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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Manufactured Controversy (Starbucks, Christmas, and Josh Who?)

Why in the hell is my Facebook feed filled with comments about red cups, a war on Christmas, and the chiding of Christians who should get their priorities in line?

Let me get this straight:

Starbucks decides to remove decorations from its holiday cup...
A FORMER pastor--FORMER, mind you--who is now a SELF PROCLAIMED internet
"social media personality" says this is a war on Christmas and against Jesus.
And Yahoo News, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, and others run headlines.


Are you kidding me?

Are you really kidding me?

Folks, the war on Christmas is already lost--if there was one in the first place.

I mean, when retailers begin putting out Christmas decorations before the Halloween candy and costumes are put away, there is a problem of priorities.

When you can walk through the largest retailer in the U.S. and not see a single nativity scene in its selection of outdoor decorations, the real meaning of Christmas has been truly left behind.

The war is over.

The true god of this world has already won.  (Need a hint who that god is: $$$)

But, the media needs a war on Christmas.
The media (and certain segments of our society) need to do battle to prove how Christians are short sighted and have their own priorities messed up.
The media (and certain segments of society) need to make headlines, get clicks, and get revenue.

And what better way than to manufacture a crisis?
What better way than to get people to point fingers?
What better way than to get guilt ridden self-righteous Christians to point the finger at militant self-righteous Christians?

Find an obscure former pastor...
Have him criticize a secular business who makes a change...
Write a few headlines...
Pop some popcorn...

And watch how we get duped into fighting.


Over a manufactured controversy.

Instead of the things that really matter.

Are we that dumb?

Monday, November 9, 2015

As a Child

    When I was younger, one of the television shows I enjoyed watching most was America’s Funniest Home Videos.  I think it is still on television; although I watch very little t.v. these days.  I do know that there are a couple of episodes on Netflix, and my son in particular enjoys watching the hilarious antics of people who submit their videos to the show.  I am often intrigued by the award part at the end.  As I ran through the memories of my watching of this show, I thought long and hard about who would oftentimes win the awards at the end.  For those of you who have watched and watch the show, what kind of videos usually take the prize?  Here’s my unscientific, personal answer: cute animals and kids.  The kids probably have the edge. 

    There is something about kids that captivates our hearts.  Even if you do not have children, when you see a bunch of kids gathering together and laughing and smiling, it does something to your heart.  When you see images of children who are hurting or who are sick, it captivates your imagination and causes deep down sympathy.  There is something about our deep sense of humanity that causes us to want to protect, care for, and dote on our children.  That’s one part of us, but you don’t think I’m going to make it that colorful, do you?

    For there is another part of us that absolutely gets annoyed with children.  Don’t think I’m being a kill-joy.  You know it’s true.  Kids are a disruption.  They get loud and obnoxious.  They get pushy and want their way.  They do not follow the spoken and unspoken rules that we have as adults.  They do not allow us to do the things we want to do and say the things we want to say, and they cry and whine and fuss and argue.  And we generally think that they are a generation of spoiled brats!  !  I think in every cultural period, people have worried about the youth of the day being, well, immature.  Consider a few of these quotes from folks who lived long ago:

        They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things -- and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning -- all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything -- they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.  –Aristotle

    "The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress."  (From a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274)

    "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint".  (Hesiod, 8th century BC)

    At this point, you may be thinking that I am laying the groundwork to make a defense of our children and to encourage our children’s ministry here.  Rest assured, I am not.  I am not because the text we have before us from the Gospel of Mark is not about children.  Much like America’s Funniest Home Videos uses children to suck us in and watch their programming, Jesus uses children to teach His disciples an important lesson–a lesson about God’s kingdom.

    Let’s turn to the text.  People were bringing children to Jesus that He might touch them.  This was a common practice in the ancient world.  If people knew a holy person was in town–a priest or a rabbi or other such leader, they would often bring their children to receive a blessing.  Obviously, people had heard about Jesus being in the area, and they brought their kids.

    However, the disciples weren’t exactly receptive to these people.  They rebuked the folks who were bringing their kids.  The Greek word here for “rebuke” is epitimao, which is the exact same word that is used by Mark when Jesus rebukes the demons.  It is the same word that Mark used when Peter rebuked Jesus and when Jesus rebuked Peter back.  It is a very, very strong word that shows the disciples’ almost disdain for the parents who are bringing their kids.

    Jesus becomes indignant with the disciples.  Again, we have another strong Greek word.  Mark Edwards in his commentary says, “The word for “indignant” means “to arouse to anger” that is, to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it.  The object of a person’s indignation reveals a great deal about that person.  Jesus’ displeasure here reveals his compassion and defense of the helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.”

    I agree with what Edwards says, but I think it goes much further than simply Jesus compassion toward the children.  There is more going on.  For if you remember a couple of weeks ago, Jesus had an encounter with His disciples about who was greatest.  The disciples had been arguing about who was greatest, and Jesus gave them an important illustration.  Let me read to you just a few short paragraphs before today’s text from Mark chapter 9, “Then He [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

    Let that sink in for just a minute or two.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes who?  And by welcoming JESUS, the One who sent Jesus is also welcomed!!!”  Jesus taught this explicitly to the disciples, and they are failing miserably.  They are failing to welcome not “one such child” but a whole host of children, and so they are rejecting Jesus and by virtue of rejecting Jesus, they are rejecting God the Father.  Is it any wonder Jesus is so indignant??!!!

    Jesus hammers His disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”  We are not going to spend time on this statement because it is pretty self-explanatory.  However, the next statement is of utmost importance.

    Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

    This statement deserves a bit of time.  For it strikes, not at the hearts of kids, but at our hearts.  If you do not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it.  What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a little child.  Does it mean that we are to accept the kingdom of God just like we accept children?   Let’s first understand how children were viewed in ancient Israel.

    Almost all the commentaries agree on this point, and I’m going to go with the best quote on this one.  Again, from Mark Edwards:

    Ancient Jewish society...did not regard children with the same affection (as Western society).  Children, like women, derived their position in society primarily from their relationship to adult males.  Sons, to be sure, were regarded as a blessing from God, but largely because they insured the continuance of the family for another generation–and increased its workforce.  Childhood was typically regarded as an unavoidable interim between birth and adulthood, which a boy reached at age 13.  One will search Jewish and early Christian literature in vain for sympathy toward the young comparable to that shown by Jesus.
    Children were only seen as precious commodities–as those who could contribute in their later years toward the family’s well being.  They were seen as hands for the farm or retirement care.  Little children were a burden.  They only received their value and worth from their parents.  They knew they had no standing.  They knew they had only the value placed on them by their parents.  The majority of them were poor and disenfranchised.  Life was rough and tumble.  It was dog eat dog.  They were not fed first.  They had little or no toys.  They soon learned that everything they received was a gift.  And they learned gratitude.

    Why is this important?  William Lane had an interesting comment in his commentary, one that I think gives a partial answer.  Lane says, “Unlike adults, who do not want anything to be given to them, children are comparatively modest and unspoiled.”  Now, I would have to argue a bit with Dr. Lane.  I would qualify this statement and say that some adults want nothing given to them.  Some adults believe they must work for everything and refuse to accept any sort of free gift.  Some adults are too prideful to admit they need help and assistance.  Some adults want to work for everything they get.  Why?  Because it is their accomplishment; their work; they take great pride in their accomplishments because it is THEIR accomplishment.  Accomplishing much gives them a sense of value and worth, and if they take something without earning it, they feel shallow.

    Of course, this does not encompass all adults.  For we also know there are adults who expect things to be given to them.  There are adults who have a sense of entitlement.  There are adults who believe that they have a right to all sorts of goods and services without having to pay for them because they simply are.  They believe they deserve anything and everything that is given to them.  What is the result of such behavior? 

    The results from both ways are the same: a sense of self-righteousness.  One way says, “I have worked my way up.  I have accomplished all by my own, two hands, and I deserve to be rewarded for my efforts.”  The other way says, “I am good in and of myself, and I deserve to be rewarded for being me.”  Both of these paths are self-centered and self-serving.  One bases worth and value on work.  The other bases worth and value simply on being.  Neither leads to gratitude.  Neither leads to humility.  Both are self-aggrandizing, and you will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you are self-aggrandizing.  You will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you believe you deserve it.  You will enter the Kingdom of God if you realize that you do not deserve it, that you have not earned it, and that it is an undeserved gift given through and by God.

    This brings us right back to Jesus’ comment about children. Remember what I said earlier quoting Mark Edwards: children received their value only through their fathers.  Children received everything they had through their Father.  They realized they were totally dependent upon their Father for everything.  And these are little children!!  They have not reached the age where they become resentful–this is important.  In a conversation with one of my congregation members this week, I was informed that she was engaged in learning about children and how they act before they reach a certain age.  Before they become entangled in all of our problems as adults, they understand gratitude.  They understand sharing.  They understand compassion.  They understand that they receive everything from their parents and guardians.  They understand that everything is a gift, and they have a sense of gratitude and excitement about it.  Little children know their dependence upon their parents; know it is undeserved; and respond with thanksgiving.

    You will not receive the Kingdom of God unless you receive it as a child. 

    With gratitude.
    With humility.
    Without a sense of having earned it.
    Without believing you are entitled to it.

    How can you cultivate this attitude?

    Did you catch my purposeful attempt to mislead you?  You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you believe you have received something without having earned it.  You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you understand that you have received something that you didn’t deserve.   Gratitude and humility comes by knowing you are gifted something without having done anything on your part.

    Christianity calls this sheer grace.  Christianity calls this the act of God on our behalf to bring salvation to us–not because we deserved it.  Far from it.  We didn’t.  In fact, it was our sinfulness that brought Jesus to the cross.  It was our lack of ability to accomplish the following of the Law that required justice to be served.  Someone out there might ask, “Well, what law did I break?”  Think about it for just a moment.  Think about the standards that you hold everyone else to.  Think about how you think everyone else should act in the world.  Do you live up to even your own standards?  I can almost guarantee you, you do not.  None of us do.  There is a universal law that every culture, every religion, and every philosophy holds, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Every culture has it.  Every culture breaks it.  Admit it–you do too.  And if you are judged by that standard, you must admit failure.

    Yet, justice must be served.  And rather than that justice falling upon you, God took on human flesh and allowed justice to be served upon Him.  He took the punishment you deserved because you failed to do unto others.  He stepped in to offer you the Kingdom when you didn’t deserve it.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.

    By Him!
    By Him!

    Not by your actions and deeds.  Not by any sense of entitlement because you were an important person or being, but by sheer grace.

    No one has room to boast.
    No one has room to hold one’s head high.

    All are failures just as all are deeply loved.  Such a thing brings humility and gratitude–a child like faith.  A faith that comes when you remember what Jesus has done.

    Oh, the text isn’t quite finished.  There is one more verse.  “And Jesus took the little children up into His arms, laid His hands upon them, and He–again we see the weakness of translation, for Jesus doesn’t simply bless them–according to the Greek, He lavishes rich uber-blessing upon them.  Just as He lavishes such blessing upon you through the cross as He bears your sin.  May your heart be moved to gratitude and humility as you come to know the gift of His sheer grace.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

When Troubles Beset Us...

    Perhaps you recognize the title of this post as part of the Gospel hymn “On the Wings of a Dove.”  The entire verse is as follows:

When troubles beset us; When evils come
The body grows weak, and the spirit grows numb
When these beset us; well He doesn’t forget us
He sends down His love, on the wings of a dove.

    I share this with you in the knowledge that many, many within our congregation have been beset with such troubles.  There are many who are struggling with dealing with loved ones who are sick and dying.  There are some who have lost spouses.  There are some who are fighting illness themselves.  There are some who are recovering from surgery.  There are some who have had weird life circumstances cause stumbling and falling.  One wonders why such things happen.

    There is no perfect answer.  Believe you me.  If there was, I would write the book and sit back and enjoy the royalties.  But I haven’t written that book because no answer is satisfactory.  I can tell you a couple that are flat out wrong.  Wrong answer number 1: “Jesus wants you to have victory over such matters.”  One need be reminded, Jesus’ victory came on the cross–through suffering and persecution.  The victory is won, no doubt, but not without a great cost.  Wrong answer #2: If you just had enough faith, things would turn out right.  Please, no one has enough faith.  No one.  This is why we are saved by sheer grace.  We are dependent upon the mercy of God for all that we get.  We don’t earn it by our faith.  Wrong answer #3: God is causing this to test me.  God knows you would fail.  God knows we would all fail.  Our human nature is weak.  Furthermore, if you look at the life of Jesus, you will not see God testing Jesus (that would be a bit redundant).  You will see the Enemy testing Jesus.  It is the Enemy who tries to bring about our downfall by tests.

    Which leads me to offer a few answers that I think help us grapple with trials and tribulations.  Answer #1: When you are seeking to follow Jesus and the Gospel begins to take root in your heart, the Enemy works to steal you away.  The Enemy sets up road blocks and trials to make you question your commitment to Jesus.  Over and over again, we see this plainly in scripture.  Answer #2: We cannot escape our choices.  This is not a popular answer, but it is reality.  It does not cover everything, but if you have lung cancer after smoking for 30 years, this is no surprise.  One must make a distinction between things that we have some part in and things we don’t.  Answer #3: I have no idea what-so-ever.  This is the hardest one to accept because we want a reason.  We want a clue as to why things are happening.  Sometimes, there is just no good answer, and we must hope that God is in the midst of our trials and tribulations working to bring about a positive solution.

    That last sentence is an important one because it demands trust in God.  It demands that we have hope.  It’s a hard thing to have at times, but it is central to our faith.  The cross was the darkest day for the Christian, but it was followed by the light of the resurrection.  Cross.  Resurrection.  Death.  Life.  God worked to bring hope from tragedy, and it is this that we hold onto desperately in the midst of our trials.  May that hope find its way into your heart and mind.  Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2015


    Today we arrive at one of those teachings that makes some of us squirm.  Jesus teaches on divorce, and in reality on the topic of marriage.  This is a pertinent topic for our society and culture as only a few short months ago, the Supreme Court declared that gay couples have the right to marry in our nation.  This caused no shortage of angst amongst some folks, especially those of us who believe marriage is a relationship ordained by God between a man and a woman. 

    Critics of our position rightly pointed out that the Christian faith draws a sharp line about divorce, and they ask, “Well, if you Christians are so dead set against gay marriage, why aren’t you speaking out as loudly about divorce?”  Furthermore, those critics also pointed out that just as many Christians get divorced as any other particular religious or philosophical group.  So why, if this is the case–if we disregard or lessen this teaching on divorce–are we up in such arms about gay marriage?  Now, I am not going to argue about gay marriage this morning.  I want to deal with these legitimate questions that confronts us regarding divorce.  It confronts our hypocrisy regarding our faith, and it also gives us an avenue to confront the true issue behind why marriages break up.  Parts of the trip are not pleasant, but it is a trip that I think we are called to travel.

    For you see, the temptation for any preacher when this text appears is to soften Jesus’ words.  The temptation is to explain away what Jesus says to make everyone feel comfortable.  Why?  Well, you know why as do I.  In this room this morning, not a single one of us has escaped the reality of divorce.  Some of you have gone through a divorce and are remarried.  Some of you have loved ones who are near and dear to you who have divorced.  Some of you have good friends who have divorced as well.  You hear Jesus’ words, “Whoever divorces and remarried commits adultery,” and you say, “Is that really the case?  Am I...are my friends...are my parents really committing adultery?”  If you ask me that question directly, and I am afraid you will leave the church because of my answer, I, as a clergy, am often tempted to do what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his book The Cost of Discipleship.  Bonhoeffer criticizes the church and says that we are all to ready to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.  Now, what does that mean.  Just this: there is bad news.  If you divorce and remarry, you are committing adultery.  But there is good news: you are forgiven.  There is no softening Jesus’ words.  He spoke them for a reason, and I hope that once you see what that reason is, you will understand.  Let’s turn to the text.

    We begin with the Pharisees coming to Jesus to trap him.  The Pharisees don’t like Jesus.  They want Him silenced.  They actually want Jesus dead.  This is obvious by the question they ask Him about divorce because of the location of the question.  Jesus and His disciples are in the region of Perea.  This was the region controlled by Herod Antipas.  What is significant about this?  Well, if you remember Mark chapter six, there was that “wonderful” story about John the Baptist being beheaded. Why was John beheaded?  Because John dared to criticize Herod Antipas because he stole his brother’s wife Herodias and they were living in an adulterous and incestuous relationship.  John angered Herod Antipas and especially Herodias, and she simply bided her time until she was able to have John killed.  By raising this issue in this territory, the Pharisees were hoping word would get to Herod Antipas about Jesus, and Herod would silence Jesus once and for all. 

    But Jesus is the ultimate master of debate.  He is the master at outwitting traps, and Jesus maneuvers perfectly as He answers the Pharisees’ question with a question.  “What does Moses command you?”

    Craig Evans in his commentary on this text says this, “For the Jewish people, at least for those who were Torah observant, appeal to the commandments of Moses was an appeal to the highest authority on any question.”  This is a master stroke by Jesus because Jesus is calling the Pharisees–who were staunch defenders of the commands of Moses, to delve into Scripture.  He is making them answer the question from their own source of authority.

    They reply, “Moses allows us to write a certificate of divorce and dismiss our wife.”  The Pharisees are absolutely accurate in this comment.  In Deuteronomy 24, permission is given for a husband to divorce his wife.  The text reads, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2and goes off to become another man’s wife.”  There is more in this text, but I will not read the entire portion here.  It would get too long.  What I hope you can see is that in the Scriptures, there are grounds for divorce to take place.  The Pharisees knew this.  Jesus knew this. So why did they ask the question?

    Walter Wessel points this out in his commentary on this text, “The crucial words are “something indecent.”  What did that include?  The school of Shammai, the stricter of the schools, understood these words to mean something morally indecent, in particular, adultery.  The school of Hillel interpreted these words much more freely.  Just about anything in a wife that a husband did not find to his liking was suitable grounds for divorce.  Even if she burned his food!  So where did Jesus stand in this?  That was their question.”

    Jesus doesn’t get caught up in this debate, however.  Jesus drives much deeper.  Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the first principles–to the creation of humankind.  As Craig Evans once again says, “Jesus sidesteps these options and instead challenges the hermeneutical assumption that because something is “permitted” it is therefore according to the will of God.”  What is God’s will for marraige?

    Jesus quotes Genesis chapter 2, “6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 

    Why is this text so significant?  It is because of the Jewish understanding of God.  God was seen as the ultimate being–a being who was whole, who was complete.  If you remember the story of man and woman and how they became partners, God said that it was not good for man to be alone.  Therefore, God began creating and bringing all the animals to man to find one who was suitable to be a partner.  None were found suitable, so God caused the man to fall asleep, took out one of man’s ribs, and formed woman.  Man was no longer whole.  Part of him was gone.  Woman was not whole because she was taken out of man.  Neither could be whole and complete in and of themselves.  It was only when they joined together–when they became one flesh, that they were once again whole and closer to God.  So, if a divorce occurs, it is not simply two complete individuals going their separate ways.  No.  There is a literal tearing of flesh.  There is a breaking of that which was once whole.  This wholeness does not come about by the actions of people, but it is something that God does.  Jesus points that out in His commentary.  “What God has joined together, let no one separate!”

    There is quite a bit of significance to this.  Mark Edwards says this in his commentary, “The greatest difference between Jesus and the rabbis, however, is this: by giving a husband principal control over his wife, the Jewish divorce policy made the man the lord of the marital relationship.  According to Jesus, however, it is neither man nor woman who controls marriage, but rather God, who is the Lord of marriage.: “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

    The disciples were apparently perplexed about this teaching, so as was their custom, they asked Jesus about it later in private.  Jesus pulls no punches.  Jesus wastes no time.  Jesus teaches plainly and straightforwardly, “‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

    There is a lot to be said here, a lot.  But first, let’s quote Walter Wessel again because there is something happening in Jesus’ teaching that makes perfect sense to us, but would have been shocking in His day.  Wessel says, “Jesus did what the rabbis refused to do: he recognized that a man could commit adultery against his wife.  In rabbinic Judaism a woman by infidelity could commit adultery against her husband; and a man, by having sexual relations with another man’s wife, could commit adultery against him.  But a man could never commit adultery against his wife, no matter what he did.  Jesus, by putting the husband under the same moral obligation as the wife, raised the status and dignity of women.”  Jesus places a co-equal share on both men and women in marriage.  Jesus gives rights to women that they didn’t have in the Jewish culture.  It’s quite astounding.

    But that doesn’t get to the heart of the question that perhaps many of you have.  Is it really adultery?  Yes, it is.  Sorry, I’m not going to make you feel good about it.  I’m not going to soften Jesus’ teaching.  He isn’t beating around the bush, and neither will I.  But, I will tell you this.  Those of you who are divorced and remarried are the only adulterers in this room.  You see, I am standing here this morning guilty of committing adultery as well.  No. I am not, nor did I have an affair with someone, but none-the-less, I am guilty of adultery. 

    If you will permit me just a moment, I will read to you Matthew chapter 5 verses 27-28, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Yep, I am guilty.  I am also guilty of murder.  Again from Matthew chapter 5, “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Yep, I am guilty of that one too.

    And I’m not going to try to justify myself or soften these teachings either.  Christianity is not about justifying the sin.  Christianity is about justifying the sinner. What do I mean by that.

    Let me quote to you what N.T. Wright said about this passage from Mark on divorce.  Let me literally try to get at the heart of the matter in what Wright says:

    Jesus comment on the Mosaic permission is important as a clue to what he thought was going on in his own ministry.  ‘Moses gave you this rule because of your hardheartedness’; in other words, Israel in Moses’ day was not able to fulfill the creator’s intention, and needed laws that would reflect that second-best reality.  Hardheartedness, the inability (to use our version of the same metaphor) to have one’s heart in tune with to God’s best intention and plan, thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be the prototype of renewed humanity.  The problem was not with the ideal, nor with the law, but with the people: Israel was, when it all came down to it, just like everybody else.  Hardhearted.  Eager to take the precious gift of genuine humanness and exploit or abuse it.

    But this means that, for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness.  If he is now articulating a rigorous return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened.

    The problem with divorce and adultery and murder and all sin is a hardness of heart.  It’s our selfish nature coming back to haunt us.  Divorce happens because one or both parties in marriage become self-serving and selfish.  The relationship becomes all about that person and fulfilling that person’s needs often to the detriment of their partner.  Selfishness consumes a person sometimes to the point where abuse takes place, and in such cases, I have even counseled people to get out of that marriage!!  God does not intend for you to be consumed by a selfish, abusive partner!! 

    But God does intend for hearts to be changed.  God does intend for marriages to last.  God does not desire divorce.  God wants marriages to last until death do us part, and in order for that to happen, something has to cure our hard-heartedness.

    Christianity proclaims that this something is the Gospel.  The Gospel softens our hearts because the Gospel says, “Jesus died for you when you didn’t deserve it.  Jesus died for you and took your place on the cross when you were Jesus’ enemy.  Jesus took punishment that you deserved and cried out that you may be forgiven.”

    You know as well as I do that whenever someone does something for you that you know that you don’t deserve, it cuts you to the core.  You know as well as I do that when someone gives you a gift or shows you compassion that you don’t deserve, it makes you feel both guilty and loved at the same time.  You know you don’t deserve it, so you feel guilty, but you also feel deeply loved and appreciated because someone did such a thing for you.  Take that instance in your life and multiply it on a cosmic scale.  Multiply it with the significance of eternal life on the line.  Add up all the times you were selfish and acted in your own self-interest and did all the things you wanted to do instead of acting for others, on behalf of others or simply doing the right thing.  Know that all that burden has been erased by the God who took on human flesh and sacrificed Himself for you because He loves you.

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

    This is what Jesus has accomplished for you.  This is the cure for the disease of hard heartedness.  And when this sinks down into the depths of your soul, you know it’s power.  You know its ability to keep you humble.  You know it softens your own heart. 

    Yes, you and I are living in sin.  We live in sin every day.  We are failures.  We are adulterers.  We are murderers.  We are broken, failures.  But we are loved with a love which surpasses all of these things.  Our sins are not justified, but we are justified sinners because of the cross of Christ.  Amen.