Monday, February 8, 2016

The Purpose of the Church

This morning, I am going to shift gears a little bit. Many of my sermons recently have been geared to invite people who are outside of the faith to consider having Jesus as the Lord and Savior of their lives. I have tried to show how and why He is worthy of such a position and how the Gospel offers insight and answers to a lot of the problems we all face in this world. I have done very little recently to talk about the role of the people of God in living out our calling to be children of God. Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark leads us directly there, so if you are not a part of the church or if you are considering Christianity, please know that this sermon is not directly intended for you. Hopefully, however, you will appreciate the information included within.

Let me begin by asking you: what is the church’s main purpose? What is the reason for the church on earth? At first, this might seem like the answer is obvious, at least to each and every one of us individually. But as you dig into this question and reflect upon it deeply, I think you will see that it is actually a very complicated question. I mean, if you really want to see just how complicated it is, those of you with computers, go home and Google the question, "What is the purpose of the church?" You will get a whole lot of responses. Some of them similar. Quite a few of them different. And as each author of each article begins to delve into the question, you will see a whole lot of non-negotiables:

The purpose of the church is to worship.
The purpose of the church is to care for those in need.
The purpose of the church is to make and train disciples.
The purpose of the church is to be the earthly representation of Jesus.
The purpose of the church is to be a place of prayer.
The purpose of the church it to provide a place where all are welcome.
The purpose of the church is to enact the kingdom of God on earth.

All of these are good, solid answers. They are theologically and biblically based. One can easily provide all kinds of support for these answers, and I certainly don’t want to demean any of them. They are all correct, but there is a danger that lurks behind all of them. There is a danger that creeps in and lures us away from the true purpose of the church on earth. That danger is our own selfish nature–a nature that emphasizes survival and security over everything else. What am I talking about?

For the last several weeks, we have traveled through the book of Mark, and every lesson that we have had before us has either been in or been about the temple. Jesus triumphally entered into the city of Jerusalem and then entered the temple. Because it was late, He went camping. The next day, Jesus cleansed the temple with a parallel encounter with a fig tree that was rotten from the inside out. The next day, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders asked Jesus by what authority He was doing these things. They asked Jesus that question while Jesus was teaching–in the temple. In each of these circumstances, lurking in the background was the Sanhedrin’s decision to turn the courtyard of the Gentiles into a marketplace thereby excluding the vast majority of the world’s population from worshiping the One, True, God. Jesus exposure of this travesty angered the Sanhedrin, and they wanted to put Jesus to death, and instead of trying to soothe hurt and damaged feelings, Jesus doubles down. He tells everyone a parable. A parable that riles the chief priests, scribes, and the elders even more.

Jesus begins, " ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed."

Now, this situation was not uncommon in the ancient world. We have discovered a great stash of legal papers in which landlords leased their lands to tenants and agreed upon receiving parts of the harvest as payment. We have also discovered many instances where tenants refused to pay their landlord, and they indeed mistreated the servants that landlords sent to retrieve their payments. Jesus is using real world situations to illustrate His point.

And the point has to do with the nature of the landlord–which we are pretty sure is a reference to God the Father; and the nature of the tenants–which are the Sanhedrin and other Jewish leaders. Mind you, this is not a parable directed at all the Jewish people. It is directed squarely at the Jewish religious authorities who have abandoned the purpose of the temple.

So, what does this parable say first about the nature of the landlord? Think about this for a moment: what would you do if you had leased a property to some renters and they refused to pay the rent? What would you do if you knew that they were reaping the benefits of living on your property without just repayment? What would you do if you sent someone on your behalf to collect the payment and your renters drove them off? How long would you wait before getting the authorities involved? How long would you wait before calling the police? How long would you wait before evicting your tenants? If you are like most people, you would have almost zero tolerance for such behavior. You would act quickly to prevent such abuse, but does this landlord do that? No. Not in the least. In fact, the landlord’s actions almost bespeak of major weakness. He is literally letting the tenants get away with murder. He does nothing except send more representatives. One might come to the conclusion that this landlord is daft.

And the tenants take advantage of this. The tenants are selfish and not only want all the proceeds of the vineyard. They want ownership of the vineyard themselves. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, "Villagers could take over land from an absentee landlord, if the villagers felt the landlord was too weak to enforce the claims." Think about that for a moment as you think about the fact that Jesus is comparing God the Father to this landlord. Think about that as you compare the actions of these tenants to the actions of the Sanhedrin in the temple. Think about the injustice being perpetrated by these tenants and the Sanhedrin. It should begin to make you angry.

We return now to the landlord. Again, we might think this landlord to be absolutely daft because even after all of His servants were beaten and killed, the landlord decides to send His only, beloved son. What Father in His right mind would do such a thing?!! I mean, if you were that landlord, would this thought ever cross your mind? Of course it wouldn’t. People would think you crazy. You would send a swat team, not your only, beloved child. But that is the difference between you and this landlord. The true Landlord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The True Landlord will go to great lengths to give the tenants a chance to pay–to honor their agreement. The True Landlord will take the chance that His only Son might meet with death because He is a Landlord unlike any other Landlord.

And the unthinkable happens. The tenants reject the Son; kill him; leave his body unburied and disgraced thinking they will now inherit the vineyard. Their thoughts aren’t totally unfounded. It is highly likely they thought the landlord dead when they recognized the son coming. They believed that, according to the laws of the land, if they killed the son and retained possession of the land, they would indeed inherit. Their plan was perfect.

But the Landlord was still around, and Jesus makes no bones about what will happen next. The tenants will be driven out and the vineyard given to others. It’s not a surprising outcome. Again, according to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, "Since the Law permits the son to act on behalf of his father, the legal definition of agency implies that dishonor and insult to the son would be equivalent to dishonoring the one who sends him." Think about that in light of the Sanhedrin’s questioning of Jesus’ authority last week. If Jesus’ authority indeed comes from God, then to reject Jesus’ authority is to reject the One who sent Him. This is the strongest condemnation possible for the religious leaders.

But here is the interesting part: in the parable, the Son is dead. The Father is still coming to enact judgement, so why does Jesus include the rest of His teaching? For Jesus quotes a portion of Psalm 118 directly, "22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."

Now, there are couple of things here that are of note. The first is the translation of the words "cornerstone" from the Greek. When we hear this word, we think of a stone at the corner of a foundation–the foundational stone, so to speak; however, the Greek doesn’t really fit that kind of a stone. The Greek, according to Craig Evans, is better translated as, "‘head of the corner’, which probably refers to either a capstone that completes an arch or a capital that sits atop a column or pinnacle of the building." Therefore, it is a stone above all other stones. It is the stone to which most attention is drawn. It is the stone that everyone looks at. This is an important point in light of the last statement, "That this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." What is so significant about this verse?

Again, Evans says, "Thaumastae, ‘marvelous’ suggests that God is accomplishing something against all odds, something completely unexpected, something that mortals cannot achieve apart from dvine assistance." Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about Jesus who is the Son sent by the Father. Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about the Son who is rejected and killed by the Jewish authorities–who is disgraced. What happens to Him? What happens to Jesus? He is lifted up; resurrected for all to see. Jesus becomes the chief stone, the cap stone, the stone above every other stone that all are to gaze upon.

Which takes us squarely to the purpose of the church today. I mean, I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out now, do you. The purpose of the church today is to point to Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to proclaim Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to lift up the name that is above all other names and tell the world what God has done through Jesus.

I hope that those of you who are sitting here this morning are saying to yourself right now, "Well, that’s obvious. Tell us something that we don’t know." I hope that you believe this is a no-brainer observation. I hope so, because the reality in most of our congregations is quite the opposite. The reality in our congregations is that we focus most of our attention and most of our arguing on things without even referencing Jesus.

Now, I want to be very clear here. I am not trying to get us away from doing things. As James writes in his letter, "Faith without works is dead." And there are those who are quick to point out a very important truth. It is worthless to go up to a hungry person and tell them, "Jesus loves you," while they are dying of hunger. They will immediately think that Jesus has no concern for their hunger–which simply is not true. However, let me ask you a couple of questions: without raising your hands, how many of you have given to some sort of charitable organization in the past month or so? My guess is that many of you have. Second question: how many of you have proclaimed the gospel and told someone about Jesus in the past month or so? I’d bet a good chunk of change that the number of hands would be far, far fewer. In fact, I’d say we have been trained to let our actions speak louder than words. In fact, you may have also heard that wonderful saying, "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words."

I’ve used that saying numerous times in the past. I no longer use it. Why? There was a brilliant illustration that the late preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones used when talking about the Gospel. He said: Imagine a king went off to war against an enemy that is threatening your country. If that king loses the battle, what does he send back? He sends back military advisors who say, "Archers over here, calvary over here, infantry over here. Get ready to fight for your lives." In other words, get ready to do everything you can. However, if the king wins the battle, he sends back heralds. They proclaim! They tell the good news, "The battle is done. The king has won. Live into the freedom!" The Gospel is literally translated "Good news." News is told. It is not lived. History is told. It is not lived.

What Jesus has done in bringing reconciliation with God is news. It cannot be lived. It must be told. Therefore, all we do must in some way, shape or form point to Jesus. Everything about our congregation, about our lives should lead people to look at the capstone, the head of the column, the stone that the builders rejected that became the chief cap stone. We must proclaim that the Lord has done this. We didn’t. We didn’t do anything. We have been saved by sheer grace. Humankind could never accomplish the salvation that was given through the cross of Jesus: 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."

This is the ultimate focus of the church and the reason it exists. Jesus is trying to convey just this to the religious leaders of His day. They reasoned that they were helping others by putting sacrificial animals on sale in the market place, but they were only truly helping themselves. Likewise, when we focus on being kind to visitors, having a lot of programming, keeping our grounds looking nice, giving through our community care fund, having perfect worship music, and all other sorts of things–FOR THE PURPOSE OF GETTING MEMBERS, then we too are working for and pointing to ourselves. Christianity is not about that. The church is not about that. We are not to be about that. We are called to point to and tell others about Jesus, and when we are pointing to Jesus; well, then we will be nice to visitors, have a lot of programming, keep our grounds looking nice, help others, worship well, and all sorts of things not for our own benefit, but for His. Amen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?

Yes, I know the statement is not usually followed by a question mark, but stick with me for a minute or two.

This morning, I saw a Facebook meme with St. Paul's quotation of this teaching from the book of Galatians chapter 5 verse 14, "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It is quite intriguing that in the midst of a diatribe against those who are trying to impose the Law upon others, Paul quotes the Law, is it not?  In fact, Paul is trying to walk a delicate balance in this book.  He is trying to show that because of what Jesus has done, we are free from the Law.  We are no longer under its discipline, but we certainly do not have a license to do whatever we please--"lest we devour one another."

Paul unflinchingly says in this book that the Law cannot bring life.  The Law cannot justify.  This is quite a telling statement given that "love your neighbor as yourself" is indeed a command, a law.  And this command cannot bring life.  It cannot bring justification.

I puzzled over this for a while this morning as I looked at that Facebook meme.  For the fulfillment of the law seems to be contingent upon how we love ourselves.  I mean, look at it carefully.  Love your neighbor as  you love  yourself. 

How do you love yourself? 

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

If you are like most in this world in which we live, you probably see one of two things:

1.  You see something despicable.  Don't stop reading.  Hear me out.  When you look at yourself and who you have become and compare it to what the rest of society says you should be; what you should look like; and how you should act, you see something despicable.  I mean, in my own case as a white male (depending upon which circles you run in), I should:

  • have a sense of guilt because of white, male privilege
  • have a six pack on my abs because I should be taking care of my body
  • have a six figure salary
  • have changed the world
  • be sensitive to those around me
  • be strong at all times
  • be the perfect father, husband, friend
  • work like a dog, but still have plenty of time for my wife and kids
Well, I have none of those things.  I am a tremendous failure.  If  you measure yourself by what society says you should be, you will have a great sense of that.  You will despise yourself, so how can you love others if you despise yourself?

2. Which leads to the second thing that you might feel when you look in the mirror.  You see someone who is fine just the way they are.  You don't care what the rest of the world says.  You are comfortable in your skin and see no need to change.  It is the rest of the world that needs to accommodate you not vice-versa. 

So, what is the problem with this?  Isn't that what we try to instill in our kids?  A sense of personal well being and satisfaction?  A sense that it doesn't matter what anyone says about you?  That you are perfect and deserving of love just as you are?  What is wrong with this?

This: a teacher I know spoke about two girls who had been caught shoplifting at a local store.  They were prosecuted and received probation.  Did they have any regret?  Did they feel any remorse for their actions?  No.  They laughed about it.  They blamed the store employee for turning them in.  They had done something, which in their eyes was harmless, and they felt nothing; no shame; nothing.  If you think you are fine just the way you are, this is the inevitable result: narcissism.  Complete self-centeredness.  And how can you love others when you are so completely and totally in love with yourself?  How can you practice the sacrifice loving another requires when you have no humility?

You can't.

Rarely does anyone get caught at the extremes of these positions.  Generally, we vacillate between the two poles: sometimes feeling down and depressed that we aren't who we should be; sometimes feeling we can take on the world; sometimes self-righteous that we have accomplished much; sometimes self-depreciating because we don't feel we have accomplished enough.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  Is there no end?

It reminds me of a poem one of my members wrote before he died. 

Take a look–I’ve got it all
A great wife, health
Bank account that’s not small
Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
that nestles underneath my saddle?
Is it the ebbing of the physical
or a flaw in my gear box?
Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
Or one last long squall before the water calms.
I wrestle with this wisp of unease
It pins me more than not
A twinge of craziness asks
Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
A captive in a cosmic joke?
A malcontent without a cause?
Is my chain being yanked because I care?
Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
But for whatever reason no solace there.
Is the question unanswerable?
A maddening changing of the guard
Truth unacceptable
An accelerating slide down a slope
To a place I don’t want to go.  --Mark Chapman

I remember vividly a few weeks before Mark had a massive stroke he spoke up when I asked for prayer requests from the congregation, "That we may come to understand the theology you are preaching."

This request came a few months in after a complete change in my preaching style: a change in focus from what we are supposed to do to what Jesus has already done.  A switch in pointing out what we should do to proclaiming the Gospel of grace.  For it is grace that changes a heart, ends the back and forth battle between despair and arrogance, and brings final fulfillment to the Law.

For you see, the Gospel states that you are an unmitigated failure.
It also says you are deeply loved.

The God who judges all has condemned you because you haven't fulfilled His commands.
The God who judges all has taken on human flesh to die for you because He deeply loves you.

You cannot become arrogant because you have failed.
You cannot despair because you are deeply loved.

You cannot love yourself too much because in God's eyes, you are unlovable.
You cannot love yourself too little because you are the apple of God's eyes.

Such a realization instills a deep, deep sense of humility.  No longer do you look upon your neighbor with contempt or pity.  You look upon them with love and mercy.  You know they are broken--just as you are broken.  You know that they are loved--just like you are loved.  You see that your neighbor is just like you; loved just like you, and you can indeed love them just as you are loved.

The fulfillment of this command cannot come by sheer force of will, it comes only through the grace of God shown through Jesus.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Second Class Religion

"Amid rising rhetoric and crimes against American Muslims, the White House in December broadcast a counter message about religious pluralism.  'There are no second-class faiths in the U.S.A.,' said Melissa Rogers, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships."  --Quoted from The Lutheran magazine, February 2016, page 6.

I find this article in the publication of my denomination a bit troubling.

One of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the Constitution in our nation is  the right of non-establishment of religion.  The government is prohibited from establishing any particular religious faith and requiring people to belong to it.  It is also, theoretically, prohibited from favoring one particular religion over another.  The first of these two ideals is quite easy to accomplish. The second is impossible, and even though it sounds good on paper, it should never be attempted.  There must be second class religions.  There must be favored religions over others.

That might sound exclusive to some.  It might sound arrogant to some.  It might sound unenlightened to some.  To those who would look down upon me for suggesting such a thing, I ask two questions.  If you say, in either question, that one religious expression is better than the other, then you have relegated one religious expression to second class status.  Keep that in mind as you read the questions:

Is the form of Islam adhered to by ISIS on the same level as the form of Islam practiced by most Muslims living in the United States?

Is the form of Christianity adhered to by the Klu Klux Klan on the same level as the form of Christianity practiced by Mother Teresa?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Submitting to Authority

       I remember working for the YMCA afterschool program during two of my years at seminary.  I was part of a staff that supervised children until their parents got off work and picked the kids up.  Inevitably, once a month or so, a kid would look me in the eye after I told them to do something and say, “You can’t tell me what to do.  You are not my parent!”

If you’ve ever worked in a situation with kids, you’ve probably been told the same thing.  It’s a question of authority.  The kid is basically saying, “You don’t have authority over me.  You don’t have the authority to tell me what to do.”

My response was pretty simple.  I’d look that kid straight in the eye and say, “Yep, you are right.  I am not your parent, but your parents paid me a lot of money to look after you and make sure you are safe.  Therefore, you will listen to me, and if you don’t like it, we will go and call your parents right now.”  That response always did the trick.  Never even had to pick up the phone.

Jesus didn’t necessarily have that luxury.  When His authority was questioned, He had to resort to quite a different method, but it was a method that worked.

Jesus and His disciples returned to the temple the day after Jesus upset the apple cart by turning over the tables of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals.  Remember, in the last two weeks, I explained how the chief priests had sought to tap into the lucrative market for selling such animals.  They had allowed merchants to set up in the only available space in the temple–the courtyard of the Gentiles thereby excluding the Gentiles from worshiping the one, true God.  Jesus exposed them for their blatant disregard of the commandments of God, their greed, and their desire to have the safety, security, and freedom that money can buy.  Jesus showed how the deepest desire of their hearts was not to introduce people to the God of Israel, but the god of wealth and riches.  But in exposing this, Jesus had crossed several man-made boundaries.

You see, when it came to activities done within the Temple, everything was cleared or sanctioned by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.  This group collectively was called the Sanhedrin.  Craig Evans says this about them in his biblical commentary, “The Sanhedrin had a broader legislative and judicial jurisdiction but the high priest and his ranking priestly associates possessed ultimate authority on the Temple Mount, an authority to which in many respects even the Romans deferred.”  Think about that for a second.  The Sanhedrin exercised such control over the temple grounds that even the Roman occupying forces generally left them alone.  That’s quite a bit of power.  That’s a lot of power, actually.

And the Sanhedrin exercised that power to the extent that they could literally take another person’s life for violating the temple rules.  Remember a couple of weeks ago, I spoke about a sign that was hung on the wall separating the Gentiles area of worship from the Jewish areas of worship.  That sign was printed in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin, and it read, “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple.  Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death.”  Nowhere that I know of in our nation is such a thing practiced.  I mean, I’ve known of situations in churches where people got really upset for moving a baptismal font or scandalized because someone suggested changing the color scheme or what have you, but I know of no church where someone was put to death for stepping on a particular rule.  The Sanhedrin could do exactly that!!

And Jesus didn’t exactly consult with the Sanhedrin when He entered into the temple and upset the marketplace.  Jesus didn’t consult with the Sanhedrin when He walked around the temple and taught people in the temple.  Jesus wasn’t following the proper procedures.  He hadn’t gotten permission.  So, a contingent from the Sanhdrin confronted Him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  By whose authority are you doing these things?”

At this point, you might wonder why the Sanhedrin was even asking these questions.  I mean, if they wielded so much power, why didn’t they just arrest Jesus and get it over with.  Remember, this was the festival of the Passover.  The city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims there to celebrate.  Jesus had endeared Himself to that crowd by his actions, so the Sanhedrin was afraid of the crowd.  They were afraid that if they did arrest Jesus, a riot would ensue.  If a riot ensued, then the Romans, who usually stayed out of temple business, would make it their business and perhaps remove them from power.  Fear is a tremendous motivator, and it causes you to be cautious.  The Sanhedrin was being very cautious hoping to trap Jesus with this question.  Again, we turn to Craig Evans for some insight here.  Evans says, “Either Jesus admitted his conduct was unauthorized, which would have made him publically vulnerable, or he claimed a right superseding that of the ruling priests, a claim that would have made him politically vulnerable.  In either case, his conduct would then have provided a basis for a more formal proceeding against him, without fear of the crowd.”

Jesus, of course, sees through the trap.  He knows the game.  But Jesus is a rabbi.  He is a teacher.  Everyone knows that, so in true rabbinic fashion, Jesus sets up a counterquestion.  “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?  Answer me.”  Jesus actually assumes a position of power when He asks this question.  The question itself is bad enough, but when Jesus says, “Answer me!!” it really comes across as borderline disrespectful.  It’s almost as though Jesus holds the Sanhedrin in contempt.  But there is a method to Jesus’ madness.  There is a reason behind what He says, and we will see that momentarily.

The representatives from the Sanhedrin begin arguing amongst themselves.  This is a very interesting comment that Mark includes.  I mean, think about this for just a second.  How would Mark know the inner discussions and inner arguments of this group of people?  They would not have argued this aloud because it would have been quite embarrassing.  How did Mark know what was said?  I want you to understand that Jesus did gain a following amongst those who had been on the Sanhedrin.  Mark tells us at the end of his Gospel that a respected member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and put it in his tomb.  Mark reports that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Jesus.  In all likelihood, we have the testimony of Joseph or another like him about these deliberations.  That’s kind of a side note, but I think a rather neat one.

These deliberations are important though.  They show us what the Sanhedrin is really concerned about.  We will actually deal with what they deliberate backwards because the former needs a little bit more attention than the latter.  The Sanhedrin does not want to say that John the Baptist was not from God because everyone believed John was a prophet.  The entire crowd would have stoned this group in a heart beat if they would have denied John’s calling.  Fear kept them from going down that route.

Which only left them one other alternative.  They would have had to admit that John’s teaching was indeed from divine origin.  They don’t want to do that because they know Jesus will respond, “Well, then why didn’t you believe him?”  This is where we must take a little bit of time because we need to understand what John the Baptist was proclaiming.  John the Baptist was not just proclaiming, “Turn your life around.  Get right with God.”  That’s only part of what John was about.  Let’s turn back several chapters in the book of Mark and hear once again the proclamation of John the Baptist:

From Mark chapter 1: 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

John’s proclamation centered on Jesus as the promised Messiah.  John’s proclamation pointed to Jesus!!!  If the Sanhedrin admitted that John’s ministry came from God, then they must admit that Jesus is from God as well!!  They must admit that Jesus is the Messiah!!  They must admit that Jesus’ authority supersedes their authority and that everything Jesus did in the Temple was by divine right!!!

And there was no way on God’s, green earth they were going to do that.  There was no way they were going to admit that this Jesus who had just exposed them for the frauds they were, was indeed from God.  Their pride was too full.  Their self-righteousness was too great.  They were not going to allow this upstart to dethrone them from their positions of power and prestige and wealth.  They were not going to admit that Jesus had more authority than they did.

And so they copped out.  They took the easy way out.  They came back with the answer that is not an answer.  “We don’t know.”   That is a load of B.S.  They knew.  They just didn’t want to admit.  And they would rather face a bit of public embarrassment than submit themselves to Jesus.  Evans once again puts it this way:

Ostensibly there to protect the temple as God’s house from arbitrary acts of unauthorized persons and to take action against such persons, these representatives of the Sanhedrin and the ranking priests show their true colors.  Rather than defend the temple, they protect themselves.  In doing so they betray their own selfish concerns and their inability to respond to and for God, who confronts them in the persons of John and Jesus.  Their answer demonstrates their unbelief.  At the very least, their admission “we do not know” if taken at face value is an embarrassing surrender of the field.  If their admission is not taken at face value but is recognized for the dodge that it is, then it is an embarrassing public display of cowardice.

So Jesus responds appropriately to such cowardice, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  You know, I heard several comments about what Jesus says here, and most of them leave me with a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  Several folks spoke about how Jesus washes His hands of the Sanhedrin.  They talked about how Jesus reached the limits of His desire to bring them over to faith.  I’m not sure these folks are correct.  I think this comment is simply Jesus not giving the Sanhedrin what they desire–He’s not going to fall into their trap this easily and give them an out.  I believe that Jesus still desires to bring the members of the Sanhedrin to faith.  I believe that Jesus still desires to bring these folks into a relationship with Himself.  I believe that Jesus wants to help them submit to His authority–the same authority He wants you and I to submit to as well.

You see, we all submit to some sort of authority.  Whether we like it or not, we all answer to something greater than we are.  Oh, we like to think that we are free–that no one or nothing tells us what to do or how to do it.  We like to think that we make our own way that we have nothing putting limits on what we can achieve.  We like to think that we are our own bosses.  But it is nothing more than a delusion.  We are enslaved to authority, and many times we don’t even recognize it.

You might think me daft, but let’s think this through for a moment or two, shall we.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, walk away from your job tomorrow.  Just quit.  Take some time to enjoy life.  How many of you would actually do that?  Probably very few.  Why?  Because you have bills to pay.  You need the income.  You might get your house taken away.  Or your car.  Or your future.  You might be able to do okay for a while, but things would change very fast after that.  You know you cant just quit.  You are under the authority of the money you make to keep the lifestyle you have.  You are submitting to the authority of your lifestyle.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, refuse to pay your taxes this April.  You are submitting to the authority of the federal government.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, go slap the other political candidate that is running for office and tell him or her they have no business doing what they are doing.    You are submitting to the laws of this land.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, throw your cell phone away.  Need I say more about that one?

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, go stand up in downtown Houston and announce that you are either for or against gay marriage.  Not going to?  Afraid you will get confronted by one side or the other?  You are submitting to the authority of societal pressures.

Need I go on?  Need I continue to lay out how we submit to authority all over the place?  Need I tell you that you are not free?  The only question that we must answer as we go through life is which authority we will end up submitting to.  The only question that we must answer is which authority we will give our ultimate allegiance to.

And Jesus wants that authority.  Jesus wanted that authority from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders.  Jesus wants that authority from us.  But like those chief priests, scribes and elders, we believe we have too much at stake.  We believe we are better off not fully submitting to Jesus.  We believe we are freer as we are now that we would be with all those rules and regulations Jesus will impose upon us.  And so we pridefully make up all kinds of excuses.  We decide to reserve judgement.  We put ourselves in embarrassing situations because we think submitting to Jesus is the worst thing we could possibly do.

But here is one thing that Jesus will do for you that no other authority will.  Here is one thing Jesus will freely take upon Himself when every other authority will reject you.  You see, of all the authorities that are out there, Jesus will die for you even if you hate Him.  Jesus will die for you even if you reject Him.  Jesus will take your place and face your punishment without a smidgen of regret.  In fact, that’s exactly what He did for you on the cross nearly 2000 years ago.  Every other authority will turn its back on you, punish you, or leave you high and dry because those authorities demand absolute allegiance from you.  They demand you honor them at great cost to you.  But if you reject Jesus’ authority, He will continue to love you and wait patiently for the day you turn to Him.  He does this because He wants you to freely choose Him; to freely take upon yourself His burden; to freely submit to His authority without regret.  And to earn that, He doesn’t make empty promises.  He says, “I have already done for you everything.  I have already died for you.  I have already been raised for you.  I have already redeemed you.  I have already loved you, and that love will never fail.  I have paid a great price for you, and when you submit to me, all the other authorities in your life will have no hold over you.  Sure, you will live in this world.  You will need money and a home and food and clothing and a cell phone and law and order and government, but these things will no longer rule your heart.  I will.  And you will find that under me, you have freedom, and peace and security and safety because you know my great love.”

For love is central to Jesus’ authority–a deep and abiding love that is poured out for you and for me.  This is why the Gospel in a nutshell is summed up by John 3:16-17.  “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.”  May your heart be moved to submit to Jesus’ authority, for in it you will find freedom.  Amen.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Would You Want to Move a Mountain?

Last Sunday, I preached on the first part of this passage from the book of Mark, and I emphasized how Jesus looked deep into the core of the fig tree and deep into the heart of the Temple system and found them to be rotten.  The fig tree should have been producing paggim, the Hebrew term for small figs that sprout even before the leaves.  It wasn’t.  Therefore, it was a bad tree.  Jesus cursed it because it was taking up valuable soil in the arid Middle-East.

Likewise, when Jesus entered into the Temple, He overturned tables and prevented the buying and selling because the chief priests and the scribes had allowed their greed and desire for the safety, security, and freedom that money could by override the purpose of the temple.  The chief priests and the scribes had turned the Courtyard of the Gentiles into a marketplace preventing the vast majority of the world’s people from being able to worship and pay their respects to the God of Israel.  As I quoted N.T. Wright last week, so I do again, “The Temple had been intended to symbolize God’s dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world; the way Jesus’ contemporaries had organized things, it had come to symbolize not God’s welcome to the nations but God’s exclusion of them.”

The next day, Jesus and His disciples pass by the fig tree that Jesus cursed the day before.  Peter takes note because the fig tree is withered from the root up.  Peter points this out to Jesus, and the symbolism is clear: when you are rotten at the core, you will wither and die.

And, of course, no one really likes to think that they are rotten at the core. We’d all like to believe we are good and gracious in our hearts.  But that is generally not the case.  Sure, we may be kind to others.  We may do a lot of good.  We may try to be moral and upright and worship regularly and give to charity, and the like. We may look very good on the outside, but what really counts is our heart’s motivation for doing the things we are doing.  It is our hearts that God is really interested.  It is our hearts that Jesus wishes to turn into temples of the Living God.  The fig tree looked good on the outside, but it wasn’t good after all.  The temple looked good on the outside, but it wasn’t good at all.  For the most part, we could say the same thing about our hearts.

Last week, I talked about the Powerball and how millions of people spent billions of dollars in search of the safety and security and freedom that money supposedly would buy, but money is just one of the things that we believe will give us such things.  In the exact same vein, I would like to now turn to politics.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to be pushing any candidate or ideology, but I want to show how politics and Powerball are related.  If you listen to the debates and the candidates’ speeches, there is a common thread that runs through them all: this is how I promise to keep you safe; this is how I promise to keep money in your pocket and get you jobs; this is how I promise to make this country a better place for you to live so that you don’t have to worry about the future.  Each candidate has a plan which basically seeks to secure these things in exchange for your vote, and while trying to appeal to your self-interest in this manner, each candidate also appeals to fear in trying to show how the other candidate will not keep you as safe, as secure, as wealthy, etc., etc.  Politicians appeal to the exact same things the Powerball appeals to.

And there are other things.  Whether it is the appeal of sexuality, the empowerment of possessions, the acquisition of knowledge, or what have you, the objects of desire are safety, security, and freedom.  We all crave these things at a very deep level.  And we put our trust in myriads of things thinking they will give us all these things.  Money demands our trust.  Politicians demand our trust.  Education demands our trust.  Science demands our trust. The economy demands our trust. Sex demands our trust.  Each promises fulfillment.  Each woos us continuously.  And if we pursue them as our deepest heart’s desire, we will end up dead.

Let’s turn to these final verses to see how this works.  For after Peter points out the withered fig tree to Jesus, a very interesting set of teachings come forth from Jesus’ mouth.  Jesus doesn’t make any straightforward appeal to the disciples to change their ways.  He doesn’t tell them, “You’d better not be like the fig tree or the people in the temple.”  Such commentary would make the disciples tremble in fear.  Instead, Jesus begins talking about prayer.  It seems out of place, but it is not.  Here’s why:

Jesus first says, “‘Have faith in God.  Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

Now, let me first be clear about what it means when Jesus says, “Have faith in God.”  Jesus is not saying simply, “Believe in God.”  Faith indeed has a component of belief–thinking with your head that God exists, but faith is much, much deeper than that.  Faith is trusting in God with your entire being.  Here’s the difference I am trying to illustrate.  Let’s go back to politics for just a moment.  Think about the candidate you are NOT voting for.  Got that candidate in your head?  First question: do you believe that candidate exists?  Second question: do you trust him or her?  Do you see the difference?  Faith in God is not simply assenting that God exists.  Faith in God means you cast your vote in with God.  You trust that He will provide exactly as He says He will provide and do as He says He will do.  It has a tremendous impact on your entire life.

This is why Jesus follows up with the statement, “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”  Think about this for just a moment.  If you trust in yourself to cast a mountain into the sea, what will happen?  First, off that mountain isn’t going very far, is it?  But, let’s get even more technical, because is it possible for you to begin shoveling one pile of dirt at a time and taking it to the sea?  Is it possible for you to remove one rock at a time and put it into the sea?  Of course it is.  How long would it take you?  Of course, it would depend upon the size of the mountain, but in all reality, you would probably die before you finished.  So, why not pay someone to move the mountain?  Imagine doing that.  Again, how much would it cost you?  How many years would you have to be enslaved to the dollar to have that mountain moved for you?  You would probably die before you could save or earn enough.  If you are trusting in yourself to have that mountain moved, you will not get it very far.  But if you trust in God, things are different.

But there is a catch here.  Jesus is very clear: if you do not doubt in your heart.  In other words, if you trust God with your entire heart, this can and will be done for you.  Let me ask you this question, do you trust God with your whole heart?  Be honest and truthful.  You know, I had several college professors and seminary professors who railed against pastors who told people that they needed to trust God and have total belief in God and they would be healed.  They said that when people were not healed, their trust in God would be damaged; therefore, we should never preach and tell people they needed to believe without doubt.  Well, I’m going to disagree with my professors.  I’m going to tell you that if you truly believed–again, in the sense of trusting–in God with your whole heart, whatever you asked would be given to you.  But before you go out and ask God to move a mountain or let you win the next Powerball, I’m going to confront you and ask you this–what reasons do you have for wanting to move that mountain or win that Powerball?  What are the motivations of your heart?  Are those motivations in line with trusting God?

Let me push this a little deeper with Jesus’ next comment because it is intimately related.  However, I’m going to offer up a little different translation that what you have from the New Revised Standard Version.  The original Greek would probably be better translated this way, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  Again, I want you to think about this from the aspect of trusting God rather than trusting in money or politicians or what have you.  For instance, if you believed that you already won the Powerball, would you go out and buy a ticket?  I’m waiting for the answer on that one. :-) If you believed that your political candidate already won, would you go around smearing the other one?  Of course, both of those questions are a bit superficial, so let’s dig down to the root causes that I outlined earlier: if you already believed that you had obtained safety, security, and freedom, how would that change your prayer?  How would that change your life?  If the Jewish authorities were trusting in God for their safety, security, and freedom to worship, would they have ever opened a marketplace in the courtyard of the Gentiles?  You know the answer.  If you were trusting in God for your livelihood, would you need to tell a mountain to move?  Would you need to buy a Powerball ticket?  Would you worry about which politician won the election?  Of course, you wouldn’t.  You would trust fully and completely in God, and you would know that He provides you with safety.  He provides you with security.  He provides you with freedom.  You have already received riches beyond your wildest dreams!

Ah, but you and I sure don’t act that way, do we?  You and I sure don’t live that kind of life, do we?  We still worry and fret.  We still try to obtain money and worldly goods.  We buy guns to ensure our safety.  We get worked up about elections.  We complain about who gets richer and who gets poorer.  We are never satisfied.

Jesus concludes with a statement that seems even more unrelated than the previous two: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have something against someone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.”  Why, all of a sudden, do we go from praying and believing we already have received to the thought of forgiveness?  Why does Jesus even insert this here?  What is this all about?

Now, we actually come to the crux of this teaching. We come to the crux of the lesson of the fig tree.  We come to the crux of Jesus’ actions in the temple.  Forgiveness is at the heart of why Jesus came to earth.

We are never satisfied because we do not trust God with our whole heart.  We become greedy because we do not trust God with our whole heart.  We become anxious about the future because we do not trust God with our whole heart.  And nothing we do will make us trust God more.  Let me say that again: nothing we do will make us trust God more.

Let me illustrate this with a story about my kids.  For the longest time, my kid would not jump into a swimming pool on their own.  They had to jump to me.  Each kid was the same.  They were afraid to go under the water.  They were afraid they wouldn’t pop up.  I would stand in the water and tell them, “Jump.”  And they wouldn’t jump.  They would look at the distance between the edge of the pool and me.  They would calculate whether or not they thought it was safe.  And if they figured it wasn’t, there was no amount of cajoling I could do.  There was no amount of reassurance I could give.  There was no amount of exhortation I could offer.  The kids wouldn’t jump until I moved toward them.  Until I broke down the distance between the two of us, the kid was going to stand at the edge of the pool wanting to come in, but too scared to actually commit.  I had to close the gap.  I had to show them I would catch them.  I had to help them know I would not drop them and they were safe leaping into my arms.  It actually cost me very little other than a bit of energy to do this, but imagine the gap between God and man.  Imagine the distance between the creator of the universe and His creation.  Imagine then that as we who are created look around the world and see the violence and hatred and animosity we have toward one another.  Imagine how we see an uncertain future.  Imagine how we see the fragility of life.  Imagine we see how quickly what we have can be taken.  And imagine God saying, “Just trust me.”  Do you know how difficult that really and truly is?  Do you know how it simply goes against nearly everything our hearts and minds actually tell us?  We would rather buy Powerball tickets.  We would rather put our trust in politicians. We would rather work to buy our happiness and joy.  It seems less fearful.  It’s easier to trust in ourselves and the things that we can see.

And so, our heavenly Father must look at us and say, “Why don’t they trust me?  Why don’t they see what I have given them?  Why do they not believe I will care for them?  Why are their hearts so far away?”  Our actions break our Father’s heart, so rather than compel us and punish us for not putting our trust in Him, He forgives us and then moves toward us.  He bridges the gap to earn our trust, to capture our hearts, not with a crown but with a cross.

For it is on that cross that true forgiveness is given.  It is on that cross where true trust is earned.  For Jesus, the God made flesh, laid down His life for you and me when we did not trust Him.  Jesus offered Himself as the true sacrificial lamb to take away our self-centeredness; our desire to trust in ourselves rather than in God.  He stretched out His arms and said, “Look at the lengths I will go for you to love you, to catch you, to bring you unto myself.  I will die for you, and those aren’t just words.  I really am dying for you.”

If someone goes to those kinds of lengths for you, what does that do to your heart?  If someone lays down His life for you with no questions asked, would you trust them?  Would you believe they will offer what they say they will offer?  Would your heart be captured by that kind of love?

When it is, your heart is indeed changed.  You still know that you are in this world.  You still know this world needs a lot of work.  You still know that you need money to live; that you need safety and security; that you want freedom, but you know also where it is truly found.  It’s found in Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fact, Belief, and Truth

If you read through the comments in my Reader's Challenge post, you will see something quite interesting.

I think, I am trying to discuss a fact.

Carl is trying to talk about belief.

The two things are very different.

I stated in one of my sermons that Christianity is unique because it alone of all religions and philosophies states that salvation and the satisfaction of justice comes not through any actions of humankind, but solely through the actions of God.

This is a statement of fact.  It can be falsified rather easily.  If there is another religion that proclaims this, then my statement is untrue.  My statement is not narrow, if it is true anymore than the statement two plus two is four is not narrow.  It is simply a fact.

Beliefs are another matter.  Beliefs are not easily falsified.  For instance:

Christianity claims/believes that Jesus is God in flesh.  Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement and was raised from the dead.

Islam claims/believes that Jesus was a prophet; he was not the Son of God; he didn't really die therefore was not raised from the dead.

These are two completely contradictory beliefs/claims.

Either they are both false or one is correct.  They both cannot be true.  You cannot say that Jesus was the Son of God and he wasn't the Son of God.  You cannot say that Jesus was raised from the dead and he was not raised from the dead.  Factually, this is impossible.

Similarly, the most basic difference between atheists and theists is the following:

Theists believe there is something beyond this physical universe.

Atheists believe there is nothing beyond this physical universe.

One of these statements is true.  The other is false.  They cannot both be true.

The question is: which one is ultimately true?

The answer is: we don't know for certain.

There is no way to scientifically test whether or not Jesus was the Son of God or if he was raised from the dead.  There is no way to scientifically test what is beyond this physical universe.  You can only make that decision based upon how you read evidence and which authorities you trust.

If you trust that Mohammed is Allah's prophet and his words are true, you will be a Muslim and believe Jesus is not God's Son and that he was not raised from the dead.
If you trust the biblical witness you will be a Christian and believe that Jesus is the Son of God and was raised from the dead.
If you look at the evidence and conclude there is nothing beyond this physical universe, you will be an atheist.
If you look at the evidence and conclude there is something beyond this physical universe, you will be a theist.

There is plenty of room to argue the evidence for these matters.  There is plenty of room for open dialogue and discussion of these things.  Facts can be laid out.  Arguments can be made for the authority of the Koran or the Bible.  Evidence can be pointed out for something outside the universe, and evidence can be pointed out for the non-existence of something outside this universe. Weaknesses of arguments can be pointed out.  Such things can be done because we are dealing with beliefs--points which can be disputed.

But you cannot dispute a fact.
You can show your ignorance.
You can pretend the fact does not exist.
You can uncover evidence to prove that what was thought was fact was indeed wrong.  (Science progresses in just this fashion!)

But in the absence of such evidence, you must admit that a fact is true.

2+2=4
Islam and Christianity have very different beliefs about who Jesus is.
Atheists and Theists have very different understandings about what lies beyond this physical universe.
And Christianity is unique among world religions and philosophies in that it claims that salvation and the satisfaction of justice are brought about by God's action alone and not by our own.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Powerball, Fig Trees, Temples, Curses, and the Relevance of Christianity (Part 1)

I sometimes marvel at how some say that the Christian faith needs to be made relevant to our day and age.  After all, these folks argue, the main events of Christianity happened nearly 2000 years ago.  How can it still be relevant to what is going on today?  Such things make me scratch my head in wonder because Christianity isn’t simply a system and code of ethics–it runs much deeper as it seeks to address the fundamental problem with human nature.  And, I would argue that human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 2000 years in the least.  How so?

Well, let’s start by hitting the biggest headlines of this past week–the headlines that threw most of our nation into a frenzy.  I am talking Powerball.  I mean, millions of people were throwing billions of dollars at the chance to win an absolutely huge amount of cash.  The thought of 1.5 billion dollars captivated the thoughts and hearts of many people.  Why?  Why did the thought of obtaining such a huge amount of money hit so many people?

I think most of us know the answer to that question.  Despite the cliche that “money can’t buy everything,” we still act like it can.  I mean, as a nation, we are a slave to our pocketbooks.  Most of us think we never have enough.  Most of us think, “If I just had more money, everything would be okay.  I would be able to buy the things I want.  Do the things I want to do.  Not have to be beholden to any one or any thing.”  Now, I want to be clear, there are those who do not fall into this trap.  There are those who have gotten past such things, but that’s not everyone–not by a long shot.  In fact, remember, the payout on the Powerball is based upon how many people have bought tickets.  That means 1.5 billion is a small percentage of what people actually spent to obtain tickets.  That means people spent billions and billions of dollars on this scheme, and the real winners are the states who have put together the lottery.  Oops.  Did I just name the state as also wanting money and desiring money to do all sorts of things?  Yes, I guess I just did.  So, what is happening here?  Individuals are captivated by the dollar.  States and governments are captivated by the dollar.  Individuals, corporations, governments, and the like are all captivated by the dollar.  And no one seems to be satisfied with what they have.  They all want more.

Let’s break for a moment and see just how Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree and his cleansing of the temple tie in with this just beautifully.  Let’s look and see how the Bible is still as relevant to today as it was when Jesus walked the earth.

Last week, we saw Jesus enter into Jerusalem hailed as the Messiah–the King of the Jews.  We saw how Jesus walked into the temple, looked around, and as the hour was late, walked out and went camping.  It was kind of anti-climatic, and I talked last week how Jesus was interested in a different temple and a different throne–the temple of our hearts and the throne of the cross.  Today, we see just how Jesus begins to make that clear in His teaching and His actions.

In the morning, Jesus and His disciples are headed back to Jerusalem, and Jesus gets hungry.  He sees a fig tree in the road ahead that is all leafed out.  Jesus approaches the tree in hopes of finding a bite to eat, but when He gets to the tree, there is no fruit.  The gospel writer Mark the tells us, “it was not the season for figs.”  Perhaps, much to our surprise, Jesus invokes a curse on this fig tree.  “May no one ever eat from you again.”  What has happened to Jesus?  Has He suddenly been overcome by natural human emotion and anger?  Shouldn’t the Son of God have known it wasn’t the time for figs?  Why curse this poor, little tree for not having figs when it wasn’t supposed to?

Now, if you don’t know anything about fig trees or the ancient Jewish culture, you would think exactly that.  You would think Jesus positively cruel and petty.  But there is more than meets the eye here.  Personally, I wouldn’t have known such things without doing a bit of homework, but here is what I discovered in my studies this week.  You see, fig trees actually have two times when they bear fruit.  They actually begin producing their first crop of fruit before they leaf out in the spring.  This fruit is called paggim in Hebrew.

Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says in his commentary about this encounter:

After the fig harvest from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter.  These buds swell into small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim in March-April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf buds on the same branches, usually in April.  The fig tree thus produces fig knops before it produces leaves.  Once a fig tree is in leaf one therefore expects to find branches loaded with paggim in various stages of maturation.  This is implied in 11:13 where Jesus, seeing a fig tree in full foliage, turns aside in hopes of finding something edible.  In the spring of the year the paggim are of course not ripened into mature summer figs, but they can be eaten, and often are by natives.  (Hosea 9:10, Cant 2:13) The tree in v. 13 however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage, but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit, but with no fruit.

And what kind of tree is it that bears signs of fruit but has no fruit?  Well, let me rephrase the question: what good is a fig tree that leafs out and looks beautiful but produces no fruit?  You know the answer.  It’s a worthless tree–especially in an arid, rocky climate like Palestine.  Jesus knows by the lack of fruit that this tree is rotten.  There is something wrong with it.  On the outside, it looks great, but on the inside, it is no good.  “May no one ever eat fruit of you again.”

Is it any coincidence then, that immediately following this encounter with the fig tree, we move to the Temple?  Well, it really isn’t.  For the two stories are intimately related.  The Temple of Jerusalem at this time was a thing of beauty.  It took up roughly 1/3 of the entire city of Jerusalem.  The stones were massive. The columns were huge.  It was the center of Jewish worship and life.  Throngs of pilgrims visited every year–not only Jews, but Gentiles as well.  Jesus looks at what is going on in the Temple, and blows a fuse.  He enters into the temple and disrupts the sacrificial system overturning tables, scattering coin, and preventing people from bringing any sort of goods into the temple.  The question is why?

I mean, when I was in college, I took a class on Judaism, and the professor, who was Jewish was apologetic toward the buying and selling that was going on in the Temple.  After all, the rabbi argued: the Bible was very clear on what kind of animals needed to be used for sacrifice.  The Bible was also very clear about what kind of money could be used to pay your temple tax and give your tithe.  The sellers and money changers were providing a service to the people who were there to sacrifice.  The fact that they would make a little bit of money off the sales and exchanges was just good business.  Jesus really didn’t need to get so angry and disruptive!

I can appreciate my professor’s need to defend the practices of those within his faith, especially in a Christian college environment.  But my professor left off a few details–details that I only came across this past week in my studies.  William Lane, in his commentary points out that the selling of sacrificial animals in the temple was not a long-standing practice.  Historical evidence shows that the buying and selling of sacrificial animals in the Temple was begun by the High Priest Caiaphas sometime around 30 A.D.–which, coincidentally(?) is right around when Jesus began His public ministry.  Why would Caiaphas institute such buying and selling in the Temple?  There was really no need considering that there were four certified market places for the selling of sacrificial animals right outside the city of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.  Why sell animals in the Temple when there were perfectly good markets right outside of town?

Well, think about this for a moment: during Passover, hundreds of thousands of Jews made their way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices.  That’s a lot of sheep, goats, and doves to be offered.  That’s a load of animals that needed to be bought.  Why shouldn’t the Temple benefit from those sales?  Wouldn’t it be good business for the Temple authorities to allow businesses to come in and set up shop to sell their animals–especially if the Temple authorities charged a fee or received a portion of the sales money to line their pockets?  Doesn’t this make economic sense for the Temple?  You would think so, but remember this: the priests actually got paid by receiving a part of the sacrifice that was offered.  The priests therefore, during Passover had more than enough meat and leather and such to sell and gain income.  The priests were rolling in dough, but they wanted more.

So they allowed merchants to set up shop in the Temple.  Of course, there was only one place for these merchants to set up: the courtyard of the Gentiles.  Please remember, the Temple was set up in tiered layers for worship.  First, you had the court of the Gentiles where all people were allowed to worship.  Second, you had the court of women where ritually cleansed women were allowed to worship.  Then you had the court of Jewish men.  Finally you had the court of the priests which surrounded the Holy of Holies where only one person was allowed to enter once per year.  Now, think about that tiered system, and then think about which layer you would use–as a Jew if you were going to allow the buying and selling of animals.

Of course, you are going to use the court of the Gentiles.  It’s the largest area, and it’s also the “least important” area for Jews.  Who cares about the Gentiles who have come to worship and pray.  They are the least of all in God’s eyes.  The Jewish people were of the most import–after all, they were the chosen ones.  This was reinforced by signs that appeared on a wall separating the courtyard of the Gentiles from the rest of the Temple.  Mark Edwards says again, “The sanctuary was separated from the Court of the Gentiles by a wall, called Soreq, on which the following warning was posted at intervals in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic: “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple.  Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death.”

Think about this for a moment.  Think about the attitude expressed on that sign. Think about the attitude the Temple authorities had toward the Gentiles by setting up a marketplace in the only place they were allowed to worship.  Does it sound like they were really trying to get people to worship God?  Do these actions really show that the Temple authorities had a heart for helping people–even foreigners come to know the living God?  No.  Not in the least.  As N.T. Wright said, “The Temple had been intended to symbolize God’s dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world; the way Jesus’ contemporaries had organized things, it had come to symbolize not God’s welcome to the nations but God’s exclusion of them.”  Is it any wonder why Jesus goes berserk? This Temple, which was supposed to be a house of prayer for all people had just been commandeered to take money from those selling sacrificial animals on the Mount of Olives and exclude the vast majority of the world’s people from praying in a holy place.  Den of thieves indeed!

And, of course, Jesus’ actions were a direct assault on the Temple authorities.  They were a direct condemnation and judgement of their actions, so they sought to kill Him.  Jesus had dared challenge them.  Yet, in reality, Jesus had just exposed them.  The wonderful, beautiful Temple, had just been exposed as a profiteering scheme instead of a place of worship.  And when you are exposed as committing great wrong, you either admit your mistake or silence the one who is pointing out your mistake.  The Temple authorities made no bones about what they intended, but they feared the crowd because the crowd knew Jesus was right.

The next day, Jesus and His disciples are walking by the fig tree, and Peter notices that the tree is withered and dead.  “Look,” Peter exclaims. “The tree that you cursed is withered from the roots up.”

There is an obvious lesson here.  The fig tree and the temple share the same problem.  From the root, it is bad.  From the root, both will wither.  Both may have looked great from the outside, but once the inner workings were revealed, they were found to be corrupt.  And that corruption will lead to death.

I wish I could tell you this morning that such corruption does not affect you and I, but that whole lottery think this past week proves otherwise.  We too are corrupt within.  We too are rotting from within.  We too have put our trust in external things and do not depend upon God.  We too work to make sure our outside looks great, but we hide the inner workings of our hearts and personal lives to disguise our own short comings.

Let me point at myself here using the example of the lottery.  You see, I remember very well the first time I played the lottery.  It was in my hometown, and I bought a scratch off ticket.  It was a football themed one, and I actually won $20.  So, what did I do?  I cashed the ticked and resolved to give the money to the church.  Sounds very cool from the outside, doesn’t it.  Well, let me reveal to you the inner workings of my heart.

You see, I figured if I showed God how generous I was; if I showed God that I was going to give these first fruits to Him; then He would let me win more.  Of course, I would give some of those winnings to Him, but I would keep the vast majority for myself.  I had some really selfish motives because I was centered on myself.  I wanted the safety, security, and freedom that money could by, and I was going to use God to get it.  Is it any wonder why I rarely won anything more than a dollar whenever I tried to play the lottery after that?

You see, human nature doesn’t change much.  Even after thousands of years, hearts still do not change.  Hearts still want the safety, security, and freedom that money buys.  The false idol of money still rules over many, many hearts.  The question is, if the false god of safety, security, and freedom that money can buy rules the temple of our hearts, and Jesus wants to be in that temple Himself.  How can He displace that false god?  How can He make sure we know that we have safety, security and freedom without money?

Well, next Sunday, we will delve into this as we deal with those last few verses.  Those verses will lead us straight to the cross and to God’s wonderful love that He showed there through Jesus.  We will hear the Good News that, “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.”  We will see how this news cleanses our hearts and gives us even more than money can buy.  Amen.