Monday, April 24, 2017

The Spirit Prays for Us: Romans 8:26-27

I remember when I was training to be a pastor and working as a chaplain in a hospital as part of my requirement.  My “congregation” was one floor in the hospital, and that consisted of the Intermediate Care Unit where the folks who weren’t sick enough for ICU but still needed more care than a regular room were cared for.  On that floor was a gentleman whose heart was failing.  He had been in the hospital for several months awaiting a transplant.  I had visited him several times over the course of my training, and I won’t forget the second to the last visit I had with him.

After our conversation, I asked him if there was anything he would like me to pray for, and he responded, “I really am not trying to be selfish, but I would like for you to pray that I receive a new heart.”  I gladly prayed for such a thing.  In less than 24 hours, he did indeed receive a new heart.

I spoke with my supervisor, a seminary professor about this event, and he pointedly asked me, “Do you think that your prayer worked to get him a new heart?”

I paused before my response.  Whenever you deal with seminary professors, there is oftentimes the answer you want to say, the answer that the professor wants to hear, and several variations of that.  At this particular time, I wanted to make sure that I gave the answer the professor wanted to hear because I was in no mood for a long theological discussion.  The deepest part of me wanted to answer, “Yes, indeed my prayer made a difference.”  But I was quite sure that the conversation that followed would not be fun.  And so I said, “I don’t know.”  I figured that was the safest bet, and indeed it was.  We moved on from there rather quickly.

But as I reflect upon this scenario, I can faithfully say: I hope that my prayer was not responsible for this gentleman receiving that heart.  You may scratch your heads in wonder that I am saying that, but hear me out.  For you see, in order for that patient to receive his heart, a local husband and father lost his life on I-35 in a tragic car accident.  Would any of you like to think that your prayer caused someone to lose his life so that someone else could benefit and live?  Would you like it on your conscience that your prayer caused a wife to lose her husband and children to lose their father?  I don’t.  Not in the least.

And yet, yet wasn’t it the compassionate thing to pray for the patient to receive a heart?  What do you do?  How do you pray for such a thing?  What if you are thrust into a situation where someone needs a kidney, heart, or lung transplant and someone must die for the other person to live?  How do you pray?  What do you pray for?  Sometimes, prayer is a difficult prospect, and we need help understanding it and practicing it.

Let us now pray.  Heavenly Father, you have called your people to be people of prayer.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  But what do we do when faced with such difficulties?  What do we do when words fail us?  If we are to be your disciples, teach us indeed how to pray.  Amen.

Prayer is one of those interesting subjects that even science has dabbled in.  They have set up studies to see if prayer “works.”  They have set aside two sets of subjects–who as best as they can are similar, and have one set prayed for while the other not prayed for.  Setting aside the ethics of the matter–I mean what do you say, “Oh, we are praying for you and not for you.  If you die, too bad.”–the end game is to study the results; to see if somehow prayer brings about healing or what have you.  I can remember when I first started out in my trek to become a pastor that some of the studies that had been done showed that prayer was indeed effective.  However, since that time, there have been other studies which showed that prayer was not effective, and in some cases, those who were prayed for had worse outcomes than those who were not prayed for.

Fundamentally, these studies miss the mark because they treat prayer as some sort of giant, cosmic, candy machine.  You put the prayer in.  You hope you use the right amount of currency.  You kick, shake, and rattle the machine, and you hope that something comes out.  Of course, you might get one of those plastic balls that when you open it up has a little piece of paper in it that says either yes, no, or you’ve got to be kidding me.  This is not the purpose or reason for prayer.

In fact, as I have learned more and more about prayer, I have come to understand that prayer fundamentally isn’t about changing the circumstances around my life or the lives of others.  I have come to understand that prayer isn’t fundamentally about getting a particular desired outcome.  Prayer is something we participate in to show our utter and total dependence on God.  Prayer is something we turn to so that we acknowledge that we are powerless to affect certain situations and that we place our trust in a higher source and power.

Fundamentally, this is at the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught His followers to pray.  We recite it every Sunday and we commonly call it the Lord’s Prayer.  It begins, Our Father, or our Daddy who is in heaven.  The prayer begins that we are addressing someone beyond ourselves, and yet someone who we are extremely intimate with.  Like children who go before their parents and ask and talk, we go before God.

Hallowed be thy name.  We acknowledge that God is fundamentally set apart from us and from all other false gods.  And then we get into the true dependence on our part in the prayer.

Thy kingdom come.  Can any of us fundamentally bring about God’s kingdom in full?  Can any of us make God’s rule happen here?  No.  We acknowledge that we are dependent upon Him to bring His kingdom to us.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We are asking here that God make heaven come down to earth.  Can any one of us do this fully?  Sure, there are times when we can make things better here, but can we bring about what it means to ultimately be in God’s presence?  No. That again, is up to God alone, and we express our dependence on Him.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Can any of us make a seed grow?  Can we produce life?  Can we manufacture the things we need to survive?  No.  These things all originate with God, and we simply help after the process gets started.  Again, our dependence goes back to God.

Forgive us our trespasses.  Here again we acknowledge our inability to make ourselves right with God.  We are fallen and in need of forgiveness.  We cannot overcome our debt to God without His forgiveness.

As we forgive those who trespass against us.  How easy is it to forgive someone who has hurt you?  For minor things, maybe relatively easy, but for those who have been sexually or physically abused; for those who have had a loved one murdered; for those who have been lied to continually and a host of other things, forgiveness does not come easy in the least.  We must have our hearts changed so that we can forgive others, and that comes when we first realize we have been forgiven.  Therefore, in order for us to forgive, we are dependent upon God’s grace.

And lead us not into temptation.  Temptation bombards us at all points.  We are tempted to think of ourselves more highly than we should.  We are tempted to make all sorts of things into our god.  We are tempted by sex, money, power, fame and status. We need protection, and we recognize our dependence upon God for that protection.

And deliver us from evil.  Evil too lurks, and we are almost powerless to resist it.  If a gunman walked into this church right now, we would be at his mercy.  I mean, maybe some of you are packing heat and have concealed carry licences, but I don’t.  I would have to appeal to God for protection and deliverance because I would be powerless in its face.  Most of us are, and we recognize this with this petition.

For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory.  Again, we acknowledge that all belongs to God.  All.  We are dependent upon Him in totality for all things.

This prayer is a model of what prayer is.  We are dependent upon God for everything, and in prayer we acknowledge this.  When we are faced with difficult situations, we acknowledge that we need God’s guidance.  When we are faced with a troublesome medical diagnoses, we go to God recognizing our need for His healing.  We submit ourselves to His power and His authority.  Almost every prayer could be summed up in the words, “Thy will be done!”  Prayer is not a candy machine where we are trying to manipulate God to give us a certain outcome.  It is instead recognizing that we have no control and place ourselves into the care of our Creator.

But even if we acknowledge this, we are still at a loss sometimes of how to pray.  How do you pray for someone who needs a lung or heart transplant?  How do you pray when you enter into a situation when words fail?  What if the Lord’s prayer doesn’t immediately address a particular situation?  What do you say?  How can you avoid coming across as selfish?

Here is where prayer becomes fascinating–at least as I read today’s lesson from Romans chapter 8.  It’s just two verses, but they are profound in what they say and in their implications for our prayer lives as Christians.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;

This introductory phrase is important because of the word that is used for help.  The word in Greek is only used one other time in the New Testament in Luke chapter 10 when Jesus is visiting his friends Mary and Martha.  Mary is sitting listening to Jesus while Martha is preparing a meal.  Martha gets angry at Mary’s perceived laziness and says to Jesus, “Lord, make Mary help me.”  The word means, essentially, “I’m doing my part, now get her to do her part.”  Paul says here that we have a part in prayer, but the Spirit comes and does its part to assist us.

But why do we need assistance? “...for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  This goes back to my original story about the heart transplant.  How do you pray in that kind of situation?  Do you pray for someone to die so that another can live?  That’s tough.  It’s also tough to think deeply about why we pray for others.  Most of the time, I have a kind heart.  I hate to see people in pain.  I hate to see suffering.  So, when someone asks me to pray because they have lost a job, are suffering from illness, are grieving, or are going through a rough stretch, I gladly offer up petitions.  But why?  Yes, it’s part of my job.  Yes, because I know it’s the right thing to do.  But I know deep within that one of the reasons I pray is selfish.  I don’t want to see people suffer.  I want them to be happy.  If we take some time to reflect upon some of our prayers, I think we can see that selfishness come through as well.  It’s there when as kids we pray for certain toys or for God to hurt the school bully.  It’s there as adults when we pray that God will let us win the lottery–because you know I will use the money to do good.  So, there is some selfishness to our prayers.  And there is also those times when we just don’t know what to say.  There are times when we are confronted with something too overwhelming–too emotional that we cannot even begin to form the words.  We are at a complete and total loss.  What do we say?  What do we do?  When we mix our motivations and needs with the messiness of life, we don’t know how to pray.

“... but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  Here is the good news.  The Holy Spirit takes our prayer.  In a sense you could say that it intercepts our prayer, and then it begins its work.  It begins to transform our prayers.  It begins to mold them and make them into something else.  It begins to intercede for us.  To pray for us.  Because we don’t know how to pray fully, the Spirit helps–does its part and transforms our prayers to bring them before God the Father.

“27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  What Paul says here should be terrifying and comforting at the same time.  For Paul speaks about the God who searches the heart.  The word used here for searches gives the impression of someone taking a lighted torch and going into the darkest parts of a cave and shining a light.  This is what God does in our hearts–even as we pray.  If you think about what He discovers down there–that can be terrifying.  But, remember there is the Spirit also interceding.  There is the Spirit transforming those things–transforming your thoughts into holy thoughts.  There is the Spirit transforming those prayers that are really about your will and turning them into prayers for God’s will.  There is the Spirit making your prayers acceptable to God when you don’t know how to pray.

This is a mirror of what Jesus does for us as He makes us acceptable before God.  Both Jesus and the Spirit are in the transformation business.  For just as we do not pray as we ought, we also do not live as we ought.  Confronted with the reality of life and God’s holy Law, we know that we fail to live up to it.  We know we don’t follow it completely.  We know that we don’t even follow the laws of our land as we should.  But Christ intercedes for us.  Christ takes our unholiness upon Himself, and He gives us His holiness.  He dies for our sins, so that we might have abundant life.  He takes our imperfect lives and makes them perfect–not because of who we are, but because of who He is and His love for us.  This is what we call grace.  Jesus bestows grace in life.  The Spirit bestows grace in prayer.

So, what does this mean?  What are the implications of Jesus’ transformation and the Spirit’s transformation?  It means we can be bold and be at peace.  We don’t have to live a perfect life to be accepted by God.  We don’t have to be paralyzed by trying to figure out exactly what we are supposed to do at every single juncture of life.  We can count on the transformative power of Jesus to work even when we mess up.  We do not have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.  Likewise, we can be bold in our prayers.  We don’t have to wonder what to say.  In fact, during those times we can’t put words together, guess who is already praying on our behalf?  Guess who is transforming our silence into an acceptable prayer before God?  Go to God and pray.  Say whatever you need to say.  The Spirit is interceding.  Go out and live for God.  Don’t be paralyzed by always trying to figure out the right thing.  Jesus is interceding.  Start doing.  Start praying.  You have heavenly help.

Let’s pray.  Gracious God, you can take our weakest attempts to do your will and you can take our weakest attempts at prayer and make them acceptable.  You can take our falling down and make something good come out of it.  You can take our fumbling words and make them into the most beautiful poetry.  Remind us of the work of Jesus. Remind us of the work of the Spirit so that we can be bold in living our lives and praying our prayers.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beat It Into Their Heads Continually: Easter 2017

On Monday, I drove to Austin to visit one of our members who had had open heart surgery.  As I got about half-way there, KSBJ played out on my radio, so I began searching for a Christian radio station in Austin.  Fortunately, I found one.  However, this station was not like KSBJ.  KSBJ is a listener supported station with no commercials.  The station in Austin had commercials, so along with local businesses, local churches also ran ads.  Not surprisingly, many of those ads were about upcoming Easter services.  One ad did catch my attention.  A church was advertizing its Easter activities complete with a helicopter that would be dropping 20,000 eggs for their egg hunt.  I heard that ad several times during my trip, so I know the number and the event is accurate.

I must admit that there was a small part of me that thought about calling up Christa and saying, “How much do you think it would cost to get a helicopter to drop the eggs for our egg hunt, and do you think the congregation would go for it?”  But there was a larger part that began seriously thinking about what this congregation was doing.  I mean, I’m all for getting people to come to your church and to church activities.  I have absolutely no problem with that in the least, but this seems like a different kind of animal.  If this church is bringing in a helicopter for its Easter egg hunt, what are they going to do for the sermon?  Will they have a live-re-enactment of the resurrection complete with the ground shaking, angels appearing and rising into heaven, with smoke and loud music and the like?  Will the message of the resurrection take a back seat to a helicopter with 20,000 eggs?  It seems like there is a strong possibility of that happening.  It seems way too gimmicky, in my opinion.

So, there will be no helicopter here today.  There will be no lights, or re-enactments, or smoke, or manufactured ground shaking.  For as awe inspiring as such things might be, I know of no one’s life who was changed by seeing a helicopter drop 20,000 eggs. I know of no one who had a change of heart by packing an Easter basket with eggs.  I know of no one who found the peace that passes all understanding by watching the gimmicks of congregations.  But I do know of many, many people who have had lives changed, hearts melted, who have found peace by encountering the risen Jesus.  And it is my hope and my prayer that each of us here today encounter Him.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, today we are presented with momentous news.  The one who died on the cross has been raised.  The tomb is empty.  Death is undone.  Open our hearts and our minds so that we might see what you have accomplished through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

500 years ago, Martin Luther kicked off a huge event in history that we will be celebrating later this year.  Historians call it the Reformation.  Those of us whose churches found their beginnings at this time in history remember how one man dared to call the church back to its foundational beliefs.  It was the radical notion that God had acted through Jesus Christ to bring about our salvation through no action of our own but solely by the grace of God.

Luther himself talked about God’s action in this way in his commentary on the book of Galatians, “Here I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel, which teaches me, not what I ought to do, (for that is the proper office of the law), but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me: to wit, that He suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel wills me to receive this, and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consists. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”  Yes, Luther said, we must beat the Gospel into folks’ heads continually.  Therefore, this morning, I brought a baseball bat...  I bet you some of you are wishing we had a helicopter with 20,000 eggs right about now.

Please stop getting up to head to the exits, I’m putting the bat down.  Jesus didn’t condone violence, and I’m not about to start that now.  However, I am not going to apologize for using Luther’s quote because the Gospel is indeed so radical that we need to hear it over and over and over and over before it really starts sinking deep down within the very fabric of our heart and soul.  We need to have it repeated over and over and over so that it weasels its way deep into our hearts and transforms them.  We must hear the Gospel over and over and over again because it goes against the way the entire world works.

So, let’s begin there.  How does the world work?  I want you to think about your life for a moment.  I want to think about all the things you engage in.  Think about work.  Think about school.  Think about family and friends.  Do you realize that you are in a constant state of working to justify yourself?  Perhaps you have never thought of it that way, but let me show you what I mean.  If you are in school, why do you work to get good grades?  You are showing justification that you have mastered the material and are ready to move to the next step.  If you are working, why do you work hard and put in the hours you put in?  You are working to justify why the company should give you a paycheck, allow you to keep your job, and even perhaps give you a raise.  You are justifying your position to those for whom you work.  And even if you are self-employed, you must justify your work to your customers.  If you are a handyman, you’d better do a good job or else no one will be calling you.  Yes, even within our engagements with family and friends, we are constantly trying to justify ourselves.  As a parent, I am constantly asked, “Why?” by my children.  That question is nothing more than them saying, “Justify why you are telling me what you are telling me.”  And if you don’t think you have to justify yourself even within your immediate relationships, get angry about something and let your tongue slip.  See if you don’t have to quickly justify what you said.  Or guys, leave the toilet seat up several times in a row.  One more example, and then we will move on.  This example is front and center in our society even though we might not realize it: sports.  If you play any sort of team sport, you are in a constant state of justifying yourself for playing time.  You are having to prove over and over and over why you should be playing and why the guy on the bench shouldn’t.  And if you slip up; on the field or in your character, you are out of luck.

Have I shown you enough?  Do you see how you and I are in a constant state of working to justify ourselves?  Do you see how the world is set up so that we must continually justify ourselves?

Now, let’s shift to religion.  Did you know that just about every single world religion is in the self-justification business?  The emphasis of just about every single world religion is: if you do x, y, z, then you will receive the blessings of God.  If you do not do x, y, and z, you can expect God’s punishment.  If you keep failing, try harder.  You must justify yourself and prove that you are worthy of God’s blessings.

Here is what Christianity says.  Christianity says, there is no way that you can justify yourself before God.  God has said that we must do x, y, and z, but God’s standards are so high that if we break x, y, or z, we have dug ourselves a hole and no matter how hard we try we can never, ever justify ourselves.  We are indebted to God for our failure to live as we should.

Most of us know this at a very deep level.  Sure, we try to fool ourselves.  We put on some brave faces and some brave phrases.  We like to think that “I’m okay and you’re okay.”  We like to believe, “You are perfect just the way you are.”  We like to tell ourselves that we are basically good people who just make a few mistakes along the way.  Yet, when we examine our lives, we know this isn’t the case.  When we really think about how we act and what we do, we know that we hold everyone else to a standard that we ourselves don’t even live up to.  Maybe this is why we try to keep ourselves so busy these days.  Maybe this is why we work so hard and play so hard and keep our brains engaged with our cell phones.  The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to think and reflect upon who we are and why the world is the way it is.  The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to reflect upon how indebted to God that we are because of our shortcomings.

But here is the good news.  When every other world religion would say, “Try harder.  Work harder.  Pay your own debt.  Do more good than evil.”  Christianity says: God, knowing that we could not cover the debt, took on human flesh, became like us, experienced all that we experience, but lived without sin.  God came down in human flesh and became the sacrifice of atonement to pay our debt.  God came down in human flesh and took the punishment that was meant for us because God loved us so dearly.

Some may quibble at this thought, but what parent doesn’t do this for his or her young children?  If your kids were walking in the store and they accidentally broke an item on the shelf, would you allow your kid to be arrested and charged with vandalism?  No, you would pay for the item because you love your kid.  God desires all people to be His children, so He came into this world to cancel our debts–to pay for them Himself by taking the wrath of God upon Himself so that we would not have to face it.

This is what Jesus spent His whole life teaching and preaching.  This is what Jesus spent His whole ministry working toward.  His life was one great trajectory toward the cross where He justified us before God the Father.  Christianity says: you do not justify yourself; God the Son justifies you–makes you right by His actions.  You are made right with God by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.  This means, you are now made right with God by trusting in what Jesus does instead of what you do.  Let me say that again: you do not justify yourself like the world demands you do.  Instead, you are justified by Jesus’ on the cross.

This is not the way the world works.  This is not the way every other world religion works.  It is contrary to almost everything we have been taught.  Who would come up with such a scheme that is so contrary; that is so backwards?  It’s crazy and would have been rejected if not for one thing:

The resurrection.

I bet you were wondering when I would actually get to why we are here today.  I bet you were wondering when we would get to the empty tomb.  Well, here it is.  You see, the resurrection is the Father’s stamp that says, “You see.  Everything that Jesus said was true.  Everything He said about being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; everything He said about being the Son of God; everything that He said about salvation coming through Him as the way, the truth, and the life; everything that He said about being the light of the world; yeah, all of it is true.  All of it.

This means you don’t put your hope in your actions.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to do good things.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to follow the rules and laws in the Bible.
You don’t put your hope in the world telling you to justify yourself.
You put your hope in Jesus.
You put your hope in what He has done.
You put your hope in the cross and in the resurrection.
You trust in Jesus, not in yourself.

Oh, and that is so hard.  It is so hard to trust in someone else.  It is so much more instinctual to pave our own way; to walk our own path; to take everything into our own hands and do it ourselves.  It is so much more instinctual and in accord with the world to present our own defense; argue our own case; present why we should be in the right; to justify ourselves.  In fact, we keep wanting to go back to that.  We keep wanting to do it all on our own.  We need to have the gospel beat into our heads continually.  Where is that baseball bat?

No.  We don’t need that baseball bat.  We need Jesus.  We need to be reminded about Him.  We need to hear over and over and over again how much He loves us.  We need to hear over and over again how He was willing to suffer and die for us.  We need to hear over and over again how He loves us when we are unlovable.  For as we hear about how He died and rose for us; as we think about the cross and resurrection, as we think about Jesus, He moves down into our hearts and makes His home deep within us bringing us peace; bringing us hope; bringing us joy.  It’s Jesus who changes us; not helicopters; not 20,000 Easter eggs; not lights and smoke; not even ourselves.  Just Jesus.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, give us Jesus.  We know He is alive.  We know He has risen from the dead.  We know He longs to dwell in our hearts.  Lead us to trust in Him.  Beat it into our heads that we can trust in Him instead of ourselves.  And lead us to the hope, peace, and joy that is only found in the cross and resurrection.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus' Wondrous Love: Maundy Thursday 2017

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

These sentences are the reason today is called Maundy Thursday, from the Latin mandatum, from where we get the English word mandate or command.  Jesus leaves no wiggle room in how we are called to act as His disciples.  He leaves no doubt as to how we are to treat one another: Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  Period.  Mic drop.  There is nothing more to say.

And there would be nothing more to say if, and it is a big if, we actually followed what Jesus said.  There would be nothing more to say if, following the example of Jesus we spent all of our time in our church and in the world loving one another.  There would be nothing more to say if people walked into our churches on a regular basis and were blown away at how we acted toward each other.  There would be nothing more to say if those who are outside the church looked at us and said, “Those Christians are not like anyone else.  They are different through and through.  They don’t argue.  They only disagree.  They never gossip about one another, they only talk respectfully about one another.  They never assign ulterior motives to anyone, they put the best possible spin on each other’s actions.  They don’t point fingers and blame, they forgive and work toward common goals.  Their community is unlike any other community.  They are different.  They truly love one another.”

You know as well as I do, that those outside the church do not say that about us.  You know as well as I do that folks say almost the exact opposite.  “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.”  “The church is just like any other organization–they fight, they argue, they want money, they want time.  There’s nothing different about them!”  Sam Harris, a prominent atheist writer penned these words, “Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.”  These are all observations you probably have heard–at least you should have heard if you do not wear rose colored glasses in regards to the church.  If our governing command given by Jesus Himself is, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another,” then we have failed.

And it is not really a surprise.  Our hearts are not geared to love as Jesus loved.  What do I mean by that?  Close your eyes and take a look around the room where Jesus and His disciples are eating the Passover meal.  Look at Judas who will betray Jesus into the hands of the Jewish Sanhedrin and then Rome.  Look at Peter who will deny Jesus three times.  Look at James and John who will fall asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray.  Look at all the other disciples who will turn and run when Jesus is arrested, leaving Jesus to stand alone to face the coming ordeal.  Look at all of those faces who betrayed, denied, disobeyed, and ran.  And pretend that you knew they would do the same to you.  Pretend like they would abandon you, deny you, betray you, disobey you.  Would you still wash their feet?  Would you still serve them?  Would you still love them?  Even though you know, you absolutely know that Jesus told you to love them, would you love them?  Would you be willing to die for them?

I think it would behoove us to be honest with ourselves.  No.  We wouldn’t.  We wouldn’t want to love them.  We wouldn’t want to serve them.  We wouldn’t want to wash their feet.  These people would be hurting us deeply.  They would be dishonoring us.  They would be causing us emotional pain, and our hearts would not want anything to do with them.

The great George Strait once sang a song that applies here, “You can’t make a heart love somebody.  You can tell it what to do, but it won't listen at all.  You can't make a heart love somebody.  You can lead a heart to love.  But you can't make it fall.”

Why do we know that we are supposed to love one another but fail to do so?  Why do we fully acknowledge that Jesus is a perfect example and yet fail to imitate Him?  Our hearts aren’t like Jesus.  We are not like Jesus.

You see, in reality, we are much more like Peter.  No, I am not going to go through all the details of Peter’s three years with Jesus here.  I am simply going to focus on what Peter does in this text that is before us this evening.  Jesus is being Jesus.  Jesus is putting this love one another thing into practice.  He is humbling Himself and doing something no respectable Rabbi would ever, ever do.  No rabbi would wash his disciples’ feet.  No.  The reverse ALWAYS took place. Always.  But in the kingdom of God, the greatest is the least, and the least is the greatest.  This reversal is too much for Peter to handle.

Peter looks at Jesus and says, “You will never wash my feet.”

Peter knows this is not the way the world works.  Peter knows that what Jesus is doing is so contrary to everything he has ever known.  Peter knows that the powerful are served by the powerless.  Peter knows it was his job to wash Jesus’ feet and not the other way around.  Peter has a problem with grace.  For grace turns the world upside down and gives honor, love, and respect when it is not earned.  Grace gives love, honor, and respect when it is undeserved.  Peter knew he didn’t deserve what Jesus was doing.  Peter knew that he had done nothing that would warrant Jesus’ washing his feet, and so Peter rejected what Jesus was doing.

I told you earlier, we are like Peter.  For the most part, Christians have a problem with grace as well.  We have a problem with Christ washing us.  We have a problem with Christ dying for us and saving us on His own merit–with nothing added on our part.  Let me rephrase that: we have a problem believing that there is nothing we have to do to be saved.  We want to add qualifiers to grace.  Sure, Jesus died for us, but there is still stuff we have to do for our salvation.  Jesus forgave our sins, but if we don’t live a holy life, we won’t get to heaven.

The reason we think such things is because it gives us a sense of control.  If it’s all up to Jesus, then everything is out of our hands.  Everything.  Everything rests on Jesus and what He has already accomplished, and so we place our trust in Him–not in ourselves; not in our ability; not in our accomplishments; not in how good we were; not in how much money we’ve given away; not in how well we’ve treated others.  It all rests on Him, and for those of us who like control, this is very, very disconcerting.  I have no control over whether or not I get to heaven.  It’s out of my hands.  And face it, we don’t generally like depending on others when it comes to the most important things in our lives.  We want to do things ourselves.

Jesus’ response to this is not compassionate.  It’s harsh.  “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” If you didn’t quite get that, let me break it down.  There are those people who come before God and submit to God’s will.  They bow at their Maker’s feet and say, “God, I submit to you and what you have done, are doing, and will do.  I give my life to you and willingly serve you.  Speak for your servant is listening.”  These are the folks who understand grace and know that there is nothing God cannot ask of them.  And then there are those who God looks at and says, “You are only interested in serving yourself.  You are only interested in getting the things that you want.  You are only interested in preserving yourself, your wants, your desires, and I will let you pursue them.  I will give you up to your desire and your selfishness.  Go on your way.”  You see, God loves us enough to let us go.  He loves us enough to let us pursue our deepest heart’s desire–even if that leads us away from Him.  Jesus tells that to Peter.  If you want to do things on your own; if you don’t want me to serve you and wash you, you will end up on your own.  You will end up separated from me because you are acting selfishly.  You are free to go on your own, but there are consequences.”

Peter’s response shows that he still doesn’t get Jesus.  He still doesn’t get grace.  Peter is still self-centered.  Peter says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  If a little bit is good, a lot must be better!  Give me more, and more and more!!  How many stories have we heard like this?  Peter’s response is like the lady who asked her husband to wash the clothes while she went to the grocery store.  She came back home to find half of the house covered with soap suds.  “What did you do?” she demanded.  Her husband replied, “Well, I read the directions on the soap.  It said one cup will get your clothes clean.  But my work clothes were extremely dirty.  I figured that if one cup was good for regular clothes, then ten cups would be better in getting my clothes clean.”  The results were actually disastrous!!

Ah, but in Peter’s case, the disaster is actually related to his soul.  “Jesus, I want more of a share with you!!  If by washing my feat, I get a share, then wash my head and my hands and I will have an even bigger portion!”  You see, Peter was still under the impression that Jesus was going to be the ruler of Israel.  Peter thought Jesus was going to establish an earthly kingdom, and Peter wanted more of it.  He wanted a bigger share in that kingdom.  He wanted more power and prestige.  Oh how we fall into that trap as well.  Jesus, I will believe in you because I want what you can offer.  I will believe in you, Jesus because I know you can give me my deepest heart’s desire.  I know you can give me wealth, status, and privilege.  Jesus, I know you can give me health and make all my family healthy.  Jesus, I know you can give me the perfect life, and I know that if I pray enough, believe enough, give enough; if I promise to use what you give me wisely, then you will give it all to me.  Wash me through and through so that I can benefit!

Peter’s selfishness is shining through.  It’s a testament to the fact that even though a person walks with Jesus on a daily basis for years, listening to Him, eating with Him, watching Him perform miracles, and the like, one can still have a selfish heart.  And that is the reason our churches are no different than any other organization.  That is the reason we do not follow the command to love one another as Christ loved us.  Our hearts are still selfish.  And simply telling people to love one another isn’t going to work.  “You can lead a heart to love, but you can’t make it fall!”

And so, our hearts are in need of change.  Our hearts are in need of a fix so that we stop focusing on ourselves and our wants and our desires and what we can get.  Our hearts need transformation.

“Just as I have loved you...”

That phrase sticks out.  Because Jesus washing the disciples’ feet tonight is not His ultimate act of love.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love is an act that melts the most hardened heart.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love is an act of selflessness that when contemplated leads a person away from himself or herself and toward God.  Jesus’ ultimate act of love comes as He opens His arms on Golgotha, looks at those who are crucifying Him–looks at you and at me–and says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  And then He faces the wrath of God on our behalf–faces the punishment for our sins–dies in our place so that we might have eternal life.

When you love someone and pour out yourself for them, sacrifice for them, and show them undeserved love, it melts that other person’s heart.  It changes them because they want to love you in return.  Some of you have known such love.  Some of you may still be searching for it.  Look no further than the cross.  Look no further than the one who pours out His life for you.  Look no further than Jesus, the God who came to earth because He wants to live with you for eternity.  Through Him you were created, and through Him you are redeemed and made a part of the family of God.  And through Him you find boldness, and strength, and a deep desire to love like He loved.  And this is how His commandment to us will be fulfilled.  We will begin to love one another as He loved us when we come to see what He has done for us; when we can see what He has done on the cross; when we can see His wondrous love.  Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

If They Only Knew... Palm Sunday 2017

As I prepared for my sermon this week, I began pondering and imagining what Jesus was thinking on this day.  I wondered what He thought as He sent those two disciples to appropriate that donkey and colt.  I wondered if He watched them walk away to fulfill that mission and thought to Himself, “If they only knew...”

For I am sure those two disciples were excited at what Jesus had commanded them.  I am sure their hopes suddenly soared.  “Did you hear what Jesus told us to do?  Did you know the significance of His order?  He’s told us to go get Him a donkey to ride on!!  Do you remember what the prophet said?  Do you remember that the prophet said that our king, our deliverer, would come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?  Do you remember that prophecy?  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I remember the first time I heard the Rabbis talking about how our deliverer would come.  I remember being instructed to watch eagerly for the one who would enter into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Oh, today must be that day!!  Today must be the day that our freedom is birthed!!!  Jesus is going to enter Jerusalem on a donkey!!!”

The other disciple, perhaps also growing excited says, “Yes, we have been waiting for so long.  Since the Babylonians defeated us, we have been waiting for this day.  We have been subjected to the Greeks and to the Romans.  We have had to deal with their puppet kings.  A pox on Herod and his craziness.  A pox on Caesar.  A pox on Pilate.  Jesus has the power to overthrow them all.  Remember how He calmed the storm?  What army can stand against one who can control the forces of nature?  Remember how he cast the demon out of the man and made it enter the herd of pigs?  Can you envision Jesus making a whole legion of Roman soldiers cast themselves into the sea?  No one would even have to fight in battle.  And if we actually had to fight?  Well, remember how Jesus healed and brought the dead back to life?  Imagine an army that all wounds are suddenly healed and the dead are raised to fight again.  Invincible. That’s what we would be.  With Jesus as our king, the people of Israel will inherit the earth!!!”

“And we will be remembered as the disciples who brought Jesus His donkey!!”  Perhaps they laughed at this thought.  Perhaps they then turned their attention to the task at hand and with a bounce in their steps that could not be missed, they brought the donkey and colt to their master, and Jesus, knowing their thoughts said to Himself once more, “If they only knew...if they only knew that indeed I am their deliver.  I am indeed their Messiah.  I am indeed their King.  I am here to set them free, but it is a freedom that goes far deeper than what they think.  They dream of being free from rulers, from foreign powers, from Gentile armies, but even if I were to drive all those folks away, they would still be in bondage.  For there is a power that is so pervasive yet so subtle that it enslaves everyone.  These two disciples believe that if only I became the King of Israel and drove out Israel’s enemies, then their lives would be perfect.  Just get the right person in power, and everything will be happy and holy.  They are putting their trust in earthly kingdoms.

They have learned nothing from their own history.  No matter who has been king of Israel, people have always struggled.  My Father had to keep sending prophets to correct the people for their errors.  Putting a new king in place did little to affect the people’s hearts, for their hearts still yearned for wealth, for health, and for prosperity.  Their hearts still yearned for the comforts of this world.  They made idols out of these things and failed to yearn for my Father.  They are corrupted by the power of sin, and I must free them from that power.

For once they are free from the power of sin, then their hearts will yearn for my Father.  Their hearts will yearn to love Him.  And when their hearts yearn for God, they will no longer look to kings and armies to make their lives better.  They will no longer seek satisfaction in money or possessions.  Their hearts will no longer be governed by greed or anxiety or self-centeredness.  Their hearts will be my throne.  I will live with them and in them, and they will be free from the power of sin.  It won’t matter who sits on the throne; it won’t matter how many possessions they have; it won’t matter whether they are slave or free, male or female, they will find their freedom in me.

Yes, I will be their king, but I will not take the throne in the manner they think.  My path is not toward a palace.  I will not be clothed with expensive robes.  I will not dine on fine food and drink fine wine.  My path will be one of suffering and death.  My path will take me to the cross.  There, I will take all sin into myself–I will take the power of sin into myself, and I will defeat it.  If they only knew...”

And Jesus mounted upon the donkey and began the trek into Jerusalem.  And I pondered and imagined what He thought as the people lined the road and cheered Him on.  I pondered and imagine what He was thinking to Himself as the crowds laid palm branches in His path along with their coats.  They were laying out the proverbial red carpet for Him.  And they were shouting!! Yes, they were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Their cry was a cry of revolution.  “Praise be to the promised descendant of King David who was foretold long ago as the one who would defeat our enemies and help Israel become great once again!”  Ah, the crowd knew who Jesus was.  They too had heard of His miraculous deeds of power.  They too had heard of His powerful teaching.  They too knew He was from God, and they believed He was now here to deliver them from the hands of their enemies.  Rome stood no chance.  The puppet king Herod stood no chance.  Pilate might try to wield the might of Rome and the legions, but God had appointed His Messiah.  No one stood a chance against the Messiah.  And so they shouted!!  So they proclaimed!!  So they paid homage to Jesus!!!  Their king was coming!!!

And I cannot help but think Jesus simply thought, “If they only knew...
“For I will not be the king that they expect.  The crowd has fallen into the same trap that my disciples have fallen into.  They believe that earthly kings and rulers can make their lives change.  They believe that earthly kings and rulers can make them free.  But their hearts will still be in bondage to sin.  Their hearts will still be in chains.  And we will see just how chained they are.

In the coming days, I will teach and I will heal.  I will challenge the principalities and powers.  I will challenge their false idols, and they will hate me for it.  They will turn on me because I will refuse to become who they expect me to become.  And when I don’t give them what they want; when I refuse to live up to their expectations, their cries and shouts will change.  No longer will they yell, “Hosanna!”  Instead, they will yell, “Crucify!”  The ones shouting for my rule today will be crying for my death at the end of this week.  The power of sin will corrupt them so thoroughly that they will not even treat me as a human being–though I have done nothing wrong.  If they only knew...”

And as Jesus came into Jerusalem, I am sure He knew that the city was now on a razor’s edge.  He knew that the crowd’s actions had left the city full of tension and anxiety.  The crowds had welcomed Him like a king.  Would a revolution begin?  Could the city expect bloody battles?  Would swords be drawn and blood be spilled?  Would Jesus be the catalyst?  And those who did not know of Him were asking, “Who is this man?  Who is the one that the crowd’s welcomed in such a manner?  Who is this man who is welcomed as a Jewish Messiah?  Who is this man that rumors spread about sick being healed, demons being cast out, dead being raised, storms being stilled, and thousands being fed?  Who is this man?

“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

And once again, I can imagine Jesus thinking, “If they only knew...yes, I am a prophet.  Yes, I am from Nazareth.  Yes, I am from Galilee.  But this world is not my home.  I am not from here.  I AM.  Yes.  I AM.”  (And for those of you who did not catch that reference, in the Old Testament of Scripture, God refers to Himself as “I AM.”) I AM God’s only begotten Son who has come into this world to free my people from the power of sin.  I AM the King of kings and Lord of lords who will set my throne in my people’s hearts.  I AM the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world and open the family of God to anyone who trusts in me and what I do.  I AM the redeemer of the world who will save my people not because of who they are because they are sinful, self-centered, and vain–I will save them because of who I am: gracious and forgiving even when people turn on me.  I Am following my Father’s will because He does not want to see anyone perish but wants all to have eternal life with Him.  I AM the light of the world who shines in the darkness and helps people see the reality of God.  I AM destined to die so that anyone who trusts in me will live.  If they only knew...”

Indeed, if we only knew...if we only knew..., but sometimes I wonder if we want to know.  I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is.  For if He is the Lamb of God who has come to redeem us by grace alone–through no work of our own, then we cannot boast in what we do.  We cannot become self-righteous and think that we are better than anyone else.  For God did not pour out His love because of us but in spite of us.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He has died for me and granted me salvation by Grace alone, then there is nothing He cannot ask of me.  If He indeed is the King of kings and Lord of lords, if He is the King of Heaven and Earth, I owe Him my total and utter allegiance.  My life no longer belongs to me.  I have no control or charge.  I serve and honor Him alone and am bound in service to Him.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He has become my Lord and my Savior, then I find my meaning, my purpose, and my identity in Him.  I lose the privileges of being male or female.  I lose the privileges of race and ethnicity.  I lose the privileges of wealth and status.  I lose the privileges of education and knowledge.  For I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live but Christ who lives within me.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He is Lord of my life; I now live for God.  I no longer live for myself.  I no longer live for money, wealth, status, privilege, knowledge, power, control or anything else.  I live for God and seek His purpose and His will in everything that I do.  And that means I love what God loves.  I seek what God seeks.  I long for what God longs for, and that means care and concern for this world–for God loves the world.  And so I am called to love it.  I am called to care for it.  I am called to make sacrifices to preserve it and all that live within it.  And that means I care deeply for those created in God’s image.  I cannot wall myself off with other Christians and simply wait for Jesus’ return.  Because I love what God loves, I seek to bring other people into the family of God.  I seek to bring God’s love and God’s compassion to those in need.  I seek to feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Love of neighbor becomes the second most important thing I do in life after loving God.

I wonder if we really want to know that Jesus is who He says He is because if He is Lord of my life, I cannot keep silent about what He has done in redeeming the world.  With every breath, I long to sing His praise and worship Him at every opportunity.  With every breath I seek to tell others of God’s great love.  With every breath, I long to tell His story of redemption.  I cannot keep silent.  I cannot just go about my life with indifference.  I must strive to point to and to worship my God and my King.

Do we really know this Jesus who enters into the streets of Jerusalem this day?  Do we really know the extent of His love, His mercy, and His grace?  Is He just someone we appreciate and try to implement a teaching or two of His?  Or is He the Lord of our lives?  Are our hearts His throne?  And do we long to cry out Hosanna?  Will you raise your palm branches?  Will you put your coat down in front of Him?  Will He be your Lord and your Savior?  May our hearts respond with a resounding, “Yes!!!”  Amen.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 5

Samson is now a prisoner.  The phrase “how far the mighty have fallen,” is appropriate here.  Samson who once was God’s-chosen, Nazirite judge of Israel is now relegated to grinding grain in a Philistine prison.  Some might consider this justice.  After all, Samson was not a very good judge.  He was extremely self-centered.  He broke his Nazirite vow on numerous occasions.  He handled dead bodies.  He engaged in parties where alcohol was present.  He visited prostitutes.  He welcomed violence and rather enjoyed toying with the Philistine leaders and others.  Not too many people would consider these actions godly.

And his arrogance and sexual appetite finally got the best of him.  He revealed to Delilah the secret of his strength, she arranged to have his hair cut, and the Lord left Samson.  This is an important sequence of events to remember, because, as we pondered last time, the Lord didn’t leave Samson when he broke portions of his Nazirite vow early in the story.  Why did he leave after Samson’s hair was cut?  It may just be that it was because Samson thought he deserved his power and strength.  It may just be because Samson had fully turned away from the Lord, and the Lord had to humble him to bring him back into a fuller relationship with Him.  Sometimes, the Lord must break us to remake us.

And our lesson starts with Samson being ultimately humiliated.  The Philistines are celebrating a festival to their false god–Dagon.  In the midst of their revelry, they decide to humiliate Samson even further.  They have him dragged out to the festival that he might entertain them.  But catch their reason for doing so.  They don’t just want to make fun of Samson.  They begin with these words, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.’ 24When the people saw him, they praised their god; for they said, ‘Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.”  You see, this story is not simply a battle between Samson and the Philistines.  It’s really a battle between God and all the false gods.  It’s a battle between God and Dagon.  It’s a battle between God and self-centeredness.  It’s a battle between God and lust.  It’s a battle between God and arrogance.  The Philistines believe that they have won.  The Philistines believe that victory has been achieved, and they are the ones who now suffer from arrogance and over-confidence.

How so?  At the end of last week’s lesson, the Bible records that Samson’s hair began to grow.  Now, think about this.  If it was revealed to you that the secret to your enemy’s strength was that his hair had never been cut, and you managed to cut it and subdue your enemy, would you allow his hair to ever grow back?  No.  Not if you were worried that he might regain his strength and come after you again.  You would keep his head balder than bald.  But the Philistines didn’t.  They were sure and confident in their victory.  They were now the arrogant ones.  They were now the ones who were sure of themselves and were reveling in their victory.  Their god had been victorious.  There was nothing more to worry about.

But their arrogance would come back to haunt them–just as Samson’s arrogance got the best of him.  Samson was brought out before the Philistines, and he asked one of the attendants, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.”  Samson had a thought growing in his head–one last thought of defeating his enemies.

The attendant put Samson’s hands on the pillars, and Samson prays.  “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.”

For perhaps the first time, he is exercising faith.  Some commentators have argued that the request of verse 28 is simply a vengeful one–and it is true that there is no mention here of rescuing Israel, only of revenge for Samson’s eyes.  But against this, first, there is a new-found humility here.  Samson recognizes that the God of Israel is sovereign–remember he is standing in the temple of the god whose followers he has spent his adult life sleeping with.  Further, Samson know not only that God is his God, but also that he is the saving, covenantal, relational God of his people, Israel.  This is a very different Samson to the one who presumed “his” strength, and who demanded that God give him water without thanking him for his power.
And second, Hebrews 11:32-34 says that Samson was a man of faith, and surely this is the only place in the story where it could be said that Samson exercised faith!  Most interesting is the reference in Hebrews 11:34: “they were made strong out of weakness.”  This is a great insight.  Samson had been humbled into the dust and had seen his weakness.  Thus, this last request is a departure from his previous feats of strength.  In...[verse 28], Samson first asks: “Remember me,” which is a humble request for attention.  He knows he is quite forgettable, and that God has every right to ignore him.  Second, he asks: “Strengthen me just once more.”  Here (at last) is an acknowledgment of his dependence on God’s grace.  Samson’s real temptation had been to believe that we are blessed by God because of something great and deserving in us–complacently to see what he had been given by grace as rightfully his, to use as he wished.  That, rather than Delilah, was his real sin!  It is so hard to remember that we do what we do only because of God’s grace, and that God’s grace is given so that we might do what is pleasing to him and in the service of his people.  (Keller: Judges for You.)

And God’s grace is indeed poured out on Samson one more time.  The power of the Lord comes over him, and he pushes on the temple pillars–and the temple comes crashing to the ground.  Samson prays that he might perish with his enemies, and that is exactly what happens.  In his death, Samson is victorious.

The most important moment of Samson’s life is his death.  The most faithful event of his life is the manner of his death.  And the most triumphant episode of his life is his death, as he at last, and at the last, performs the role of beginning to rescue God’s people that God had explained to his mother when his angel announced Samson’s miraculous birth.  (Keller, Judges for You)

It is important to recognize that Samson did not fully defeat the Philistines by his actions: that would be left up to King David later in Scripture.  It is also important to recognize that Samson’s downfall was brought about by his disobedience.  Both of these things show that Samson is a very, very flawed hero–a very, very flawed person of faith.

But in many ways, Samson’s end is a picture, a shadow of Jesus’ death.  Tracing it allows us to grasp more deeply what the cross is about, and to worship the one who died for us.  First, both Samson and Jesus were betrayed by someone who had acted as a friend–Delilah, and Judas.  (Judas was, of course, not as close to Jesus as Delilah to Samson–but the One he betrayed was far purer and more deserving of loyalty than Samson.)  Both were handed over to the Gentile oppressors.  Both were tortured and chained, and put on public display to be mocked.  Both were asked to perform (though Jesus, unlike Samson, refused.)  Both died with arms outstretched.
And both appeared completely struck down by their enemies, yet both in their death crushed their enemy–Samson, the Philistines and Dagon; Jesus, the ultimate enemy, Satan.  As Samson brought the temple crashing down around Dagon and his followers, the spiritual power and apparent triumph of Dagon was reversed.  Samson brought about permanent alienation between cultures, so that Israel would become distinct, no longer unknowingly and inevitably under the Philistine’s power.
On the cross, Jesus brought the power of Satan to nothing, disarming him.  How did the cross achieve this?  It took away the penalty for our idolatry–death–so that Satan could no longer successfully prosecute God’s people.  And it took away the power of sin in our lives, enabling the Spirit to live in us to break the lure of idols in our hearts.  Samson prefigures Jesus’ triumph, at the cost of his own death, over Satan.  As Samson killed many as he died, so it took the death of Jesus to “kill” Satan–the unseen power of idolatry, and the power of death itself...
In short, we have in Samson, more than any of the other judges, the pattern of “the victorious defeat.”  Rejected, beaten, chained, all alone, and finally dying under an avalanche of his enemies, Samson triumphed.  God delivered his people through the victorious defeat of one Savior.  David Jackman writes: “[The Samson narrative] begins with a strong man who is revealed to be weak, but it ends with a weak man who is stronger than ever he was before.”  (Judges, Ruth, page 243)
It is the gospel!  Jesus became weak to become strong.  But there is, of course, one last, crucial difference between Samson and Christ.  With Samson’s burial, his rule was over.  His story was finished.  But with Jesus’ burial, in many ways the story had only just begun.  He rules beyond the grave, not just before it.  The One who became weak to save will rule in strength and power eternally.
Becoming and continuing as a Christian is about the same pattern–becoming weak to become strong.  Only those who admit they are unrighteous receive the righteousness of Christ.  Only those who know their life and strength are theirs purely because of grace are not living in the grip of fear, boredom, and despondency.  Only those who know their own weakness are able to know God-given inner strength; the strength which enables us to avoid the pitfalls of Samson’s life: pride, lust, anger, vengefulness, and complacency.  (Keller, Judges for You)

Only when we admit that we need a Savior–that we are weak but He is strong, do we come to the place where we find hope.  For we arrive at the foot of the cross.  We arrive at the place where we look up at the One who died on our behalf when we were weak.  We see Christ crucified, and we see that He hung there for us.  And he whispers in his pain and agony.  He looks deeply into our eyes and says, “Be patient for I am dying for you. I am dying to win your heart, and soon you will see the victory.  Soon you will see the power that I will have work and live in you even in your weakness.  For today, it is the cross, but in three days, I will rise.  And if you trust in me instead of yourself; if you trust in my grace, you will rise as well.”  May we admit our weakness and trust in Jesus’ strength.  Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Expect to Suffer: Romans 8:18-25

Today we tackle one of the pervasive lies that has been spread about Christianity.  It’s a lie that actually has great appeal, and there are many churches who have grown very, very large because of that lie.  It’s a lie that captures the imagination because it feeds our need and desire to be safe, secure, and have control over our lives.  It is the lie that says: if you become a Christian, then you will never suffer and you will only have blessing upon blessing in this life; things will always turn out great for you; you will find yourself healthy, wealthy, and with fantastic relationships.  In a word: no.  This message is not the message of Christianity.  It incorporates part of the Christian message, but it misses the entire message, and it can have very negative effects.

Why would I say that?  More than a few times I have counseled people who have held this particular understanding of Christianity.  Their lives were going along swimmingly; fantastic.  They were riding huge waves and enjoying life, but then a monkey wrench was thrown into their plans: maybe it was the loss of a job; maybe it was a diagnosis of cancer; maybe their spouse filed for divorce.  Suddenly, their entire view of the faith came crashing down.  Every time, the same questions are asked: Why is this happening?  I thought I was doing everything right?  I thought my faith was strong?  Why is God allowing this to happen to me?  Why do I have to suffer?

At this point, it is hard to undo what has been done to this person theologically.  It’s hard to go back to the very beginning and deal with the problem that nearly every person on this planet has to deal with: the problem of suffering.  It’s hard to look a person in the eye who expects God to protect them from suffering and tell them: when you become a Christian, you should not expect to avoid suffering.  In fact, when you become a Christian, you should expect to suffer.

This is exactly what St. Paul was getting at when he ended his teaching on what it meant to be a child of God with these words, “...if, in fact, we suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him.”  Paul is hearkening back to earlier in the book of Romans when he talks about Jesus as our representative.  He is going back to the thought that when we are joined to Jesus in baptism, whatever happens to Jesus happens to us.  Jesus died, therefore, we have died and we will die.  Jesus was raised from the dead, therefore we have already experienced the resurrection and one day we will be raised from the dead.  What Paul didn’t go into earlier in the book of Romans, he begins going into now: Jesus suffered, therefore, we also suffer.  If what happened to Jesus happens to us, then we can expect suffering just like Jesus suffered.

This oftentimes raises an important question: why did Jesus have to suffer?  There are actually two reasons, one that applies to us and one that doesn’t.  We’ll take the one that doesn’t first.  One reason Jesus suffered is for the redemption of the world.  Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to make us right with God.  When he suffered on the cross, he had heaped upon him the sins of the world–your sin, my sin.  He faced God’s punishment for those sins on our behalf, and he suffered for us.  This is not the suffering we face.  We face the second type of suffering–the suffering that comes by living in a world where the power of sin is still operative.  Remember, sin is not just the things that we do.  Sin is also a power that is unleashed and is working in the world.  It is corrupting the world, and it is corrupting us.  Jesus entered into the world, and sin did its best to corrupt him.  Sin did its best to turn him away from the Father.  Sin tried many and various things to corrupt him: it appealed to pride and power; it made Jesus face death; it brought persecution upon him; it confronted him with disease and demonic power; it unleashed the fury of nature; and Jesus faced it all.  Jesus experienced the suffering that the power of sin has in the world.  And if Jesus experienced this, we can expect it as well.  Sin will unleash its power upon us to try and corrupt us and alienate us from our heavenly Father.  We can expect to suffer.

And the question is: is it worth it?  Is it worth going through this suffering?  Is it worth it to deal with the headaches and heartaches?  Is it worth facing disease and the death of our bodies?  Is it worth having people make fun of us?  Is it worth it to deal with the fallen nature of humanity and turn the other cheek?  Is it worth it to stand on principle and face alienation?

Paul answers that question next: 18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  When my children were younger and had to get their vaccination shots, Dawna and I promised them: if you hang in there and don’t fight, we will get you an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen.  My kids dreaded those shots.  They didn’t want the needles and the injections of the medicines that burned going in.  But they knew there was something at the end that was better.  They knew there was something they could look forward to.  They knew that there was something great to be had if they made it through the pain.  This was a very effective plan on Dawna’s and my part until our youngest came along and decided that he didn’t like ice cream.  Thankfully, he liked french fries...

But I digress.  Paul is essentially making the same point.  He is saying: compare what you are going through now with the reality that will come later.  What happens down the road; what happens when the glory of God is revealed will make these sufferings pale in comparison.  When we enter into the fullness of the promises of God, everything that we have experienced will become clear.  Everything that we have experienced will fade into a distant memory.  We will look back and say, “Man, that wasn’t fun, but I get it now, and I wouldn’t trade it in the least because what I know now and experience now puts that into perspective.”

Paul then adds, that the entire creation is watching us and what God is doing in us as He redeems us: 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  You see, the creation is also infected by the power of sin.  Creation is not what it was meant to be.  I know that many people look at nature and see beauty and wonder and that “everything works in harmony.”  Well, if harmony means that there is a constant battle for survival–that the rule of thumb is kill or die, then I guess nature is indeed a thing of beauty.  Folks who think nature is just wonderful or beautiful are observing it from civilization and for only small glimpses.  They are not seeing prey trying to avoid predators. They are not seeing plants raising their defenses against infestations.  They are not seeing how everything in nature is simply trying to survive.  And despite nature’s best efforts, things still die.  Things still decay.  This is not the way God intended nature to be.  And in this snippet, Paul personifies nature.  He indicates that nature has some sort of awareness and consciousness.  He indicates like others who wrote Scripture before that nature is longing for redemption.  And Paul says that nature is looking for the children of God to emerge.  Nature is looking for us because it can then see that the process of redemption is underway.  It can see that the battle it is currently engaged in will have an ending.  Its suffering will one day end as well.  There is something to look forward to.

This is probably why Paul turns to the next analogy: 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  I’ve never been through labor.  I don’t want to go through labor.  I watched Dawna go through it and then end up having an emergency C-section.  No thanks.  You ladies are wonders of God’s creation when it comes to birth.  I didn’t have to go through it to see that labor pains suck.  And if there weren’t some sort of pay-off in the end, I’m not sure anyone would ever endure them.  If there weren’t a baby wrapped in warm cloths handed to you after all was said and done, no one would purposely endure them.  But when your child is placed in your hands and you look at that child’s beauty and marvel at this new life, all that pain becomes worth it.  All that agony fades into a distant memory.  This is what was waited for.  This is what was anticipated.  Moaning and groaning is proper when going through the process, but when all is said and done...there is joy–pure, unadulterated joy.  Paul says we are still in the labor process.  The full redemption of our bodies and this world has not happened yet, but the process has begun.  Our suffering is a part of that process, and Paul gives us the antidote to help us through it.

24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  You see, hope is the antidote.  We know there is something at the end.  We do not have it yet, but we know it is coming.  We know that it is just around the corner.  Dawna and I adopted a rather interesting method of giving our children birthday presents.  Rather than go out and choose something for them, we take them to the store and allow them to choose their gift.  As their birthdays approach, they become more and more excited.  They generally know what they are going to pick out ahead of time.  They generally know what gift they will choose, but they don’t have it yet.  It’s not in their possession yet, and so they live in hope.  They live in expectation.  They live with growing excitement as each and every day brings them closer to their birthday.  If they already had their present in hand; if they had already received it long before their birthday, they wouldn’t have the excitement.  They wouldn’t have the hope.  They wouldn’t have anything to look forward to.  But because it is not in their possession yet, they have hope.  They know it’s coming; they know our promise is secure; so they patiently and excitedly wait.

This is exactly what we do as Christians as well.  We have a sure and lasting hope.  We have a sure and lasting promise.  We don’t have it yet.  But it is coming.  Each day draws us closer.  Each day is one more step toward the full redemption of this world and our bodies.  Each day brings us closer to the promised resurrection and fullness of joy of being in the presence of our Father, our Daddy as Paul reminded us last week.  We long for it, but we are patient as we wait.  We endure the sufferings of this world because we know there is more to come.  And we look to the author and perfecter of our faith as we do so.

Jesus is extremely crucial to this whole process.  In fact, it is Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that is in Paul’s mind as he writes these words.  You cannot have the resurrection without the cross, and you cannot have the cross without the resurrection.  They both go hand in hand.  They both must be held in tension.  Both provide the Christian with the answer as to whether or not suffering is worth it, and the answer is a resounding yes.  The cross shows that God is not above our suffering; God is not removed from our suffering.  God suffers with us and like us.  God knows pain.  God knows agony.  God knows injustice and hatred.  God knows what it is like to die.  God has experienced it with us.  Yes, God understands our suffering because He’s been through it himself.  And if God didn’t prevent Himself from suffering, we should not be surprised when He doesn’t prevent us from suffering.  There is more to the equation: there is resurrection.  There is re-birth.  There is renewal.  The resurrection is the promised hope.  It is what we can look forward to–a new body free of pain, injury, hunger, want; a new body that will never die; a new body that will experience the love and fulfillment of God.

We must not be fooled by anything that minimizes the cross or the resurrection.  We must not be led astray into accepting any form of Christianity that promises that we will never suffer or that our hope is in something less than resurrection.  We must not lead people astray and offer them false hope.  When we become Christians, we will suffer.  That is a given, but we can endure because we also know what is in store.  We know that there is resurrection in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.