Monday, July 27, 2015

Walking on Water

    Why don’t the disciples’ get it?  Why are their hearts hardened?

    Today’s Gospel lesson takes place immediately after Jesus fed the multitude on the hillside beside the lake of Galilee.  The disciples, who had nothing: no food, watched Jesus take a little boy’s lunch of five biscuits and two little fish and produce enough bread and fish to satisfy 20,000 people.  After this tremendous miracle, we are told that Jesus immediately commanded the disciples to leave and head across the lake.  There is a reason for this command.  The disciples didn’t necessarily want to go, but Jesus didn’t want them to come under the influence of the crowd.  In the Gospel of John, we are told that the crowd wanted Jesus to become King and rule over them.  Jesus knew the disciples would probably join in on that chorus.  This is something they want.  They want Jesus to be the promised Messiah who will issue in God’s Kingdom in a military way.  They want power and prestige and status.  Jesus knows this, and He doesn’t want His disciples to be taken in with it.  So, He commands the disciples to leave–sternly.  The disciples depart, and Jesus dismisses the crowd Himself.

    Then, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray.  Mark records Jesus going out to pray three times.  Every time Jesus goes out to pray, it is in the midst of a crisis.  The first time was after Jesus miracles in Capernaum where they wanted to make Him king.  The last time is in the Garden of Gethsemane where He faced the cross.  This time, Jesus goes out to pray because once again, they are seeking to make Him something He was not destined to be.  He must go spend time with the Father to become focused on His task–the redemption of the world.

    The text now gets a little ambiguous, at least when it comes to the time frame.  It says that Jesus looked out across the lake and saw the disciples straining at the oars because they were facing an adverse wind.  It then says that late in the night Jesus came to them.  This seems to indicate that the disciples had been struggling against this wind all night long.  They had been rowing and rowing and rowing, but making no headway.  They are completely and totally exhausted.  Perhaps they are worried and scared, although we don’t get that from the text.  It very well may be that they are frustrated, but not scared.  We don’t know.

            What we do know is that the Gospel writer Mark reports to us that Jesus came to them
walking on the water.

    Did you catch that?  Walking on the water.

    Let me say that one more time.  Jesus came to them walking on the water.

    I am taking a moment to emphasize this because we generally take this statement in one of two ways.  Either we chalk this story up to complete and utter mythology because people cannot walk on water and break the laws of nature.  Or we have heard it so many times that we are not shocked by it at all.  Either way, it has lost its ability to make us marvel and wonder, and frankly, I think it should fill us with awe and wonder. 

    But let me take a moment to deal with those of you who might be chalking this story up to complete mythology.  You might say rather straightforwardly that science has shown that there are laws of nature that cannot be broken.  A man walking on water is a scientific impossibility.  Therefore, this event did not happen.  Rather than deal with the physics of weight distribution on water and buoyancy, let me challenge your premise–that the universe has shown that there are laws which govern our universe that cannot be broken.  You see, as far as we know at this point, science has shown us that there are two ways of looking at things that work very, very well.  There are a set of laws which work great at the level of the tiniest of particles–atoms and quarks and neutrons and electrons, etc.   Then, you have another set of laws which work very well at the level of large things–like people and planets and galaxies.  This is called the theory of relativity.  However, when you try to take the laws that work well for small things and apply it to big things, the laws break down.  Similarly, when you try to take the laws that work for big things and apply them to little things, the laws break down.  All this is to say that, at this time–and for the foreseeable future, we don’t really know all the laws which are governing our universe.  It very well may be possible for a person to walk on water, but we just haven’t figured it out yet.  And, if–as this story purports to show–Jesus is not only a human but is divine.  Well, then you have the One who created those laws showing just how the universe is supposed to work.  And if that is the case, then indeed, we should be filled with awe and wonder.

    Let’s return to the text, shall we?  Mark says Jesus intended to pass them by.  This seems rather callous.  This seems like Jesus is indifferent to the disciples’ plight.  But we need to read this in the context of Mark showing us throughout his book who Jesus is.  This phrase is a reference to several passages in the Old Testament where God revealed Himself to humanity. 

    Exodus 33:19-23: 19And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

    Exodus 34:6: 6The Lord passed by him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,

    1 Kings 19:11: He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’

    Mark is showing us something very significant is taking place.  The Lord is intending to pass by.  This is solidified very shortly as Jesus responds to the disciples reaction to seeing Him.  The disciples react in utter in fear.  They scream at the top of their lungs thinking a water spirit has appeared to send them to their deaths.

    But Jesus says, “Take heart, έγώ είμί (ego eimi), do not be afraid.”  Yes, you heard something rather funny there.  You heard the original Greek, and I put that in there purposely.  The English translation here is “It is I,” but that Greek phrase is a loaded phrase.  You see, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, whenever God reveals Himself to humankind, He uses the words έγώ είμί or I AM.  So, let’s revisit this statement by Jesus using the Old Testament as our guide.  Jesus says, “Take heart, I AM, do not be afraid.”

    The Gospel writer Mark is unequivocally telling us, this is God incarnate walking on the water, and when God incarnate gets into the boat, the winds cease.  The disciples are amazed.  Their amazement is similar to their amazement the first time Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee.  It’s an amazement of “who is this?”  And Mark tells us, they did not understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.

    Why were the disciples’ hearts hardened?  Why couldn’t they get it?  Let’s recap a few things: Jesus calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee; He cast out a tremendously evil spirit that no one else could control; He healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years that no doctor could cure; He brought a dead girl back to life; He was constantly healing people from their diseases; He just fed 20,000 people, and the disciples still didn’t get it?  I mean what in the world is it going to take for these guys to understand who Jesus is and what He is here for?

    Just thought I might add: how long is it going to take us to understand who Jesus is and what He came for?  Oh, yeah, it’s easy to look at those disciples and wonder why they just don’t get it.  It’s easy for us to say, “Geez, guys, you are there all throughout Jesus’ ministry and mission, and you still don’t get it.  What is your problem?”

    It’s an easy question to ask of someone else, but it is much harder to ask of ourselves.  Yet, I think we need to ask it of ourselves because I don’t think we much like to contemplate what it means if Jesus really is God who came to earth.  I don’t think we much like to wrestle with the idea that there is a God who was willing to come down and visit us and reveal Himself to us–and then call us to follow Him.  Why would I say such a thing?  Because if Jesus is who He says He is; if Jesus is who the Gospel writers say He is, then either I reject Him as absolutely crazy, or I fall down on my knees and worship Him. 

    But I don’t want to think Him crazy because He teaches some fabulous things.  The whole love your enemies thing is a pure stroke of genius that had not been embraced by anyone in the world until Jesus brought it forth.  Jesus taught some very good moral ideals–so I can’t reject those.

    But I don’t necessarily want to see Him as Lord and God.  Because if I see Him as Lord and God, then I truly have to change the way I operate in the world.  I have to actually love my enemies.  I have to carve out time to worship.  I have to dig into my pocketbook and give up some of what I earn.  I have to spend time witnessing to Jesus, and I have to stop pursuing all those things that I believe will give me meaning and purpose and satisfaction.  I would rather do all of those things than really and truly see Jesus as my Lord and Savior.

    Why did the disciples have hardened hearts?  For the same reasons our hearts are hardened.  They didn’t want to see Jesus as God incarnate.  They wanted a political ruler and person of power.  They wanted Jesus to fulfill all their wants and desires.  They didn’t want Jesus.  They wanted the things that Jesus could give them.  Similarly, oftentimes we use Jesus to get the things we want instead of wanting Jesus.  Our hearts are so hard because we want to pursue the things of the world instead of the things of God.  And each and every one of us are guilty of this.  All of us.

    But what if Jesus wouldn’t give up on the disciples?  What if Jesus wouldn’t give up on you?   What if He longed to have you follow Him?  What if He longed to have you trust Him?  What if He longed to bring you unto Himself because He wanted you to live forever the way you were intended to live–the way you were intended to love–the way you were intended to be.  What if He believed it was His mission to break your hardened heart and bring you unto Himself?  Do you think He would accomplish it by repeatedly telling you what to do?  Do you think He would accomplish it by doing all sorts of miracles to sway your opinion?  Those miracles would certainly be awesome, but they didn’t sway the disciples.  They wouldn’t sway us either.

    But Jesus didn’t choose those ways to break our hearts of stone.  He didn’t use those ways to force us to believe or trust in Him.  Instead of using coercion or fear, Jesus used love.  He stretched out His arms and died for you when you least deserved it.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

    The disciples were not changed until they realized the magnitude of God’s love for them.  May you realize that Jesus seeks to pass by you today, to reveal Himself to you, and to melt your heart by showing you His nail pierced hands, His wounded feet, and His pierced side.  May you see the great love He had for you–the God who died in your place that you might have eternal life. And may we all worship Him as Lord right here and now.  Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Who do You Trust?

    It is little wonder to me anymore as to why we fail to see miracles.  It is little wonder to me anymore as to why the church continues to decline in the U.S.  It is little wonder to me anymore as to why there is a rise of those who call themselves spiritual but not religious or the “nones.”  When you believe that everything hinges upon what you do, things will fall apart.  When you fail to trust in Jesus, everyone walks away hungry.  I hope that caught your attention.  Let’s see why.

    Today we have the only miracle story other than the resurrection that is recorded in all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each record this tremendous act of Jesus, and each add certain details that flesh out the whole story.  Today, we focus on Mark’s version, but we will refer to the others as well as we walk through this event.

    It is important to note that the feeding of the 5000 men comes right after Mark tells us of the beheading of John the Baptist.  In that snippet, the events play out at a banquet full of depravity: drunkenness, gluttony, power, prestige, status, empty promises, child porn, premeditated murder, and disobeying God’s commands darken that story and lead to a horrible conclusion–a conclusion that leaves everyone empty.

    And then we arrive at the beginning of our text today as the disciples return from a mission Jesus had given them.  The disciples had been charged with going out in to the community and healing the sick, preaching the Word, and casting out demons.  They return and begin giving their reports to Jesus.  However, the disciples aren’t the only ones around.  There are many people gathering around as well.  Many are coming to be healed and to hear the preaching.  They know they are witnessing something tremendous, and they want to be a part of it.  This keeps Jesus and the disciples busy.  Very busy.  How busy?  So busy they do not have time to eat.  They are empty.

    This raises some very important points as it addresses life.  First, no matter how hard you work in helping people out, there will always be a need.  There will always be those clamoring for your services.  There will always be those clamoring for your attention.  As the singer for Confederate Railroad once sang in the song, “Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind,” “It took a while but now I’m grown.  Settled down with kids of my own. The more I give them, the more they want.”  That is not only true of kids.  It’s true of humanity.  That’s point one.  Point two is this: if you try to satisfy everyone, you will run yourself ragged and be completely empty.  You can work to heal everyone and care for everyone, but in the long run, you will run out of time and energy.  The disciples had become so busy trying to meet everyone’s demands that they were not able to eat.

    Jesus assesses this situation and says, “Okay everyone, time for a rest.  Let’s go to a deserted place.”  Jesus and His disciples get into their boat and head across the lake to find a place of seclusion.  Jesus knows His closest friends desperately need some time away.  He knows they need a break, but they are not going to get it–at least not yet.

    People see Jesus and the disciples going around the lake.  They know what Jesus is capable of.  They want to continue to be a part of this ministry, so they begin spreading the word.  People run around the lake.  They tell others in the surrounding villages.  People begin gathering.  A crowd builds as they expectantly wait for Jesus.  And as the boat approaches the shore, Jesus sees that crowd.  I can see the disciples’ eyes grow wide at this point.  I can see them in the midst of their exhaustion thinking to themselves, “Didn’t we just leave this crew?  Not only that, did they go out and bring all their friends?  How are we ever going to take care of them?  Will we ever get any rest?  Will we ever get any food?  Will we ever be filled ourselves?”

    Jesus could have had the same reaction, but He didn’t.  He looked upon that crowd and thought, “They are like sheep without a shepherd.”  Now, this phrase is very important.  It’s not just an agricultural term.  It’s not just about how sheep desperately need a shepherd–which they do.  There are some Kingdom of God principles coming into play.  Throughout the Old Testament, there are many references to God sending His promised King who will shepherd the people.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Remember, Mark has just told us about Herod’s banquet–Herod, the puppet king who was supposedly ruling over the people–dare I say supposed to be shepherding them?  He’s obviously not doing a very good job.  As Jesus looks at the crowd, He sees them as members of the Kingdom who do not have a King.  They need a King.  They need one who will shepherd them; who will lead them in paths of righteousness; who will lead them to green pastures; who will let them sit down beside still waters.  Do you hear a little bit of Psalm 23 there?  You should.  You should also hear Ezekiel 34:23 which is a lesser known passage, but still rings loudly here.  That passage reads, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”

    Mark is drawing a stark contrast here between the supposed king of Galilee who is seeking power and prestige and wealth and status, and Jesus who will feed His people.  There is a contrast between Herod who only thinks of those who will help him further his ambitions and Jesus who has compassion on the multitude.  There is a sharp division.

    And the first thing Jesus feeds is their soul.  He begins by feeding them with the Word of God.  He
begins teaching.  For those of you who might complain about my sermons, please take note, Jesus preaches all day–well into the evening.  Aren’t you glad I am not like Jesus?  The hour begins getting late, and the disciples begin to wonder about provision.  The people will be getting hungry.  They need food.  There’s a lot of people.  So, they come to Jesus and think of the most compassionate thing that comes to mind, “Jesus, send them away to the surrounding villages so that they can get something to eat.”  In other words, let them fend for themselves.

    This indeed is the easy way out.  Indeed, this is the path of least resistance.  Wash your hands of responsibility.  We will take care of our needs.  Let each person take care of his or her own needs.  We do the same thing today.  Let’s not fool ourselves.  Every time we point at someone who we think should be working instead of asking for help, we are doing exactly what the disciples are doing here.  Let everyone fend for themselves.  We have our own problems to worry about.

    But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook.  He looks at the disciples and says, “You give them something to eat.”

    Now, here is a very interesting response.  Let’s dwell on it for a moment.  Philip responds, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  Now, this was just over half a year’s wages.  John records that this would barely give everyone gathered a bite of food–surely not enough to satisfy them.  And whether or not the disciples actually had 200 denarii is questionable as well.  For we are about to find out just how much food the disciples really had.  For Jesus brushes aside the question of paying for the food by asking, “How many loaves do you have?”

    They respond, “Five loaves and two little fish.”  Now, if you remember the parallel account from the book of John, where did these five barley loaves and two fish come from?   Were they the property of the disciples?  No, they were not.  There was a little boy who was among those gathered whose mom had sent a lunch.  The food didn’t even belong to the disciples.  It was someone else’s!  Which means this: the disciples had nothing.  They had no food at all.  And what they had appropriated wasn’t even enough to satisfy one of them.  For you see, the five loaves of bread were essentially flat biscuits.  Several could be eaten in one setting.  Five loaves of these and two fish were enough to satisfy one boy.  The disciples were young men, and this would barely touch their appetites. 

    Which means this: Jesus had given the disciples an impossible command.  Jesus had told them to give the crowd something to eat.  The disciples did not have the resources to do this.  The disciples did not have enough food to do this.  They didn’t even have enough food to feed themselves.  Remember the very beginning of the story?  They were hungry and tired themselves, and now Jesus is commanding–not asking–commanding them to do the impossible.  It’s not printed in Mark, but I am quite sure the disciples were saying to themselves, “We can’t do this.  It is beyond us.”

    And it is.  It was.  It was beyond anything any of them could do.  Remember, Mark records that this crowd is composed of 5000 men.  Matthew says, this excludes women and children.  This crowd could easily have been 17 to 20 thousand.  There is no way 12 men could feed that multitude.  No way at all...if they trust themselves to do it.  Let me say that again: if they trust themselves with the task.

    Jesus orders His disciples to tell the crowd to sit down into groups of fifties and hundreds.  This detail is more important than you think, for it hearkens back to the Exodus when Moses divided the people into such groups.  It hearkens back to the promises that the Messiah would so divide the people of Israel in His Kingdom.  Jesus is presenting Himself as the Shepherd of the sheep: the King in the Kingdom of God as the people are divided into these groups.

    Then Jesus looks up, blesses the loaves and fish, and keeps breaking them.  I use the term breaking purposely because there are some who say that the real miracle is that when Jesus started sharing the food, everyone else broke out their own food and shared with one another.  The text does not say that.  The text here indicates that Jesus kept breaking the bread and dividing the fish and the disciples kept distributing it.  Jesus broke and broke and broke and the disciples gave and gave and gave.  All were satisfied.  17 to 20 thousand people were completely satisfied.

    But that is not the end.  Mark records one more small detail.  The remains were gathered, and it was enough to fill 12 baskets.  Now, these baskets were essentially traveling baskets that one carried upon one’s person.  They were like lunch kits, and there were exactly 12 of them filled up.  For who?  Remember the one’s who had nothing at the beginning of this story?  Remember the ones who were hungry and had no time to eat?  Remember the ones who had to take a little boy’s lunch just to have a meager supply?  Yes, that’s right.  The disciples now also were filled.  They now had provision.  Jesus didn’t just provide for those gathered on the hillside; He provided for those closest to Him.  ALL were now satisfied and provision was now made–not by anything that the disciples had done, but through the work and person of Jesus.

    My question to you this morning is this: when you look at the world and everything that is in it; when you see the need of people who are hungry, who are homeless, who need clean drinking water, who live in poverty, who experience oppression and racism and sexism; when you see a church declining and hurting, who do you trust to bring healing and satisfaction?  Who do you trust to bring fullness and healing?

    Be careful here, because I am not suggesting that we simply put all the responsibility with Jesus.  No.  His command to the disciples is His command to us: you take care of it. You feed the hungry.  You provide clean drinking water.  You clothe the naked.  You heal society’s wounds of racism, sexism, and the like.  This is His command to you and me.  We are not off the hook.  We are on it and cannot get off, but here is the deal.  Do you arrogantly think that you can fix the problem?   Do you look at things and say, “We can do it!”?  Or do you admit, “We can’t do it.  It is beyond us and our capability.  It is beyond the scope of any person or human entity.”

    It has become the unfortunate tendency that we look only to ourselves to fix the world’s problems.  It has become the unfortunate tendency of the church to believe everything hinges upon what we do.  Now, why would I say this?  Because of the truth of the human condition.  We do not have a hunger problem.  Let me say that again.  We do not have a hunger problem.  We have a distribution problem.  We produce more than enough food for everyone in the world to have something to eat, but it doesn’t get to those in need.  Why?  Because some believe they need more than others.  We don’t have a homeless problem.  There are so many deserted houses and buildings that we could house every person without trouble, but we fail to send the resources that direction and make provision.  We don’t have a poverty problem.  There are ample resources in this world to give everyone a sustainable life, but we tend hoard our wealth and fail to share.  These are not problems that can be completely solved by law.   These are not problems that can be solved by people lobbying the government to change the way things are handled because governments are easily corrupted by that same power and wealth.

    What must change is the heart.  What must change is the selfish nature of humanity.  What must change is the understanding that our hearts are never satisfied with wealth, status, privilege, possessions, or any earthly thing.   What must change is our own sinful nature.  And God’s command to us; Jesus command to us is “Change it!!” 

    Now, are we so arrogant to think that we can?  Are we so arrogant to think that we can change our very nature to make ourselves do the right thing?  Are we so arrogant to think that it is within our power and capability to change our own hearts?  I say arrogant because history has shown that we are sorely incapable of achieving this.  No matter how hard we work to be good, oftentimes we look with contempt upon others who do not do as good as us.  Our hearts may be compassionate toward those in need, but they are hardened and contemptuous of those we think should be doing more.  We still are selfish.  No matter how hard we try, our selfish; self-centered; self-righteous nature will rear itself.  What can break us out of it?

    Not what.  Who.  Jesus.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.

    You see, when Jesus looked at that crowd, He had compassion on them.  When Jesus looks at us in our selfishness, He has compassion on us.  He knows the hardness of our hearts, and He knows that breaking that hardness cannot be done by command.  Only love can break such a hard heart.  And so, He allowed His body to be broken as He paid the price of our Sin.  He became the bread of life which was broken and given out to each and every one of us despite our sinfulness. 

    And He says to us, stop trying to change yourself.  Stop trying to overcome your selfishness.  Trust in my work.  Trust in what I have accomplished on your behalf by dying for you.  Place your hope in me, and you will see something marvelous happen.  You will find yourself being satisfied.  You will find yourself being full.  To the extent you put your trust in me, your selfish nature will be overthrown, and you will find that you have in abundance. 

    It is my firm belief that if we admit our inability to accomplish such change on our own–whether in our personal lives; our church life; or in society–if we accept our failure and turn to Jesus, then and only then will the world’s hunger be satisfied, and our baskets will be full as well.  Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Off With His Head!!!

    Today, we get really real.

    Before we delve into our Gospel text from the book of Mark this morning, we need to see what immediately precedes it.  There is the rejection of Jesus and His teaching in His hometown of Nazareth–which I preached on last week.  Then the writer Mark records the following:

    7He [Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

    This snippet sets the scene for our Gospel lesson for today–the beheading of John the Baptist.  It’s not pretty.  Not pretty at all.  For it is into this world that the disciples go out to preach.  It is this world that the disciples go forth to bring healing and cast out demons.  For certain, it was a world that was created good–it was created perfectly, but it is now a world that is fallen.  It is now a world that is depraved.  It is a world full of sin.

    There are many in today’s world that do not like to hear talk of sin and depravity. There are many who believe that people are inherently good and that if we just taught people the right things; if we just steered them into the right places; if we just built up their egos enough; if we just passed the right laws and statutes; then we wouldn’t have any sort of violence, hatred, bullying, or the like.  And then events like Charleston, South Carolina happen where a kid enters into a place of sanctuary and kills nine people gathered to worship and study.  We ask, “Is there no safe place?”  “How come racism isn’t extinguished even though we’ve had 50 years of non-discrimination laws?”  We clamor for more hate crime laws; more gun laws; more openness to those who are different from ourselves.  And we think such things will make a difference.  We think such legislation and cries will change the world.  We think they will end sin and depravity, but we are chasing fool’s gold.  Why would I paint such a bleak picture?

    Let’s enter into the text for today.  The picture there is very, very dark.  There is no good news to be had.  Word of the disciples’ preaching, teaching and healing reached the puppet ruler of Galilee: Herod, and Herod became concerned.  This wanna be king thought that John the Baptist had returned from the dead to haunt him.  This sets the stage for one of the most depraved scenes found in scripture.  It’s utterly dark.

    John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said, “No one greater than he has ever been born,” was locked up in Herod’s prison.  You see, John was a prophet.  John called people to repentance.  He was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, and John took notes and named names.  John was fearless when it came to pointing out the sins of people and calling them to change their ways, and John didn’t shy back from those in power. 

    Herod had arranged a marriage to a neighboring ruler’s daughter, but at some point and time fell in love with his brother’s wife, Herodias.  Rather than obey the law and remain faithful, Herod sent his wife back home (severely angering the neighboring ruler) and stole his brother’s wife away.  John the Baptist called Herod on this egregious sin, “It is not lawful for you to be married to your brother’s wife!!”

    Now, most of the commentaries are quick to point out that John’s proclamation was very troublesome for Herod.  Not only did the proclamation anger Herodias, but it caused political problems.  It kept Herod’s divorce public and in front of the neighbors who eventually went to war with Herod!  To keep John quiet, Herod had him thrown in prison.  Herodias wanted John dead, but Herod wasn’t going to kill him.  Herod knew John was a prophet, and we are told that on a certain level, Herod enjoyed listening to him–even though Herod did not change his behavior. 

    All of this leads up to a feast that Herod throws celebrating his birthday.  Now, this might not sound too bad to us.  I mean, most of us here celebrate our birthday in some fashion–as parents, most of us work to make that day special for our children, and as we age–particularly as we get into advanced age, we really mark those milestone birthdays!  This is commonplace for us, but not so for the Jewish people.  Most Jews in that time did not celebrate birthdays–that was a Roman custom.  So, here we see Herod, who was supposed to be Jewish, embracing a cultural practice that was not his own.  Why?  Because he longed to be accepted by the Roman authorities.  He longed to be seen as a legitimate ruler.  He longed to be accepted by those in power.  He was willing to sacrifice his own cultural identity for another to have power.  And that’s not the worst thing we see in this text.  It gets worse.  Far worse.

    For Herod calls together all the movers and shakers from the region of Galilee.  Mark records that Herod invited, “his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.”  This means he brought in all the higher ups; all the power players; all those with status and pull.  Herod surrounded himself with power and wealth because, again, this is who he wanted to impress.  This is who he wanted to be like.  Average folks were below him, and this gets him into a lot of trouble in just a little while.

    Okay.  The scene is set as we have Herod throwing a party with all the movers and shakers of the community.  They are dining on fine food.  They are drinking the finest wines.  They are very happy and reveling.  Nothing like a little bit of gluttony and drunkardness to highlight one’s day.  Remember, I said this scene reeked of depravity!  So, now, let’s throw in some child pornography.

    Herodias’ daughter Salome enters into the court.  She’s probably around 12 years old or so.  This is Herod’s adopted daughter by his illegal marriage and his niece by blood.  She comes in and does a lewd dance.  Think 12 year old striptease.  And no one stops her!  No one!!  Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine watching one of your relatives–a child–strip in front of a lot of older men?  Would you sit there yourself and enjoy what you were watching?  That’s exactly what Herod does, and he is so pleased with what he sees, he makes a promise to his niece.  “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you–up to half of my kingdom.”

    What a perverse thing to say and do!  Not only is this incestuous, Herod has nothing to give.  The “kingdom” he presides over isn’t his to begin with.  He is a puppet of Rome.  He can no more promise a part of his kingdom than he can promise to give her the moon.  Herod is drunk on power and wine and debauchery and sensuality, and he opens his big mouth and sticks his foot into it.  Then he swears an oath–a solemn promise that he will do as she asks. 

    Salome goes to Herodias and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?”  Herodias, at this moment, I am sure, smiles an evil smile.  “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.”  There is no hesitation in her answer.  There is no contemplation of wealth or jewels or fine clothing.  This is pre-meditated murder. 

    Salome returns to the banquet and lays out her request, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  Herod, doesn’t want to do this, but he is bound by his oath.  He would lose face amongst all those in power and prestige.  His hand forced, he sends the executioner to behead John the Baptist. 

    If there is any bit of good news in this text, it comes toward the end as the disciples of John show a bit of compassion and bravery as they come seeking their leader’s body to bury it.  That little bit of compassion, however, is overshadowed by the darkness we have just witnessed.  This scene reveals the worst of humanity: hatred, defying God’s commands, gluttony, drunkenness, child-pornography and exploitation, adultery, striving for power, neglecting the poor, turning one’s back on one’s culture and heritage, selling out to those in power, making promises one can’t keep, wanting to maintain status and privilege in the face of poor choices.  Oh, it has it all.  It is a trip into the heart of darkness.

    Into this world, Jesus sent his disciples.  But do you find it as fascinating as I that the disciples preaching and healing and casting out of demons did little to change this reality?  Do you find it as fascinating as I that John the Baptist’s proclamation and confrontation of sin did not do a blasted thing to change the reality of the world?   Do you find it fascinating that no matter how much work the disciples did nor how many times John the Baptist confronted Herod with the truth, nothing changed?  I find that extremely fascinating–and a bit alarming.  Why?

    Well, the conclusion that I draw from this, and not only me but plenty of others is, the proclamation of the law; trying to tell someone to do the right thing; urging people to be better people will not change the depths of human depravity.  Pointing out another person’s sinfulness will not bring them to repentance.  Why?

    I am going to attempt to bring this home in a way that could get me in a bit of trouble, but I believe is none-the-less necessary if we are truly going to understand the Gospel.  For you see, the reason telling people they are sinners and need to repent doesn’t work is the depravity we all have in all of our hearts.  None of us want to hear that we are sinful.  None of us want to hear that we are broken, depraved, or failures.  We want to think that we are just find just the way we are, and we want to think that it is always that other person out there who have the problems.  We look at Herod and Herodias and Salome and those gathered at the banquet and think, “Man, I am so glad I am not like them.  They really need to get their stuff together.”  Or, we look at Dylann Roof and think, “Man, that’s a sick kid.  I can’t believe he shot all those people in that church.  I can’t believe how racist he is.  He needs to get his stuff together.”  Or, “Man, those homosexuals out there, they are so depraved.  They really need to change the way they act.”  Or, “Those politicians up there in Washington are corrupt and need to be thrown out.”  It’s always someone out there.  It’s always someone else who needs to change. 

    But let me ask you this question: when is the last time you took a look deep into the recesses of your own heart?   When is the last time you took a trip to understand the motivations that drive you each and every day?  When is the last time you strove to understand who you are instead of looking at everyone else?

    I mean, ask yourself this question: do you sit at home in your retirement years thinking, “I am glad I don’t have to do anything anymore.  I am content to sit and watch the world go by.”?  If that runs through your head, have you decided to turn your back on others who are in need?  Have you not become self-centered?

    Ask yourself this question: Why do I sit in traffic on a long commute to my job becoming stressed out and angry?  Is it because I have to make ends meet or is it because I have a particular lifestyle that I want and I will forsake family, friends, church and other things because I need to maintain a certain amount of status?  Have you not become self-centered?

    Ask yourself this question: Why do you keep yourself so busy running all over creation involving yourself in all sorts of activities?  Do you have to do all these things?  Are you living for your children and grandchildren?  Are you trying to please everyone so that you don’t have to deal with conflict or disappointment?  And in trying to please everyone so that you do not have to deal with disappointment, have you not become self-centered?

    Why do you look at other people and think they have problems and not yourself?  Do you think you do a better job of living than they do?  Do you think you have placed yourself above them because of your behavior or status or ability to create wealth?  Does this not make you self-centered and self-righteous?

    You see, at the root of most of our problems as a nation and as a people and as a community and in our families is self-centeredness–the idea that my needs come first; that I should have my needs satisfied.  That people should do what I want them to do because I have it right.  Yes, this self-centeredness is at the heart of Herod and Herodias and Salome and those in attendance at the banquet.  It is also at the heart of Dylann Roof.  It is also in my heart as well. 

    I’ve shared my story with you how I finally came to realize that at the bottom of my heart was the desire for recognition and power and prestige.  I wanted to be a pastor that all other pastors looked up to.  I wanted to be known as the guy who took a little church in Cat Spring, TX and turned it into a mega-church.  I wanted people to ask me how I did it and clamor for my advice and buy my books and ask me to come speak at their gatherings.  Oh, yes, I wanted all of these things very deeply, and I was willing to use you to get there.  I wanted you to carry me, and when you didn’t cooperate with me, I would get angry with you.  Of course, I would disguise all of this in churchy language, and I never considered that I was doing anything wrong; but oh how wrong I was.  Oh how misguided I was.  Oh how selfish I was.  And no amount of people looking at me and telling me I was wrong was going to change me.  No one pointing out how I should be doing things was going to make me see my own depravity.  No.  I had to come to see my brokenness.  I had to come to see my sinfulness.  I had to come to see that I needed not another set of rules but a Savior.  Only then could my heart be changed.

    That change was brought about by several things, but perhaps the most important piece came as I was healing after burning out.  I was visiting my grandfather who was 94 at the time.  I was asking him about his ministry as a pastor and if he ever experienced burnout.  He shared with me story after story of things he had done, and then he said the following words, “I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”

    Those words burned into my brain in an instant because they confronted me with my own selfishness.  I wanted to accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but those things are not important.  The most important thing my grandfather said in his twilight was, “The Lord and I are on very good terms.”  That’s really the only thing that matters.  That’s the only thing that is lasting and eternal.  And how in the world are the Lord and my grandfather on very good terms?  How in the world are the Lord and I on very good terms?  How in the world are you and the Lord on very good terms?

    Not because of anything that you did.  Not because of anything my grandfather did.  Certainly not because of anything I did.  But because of what Jesus did.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

    You see, Jesus was much more than a law giver.  Certainly He emphasized that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and then love our neighbor as ourselves.  But He knew that simply telling us to do that wouldn’t change our hearts.  It would not reach into the darkness.  Something else had to do that, so Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live.  He loved God with all His heart, and He loved His neighbor as Himself.  Then, Jesus died the death we deserved.  Because of our self-centeredness, we do not put God first.  We do not put our neighbor first.  We live for ourselves–and when we live for ourselves, God says, “I will let you live for yourself for eternity, and you will never be satisfied!”  That, my friends is hell!  But rather than allow us to experience that, Jesus took that upon Himself.  He experienced that Hell for us so that we would not have to.  He then clothed us with His righteousness so that we can enter into the presence of God–not just when we die, but right here and now. 

    We no longer have to seek status in the eyes of the world.  We no longer have to seek wealth or sex or busyness to fill us.  We have a God who willingly dies for us when we do not deserve it. We have a God who makes our joy complete as we seek Him.  When we look to that light and place our trust in that light, our hearts of stone are broken.  Darkness begins to disappear, and we are transformed.  And as we share that light, the world is transformed as well–not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done.  Thanks be to God!!  Amen.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Limiting Jesus

    I would like to take a few minutes as I begin this morning to do a couple of flashbacks.  Most of you, I hope know what a flashback is.  It’s a technique used by movie directors and authors to take you back in time to help you understand what is going on in their movie or novel.  Sometimes, in the midst of a particular story, these things can be annoying, but more often than not, they are extremely enlightening.  It is my hope that the next few flashbacks are more enlightening than annoying.

    The first flashback actually is found two chapters prior to the lesson we have before us in the sixth chapter of the book of Mark.  Jesus has finished a long day of teaching and preaching, and He tells His disciples that He wants to cross the lake.  A huge storm descends upon the group of boats as they cross.  Jesus is asleep, and His followers panic.  They wake Him up, and Jesus calms the wind and the water.  It was truly a mighty act of power, and Jesus chides His followers by saying, “Why do you have such little faith?”  I want you to note that Jesus doesn’t say, “Why don’t you have any faith?”  The disciples have faith, but only a little bit.

    Let’s move to the next chapter.  Jesus and His followers have crossed over the lake, and they are confronted by a man who is possessed by a demon.  This is no ordinary demon, but one named Legion.  The picture Mark paints about this demon is that it is particularly nasty and horrible.  Yet, Jesus has the power to cast it out, and it scares everyone in the countryside.  They are terrified because they witnessed an act that only God could achieve.  It was a massive deed of power.

    Then, because of the people’s fear, Jesus and the disciples cross back across the Sea of Galilee.  When they arrive, there is a large crowd awaiting them.  In that crowd, Mark makes particular mention of two people a man named Jairus whose daughter was dying and a woman who had been suffering from bleeding for 12 years.  Now, the woman had endured all sorts of treatments from the doctors; she had spent everything that she had; and nothing had worked.  But, she believed that if she simply touched the tassels hanging from Jesus’ clothes, she would be made well.  She touches Jesus’ tassels, and she indeed is healed.  Jesus tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” 

    Jesus and His disciples continue to Jairus’ house, but those inside inform the group that Jairus’ daughter is dead.  There is no more need to bother Jesus.  However, Jesus has none of it.  Once again, we see a link between faith and healing as Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Jesus enters the little girl’s room and brings her back to life.  It is a huge deed of power. 

    In each of these cases, Jesus performs tremendous deeds of power, and there is a link to faith.  Now, remember, I have said previous, and I say again, that faith is very much the equivalent of trust.  In each of these episodes, a tremendous amount of trust is placed in Jesus.  The disciples know they cannot save themselves, and they turn to Jesus.  No one has been able to help the demoniac, and he certainly cannot save himself–Jesus cures him.  The woman who was bleeding cannot cure herself, and the doctors have been no help.  She trusts in Jesus.  Finally, Jarius cannot help his daughter, and she dies.  No one can rectify that.  Yet, Jesus says, “Do not fear, believe–trust.”  And Jairus’ daughter is restored to life.  There is an implicit link between trusting Jesus and great deeds of power.

    Then, Jesus goes home.  Our flashback is complete as we arrive at the text printed before us today, and a stark contrast is painted.  Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath day.  It was customary in a synagogue to allow a visiting rabbi to take the floor and offer his words of wisdom, and the people of Nazareth give this custom to Jesus.  After all, they have heard the rumors going around about Jesus’ teaching and preaching.  They have heard about His deeds of power.  They are curious.

    Now, Mark does not record for us exactly what Jesus said in the synagogue, but I think we can pretty much assume it had something to do with Mark 1:14-15.  Let me read for you that snippet quickly, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

    This proclamation is Messianic in nature–meaning, Jesus was proclaiming that God was establishing His kingdom now.  The promises of the Old Testament were being fulfilled now.  Jesus encouraged everyone to change their entire being and orientate their lives toward this good news. 

    The obvious question many would have is this: how do we know the kingdom of God is at hand?  How can we trust your message?  How can we come to believe this when all we see are Roman soldiers maintaining rule and fellow Jews who support them with collecting taxes and keeping us oppressed?

    Jesus began to show them as He unleashed a flurry of healing and demonstrations of God’s power.  Among them were the ones I just listed in the previous chapters.  Indeed God was doing something new.  Indeed Jesus was the one through whom this was happening, but it had little effect upon those in Jesus’ hometown.

    When everyone in the synagogue heard what Jesus announced, they were amazed.  Some might see this as a positive reaction, but I do not.  It doesn’t seem to fit the context.  I tend to see the amazement in this fashion: can you believe this guy is saying this?  They are amazed because they don’t believe Jesus could or should be bringing this message?  Why?  Well, they see Jesus in a very different light.

    How so?  Well, let’s start with a few demographics.  Nazareth is a town built upon 60 acres of rocky outcropping.  The town is only 60 acres in extent.  Archaeologists estimate that at the max–at the max–mind you, it had 500 residents.  What does that mean?  It means everyone knew everyone.  Everyone knew everyone’s business.  Everyone was familiar with all that was happening.  There was no such thing as anonymity.   Which means, the townsfolk knew Jesus.  They had watched Him grow up.  They knew His family, and that leads us right up to the series of questions they asked about Him.

    “Where did this man get all of this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”  Meaning, they had seen Jesus grow up.  They knew Jesus didn’t study under any famous rabbi or otherwise.  They wondered if Jesus was making all this stuff up.

    “What deeds of power are being done by His hands?”  Meaning, is he doing all of this through the power of God or through the power of demons?

    “Is not this the carpenter?”  Meaning, his qualifications are to work wood and stone not preach.  Yes, this is an insult to Jesus.

    So is the question, “Is this not the Son of Mary?” In that day, it was customary to refer to a person as the son of their father, hardly ever the mother.  It’s truly insulting and could even be calling Jesus an illegitimate child. 

    “And aren’t his brothers and sisters here?”  Meaning, we know the family, and the family has told us about Jesus.

    And they took offense at Jesus.  He was too familiar to them.  They could only see Jesus in a particular fashion.  They could not see Him as a prophet.  They could not see Him as the Son of God.  They could not see Him as God incarnate.  Jesus had no right to tell them how to live their lives or what to believe.

    Jesus responds with an adage, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.

    Now, some wonder why Jesus wasn’t able to do any deeds of power.  Some believe Jesus’ power was somehow limited by the people’s unbelief.  I don’t think that’s the case.  Not in the least.  Jesus could have done a deed of power.  Jesus could have done something massive.  I mean, it’s not like curing a disease is a minor detail–Jesus was able to do that, but He wasn’t able to calm a storm; cast out a demon; cure a disease that had been ongoing for 12 years or raise someone who had died.  Why? 

    Because the people didn’t trust Him to do such a thing.  They didn’t believe He had the authority or right to do so, so they didn’t bring anyone to Jesus who suffered from such maladies.  They didn’t trust Him to take care of such business, and they were quite content to trust in themselves; in their doctors; in their leaders.  Jesus was someone they knew: a carpenter; a Son of Mary who might be illegitimate; the brother of folks they knew.  He was not one to trust with Godly matters.  He was not one to trust with healing or the casting out of demons or the raising of the dead.  We know you too well to trust you, Jesus.  Hence only a few were brought to Jesus.  Only a few were healed, and Jesus marveled at their distrust.

    Would there be anything that would change the people of Nazareth?  Would there be anything that would break their hearts of stone?  Would there be anything that could bring about them doing a complete 180 in their belief and thought?  Would there be anything that could happen to bring them to trust in Jesus?  Is there anything that can bring about our trust?

    Oh, you knew I would get to us sooner or later.  I mean, it would be one thing for me to stand up here and point the finger at all those people there at Nazareth and say that they just didn’t get it.  It would be one thing for me to say that they needed to see what was right before their eyes.  It would be one thing for me to say that they had a problem and needed to get over it.  It would also be one thing for me to point around our culture and society and say the same thing.  It would be something for me to say that atheists and “spiritual but not religious” and agnostics have the problem of not being able to recognize Jesus of not trusting Jesus, but then I would be limiting a very severe problem we all face.  Because it is my contention that generally we all have a problem with trusting Jesus. 

    You see, I don’t think we are at all particularly fond of the Jesus we find in Scriptures.  We aren’t particularly fond of what He tells us about how we should live our lives.  We aren’t particularly fond that He tells us that we should give all our possessions away.  We aren’t particularly fond that He tells us that we should not get divorced.  We aren’t particularly fond that He tells us to give to everyone who begs.  We aren’t particularly fond that He tells us to trust Him above our money, our skin color, our gender, our job, and our very identity. 

    And so we limit Him.  We turn Him into a political revolutionary who undermines our systems of governance–which He is, but He is much more than that.  We limit Him to a wise sage who gave us great instructions on how to live–which He is, but He is much more than that.  We limit Him to a historical figure who introduced some new ethics particularly in how to recognize our humanity in even our enemy–which He is, but He is much more than that.  We limit Him to an extension of ourselves using some of His teaching to bolster our own particular points of view and explaining away or completely ignoring His other teachings. 

    Why do we do such a thing?  Because if Jesus is who He says He is, then we have to give up everything and follow Him.  If Jesus is who He says He is and has done what the biblical writers say He has done, then we have no choice but to bring our entire lives under His authority.  We have to bring our wallets as well as our sexuality under Him.  We have to trust Him in our work; in our play; and we must fall on our knees in worship and adoration. 

    Why?  Because He died for us when we were still sinners.  He loved us when we were His enemies.  He endured the wrath of God so that we didn’t have to when He was lifted up on the cross.

    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.

    When you realize that Jesus did this for you by sheer grace, there is no limiting Him.  When you realize Jesus laid down His life so that you may be justified before God, you cannot define Him in the way you want to see Him.  He becomes the Lord of your life.  He becomes more than just a carpenter.  He becomes more than just a political revolutionary or great moralist.  He becomes your Savior.  You put your trust in Him, and the deeds of power follow.  Amen.