Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: The Birth of a Child Changes Everything

    A couple of weeks ago as I was listening to an Advent Sermon, I heard a pastor make a very interesting point.  I won’t quote him exactly, but the point was this: the most tragic thing that can happen to us during the Christmas season is that we will not be changed by anything that goes on.  His point was well taken.  I mean, think about it: during this time of year, we especially emphasize peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.  We talk about joy.  We proclaim a spirit of giving instead of getting.  Even in those places in life where they try to exclude religion or at least minimize it tremendously, these things are talked about.  I mean, I’ve been attending my kids’ school Christmas programs for the past five years, and all of the programs have something about peace, love, and joy–and nearly all of them were completely secular.

    We talk a good talk about such matters during the Christmas season, but how many of us are truly changed by our experiences this time of year?  How many of us live a completely different life?  Have a completely different attitude?  Really and truly have a sense of peace throughout the year?  Really and truly have goodwill toward all of our fellow man?  Really and truly have hearts that leap for joy each and every day?  Anyone here willing to admit that they have experienced such a change and have had it last for a whole year?  Month?  Week?  Even a day?

    I’m not counting too many hands, and the question I have is why?  Why don’t we change?  Why don’t we have that sense of peace and goodwill?  Why aren’t we filled with joy? 

    The Christian faith has an answer to that question, and it is not necessarily an answer we like to hear.  However, the answer Christianity proclaims must be said because it has also been said by many philosophers and scientists throughout the generations.  If you listen very carefully–despite what some in society would say–the answer proclaimed by Christianity and by various philosophers and scientists is: we are simply too self-centered to have peace, goodwill, and joy. 

    Biologists tell us that the way the world evolves and moves is by genetic mutation and natural selection.  Those are fancy words to say that life changes by our genes being changed deep within AND by survival of the fittest.  The strongest survive.  And, if in nature the strongest survive, then we are forced to get stronger or manipulate the process for our own benefit.  Even deeds of kindness are not done for kindness sake: they are done out of our need to keep from being trampled by the strong.

    Nietzsche, the philosopher who laid most of the groundwork for the transitions and upheavals in contemporary society said that all people have a will to power.  All people are working for their own benefit–to further their own stations and situations in life.  This is the main driving force for all decisions; all institutions; all philosophies and religions.  It is a self-centered process innate in all beings.

    Christianity says that we are infected with original sin.  Going back into the very beginnings of creation, man and woman chose to live for themselves apart from God. Instead of submitting to the Creator, they chose to be like the Creator knowing good and evil for themselves.  They did not want God telling them what to do.  They wanted to do things on their own.  Self-centered.

    And when you are self-centered, you will never be at peace.  You will never have goodwill toward all men.  You will never be full of joy.  You will always be looking over your shoulder and comparing yourself to others.  You will always want one more thing.  You will be angry when others disagree with you and will not conform to your way of thinking.  You will become more and more fearful about circumstances in life, and hold others in contempt when they do not meet your standards. 

    If you have listened to my words this far, I think you can see that what I am talking about is exactly what is happening in much of our society today.  People are self-righteous.  People are more interested in what they can get than what they can give.  People hold the opposing viewpoint in contempt.  People are angry.  People are frustrated.  And nothing is really going to change.

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news in that regard, but it is the truth.  Things just aren’t going to change, especially with people trying to get people to change by pointing fingers and yelling and screaming that their positions are ignorant, stupid, asinine, idiotic, and the like.  No one is being persuaded by argument no matter how rational or irrational.  No one is being persuaded by rules and regulations to become better people–to form a better society–to change the way they live. 

    Why?  Why don’t we change?

    Here’s a hypothesis: we don’t change because rules and regulations cannot change a heart.  Simply knowing what one should do will not compel one to actually do it.  I mean, think about it: each and every one of us here tonight know several rules and axioms to live by.  Here’s a good one that just about everyone knows: if you have a problem with someone, you should talk to everyone but that person.  Right?  That’s the rule?  Of course it isn’t, but that’s what happens anyway, isn’t it?  I mean, we know we shouldn’t say things, but then we find ourselves in a conversation, and things start slipping out–things we wouldn’t dare say in the presence of that other individual.  We say it, even though we know we shouldn’t.  And we do it over and over and over.  And we will continue to do it over and over and over until our heart changes–until we begin following the rules with a different motivation.

    What do I mean?

    I want you to think about what I just said about talking about someone behind their backs.  I want you to think about who you have talked about.  Think about your relationship with that person you have talked about, and let me ask you this question: do you love them?  Really, ask yourself that.  Do you love that person, not in some “I love everyone” fashion, but really love, respect, and appreciate that other person–not for who you want them to be, but for who they are?  Do you love that other person in such a fashion? 

    You know the answer to that.  You know that deep down, when you truly love someone, it is very, very difficult to talk about that person in a hurtful way.  When you really, truly love someone, you go out of your way to talk about that person with kindness.  You go out of your way to minimize their flaws.  You go out of your way to tell others how much you love and appreciate that other person.  You are willing to defend them to the hilt, and if you are hurt by that other person, you are willing to forgive and move forward.  Love does that.  Love changes you deep within, and that change deep within changes the way you live as you reorient your life.  No longer do you only think about you: you think about the one you love and rearrange your life to accommodate that other person.

    Oh, and if you are a parent, your life drastically changes because of the love that you have for your child.  I remember vividly the last birthday I celebrated before adopting our oldest.  I remember that Dawna and I hadn’t made any real plans for the day, so on a whim we ran down to Pizza Hut ate and then decided to go to a movie.  As we were sitting in the Pizza Hut, knowing that we were days away from adopting, I said, “You know, we won’t be able to do this anymore.  Things are really going to change.”  And Dawna replied, “Yes, but they will be a good changes.”

    And she was right.  We adopted Kiera, Kaylee, and then were surprised with Kevin.  Each child brought changes, but we loved our children.  We still love our children, and we adapt our schedules all the time to care for them.  We sacrifice for them.  We put off the things we want to do for their sake.  Love does that.  When you love someone deeply, your life is transformed because of that love.  Your life is transformed by the arrival of a child.

    The Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  

    The angel proclaimed, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

    A child changes everything and transforms your life.

    You may wonder how.  You may wonder how the birth of this baby so long ago changes and transforms you.  You may wonder how the birth of Jesus brings you peace, goodwill toward men, and a lasting joy.  How does a simple birth do that? 

    Well, the birth doesn’t.  The birth is just the beginning for as this child grows, He will accomplish something that you and I cannot.  He will live the perfect life.  He will live sinless and blameless.  He will not talk about people behind their backs.  He will utter words of truth.  He will love His neighbor as He loves Himself.  He will love God and be obedient unto God.  He will live the life we are supposed to live.

    And He will die the death we deserve.  He will go to the cross to reconcile the world unto God.  He will offer Himself as the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.  Oh, there is much to be said about this, but I do not have the time tonight.  If you want to hear more about how this works, please call me.  But for this time, let me say this: Jesus, this child will lay down His life for you.  He will die for you even though you do not deserve it.  He will love you when you are unlovable.  And He will not hesitate to do this for you.  He loves you that much. 

    And when your heart is touched by His love...

    When your heart is moved by Jesus’ sacrifice for you...

    When you know what it cost for Jesus to make things right between you and God...

    Your life will be transformed.  You will indeed be changed.  When the storm rages around you, you will be at peace.  When events of sadness occur, you will have hope.  When circumstances in life seem to go against you, you will still have joy.  When others disagree with you, you will not hold them in contempt but will see them as fellow children of God.  The arrival of this Child on this night leads us to the cross where these things happen over and over and over again. 

    If you take the time to think on this; if you take the time to ponder these things in your heart, you will find the peace that passes understanding.  It is a peace rooted and grounded in love.  The love of God that He has for this world.  For God so loved this world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him may 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.  Behold, the Son has come.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

No Room in the Inn?

During the bulk of my 15 years of preaching, I have not given the due diligence to my sermon preparation.  Content that my seminary preparation had given me enough when interpreting the biblical text, I would read over the text, pick out a topic that the text seemed to address, and then put together a short, sweet sermon that ensured that everyone would reach their favorite restaurant before other congregations finished their worship.

I realize no how not only was I giving my congregation the short end of the stick, I was also neglecting my own personal growth in understanding this marvelous story of God's love.  I was also allowing the biases of what I had been taught throughout the years dominate instead of truly digging in to what the Scriptures really said.  And I have found that in some cases, the translation of one, single word can make a huge difference.

I have seen several links in my Facebook feed from fellow clergy and others this week about Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn.  Some have tied this event to the current refugee crisis even proclaiming that we are all "innkeepers."  While there is indeed a tie between how we treat refugees and our Christian faith, using the story of Mary and Joseph's travels to Bethlehem to make this point isn't necessarily the best thing to do.


What if I told you Mary and Joseph weren't turned away from an inn?

Maybe that strikes you as odd considering everything you have ever been taught.  Maybe that strikes you as sacrilegious.  Maybe I am ruining the Christmas story for you.  

I would apologize, but there is something even more significant going on.  I never realized it until this week when I actually picked up my commentaries and read through what they said about this text.  

Let me walk you through what they say:

John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: κατάλυμα (kataluma) is a flexible word and can denote any kind of place where one might stay, from a primitive inn to a guest-room of a house to a totally unspecified place where one might stay...On this reading it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters only by the raised platform floor of the latter)...κατάλυμα will, then refer to the living quarters provided by a single-roomed Palestinian home in which hospitality has been extended to Mary and Joseph.

Walter L. Liefeld, New Expositor's Bible Commentary: The word katalyma, usually translated "inn" may mean a room (e.g. the "guest room" used for the Last Supper [Luke 22:11], referred to as an "upper room" in [Luke 22:12], a billet for soldiers, or any place of lodging, which would include inns.  It is not, however, the usual Greek word for an inn--pandocheion, to which the Good Samaritain took the robbery victim (10:34).

Joel B. Green, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The term Luke employs here for "guest room" is often translated in English as "inn."  However, the same term appears in 22;11 with the meaning "guest room," and the verbal form occurs in 9:12 and 19:7 with the sense of "finding lodging" or "be a guest."  Moreover in 10:34, where a commercial inn is clearly demanded by the text, Luke draws on different vocabulary.  It is doubtful whether a commercial inn actually existed in Bethlehem, which stood on no major roads...That "guest room" is the more plausible meaning here is urged by the realization that in peasant homes in the ancient Near East family and animals slept in one enclosed space with the animals located on the lower level.  Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends, but their home would have been so overcrowded that the baby was placed in a feeding trough.

According to the Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament: κατάλυμα: guest room, dining room, Mk 14:14; Lk 22:11.  Since Lk 10:34 uses the more specific term for inn, πανδοχειον, the term κ in 2:7 is best understood as guest room.

There are a couple of possibilities on this: one, the house was so crowded that Mary and Joseph had no place to set down the baby Jesus, and so they headed downstairs to lay him down in the manger. That's the nice reading.

The second is one my wife had insight into when I was telling her about the appropriate translation.  Mary and Joseph were no married when Mary became pregnant.  Despite what I am sure Joseph said, his willingness to stay with Mary undoubtedly brought shame to Joseph's family.  Joseph and Mary would have been seen as outsiders; breakers of God's Law.  Mary should have been stoned to death.  The fact that Joseph didn't have this done or dismiss Mary from betrothal would have been seen as an absolute blemish.  The couple would not have been welcome into the midst of their very own family, and they were relegated to staying with the animals as no room was made to accommodate them in the guest room--even though Mary was in advanced pregnancy.  This means that even at His birth, those who should have been making room for Him were rejecting Him.  This adds more emphasis to what the Gospel writer John says in chapter one, "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

In my estimation, the proper translation of κατάλυμα sends the reading into a deeper pain of rejection: the closest family to Jesus--his earthly father's--should have welcomed Him, made space for Him, and made sure He did not rest in a cattle stall.  Yet, foreshadowing His ultimate rejection, even at an infant, they turned their backs on Him when He was in need--all because of their perceived shame.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It's Just a Moment

It's hard to quantify the job that I do as a pastor.

I know that most of the time, I am judged by whether or not my congregation shows a positive trend in worship attendance and membership.  I know that more often than not my "worth" is gauged by whether or not people join the congregation or the church budget is met.  These tangible things are usually the yardsticks.

But there is so much more.  There are moments that are not quantifiable.  There is simply no way to measure them.

Today, I visited one of the elderly gentlemen of our congregation.  In recent months, he had been attending our "Senior Service" being brought by a good friend.  Last month, he missed.  This month, he missed again.  His friend said, "He cannot walk."

Cue my immediate response that it was time for a personal visit--including home communion.

I've known this gentleman for the entire time I have served this congregation, and he has been through a lot.  He is now in his 90's and has lost much of his vision; and hearing.  He does not have the strength to walk much more than 20-30 feet without breathing heavily.  He told me today that he feels like something is wrong with his mind.  Yeah, things aren't that great at all.

In the last three years, this man has been hospitalized numerous times.  He had his gallbladder rupture and had a massive infection.  His heart valve had to be repaired.  He still has a hernia that needs repair.  There are other issues.

I am not trying to paint a picture of despair.  I am being real.  Perhaps too real.  Oftentimes we don't like to hear about people going through such suffering because there is literally nothing we can do to fix it.

"People tell me I need to get out of the house," I was told today.  "But how?  I can't drive.  I can't walk.  How can I get out?"

I think, what is really needed in this situation is companionship; visitation; interaction with others. But there are not many who will take the time to sit down with a 90 year old who has a much different view of reality.

I get that chance from time to time.  And it is a privilege.

How so?

Here is where things get a little complicated because words tend to do the experience a great injustice.  For just a moment today, there was a transcendence about our visit that is hard to describe.  For just a moment today, there was a sense of a different reality.

After I gave this gentleman Holy Communion, he thanked me profusely.  He was genuinely touched by the visit.  It meant the world to him.  And in that moment, all the fluff disappeared.  I mean, in most of our relationships, I think we have guards up--barriers that prevent us from getting hurt.  Those barriers also prevent us from really being with someone else.  But every once in a while, those barriers disintegrate.  You see someone for who they really are.  You connect.  In those moments, when you see someone like that, you genuinely love them.  You aren't looking to get anything from them.  They are not looking to get anything from you.  You just stand in one another's presence, and you sense a fullness.

External circumstances don't change.  No one miraculously becomes healed of disease or hurt, but there is a connection.  A connection that means a lot.

Perhaps such things happen outside of religious settings, but in my limited experience, they happen at a much higher rate when I am engaging another in prayer; with Holy Communion; or when walking through a difficult time and that person knows that in a real way I am representing God.

It's just a moment, but an important moment none-the-less.  Not only for that one who needs a connection to something greater than themselves, but also for me.  For in that moment, I too know that I need such a connection.

I wish that for you, my readers.

I wish that for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Lessening of Religious Intensity

While reading last night, I was struck by the following words by church historian Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion:

Because erstwhile monopoly religions inevitably are relatively lax, lazy, and worldly, most of their opposition will come from groups promoting a far more intense faith--from sects, that being the name given to high intensity religious groups.  Monopoly religions slide into accommodation with their social surroundings even when they were first established by those committed to an intense faith.  One reason that a monopoly religion drifts toward laxity is that religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next.  Inevitably, many of the sons and daughters of sect members prefer a lower-tension faith than did their parents.  So long as leadership positions in a sect are restricted to those who are committed to the original standards, a sect can sustain a relatively high level of intensity.  But when these positions are hereditary, and when they are highly rewarded as well (so that the less "religious" seldom depart for other careers), the institution will soon be dominated by those favoring a lower level of intensity.  (Kindle Edition page 38)

Stark uses the term "monopoly" rather loosely, and I would use the equivalent as dominant.  Stark readily admits that no culture has a complete monopoly religion--all cultures have some sort of religious diversity, but his point, I think, has to do with how as generations pass the mantle, the level of religious intensity wanes.  Whereas the religion at first stood against many of the cultural values and norms, as time passes, the religion accommodates those same norms and values.  If the leadership is well paid and "seldom depart for other careers", the religious intensity drops further.

There is no doubt in my mind that Christianity in the west has made such cultural accommodations, and I will not even delve into the theological battles between progressive and conservative Christianity.  That tiresome war will never cease.

What I would like to share is a personal observation rooted and grounded in congregational experience.

I have served long enough in my current setting to see three generations of Christian families worship.  That is somewhat of a rarity in these days of massive mobility and families being scattered to the four winds.  So, what do I see?

The oldest generation is entering their twilight, but when I first arrived, many were still vibrant and able to get out easily.  You could count on them being at worship and church events like clockwork.  Rarely did they miss any event.  Their involvement and faith life was intense, to say the least.

The next generation--a bit less intense.  Instead of regular, weekly worship, church attendance has lessened to two to three times a month.  Sometimes, especially during seasons of harvest (or hunting) attendance is less.  This group is less apt to attend certain church functions, and attendance at Bible study is extremely rare.  Church is an option among many options, and the other options win at an alarming rate.

The third generation--second removed from the first--is the least intense of all.  Church is actually more of a nuisance than anything.  It is one more thing in a long laundry list of activities that one can be involved in, and it is the least fun of them all.  Character building and entertainment can all be wrapped up in weekend sports.  God can be worshiped in a deer stand or on the lake.  Verbal commitments to attend activities are broken without a second thought.  This does not mean this generation is not moral or concerned with dealing with a broken world--far from that.  In fact, many are working hard to help others and make a difference, but they don't see how being actively involved in a congregation helps with this process.

These are broad generalizations.  There are exceptions to the rule, and for that I am thankful.  In fact, I have several congregation members who have traveled in the quite the opposite direction.  Their parents and previous generations have not been active in the church and had no religious intensity what-so-ever.  Their involvement is light-years ahead of previous generations; however, many of these folks are still caught up in the busy-ness of our current society.  They want religious intensity and involvement in the church community, but it is a struggle.  I am greatly thankful that these folks are dedicated to that struggle.

As I ponder these things, I wonder just what can be done to reverse such a thing?  Does this have to be the natural progression of things?  Does religious intensity have to decline?

I don't think it does.  I think the faith can be passed down, but it is a much more difficult job. Somehow the head and heart must be captivated; captured; by the radical love of God.

Simply finger pointing and telling people to do good things or get their act together isn't going to do it. (Witness the contempt many in society have toward churches who do just this.)

Just telling everyone God loves you just the way you are isn't going to do it. (Witness the rapid decline of denominations who use this as their central proclamation.)

Somehow, I think we must find a way to do as Tim Keller said in a lecture I watched numerous times.  "You've got to drill down with the truth, and then put the dynamite in.  Then, you've got explosive transformation."

And that's a lot of work.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeing Before Receiving Sight

How do you know someone is telling the truth?

We live in an age of spin.  You’ve all seen it take place.  The President of the U.S. gives a speech, and less than a minute later, the media pundits start in, “Well, what the President REALLY just said was...”fill in the blank.  And if the President said something that was actually good, those on the opposing side of the fence will spin the words into something horrible.  If the President said something controversial, those who are on the same side of the fence offer any interpretation which will soften the words.  The speeches and spin leave your head reeling wondering if anyone heard the same thing you heard to begin with.

But this is not simply relegated to politics.  The quest for truth goes even further.  You are gathered here this morning listening to my sermon.  You will hear me interpret scripture in just a few moments.  There may be a few things that I say that will leave you scratching your head, so you may wonder where I am getting these things.  You could go home and do a search on Youtube for pastors who have preached on this same text.  You will find them saying some quite different things.  Which of us is right?  Which of us is telling the truth?  How can you judge?  Are we all right?  Are we all wrong?  Just for your information, as part of my sermon preparation, I will generally listen to around 10 sermons per week on a given biblical text.  I know how different these interpretations can be.  I know how well meaning most of us pastors are.  How do I discern what is true and what is not?  We’ll get there in a little while because I want to continue down this rabbit hole a little more.

In politics; in religion there is quite a bit of spin and difference given, but surely this doesn’t apply to real life.  Surely, the facts are the facts and there is no spinning them.  Right?  Wrong.  We just witnessed another horrendous shooting in California this past week.  Facts are being gathered.  Motives are being examined.  We know that one of the shooters spent a month in Syria, came back changed, and began growing his beard out.  We know he and his wife were Muslim.  Terrorist attack?  Workplace violence?  We’ve heard both–again depending upon how one wants to spin the event. Who is telling the truth?

I want to walk through this short text today from the book of Mark which recounts the healing of Bartamaeus, but I want to begin by putting it into the larger context of the book of Mark.  We have been walking through this book for some time now, and we’ve still got a ways to go.  We are actually completing a section on Mark that has focused on discipleship, and this section began with the healing of another blind person.  Several months ago, I preached a sermon about a blind man that Jesus had to “heal” twice.  This story began in Mark chapter 8, verse 22.  The first time Jesus touched him, the man responded that he could see people, but they looked like trees.  When Jesus looked at him intently and spoke, then the man was completely healed.

I talked about how this healing was not only historical, but it was also metaphorical.  It was also to help us see how oftentimes the disciples–and we–understand Jesus to be the Messiah, but we don’t see Him clearly.  Then, from Mark chapter 8:22 until today, we have seen example after example of disciples who understand that Jesus is the Messiah, that He is from God, that He is of great power and might, but they don’t understand ultimately what Jesus is all about.  The disciples and others around get caught up in power struggles; in hunger for prestige; in thinking that Jesus is too important for children; in their love of wealth; in a desire for status and privilege when Jesus comes into power.  Time and again, the disciples don’t see clearly, but today, we see someone who does.  Today we see someone who comes to a knowledge of the Truth.  Perhaps what Bartimaeus sees will help us see and come to know who speaks the Truth.

Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, and as they travel, they go by the city of Jericho.  Outside this city, on the side of the road is a man by the name of Bartimaeus.  He is blind, and he is begging.  If we take a moment to remember how this story is playing out, we know that the Jewish holiday of Passover is only days away.  Pilgrims from throughout Israel would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and many would pass by Jericho.  Bartimaeus knew this, so he situated himself where there would be deeply religious people passing him by–deeply religious
people who hopefully would have compassion on him.  But, as we see, there are many who don’t.

Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and without hesitation or thought for embarrassment, Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Now, what Bartimaeus says is important.  He does not simply cry out, Jesus, have mercy on me.  No.  He says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  You see, Son of David was a Messianic title.  Bartimaeus has no doubt heard about the things that Jesus has said and done.  Bartimaeus has come to realize something as he reflected on what Jesus had accomplished.  One of the best lines I heard this past week was this: what Bartimaeus lacked in eyesight, he made up for in insight.  He knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  He knew that Jesus was God’s anointed, and Bartimaeus addressed Jesus with this title; loudly; unabashedly; without reservation.

And the crowd tried to shut him up.  Now, granted, we don’t exactly know why the crowd tried to shut Bartimaeus up.  There could be several reasons.  The crowd could have been scared.  After all, if someone was addressing Jesus as, “Son of Man” or “Messiah” this could have been seen as seditious.  The Roman guards would have been extra cautious during Passover fearing an uprising with the gathering of so many Jews.  They would have been on alert for those who might be trying to start a revolt.  If someone was using Messianic language in such a case, the Roman guard could start arresting people just on pretense.  This is actually a pretty positive spin on why the crowd would have tried to silence Bartimaeus, but there is a negative possibility as well.

You see, as I have said before, in that day and age, there was a strong belief that if you had a physical ailment, then God had wrought that ailment upon you.  If you were blind, God was punishing you for your sin or your parents’ sin.  You were generally held in contempt by others.  You were seen as lower than low.  So, it is also a possibility that those in the crowd would have thought, “This blind, begging, sinner has no right to call upon Jesus in such a fashion.  He is being punished by God and should not be trying to get the attention of a holy man.”  Given what Mark has shown us in the previous two chapters, I think the odds are better that the crowd was not being kind to Bartimaeus.  My guess is they thought he had no business calling out to Jesus.  They tried to shut him up.

But Bartimaeus was undaunted.  Bartimaeus did not give in to the crowd’s attempts to shut him up.  This was too important.  The Son of David was at hand.  The Messiah was here.  And if Bartimaeus knew anything of Scripture, he knew that the Messiah had promised to bring about healing and restoration.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah “bring good news to the proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  To bring recovery of sight to the blind.  Bartimaeus knew this, and he believed it.  Is it any wonder he was clamoring for Jesus’ attention?  Is it any wonder he was raising his voice when others tried to shout him down?  Bartimaeus trusted the promise!  Bartimaeus trusted that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would do what Isaiah said.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

And Jesus stood still.  Mark Edwards, in his commentary says this, “How remarkable that the Son of Man allows the cries of a poor and powerless person to stop him in his tracks.”  Some people have said to me and asked me whether or not God cares about ones as insignificant as us.  Why would God hear our cries and our prayers when we are so small and insignificant compared to Him.  And yet, the Son of David, God incarnate, stops in His tracks because of the cries of a poor and powerless man.  This is the God revealed to us here–a God who deeply cares about the least and the lost.  Jesus says, “Call him here.”

How quickly the crowd changes its tune.  How quickly they discard their cries for quiet.  How quickly they suddenly accept Bartimaeus when Jesus shows him compassion.  Think this is just limited to them?  I remember once attending the ordination of a colleague.  My wife and I sat at the back of the church.  As is custom for me, I was not wearing my clerical collar.  I did not robe up.  I simply attended–a stranger in the midst of this congregation.  My wife and I were heartily ignored by all around us–until it came time for the laying on of hands.  All clergy were invited to come forward, so I whiffed out my clerical collar, put it on, and laid hands on the man being ordained.  When I returned to the pew with my wife, the reception we received was markedly different.  Because of a collar?  How quickly things change.

There is an important detail that happens next.  Bartimaeus throws off his cloak.  This might not seem like much to us, but remember that Bartimaeus is a blind, beggar.  What do you think his possessions consist of?  He has nothing–except his cloak.  The commentaries I consulted and sermons I heard made note that Bartimaeus would have spread his cloak on the ground to catch coins that people gave him.  He would have used it to wrap up in to keep warm as he had no place to go.  He would have used it to give him shade from the son.  It was the thing he used for protection; for earning a living; it was all that he had.  And he cast it off.  He comes before Jesus with nothing.  Remember the rich young man who could do no such thing?

Bartimaeus comes before Jesus, and Jesus asks him a pointed question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  I want you to remember last week when James and John sought out an audience with Jesus.  I want you to remember how these two disciples of the inner circle begged Jesus to give them whatever they asked.  I want you to remember how Jesus responded.  Do you remember?  It was with the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  James and John ask for power and prestige and status.  James and John don’t get the Kingdom of God.  Bartimaeus does.  “He has come to bring recovery of sight to the blind,” Isaiah says.  “Rabbouni,” Bartimaeus says, “Let me see.”

Again, let me quote Mark Edwards.  Your bulletin says, “Teacher, let me see, but the Greek word is Rabbouni which is significant.   Edwards says, “In extant Jewish literature, rabbouni is seldom used with reference to humanity, and practically never as a form of address.  It is frequently used as an address to God in prayer, however.  Its use here suggests Bartimaeus’s–and Mark’s–estimation of Jesus.”  Bartimaeus essentially offers a prayer, “Let me see.”

And Jesus says, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

What does Bartimaeus do?  He has been released from the captive of his blindness.  He now has the ability to go and work.  He now has the ability to earn a living.  He will now be seen by others to be blessed by God for he no longer carries the curse of blindness.  He can go anywhere and do anything, so what does he do?

He follows Jesus along the road.  Now, an interesting thing can be said right here because the Greek word for road is “hodos” which is also translated, “The Way.”  In the early Church, Christians were not initially called Christians.  Initially, they were called followers of “The Way.”  Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the Way.  Here is an example of discipleship at its finest.  When those closest to Jesus couldn’t see and had difficulty seeing, this once blind beggar trusts Jesus, throws off his cloak, is healed, and follows Jesus toward the cross.  He truly sees.  He has found the Truth.  How can we?

As you can see at this point, I am asking you to delve deeply into this question of truth.  I am asking you to look at Jesus to understand the Truth.  I am asking you to look to Jesus to give you the criteria in understanding how to discern the Truth.  I am asking you to see what Bartimaeus sees.

And what does Bartimaeus see?  He sees the Messiah–the one who brings about restoration.  But, as we have seen all along, the restoration Jesus brings is not by military might, but as the verse leading right into this story says, “He came to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus came to be the suffering Messiah who dies on the cross to give His life for yours.  He does this because He loves you with a love beyond measure.  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.”

Why is this so significant?  Why is this such an important thing in knowing the Truth?  Because of this: when you look at people who spin things today, they have an agenda.  They are trying to win you over to their position.  They are trying to further their own positions of power and prestige.  They are trying to get you to go along with them, and if you do not...guess what they think of you?  Guess how they treat you?  With contempt.  With scorn.  With anger.  Sometimes with hatred.  If you don’t agree with them, they want nothing to do with you.

But how does Jesus respond when you don’t agree with Him?  How does Jesus respond when you don’t like what He teaches?  How does Jesus respond when you inwardly and outwardly say to Him, “I won’t do what you say.”

Jesus stretches out His arms and dies for you.  Jesus loves you and is willing to die for you even when you don’t love Him.  How do you know if someone is telling the truth?  How do you know when someone is immersed in the truth?  When they are willing to die for you even though they know you hate them.  This is Jesus.  This is what Bartimaeus saw.  This is what I pray that we might see.  Amen.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Torn Apart and Put Back Together

I wrote this sermon on Tuesday morning of the week of Thanksgiving, and as I sat in my office, I reflected upon how my spirit felt torn by all the forces acting upon it this week.  I reflected upon how cultural forces were playing with my emotions and striving to exert power over me.  What do I mean?  Let me see if I can describe it to you, and let’s see if you can relate.

There was the ever present emotion of fear.  After the Paris bombings, the Mali hostage situation, the bombings in Lebanon, and other such events, the media has worked to tap into our deepest fears of having our family members or friends taken out by terrorists.  With repeated exposure to terrorist videos claiming that they will strike in our backyards and kill more people, there is a sense of fear that it could indeed happen.  I could lose my life.  I could see my family killed.  Am I safe anywhere?

And so I want to be safe.  I want my family to be safe.  I want protection.  And yet, because of my desire for safety, I have also a sense of guilt.  How so?  I see the images of Syrian refugees trying to escape their war-torn nation.  Mind you, ISIS has killed thousands of Muslims because they do not follow their way of Islam.  Thousands more are still threatened, and millions have left because they fear for their lives.  There are desperate men, women and children who are in need.  Who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison.  Jesus is absolutely clear that when we serve ones such as these, we serve Him.  And yet, if we open our doors and serve and welcome, might we not invite terror into our backyards?  Will welcoming lessen our safety?  I feel guilty because I know we should help our neighbors in need, but I also want to be safe.

Oh, and I am just getting started.  Because it is the week of Thanksgiving.  It is the week we are supposed to stop and give thanks for the many blessings we have.  Most of us here this morning have a roof over our heads, food in our pantries, cars to drive, a few dollars in the bank, and clothes on our backs.  Because of this, we are wealthier than many in the world.  We have more than most in the world’s population.

And yet, I am inexplicably drawn to all the Black Friday ads.  I am inexplicably drawn to desire cheap goods and items.  I seem to have an insatiable desire for more.  Give thanks, absolutely, but the consumer driven; money-focused culture says, “You do not have enough.  Be thankful, but go get more.”

I want more, but then I am hit with Giving Tuesday which happens in a couple of days.  I get hit with solicitations from all these organizations that ask for my money.  The zoo.  The synod office.  My college.  My seminary.  Local charities.  National charities.  And I want to help. I want to give, but if I gave to every one of these things, I would be left with nothing.  How do I decide?  How do I avoid becoming paralyzed?  How do I give to one without feeling guilty about leaving another high and dry?

Oh, and I have yet to touch on the emotion of anger.  That one runs simmering beneath the surface.  It’s based in self-righteousness as I see greed running rampant and think about the news stories of people trampling each other to get stuff.  I get angry when friends on Facebook post things like, “If you vote for Donald Trump, unfriend me now because I no longer respect you as an intelligent and compassionate human being.”  I find the statement highly immature, and it angers me that friends would post it.  It angers me that two opposing forces in our society just can’t seem to get along, and each uncompromisingly points fingers, blames, and criticizes the other without looking at self. *Sigh.* And I realize that I am pointing the finger, blaming and criticizing as well.  I get angry with myself.

All of these things tear at my heart and soul, and not too long ago, I thought that the way to change things–the way to effectually bring about any sort of meaningful change of direction was to work my way up the ladder of society–to become more important–to become more influential–to gain status in the eyes of others so that people would listen to what I had to say; do what I told them to do; and make this world better because they believed I was right.  If I could just get enough power and status, then everything would be okay.  I wouldn’t have to be torn apart any longer.  I could have enough power to call the shots and no longer be bothered.

It’s not a fanciful dream.  In fact, I think most of us at some point buy into this train of thought.  I think in most of our lives, we think that the most effectual change we can bring is by rising the ranks, getting some power, and then exerting it for what we see as good.  Whether it’s monetary power or intellectual power, we want it; we crave it; our hearts thrive on it, and as we all vie for it, we trample on one another and tear each other apart.  If only there were another way...

Today, Jesus is leading His disciples to Jerusalem.  He is walking ahead of them, and as we look at the book of Mark, we know that Jesus is now focusing on His purpose–on His ultimate goal; a goal that will be revealed at the end of this snippet from the book of Mark.  But the disciples don’t know that goal yet.  The rest of the followers don’t know that goal yet.  They only know that Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem, and they are amazed and terrified.

There is no mystery to me why they are amazed and terrified.  They know that Jerusalem is the heart of power in ancient Israel.  They know that the Jewish religious authorities who have been seeking Jesus’ death are there.  They know that Rome’s procurator, Pontius Pilate is there.  They know the Messianic overtones of Jesus’ message, and if Jesus is heading that direction, things will be coming to a head shortly.  The Messiah is heading to claim His kingdom–indeed a cause for wonder and fear.

But Jesus reveals to His disciples that His kingdom will be attained in a much different manner than expected.  Jesus says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  I thought about what Jesus said here, and I thought about what comes next.  I thought of Jesus’ words about Jesus saying that he would be condemned, mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed.  I think that the disciples had very selective hearing.  I think that they only heard Jesus’ last few words–“after three days, he will rise again.”  I think the thought of Jesus being condemned, beaten, spit upon and killed was so foreign to the thought of the Jewish Messiah, that the disciples just couldn’t hear it.  They couldn’t grasp it.  They didn’t want to hear it–much like a guy sitting on the couch watching a football game never hears his wife yell out, “Take out the trash!”  All the guy on the couch can hear is, “Enjoy the game.  Do you need another beer?”  All the disciples could hear was, “The Messiah will rise again!”

This is the only explanation that I can come up with for what happens next when James and John come up to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  As a parent, I shake my head at this request.  I mean, have you ever had a kid come up to you and say, “I’m going to ask you something, so just say, ‘Yes.’” My response is exactly what Jesus says, “What do you want?”  My kids are usually a little more persistent.  They usually say, “Daddy, just say yes.”  I say, “I don’t think so, not until you tell me what you want.”  James and John aren’t that persistent, they simply lay it out there.

‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’

Let me stop right here and read to you what Mark Edwards says in his commentary about this exchange so far.  Edwards says, “Jesus asks the brothers, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The answer to that question, not only in the case of the Zebedee brothers but in ours as well, lays bare our true motives, revealing whether we seek our own glory or the glory of God.”

The real question here is whether James and John are seeking God’s glory or are seeking their own.  I mean, they acknowledge that Jesus is the King.  They acknowledge that He is the one at the center and on the throne.  This is a good thing.  We all should do this.  But there is no doubt that they want to be second and third in command.  Are they wanting Jesus to be first so that they can be second and third?  Are they wanting Jesus to rise to power so that they can get power themselves?  Do they only want Jesus to ascend because without Him they wouldn’t get anything at all?  Oh, these are some good questions because they delve to the heart of not only James’ and John’s motivations, but they delve to the bottom of our motivations as well.

Mark indicates that the motivations are not completely pure.  Jesus initially responds by asking James and John, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Commentaries differ on exactly what the cup is and the baptism is.  All believe it is tied in some form and fashion to suffering–even death.  James and John apparently don’t get it and are rather brash in their response.  “We can,” they tell Jesus.

Jesus wryly responds, “Oh, you will.  Yes, you will drink that cup and be baptized with that baptism, but I can’t promise you any particular place.  That is only for my Father to decide.”  Once again, Jesus shows His humility in His role.  He knows that His Father decides such matters, and He graciously defers to the Father.

And here is why I think James’ and John’s motivations weren’t all that pure. When the rest of the disciples hear about what they asked, the disciples get very, very angry.  My guess is they got angry because James and John beat them to the punch.  James and John asked before they were able.  They wanted those positions.  They coveted them.  Jesus’ previous messages about the Kingdom of God were completely lost upon them.  Therefore, Jesus has to bring them back one more time.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Jesus turns the world on its head.  Jesus teaches once again the great reversal of the Kingdom, and He does so by twisting the hearts of His followers.  He reveals to them their hypocrisy.  Jesus points them to the rulers of the Gentiles–in this case, it was Caesar.  The Jews had nothing but contempt for Caesar because Caesar believed himself to be divine.  The Jews ridiculed Caesar for claiming such power and prestige–yet, the disciples are trying to obtain that same power and prestige.  And they are trying to piggyback off of Jesus to get it!!  Think about that for a moment.  The disciples are trying to get power and prestige by using their relationship with Jesus!!  That’s about the highest form of dishonor one could give.  Again to quote Edwards, “How easily worship and discipleship are blended with self-interest; or worse, self-interest is masked as worship and discipleship.”

“How easily worship and discipleship are blended with self-interest; or worse, self-interest is masked as worship and discipleship.”

It is the story of our lives as well.  It is the story of all of our thoughts to climb the ladders of status, wealth, and privilege.  It is the story of what we wish to achieve.  “Let me achieve power, and I promise to set everything straight.  I promise to make people get along.  I promise to bring our enemies into submission.  I promise to make you safe and secure.  Let me have all this power, and I’ll make it happen.  I will follow you Jesus.  I will prove myself to you, Jesus.  Reward me, and I will then use that reward to do a lot of good.”

And Jesus sums it all up with His mission.  Jesus shows the alternative with His calling.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Walter Wessel in his commentary says the following:

Every part of verse 45 is important.  “Son of Man is the veiled messianic title Jesus often uses of himself.  “Did not come to be served but to serve” describes his incarnate life.  He did not come as a potentate whose every personal whim was to be catered to by groveling servants, but he came as a servant himself.  And his coming issued in giving “his life as a ransom for many.” ...The entire phrase “to give his life a ransom for many” emphasizes the substitutionary element in Jesus’ death.  He takes the place of many.  What should have happened to them happened to him instead.

It would take me quite a while to unpack the implications of this statement, so please know that in the next few minutes, you are getting the short stick.  But at least that short stick leads us straight to the cross.  For it is on the cross that Jesus drank a cup that the disciples could not drink.  He was baptized with a baptism the disciples could not be baptized with.  He drank the cup of the wrath of God as it was poured out–a cup that in the Old Testament was always poured out against those who had sinned.

But Jesus never sinned.  Jesus was never in bondage to sin as we are in bondage to all the things that tug on our hearts.  Jesus never was captive to fear and anger and anxiety or greed or the like.  Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live, and He freely gave Himself to take our place.  He paid the price for our redemption so that we might be free.

But how does Jesus payment of our ransom make us free?  How does Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross release us from all those things that I said grabbed my heart earlier?  Here is how.

I want you to think back to a time when you felt greatly loved.  I want you to think back to a moment when you felt that someone poured out themselves for you.  I want you to think about a time when you received a gift of love that you believed you didn’t deserve.  Remember what that did to you inside.  Remember what it did to your heart.  Did you feel any fear at that moment?  Did you feel any anger at that time?  Did you have any worry?  Did you feel any animosity toward anyone at all?  Did you want everyone to serve you?  No.  No you didn’t.  All you sensed was a tremendous love that freed you from all fear, anxiety, worry, anger, and the like.  And all you could think about was trying to love in response.  All you could think about was sharing that moment and thanking the one who showered you with such love.

When you focus on what Jesus did for you; when you understand that on the cross He was taking your place and paying the cost to set you free; when you understand His love, this is what begins to change your heart on a daily basis.  The powers of greed, status, wealth, and privilege begin to wane.  Fear begins to retreat, and a sense of fullness; well-being; love and adoration take its place.  You begin to love with humility and graciousness because of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world.  And when you remember that Jesus came to save the world, when you trust in His promise, you are no longer torn apart.  You are made whole.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Deep Hypocrisy

I am a huge hypocrite.  I will freely admit it because I have come to see that hypocrisy is a plague that hits just about everyone, and I mean everyone.

I have become consciously aware of this as discussion about the care of Syrian refugees has become a hot topic after the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, France.

In much of the media, those who lean left are chiding many conservative Christians who are adamant about not taking in any Syrian refugees.  There are many left-leaning clergy who are decrying those in government who are saying, "We will not take any Syrian refugees because of threats to safety." Those in the media and those left-leaning clergy are making their appeals based on references to Scripture.

Matthew 25 is referenced.
Exodus 22 and 23 are referenced
Leviticus 19 is referenced
Luke 10 is referenced

Now, I have no issue with citing such verses.  There is clear command in scripture to care for the alien and those in need.  Those who point to Christians' lack of adherence to these verse rightly point out our hypocrisy.

But, some folks miss their own, and many who are chiding Christians for failing to follow scripture are those who have minimized the authority of scripture in the past.

For instance, more than a few of those who are speaking loudly about helping the immigrant and chiding Christians for failing to follow scripture have used the following arguments regarding gay marriage:

The Bible is an antiquated book that is not relevant when it comes to this issue.


The Bible really doesn't condemn homosexuality, and you can read those verses in such and such a manner.  (The exegetical gymnastics done here truly are a work of art.)

So, what prevents some of those "conservative" Christians from using the exact same arguments regarding the reception of Syrian immigrants?  What prevents "conservative" Christians from saying:

The Bible is an antiquated book, and those Old Testament passages were written for a nation that had the Jewish God as its ultimate authority.  The U.S. has the Constitution and is not a theocracy, so Biblical injunctions for a nation to welcome the alien no longer apply.

And Jesus never specifically referenced Syrian aliens.  There is a lot of talk about Edomites and Moabites and Canaanites and Samaritains, but nothing about Syrians.

And Matthew 25 (exegetically speaking) is more about those who are not Christian and how they treat Christians.

And Luke 10 is more about my immediate neighbor in need, not someone who is trying to get into my nation.

What is typically done in many instances is using the Bible to justify one's own particular position instead of allowing the Bible to mold one's own position.  If the Bible's injunctions do not fit with my ideology, I can minimize them by the above methods.  However, if the Bible's injunctions mesh with my own, then I can use them as a hammer to blast my opponents--which is what most of this boils down too anyway, isn't it.

I will find something that conforms to my ideology and then use it to bash those who don't agree with me, usually making them feel contempt for me in the process.

Admit it, those of you who are on the left hand side of things, when "conservatives" use scriptural law to tell you how wrong you are for supporting homosexual marriage or relationships, you get angry with them because you think they are holding you in contempt and are acting self-righteously.

Admit it, those of you who are the right hand side of things, when "liberals" use scriptural law to tell you how you are not caring for the poor and your neighbor, you get angry with them because you think they are holding you in contempt and are acting self-righteously.

And admit it, both of you that you do, in a very real way, have contempt for the other "side."  You think "they" are the ones with the problem, and it is "they" who need to change.  If they would only see things in your self-righteous way, then all would be well. 

And let me ask you both, how is this loving your neighbor as you would love yourself?

Hypocrisy runs deep, doesn't it?  (And if you think I am being hypocritical, read sentence #1 again.)

What is your answer to this problem?  Is your answer, "I will work harder to lessen my hypocrisy?"

Good luck.

The more you try, you will either fall into despair because you know you are unable to meet the standard, or you will become self-righteous thinking that you are doing a good job and others should follow suit.  You will either hate yourself or end up right back where you were in the first place.

Trying harder isn't the answer.

Trusting more is.

Trusting more in the action of the one who was had the authority to point out our hypocrisy because He had none.  Trusting in the one who was without sin when we were full of it.  Trusting in the action of One who laid down His life for us when we didn't deserve it.  Trusting in the One who deeply loves us in the midst of our continued failure.

Because if you know you are a failure, you don't become self-righteous.
Because if you know you are deeply loved, you don't despair.

You hold the two in tension and become humble.

You admit your hypocrisy.
You admit you are no better than those on the other "side."
You admit you are swayed by your ideology.
You admit that you need correcting.
You are less likely to judge the other as the one who needs changing and realize you need to change too.
You know the hypocrisy will never be fully erased, and you throw yourself upon the mercy of the one who truly forgives.
And when you know that forgiveness, you forgive others--even when they don't deserve it.
The cycle is broken.

Because of the Gospel.

Monday, November 23, 2015

If You Could Ask Jesus One Question...

When I returned to this Gospel text this past Monday, a thought hit me like a ton of bricks.  I read through the opening statement of this story and paused.   “As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” You know what made me pause?  The question.  What is the question?  For this young man it was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Look, I’ve been a pastor for just over 15 years.  I have eight years of study in theology and philosophy.  I’ve encountered hundreds of people in those 23 years, and I have never had anyone ask me a question like this.  No one.  Nada.  Nil.  In every conversation I have ever had on a message board on the internet or on my Facebook feed, no one has ever asked or even argued about this question either.  And I am going to go out on a limb here, but I think the limb might just be pretty strong.  It is my guess this morning that when you sitting here in the pews gather with your friends or your family, none of you sit around debating about what you or anyone needs to do to inherit eternal life.  I mean, really, does anyone here anticipate sitting at the Thanksgiving table and debating how a person inherits eternal life?  I am pretty sure the topics will be much more centered on the upcoming ball games and perhaps a what sales are running in the stores.

Very few people are asking the question about eternal life.  For the most part, I think most folks don’t worry about the question at all.  I think they either believe that they indeed will have eternal life, and most folks believe they will have done enough to merit it, or they don’t believe in eternal life at all so don’t worry about it.  It’s basically an issue that isn’t on many people’s agenda.  It certainly hasn’t been a topic of conversation in my career.  And here is where the rubber began hitting the road for me.  I started asking myself, “What is the question?”  What is the question that people are asking these days?  What is the dilemma that makes your brain wrestle in wonder and bewilderment?  What is the question that you would love an answer to but have not found anything quite satisfactory just yet?

I do a lot of reading, and I consult quite a few different biblical scholars and preachers.  These scholars and preachers read a lot of cultural pundits who try to read what is going on in society.  They oftentimes talk about what is on people’s hearts and minds, but they nearly always paint in very broad brush strokes.  And when you do that, there is a very real risk of missing what is going on with the people right next to you.  There is a danger of missing what the people in your community are thinking because your community is unique.  I mean, the issues important to our community right here are not the same as the issues facing those who live in downtown Houston, and that is only an hour’s drive from here.  And so I wondered: what is the question for us?  What is the question that we would ask if we could have an encounter with Jesus?

I decided to ask that very thing of our confirmation students this past Wednesday.  Before I delved into teaching class, I asked the 9 ladies and gentlemen who were there to help me with my sermon.  I wrote on the dry erase board the question that you have in your bulletin on that little slip of paper.  “If you had the chance to ask Jesus one question, what would it be?”  Let me tell you something about your sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders here: they are very thoughtful.  They have some great questions.  Before I get into some of what they asked, I would like to invite you to fill out that little slip of paper and give it to me before you leave this morning.  I would indeed like to know what question you would like to ask Jesus.  It will hopefully help me tremendously in my teaching and preaching here.  You do not have to sign your name.  There is no need to feel any embarrassment.  Please, simply write your question, and hand it to me.  I cannot promise that I will directly address it immediately, but I hope to wrestle with those questions in the future.

Let’s now look at what our confirmation students asked.  There were a few questions that were easily answered, but let me let you consider three: one of which I will directly address because it ties in to our text today.  Question number one: what is heaven really like?  Question number two: Why did you create us?  And question number three: What is the best thing that we can do?  Pretty deep questions, huh?  I personally thought so, and I want to focus our attention on that last question, question number three: what is the best thing that we can do?  It’s a very, very good question.  It’s a very, very important question.  And I think the answer to that question coincides with the answer Jesus gave that rich young man.  The best thing that you can do is follow Jesus.

You might wonder just how this ties in with the rich young man’s question because his question was about eternal life.  If we read through what Jesus says, particularly after His encounter with this rich man, we see something quite intriguing because Jesus doesn’t just talk about eternal life.  Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom is not simply eternal life.  It has implications for our lives right here and right now.  Let’s go to the text starting where I left off last week at verse 23.

Jesus looks around at His disciples and the crowd around and says, “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words.”  The disciples were perplexed for a reason because they had been heavily influenced by the surrounding Jewish culture.  Wealthy people, it was thought, had been especially blessed by God.  It was thought that those with wealth had done all the right things to receive a special blessing by God.  This idea is alive and well today with those preachers who say that if you just believe enough, and pray enough, and do enough of the right things–like cut their church a huge check–then God will rain blessings down upon you.  Not only did this thought penetrate the disciples’ brains, there was also a very practical reason the wealthy were thought to have an inside track to God.  If you were wealthy, you could afford to offer all the sacrifices necessary in the temple to atone for your sins.  You could afford the spotless sheep.  You could afford to offer sacrifice whenever your conscience was bothered.  You could afford to pay your tithes and temple taxes.  Those who were poor had no such luxury.  They could not afford all the temple sacrifices and gifts.  They were on the outside looking in.  This is why Jesus’ comment caught the disciples off guard, and so Jesus repeats and adds a little extra.

“Little children,” Jesus says–an allusion to His teaching about the Kingdom and children just a few verses earlier–“how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Notice here that there are no qualifiers.  Jesus straightforwardly says that it is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God.  It is not simply achieved.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a person of wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”

A couple of thoughts here.  First, there are some pundits who say that the “Eye of a Needle” was a little gate in the walls of Jerusalem that camels had to kneel down in order to get through.  Therefore, what Jesus is commenting on is the difficulty of getting in, not that it is impossible.  However, the commentaries I consult put the kibosh on this interpretation.  There is no archaeological evidence for this gate.  There is no record of this gate in any ancient sources.  One of the commentaries said it best, “A notable one identifies the “eye of the needle” with a gate leading into the city of Jerusalem before which camels had to kneel in order to get through.  But the existence of any such gate is doubtful.  As Rawlinson says, it has “no authority more trustworthy that the imaginative conjectures of modern guides to Jerusalem.”  No.  Jesus is clear here: He means a camel.  He means a needle.  He means it is impossible.  There is not much wiggle room unless you are trying to make people feel good about themselves, and Jesus is not exactly known for trying to do that.  Jesus is trying to get folks connected with God–with Himself, and He is going to try to break through the barriers which prevent that.

The disciples are still in awe about this teaching.  They are still astounded because they realize its implications.  If the rich folks can’t enter the Kingdom, then who can?  “Who then can be saved?” they ask.

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it is impossible.  For God, all things are possible.”

This leads us to sheer grace.  For us it is impossible to attain salvation.  Only through God is it possible.  Let’s kind of skip ahead for a moment. How possible is it for you and I to die and then come back to life?  Think about that for a minute.  How possible is it for us to have our hearts stop beating; to have our brain function cease, to have our lungs stop pumping, and then after a period of time–oh, say three days, to come back to life?  Impossible.  But for God...who hung on a cross, who had His heart pierced, who breathed His last and lay in a tomb for three days...all things are possible.  Yes, I have kind of given away the ending, but let’s continue for a moment because I have to get to the question of “what is the most important thing we can do?”

Peter then addresses Jesus.  It’s kind of a smug thought.  Peter tells Jesus, “Look, we’ve done what that rich, young man won’t do.  We’ve left our houses, our families, our incomes.  We’ve left everything to follow you.  What do we get?

Jesus’ response is priceless.  I want you to listen to it carefully.  ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Did you notice these two things: did you notice that Jesus said you must leave everything for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel?  This is quite important because it deals with our motivations.  It deals with the state of our hearts.  Many who proclaim that God will bless you if you believe enough, pray enough, and give enough, do so tapping into people’s selfish motivations.  People only give, pray and believe so that they will get something.  They don’t leave for Jesus’ sake.  They don’t leave for the Gospel’s sake.  They leave for their own sake.  They want all the goods, but they don’t want Jesus. They don’t want the Gospel.  Jesus clearly states that He and the Gospel are most important.  Secondly, did you catch that persecutions are part of the equation?  Did you catch that you will receive houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and fields AND PERSECUTIONS?  We tend to gloss over that one.  Christianity comes with a cost.  Finally, did you notice that Jesus is being very earthy with this statement?  Did you notice that these matters are rooted and grounded in this life?  This isn’t just about eternal life.  Following Jesus has consequences right here and right now.  “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

Let me quote to you Walter Wessel from his commentary on Mark here, “In eternity the rich and the powerful will have the tables turned on them.  Or perhaps it is a warning to the disciples in view of what they said, “we have left everything to follow you”.  They must not conceive of their discipleship in terms of rewards.  Discipleship entails suffering and service; it must be entered on in terms of love and commitment to Jesus, not because of what one hopes to get out of it either in this life or in the life to come.”

Let me summarize this teaching quickly.  Jesus essentially says, “If you want abundant in the Kingdom of God here on earth and in the life to come...give up everything for my sake and the sake of the Gospel.  You will find persecution, but you will find great satisfaction.  Not in earthly wealth, but in a community of brothers and sisters who have homes and land who will share and welcome each other–who love one another; who care for one another; who build one another up; whose hearts have been changed; who are humble; who seek one another’s good.  If you attach yourself to your possessions and striving for such possessions, you will miss out on these things.  You will never notice the Kingdom of God which is growing right in your midst.”

How hard it is to enter into this Kingdom.  How hard it is to grasp what Jesus says right here.  It is indeed easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle because everything about our current culture tells us the exact opposite.  Everything in our culture tells us that the most important thing we can do is work to be the best.  Educate ourselves so we can get good jobs.  Get good jobs so we can earn a lot of money.  Earn a lot of money so we can enjoy life to the fullest while we work and play at a frenzied pace.  Keep earning a lot of money so that you can eventually retire and play around keeping death at bay and keeping the medical profession in business.  This is the fulfilling life.  This is the abundant life.  Work hard.  Play hard.  Become a slave to money.

But it never quite satisfies, does it?  It never quite fulfills, does it?  Something is always missing, and we try to fill it with more.  Jesus says, follow me.  Replace all that stuff with me.  Leave it all for my sake and the sake of the Gospel.  Don’t let your heart focus on all of that?

But how?  How can I not focus on all of that when it is thrust in my face over and over and over?  How can I not focus on it when Christmas is just around the corner and all the shops are telling me I will be happy with cheap stuff?  How can I focus on Jesus when my heart is captured by these things?

Jesus says, “Look at the cross.”  Look at the instrument of death and torture that hangs at the front of this building.  Look at what I accomplished for you on that cross.  It is impossible for you and your heart to walk away from these things.  It is impossible for you and your heart not to notice these things.  Your heart will continue to yearn for these things until it understands the great love I have for you.  Until you know what I am willing to do for you on this cross, you will continue to pursue these things.  Close your eyes and see me dying up here for you.  Close your eye and know that I took your place and have saved you by sheer grace.  Close your eyes and know that you don’t deserve what I am doing for you, but I willingly and gladly do it for you anyway.  Let this change your heart.  Let this change your soul.  Nothing else can love you like this.  Nothing.  For mortals it is impossible.  For God, all things are possible.  For God so loved this 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.”  And when your heart grasps this.  When your heart knows what I have done, then indeed, you will know that the most important thing you can do is follow me.   Amen.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Humbling Mystery

Why is it that Christians say they are saved by grace and not works?

Because, if we as Christians were truly following the example of Jesus, we would be marching into Syria and Iraq, not with guns, bombs, and bullets, but with the cross, food, shelter, and the necessities of life. 

We would be risking our lives and gladly giving our lives because we had no fear of death. 

We would look into the eyes of the killing machine known as ISIS and say, like Dan Wilkinson in "The Cross and the Switchblade", "You can cut us into a million pieces, and every piece will say God loves you." 

But, we fear death. 
We fear the enemy. 
We cower. 
We fail to follow. 
We are not worthy of the name. 

How is it that we who are so far from following are so deeply loved? 
How is it that such hypocrisy is met with One who lays down His life for us? 

That is the mystery of the Gospel.

A mystery that truly humbles the heart.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Terrorists, Bombs, Borders, and Changing Hearts

    I would like to say two things before I begin my sermon this morning.  First, I will be taking two weeks to deal with this particular text from the book of Mark.  (Mark 10:17-31) The whole text should be read together, but it would take far too long to preach on its entirety in one setting, so we will cover it in two sermons.

    The second thing I would like to say is that I am reworking my sermon in light of the events in Paris at the end of this week.  I actually had my whole sermon prepared last Tuesday before I went hunting, but if I would have preached it, I would have run the risk of seeming unconcerned or deaf to the events in our world.  The other danger is to preach something before having enough time to think things through; however, as I thought about this text, I think it had an awful lot to say about what happened in Paris, in Kenya, and in Lebanon these last few days.  And so, we begin.

    I would like to begin with a few words from Martin Luther.  Some of you recognize his name as the man who kicked off the Reformation in 1517 when he nailed 95 Thesis to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Reformation caused great upheaval in the church and society at the time as many assumptions were questioned and overturned.  The Lutheran church carries Luther’s name, and he is still considered an important person within our ranks.  One of the things Luther wrote was called the Large Catechism.  It was a book intended for pastors and parents as they sought to delve deeply into the life of faith and pass it down to children.  In the Catechism, Luther wrote at length explaining the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed.  It is to the 10 Commandments that we turn.

    Luther wrote the following as he expounded on the first commandment: “I am the Lord your shall have no other gods before me.”  Notice that the Scripture does not deny the existence of other gods.  No, there are many types of gods, but we are called to follow the right God instead of all the false ones.  Luther tried to help us in this endeavor:

    A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God.  For these two belong together, faith and God.  That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

    Now, what does this have to do with the recent attacks in Paris and other places?  Just this:

    You see, Christians do not have their hands clean when it comes to matters of history.  Christians have had their own episodes when we committed atrocities and mass murder.  If you study history, you remember the Crusades and you also remember the Inquisition.  I would like to submit to you this morning that the reason Christianity engaged in these things is because we were worshiping the wrong god.  We certainly were not worshiping the God who took on flesh and died proclaiming forgiveness for His enemies and blessing those who persecuted Him.  So, what god were Christians worshiping: the earthly, temporal power of the Church.

    You see, during the Crusades, Islam had taken over the Holy Land, and kings and popes believed that territory belonged to the Church.  It was thought that we had to establish the Church in these places and govern and rule.  Christianity must control these lands, and so, we marched off to war to conquer.  We slaughtered thousands of innocents in the process–not because we were worshiping Jesus but because we were worshiping the earthly kingdom.  We were worshiping the kingdom instead of the King. We were bowing to a false god. 

    In much the same way, ISIS and Al Queda are not worshiping Allah.  They are worshiping the caliphate.  You know what I mean when I say caliphate?  It is the idea that Islam should reign over the entire world.  It is the Kingdom of Allah, so to speak.  And if something threatens your god; if something stands in the way of your god; you will do whatever it takes to remove that threat.  So, if in the caliphate only Allah can be worshiped, women have little to no rights, and homosexuals should be killed, a society which teaches religious tolerance and equal rights for women and homosexuals is a threat.  It is the enemy, and it must be removed.  Hence, the bombings and killings.

    Of course, if such bombings and killings happen to France or even to us in the U.S., the response is always bombs and borders.  Whenever we are attacked, we counter the threat by killing, bombing, and bullets, and by establishing boundaries to prevent such people from encountering us.  After 9/11 in our own nation, we went on the offensive by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and we enhanced our airport security and tried to close much of our borders. 

    Christianity offers a different response.  True Christianity does not seek to use bombs and borders, but instead looks to the heart.  It seeks to go after the false gods and convert people to the true God–even if we are rejected, much like Jesus is rejected in our Gospel lesson.  How does it all fit?  Let’s turn to the text, work our way through it, and try to bring it full circle.

    Mark tells us that a young man runs up to Jesus, kneels, and says, “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This question and the actions of this young man are not innocuous.  What this young man does is actually flabbergasting.  First off, the young man kneels before Jesus.  This is an act of submission.  This is an act of subordination.  The young man is showing extreme deference to Jesus.  There are very few throughout the Gospels who show such deference and humility.  The second thing that the man does is call Jesus “Good Teacher.”  We may think nothing of such a comment today, but in that time, doing such a thing was unheard of.  Yes, you heard me right, no one called any teacher–or really any person–good in Jewish society.  Let me read to you what Craig Evans says in the Word biblical commentary, “There are no examples from the first century or earlier of anyone being called “good teacher” as we have here.”  Think about that.  No examples anywhere of a teacher being called good.  Why? Mark Edwards in his commentary states this, “Rabbis welcomed any number of titles, but only rarely was a rabbi addressed as “good teacher” for fear of blasphemy against God, who alone is good.”  Rabbis emphasized that God alone was good.  No good Jew would call another man good.  It didn’t happen.  Which makes this young man’s comment very, very interesting.

    Which is why Jesus responds in the fashion He does.  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks.  “No one is good but God alone.”  Now, there are a couple of ways to take Jesus’ response.  There are those who try to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and say that here is evidence that Jesus never claimed to be God.  Jesus clearly is telling the guy that He isn’t God and shouldn’t be called good.  That is a possibility; however, I’d like to suggest that this doesn’t fit with the rest of the text.  In fact, I think a much better reading–true to Mark’s Gospel and the rest of this story is the following: Jesus is warning the young man to watch his words because the man may not like the consequences of where this conversation ultimately leads.  Because if Jesus truly is good, and if God alone is good, well, then this young man just called Jesus God.  And maybe that’s the point of this story.  Let’s continue.

    Jesus continues with His response to the young man’s question, “19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”  I want you to note that these generally come from the 10 Commandments.  The only one that is a little different is the command, “you shall not defraud.”  One could argue that this is similar to you shall not covet, but it could also recognize God’s preference for the poor and that one should not accumulate wealth by defrauding the poor.  In any fashion, each of these references picks up on the later commandments.  Please note that the first three commandments are missing from Jesus’ reference.  Again, this is important.  Why?

    The young man responds to Jesus, “Teacher, all of these I have kept from my youth.”  Note that the man did not call Jesus “good” this time.  Maybe the man knows that Jesus skipped a few commandments.  Maybe this made the man a little uncomfortable.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this man is confident in his response.  He truly believes he has kept the commandments that Jesus outlined, and here is the kicker, Jesus does not disagree.  Jesus is moved by this man’s testimony.

    As we have gone through the Gospel of Mark, we have seen Jesus become incensed at the Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law who are huge hypocrites.  We see Jesus become extremely angry with them for acting like they are holy and righteous–for thinking that they follow the commandments and are holy.  Jesus calls them hypocrites and liars, but Jesus does not do this to this young man.  In fact, we are told that Jesus looks at the young man and loves him.  There is no confrontation of hypocrisy.  There is no condemnation of self-righteousness.  Jesus accepts this man’s answer as honest and true, and the word for love affirms this as the Greek word is a derivative of agape–or unconditional love.  Jesus loves this man and his honesty. 

    But Jesus isn’t going to let this young man go away unchallenged.  Jesus is not going to let this man think that he has it all together.  This young man may have commandments 4 through 10 down, but there are three more commandments, and arguably, they are the most important ones.  Jesus has allowed the man to escape the external sins of action, but now it is time to delve down to the man’s heart.  It is time to get down to the root of what makes this young man tick. 

    Jesus says, “You lack one thing; [or dare I say, there is one commandment you are missing], go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

    The Greek is priceless in its description here.  The Greek literally reads, “The young man’s face fell, and he went away grieving because he had many estates.”

    Do you see what Jesus did?  Do you see how Jesus delved into the heart of the matter.  The young man who had come to Jesus was following all the external commands.  He was upright and righteous in the community.  He was seen as genuinely a good guy.  He was kind.  He was generous.  He didn’t sleep around.  He honored his parents.  He did all the things he was supposed to do, but his heart was idolatrous. 

    Jesus, in effect, cut through all the external things.  Jesus cut through all the good things this guy was doing, and Jesus took a laser focus on what this man was living for.  It turns out, this young man was living for his wealth and the status he received as a wealthy man.  Wealth and status was this man’s god, and Jesus confronted that god.  Not only did Jesus confront that god, He offered the young man a replacement.  What is that replacement?  Jesus said, “Follow me.” 

    But it wasn’t good enough.  It wasn’t enough to convince this young man to walk away from everything and follow Jesus.  He just couldn’t do it.  So, is there hope for this young man?  Is there hope for his salvation?  Is there hope that he could follow Jesus? 

    I think so.  For this encounter happened before one very important event.  It happened before the cross.  Why is this significant?

    Let me ask you this: most of you here this morning have had a significant other in your life.  Most of you have been deeply loved by this person.  Most of you deeply love this person.  Even those of you who are widowed understand this.  Did you change yourself for this person?  Did you continue to be the same person you were after you were loved by this significant other?  Of course you changed.  Of course you became different.  When you are loved by a deep and lasting love, you change because you want to show that other person how much you love them.  You want to please them.  You want to honor them.

    When we understand that Jesus loved us with this kind of love, it changes us as well.  When we understand that Jesus went to the cross and died for us when we least deserved it, it changes our hearts.  When we understand that Jesus gave Himself for us, died in our place, and reconciled us to God when we were still sinners, it draws us away from our false gods and sets our hearts upon Him.  We are deeply changed, and it changes the way we look at others. 

    We see that Jesus loved us when we were still enemies toward Him.  And so we love our enemies.  We see that Jesus blessed us when we persecuted Him, and so we bless those who persecute us.  We strive to win others over just like Jesus won us over.  With great love and a firm conviction that He is God.

    Now, there are those who after such atrocities say that the reason Paris and 9/11 and Kenya and Lebanon happened is because of firm conviction in God.  They will say that such conviction leads to hatred and killing.  But it simply is not true.  All of us know who the Amish are.  We know they have a firm conviction and belief in God.  But, you have never heard of an Amish terrorist, have you?  No.  Why?  Because at the heart of their belief is a man who proclaimed peace and non-violence.  At the heart of their belief is Jesus, and they have embodied that belief. 

    This is what we too embody.  This is what we too grasp.  We grasp 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 by Him.”  We are grasped by this love, and we are grasped by a desire to bring that love out into the world.  We are compelled to go out and share Jesus with others so that their hearts may be changed.  May we be willing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with even our enemies, and may we be willing to face rejection just as Jesus faced rejection. Amen.