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.

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