Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Changes Insanity into Sanity?

 In a very real way, I think you have to be somewhat insane to be a Christian.

Now, if you think that Christianity is basically like all other religions that try to simply tell us to be kind to each other and do the right thing so that we can achieve some sort of eternal life, then I probably offended you with that statement.  I am not going to apologize. 

 Before you try to do me bodily harm, please hear me out.  I do not say what I said lightly, and neither do I say it as someone who is outside of Christianity.  In fact, I say it as one who was born and raised a Christian; who is a leader in the Christian church; and as one who works to get people to become Christians and follow Jesus.  But I still say it.  I think you have to be somewhat insane to be a Christian.  Why would I say such a thing?

 Well, let’s delve beneath the superficialities that most people ascribe to the Christian faith.  Let’s delve beneath the idea that Christianity is simply a way of life that tries to get you to be kind to one another; to live morally; and to somehow end up in God’s good graces so that you can live forever.  Let’s examine the reality of what Christianity entails and the things that our founder, Jesus of Nazareth taught and claimed.  Let’s look at these things, not as those who have heard them watered down and explained away, but as if we were hearing them for the first time.  Mind you, at this point, I am going to be quoting Jesus directly.  If you disagree with what I am saying, please know, you are not disagreeing with me; you are disagreeing with Jesus Himself as revealed to us in the writings of the Bible.

 Let’s start off with something that is rather straight-forward.  Troubling, but straight-forward.  In the book of Matthew chapter five, Jesus says this, “21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Did you catch exactly what Jesus is saying here?  Did you catch how He tells you straight-forward that you cannot be angry with one another because if you are that is comparable to murder?  Who in their right mind would think that simply being angry with another person and murdering a person are the same thing?  Who in their right mind would think that being angry with someone deserves a first class ticket to hell?  And yet, this is what Jesus taught!!!  This is what our leader tells us to do!!!  And this is just the beginning.

 Let’s move onto something else.  Let’s move to the book of Luke chapter 14 where Jesus says the following: “28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Again, I ask you, did you hear that last phrase that Jesus said?  Did you hear Him blatantly say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”?  Is there any one of you here this morning who has no possessions?  Is there anyone here this morning who qualifies to be a disciple?  Is there anyone here this morning who can claim to follow Jesus’ teaching here?  Is there anyone here this morning who will ever be able to follow this?  I’m not done either.

 Let me go to the Gospel of Mark chapter 8.  This teaching that I am about to relay to you is found in all of the earliest Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus actually said this, and He lays it out for all to consider.  Here is the teaching, “34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  We’ve sanitized this statement too much throughout the years, and it has lost its power for the most part.  Let me try and put it all out there for you in this way.  Jesus says: give up your identity; give up your status; give up everything that you think makes you, you; give up your history, your claim to fame, your titles, the respect you believe you have earned; give up all of those things and then consider yourself a dead person walking.  Believe that you are under a curse and have died to follow me.  How does that sound for sanity?

 Let me stop for just a moment here and say that these teachings I am putting forward from Jesus are not obscure, dig through as much as you can to find something to fit your agenda, teachings.  These teachings are vintage Jesus.  They are core teachings.  This is what the founder of the Christian movement demanded of His followers!!!  And would any sane person adhere to them?
 Ah, but let me press onward for we must continue down this rabbit hole.  We must continue to wrestle with such matters no matter how uncomfortable they may be making us–for if we are going to get to the truth of the matter, all of the evidence must be set before us.

 For Jesus did not simply offer us these unimaginable teachings; He also claimed something unimaginable about Himself.  He claimed to be God.  Now, I know there are some scholars who say that Jesus did no such thing.  They claim that this thought only entered into the Christian faith long after Jesus’ life and death as an embellishment, but this is simply not the fact of the matter at all.  The apostle Paul is the earliest writer of Christian scripture, and in what we believe to be his final book, Philippians, Paul quotes what many scholars deem to be an early Christian hymn:

 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

 Let me point out to you this morning that Paul was born a Jew and that Christianity started off as Jewish movement.  No good Jew would ever–EVER claim that a man had equality with God.   This was forbidden.  It was considered idolatry.  It was blasphemy, and yet, in one of the earliest hymns sung by the church, Jesus is considered equal with God.  The early church believed Jesus was God!!

 And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each record Jesus’ teaching that He was indeed God come to earth.  If you do not believe me, please catch me later, and I will show you how in each Gospel, Jesus is shown to be God come to earth.  This was no late fabrication or embellishment.  It was there from the beginning.

 Why is this important?  Here is why: tell me, what do we do when someone claims to be God?  How do we react to someone who thinks he or she is an incarnation of God?  Do we readily accept them?  Do we embrace their teachings?  Do we fall on our faces and worship them?  What would happen to you this morning if I stood up here and claimed that I was God?  You know what you’d do.  You know what we do.  We call such people delusional.  We call them crazy.  If it is in our power, we have them committed.  Most people do not take them seriously in the least!!

 Ah, but you may say, sometimes such people gather a following.  And you are absolutely right.  They do oftentimes gather a following–right up until they die or are killed.  And then, nearly 100 percent of the time, the following dies out.  I mean, let’s use two modern day examples: how many people do you know who claim to follow Jim Jones these days?  If you don’t know who Jim Jones is, I rest my case.  Or David Koresh?  Any Branch Dividians that you know of?  When someone who claims to be God is killed or dies, the movement dies with them.  People realize the person was delusional.  It has happened many, many times in history–almost every time in history.

 But here is the thing: it didn’t happen with Jesus.  In fact, the movement surrounding Jesus actually took off after His death!!  The worship and adoration of Jesus actually increased after He died.  His followers did not hesitate to pass on Jesus’ teachings–no matter how difficult they seemed or how contrary to nature they seemed.  And people actually tried to follow them.  People tried to deny themselves and who they were.  People tried giving up their possessions.  People tried living without anger and animosity toward anyone else.   People proclaimed that Jesus indeed was God who came to earth even though He met His demise hanging bloody, beaten, bruised, shamed; executed on a cross. 

 What would cause people to do such a thing?  What would cause people to become so irrational?  What would cause them to try to follow such difficult, insane teachings?  What would cause them to say that indeed Jesus was God and that He wasn’t lying despite His horrendous death?  What would cause them to begin a movement that grew and grew and grew doing the exact opposite of every other Messianic movement until that time?  What would cause these people to lay down their lives as they proclaimed, “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 save through Him!”?

 What would change the course of normal history and cause otherwise normal people to strive toward insane things?

 It’s the reason we are here this morning.

 Christ is risen!
 He is risen indeed!  Amen.  Alleluia!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Jesus Asks

I would like to start out this sermon by reminding everyone that Christianity has its roots in ancient Judaism. Remembering this is absolutely crucial to understanding this little but powerful snippet from the Gospel of Mark that we have before us today. Please remember, Jesus followed all the Jewish laws and customs. Please remember, the disciples were all Jewish and had gone through the rites of Judaism. Please remember Jesus’ primary focus was on the Jewish people, and His ministry to the Gentiles was secondary. Please remember that immediately previous to this text, Jesus was asked which commandments were the greatest, and in true Jewish fashion, Jesus replied with one of the most important sayings of Judaism, a quotation of Deuteronomy chapter 5, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength." Then, to finish it off, Jesus quoted the book of Leviticus, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus and His disciples were Jewish through and through. You may be wondering why I am stressing this at this point. Please stick with me.

Part of the reason this is so important is that we have to understand the mind set of the ancient Jewish culture. We have to wrap our heads around the ancient Jewish belief system. We have to grapple with how they viewed the world in order to see what Jesus is getting at when He begins asking questions in the temple. We need to see just how much the Jewish religious folks hated idolatry. You see, for the Jews, there was either God or not God. There was no in between. If you remember the Roman gods, you know they were based upon Greek mythology, so you had the gods coming down and having sex with men and women. When the gods had children by these encounters, you had demi-gods: half men; half gods. For the Jew, there was no such thing. There were supernatural beings like angels and demons, but these entities were not gods. They were far lesser than God. God was one and alone in His majesty. We need to keep in mind just how strict they were in adhering to this.

Two things will hopefully suffice. First, if you remember just a couple of weeks back, I preached on the Pharisees and Herodians coming to Jesus and asking Him a question about paying taxes to Rome. Jesus’ responded by asking for a denarius. I described that coin in my sermon as being a total and complete abomination to the Jews. The coin had the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberias stamped on it. It also had the words, "Tiberias son of the divine Agustus" printed on it. On the back, it labeled the Emperor "High priest." This coin was so offensive to many Jews that they would not touch it; they refused to look at it; and when it came time to pay the taxes they tried to use other currency to pay it. Such was their disgust for what was on that coin. They could not stand graven images. They could not stand anyone claiming any sort of divinity apart from God.

The second way I would like to get this in your head is by reading a portion of Paul Maier’s Pontius Pilate. Maier is a noted scholar and historian who has written numerous works of historical fiction. In these books, he takes known facts and fills in the blanks to compose a novel. The work is quite good and informative, and Maier paints a brilliant picture of what happened in Israel.

It all began when an elderly Jew left the north portico of the temple after morning sacrifice and pronounced his daily malediction on the Tower Antonia, the Roman fortress growing out of the northwestern wall of the temple precinct like some incongruous tumor. Then he noticed the new set of standards fluttering from its battlements and squinted for sharper vision. Widening his eyes in disbelief, he scurried back into the temple enclave and climbed a wall for a better vantage point from which to confirm his horrifying discovery. There the unhallowed sight was unmistakable: several spears, standing on a dias, had crossbars from which wreaths and golden disks were hanging. And embossed on the disks in bas-relief were the effigies of human heads!

Compounding the horror of the aged Jew was the fact that just in front of the special shrine in which the ensigns were housed, two Roman centurions were burning insense or doing some mode of sacrifice to these standards. The old Israelite quivered with rage. His eyes ran with tears. The sacrilege! The idolatry! And directly overlooking the holy temple! Turning about, he shouted at the top of his frail lungs: "Thoaivoh ne-estho be-yisorel ubi-yerusholaim! An abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem!" "Abomination! Abomination!

A cluster of early worshipers, priests, and temple guardsmen quickly surrounded the scandalized elder, all eyes toward the Tower Antonia. "Idolatry! Sacrilege!" they joined in the outcry, and hurried throughout the enclave to summon further witnesses. The trickle of news became a spreading torrent. Within an hour it has swept over Jerusalem in a riptide of fury, and Antonia was besieged by an immense throng which now broke into an angry chant: "Abomination! Remove the idols! Profanation! Remove the idols!"

While Maier’s book takes some historical liberties, this is not one of them. The Jews felt this passionately about idolatry. They felt this passionately about their belief in the One God. They felt this passionately about anything which challenged them deeply about their belief system. In a Roman world which was fairly tolerant of other religions and other gods, the Jews showed none of that tolerance. Idolatry and worship of false deities was strictly forbidden.

I set this background up so that it informs your reading of today’s gospel lesson from Mark chapter 12. Jesus has managed to answer all the questions thrown at him by the Sanhedrin and by the crowd. He has established Himself as one full of wisdom and authority. He is now in the driver’s seat, and so it is His turn to throw down the gauntlet. And He chooses a very interesting way to do so.
Jesus turns to the crowd around and says, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, "The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ " 37David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?"

Now, I have to admit, for the longest time, this question made little sense to me. It generally left me scratching my head, and by the time I am done here, I hope that I am not causing you to scratch your head. Instead, I hope I can clear this question up for you and then deal with the implications of it.
Jesus is tapping into the deeply held belief that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. For those of you who know the Old Testament, you will know that David is the second king of Israel. He is the king which is credited with establishing the Kingdom by driving off Israel’s enemies. He was far from a perfect man–he committed adultery; he had several wives; his son rebelled against him and sought his throne. Yet, despite these things, David was repentant; he worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David listened to the prophets who called him to seek the way of the Lord. For these reasons, David was seen as the king par excellance of ancient Judaism. He was seen as the greatest king, and one to be imitated. The Messiah would come from David’s house and lineage, and this Messiah would once again establish the kingdom of Israel, drive off Israel’s enemies, and establish a time of peace. This was a given in Jewish thought at the time.

Psalm 110 was considered a Messianic Psalm. You may wonder why I brought that Psalm into this discussion. Here’s why. Jesus quotes the first verses of that Psalm in His question, and Jesus attributes that Psalm to King David who was writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus is exegeting this Psalm, and Jesus points out a rather fascinating thing.

David says, "The Lord" or God said to my lord–or the Messiah, "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." Here’s where things get interesting. David calls the Messiah his lord. In other words, David submits himself to the authority of the Messiah. David says that the Messiah is greater than himself. We might shrug our shoulders and say, "No kidding." But you are looking at this from your perspective of history. You are looking at this through modern eyes. You are not looking at this through Jewish eyes through ONLY the lens of the Old Testament!! For if you were, you would see just how troubling this question is. Why?

Ancient Jews never believed a decedent was greater than an ancestor. The honor always traveled from the younger generation toward the older generation. Remember the fourth commandment? "Honor your father and your mother." Great respect and honor were given to one’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the like. No ancestor would reciprocate. The younger would not receive such honor. It wasn’t traditional in society, and it wasn’t mandated by scripture. So, Jesus brings up this discrepancy. How can David call the Messiah "Lord" if the Messiah is simply a man? How can the Messiah be greater than the greatest king that Israel has ever seen if the Messiah is simply a man?

This was a disturbing question for the scribes. Very disturbing. Why?

The scribes were caught between a rock and a hard place. They had carefully crafted their image of what the Messiah would be. They believed the Messiah would be a man; a king who would be a great military leader; a man of power; yet a man of compassion and justice. But, as Jesus pointed out, if that Messiah were just a man, then David would never have called the Messiah, "Lord." Yet, if the scribes were to say that the Messiah were more than a man; if they were to say the Messiah was the Son of God–then they would be faced with having to rethink their entire idea of what constituted idolatry and what constituted blasphemy.

Remember the two points I made earlier in this sermon? Remember the reactions to the coin with Tiberius’ picture on it and the situation when the Roman soldiers displayed images? Do you think the scribes could easily change their perspective? Do you think they could drop all their years of study and come over to Jesus’ way of thinking in the blink of an eye?

Of course they could not. They would do no such thing because it would involve changing their entire belief system. It would require them to convert and look at the world in a totally different way, and you don’t just walk away from your worldview without a serious change of heart and being.
But this is exactly what Jesus is getting at. This is exactly what is at the heart of Jesus’ question to the scribes. It is not only a question to them, but it is a question to us as well. For at the root of what Jesus asks is, "How do you see me?"

Do you see me as a good man who does good things for people? I am that, but I am much more.

Do you see me as the Messiah who will bring peace to earth? I am that, but it won’t be through military might.

Do you see me as a prophet who calls people to repentance? I am that, but I am so much more.

Do you see me as a great teacher of morality and how we should live our life? I am that, but I am so much more.

The answer that Jesus’ question leads to is unequivocally this: Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Only the Son of the Living God could be over king David. Only the Son of the Living God could make David submit to Him. Only the Son of God could be the Messiah.

No good Jew would have adhered to this because it would have seemed like dividing God. No good Jew would have acknowledged this because it would have given too much authority to the Messiah. No good Jew would have proclaimed this because it would have come across as blasphemy.

That means, either the disciples were not good Jews or something happened to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah–Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus was the Son of God. Something happened to completely and totally change their worldview and bring them to belief.
That something is the same thing that can change your worldview; change your heart and bring you to belief as well. That same thing is the Gospel and understanding what Christ has done for you. For the Messiah is the God made flesh who entered into this world to live the perfect and blameless life. He is the Messiah who became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Lamb of God who blameless and sinless became the atoning sacrifice for our sin who upon the cross bore the wrath of God so that we might live with God forever. He is the Messiah who so loved the world that He was willing to die for it.

Rarely do we change the way we look at things in this life. We generally are too stuck in our ways of doing things, but when we experience tremendous love, we indeed look at things differently. When we find someone who is willing to lay down their lives for us, we truly appreciate them and seek to please them, and we hear what they have to say because it is important to us.

And when we understand that from God’s perspective. When we understand that from Jesus’ perspective, our entire life becomes different. Our entire life is changed as we are greeted by the love of the Messiah who was willing to die for us when we didn’t deserve it. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him." How does your life change?

Imagine for a moment that you no longer care what people think about how you look or what job you have. Imagine for a moment feeling like you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone. Imagine for a moment not feeling like you are any better or any worse than anyone else. Imagine for a moment being truly content with who you are and where you are at while at the same time knowing you haven’t arrived at where you could be. Imagine for a moment not getting angry with others when they mess up. Imagine for a moment not having your happiness dependent upon what is going on in the world around you. Imagine for a moment your heart being full of song and praise. Imagine for a moment a sense of peace and calm that envelopes you no matter the stress level of the world around. That is but a snippet of what it is like when Jesus becomes the Lord of your life. That is but a snippet of what it is like to have the Gospel take root in your heart. That is but a snippet of what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and to trust in what He has already done instead of what you think you must do.

Jesus comes to us today and asks, "Who do you say that I am?" May we have the courage to respond, "You are my Lord and my God!" Amen.