things will be yours.  You only need to believe that they are yours, and it will come.”  Really?  How does that square with, “You will be beaten, betrayed, and killed.”?

 Let’s face the facts, my brothers and sisters.  Society does not glorify a man who is beaten, bloodied, naked, and hanging on a cross.  Society does not glorify a man who is betrayed by one of his closest friends, denied by his closest friend, and abandoned by the rest.  Society does not like the crucified Christ.  Boy do they like the resurrected one, but they do not like Him when He hangs on the cross, and the church doesn’t like it when it is persecuted.  The church doesn’t like it when society turns against it, but when the church looks exactly like society, when those who are inside our church buildings look exactly like those outside the church buildings, then it is much more entertaining to devote yourself to sports, your job, traveling, and other such things instead of worship.

 Which is why I think Jesus isn’t impressed with the facade of the Temple.  Jesus isn’t impressed with the facades of our church buildings.  The outer trappings are not what He looks upon.  He looks upon what is on the inside.  He looks at how we have failed to implement His teachings.  He looks at how we demean one another and tear each other down.  He looks upon how we fail to welcome the stranger; take care of the widow and orphan; and worry more about keeping the lights on instead of how we love one another.

 In our lesson, Jesus condemns the Temple and reveals God’s judgement upon it–a judgement that would come to pass in 70 A.D.  What does Jesus do when He looks at us?  Here is the amazing thing.  He doesn’t call down judgement upon us even though we deserve it.  He does not call down God’s wrath upon us.  Instead, He seeks to transform us.  He seeks to make us as beautiful on the inside as we are on the outside.  He seeks to change our hearts so that we no longer worry about the superficial things in life, but instead we concentrate on our relationship with God and loving one another as Christ loved us.  And how did Christ love us?  How does He change our hearts?

 The writer of 1 John says it this way, “10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

 Jesus changes us by dying for us.  Jesus changes us by pouring His love into our hearts when we least deserved it.  Jesus becomes the Temple that is broken and shattered so that we do not become broken and shattered.  He becomes this because He loves us so dearly.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 And when this news hits your heart and brings transformation, there becomes a marked difference between you and others.  There becomes a marked difference in how you live.  You judge less.  You love more.  You become humble.  And you are not liked because of this.  You don’t fit into the categories that the world wants to place you into.  You receive anger and hatred, but you endure.  You do not worry.  You know your place is secure with the one who died for you.  You endure to the end, and you are saved.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Changes Insanity into Sanity?

 In a very real way, I think you have to be somewhat insane to be a Christian.

Now, if you think that Christianity is basically like all other religions that try to simply tell us to be kind to each other and do the right thing so that we can achieve some sort of eternal life, then I probably offended you with that statement.  I am not going to apologize. 

 Before you try to do me bodily harm, please hear me out.  I do not say what I said lightly, and neither do I say it as someone who is outside of Christianity.  In fact, I say it as one who was born and raised a Christian; who is a leader in the Christian church; and as one who works to get people to become Christians and follow Jesus.  But I still say it.  I think you have to be somewhat insane to be a Christian.  Why would I say such a thing?

 Well, let’s delve beneath the superficialities that most people ascribe to the Christian faith.  Let’s delve beneath the idea that Christianity is simply a way of life that tries to get you to be kind to one another; to live morally; and to somehow end up in God’s good graces so that you can live forever.  Let’s examine the reality of what Christianity entails and the things that our founder, Jesus of Nazareth taught and claimed.  Let’s look at these things, not as those who have heard them watered down and explained away, but as if we were hearing them for the first time.  Mind you, at this point, I am going to be quoting Jesus directly.  If you disagree with what I am saying, please know, you are not disagreeing with me; you are disagreeing with Jesus Himself as revealed to us in the writings of the Bible.

 Let’s start off with something that is rather straight-forward.  Troubling, but straight-forward.  In the book of Matthew chapter five, Jesus says this, “21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Did you catch exactly what Jesus is saying here?  Did you catch how He tells you straight-forward that you cannot be angry with one another because if you are that is comparable to murder?  Who in their right mind would think that simply being angry with another person and murdering a person are the same thing?  Who in their right mind would think that being angry with someone deserves a first class ticket to hell?  And yet, this is what Jesus taught!!!  This is what our leader tells us to do!!!  And this is just the beginning.

 Let’s move onto something else.  Let’s move to the book of Luke chapter 14 where Jesus says the following: “28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Again, I ask you, did you hear that last phrase that Jesus said?  Did you hear Him blatantly say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”?  Is there any one of you here this morning who has no possessions?  Is there anyone here this morning who qualifies to be a disciple?  Is there anyone here this morning who can claim to follow Jesus’ teaching here?  Is there anyone here this morning who will ever be able to follow this?  I’m not done either.

 Let me go to the Gospel of Mark chapter 8.  This teaching that I am about to relay to you is found in all of the earliest Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus actually said this, and He lays it out for all to consider.  Here is the teaching, “34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  We’ve sanitized this statement too much throughout the years, and it has lost its power for the most part.  Let me try and put it all out there for you in this way.  Jesus says: give up your identity; give up your status; give up everything that you think makes you, you; give up your history, your claim to fame, your titles, the respect you believe you have earned; give up all of those things and then consider yourself a dead person walking.  Believe that you are under a curse and have died to follow me.  How does that sound for sanity?

 Let me stop for just a moment here and say that these teachings I am putting forward from Jesus are not obscure, dig through as much as you can to find something to fit your agenda, teachings.  These teachings are vintage Jesus.  They are core teachings.  This is what the founder of the Christian movement demanded of His followers!!!  And would any sane person adhere to them?
 Ah, but let me press onward for we must continue down this rabbit hole.  We must continue to wrestle with such matters no matter how uncomfortable they may be making us–for if we are going to get to the truth of the matter, all of the evidence must be set before us.

 For Jesus did not simply offer us these unimaginable teachings; He also claimed something unimaginable about Himself.  He claimed to be God.  Now, I know there are some scholars who say that Jesus did no such thing.  They claim that this thought only entered into the Christian faith long after Jesus’ life and death as an embellishment, but this is simply not the fact of the matter at all.  The apostle Paul is the earliest writer of Christian scripture, and in what we believe to be his final book, Philippians, Paul quotes what many scholars deem to be an early Christian hymn:

 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

 Let me point out to you this morning that Paul was born a Jew and that Christianity started off as Jewish movement.  No good Jew would ever–EVER claim that a man had equality with God.   This was forbidden.  It was considered idolatry.  It was blasphemy, and yet, in one of the earliest hymns sung by the church, Jesus is considered equal with God.  The early church believed Jesus was God!!

 And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each record Jesus’ teaching that He was indeed God come to earth.  If you do not believe me, please catch me later, and I will show you how in each Gospel, Jesus is shown to be God come to earth.  This was no late fabrication or embellishment.  It was there from the beginning.

 Why is this important?  Here is why: tell me, what do we do when someone claims to be God?  How do we react to someone who thinks he or she is an incarnation of God?  Do we readily accept them?  Do we embrace their teachings?  Do we fall on our faces and worship them?  What would happen to you this morning if I stood up here and claimed that I was God?  You know what you’d do.  You know what we do.  We call such people delusional.  We call them crazy.  If it is in our power, we have them committed.  Most people do not take them seriously in the least!!

 Ah, but you may say, sometimes such people gather a following.  And you are absolutely right.  They do oftentimes gather a following–right up until they die or are killed.  And then, nearly 100 percent of the time, the following dies out.  I mean, let’s use two modern day examples: how many people do you know who claim to follow Jim Jones these days?  If you don’t know who Jim Jones is, I rest my case.  Or David Koresh?  Any Branch Dividians that you know of?  When someone who claims to be God is killed or dies, the movement dies with them.  People realize the person was delusional.  It has happened many, many times in history–almost every time in history.

 But here is the thing: it didn’t happen with Jesus.  In fact, the movement surrounding Jesus actually took off after His death!!  The worship and adoration of Jesus actually increased after He died.  His followers did not hesitate to pass on Jesus’ teachings–no matter how difficult they seemed or how contrary to nature they seemed.  And people actually tried to follow them.  People tried to deny themselves and who they were.  People tried giving up their possessions.  People tried living without anger and animosity toward anyone else.   People proclaimed that Jesus indeed was God who came to earth even though He met His demise hanging bloody, beaten, bruised, shamed; executed on a cross. 

 What would cause people to do such a thing?  What would cause people to become so irrational?  What would cause them to try to follow such difficult, insane teachings?  What would cause them to say that indeed Jesus was God and that He wasn’t lying despite His horrendous death?  What would cause them to begin a movement that grew and grew and grew doing the exact opposite of every other Messianic movement until that time?  What would cause these people to lay down their lives as they proclaimed, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be save through Him!”?

 What would change the course of normal history and cause otherwise normal people to strive toward insane things?

 It’s the reason we are here this morning.

 Christ is risen!
 He is risen indeed!  Amen.  Alleluia!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Jesus Asks

I would like to start out this sermon by reminding everyone that Christianity has its roots in ancient Judaism. Remembering this is absolutely crucial to understanding this little but powerful snippet from the Gospel of Mark that we have before us today. Please remember, Jesus followed all the Jewish laws and customs. Please remember, the disciples were all Jewish and had gone through the rites of Judaism. Please remember Jesus’ primary focus was on the Jewish people, and His ministry to the Gentiles was secondary. Please remember that immediately previous to this text, Jesus was asked which commandments were the greatest, and in true Jewish fashion, Jesus replied with one of the most important sayings of Judaism, a quotation of Deuteronomy chapter 5, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength." Then, to finish it off, Jesus quoted the book of Leviticus, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus and His disciples were Jewish through and through. You may be wondering why I am stressing this at this point. Please stick with me.

Part of the reason this is so important is that we have to understand the mind set of the ancient Jewish culture. We have to wrap our heads around the ancient Jewish belief system. We have to grapple with how they viewed the world in order to see what Jesus is getting at when He begins asking questions in the temple. We need to see just how much the Jewish religious folks hated idolatry. You see, for the Jews, there was either God or not God. There was no in between. If you remember the Roman gods, you know they were based upon Greek mythology, so you had the gods coming down and having sex with men and women. When the gods had children by these encounters, you had demi-gods: half men; half gods. For the Jew, there was no such thing. There were supernatural beings like angels and demons, but these entities were not gods. They were far lesser than God. God was one and alone in His majesty. We need to keep in mind just how strict they were in adhering to this.

Two things will hopefully suffice. First, if you remember just a couple of weeks back, I preached on the Pharisees and Herodians coming to Jesus and asking Him a question about paying taxes to Rome. Jesus’ responded by asking for a denarius. I described that coin in my sermon as being a total and complete abomination to the Jews. The coin had the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberias stamped on it. It also had the words, "Tiberias son of the divine Agustus" printed on it. On the back, it labeled the Emperor "High priest." This coin was so offensive to many Jews that they would not touch it; they refused to look at it; and when it came time to pay the taxes they tried to use other currency to pay it. Such was their disgust for what was on that coin. They could not stand graven images. They could not stand anyone claiming any sort of divinity apart from God.

The second way I would like to get this in your head is by reading a portion of Paul Maier’s Pontius Pilate. Maier is a noted scholar and historian who has written numerous works of historical fiction. In these books, he takes known facts and fills in the blanks to compose a novel. The work is quite good and informative, and Maier paints a brilliant picture of what happened in Israel.

It all began when an elderly Jew left the north portico of the temple after morning sacrifice and pronounced his daily malediction on the Tower Antonia, the Roman fortress growing out of the northwestern wall of the temple precinct like some incongruous tumor. Then he noticed the new set of standards fluttering from its battlements and squinted for sharper vision. Widening his eyes in disbelief, he scurried back into the temple enclave and climbed a wall for a better vantage point from which to confirm his horrifying discovery. There the unhallowed sight was unmistakable: several spears, standing on a dias, had crossbars from which wreaths and golden disks were hanging. And embossed on the disks in bas-relief were the effigies of human heads!

Compounding the horror of the aged Jew was the fact that just in front of the special shrine in which the ensigns were housed, two Roman centurions were burning insense or doing some mode of sacrifice to these standards. The old Israelite quivered with rage. His eyes ran with tears. The sacrilege! The idolatry! And directly overlooking the holy temple! Turning about, he shouted at the top of his frail lungs: "Thoaivoh ne-estho be-yisorel ubi-yerusholaim! An abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem!" "Abomination! Abomination!

A cluster of early worshipers, priests, and temple guardsmen quickly surrounded the scandalized elder, all eyes toward the Tower Antonia. "Idolatry! Sacrilege!" they joined in the outcry, and hurried throughout the enclave to summon further witnesses. The trickle of news became a spreading torrent. Within an hour it has swept over Jerusalem in a riptide of fury, and Antonia was besieged by an immense throng which now broke into an angry chant: "Abomination! Remove the idols! Profanation! Remove the idols!"

While Maier’s book takes some historical liberties, this is not one of them. The Jews felt this passionately about idolatry. They felt this passionately about their belief in the One God. They felt this passionately about anything which challenged them deeply about their belief system. In a Roman world which was fairly tolerant of other religions and other gods, the Jews showed none of that tolerance. Idolatry and worship of false deities was strictly forbidden.

I set this background up so that it informs your reading of today’s gospel lesson from Mark chapter 12. Jesus has managed to answer all the questions thrown at him by the Sanhedrin and by the crowd. He has established Himself as one full of wisdom and authority. He is now in the driver’s seat, and so it is His turn to throw down the gauntlet. And He chooses a very interesting way to do so.
Jesus turns to the crowd around and says, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, "The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ " 37David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?"

Now, I have to admit, for the longest time, this question made little sense to me. It generally left me scratching my head, and by the time I am done here, I hope that I am not causing you to scratch your head. Instead, I hope I can clear this question up for you and then deal with the implications of it.
Jesus is tapping into the deeply held belief that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. For those of you who know the Old Testament, you will know that David is the second king of Israel. He is the king which is credited with establishing the Kingdom by driving off Israel’s enemies. He was far from a perfect man–he committed adultery; he had several wives; his son rebelled against him and sought his throne. Yet, despite these things, David was repentant; he worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David listened to the prophets who called him to seek the way of the Lord. For these reasons, David was seen as the king par excellance of ancient Judaism. He was seen as the greatest king, and one to be imitated. The Messiah would come from David’s house and lineage, and this Messiah would once again establish the kingdom of Israel, drive off Israel’s enemies, and establish a time of peace. This was a given in Jewish thought at the time.

Psalm 110 was considered a Messianic Psalm. You may wonder why I brought that Psalm into this discussion. Here’s why. Jesus quotes the first verses of that Psalm in His question, and Jesus attributes that Psalm to King David who was writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus is exegeting this Psalm, and Jesus points out a rather fascinating thing.

David says, "The Lord" or God said to my lord–or the Messiah, "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." Here’s where things get interesting. David calls the Messiah his lord. In other words, David submits himself to the authority of the Messiah. David says that the Messiah is greater than himself. We might shrug our shoulders and say, "No kidding." But you are looking at this from your perspective of history. You are looking at this through modern eyes. You are not looking at this through Jewish eyes through ONLY the lens of the Old Testament!! For if you were, you would see just how troubling this question is. Why?

Ancient Jews never believed a decedent was greater than an ancestor. The honor always traveled from the younger generation toward the older generation. Remember the fourth commandment? "Honor your father and your mother." Great respect and honor were given to one’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the like. No ancestor would reciprocate. The younger would not receive such honor. It wasn’t traditional in society, and it wasn’t mandated by scripture. So, Jesus brings up this discrepancy. How can David call the Messiah "Lord" if the Messiah is simply a man? How can the Messiah be greater than the greatest king that Israel has ever seen if the Messiah is simply a man?

This was a disturbing question for the scribes. Very disturbing. Why?

The scribes were caught between a rock and a hard place. They had carefully crafted their image of what the Messiah would be. They believed the Messiah would be a man; a king who would be a great military leader; a man of power; yet a man of compassion and justice. But, as Jesus pointed out, if that Messiah were just a man, then David would never have called the Messiah, "Lord." Yet, if the scribes were to say that the Messiah were more than a man; if they were to say the Messiah was the Son of God–then they would be faced with having to rethink their entire idea of what constituted idolatry and what constituted blasphemy.

Remember the two points I made earlier in this sermon? Remember the reactions to the coin with Tiberius’ picture on it and the situation when the Roman soldiers displayed images? Do you think the scribes could easily change their perspective? Do you think they could drop all their years of study and come over to Jesus’ way of thinking in the blink of an eye?

Of course they could not. They would do no such thing because it would involve changing their entire belief system. It would require them to convert and look at the world in a totally different way, and you don’t just walk away from your worldview without a serious change of heart and being.
But this is exactly what Jesus is getting at. This is exactly what is at the heart of Jesus’ question to the scribes. It is not only a question to them, but it is a question to us as well. For at the root of what Jesus asks is, "How do you see me?"

Do you see me as a good man who does good things for people? I am that, but I am much more.

Do you see me as the Messiah who will bring peace to earth? I am that, but it won’t be through military might.

Do you see me as a prophet who calls people to repentance? I am that, but I am so much more.

Do you see me as a great teacher of morality and how we should live our life? I am that, but I am so much more.

The answer that Jesus’ question leads to is unequivocally this: Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Only the Son of the Living God could be over king David. Only the Son of the Living God could make David submit to Him. Only the Son of God could be the Messiah.

No good Jew would have adhered to this because it would have seemed like dividing God. No good Jew would have acknowledged this because it would have given too much authority to the Messiah. No good Jew would have proclaimed this because it would have come across as blasphemy.

That means, either the disciples were not good Jews or something happened to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah–Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus was the Son of God. Something happened to completely and totally change their worldview and bring them to belief.
That something is the same thing that can change your worldview; change your heart and bring you to belief as well. That same thing is the Gospel and understanding what Christ has done for you. For the Messiah is the God made flesh who entered into this world to live the perfect and blameless life. He is the Messiah who became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Lamb of God who blameless and sinless became the atoning sacrifice for our sin who upon the cross bore the wrath of God so that we might live with God forever. He is the Messiah who so loved the world that He was willing to die for it.

Rarely do we change the way we look at things in this life. We generally are too stuck in our ways of doing things, but when we experience tremendous love, we indeed look at things differently. When we find someone who is willing to lay down their lives for us, we truly appreciate them and seek to please them, and we hear what they have to say because it is important to us.

And when we understand that from God’s perspective. When we understand that from Jesus’ perspective, our entire life becomes different. Our entire life is changed as we are greeted by the love of the Messiah who was willing to die for us when we didn’t deserve it. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him." How does your life change?

Imagine for a moment that you no longer care what people think about how you look or what job you have. Imagine for a moment feeling like you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone. Imagine for a moment not feeling like you are any better or any worse than anyone else. Imagine for a moment being truly content with who you are and where you are at while at the same time knowing you haven’t arrived at where you could be. Imagine for a moment not getting angry with others when they mess up. Imagine for a moment not having your happiness dependent upon what is going on in the world around you. Imagine for a moment your heart being full of song and praise. Imagine for a moment a sense of peace and calm that envelopes you no matter the stress level of the world around. That is but a snippet of what it is like when Jesus becomes the Lord of your life. That is but a snippet of what it is like to have the Gospel take root in your heart. That is but a snippet of what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and to trust in what He has already done instead of what you think you must do.

Jesus comes to us today and asks, "Who do you say that I am?" May we have the courage to respond, "You are my Lord and my God!" Amen.