Monday, February 29, 2016

The Greatest Commands that are Never Followed

If you read today’s Gospel lesson from the book of Mark, you may scratch your head a little bit–especially if you were raised in the church. Because, if you were raised in the church, you would have heard, more than once I hope, that God considers a sin a sin no matter how big or how small. God hates sin, and so He judges all of them harshly. Starting with that premise, one might come to the conclusion that all of the biblical Laws or commands in the Bible are on an equal footing. All should carry the same amount of importance and weight. So one might think that the scribe asking Jesus to rate which Law or commandment is greatest is a head scratcher. Shouldn’t Jesus have answered, "They are all important."?

Well, in a word no. Why? We will take a little bit of time this morning to find out.

You see, it is in the nature of humankind to make distinctions and ratings. We have to work through things to figure out what is important and what isn’t important. We have to have a discerning eye when it comes to following the laws which are written, supposedly for our own good. Now, some might be a little uncomfortable with this line of reasoning so far. You might think I am going to try and excuse you from following the commandments of the Bible. I hope you will not come away with that conclusion. We will get to the commands of the Bible in a minute, but first, let’s start with a few commands that are actually on the books in the state of Texas. I got this information from the website Some of these laws were verified on other sites. I hope they are all dependable. In this day and age, one truly never knows. Now, onto those laws:

•It is illegal to take more than three sips of beer at a time while standing.

•It is illegal to drive without windshield wipers. You don't need a windshield, but you must have the wipers.

•It is illegal for one to shoot a buffalo from the second story of a hotel.

•It is illegal to milk another person's cow.

What do you think about those laws? Reasonable? I can go around this room this morning and point out several of you who have broken that first one about taking three sips of beer at a time while standing. I’ve seen you at the Ag Hall at weddings and dances and stuff. Don’t deny it. I have to ask Sheriff Jack if he’s ever arrested anyone for taking more than three sips of beer while standing before. My guess is, he probably hasn’t because it really is a stupid law. It’s of minor importance compare to much weightier matters.

And that is the fact of the matter. When it comes to following the rules and regulations in this world, we are always having to make such judgments. We are always having to discern whether we should or should not follow a given set of laws. For instance, some communities have made it illegal to feed the homeless. That, of course contradicts what we Christians have been taught to do according to God’s will. So, which do we follow? Which command is most important? We must make a decision.
If you really read through the Bible, you will see such decisions being made about all of the commands introduced throughout the Bible. You will see all sorts of conundrums being presented.

You will see people violating direct commands given by God to the people. The Jewish scholars had worked their way through the Old Testament and had declared that there were 613 commands of prohibition and of subscription given by God. And, even with that seemingly few amount of commands, they oftentimes came into conflict with one another. Therefore, the Jewish scholars debated with one another about which commands carried more weight. Which commands were the heavy commands? Which commands were lighter? Which ones must be followed at all cost? Which ones could you let slide if necessary? These debates were commonplace, and there was a running debate throughout the decades about which commandment was the most weighty. Which commandment was the most important and demanded the most adherence to? This was a legitimate question for many, many people.

And so, it is not surprising that one day, Jesus was asked such a question. Our encounter takes place after Jesus had successfully circumvented two attempts to discredit Him. The Pharisees and Herodians had tried to catch Him by asking him about paying taxes. The Sadducees tried to trap him by asking him about the resurrection. In each of these encounters, Jesus shows a masterful ability to answer questions. Seeing Jesus’ masterful answers, a very curious scribe approaches.

As one commentator pointed out, this is the first time in Mark that an individual approaches Jesus with such a question. All of the other times, groups of people come forward to trap Jesus. In this instance, there isn’t a group. It’s one person, and the exchange doesn’t seem to be loaded with any sort of animosity or anger or entrapment. The scribe who comes forth really, genuinely seems to want to know which commandment is greatest.

And Jesus does not respond like He did with the other groups. In those cases, He used rabbinic technique to respond with a question to those questioning. Here, Jesus gives a straight-forward answer. I think it is because the scribe who asked Him is genuine and really does want an answer.

Jesus responds by quoting two places in the Torah. This is an important thing to see. For you see, in our society today, there are those who bemoan Christians quoting from the Old Testament. Even on my Facebook feed, I have had folks post a meme that has Jesus holding His head in His hand and saying, "I gave them the Beatitudes, and all they quote is Leviticus." You know, I hate that meme. Why? Well, when answering the scribe’s question, first, Jesus, quotes Deuteronomy, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength." Then, Jesus quotes–guess which book? You guessed it, He quotes the book of Leviticus chapter 19, "And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’" Jesus Himself quoted Leviticus!!! And He was absolutely right to do so.

The scribe acknowledges the wisdom in Jesus’ answer, and he responds with an absolutely mind blowing statement for a scribe. You have to remember that the scribes were intimately connected to the temple and the sacrificial system of Second Temple Judaism. They were the apologists of that system. They received their status and livelihood from that system, and this scribe whose entire life revolves around that system says, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that "he is one, and besides him there is no other"; 33and "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength", and "to love one’s neighbor as oneself",—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices." That would be the equivalent of me standing up here this morning and telling you stop giving to the church and give all your money to other ministries. I would be shooting myself in the foot. But this is what this scribe says.

And Jesus gives that scribe high recognition, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Indeed. Remember earlier in the Gospel of Mark when the rich, young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit the kingdom? Jesus answered, "Follow commandments five through ten." The young guy responded, "I’ve done that since my youth." Then Jesus looked at the young man and said, "There is one thing you lack, sell all your possessions, give your money to the poor, and come follow me." The young man went away sad because his possessions and wealth were his god. This scribe has just done the opposite. He has shown that his God is the true God, not the temple sacrificial system. He has shown that he loves God more than his job. Is it any wonder Jesus compliments him?

It shouldn’t be. These are by far the two most important commands, and when held in dynamic tension, they provide the best way of following ALL the commands of God. You can neither get caught up in mysticism and claim that you love God so much while neglecting your neighbor; nor can you get so caught up in loving your neighbor that you neglect the worship of the one who created your neighbor. And, citing these two laws give a very good measure of how to wade through the rest of the laws and commands we are called to follow.

Now, this seems to wrap it up in a nice tidy package. In fact, in my younger days, I would have simply stopped right here and said, "Christianity basically boils down to these two commands: love God; love neighbor. Just go and do that even though it is hard." In fact, there are many, many pastors who continue to preach this, and it presents a problem for the Church.

You may ask what problem it presents. I ask you to show me one person who can follow these two commands at all times. Show me one person who actually accomplishes this. Before you start trying to name names, please let me give you an illustration of what it is to follow the first command: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

For those of you who have ever loved someone deeply, I want you to think about that relationship. I want you to think back to the early days of that relationship and how you dreamed about that other person. I want you to think about how you couldn’t wait to be with that person. I want you to think about how your every thought was about how you could please that person; how you longed for that person’s attention; how you longed for that person’s presence. I want you to think about how you daydreamed about that person. Have you ever been at this point? Have you ever been enamored with a person that much? That’s the kind of love we are called to have with God.

We are to think about God at every moment. We are to pray without ceasing which means our dreams are to be consumed with God. Those moments when we have nothing to think about, our thoughts are to be on God. We are to think about Him and how to please Him at all times. We long to spend time with Him and walk daily with Him. We rearrange our calendars around Him and only Him. This is what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Can you do this? Can you live your entire life with this kind of intensity?

And what about loving your neighbor as you love yourself? How do you love yourself? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Most folks see one of two things: they either are very happy with what they see and love themselves a lot or they look at themselves and are not happy with what they see. If you look in the mirror and are not happy with what you see, how are you going to love others? If you do not like yourself, will you like others? And if you look in the mirror and really like what you see, what is going to happen? Do you think you will love others? In a word, no. You will be consumed with yourself and think that others should be just like you. They should think like you, act like you, believe like you. It would be nice if you could love others like you love yourself if you like yourself this much, but the reality is that most folks slip into narcissism instead of humility.

And so we neither love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

And we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves.

We fail. We are far from the kingdom of God.

This is not good news.

But the good news is there was one who did love God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength.

There was one who did love His neighbor as He loved Himself.

There was one who perfectly fulfilled these commands of God, and instead of sitting in judgement of you for your failure, He stretched out His arms and died for you so that you could be brought into the kingdom of God. He loved you with an unbelievable love. He saved you by sheer grace; through no work of your own. He made all things right between you and God. The writer of 1 John put it this way, "10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." The gospel writer John said it this way, "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."

And to the extent that we trust in Christ’s action; to the extent we trust what He did instead of what we do; to the extent that our hearts are captured by the cross of Christ and the love that was poured out there, then we will indeed begin to accomplish the love of God and the love of neighbor. As the writer of 1 John concludes, "11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us." This is what happens–God lives in us and his love is perfected in us--when we acknowledge that we are saved by sheer grace. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2016

When the Truth Confronts You

No one likes to be told or shown that they are wrong. No one. Most of us are quite happy to grasp onto our beliefs despite argument to the contrary. Even if we are confronted with strong evidence that our stated positions are lacking, we will end any sort of debate or conversation with the be all and end all phrase, "Well, we are just going to have to agree to disagree." Such a statement is fine if you are simply disagreeing about an opinion. I mean we can agree to disagree that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream or that pepperoni pizza is better than cheese pizza, but when it comes to matters of deep substance, when it comes to matters of truth, we can’t simply agree to disagree. We must have the courage to argue; to debate; to wrestle; and to even change our minds when presented with evidence that we are wrong.

As Christians, this is particularly so because it follows the nature and teaching of our founder, Jesus. Jesus was not an "agree to disagree" kind of guy. Nowhere in the Gospels do you see Him acquiescing to a point of view that is different by simply agreeing and letting that viewpoint go unchecked. Jesus entered into the dialogue, defined His position–which was God’s position, and then pointed out the error of the other view. It cost Him to be less likeable among certain groups, but it also won Him the admiration of many who saw that He was both impartial and consistent as He taught and proclaimed God’s Kingdom. Today’s Gospel lesson is a perfect piece of evidence showing Jesus’ confrontational nature when it comes to matters of Truth.

Let’s set the context once again as we turn to this encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees. Remember, Jesus had entered into Jerusalem with all the markings of the coming Messiah. He cleansed the Temple pointing out how the Sanhedrin or Jewish Religious High Court had used the Temple for their own selfish purposes instead of using it as a place where all the people of the world were intended to worship. The Sanhedrin took objection to Jesus’ actions and wanted to arrest Him and kill Him, but they could not because Jesus had endeared Himself to the crowds. Arresting Jesus without pretense would have caused a riot amongst the people causing the Romans to intervene thereby causing the Sanhedrin to lose their standing both in the crowd’s eye and in the Romans’ eye. Therefore, they had to discredit Jesus and turn the crowd against Him or show that Jesus was a threat to Rome. Last week, the Herodians and Pharisees took their shot with a question about taxes. This week, the Sadducees throw Jesus a religious curve ball.

Now, unlike the Pharisees and Herodians, the question the Sadducees throw at Jesus is not a life or death question. No one is going to kill Jesus or arrest Jesus based upon Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection. The Sadducees are trying to discredit Jesus by making Him look stupid. Little do they know the consequences that will befall them.

Mark tells us the Sadducees–who do not believe in the resurrection come to Jesus. Now, let me take just a moment to explain why this detail is important. You see, Judaism during the time of Jesus was not a united religion. There were many different groups vying for the heart of the populace. There were Pharisees, there were Sadducees, there were Zealots, there were Esseens, there were Herodians, and so on and so forth. Each of these groups practiced the Jewish faith a little different from the others. Each had various authorities they cited to bolster their positions. All of them agreed on the basic tenets of Judaism, but there were other things they disagreed about vehemently. The resurrection was one of them. Most Jews at the time believed that in the future, God would indeed resurrect those who had died as part of establishing the Messianic kingdom. They gleaned their beliefs from portions of the Psalms, Ezekiel, and the book of Daniel. However, the Sadducees did not buy these arguments. The Sadducees were convinced only by the authority of the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament. If it could not be found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy, then it was human ideal and not to be trusted.

The Sadducees were convinced there were no referents to the resurrection in the Torah despite many arguments from the Pharisees to the contrary. The Sadducees were convinced that all of the Pharisaical arguments fell short, and they felt confident that they could show how stupid the belief in the resurrection was. They attempted to use that argument on Jesus.

"Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 20There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; 21and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; 22none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. 23In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her."

Now, my initial answer to this line of thought would be, "What in the world was that woman putting into her cooking?" I mean, honestly, if I were like the fourth or fifth brother in line, I would have been like, "Uh, no thank you. I would rather take the chance of enduring God’s wrath than marrying her!!" But, perhaps this is beside the point.

The point the Sadducees are trying to get across is a point based in the Torah which God was offering both protection for a woman and protection for the blood line of a family. There are certain stipulations that surround this law in the Old Testament, and should you like to delve into it further, you can read about it in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. We will not do that now. What we will do now is follow the train of thought of the Sadducees. They are basically trying to show the absurdity of this scenario. If the resurrection is real, and if we are married to our spouse in the resurrection, then this woman will have seven husbands. There is no allowance in the Torah for a woman to have seven husbands, therefore the resurrection will not happen.

Jesus responds rather harshly and with a great deal of confrontation, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?" I want you to stop right there for just a moment and contemplate Jesus’ words. I mean, really just let that sentence sink in for just a moment. How in the world would you feel if someone asked you that question? Don’t you know you are wrong because you neither know the scriptures or the power of God? Jesus cuts the Sadducees to the heart because they prided themselves in knowing the Scriptures. They prided themselves in knowing about the power of God, but Jesus says they are ignorant of both, and He does so in two ways.

First, Jesus challenges their premise about being married in the resurrection: "25For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." Now, some of you might be looking at your spouse right now and thinking, "What? I won’t be married to her in heaven? That’s not what I want!" I am sorry to break the news to you. In the resurrection, there will be no need for marriage. We will indeed recognize one another. We will be overjoyed to see one another, but we are entering into a totally different reality. Angels don’t need to marry because they are totally and completely satisfied by the love of God. We will be like that, Jesus says thus nullifying the Sadducees premise and their logic.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there; He continues on with point number two: and as to the resurrection–whether or not it will take place. Jesus points out a critical text in the Torah. It is when God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush. God tells Moses, "I AM the God of Abraham. I AM the God of Isaac. I AM the God of Jacob." God does not say, "I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." No, God IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And then Jesus makes another appeal to a belief held by every religious group, "God is the God of the living and not of the dead." If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not to be raised; if they had ceased to exist, then God would not have spoken as if He were still their God! Jesus points this out to the Sadducees, I am sure, much to their dismay.
And then Jesus drives the final nail, "You are quite wrong." "You are way off base." "You do not know what you are talking about."

Oh, imagine Jesus saying that in our cultural milieu today. Imagine Jesus confronting the various religious groups today and saying, "You’ve missed the mark. You are wrong. You don’t understand scripture or the power of God."

You know what most folks would say to Jesus? You know how they would respond?
It’s not hard. We hear the arguments all the time:
"What gives you the right to say that I am wrong?"
"What is the Truth?"
"How do you know the Truth?"
"How do you know your read of Scripture is the right one?"
"We will just have to agree to disagree.

And, of course, Jesus isn’t exactly here to defend Himself. We are. And it is we who bear the brunt of these questions. They deserve some sort of answer as well–particularly if we want to establish Jesus as our authority.

First, we must establish that there is some sort of Absolute Truth. There are some who wish to say that truth is relative or that truth does not exist, but that is an absolutely illogical position to take. How so, you might ask. First off, you cannot start with a self-refuting statement. If you say, "Truth is relative," then the statement "Truth is relative" must be absolutely true. How can that be? Or, if you say, "Truth does not exist," well, then how can the statement "Truth does not exist" be true? It can’t. There must be some sort of Objective Truth giving meaning and, well, truth to our statements.

But now comes the hard part. We can know that there is objective Truth, but we cannot know it objectively. Think about that for a minute. There is objective Truth, but we cannot know it objectively. We are dependent upon that Truth being revealed to us. This is important especially when we get into arguments of a religious nature.

For instance, in the above argument between Jesus and the Sadducees, there are two positions: the resurrection will happen or there is no resurrection. Which of these is True? We have no evidence of resurrection (at least we didn’t at the time)? The two positions are mutually exclusive. They both can be wrong. One can be right, but they cannot both be right. How does one decide? They appeal to the evidence. They appeal to what God has revealed.

As Christians, this is exactly what we do when we enter into arguments of a religious nature. We do not appeal to our own authority. We do not appeal to ourselves. We appeal to Jesus. For if Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He did, then to use the famous catch phrase of C.S. Lewis: He is either Lord, a lunatic, or a liar.

Jesus, of course, claimed to be the Son of God. He claimed that He was laying His life down for the world. He claimed to be the ransom for many who would reconcile the world unto God. He claimed to be the I AM, God incarnate. He claimed to be the resurrection and the life. He claimed to be Lord of the world. He claimed that God sent Him into the world because 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.

Folks may say, "Well, that’s not good enough. Just because He said these things about Himself doesn’t prove that He wasn’t a liar or that His followers turned him into something that He was not." Fair enough criticism. But let’s look at the facts because there have been a lot of people who have claimed to be a Messiah. There have been a lot of people who came along in the history including the recent history of humanity who claimed to be God. What happened to their followings? What happened to their followers after these folks died?

Historically, whenever such folks came about, they would raise a following, but when the leader died, all the followers left. No one stuck around. Not so with Jesus. Everyone thought His followers would disband. Everyone thought the things that He taught would go away. But something happened that changed all that. Something happened that showed that Jesus was who He said He was and did what He said He did. That was the resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead. Oh, sure, there are those who scoff at the notion and say that such a thing is impossible. Might I remind you that even science cannot say that such an event is impossible–they can only say that it is highly unlikely. If you add up all of the cumulative evidence, you must admit that something happened that unexpectedly changed the fortune of the world–that transformed a movement that should have died–that initiated a movement that has now spread throughout the globe. You can’t escape it. You must wrestle with it.

And when you do; when you delve into the resurrection you come face to face with Jesus. You come face to face with the God who died for you. You come face to face with the Truth who will confront you and love you with a love too deep for words. He will tell you you are wrong; that you are a failure; that you have misread scripture and gone astray, but He will also take you into His loving arms and transform you and your life like nothing else can do. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bearing the Shame: Wednesday of Lent Sermon

Something shifted in our society during my lifetime. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I don’t know when the shift started, but I know it was as if a switch suddenly was thrown and many things that were once not considered acceptable became acceptable. Things that were once taboo were now mainstream. This shift has left many scratching their heads in bewilderment.

I remember my senior year in high school. I lived in a small community surrounded by farms and ranches. The only time it looked like it had snowed was during cotton harvesting season when the sides of the road were littered with errant strands of cotton that had escaped their modules while being transported to the gin; or those that had escaped the metal fingers on the cotton strippers. Wide open spaces dominated along with the boredom that accompanies a rural, agricultural society. The fact that kids snuck out and away from parents to engage in underage drinking was nothing new. Neither was it new that kids would have romantic rendevous. These things have always been taking place as far as I can tell. But, having four, five, or even six high school girls under the age of 18 walking around school pregnant–now that was unheard of.

And they literally had no shame.

None what-so-ever.

They wore their pregnancy as a badge of sorts, and if anyone raised any sort of moral objection, they were met with fierce attack. "You can’t judge me!" they would scream. Teen pregnancy had somehow become acceptable.

Perhaps the changes that began in the 1960's finally began reach a tipping point around this time. For I remember the "Jerry Springer Show." How many of you are actually going to admit that you remember that show as well? Remember how Jerry captivated his audiences by bringing in the most outrageous things that he could? Remember how there would be questions during the show that said something like, "Did your uncle sleep with your girlfriend and your sister at the same time? We want to have you on our show." Suddenly, aberrations like this went mainstream. The non-acceptable was made acceptable because of the lure of money and 15 minutes on national television. And when people actually showed up on this show–and had their fights, they were defiant as all get out. They had a "you can’t judge me attitude." They had absolutely no shame. None. Nada. And millions of people saw this. They saw such behavior rewarded. And it hasn’t stopped.

Even the porn industry isn’t shoved underground into seedy theaters and specialized places. If you have access to a computer and the internet, this stuff is literally a few clicks away. Even Playboy magazine has stopped having nude women in it. Why? There is no need for such a magazine. People flaunt their naked bodies on the internet with reckless abandon. And you know what is scary? Do you know what is even worse? So do teens under the age of 18. Of course, they don’t post such photos on the internet because of legalities, but millions of kids with cell phones are snapping naked pictures of themselves and sending them to friends without any shame at all. They don’t care. And, for the most part, society turns a blind eye. Society shouts from the roof tops, "Express yourself, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. You have nothing to be ashamed of!!!"

Contrast this with what is happening in our lessons from this evening. Each of these lessons, as different as they are, set forth a very real reality for both Mary and Joseph. Both of these lessons, when seen in their societal context shout loudly and clearly that sometimes, when you follow the will of God, you will face shame and ridicule.

This is quite a contrast to last week’s lesson regarding Zechariah and Elizabeth. In their case, God removed their shame. This couple had been barren, and in the societal context, this brought them tremendous shame because of the Old Testament based believe that God controlled the womb. If a couple had children, God had opened the womb and blessed the couple. However, if a couple were barren, God had kept the womb closed as a form of punishment. Without children, you were considered cursed by God. Last week, we heard how God removed that shame from Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the reading closed with Elizabeth praising God for removing her shame.

Oh, but ever the astute theologian, Luke shows us something very different this week. Luke shows us that following in the footsteps of God’s plan is no guarantee for the removal of shame. In fact, in the case of Mary and Joseph, the acceptance of God’s will for their lives means a lifetime of shame heaped upon them by the rest of society. How so? Let’s look at these two texts before us. Don’t worry, I am not going to go through them with a great deal of detail because that would take far too long, but I am going to look at them to point out the common thread running through them.

First, please take note of the Lukan text where the angel Gabriel visits Mary. Gabriel approaches Mary and says, "Greetings favored one!" Technically, the word favored one should be translated a little differently. It should be translated "graced" one. This is why Roman Catholics say in the Rosary, "Hail Mary, full of grace!" This mirrors exactly what Gabriel says to Mary here, and it is important. The word carries the connotation of having received a special favor from a benefactor. In this instance, that benefactor is God, the Lord, as Gabriel says.

Mary is in awe of these words. She is a peasant girl, probably in her teens. She carries no special significance. She has no special standing in the community. She is not well known. Yet, the angel says she has found special favor with the Lord. Is it any wonder she is much perplexed and tries to think this through? How in the world has she found favor with the Most High God?

Gabriel then lays it all out: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ This is a highly significant statement and it deserves much explanation; however, we do not have time for a thorough break down tonight. Let the words stand as they are said, plainly.

Mary responds again with a question, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" Unlike her cousin Zechariah, this is not a question of doubt. Zechariah said, "How will I know...? Mary asked, "How can this be...?" the nature of the question is very different. Mary is not doubting. She wants to understand.

Gabriel continues, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God."

Now, before we get to Mary’s final words, let me talk about the implications here. Let me remind you that Mary was betrothed. She was promised to be married, but she was not married yet. If indeed she were to become pregnant, everyone around would think some very unholy thoughts about her. Contrary to some who say that in this time people didn’t have all the understanding of how babies are conceived; folks knew exactly how it happened. They didn’t understand about X and Y chromosomes, but they knew that sexual intercourse produced babies. And they knew if you got pregnant outside of wedlock, you were engaging in something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Unlike what happened during my final years of high school, shame was not only given, but it was felt: deeply and hurtfully. The angel Gabriel has announced something great and wonderful, but it came with a cost: deep and utter shame.

And Mary says, "Let it be with me according to your word." She accepts this burden of shame.
Similarly, Joseph accepts the burden as well. Whereas Luke tells us the story through Mary’s eyes. Matthew tells us the story through Joseph’s eyes. Joseph is also visited by an angel in his dreams. But before that dream, Joseph knew that his betrothed had become pregnant. He didn’t know the child was of the Holy Spirit because of what he had intended to do. Joseph, being a righteous man, but also a compassionate man, was going to dismiss Mary and save her from shame. He could have had her stoned–God’s Law afforded him that right. But he didn’t want to have her killed. He would send her away privately, and very few would be any the wiser.

However, the angel appeared to Joseph and rendered his plans worthless. ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

Again, this saying deserves much consideration, but again, because of time this evening, we will allow it to stand as plain as possible. Therefore, let us also consider the consequences for Joseph if he were to follow this advice: Joseph too would have been put to shame. For he would be marrying a woman who was unclean; unfaithful; a sinner. Folks would whisper behind his back, "Does he know what kind of woman he is marrying? Doesn’t he understand that she is sinful? Doesn’t he know that God frowns upon such things?" The gossip would fly through the village, and people would have long, long memories. Shame would be a daily part of Joseph’s life.

And he accepts it. He accepts the will of God even though it will cost him dearly.

Mary and Joseph will pay the price for doing God’s will. They will be looked down upon. They will be whispered about. They will lose honor and status in their community. They will be shamed. Society will reject them, and this is but a foretaste of what will happen to their Son.

For in Jesus we will see utter shame and rejection at its worst. In Jesus, we will see a man–a man who is also God–rejected by the crowds. He will be accused of blasphemy. He will be accused of being a false Messiah. He will be beaten, mocked, spat upon, and hung naked on a cross. The public shame and rejection by man is intended to discredit Him and prove Him a phony–a liar. But even this is small potatoes compared to the ultimate rejection Jesus faces on the cross.

For you see, not only is Jesus rejected by man, He is also rejected by God. You may scratch your head in wonder at that statement, but let me assure you, it is true. Because Jesus became the punishment for all sin. Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to pay for all sin ever committed. Jesus bore the weight of that sin upon Himself even though He did not have to. He lived the perfect life and did not deserve what He received. So why did He receive it? Why did He have to die? Why did He cry out in forsakenness from the cross?

He did it because He could not bear the thought of losing us. He did it because He couldn’t bear the thought of His creation spending eternity apart from its creator. He did it to change our hearts away from our selfish; self-centered living and capture them with the love of God who is willing to die for us. He did it 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. Jesus endured shame and rejection to bring you close to God.

And isn’t it funny that in our culture today; if you stand up for the values of the sanctity of marriage, for sexual relations to be saved for marriage, for loving people who are vastly different than yourself, for daring to proclaim the exclusivity of Jesus, for daring to believe in Absolute Truth and that this Truth has been revealed in Jesus, then you are the one who is shamed? It is small wonder though. Just as following God’s will brought Mary shame, and Joseph shame, and Jesus ultimate shame; we should not be surprised if we are shamed as well. May we have the courage to be shamed. Amen.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Jesus the Politician?

In a very real way, I wanted to title my sermon this morning, "Jesus the Politician." Perhaps I have been influenced a little too much by this year’s already tiresome presidential primaries and caucuses and debates. Perhaps my perception is a bit jaded, but as I look at today’s Gospel lesson, I cannot help but think that if Jesus were debating any of today’s political candidates, He would absolutely wipe the floor with them. They would not be able to hold a candle to His wit, candor, and wisdom. Of course, this text isn’t totally about politics; in fact, the lesson to be learned runs much deeper, but let’s look at how "Jesus the Politician" gets us there.

We know that the chief priests, scribes and elders–the Sanhedrin–want to kill Jesus. We also know that they cannot simply kill him because the crowd will revolt and riot. Jesus has endeared Himself to them by His teaching, preaching, and cleansing of the Temple. By arresting Jesus without pretense, the Sanhedrin risk losing their power and prestige, not only in the eyes of the Jews but also in the eyes of the Roman occupiers. Therefore, the Sanhedrin need to somehow discredit Jesus. They need to make Him lose favor with the crowds. They need to somehow paint Him either as a false teacher, a blasphemer, or an enemy of Rome. If they can manage any of these things, then they can have Him arrested without fear. And so, they cook up a series of questions that they hope to use to trap Jesus. The first one we will deal with today, and it concerns taxes.

Now, Mark begins this segment with a line that would have made many of the ancient Jews scratch their heads. Mark tells us that the Sanhedrin sent some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap Jesus. You see, Pharisees and Herodians were at the exact opposite of the religious spectrum. The Pharisees believed that God would come and free the Jewish people IF the Jewish people purified themselves and followed the Torah–the Law. This meant, the Pharisees tried to be uber-Jews. They tried to follow all the rituals and all the rules for purity. This meant that they even tried to avoid anything Gentile–anything Roman. The Herodians, on the other hand, had tied themselves to the Romans. They were nowhere near as religious as the Pharisees. In fact, they were pretty lax when it came to following the Torah–preferring to adapt to Gentile ways and practices to make themselves liked by Rome. Pharisees and Herodians did not normally work together. In fact, they generally disliked each other greatly.

So, it would cause no shortage of eyebrows being raised to see these two groups coming together to confront Jesus. The average Jew would know that something unholy was indeed afoot. In fact, seeing Pharisees and Herodians together gives some credence to the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The Pharisees and Herodians certainly look that part as they come to Jesus.

And they confront Jesus in a most interesting manner. They first address Jesus with these words, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." Now, we know that these words are absolutely true. Indeed, Jesus is a Rabbi or teacher. We know that Jesus is sincere and that He shows no deference to anyone. Jesus does not regard anyone with partiality because Jesus is not swayed by human conceptions of the truth. Jesus is wholly and totally consumed with the Word and Truth of God. Nothing else will sway Him. We know this. We believe this, but the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe this. They don’t believe the words that are coming out of their mouths. They are simply using flattery and trying to build Jesus up so that He will not try to weasel out of the question they are going to ask.

You may wonder how I know the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe a word they are saying. Remember just a few verses before this exchange? Remember when the contingent from the Sanhedrin confronted Jesus? Remember when they asked, "By what authority or by whose authority are you doing these things?" Remember when they confronted Jesus with this question? Remember that they didn’t want to admit that Jesus’ authority came from God? They were not going to admit such a thing because they knew it would damage them. Yet, here they are saying almost the exact opposite. Why? Because it is expedient for them to do so. They believe that by painting this portrait of Jesus not only to Him but before the crowds that are gathered, that Jesus will be forced into their trap.

And what is their trap? The question they then pose, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians already believed they knew how Jesus would answer. They believed they had walked Him straight into a snare. You see, no good Jew would say that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Every good Jew, deep within their hearts knew that they were to give their allegiance to God and to God alone. Every good Jew believed that by paying taxes to Caesar, they were being forced to submit to someone that was not God. And they hated this. In just a moment, we will understand why. The crowds resented Roman authority, and if Jesus were truly the Messiah, they believed He would throw off the Roman oppression. Jesus had to say no. There was no other option for Him if He were to continue to command the respect of the crowds. However, if He said no, then the Herodians–who were in league with Rome–would immediately tell the soldiers that Jesus was seditious; Jesus was preaching treason. They would arrest Him, and then Jesus would once again lose all respect of the crowd. The Messiah was not supposed to be arrested. He was supposed to triumph. It looked like no matter what Jesus said, His words would make Him lose all support from the crowds.

But, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and the Herodians underestimate Jesus. They clearly do not realize they are dealing with a Master of debate. First off, Jesus knows their insincerity. He knows their words of flattery are just that. Those words were meaningless, and Jesus lets them know that He knows. "Why are you putting me to the test?" Jesus asks. I am sure that raised a few eyebrows. I am sure the Pharisees and Herodians thought to themselves, "Uh oh. He knows something is up. Now what is He going to do?"

Strangely enough, Jesus asks for a denarius. This was the coin that was used to pay the taxes to Rome. It was a coin that was very, very offensive to the Jews. Why? Let me read to you N.T. Wright’s description of this coin:

But the coin itself went further. Jews were forbidden to make carved images. They debated whether this included images of plants and flowers, but images of human beings were out of the question; and here is Tiberius, staring coldly out at the world from every small Roman coin. And the writing! Around the head the words say in Latin: ‘Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’. On the other side, it says: ‘High Priest’‘ (the Emperors were routinely high priests of the main Roman cult). ‘Son of a god’; ‘high priest’–if the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to Jews, they could hardly have done it better.

So, let’s put this in perspective. The Roman tax was given to an emperor who thought himself divine. The coins used to pay the tax were considered idolatrous to the Jews not only because they contained an image of the emperor but because they called the emperor the son of a god and a high priest. No good Jew would accept such a thing. No good Jew would approve of such a thing, and it is extremely ironic, to say the least, that when Jesus asks to see such a coin, that someone nearby–probably there in the temple itself, actually has this idolatrous coin. Jesus wouldn’t carry one, but one of the Herodians probably did. Jesus is slowly turning the tables on His accusers.

Looking at the coin, Jesus then utters these words. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s."

This statement is so fascinating because if Jesus were a politician, He had just won every vote in the debate. He won over the Roman faction. He won over the Jewish faction. He won over the independent faction. The only faction He didn’t win was His rivals who were seeking to discredit Him.

For you see, the answer is an acceptable answer to just about every party. No matter what party you are a part of, you will hear the answer you want to hear. If you believe you should pay taxes to Rome and that the emperor is a god, you will hear Jesus saying, "Give to Caesar who is god, what belongs to him."

If you are a Jew who believes you should pay taxes to Rome but not honor Caesar as god, you will hear, "Give to Rome the Roman tax but do not worship Caesar. Worship the true God."

If you are a Jew that believes that you should not pay taxes to Rome, you will hear, "Caesar doesn’t deserve to be given anything, give everything to God." It is a masterful answer that leaves everyone convinced Jesus is on their side and agrees with them!

And so often, this is what most of us do with Jesus anyway. So often we think Jesus blesses our particular perspective. So often we see Jesus as a politician who is trying to get our vote, and so when we read through Scripture or listen to preaching, we find the Bible verses or the Sunday morning preachers who agree with our particular perspectives. We hear what we want to hear and leave convinced that we are fine just the way we are.

But the real Jesus doesn’t let you get away with that. The real Jesus is actually going to confront you because, as I have said for several weeks now–Jesus isn’t interested in ruling over the nation of Israel, and He doesn’t want to govern the building called the temple: He is interested in ruling over the temple called your heart. He wants to be Lord of your life, and He is making no bones about this in His answer to the Pharisees and Herodians.

Let me again quote N.T. Wright, "First, ‘give Caesar what belongs to Caesar’ can be taken, of course, as a way of saying ‘yes, pay the tax’, but without the sting of ‘yes, submit to the Romans as your masters.’ The fact that Jesus has drawn attention to the blasphemous image and writing gives his command the flavor of ‘send this filthy stuff back where it came from!" So, if N.T. Wright is correct, and I think he is, Jesus is looking at that coin, seeing the image of Caesar, seeing the writing, and having nothing but contempt for it–nothing but contempt for the idolatrous message that is on it. For Jesus hates idolatry!

And then Jesus makes the rubber hit the road. "Give to God the things that are God’s!" Let me start getting at this one by telling you a quick story and then asking you a couple of questions.
When I was talking about this snippet in staff meeting this week, Janice told me that one day her mom tested her brother. Her mom gave her brother some money to put into the offering plate. After worship, Janice’s mom asked her brother whether or not he had put it into the offering. The answer was no. "Why didn’t you put it in the offering plate?" The response was priceless, "If the streets of heaven are paved in gold, then God doesn’t need this dollar!"

You know what, Janice’s brother was right. He was absolutely right. I mean–now here are the questions–given that God holds this world in the palm of His hand, do you really think that God needs your money? No. He doesn’t. Given that God lives in eternity, beyond space and time, do you think that God needs your time or your worship? No. Again, God doesn’t need it at all. So, why give to the church? Why give to charity? Why worship at all?

Here is why. Perhaps you have gone into a restaurant or business and noticed hanging on the wall the very first dollar earned in that restaurant. Maybe you have even seen the very first check written to that business or restaurant proudly displayed. Why keep such a thing? Why put it on the wall? You know the answer. You know the reason. That check; that dollar represents the purpose and desire of the restaurant or business. That check or dollar represents the first fruit of the work put into that business, and it is something to be treasured. Why is it treasured so? Because it is the thing most coveted by the business owners. It is an idol.

Compare that with what God asks us to do with the first fruits of our labor. For God is very clear in the Jewish Law what He wants. In Exodus 23:19 and in other places, God commands this, "The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God." The first fruits are not to be kept for ourselves. They are not to be displayed on the wall, they are to be brought to God. Why? To show where our allegiance lies. To show that these things don’t capture our hearts. To show that we are not making an idol out of them.

Oh, but here is the difficulty. Our hearts do not naturally do this. In fact our hearts resist this to no end. Our hearts cling to our idols desperately, and it is nearly impossible for us to overcome those idols. Don’t believe me? I guarantee you that even most of us here this morning can’t walk away from our idols. Here’s a challenge for you that I am sure you will fail, and then I will offer up a challenge for myself that I know I will fail.

For those of you who do not tithe, here’s the challenge. Begin immediately to give 10% of your income to the church. If you know in your head that this is the right thing to do, that God commands it, and that it is keeping you from making your money an idol, try and do it. I would almost bet you that you can’t bring yourself to write that check. It’s too hard.

For those of you that time is a precious commodity and are governed by your calendars, I challenge you to make it a point to be at every worship service during the season of Lent. Even though you know that God wants you to worship Him; even though you know this time prevents you from turning something else into an idol, I would be that you cannot and will not be able to do this.

For myself, the challenge is to stop spending time and money to improve my property out in Rocksprings. Even though I know I can make better use of my time and resources; even though I can find other places to retreat to that would cost me less; even though I know I should think about how I can use that time and money to more wisely serve God, I know I won’t be able to do it.

You see, our hearts are not fully captured by God. Our hearts are not fully captured by the Gospel. And no amount of trying on our parts are going to change that. We will not be able to write that check. We will not be able to rearrange our calendars. I will not give up my property.

And Jesus still says, "Give to God the things of God."

If we are honest, we dejectedly will say, "I want to, but I cannot. My heart cannot let go."

And Jesus replies, "I know. I know the status of your heart. I know you cannot let go of your idols. They have a hold on you, but I can change that. I can lessen their grips on your heart, and I am not going to beat them off of you. I am not going to punish you. I am going to capture your heart and your life. I am going to do this by stretching out my arms and dying for you. I will pour out my love for you and pour myself into you so that your heart will begin to change."

This is the Gospel. 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. He did this because you belong to Him. He does not want your money. He does not want your time. He wants you. And He is willing to die so that He can have you. Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Purpose of the Church

This morning, I am going to shift gears a little bit. Many of my sermons recently have been geared to invite people who are outside of the faith to consider having Jesus as the Lord and Savior of their lives. I have tried to show how and why He is worthy of such a position and how the Gospel offers insight and answers to a lot of the problems we all face in this world. I have done very little recently to talk about the role of the people of God in living out our calling to be children of God. Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark leads us directly there, so if you are not a part of the church or if you are considering Christianity, please know that this sermon is not directly intended for you. Hopefully, however, you will appreciate the information included within.

Let me begin by asking you: what is the church’s main purpose? What is the reason for the church on earth? At first, this might seem like the answer is obvious, at least to each and every one of us individually. But as you dig into this question and reflect upon it deeply, I think you will see that it is actually a very complicated question. I mean, if you really want to see just how complicated it is, those of you with computers, go home and Google the question, "What is the purpose of the church?" You will get a whole lot of responses. Some of them similar. Quite a few of them different. And as each author of each article begins to delve into the question, you will see a whole lot of non-negotiables:

The purpose of the church is to worship.
The purpose of the church is to care for those in need.
The purpose of the church is to make and train disciples.
The purpose of the church is to be the earthly representation of Jesus.
The purpose of the church is to be a place of prayer.
The purpose of the church it to provide a place where all are welcome.
The purpose of the church is to enact the kingdom of God on earth.

All of these are good, solid answers. They are theologically and biblically based. One can easily provide all kinds of support for these answers, and I certainly don’t want to demean any of them. They are all correct, but there is a danger that lurks behind all of them. There is a danger that creeps in and lures us away from the true purpose of the church on earth. That danger is our own selfish nature–a nature that emphasizes survival and security over everything else. What am I talking about?

For the last several weeks, we have traveled through the book of Mark, and every lesson that we have had before us has either been in or been about the temple. Jesus triumphally entered into the city of Jerusalem and then entered the temple. Because it was late, He went camping. The next day, Jesus cleansed the temple with a parallel encounter with a fig tree that was rotten from the inside out. The next day, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders asked Jesus by what authority He was doing these things. They asked Jesus that question while Jesus was teaching–in the temple. In each of these circumstances, lurking in the background was the Sanhedrin’s decision to turn the courtyard of the Gentiles into a marketplace thereby excluding the vast majority of the world’s population from worshiping the One, True, God. Jesus exposure of this travesty angered the Sanhedrin, and they wanted to put Jesus to death, and instead of trying to soothe hurt and damaged feelings, Jesus doubles down. He tells everyone a parable. A parable that riles the chief priests, scribes, and the elders even more.

Jesus begins, " ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed."

Now, this situation was not uncommon in the ancient world. We have discovered a great stash of legal papers in which landlords leased their lands to tenants and agreed upon receiving parts of the harvest as payment. We have also discovered many instances where tenants refused to pay their landlord, and they indeed mistreated the servants that landlords sent to retrieve their payments. Jesus is using real world situations to illustrate His point.

And the point has to do with the nature of the landlord–which we are pretty sure is a reference to God the Father; and the nature of the tenants–which are the Sanhedrin and other Jewish leaders. Mind you, this is not a parable directed at all the Jewish people. It is directed squarely at the Jewish religious authorities who have abandoned the purpose of the temple.

So, what does this parable say first about the nature of the landlord? Think about this for a moment: what would you do if you had leased a property to some renters and they refused to pay the rent? What would you do if you knew that they were reaping the benefits of living on your property without just repayment? What would you do if you sent someone on your behalf to collect the payment and your renters drove them off? How long would you wait before getting the authorities involved? How long would you wait before calling the police? How long would you wait before evicting your tenants? If you are like most people, you would have almost zero tolerance for such behavior. You would act quickly to prevent such abuse, but does this landlord do that? No. Not in the least. In fact, the landlord’s actions almost bespeak of major weakness. He is literally letting the tenants get away with murder. He does nothing except send more representatives. One might come to the conclusion that this landlord is daft.

And the tenants take advantage of this. The tenants are selfish and not only want all the proceeds of the vineyard. They want ownership of the vineyard themselves. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, "Villagers could take over land from an absentee landlord, if the villagers felt the landlord was too weak to enforce the claims." Think about that for a moment as you think about the fact that Jesus is comparing God the Father to this landlord. Think about that as you compare the actions of these tenants to the actions of the Sanhedrin in the temple. Think about the injustice being perpetrated by these tenants and the Sanhedrin. It should begin to make you angry.

We return now to the landlord. Again, we might think this landlord to be absolutely daft because even after all of His servants were beaten and killed, the landlord decides to send His only, beloved son. What Father in His right mind would do such a thing?!! I mean, if you were that landlord, would this thought ever cross your mind? Of course it wouldn’t. People would think you crazy. You would send a swat team, not your only, beloved child. But that is the difference between you and this landlord. The true Landlord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The True Landlord will go to great lengths to give the tenants a chance to pay–to honor their agreement. The True Landlord will take the chance that His only Son might meet with death because He is a Landlord unlike any other Landlord.

And the unthinkable happens. The tenants reject the Son; kill him; leave his body unburied and disgraced thinking they will now inherit the vineyard. Their thoughts aren’t totally unfounded. It is highly likely they thought the landlord dead when they recognized the son coming. They believed that, according to the laws of the land, if they killed the son and retained possession of the land, they would indeed inherit. Their plan was perfect.

But the Landlord was still around, and Jesus makes no bones about what will happen next. The tenants will be driven out and the vineyard given to others. It’s not a surprising outcome. Again, according to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, "Since the Law permits the son to act on behalf of his father, the legal definition of agency implies that dishonor and insult to the son would be equivalent to dishonoring the one who sends him." Think about that in light of the Sanhedrin’s questioning of Jesus’ authority last week. If Jesus’ authority indeed comes from God, then to reject Jesus’ authority is to reject the One who sent Him. This is the strongest condemnation possible for the religious leaders.

But here is the interesting part: in the parable, the Son is dead. The Father is still coming to enact judgement, so why does Jesus include the rest of His teaching? For Jesus quotes a portion of Psalm 118 directly, "22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."

Now, there are couple of things here that are of note. The first is the translation of the words "cornerstone" from the Greek. When we hear this word, we think of a stone at the corner of a foundation–the foundational stone, so to speak; however, the Greek doesn’t really fit that kind of a stone. The Greek, according to Craig Evans, is better translated as, "‘head of the corner’, which probably refers to either a capstone that completes an arch or a capital that sits atop a column or pinnacle of the building." Therefore, it is a stone above all other stones. It is the stone to which most attention is drawn. It is the stone that everyone looks at. This is an important point in light of the last statement, "That this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." What is so significant about this verse?

Again, Evans says, "Thaumastae, ‘marvelous’ suggests that God is accomplishing something against all odds, something completely unexpected, something that mortals cannot achieve apart from dvine assistance." Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about Jesus who is the Son sent by the Father. Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about the Son who is rejected and killed by the Jewish authorities–who is disgraced. What happens to Him? What happens to Jesus? He is lifted up; resurrected for all to see. Jesus becomes the chief stone, the cap stone, the stone above every other stone that all are to gaze upon.

Which takes us squarely to the purpose of the church today. I mean, I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out now, do you. The purpose of the church today is to point to Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to proclaim Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to lift up the name that is above all other names and tell the world what God has done through Jesus.

I hope that those of you who are sitting here this morning are saying to yourself right now, "Well, that’s obvious. Tell us something that we don’t know." I hope that you believe this is a no-brainer observation. I hope so, because the reality in most of our congregations is quite the opposite. The reality in our congregations is that we focus most of our attention and most of our arguing on things without even referencing Jesus.

Now, I want to be very clear here. I am not trying to get us away from doing things. As James writes in his letter, "Faith without works is dead." And there are those who are quick to point out a very important truth. It is worthless to go up to a hungry person and tell them, "Jesus loves you," while they are dying of hunger. They will immediately think that Jesus has no concern for their hunger–which simply is not true. However, let me ask you a couple of questions: without raising your hands, how many of you have given to some sort of charitable organization in the past month or so? My guess is that many of you have. Second question: how many of you have proclaimed the gospel and told someone about Jesus in the past month or so? I’d bet a good chunk of change that the number of hands would be far, far fewer. In fact, I’d say we have been trained to let our actions speak louder than words. In fact, you may have also heard that wonderful saying, "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words."

I’ve used that saying numerous times in the past. I no longer use it. Why? There was a brilliant illustration that the late preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones used when talking about the Gospel. He said: Imagine a king went off to war against an enemy that is threatening your country. If that king loses the battle, what does he send back? He sends back military advisors who say, "Archers over here, calvary over here, infantry over here. Get ready to fight for your lives." In other words, get ready to do everything you can. However, if the king wins the battle, he sends back heralds. They proclaim! They tell the good news, "The battle is done. The king has won. Live into the freedom!" The Gospel is literally translated "Good news." News is told. It is not lived. History is told. It is not lived.

What Jesus has done in bringing reconciliation with God is news. It cannot be lived. It must be told. Therefore, all we do must in some way, shape or form point to Jesus. Everything about our congregation, about our lives should lead people to look at the capstone, the head of the column, the stone that the builders rejected that became the chief cap stone. We must proclaim that the Lord has done this. We didn’t. We didn’t do anything. We have been saved by sheer grace. Humankind could never accomplish the salvation that was given through the cross of Jesus: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him."

This is the ultimate focus of the church and the reason it exists. Jesus is trying to convey just this to the religious leaders of His day. They reasoned that they were helping others by putting sacrificial animals on sale in the market place, but they were only truly helping themselves. Likewise, when we focus on being kind to visitors, having a lot of programming, keeping our grounds looking nice, giving through our community care fund, having perfect worship music, and all other sorts of things–FOR THE PURPOSE OF GETTING MEMBERS, then we too are working for and pointing to ourselves. Christianity is not about that. The church is not about that. We are not to be about that. We are called to point to and tell others about Jesus, and when we are pointing to Jesus; well, then we will be nice to visitors, have a lot of programming, keep our grounds looking nice, help others, worship well, and all sorts of things not for our own benefit, but for His. Amen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?

Yes, I know the statement is not usually followed by a question mark, but stick with me for a minute or two.

This morning, I saw a Facebook meme with St. Paul's quotation of this teaching from the book of Galatians chapter 5 verse 14, "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It is quite intriguing that in the midst of a diatribe against those who are trying to impose the Law upon others, Paul quotes the Law, is it not?  In fact, Paul is trying to walk a delicate balance in this book.  He is trying to show that because of what Jesus has done, we are free from the Law.  We are no longer under its discipline, but we certainly do not have a license to do whatever we please--"lest we devour one another."

Paul unflinchingly says in this book that the Law cannot bring life.  The Law cannot justify.  This is quite a telling statement given that "love your neighbor as yourself" is indeed a command, a law.  And this command cannot bring life.  It cannot bring justification.

I puzzled over this for a while this morning as I looked at that Facebook meme.  For the fulfillment of the law seems to be contingent upon how we love ourselves.  I mean, look at it carefully.  Love your neighbor as  you love  yourself. 

How do you love yourself? 

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

If you are like most in this world in which we live, you probably see one of two things:

1.  You see something despicable.  Don't stop reading.  Hear me out.  When you look at yourself and who you have become and compare it to what the rest of society says you should be; what you should look like; and how you should act, you see something despicable.  I mean, in my own case as a white male (depending upon which circles you run in), I should:

  • have a sense of guilt because of white, male privilege
  • have a six pack on my abs because I should be taking care of my body
  • have a six figure salary
  • have changed the world
  • be sensitive to those around me
  • be strong at all times
  • be the perfect father, husband, friend
  • work like a dog, but still have plenty of time for my wife and kids
Well, I have none of those things.  I am a tremendous failure.  If  you measure yourself by what society says you should be, you will have a great sense of that.  You will despise yourself, so how can you love others if you despise yourself?

2. Which leads to the second thing that you might feel when you look in the mirror.  You see someone who is fine just the way they are.  You don't care what the rest of the world says.  You are comfortable in your skin and see no need to change.  It is the rest of the world that needs to accommodate you not vice-versa. 

So, what is the problem with this?  Isn't that what we try to instill in our kids?  A sense of personal well being and satisfaction?  A sense that it doesn't matter what anyone says about you?  That you are perfect and deserving of love just as you are?  What is wrong with this?

This: a teacher I know spoke about two girls who had been caught shoplifting at a local store.  They were prosecuted and received probation.  Did they have any regret?  Did they feel any remorse for their actions?  No.  They laughed about it.  They blamed the store employee for turning them in.  They had done something, which in their eyes was harmless, and they felt nothing; no shame; nothing.  If you think you are fine just the way you are, this is the inevitable result: narcissism.  Complete self-centeredness.  And how can you love others when you are so completely and totally in love with yourself?  How can you practice the sacrifice loving another requires when you have no humility?

You can't.

Rarely does anyone get caught at the extremes of these positions.  Generally, we vacillate between the two poles: sometimes feeling down and depressed that we aren't who we should be; sometimes feeling we can take on the world; sometimes self-righteous that we have accomplished much; sometimes self-depreciating because we don't feel we have accomplished enough.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  Is there no end?

It reminds me of a poem one of my members wrote before he died. 

Take a look–I’ve got it all
A great wife, health
Bank account that’s not small
Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
that nestles underneath my saddle?
Is it the ebbing of the physical
or a flaw in my gear box?
Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
Or one last long squall before the water calms.
I wrestle with this wisp of unease
It pins me more than not
A twinge of craziness asks
Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
A captive in a cosmic joke?
A malcontent without a cause?
Is my chain being yanked because I care?
Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
But for whatever reason no solace there.
Is the question unanswerable?
A maddening changing of the guard
Truth unacceptable
An accelerating slide down a slope
To a place I don’t want to go.  --Mark Chapman

I remember vividly a few weeks before Mark had a massive stroke he spoke up when I asked for prayer requests from the congregation, "That we may come to understand the theology you are preaching."

This request came a few months in after a complete change in my preaching style: a change in focus from what we are supposed to do to what Jesus has already done.  A switch in pointing out what we should do to proclaiming the Gospel of grace.  For it is grace that changes a heart, ends the back and forth battle between despair and arrogance, and brings final fulfillment to the Law.

For you see, the Gospel states that you are an unmitigated failure.
It also says you are deeply loved.

The God who judges all has condemned you because you haven't fulfilled His commands.
The God who judges all has taken on human flesh to die for you because He deeply loves you.

You cannot become arrogant because you have failed.
You cannot despair because you are deeply loved.

You cannot love yourself too much because in God's eyes, you are unlovable.
You cannot love yourself too little because you are the apple of God's eyes.

Such a realization instills a deep, deep sense of humility.  No longer do you look upon your neighbor with contempt or pity.  You look upon them with love and mercy.  You know they are broken--just as you are broken.  You know that they are loved--just like you are loved.  You see that your neighbor is just like you; loved just like you, and you can indeed love them just as you are loved.

The fulfillment of this command cannot come by sheer force of will, it comes only through the grace of God shown through Jesus.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Second Class Religion

"Amid rising rhetoric and crimes against American Muslims, the White House in December broadcast a counter message about religious pluralism.  'There are no second-class faiths in the U.S.A.,' said Melissa Rogers, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships."  --Quoted from The Lutheran magazine, February 2016, page 6.

I find this article in the publication of my denomination a bit troubling.

One of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the Constitution in our nation is  the right of non-establishment of religion.  The government is prohibited from establishing any particular religious faith and requiring people to belong to it.  It is also, theoretically, prohibited from favoring one particular religion over another.  The first of these two ideals is quite easy to accomplish. The second is impossible, and even though it sounds good on paper, it should never be attempted.  There must be second class religions.  There must be favored religions over others.

That might sound exclusive to some.  It might sound arrogant to some.  It might sound unenlightened to some.  To those who would look down upon me for suggesting such a thing, I ask two questions.  If you say, in either question, that one religious expression is better than the other, then you have relegated one religious expression to second class status.  Keep that in mind as you read the questions:

Is the form of Islam adhered to by ISIS on the same level as the form of Islam practiced by most Muslims living in the United States?

Is the form of Christianity adhered to by the Klu Klux Klan on the same level as the form of Christianity practiced by Mother Teresa?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Submitting to Authority

       I remember working for the YMCA afterschool program during two of my years at seminary.  I was part of a staff that supervised children until their parents got off work and picked the kids up.  Inevitably, once a month or so, a kid would look me in the eye after I told them to do something and say, “You can’t tell me what to do.  You are not my parent!”

If you’ve ever worked in a situation with kids, you’ve probably been told the same thing.  It’s a question of authority.  The kid is basically saying, “You don’t have authority over me.  You don’t have the authority to tell me what to do.”

My response was pretty simple.  I’d look that kid straight in the eye and say, “Yep, you are right.  I am not your parent, but your parents paid me a lot of money to look after you and make sure you are safe.  Therefore, you will listen to me, and if you don’t like it, we will go and call your parents right now.”  That response always did the trick.  Never even had to pick up the phone.

Jesus didn’t necessarily have that luxury.  When His authority was questioned, He had to resort to quite a different method, but it was a method that worked.

Jesus and His disciples returned to the temple the day after Jesus upset the apple cart by turning over the tables of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals.  Remember, in the last two weeks, I explained how the chief priests had sought to tap into the lucrative market for selling such animals.  They had allowed merchants to set up in the only available space in the temple–the courtyard of the Gentiles thereby excluding the Gentiles from worshiping the one, true God.  Jesus exposed them for their blatant disregard of the commandments of God, their greed, and their desire to have the safety, security, and freedom that money can buy.  Jesus showed how the deepest desire of their hearts was not to introduce people to the God of Israel, but the god of wealth and riches.  But in exposing this, Jesus had crossed several man-made boundaries.

You see, when it came to activities done within the Temple, everything was cleared or sanctioned by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.  This group collectively was called the Sanhedrin.  Craig Evans says this about them in his biblical commentary, “The Sanhedrin had a broader legislative and judicial jurisdiction but the high priest and his ranking priestly associates possessed ultimate authority on the Temple Mount, an authority to which in many respects even the Romans deferred.”  Think about that for a second.  The Sanhedrin exercised such control over the temple grounds that even the Roman occupying forces generally left them alone.  That’s quite a bit of power.  That’s a lot of power, actually.

And the Sanhedrin exercised that power to the extent that they could literally take another person’s life for violating the temple rules.  Remember a couple of weeks ago, I spoke about a sign that was hung on the wall separating the Gentiles area of worship from the Jewish areas of worship.  That sign was printed in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin, and it read, “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple.  Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death.”  Nowhere that I know of in our nation is such a thing practiced.  I mean, I’ve known of situations in churches where people got really upset for moving a baptismal font or scandalized because someone suggested changing the color scheme or what have you, but I know of no church where someone was put to death for stepping on a particular rule.  The Sanhedrin could do exactly that!!

And Jesus didn’t exactly consult with the Sanhedrin when He entered into the temple and upset the marketplace.  Jesus didn’t consult with the Sanhedrin when He walked around the temple and taught people in the temple.  Jesus wasn’t following the proper procedures.  He hadn’t gotten permission.  So, a contingent from the Sanhdrin confronted Him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  By whose authority are you doing these things?”

At this point, you might wonder why the Sanhedrin was even asking these questions.  I mean, if they wielded so much power, why didn’t they just arrest Jesus and get it over with.  Remember, this was the festival of the Passover.  The city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims there to celebrate.  Jesus had endeared Himself to that crowd by his actions, so the Sanhedrin was afraid of the crowd.  They were afraid that if they did arrest Jesus, a riot would ensue.  If a riot ensued, then the Romans, who usually stayed out of temple business, would make it their business and perhaps remove them from power.  Fear is a tremendous motivator, and it causes you to be cautious.  The Sanhedrin was being very cautious hoping to trap Jesus with this question.  Again, we turn to Craig Evans for some insight here.  Evans says, “Either Jesus admitted his conduct was unauthorized, which would have made him publically vulnerable, or he claimed a right superseding that of the ruling priests, a claim that would have made him politically vulnerable.  In either case, his conduct would then have provided a basis for a more formal proceeding against him, without fear of the crowd.”

Jesus, of course, sees through the trap.  He knows the game.  But Jesus is a rabbi.  He is a teacher.  Everyone knows that, so in true rabbinic fashion, Jesus sets up a counterquestion.  “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?  Answer me.”  Jesus actually assumes a position of power when He asks this question.  The question itself is bad enough, but when Jesus says, “Answer me!!” it really comes across as borderline disrespectful.  It’s almost as though Jesus holds the Sanhedrin in contempt.  But there is a method to Jesus’ madness.  There is a reason behind what He says, and we will see that momentarily.

The representatives from the Sanhedrin begin arguing amongst themselves.  This is a very interesting comment that Mark includes.  I mean, think about this for just a second.  How would Mark know the inner discussions and inner arguments of this group of people?  They would not have argued this aloud because it would have been quite embarrassing.  How did Mark know what was said?  I want you to understand that Jesus did gain a following amongst those who had been on the Sanhedrin.  Mark tells us at the end of his Gospel that a respected member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and put it in his tomb.  Mark reports that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Jesus.  In all likelihood, we have the testimony of Joseph or another like him about these deliberations.  That’s kind of a side note, but I think a rather neat one.

These deliberations are important though.  They show us what the Sanhedrin is really concerned about.  We will actually deal with what they deliberate backwards because the former needs a little bit more attention than the latter.  The Sanhedrin does not want to say that John the Baptist was not from God because everyone believed John was a prophet.  The entire crowd would have stoned this group in a heart beat if they would have denied John’s calling.  Fear kept them from going down that route.

Which only left them one other alternative.  They would have had to admit that John’s teaching was indeed from divine origin.  They don’t want to do that because they know Jesus will respond, “Well, then why didn’t you believe him?”  This is where we must take a little bit of time because we need to understand what John the Baptist was proclaiming.  John the Baptist was not just proclaiming, “Turn your life around.  Get right with God.”  That’s only part of what John was about.  Let’s turn back several chapters in the book of Mark and hear once again the proclamation of John the Baptist:

From Mark chapter 1: 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

John’s proclamation centered on Jesus as the promised Messiah.  John’s proclamation pointed to Jesus!!!  If the Sanhedrin admitted that John’s ministry came from God, then they must admit that Jesus is from God as well!!  They must admit that Jesus is the Messiah!!  They must admit that Jesus’ authority supersedes their authority and that everything Jesus did in the Temple was by divine right!!!

And there was no way on God’s, green earth they were going to do that.  There was no way they were going to admit that this Jesus who had just exposed them for the frauds they were, was indeed from God.  Their pride was too full.  Their self-righteousness was too great.  They were not going to allow this upstart to dethrone them from their positions of power and prestige and wealth.  They were not going to admit that Jesus had more authority than they did.

And so they copped out.  They took the easy way out.  They came back with the answer that is not an answer.  “We don’t know.”   That is a load of B.S.  They knew.  They just didn’t want to admit.  And they would rather face a bit of public embarrassment than submit themselves to Jesus.  Evans once again puts it this way:

Ostensibly there to protect the temple as God’s house from arbitrary acts of unauthorized persons and to take action against such persons, these representatives of the Sanhedrin and the ranking priests show their true colors.  Rather than defend the temple, they protect themselves.  In doing so they betray their own selfish concerns and their inability to respond to and for God, who confronts them in the persons of John and Jesus.  Their answer demonstrates their unbelief.  At the very least, their admission “we do not know” if taken at face value is an embarrassing surrender of the field.  If their admission is not taken at face value but is recognized for the dodge that it is, then it is an embarrassing public display of cowardice.

So Jesus responds appropriately to such cowardice, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  You know, I heard several comments about what Jesus says here, and most of them leave me with a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  Several folks spoke about how Jesus washes His hands of the Sanhedrin.  They talked about how Jesus reached the limits of His desire to bring them over to faith.  I’m not sure these folks are correct.  I think this comment is simply Jesus not giving the Sanhedrin what they desire–He’s not going to fall into their trap this easily and give them an out.  I believe that Jesus still desires to bring the members of the Sanhedrin to faith.  I believe that Jesus still desires to bring these folks into a relationship with Himself.  I believe that Jesus wants to help them submit to His authority–the same authority He wants you and I to submit to as well.

You see, we all submit to some sort of authority.  Whether we like it or not, we all answer to something greater than we are.  Oh, we like to think that we are free–that no one or nothing tells us what to do or how to do it.  We like to think that we make our own way that we have nothing putting limits on what we can achieve.  We like to think that we are our own bosses.  But it is nothing more than a delusion.  We are enslaved to authority, and many times we don’t even recognize it.

You might think me daft, but let’s think this through for a moment or two, shall we.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, walk away from your job tomorrow.  Just quit.  Take some time to enjoy life.  How many of you would actually do that?  Probably very few.  Why?  Because you have bills to pay.  You need the income.  You might get your house taken away.  Or your car.  Or your future.  You might be able to do okay for a while, but things would change very fast after that.  You know you cant just quit.  You are under the authority of the money you make to keep the lifestyle you have.  You are submitting to the authority of your lifestyle.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, refuse to pay your taxes this April.  You are submitting to the authority of the federal government.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, go slap the other political candidate that is running for office and tell him or her they have no business doing what they are doing.    You are submitting to the laws of this land.

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, throw your cell phone away.  Need I say more about that one?

If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, go stand up in downtown Houston and announce that you are either for or against gay marriage.  Not going to?  Afraid you will get confronted by one side or the other?  You are submitting to the authority of societal pressures.

Need I go on?  Need I continue to lay out how we submit to authority all over the place?  Need I tell you that you are not free?  The only question that we must answer as we go through life is which authority we will end up submitting to.  The only question that we must answer is which authority we will give our ultimate allegiance to.

And Jesus wants that authority.  Jesus wanted that authority from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders.  Jesus wants that authority from us.  But like those chief priests, scribes and elders, we believe we have too much at stake.  We believe we are better off not fully submitting to Jesus.  We believe we are freer as we are now that we would be with all those rules and regulations Jesus will impose upon us.  And so we pridefully make up all kinds of excuses.  We decide to reserve judgement.  We put ourselves in embarrassing situations because we think submitting to Jesus is the worst thing we could possibly do.

But here is one thing that Jesus will do for you that no other authority will.  Here is one thing Jesus will freely take upon Himself when every other authority will reject you.  You see, of all the authorities that are out there, Jesus will die for you even if you hate Him.  Jesus will die for you even if you reject Him.  Jesus will take your place and face your punishment without a smidgen of regret.  In fact, that’s exactly what He did for you on the cross nearly 2000 years ago.  Every other authority will turn its back on you, punish you, or leave you high and dry because those authorities demand absolute allegiance from you.  They demand you honor them at great cost to you.  But if you reject Jesus’ authority, He will continue to love you and wait patiently for the day you turn to Him.  He does this because He wants you to freely choose Him; to freely take upon yourself His burden; to freely submit to His authority without regret.  And to earn that, He doesn’t make empty promises.  He says, “I have already done for you everything.  I have already died for you.  I have already been raised for you.  I have already redeemed you.  I have already loved you, and that love will never fail.  I have paid a great price for you, and when you submit to me, all the other authorities in your life will have no hold over you.  Sure, you will live in this world.  You will need money and a home and food and clothing and a cell phone and law and order and government, but these things will no longer rule your heart.  I will.  And you will find that under me, you have freedom, and peace and security and safety because you know my great love.”

For love is central to Jesus’ authority–a deep and abiding love that is poured out for you and for me.  This is why the Gospel in a nutshell is summed up by John 3:16-17.  “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 to save it.”  May your heart be moved to submit to Jesus’ authority, for in it you will find freedom.  Amen.