Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Would You Want to Move a Mountain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fact, Belief, and Truth

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

I think, I am trying to discuss a fact.

Carl is trying to talk about belief.

The two things are very different.

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

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

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

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

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

These are two completely contradictory beliefs/claims.

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

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

Theists believe there is something beyond this physical universe.

Atheists believe there is nothing beyond this physical universe.

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

The question is: which one is ultimately true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, next Sunday, we will delve into this as we deal with those last few verses.  Those verses will lead us straight to the cross and to God’s wonderful love that He showed there through Jesus.  We will hear the Good News that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”  We will see how this news cleanses our hearts and gives us even more than money can buy.  Amen.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reader's Challenge

I was told that I showed my ignorance in my comments regarding other religions and philosophies.  Of course, the person who said this offered absolutely no proof for his accusations.  Therefore, I offer you, my readers, an opportunity both to correct my ignorance and help out my accuser.

If there is another religion that believes that salvation, in whatever form you wish to define it: peace of heart, heavenly glory, earthly transformation, escape from the cycle of reincarnation, etc., comes solely by the action of God while solving the problem of justice and mercy and while proclaiming is absolutely nothing we must do to obtain it, then I invite you to share.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Rather "Blah" Ending

The ending just doesn’t seem right.

And I am not talking about the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  No.  I am talking about our Gospel lesson today from Mark chapter 11.  We have returned once more to walking through the Gospel of Mark, and our first day back just happens to be the text that is usually read on Palm Sunday–Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In all my years preaching on this text, I have generally overlooked verse 11.  I have focused most of my attention on all the rig-a-ma-roe that takes place when Jesus enters into the city.  It’s a grand parade!  It’s a note of triumph!  There is singing and cloak spreading and palm branch waving.  It is joyous and uplifting as Jesus enters into Jerusalem, but it ends abruptly, and, might I add, rather unsatisfactorily–at least to our taste.

It’s kind of like the way Christmas is now for many people.  Maybe you have had this experience at some point and time.  You go through all of the build up for the holiday: shopping, getting ready for the meal; wrapping presents; cooking, cleaning, decorating; putting tons of time and energy into it...Christmas Day finally arrives, and what happens?  In less than 10 minutes, the kids have all the gifts unwrapped and they run off to play with their toys.  You slave for hours cooking dinner, and it is demolished and eaten in less than 15 minutes.  With full bellies, the adults all find their most comfortable spot in the house and doze off.  The television is blaring.  Kids are off making a bunch of noise.  There are a boat load of dishes in the kitchen, and someone has to clean it all up.  And you think to yourself, is this what it’s all about?  Is this what I spent all that time and effort and worry for?  There is a great sense of let-down as all that time, effort, and energy suddenly come crashing down.  If you don’t know that feeling in regards to Christmas, I bet you know it regarding something else.  All the grandeur ends in a whimper.

That’s what happens when Jesus enters into Jerusalem.  Those of you who grew up in the church know the story.  You know the actions of the day.  Thousands upon thousands of Jewish pilgrims are headed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  It is the holiest of holidays for the Jews.  This celebration was mandated by God Himself to commemorate the saving of the Jewish people from slavery to the Egyptians.

In Exodus Chapter 12 God said these words to the people:

14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. 15Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance.

This day; this celebration of Passover was a huge deal for the Jewish people.  It symbolized freedom.  It symbolized deliverance.  It symbolized the removal of oppression and tyranny.  It offered them hope for the future when God would once again make Himself known to the world and deliver His people.

Of course, at this time, that meant the Romans who occupied Israel.  There was great hope; there was great expectation that God would indeed deliver them once more, and on this day, that hope rested upon one man: Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, they had heard the stories about Jesus’ healing.  They had heard the stories of His miraculous raising of people from the dead.  They had heard of His feeding of the multitudes.  They had heard about His preaching and proclaiming of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  They knew of His power, and He was coming to Jerusalem–the center of power and authority for Rome’s occupation and the center of power and authority for Jewish religion and worship.  How would things transpire?  What kind of statement would be made?

Jesus sets the tone by sending two of His disciples into town to procure a donkey “that has never been ridden.”  The commentaries note explicitly two important things: 1) an animal that has never been ridden is a special animal.  Such animals were generally seen as being suitable for sacred purposes.  2) Jesus, and the people, know the prophesy from Zechariah chapter 9,

“9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.  11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”

This text was about the promised Messiah.  The people knew it.  Jesus knew it.  A donkey was procured.  The procession began.  And people lined the streets.  They took off their outer robes and put them in front of Jesus.  They waved leafy branches.  They shouted out, “Hosanna.”  Now, please know that the original Aramaic word Hosanna! literally means, “Save us now!”  These words; these actions by the crowd had great significance!  This was not simply a spontaneous, happy gathering celebrating a person who was much admired.  No.  It goes much, much deeper.

Hear the words of scholar and theologian N.T. Wright:

You don’t spread cloaks on the road–especially in the dusty, stony Middle East!–for a friend, or even a respected senior member of your family.  You do it for royalty.  And you don’t cut branches off trees, or foliage from the fields, to wave in the streets just because you feel somewhat elated; you do it because you are welcoming a king.  Two hundred years before, Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple–and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. The point Mark wants to make, however, is clear.  From chapter 8 onwards the disciples have believed that Jesus is the true and rightful King of the Jews, on his way to the capital city to be hailed as such.  This is the moment of his royal reception...[And] In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David!

So, I hope you see.  This entry into Jerusalem is a direct confrontation of the powers that be.  It is a direct confrontation of the earthly kingdom of Rome.  It is a direct confrontation of the religious order.  It is a direct confrontation of all of the principalities and powers.  The crowd is in a frenzy.  Everyone is worked up.  Expectations are high.  Jesus is announcing Himself as the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  He is the one ushering in God’s Kingdom!

And how does it end?  Jesus walks into the outer courtyard of the Temple.  He looks around.  He checks His watch–well, no, they didn’t have watches back then, but the language leads us to say almost the same thing.  He checks the time, sees that it is late, and goes camping.  That’s how it ends.  All the pomp.  All the circumstance.  All the uproar.  Poof!  Gone.

Why?  It seems so unsatisfactory.  It seems like such a let down.  It seems so contrary to the way we would write the story.

But this is not our story.  It’s God’s story.  It’s God’s story of redemption.  It was deeply held that when the Messiah returned, he would do two things: He would cleanse the temple and set the religious authorities right and he would liberate the people from their oppressors.  In doing so, he would make Israel, the chosen nation of God great once more.  They would be a power to be reckoned with.  All the nations of the world would once again tremble at the power of the God of Israel.  That was the expectation, but the reality became much different.  The true Messiah; the true Son of God had His sights set on a different temple and a different throne.

First, let’s talk about the temple that Jesus truly has his sights set on.  It is not a temple built with hands.  St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  This is a far cry from the Jewish understanding of where God was located.  The Jews believed that God dwelt within the temple at Jerusalem in the holy of holies.  They believed this was the most sacred place on earth.  Jesus looked at that temple.  He looked toward that holy place, and He walked away.  He would return at a later date, but He would come to show the temple for what it truly was: a den of thieves.  Jesus was casing the joint.  He was making careful observations for He knew what He was here to reveal.  He knew He was here to reveal to the world the true nature of God’s love and the true nature of our oppression.

For you see, there is a reason we are oppressed by worldly powers.  There is a reason we feel oppressed by all the things that are going on in society.  There is a reason we feel stressed out and burned out and at our wits end.  There is a reason we feel out of control.  We feel such oppression and are oppressed because the human heart is deeply selfish.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It can be good at times, but the reason there is so much pain and suffering in the world; the reason the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the reason there is hunger and thirst; the reason people kill one another with guns and knives; the reason people steal and manipulate the system is the desire for power and prestige and security.  The reason is fear that we won’t have enough or that someone will take what we have.  At the center of our heart is a deep longing for security and well being, and we will do most anything to satisfy that longing.

And Jesus stands at the courtyard of our hearts casing the joint.  He stands there looking at what He could possibly do to change our hearts.  He stands there wondering if there is a possibility of change.  How can a heart be changed?

The Roman Empire sought to keep people in line and sought to keep the peace by means of fear.  If you didn’t pay your taxes; if you caused problems; if you tried anything that looked seditious, you were arrested, tried, and oftentimes executed.  Troublemakers were not tolerated.  People were publicly humiliated, killed, and crucified to send a message: step out of line, and this is what will happen to you.

The Jews saw these acts of power and believed that the Messiah would bring about God’s power.  Wielding the authority of heaven would be something to be even more fearful of!  When God’s might and God’s wrath were unleashed, then all would tremble at the power of Israel’s God!  When the Messiah ascended the throne, things would drastically change.  There would be peace because everyone would be terrified of what would happen if God were crossed.  Of course, the Messiah would probably be seen as quite the tyrant–as would God.  And would this really change a heart?  Do you truly love a tyrant?

Jesus walked away from such expectations.  There had to be another way.  There had to be a way to ascend to the throne without fear.  There had to be another way of cleansing the temple of our hearts without breaking and crushing them in terror.

The answer was the cross.

For even though Jesus could have ascended into that throne; even though He was worthy to sit on that throne.  Even though He had obeyed all of God’s commands and observed God’s will perfectly; He chose to face utter rejection not only by the people, but from God the Father.  He chose to face the wrath of not only the people for failing to live up to their expectations, but He chose to face the wrath of God so that those very people could be saved.  He chose to give up the throne so that He could dwell within your heart.  How so?

Most folks, when they hear the story of Jesus admire Him.  I mean it.  Even some of the most secular folks appreciate many of Jesus’ teachings.  They love it when He talks about peace and justice.  They love it when He talks about loving even your enemies.  Other folks love Jesus when they hear that He can give them peace, joy, happiness, and fulfillment.  They desperately want those things, and go to church hoping to get them.  There are others who have been promised wealth and health and strong relationships because of a relationship with Jesus.  They admire Jesus for what He can give to them.  In all of these ways, people come to Jesus with great expectations.  They cheer Him on.  They shout, “Save us now!”  But then Jesus confronts them with more.  He doesn’t act like they think He should act.  He doesn’t give them what they think they deserve.  You see, Jesus sees through our facades.  He knows that oftentimes we want the things He can give us; we don’t necessarily want Him.  We want the goods, but we don’t want to really commit to Him.  We love what Jesus can give us, but we don’t really love Him.

If we cherish things above our relationship with God, we commit idolatry.  We commit sin.  If our desires supersede God’s desires, we are acting out of selfishness, and that selfishness ends up causing great pain.  We are all guilty of this.  We deserve condemnation, but instead of allowing God to bring such condemnation upon us; Jesus takes it upon Himself.  Jesus faces God’s wrath for us.  Jesus takes our place because He loves us.  “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.”

It’s unexpected.  It’s a different ending to the story.  It’s not what we are used to.  For every other religion and philosophy says, “Do this and God will bless you.  Do this, and God will love you.”  Christianity says, “Jesus has already done this; Jesus has already blessed you; Jesus has already loved you; now do this.”  It is that love which truly changes a heart.  Has it moved yours?  Amen.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Guns, God, and Goodness

It was a great wonder to me why the national news media made such a big deal about my home state's new law that allowed properly certified individuals to carry firearms openly instead of concealed.  I mean, this is nothing new in the rest of the U.S.  Texas joins 44 other states in allowing individuals to open carry.  Think about that.  The vast majority of states already allow what Texas just began.  My state is actually behind the curve--and for all of those who think Texas is a gun crazy state, just ask yourself why it is that we were behind nearly everyone else.

But this post is not a defense of open carry or the state of Texas.  There is much more too it, because the facts are undeniable.

There are far too many people in the U.S. who die from gun violence.
There are far too many people in the U.S. who have fire arms who should not have them.
There are far too many people who look for safety behind the sights of a weapon.


There are far many more responsible gun owners than criminals.
There are far many more gun owners who never point a weapon at anyone except for those who threaten them, their families, or their property.
There are many lives that are saved by responsible gun owners.


We have more than a few, good, common sense gun laws on the books that regulate the sale and distribution of fire arms.
We have a good system of background checks for individuals who are looking to purchase.
We do not allow the sale of automatic weapons.


We could have better enforcement of these laws.
We could have better laws which might make things safer.

If you read through that list, I think you will see that the issue is much more complicated than simply saying: "We need to get rid of guns." "The government is coming to take your guns." "We need more guns."

Simplistic views are myopic and really do no one any good.  We need to acknowledge the messiness. Even in my list above, more facts could be added muddying the view even further.  And from facts that paint a muddy picture, it's hard to get a clear sense of what to do.

That being said, let's muddy the waters even more by dealing with an oft repeated phrase:

The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

I am an unapologetic Christian, and Christianity takes a very specific view of humankind.  St. Paul articulated it best in Romans chapter 3:

"All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God...No one is righteous..."

Think about that for a minute.  If you are not a Christian, wrap your head around the thought that there is no such thing as a "good guy."

Christianity argues that all are flawed.  All are sinful.  All seek their own wants, desires, and interests--sometimes without even realizing it.  We tend to reside at the center of our own universes, and if we become threatened...if our safety is not assured...

The tendency throughout human history is to strike out.  Remove the threat.  By hook, crook, law, or might, we preserve ourselves.  Add a gun to that equation, and the results can become volatile.

Oh, but lest you think I am going to go down the road and suggest that we need to give up our fire arms...

Remember, governments are made up of sinful people.  Governments themselves are infected with sin and the desire for self-preservation.  Governments are well adept at removing threats, and they have done so numerous times in history.

In fact, the number of U.S. citizens killed by firearms post Civil War pales in comparison to the numbers of people murdered by tyrannical governments who disarmed their populations.  Governments can be just as bad as the people who live in those nations.

I am also no hypocrite because I am not going to preach here on this blog and say that everyone should turn the other cheek as Jesus suggests.  I wouldn't do that if my own family was under threat.  I would unhesitatingly shoot to defend them.

Ideally, the Christian would turn the other cheek.  However, when unmitigated evil begins harming others, does a Christian have an obligation to defend others, even when that defense might be violent?  One of the most famous theologians of the Second World War came to that decision after having once been a pacifist.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, which eventually cost Bonhoeffer his life.  Violence became an option in the face of horrendous violence and evil.

Which brings us squarely back to the situation of gun violence here in the U.S.

It's messy, for certain.

Having open carry isn't going to solve the problem.
Putting more laws on the book isn't going to solve the problem.
Disarming citizens and only allowing government officials have guns most probably will lead to an even larger death toll (if history has anything to contribute to the situation).

So, what to do?

How do you deal with the fears for security that are inherent in all human beings?
How do you deal with perceived threats to your security?
How do you deal with a heart that sees someone who disagrees with it as an enemy?
How do you deal with a corrupt human nature that seeks its own self-interest?

23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.  27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.  --Romans 3:23-28
You were far off from God, and you were brought near to God not because of your actions but because of Jesus' actions on your behalf.  He became the sacrifice of atonement nullifying your sins.  

If you trust in this action: you have no room to boast because you are a sinner.  You have no right to look down at another as an enemy.  You hate no one.  You also have no need to wonder about your security because you are firmly taken care of by God.  You stand just before Him, and your place with Him is secured.  Your heart is changed because you are not striving to justify yourself or work for your own self-interest.  All has been accomplished, so you can work for God (not for others because that leads to burn out and contempt for those who don't work for others like you do).  

And you are then commanded by Jesus to convert others to this understanding--not by coercion like some in the faith have tried--but by introducing people not to yourself and how good you are, but by introducing them to the God who died for them.

The Christian approach to gun violence and death is not legalism but conversion--which will lead to changed hearts--which will lead to humility--which will lead to people responding with love instead of hatred.

Too often, we look to the quick fixes.  We think simply changing laws will make things better.  It hasn't worked throughout history.  People find a way to manipulate the laws; manipulate the courts; manipulate the process.  The only one who cannot be manipulated is God and His goodness.