Monday, May 23, 2016

Fight, Flight, or...

 I had a friend on Facebook post one of those wonderfully sentimental sayings on his news feed.  The saying read, “Nothing in nature lives for itself.  Rivers don’t drink their own water.  Trees don’t eat their own fruit.  The sun doesn’t shine for itself.  Flowers don’t spread fragrance for themselves.  Living for others is the rule of nature.”  It kind of brings a tear to your eye doesn’t it.  And it would be wonderful...if it were only true.

 I was not necessarily in the most charitable of moods when I read the post, so I responded, “Nice sentiment. Tear invoking. But hardly reality. Rivers aren't alive. Trees produce fruit to propagate their species. The sun isn't living. Flowers produce fragrance to attract bees and other insects so that they can be pollinated and the species will survive. Real world observation has shown us that nature is survival of the fittest; fight or flight; dog eat dog. Happy Wednesday!!”

 Personally, I get frustrated by those who believe nature works in perfect harmony; where everything balances out; where everything works together.  Nature is cruel and nasty at times.  In the midst of the beauty and grandeur, there is a constant battle of survival.  We, as humans tend to forget this amidst the safety and security of what we call civilization.  We are mostly protected and insulated from the law of fang and claw.  Think about that saying that I began this story with, and then reconcile it with this next story, which is an unequivocally true observation that has happened many times.

 Many years ago, I was sitting in a deer stand hunting.  As I sat there, a covey of quail came out to eat corn.  They were playfully hopping around, minding their own business, filling their craws, when a hawk swooped down out of nowhere and sank its talons into one of the quail.  There was a loud squeal that was suddenly silenced, an explosion of feathers, and then the hawk rising into the sky holding onto a dead quail.  Living for others is the rule of nature?  What nature are you looking at?

 Mankind evolved in this kind of environment.  Our roots are deep within this nature, and because of it, we are literally programed to respond to threat.  Our bodies undergo physiological changes whenever we feel threatened.  A burst of adrenaline surges through our system and it prepares us for a very particular response: fight or flight.  Perhaps you remember learning about this in high school or college.  This reaction isn’t governed by thinking.  It’s instinctual.  Whenever we perceive a threat, we automatically gear up for fight or flight, and depending upon the person, you will actually see fight and flight responses to the same situation.  We see this happening in our Gospel lesson this morning from the 14th chapter of the book of Mark.

 This segment begins right after Jesus has engaged in hours of prayer facing the knowledge that He will experience God’s wrath on our behalf.  He has come out of that time of prayer with a steadfast resolve to give His life in exchange for our own.  He is steadfast that in order to save the world, He must be separated from the things that have sustained Him for all eternity.  He has found His disciples sleeping, and He has thrown down the gauntlet, “Enough, get up, my betrayer is at hand.”

 And indeed, Jesus’ betrayer is at hand.  Judas is leading a militant group of people who have come to arrest Jesus.  This group is from the chief priests, scribes and the elders.  William Lane comments about this group by saying the following, “That the Jewish authorities alone were responsible for the measures taken against Jesus is corroborated by the detail that he was taken directly to the house of the high priest.  In addition to the Temple police, who were Levites, the Sanhedrin had at its disposal auxiliary police or servants of the court who were assigned the task of maintaining public order beyond the Temple precincts.  They were authorized to make arrests, lead accused persons to the court, guard prisoners and carry out sentences imposed by the court.  The arresting party in Gethsemane must have consisted of armed court attendants of this kind.”

 Again, it is important to point out that it is the religious authorities who are pushing the arrest of Jesus.  Jesus is very popular with everyday folks, but it is those in power and authority who do not like Him; who want to get rid of Him.  He has exposed them for the frauds they are, and so because Jesus is a threat, fight or flight kicks in.  They have power.  They choose to fight, and Judas would lead them to their prey.

 44Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ 45So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him.”

 This act is putrid.  It’s horrible.  Why would I say this?  Remember the term “Rabbi” during this time was a title of profound respect.  It was a title of profound honor. Kissing is another sign of respect and honor.  The Greek word for the kind of kiss Judas gives is a kiss of passion and adoration.  This act becomes an act of mockery.  It becomes an act of show.  Passionately adoring Jesus and giving Him a title of great respect, Judas betrays Him.  It’s essentially saying, “I love you,” while driving a dagger deep into one’s back.   It. Is. Ugly.

 And the crowd seizes Jesus.

 Not surprisingly, we see the fight or flight response kick in.

 First comes those who are willing to fight.  Mark records, “47But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.”  Mark gives us the bare minimum about this event.  He records the activity, but nothing else.  The other Gospels flesh this out and tell us this disciple is Peter.  They also tell us that Jesus decries the action by first saying, “Put your sword away because those who live by the sword are destined to die by the sword,” and then secondly by healing the man whose ear was cut off.  The fight response isn’t appropriate.

 Jesus then addresses the crowd. “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? 49Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”  Jesus here is fully in control of Himself.  Jesus is not fighting.  He is not fleeing.  He is able to assess the situation calmly.  He is able to see it for what it is.  He knows their intentions.  He knows what is about to befall Him.  And He faces it head on.  Without fear.  Without anxiety, and with a tone of mockery toward His assailants.  He shames them by His statement.  “If you tried this in public, you’d never get away with it.  You had your opportunities to handle this in the light of day, but you choose the dark of night.  But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”

 And now, we have the flight part of human nature kicking in.  The disciples flee, and so does a neoniskus.  That is the term used for a young man who is following Jesus.  This incident is really intriguing, and I think it important.  You will have to wait a few weeks to see exactly why, but for the time being, let’s flesh this incident out.  A young man, or neoniskus, is following along.  The word here is significant.  Again to quote William Lane, “Of greater importance is the fact that in the LXX, the Jewish Apocrypha and Josephus, the term used by Mark designates young men who are exceptionally strong and valiant, or faithful and wise.”  This is a strong, valiant, faithful and wise young man.  And he is also wealthy.  How do we know this?  To quote William Liefield, “Ordinarily men wore an undergarment called a chiton. This young man had only a sindon, an outer garment.  Usually, this garment was made of wool.  His, however, was linen, an expensive material worn only by the rich.” 

 What an interesting bit of thought thrown our way by Mark.  A young man who has all the marks of bravery and civilization is stripped bare of everything.  His wealth fails him at the time of crisis.  His strength fails him.  His youth fails him.  His wisdom fails him.  Nothing is left.  Nothing.  He is naked.

 There is only one left standing in this scene.  There is only one who is not affected by fight or flight.  There is only one who stands firm in resolve and understanding.  There is only one who assesses and faces the danger.  Jesus. 

 Oh how wonderful it would be for me to stop right here and tell you, “Be like Jesus.”  How wonderful it would be for me to say, “Jesus is our example.  If He can do it, you can too.  Stop worrying.  Stop letting threats cause you to fight or flee.”  Be like Jesus and calmly assess the situation.  That is the equivalent of me standing up here and saying, “Reprogram your brain.  Make your brain think differently.  Change your humanity and transform yourself.”  There are many who say that we can do this.  The book shelves in book stores are full of self-help books.  There are more than a few books that would love to sell you to help you do just this.

 Amazingly enough, despite all the books that have been written; despite all the insights of psychology and medicine; fight or flight still reigns.  Fight or flight dominates our discussions and our actions.  Our adrenaline seems to be in a constant state of arousal these days.  From bathrooms to politics to terrorism, threats abound.  And we are anything but calm.  We ready ourselves to fight or to flee.  How can we do anything different?

 The answer to this problem is not in self-help books.  It’s about realizing what Jesus has already accomplished.  Jesus stands with utter resolve because He knows He is going to become the difference maker.  Jesus knows that He is going to make things right.  Jesus knows that He will face abandonment from God.  Jesus knows He is going to face hell.  Jesus knows He is going to face the worst thing possible so that we do not have to.  Jesus is going to pour Himself out for you and for me because He loves us.

 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 so that the world might be saved through Him.

 There are two ways in which this love reprograms our brains.  The first is that it removes and substantially lessens any threat we feel.  The reason fight or flight kicks in is because we feel threatened.  We feel like we will be harmed.  Through Jesus, we have nothing to fear.  I know that’s tough to enact, but think about it for a moment.  Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God and our sinfulness.  Because of Jesus we do not have to fear what will happen to us after we die.  We know that a place is prepared for us.  This offers great comfort in facing death.

 But there is more because there is also the resurrection.  The resurrection is the promise that all that is evil will be unmade.  All that is dark will turn to light.  All that is bad will be transformed into good.  From death will spring forth life.  Will bad things continue to happen?  Sure.  Will we face times of trial and tribulation?  Absolutely.  But we know that the end of the story will be rewritten.  We know that should evil win a battle, God will win the war.  Placing our trust in Him will lead us to have much less worry and fear.

 Secondly, we will be filled with Christ’s sacrificial love.  He will pour His Spirit into us.  Why does this matter?  Love, true, sacrificial love will reprogram your brain.  Love, real, sacrificial love will lead you to walk through the fires of hell.  Love, real, sacrificial love will make you act in a way you would normally never, ever act.  Think about someone you love dearly.  What wouldn’t you do for them?  What wouldn’t you face for them?  Would you gladly give your life for them?  Would you go out of your way to please them?  Would you set aside your fears, your wants, and your desires to honor them?

 Of course you would.  When you are motivated by this kind of love, you change deeply, and when you come to the understanding of what Jesus has done for you; when you come to the understanding that Jesus died for you when you least deserved it.  When you come to the understanding that Jesus stood when you would fight or flee, your heart begins to change.  Your brain begins to be reprogrammed.  Your actions begin to be governed by something totally and completely different because whatever threat arises, you are no longer motivated by fear, you are motivated by love; by thankfulness; by a desire to fulfill the will of God.  By a desire to do the things God would have you do instead of what nature would have you do. 

 You will not change your human nature.  You cannot reprogram yourself.  Only Christ can do that.  Only He can reach down into the depths of your heart and change you.  Only through His love can He convince you to stand when you would rather run or fight.  And the good news this morning is: He has already acted to bring that change about.  He has already done great things to transform your heart.  He has already died for you.  He has already been raised from the dead.  He has already done all these things for you.  Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Agony of Facing Death

 This morning, I am going to be very real with all of you.  I am going to confront the one thing that each and every one of us will face one day.  I am going to confront the one thing that I have helped people to face year after year after year.  I am going to confront the reality of death.  For some, this is a very morbid topic.  Many would prefer to put it out of sight and out of mind.  It brings to the surface fear, dread, anxiety, especially since we neither know the day or the hour.  Death in our society and in our culture is seen as the great enemy–something we battle and rage against.

 Why do you think we argue so much about health care and how we pay for it?

 Why do you think we argue about guns and the violence that is associated with them?

 Why do you think we emphasize safety at airports?

 Why do you think we pass so many laws regarding traveling in cars?

 We strive to protect and preserve life even at great cost.

 And so, when people face the very real aspect of their own deaths or the death of a close family member: when terminal cancer strikes, when a major surgery is on the horizon, when a funeral must be planned for a child, I am called.  How does one deal with the immanent threat of something that one has worked so hard to avoid?

 The answer to that question varies by person.  Some rage against the coming night fighting with all their being to hold onto whatever bit of life they can manage.  Such deaths are horrible to witness.  They scar the brain.  Others peacefully accept what is happening, and most of the time, I hear people say, “Wow, this person was very peaceful about their death.  They handled it just amazingly.”  Most family members pray that their loved ones simply go to sleep and die in peace without struggle or pain or suffering.  For most of human history, the one who faces death with bravery, courage, and peace is greatly admired.

 The history of Christianity is full of stories of those who have died without fear; without worry; without anguish.  Many of these folks who have faced death in such a manner are called the martyrs–people who have been killed strictly for following their belief and trust in Jesus Christ.  Interestingly enough, most of these martyrs are remembered because they were very peaceful as death approached.  Even as they were burned at the stake, tortured, or fed to wild animals, these Christians are celebrated as having faced death while proclaiming the Gospel or singing hymns and praises to God.  Many think, “May I have such courage.  May I face death with such bravery.”

 I want you to contrast this thought with what you see happening in our Gospel lesson from the 14th Chapter of the Book of Mark.  This snippet is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spends several agonizing hours in prayer.  Compared to the martyrs; compared to many who face death, Jesus is not at all peaceful.

 The scene begins with Jesus taking his disciples to Gethsemane which means olive press.  Apparently, this is a garden with an olive press where olive oil was produced.  Jesus asks His disciples to sit while He goes to pray.  I want you to take note of how Jesus begins distancing Himself from the disciples.  There is a real sense of a shrinking circle of support.  Remember, Jesus had just decreed that all of the disciples would abandon Him.  That process is starting.

 For after leaving the majority of the disciples behind, Jesus asks Peter, James and John to follow Him.  Then, Mark tells us that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.”  This is extremely vivid language here.  Nowhere else is Jesus described in these terms.  Walter Liefield writes, “The two verbs translated “deeply distressed and troubled” together “describe an extremely acute emotion, a compound of bewilderment, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, nowhere else portrayed in such vivid terms as here.” 

 I want you to think about this description for just a moment.  Why would Jesus become so troubled in spirit?  All throughout the book of Mark, Jesus has been steadfast and resolute.  All throughout Mark, Jesus has embraced His mission.  On at least three occasions that Mark records, perhaps even more given that Jesus probably said things over and over and over, Jesus saying that He would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes and be killed.  Jesus has also said that He would be raised from the dead.  Jesus knows what is going to happen to Him at the hands of men.  He has known all along.  Why is He so deeply distressed?  Hold onto that question.

 And Jesus said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”  Again, we see something remarkable.  Jesus has never been this shaken throughout the Gospel.  He has never been this deeply grieved or disturbed.  Jesus even says that he essentially feels like he is going to die.  Why would Jesus feel like He were about to die?

 We get the answer in the next sentence.  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.”  What is the cup that had Jesus so terrified?  What is the cup that had Jesus feeling like He would die?  We have already seen that it can’t be the knowledge of His impending death.  He knew that would happen.  We know that it is not His betrayal.  He knows that is going to happen.  He knows He will be raised from the dead.  What could possibly be so bad about this cup that it absolutely terrifies the Son of God?

 Imagine for a moment that you have a lifeline.  Imagine for a moment that this lifeline provides you with every bit of love, compassion, and support that you have ever needed.  Whenever you hold onto that lifeline, there is nothing anyone can say to you that hurts.  There is no sadness that grips your heart.  There is no worry or fear that can touch you.  This lifeline is like the very air that you breathe.  As long as it is there, nothing ever bothers you.  Nothing at all.  Then, imagine that this lifeline will be cut.  Would that not fill you with terror?  Would that not fill you with absolute horror.  Imagine now having to face every fear; every darkness; every insult without the thing which sustained you through them.  What would that do to your soul?

 In Jesus’ case, that lifeline was His relationship to the Heavenly Father.  For all of eternity, Jesus and the Father, and the Spirit for that matter, had been in a divine dance of love.  They poured themselves into each other.  They sustained one another.  They loved one another with reckless abandon.  Jesus never felt anything less than fulfilled.  He never felt anything less than loved.  He never felt anything less than complete and whole.

 And in just a few hours, all of that would be taken away.  All of that would be removed from Him.  The Father would turn His back on the Son, and Jesus would feel totally abandoned as He faced the Father’s wrath against all sin ever performed and ever to be performed.  Imagine all of the sin, grief, and shame this world has ever and will ever produce.  Imagine the destruction of World War I.  Imagine the Holocaust.  Imagine the pogroms of Russia.  Imagine the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Imagine the billions upon billions of seemingly little sins committed each and every day. Imagine all of that heaped upon Jesus–the one who had never known sin, and imagine Him paying the penalty for that sin on the world’s behalf.  Would that not terrify you?  Would that not cause you to be troubled even unto death?  Would that not cause you to beg to have such a thing removed from you?  Would that not cause you to beg for another way?

 Mark Edwards puts it this way in his commentary on this text: It is one thing, fearful as it will be, to answer for our own sins before a holy and almighty God; who can imagine what it would be like to stand before God to answer for every sin and crime and act of malice and injury and cowardice and evil in the world?  In acquiescing to the Father’s will of bearing ‘the sin of many, interceding for transgressors”, Jesus necessarily experiences an abandonment and darkness of cosmic proportions.  The worst prospect of becoming the sin-bearer for humanity is that it spells complete alienation from God, an alienation that will shortly echo above the desolate landscape of Calvary, “MY God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

 And this is why Jesus begged and pleaded.  This is why Jesus wrestled with this for nearly an hour.  “But not my will, but yours be done.”  Jesus resolutely sought to follow the Father’s will.
 Three times Jesus prayed this.  Three times Jesus pleaded.  Each time, Jesus finished praying, He faced the reality of human nature.  Three times Jesus found His closest followers sleeping, abandoning Him in His need, weary from eating and drinking and staying awake long into the night.  He first speaks to Peter who at this point, Jesus calls Simon because he is far from living up to his nickname of the Rock.  Each time the disciples have no excuse.  They become embarrassed.  At the time of Jesus’ greatest need; at the time when He is facing the reality of having His Heavenly Father turn His back upon Him, Jesus faces it completely and totally alone.

 It is tempting to point fingers at the disciples here, but we must remember that this text is not about them.  This text is not about their failure.  It has been well established that we fail time and again when it comes to being faithful to our Lord.  It has been established throughout the book of Mark that the disciples just don’t get it.  This text’s focus as is the focus of every Gospel is not upon the disciples or upon us, but upon Jesus.  And William Lane articulates what is going on here beautifully.  He writes, “The remarkable element in the scene is that in the midst of an unparalleled agony Jesus...came to look after his three vulnerable disciples and to warn them of their danger of failure in the struggle which was about to overwhelm them.”  Jesus’ compassion knows no bounds.  Jesus’ love of His followers and of the world has now bounds.

 Even after three times of pleading.  Even after three times of being disappointed.  Jesus is resigned to the Father’s will.  Jesus will not be like the first Adam who in the first Garden gave into temptation.  Jesus will not put His will ahead of the Father’s.  Jesus will suffer for our sake.  Jesus will become sin who knew no sin.  Jesus will face the wrath of God against the sin of the world.  He will lay down His life for the very ones who keep falling asleep and failing to support Him. 

 And He will do it because He loves them.  He will do it because He loves us.  He will face the most horrible thing anyone could ever face because of an overwhelming 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 by Him.”  Jesus faces the most horrendous thing possible, so that we will not have to.

 And it is because we do not have to face the judgement of God that we can be at peace and face our own deaths.  It is because of Jesus that we can become like the martyrs: we can go toward our deaths at peace.  We can know that Jesus has paid for our sin, our guilt, our shame, our failure.  We can know that He faced down our greatest threat–eternal separation from God.  Death no longer has power.  Death no longer has sting.  On the cross, Jesus paid the price.  Three days later, at the tomb, the end is revealed.  Eternal life.

 I remember vividly arriving at the bedside of one of our members who died quite a few years ago.  She was a tremendous woman of faith.  She had fought long and hard with disease.  She strove and battled.  She was unconscious at the moment of my visit, but she was still trying to fight.  I placed my hand upon her head, and I spoke in her ear, “It is okay.  You have fought long enough.  You have done everything that you could.  It is time to be at peace.  It is okay to let go.”  Almost immediately, a peace and calm came over her.  Almost immediately, she seemed to realize that her earthly journey was about to continue into eternity.  She was able to rest assured that she would be with Jesus.

 My brothers and sisters, when we understand what Jesus has done on our behalf; when we understand that He has paid the debt of our sins; when we understand what He revealed to us in the resurrection; we are free to face death with a different lens.  We are free to face death armed with hope.  We are free to live without constant worry and fear and anxiety.  Because of Jesus and His struggle, we do not have to.  We can live life without fear, and we can die at peace because of His love.  Amen.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Denial is not Simply a River in Egypt

 I love where my kids are at right now.  They are truly fun.  They are right in that middle zone where they are out of diapers, potty trained, and independent enough to dress themselves and get their own breakfasts.  Yet, they are not quite at puberty, arguably the most trying time for kids and parents.  They are right in the middle, and I am enjoying it while it lasts.

 How enjoyable is it?  In the past month or so, both of my daughters have come up to me separately and said, “You are the best dad in the world.”  It really is a heart-melting moment.  But, do you know what I have done every time?  Folks may question my sanity and parenting style because of what I am going to say next, but I’m going to see how this plays out in the long run.  Each time my girls have said, “You are the best dad in the world,” I have replied, “Thank you sweetie.  I appreciate this and I am going to remember this because in about two or three years, you are probably going to think that I am the dumbest person in the world.”

 Every time I’ve said this, my girls look at me and say, “Daddy!  Why would you say that?”

 I respond, “Because in a few years, you are going to be a teenager, and most teenagers think their parents are dumb and don’t understand anything.”

 My girls have both said, at this point, “Daddy, I don’t ever want to say or think that.”

 I reply, “I hope not either.”  I have hope, but I’m not optimistic.  I remember my own teenage years all to well.  I’ve been around more than a few teenagers since then.  The odds are not in my favor.  Human nature is too powerful.  So I confronted my daughters with this prophecy.  They weren’t happy with it.

 You may wonder why I share this with you.  I share it because I think it is related to the events taking place in our Gospel lesson this morning as we progress through the 14th chapter of the book of Mark. 

 This text follows immediately after the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and as Jesus and his disciples depart the upper room, they do so by singing the hymn.  Now, if this is a Passover meal and they are following the oldest known sequence of this meal, then they were singing what is called the Hallel Psalms.  This would have ended with Psalm 118.  It is an intriguing thought to think that as Jesus left this final meal with his disciples, He would have had these words on his lips:

 The Lord is my strength and song; he has become my salvation.  Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!  The Lord’s right hand has lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”  I will not die but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done. 

 Think about that with the knowledge that Jesus is now entering into the final hours of leading up to his arrest and crucifixion.  “I will not die but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done.”  Ironic.  Tragic?  Definitely hopeful.

 When everyone reaches the Mount of Olives, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “You will all become skandalizein.”  Skandalizein is the Greek word that is translated will fall away, be offended, be made to stumble.  Mark Edwards writes in his commentary, “Skandalizein...does not mean that the disciples will willfully defect but that external factors will act upon them and cause them to do so...We do not plan on sinning, but neither do we hold the fort when we ought.”  This is an important point–one that we will come back to in a little while.  But first, we must consider this text more deeply, for Jesus backs up his words by citing Zechariah chapter 13.  “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”

 Let me read to you this quote in context from the Old Testament so that you might get more of an idea of what is going on.  Zechariah 13:7-9, 7“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate,” says the Lord of hosts. Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. 8In the whole land, says the Lord, two-thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one-third shall be left alive. 9And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, “They are my people”; and they will say, “The Lord is our God.”

 Now, let me point out that in this Old Testament passage, it is God Himself who is striking the shepherd.  It is God who is taking this action so that He may purify and refine His people.  It is necessary for the shepherd to be struck down.  Now, the historical situations of Zechariah and Jesus are not the same.  They are not the same at all.  So, Jesus is taking this passage and redefining it to help us, and the disciples understand.  Unfortunately, they will not understand at this point.  Not in the least.  They will not understand until after the cross and resurrection.  For the moment, they are flabbergasted that Jesus would suggest that God would strike Him and that they would scatter.

 Before we get to the disciples’ reaction, let me point out to you a little snippet that even the disciples missed.  They were reeling from what Jesus said, and I am quite convinced they missed hearing Jesus say, “28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  The disciples did not hear this and did not understand this because the notion of an individual resurrection had no thought in their minds.  Nowhere in Jewish literature or thought was there the idea of a resurrected Messiah.  They didn’t understand this.  They didn’t grasp this.  It was foreign, so they focused on what they did know: Jesus said they would all desert him; be scandalized by him; abandon him and be scattered.

 Jesus confronted them, and they didn’t like it.  Peter, being Peter is the first to speak up.  Peter, with his bravado and self-confidence and self-assurance stands against this prophecy.  Peter, the fisherman who had spent hours hauling in nets full of fish, steering boats, who probably had well defined biceps and six-pack abs.  Peter who believes he is tough enough to do anything.  “Lord, even if everyone else deserts you, I will not.”  Peter doesn’t exactly have a high view of his friends, does he?  Peter obviously thinks he’s better than the rest of the disciples here, doesn’t he?  Peter doesn’t like what Jesus said, and so he denies that he will abandon Jesus.

 But Jesus has none of it.  Jesus knows human nature too well.  Jesus knows what he will face.  Jesus knows what Peter will face.  Jesus knows the deep down fear and anxiety.  “Truly I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

 “31But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”  All of them said the same.  Brash.  Unflinching.  Self-confident and self-assured.  Arrogant.  Remember last week when I said that betraying a friend after eating a meal with them was considered the worst kind of treachery in the Middle East?  Jesus has essentially said that all of the disciples would do this.  Judas would be the betrayer, but all would fall away.  No one wanted to take part in such treachery.  No one wanted to fall away.  All wanted to stand.  All asserted that they would stand.  Confident in their strength, they wrote checks with their words that they would not be able to cover.  They sought to justify themselves before Jesus

 And how we love to do the same thing.  How we love to justify ourselves and revel in our own strength and self-confidence and self-assurance.  How we love to pat ourselves on the backs and tell ourselves that we are strong enough to stick by our choices.  How we vehemently promise to God, to our friends and family, and to ourselves that we will do things differently; be better; do more.

 • I can quit drinking anytime I want.
 • I won’t get angry with you anymore.
 • I won’t go to those websites anymore.
 • I will eat healthier.
 • I will exercise regularly.
 • I will go to church more often.
 • I will give more to charity.
 • I will spend more time with my kids.
 • I am in charge of my life, and I will do better.

 And it all sounds good until you don’t.  Until you fall right back into the same habits; same routines; same behaviors.  And when we are confronted?  When someone points out that our words do not match up with what we are doing?  What do we do?  Let me tell you what I do.  I am the king of excuses.  I am very good at blame displacement.  I can give you a million reasons why the circumstances around me have led me to say what I say and do what I do.  In the famous words of the German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am all too ready to “justify my sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.”

 But Jesus doesn’t let us get away with that.  Jesus knows us too well.  He will confront us in our sin.  He will confront us with how he knows we will act.  Because He knows the end results.  We will see those results in due time.  We will see Peter’s denial.  We will hear the rooster crow.  We will see the disciples flee.  We will even hear about how one of them was caught by his clothes and wiggling free ran away naked and ashamed.

 And if we ever run into the real Jesus, we will find ourselves standing in front of Him naked and ashamed as well.  We will stand before Him and know that we have missed the mark.  We will deeply know our hypocrisy.  We will know how our self-confidence and arrogance led us to say things we should not have said and do things we should not have done.  We will know how we were never better than others despite a desperate want to be so.  We will know shame even though we have spent more than our fair share of time trying to avoid feeling shameful.  We will know how we turned our backs on Jesus and we will know that the right thing for Him to do is turn his back on us. 

 But, at that moment, when we know that He should turn His back upon us, we realize the significance of those words from Zechariah 13.  “I will strike the shepherd...”  The shepherd will be struck down.  The Good Shepherd will be struck down as He lays His life down for the sheep.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd will be struck down as He lays down His life for His disciples–for you.  For when you stand before Jesus, you will know beyond a doubt that you are not worthy to be in His presence.  You will know you are not worthy to be in God’s presence.  You are unholy.  You are broken, battered, torn.  You deserve the wrath of God–to have God turn His back upon you.  But the Good Shepherd intercedes.  He takes upon Himself your sin, your guilt, your shame.  He faces God’s anger and wrath in your place.  He has God turn God’s back against Him. 

 Standing in Jesus’ presence naked and ashamed waiting for Him to turn His back on us, He stretches out His arms and dies for us–in our place, pouring His life out for us in an act of wondrous love.  He clothes us with new garments of dazzling white as He says, “You are forgiven.  I have paid the price for your self-assurance; your self-confidence; your arrogance.  I have covered in action what you could not do yourself.  I lay down my life for you because I love you.”

 This is the Good News.  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 did not send Jesus to condemn you, but to save you.  And He will go before us to gather us together once again.  The sheep that are scattered will be drawn back to the Good Shepherd, and they will be vastly different. 

  At the end of the book of Mark, after the resurrection.  The same young man who ran away naked and ashamed is found in the tomb.  He is found fully clothed in a garment of pure white.  He unashamedly pronounces that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  This young man has been transformed by what Jesus has accomplished for him.  And this transformation happened to the rest of the disciples as well.  When they came in contact with the risen Lord, it changed them greatly.  Whereas they once deserted Jesus and ran from persecution, as they proclaimed the good news of His death, they later embraced persecution and even death.  They refused to run any longer.  Death, fear, anxiety no longer had power over them.  How is it that they were able to overcome these things which oftentimes still have power over us?  They didn’t trust in themselves to stand up to these things.  They didn’t trust in their own power and understanding.  They trusted in Jesus.  They trusted in what Jesus had done. They trusted in His love; in His mercy; in His grace.  They knew if they tried to have confidence in themselves, they would fail once again.  And so, they trusted in Jesus.  Their hearts rested in Jesus and His work.  And here is further good news for you and me.

 It happened to the disciples, and it can happen to us.  We too can know that type of transformation.  We too can face the challenges of life with much less fear and anxiety and worry.  But we have to stand being confronted by Jesus.  We have to stand knowing that we are broken.  We have to stand before Him and know that we have fallen short of His expectations.  We must know our weakness and failure, but we must also know Jesus’ deep love.  We must also know how much this God incarnate was willing to go through to show us how much we are loved and cherished.  You see, if you know you have failed but you also know you are deeply loved, your heart and life changes.  Arrogance, self-assuredness, self-confidence, and brashness are replaced by deep humility.  Fear, anxiety, and worry, are replaced by hope and trust that Jesus will see you through.  You brag less; love more; rest your confidence in Jesus instead of yourself; and seek as many opportunities as possible to worship the one who laid down His life for you.  When you realize the Good Shepherd was struck down for you and that He now seeks to gather you in, your life and heart is changed.  Rest in His grace, love, and mercy.  Amen.

Monday, May 2, 2016

You Were Born for...

 There is a Facebook meme that I have seen several times pop up in my feed that says, “You were born to do more than just work, pay bills, and then die.”  I would agree wholeheartedly.  But it begs the question: just what were you born to do?  That is the million dollar question that millions of individuals ask themselves on a regular basis.  Humanity has a deep longing to have an answer to that question: why was I born?  What is my purpose?  Why am I even here?  Let’s consider a couple of alternatives for just a moment.

 First, let’s take the path of the atheist.  For those who believe that this universe is all that there is, ultimately, there is no purpose.  There is no meaning.  There is no reason for existence.  Now, this does not mean that atheists don’t have some sense of purpose for their lives; it doesn’t mean that they don’t get some sense of personal meaning about things–I mean, I have come in contact with several atheists who indeed have some sense of momentary purpose that drives them in life.  But I am not talking about a fleeting sense of purpose governed by my circumstances in life at any given moment.  I am talking about an ultimate sense of purpose that goes beyond my existence today.  Ultimately, atheism cannot give you such a sense of purpose that is larger than a given moment in time.  Why do I say this?  Well, think about this: do you remember any relative of yours who lived 500 years ago?  Do you think anyone will remember you 500 years from now?  More than likely, not.  Do you think anyone will remember some random act of kindness you perpetuated even 50 years from now?  I mean unless you are massively famous, only those immediately affected will even care.  And let’s shift the time line even further down the road–a long way down the road–billions of years down the road, in fact. 

 Scientists who study the stars tell us that in a few billion years, our sun will begin expending its energy and expanding.  When it does this, it will unleash a fiery hell upon earth burning everything we know or have ever known into dust and ash.  This is the end result of everything we have ever done; all our great accomplishments; all our moral advances; dust and ash consumed with a burning flame.  So, let me ask you: if this is the ultimate end of all things, is there anything that really makes life worth living other than simply living for the moment?  Is there any higher purpose then?  I mean, why not simply enjoy life for the little bit of time we have here because in the very long run, it will not make any difference at all–if there is nothing beyond this physical universe.

 But if there is something...

 That changes the outcome.

 Let me try to explain.  First off, Christianity believes that there is a Creator who is beyond this physical universe.  It also states that this Creator is eternal or has existed forever.  This Creator exists as a relationship: a Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And, this Creator/God entered into this world to help you know your ultimate purpose and why you are here.

 This is quite a daunting task to cover in the next several minutes as well as get us through today’s Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter of the book of Mark, but I hope everything comes together in the end and that we are not here all morning. :-)

 Today’s text begins with Mark telling us about one of Jesus’ inner circle: the disciple named Judas–who in stark contrast to the woman who extravagantly gave a lavish gift to Jesus–seeks to take from Jesus.  Judas, for whatever reason, decides to throw his lot with Jesus’ enemies and betray the Lord.  We know that at least one of the motivations is money, and so after collaborating with the chief priests and the scribes, Judas seeks an opportunity to betray Jesus in secret.

 Mark then sets the stage for this betrayal by telling us about the events that lead up to it–the institution of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  There are some things happening as the meal is being prepared that are quite interesting.  We know that an arrest order has been issued for Jesus–the wording of this arrest order can actually be found in the Talmud or Jewish writings about the Torah.  According to Jewish custom, the Passover meal must be eaten IN Jerusalem, so Jesus, to fulfill the law must go into the city to eat this important meal.  By all accounts, Jesus has arranged it clandestinely–at least that is what a couple of the commentaries suggested.  I mean, it makes sense.  Jesus says, “Go into town and look for a man carrying a water jar.”  This would be an anomaly.  Men carried wine skins.  Women carried water jars.  I don’t know what that says about the difference between men and women, but gender roles aren’t the point.  The point is, the man will be easy to spot.  Then, there is a password of sorts.  Jesus says, “You are to say, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” Again, this has all the marks of intrigue.  Sneak in; get everything ready and prepared; sneak out when all is over.  And that’s what happened, to an extent.  But there was some really, really important stuff that happened in the middle.

 Jesus and His disciples gather in the room to eat the feast.  After they had dined, Jesus says something astonishing; jaw dropping; something that I am positive sent all but one of the disciples reeling.  “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.  One who is eating with me.”  This was a repulsive thought.

 According to Walter Liefield in the Expositor’s Bible commentary, “To betray a friend after eating a meal with him was, and still is, regarded as the worst kind of treachery in the Middle East.”  This is why I say Jesus’ comment would have been a heart stopper.  It was reprehensible to think this would happen.  Everyone in the room asks, “Surely not I?”  We know that at least one of those was putting on a good show.  Jesus doesn’t back down.  In fact, He narrows the playing field.  “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.”  Again, Liefield sheds some light here,
“This clue does not specifically reveal the betrayer but emphasizes again that it is one who enjoys the closest relationship with Jesus–he even dips his bread into the same bowl with Him.”

 Mark Edwards reflects upon Jesus’ actions here and then writes a powerful observation, “Jesus is not a tragic hero caught in events beyond his control.  There is no hint of desperation, fear, anger or futility on his part.  Jesus does not cower or retreat as plots are hatched against him.  He displays, as he has throughout the Gospel, a sovereign freedom and authority to follow a course he has freely chosen in accordance with God’s plan.  Judas and others may act against him, but they do not act upon him.”

 I think Edwards is right on target with this statement because Jesus is going through this with eyes wide open.  He knows what is going to happen. He understands what is going to happen, and He is not running for it.  Neither is He acting with a sense of fatalism.  He understands who He is and what He is here for.  He has tried to make that known throughout the book of Mark, and He will do so once again.

 For Jesus now does something that has become a staple in every church throughout the world.  Different denominations disagree on exactly what is happening during this meal, but all celebrate it.  Jesus takes bread, breaks it and says, “This is my body.”  What is the significance of this?
 Mark Edwards says, “When Jesus said, “This is my body,” the Aramaic behind body likely meant “my person”, “my whole being,” “my self.”  Likewise, the Greek word behind “body” is not sarx (flesh) but soma “body” or perhaps “being.”  All the activity signified by the verbs thus results in the gift of Jesus himself, wholly and without reserve in his self-offering for the disciples.”  Jesus is giving Himself to His disciples.

 And while the giving of one’s self to another carries significance, it is rammed home when Jesus takes a cup of wine, blesses it, has everyone drink from it, and then says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

 Every commentary I consulted tied this event back to Exodus chapter 24.  Please listen to the story, “3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ 4And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. 6Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ 8Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”  What is so significant about this?

 Let me read to you from Edwards once more, “In Hebrew thought the life of a creature resided in its blood; Jesus’ reference to the cup as “my blood” thus implies his very life...The “blood of the covenant” cannot be understood apart from the first covenant that Moses instituted by throwing blood on the people (Exodus 24:3-8).  That covenant was sealed by necessity with the blood of a surrogate sacrificial animal.  The new covenant here instituted must be sealed by Jesus’ blood; it is not simply thrown on the community as in Exodus 24:8, but imbibed into believers.”

 So, what does this mean?  This means that the God of the universe who has come down to earth gives His very self to us and pours His very life INTO us!  The One who is ETERNAL, pours His LIFE INTO YOU!  You who are mortal, imperfect, trying to make your way in this world and in this life.  You who are sometimes cranky and angry and upset.  You who are depressed and anxious and worrisome.  You who are sometimes greedy and self-righteous.  You who are going through the motions and longing for something more.  Jesus pours His ETERNAL LIFE into you.

 Why?  Well, first, it’s because He loves you.  Despite your frailties and failings, Jesus loves you.  He loves you dearly.  So much so that He is willing to die for you.  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.  You see, the world that God created will indeed come to an end.  There is no doubt about that, but God loves the world.  God loves you.  He does not want to see you perish.  So, He pours His eternal life into you so that you will not perish but cross over the threshold of time into eternity to be with Him forever.

 Secondly, God wants you to sense that eternal life now.  He wants you to know that there is so much more that what we see here.  If you become so focused on the here and now and lose sight of eternity, then you will drive yourself crazy trying to do everything and see everything.  You will eventually become exhausted and overwhelmed. You will reach the point where you know you simply cannot do and see everything, and you will become depressed.  You will face your mortality and limitations with no hope.  Yet, when you know that eternity dwells within you, you know that you have forever to see and do.  You know there is more to the story.  You know that beyond this life there is a different and better reality.

 And finally, because you know this, you understand that it is your purpose to know that reality and make it known.  It is your purpose to know God and make Him known.  It is your purpose to seek the God who loves you deeply and then make Him known by loving others as you have been loved.  And it doesn’t matter what kind of job you have or don’t have; who you marry or don’t marry; where you live; or any of these things we stress deeply over.  Wherever we are; whoever we are around; whatever our lot, we have the privilege of telling others there is a God who loved this world and poured out Himself for it.  We have the privilege of knowing Jesus and seeking to make Him known.  We have the honor of being loved and then showing that love.  Indeed we were made to do so much more than working, paying bills, and dying.  We were made for eternal life.  Amen.

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.