Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday on Purpose

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012
© 2012

How do you feel about Palm Sunday? Ecstasy, elation, exaltation or foreboding?
You’ve probably heard about the fickle crowds who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” on Good Friday. None of the Gospels say that these were the same people. Luke’s account of Holy Week distinguishes between the people who enthusiastically welcomed and followed Jesus and the crowd or mob that was whipped into a frenzy to get Pilate to execute Jesus.
You probably came today expecting to add your voice to those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as King. You came to hear a story that never seems old, even though you know it. Today the joy of the palms! I urge all of you to join us for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to prepare for Easter. All four Gospels report Jesus’ welcome into Jerusalem as King. We tend to squash them together in our minds, but each one has a unique perspective and emphasis. Mark 11:1-11 ends with a peculiar detail that the other Gospels don’t mention.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks
on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
All four Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday draw heavily on allusions to the Hebrew Scripture. Some of these are considered to be prophetic and confirm that Jesus is truly the Messianic King. Jesus also planned, even staged, his entry into Jerusalem with these images in mind to communicate the significance of not only that day but of the week ahead.
We read from Psalm 118 this morning, much as it would have been chanted by pilgrims walking up to the Temple to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles in the fall and Passover in the spring. Others had processed to the temple singing from Psalm 118 that week, but it took on special power and meaning when the King was with them.
Pilgrims carried branches to tie to the altar, and now they were symbols of royalty present.
Opening the gates of a city was a symbolic way of recognizing the entering King as our King.
When the people shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they knew they were quoting this Psalm and were celebrating that the one who would restore the kingdom of David had arrived.
“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord” was a cry for God’s deliverance from enemies. It had become more like a cheer, “hosanna!” But when Jesus came, it became a prayer appealing for God’s Messianic redemption.
As opposition to his teaching built during Holy Week, Jesus identified himself as the stone rejected by the builders that had become the chief cornerstone (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17). Peter used it in his defense of healing the lame man (Acts 4:11) and in his epistle appealing to people to come to Jesus (1 Peter 2:7). This image became a symbol of Jesus’ redemptive rejection and suffering.
Psalm 118:24 is used as a generic blessing, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” But Holy Week makes the day of redemption, of Jesus rejection, the day God made in which we are to rejoice, starting with Palm Sunday.
The people who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday would also have recognized the historic precedent from the time of the Maccabees about 200 years earlier. The Greek occupying army had been expelled and the Temple rededicated, which started what we know as the Jewish celebration of Chanukah.
Compare how Judas Maccabeus was welcomed into Jerusalem with Jesus on Palm Sunday.
The Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51) Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. (2 Maccabees 10:7)

These dramatic events inspired Handel to write the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. One of its tunes has become an Easter hymn, but I invite you to get a feel for Palm Sunday as Wanda plays the refrain.
III. In all the Gospels only Mark 11:11 reports that Jesus looked around the Temple and went back to Bethany before running the merchants and money changers out of the Temple the next day.
Clearly Jesus had not just staged Palm Sunday as a one-day spectacular event. His entry into Jerusalem was carefully orchestrated to identify him as the redeeming King who was in charge of all the events that unfolded in Holy Week.
Matthew 26:3-5 and Mark 14:1-2 explain that when the Temple leaders plotted to eliminate Jesus, they made a point of wanting to wait until after Passover when the visiting pilgrims would have gone home and the mood of the city was calmly getting back to normal. But Jesus had other ideas. His whole ministry had been moving toward crucifixion in Jerusalem on Passover. Events
spun completely out of control for the Temple leaders. Even the Roman Governor Pilate cannot rein them in.
Whether by advance preparation or divine insight, from the moment Jesus sent the disciples to fetch the colt, he was in charge of every detail of his entry into Jerusalem. He knew exactly where the colt was. He knew exactly what to say to those who questioned the disciples. At the end of the day, he looked around the Temple and mapped out a plan to return the next day and run the
merchants and money changers out. I think he also planned when and where to preach his most confrontational sermons. Jesus forced the hand of the Temple leaders. He was the only one who is actually in control during Holy Week.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem proclaimed as King. He was the sovereign King as the climax of God’s redemptive plan unfolded. When the Temple leaders had temper tantrums and the Pilate’s tricks failed to release an innocent prisoner, Jesus was calmly in control of himself and even the details of his trial and execution.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as King was not just the prelude to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus had planned it to point ahead to his coming as the ultimate King at the climax of human history. The Palm Sunday drama of the King’s joyful subjects rushing out to welcome him and accompany his back into the city to reign is exactly the image of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “We who
are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

When you feel events are spinning out of control, look around. Where is Jesus? What is he looking at?
Ben Witherington teaches New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In the April 2012 Christianity Today he writes about how life spun out of control for him and his wife
Ann. (pp. 36-39)

The phone rang late at night on January 11, 2012. It was their 32 year old daughter Christy’s boyfriend, Saragan Sankar. He was barely intelligible because he was crying so much. “Christy is gone. She was found dead in the house. Christy has passed away.”
As Ben and Ann plunged into grief, Ben said, “God did not do this to my child. God does not terminate sweet lives with a pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolisms are the result of the bent nature of this world. As I weep for Christy, I cling to Jesus’ promise that he came to bring abundant life (John 10:10), not the sorry solace and cold comfort of ‘God did this but we do not know why.’ No! A thousand times no. I believe in a God whose ‘Yes!’ to life is louder than death’s ‘No!’ God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world – disease, suffering, sorrow, sin and death itself. God cries with us.”
“We grieve with the hope that death does not have the last word. We grieve in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. Death has a way of convincing us of what matters in life. It shuts down our squabbles and complaints. It’s okay to have tears in our eyes as long as we have hope in our hearts.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

First Death, Then Life

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
March 25, 2012
© 2012

In the early 70s we were living in Illinois when I first encountered John Woolman (1720-1772) while reading Elton Trueblood’s (1970) book The New Man for Our Time. Trueblood
described Woolman as someone who could think, act and pray. John Woolman was a
great Quaker saint who lived in Mt. Holly, New Jersey and championed Christian
social justice before the American Revolution. Trueblood’s book got me to read John Woolman’s Journal and Essays. It is a spiritual classic on a par with Augustine’s Confessions, Pascal’s Pensées and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. I read how he silently got up and walked out of dinner when he discovered his host kept slaves. He was a tailor and refused to wear or work on any fabrics whose dyes were involved in the slave trade. I read how he left his tailor shop each afternoon to walk up the block to Three Tuns Tavern to encourage the iron workers to only have one drink and take the rest of their day’s pay home to their families. At the time I had no idea we would move to Mt. Holly, New Jersey in 1980. Three Tuns Tavern is still there, is now called The Mill Street Hotel, and is still a center of alcohol abuse and violence. It is only about 3
blocks south of 1st Presbyterian Church where I served for 17 years. Just a couple blocks west is the Friends Meeting House where John Woolman worshipped, which the British used as a commissary when they occupied Mt. Holly during the American Revolution. I walked past the Friends Meeting House several times every week. John Woolman died of small pox in England, where he is buried, but his wife Sarah is buried behind the Friends Meeting House and a
memorial stone for John is next to hers. Every year on Martin Luther King Day the churches of Mt. Holly held a commemorative march from 2nd Baptist Church to 1st Presbyterian Church and stopped for a moment of silence by those memorial stones in honor of John Woolman.
Woolman’s whole Journal, indeed his whole life, is interpreted by one particular entry.

I then heard a soft, melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice on an angel who spoke to the other angels. The words were, “John Woolman is dead.” I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean.

I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said among themselves, “If Christ directed them to use us in this way, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.”

All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery, and I was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery. At length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life I now live in the flesh [is] by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead” meant no more than the death of my own will.
John Woolman understood, as we saw in the Gospel last Sunday, that death and eternal life are not distant future events but are daily realities. Lent is an uncomfortable season as we focus on our mortality and sin. Yet our Lenten journey culminating as we walk through Holy Week is the path not just to resurrection for Jesus and for us, but is the gateway to abundant, eternal life
Death is usually understood as the end of physical life, but the message of the Gospel is that death is the beginning of life. In relationship with Jesus, death opens flourishing life now.
As strange as it may seem, the contemplation of our mortality has long been understood as a positive, healthy spiritual discipline.
Perhaps you remember the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society in which English teacher, John Keating impresses his young students with the brevity of life and urges them to pursue their dreams with the aphorism from Horace carpe diem – “seize the day!” Though with a view to God rather than ourselves, the sentiment is not far from Psalm 39:4 “Lord, let me know my end
and what is the measure of my days.” Or Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
The fading flower is a recurrent image of the brevity of life in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.

Psalm 103:15-16
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

Isaiah 40:6-8
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Matthew 6:30 (Luke 12:28)
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

1 Peter 1:24-25 (James 1:11)
For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” That word is the good news that was
announced to you.
When Jeremiah wrote, Israel seems on the verge of death. The Northern Kingdom had been obliterated, and Judah was exiled in Babylon. As we read this morning in 31:31-34, out of the death of the broken covenant, God brings a new covenant in which all will know God and have God’s righteousness within. The Gospel, the entire New Testament springs from this promise. Out of the death of exile comes the resurrection to eternal life!
In John 12:20-33 Jesus changes the image of death from fading flowers to fruitful seed. [Tell passage.]

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip
went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father,
glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The fruitfulness of the dying seed is not just a symbol of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, but it is a metaphor for the totality of being his disciples.
John’s Gospel does not include an account of Jesus prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, it tells how even before he got to the Garden, Jesus had been praying with determination as the hour of crucifixion approached. Hebrews 5:7 describes this praying as reverent submission.
John’s Gospel also does not report Jesus’ Transfiguration. Yet, the Father speaks from Heaven to confirm that Jesus is on the path of glorifying the Father, as paradoxical as that may seem. The
Heavenly voice affirms that the Father has been glorified in the past and will be glorified in the future.
With the emphatic NOW Jesus commits to glorifying the Father in the present. NOW is the
judgment of this world, NOW the ruler of this world will be driven out, Jesus confirms the immediate reality of eternal life. In relationship with Jesus, death opens flourishing life NOW.
Many monastic orders have found unusual ways to include the contemplation of personal mortality as a regular spiritual discipline. We may find them odd if not macabre. Sometimes the
first task for a monk after taking vows is to build his own coffin which will serve as his bed until he is buried in it. The cemetery of a monastery in New Mexico is in front of the refectory where they take their meals. A fresh grave is always open and ready. A fresco at the Basilica of St. Benedict in Subiaco, Italy shows a monk using decaying bodies to instruct young men about the
brevity of life. I don’t think Emily will add that to our youth ministry curriculum.
John Woolman heard the heavenly song, “John Woolman is dead” and that was when his flourishing, fruitful life began. When we know we are already living the eternal life Jesus has given us, the contemplation of our own mortality becomes a loving look ahead, not so much at the grave or even to life beyond the grave, but anticipation of eternally increasing intimacy with God in Jesus. As 1 Corinthians 15:26 says, death is still the last enemy, but Jesus has defeated and driven out this enemy. Since Jesus has already opened the flourishing of eternal life to us, we need not dread the contemplation of our own mortality. Rather, we can release ourselves to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.
I think many of us can identify with what Ralph Milton wrote in his Sermon Helps for Preachers with a Sense of Humor.

I’m afraid that I have passed my “best before...” date. I’m not sure when it happened – just that it has happened. I don’t have the energy I had in my twenties, the commitment I had in my forties, and I don’t even seem to have all the memory cells I had in my sixties. I’m on the downhill side of life. When the flame finally burns down, I shall want someone with me. Someone to hold my hand, to stay near me as I take life’s final step. I will not want information or theory about companionship, or community, or caring. All the doctrine and dogma in the world cannot replace
a real relationship. When it really matters, all I’ll want is to feel God there with me, holding my hand.
The Prayer of St. Francis ends by embracing the reality that in relationship with Jesus, death
opens flourishing life now. I invite you to pray it with me.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving
that we receive;
it is in pardoning
that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying
that we are born to eternal life
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Why Not Look?”

Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
March 18, 2012
© 2012

When I was growing up, every few years our family would drive from
Oakland, California to visit my father’s relatives in Detroit, Michigan. The
ideal plan was to leave in the afternoon so we could have supper in Reno,
Nevada. Then my parents took turns driving across the desert through the night
so we could have breakfast in Salt Lake City, Utah. The plan was reversed for
the return trip: supper in Salt Lake City, breakfast in Reno, and in our own
beds that night. It was a strategy for managing the hottest and dullest part of
the trip. Our trip east was well under way before my sister and I would start
asking, “Are we there yet?” As we got old enough to read maps, our parents gave
us the AAA Trip Tic so we could follow our progress one manageable page at a time.
In the days before the Interstate Highway system, my sister and I would read
the AAA Tour Books and pick out something we wanted to see in small towns along
the way. We usually avoided the gaudy tourist traps but would stop at an
historical marker or unusual natural phenomenon. Calculating estimated times of
arrival and navigating from the back seat kept us from getting too annoying
with the refrain, “Are we there yet?”
We read in Numbers 21 that the Israelites grew impatient on the way and
grumbled against God and Moses. The path to the Promised Land lay northwest
through Edom, but Edom refused passage, so the backtracked southeast. The fiery serpents were an embodiment of their
venomous attack on Moses and on God.
1st Christian Church, Duncanville, is on a long, circuitous
journey to a new pastor. I’m sure the Search and Call Committee has felt like
they’ve done plenty of backtracking. Are you getting impatient?
Waiting patiently through a job search or recovery from surgery or
illness is not easy. The presidential campaign already seems long, and the
Texas primary is not here yet, and the November election seems impossibly far
off. Have you noticed your impatience along the way becoming venomous?
John 3:16 is perhaps the best known verse in the New Testament. It
comes in John 3:14-21 as part of Jesus’ discourse following his conversation
with Nicodemus. Placing this in the chronology of Jesus’ ministry is
impossible, but John puts it early in his Gospel with the bronze serpent as a
powerful pointer to the cross.
And just as Moses lifted up the
serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that
whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes
in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed,
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that
the world might be saved through him. 18Those
who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are
condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son
of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the
world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were
evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But
those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen
that their deeds have been done in God.”
If John had not reported Jesus’ discussion of Moses lifting up the
serpent in the wilderness, it would have remained one of many obscure and
puzzling incidents in Israel’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Jesus
makes the serpent that embodied the curse and became the cure foreshadow the
significance of his death on the cross.
The curse of the serpents is that they inflict the Israelites’ venomous
grumbling back on them, inflicting hopeless death. They are more consequences
than punishment. The serpents personify the theological reality of Ephesians
2:5 that “the wages of sin is death.” This death is not just the last event of
this life but a permeating power. Thus, Ephesians 2:1 says we are “dead through
trespasses and sins.” Even before the serpents invaded the camp, the Israelites
were poisoned by their grumbling. Similarly, Jesus said that “those who do not
believe are condemned already.” (John 3:18-19) The judgment is not far off in
the future; it is now. When the people come to Moses they are desperate. While
more people are bitten and die, Moses takes time to pray and to fabricate the
bronze serpent that will become their cure. When Jesus said the Son of Man
would be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up, the word can mean lifted up
for execution on a gibbet or it can mean lifted up for glory and adulation.
Thus, by being
lifted up on the cross for crucifixion, Jesus transforms the curse to the cure.
Just as the Israelites who looked at the bronze serpent went from death to
life, everyone who believes in Jesus goes from perishing to eternal life. Just
as death is not an event but a permeating power, eternal life is not something
we await in a distant future but is a present relationship with God. In his
great prayer in John 17:3 Jesus said, “This is
eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom
you have sent.”
Look! The loving
grace of God brings you from death to life in Jesus Christ!
In John 3:16
Jesus said, “Everyone who believes in [God’s only
Son] may not perish but may have eternal life.” Ephesians 2:8 says we “have
been saved through faith.” What does it mean to believe and have faith?
Jesus said, “God
so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and Ephesians 2:8 says that God’s
loving grace is a gift, not of our own doing. To believe, to have faith is to
trust that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has transformed you from death
unto life. You don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to grit your teeth and
try to pump up your faith. You just accept the gift.
The story of the
bronze serpent is a picture of believing faith. All the Israelites had to do
was look at the serpent Moses had lifted up. They didn’t have to explain how it
worked. They didn’t have to sign a promise never to grumble again. They didn’t even
have to believe it would work. They only had to look! Imagine how it felt and
how they responded when it worked!
Look! The loving
grace of God brings you from death to life in Jesus Christ!
III. What does it mean to live by grace? What does it mean
to live by faith?
We can get a hint
in George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the
Floss. Maggie Tulliver’s tangled loves for her brother Tom, Philip Wakem
the son of the lawyer who pursued her father into bankruptcy, and Stephen Guest
her best friend’s fiancé keep her in perpetual turmoil. The one respite she
gets is from a seemingly chance encounter with Thomas á Kempis’ 15th
century book The Imitation of Christ.
Maggie’s response conveys the thrill of looking at Christ.
She took up the
little, old, clumsy book with some curiosity: it had the corners turned down in
many places, and some hand, now for ever quiet, had made at certain places
strong pen-and-ink marks, long since browned by time. Maggie turned from leaf
to leaf, and read where the quiet hand pointed.
A strange thrill of
awe passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the
night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir
while hers was in stupor. She went on from one brown mark to another, where the
quiet hand seemed to point, hardly conscious that she was reading – seeming
rather to listen while a low voice [spoke].
Maggie drew a long
breath and pusher her heavy hair back, as if to see a sudden vision more
clearly. Here, then, was a secret of life that would enable her to renounce all
other secrets – here was a sublime height to be reached without the help of
outward things – here was insight, and strength, and conquest, to be won by
means entirely within her own soul, where a supreme Teacher was waiting to be
heard. It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a
problem, that all the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart
on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe; and
for the first time she saw the possibility of shifting the position from which
she looked at the gratification of her own desires – of taking her stand out of
herself. And looking at her own life as an insignificant part of a
divinely-guided whole. She read on and on in the old book, devouring eagerly
the dialogues with the invisible Teacher, the pattern of sorrow, the source of
all strength; returning to it after she had been called away, and reading till
the sun went down behind the willows.
was still panting for happiness and was in ecstasy because she had found the
key to it. … This voice out of the far-off middle ages was the direct
communication of a human soul’s belief and experience and came to Maggie as an
unquestioned message. (Riverside
Edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1961, IV. iii. pp. 253-255)
The way The Mill
on the Floss plays out, Maggie turns this ecstatic freedom into a
performance of isolating self-righteousness that she abandons and returns to
the turmoil of her conflicting loves, which is only resolved by reconciliation
with her brother Tom as they are swept to their deaths by a flood at the end of
the story.
The picture we
get of living by grace and faith in John 3 and Ephesians 2 is quite different. In
John 3:21 Jesus says that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that
it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Ephesians 2:10
says that “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared
beforehand to be our way of life.” Literally, we are God’s poem.
To live in grace
and faith is not just doing good deeds
Taylor was a gifted physician and pioneer missionary to China in the 19th
century. He rejected the connection between British colonialism and the mission
of Christ that was accepted at the time. He left the British colonial port
cities where missionaries lived in compounds that were microcosms of England.
He dressed as a Chinese Confucian teacher and headed inland. When the British
mission societies would no longer accept him, he founded the China Inland
Mission reflecting that vision. It continues today as the Overseas Missionary
After six
years of seemingly fruitless hard work and the death of their son, Hudson and
Maria Taylor returned to England. Hudson’s health had collapsed, and his spirit
was broken. In the next five or six years as he recovered, he grew to discover
what he called “the exchanged life.”
That is, rather than trying to live as a Christian, he could simply trust the
Christ would live his life in him. His grandson James Howard Taylor wrote a
biography in which he describes “the exchanged life” as Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.
Taylors returned to China. Life was still difficult. Some of their children
died as did Maria. Yet the mission began to flourish and the work load
increased. But never again was Hudson Taylor to experience the dark brokenness
of spirit that had crushed him years before. Believing that Christ was living
his life in him, Hudson Taylor was able to find joy and freedom in not only his
mission work but even more so in his relationship with God.
None of us are likely to become pioneer missionaries
or to be revered as spiritual giants a century after our deaths, but we can
live every day by faith in God’s grace. Just as you trusted Christ to forgive
you and give you the hope of resurrection to eternal life, you can trust God
that Jesus will live his life in you. You are God’s poem. God has created you
in grace to do the deeds God prepared beforehand to be your way of life. You
can come to the light, confident that it will be clearly seen that your deeds
are done in God. As paradoxical as it sounds, the Christian life is not about
trying harder and harder to imitate Jesus or do what is right. No! The
Christian life is trusting that Jesus will live his life in you!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Foolish Wisdom of God

Exodus 20:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
March 11, 2012
© 2012
I. Andrew Carnegie immigrated to the United States from Scotland with his parents in 1848. He started out as a factory worker in a bobbin factory and went on to build U.S. Steel and what is still considered the second largest fortune in U.S. history. Though the global marketplace has drastically changed U.S Steel, his philanthropic foundation The Carnegie Corporation of New York thrives today as the vehicle that still conveys his power and knowledge.
A. Andrew Carnegie’s legacy was his philanthropy. His vision was to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding” with the goal of doing “real and permanent good.” He wanted his foundation to create “ladders on which the aspiring can rise.”
B. For him, making money was not an end in itself but was a means of helping others. He wrote, “I propose to take an income no greater than $50,000 per annum! Beyond this I never need to earn, make no effort to increase my fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes.” He recommended the way he attempted to organize his own life. “To spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can. To spend the next third making all the money one can. To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.” He said, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”
C. Nevertheless, the contrast between his life many of those who worked for him was stark. Biographer Joseph Wall commented, “Maybe with the giving away of his money he would justify what he had done to get that money.” His reputation was permanently damaged by the Homestead Strike of 1892 in which ten were killed.
D. He kept his distance from religion but saw himself as a naturalistic and scientific positivist. Rather than a personal God, he believed in “an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed.” He wrote, “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this to be the noblest possible use of wealth.” He recognized the threat his wealth poses to these spiritual aspirations. He wrote, “Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”
II. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 offers some perspective on our human pursuit of influence and knowledge: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
A. The great founders of philosophy were from Greece: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others. So we understand why Paul wrote that Greeks desire wisdom. Though they argued between many different concepts of reality, all of them would consider that God would become human and die as a criminal was foolish if not scandalous.
B. The Jews of the first century were steeped in elaborate traditions surrounding the Law of Moses and the Prophets. Anything that would break through this needed a sign of power. For the Messiah to die as a criminal at the hands of foreign occupiers was a sign of weakness they stumbled over.
C. But in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, the cross of Christ is both wisdom and power of God that overturns the futility of human knowledge and strength. To make his point, Paul quoted Isaiah 29:14 that starts with the prophet condemning those who honor God with the words but whose hearts and lives are far from God. (v. 13) The cross of Christ compels us to let go of our confidence with what we think we know and can do for ourselves. The cross of Christ is total dependence on God.
D. The path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
III. Careful study of the Bible regularly turns up puzzles. For some people, this stirs up doubt and even dismissing the Bible as reliable or relevant. Other people skip over them or are content with simplistic, superficial ways of harmonizing apparent difficulties and label those who raise questions as enemies of the faith. I like to think of my tolerance for ambiguity as a gateway for exploring in unexpected directions and hearing something from God I might have missed.
A. All four Gospels tell a story that is popularly called Christ Cleanses the Temple. Most of you know the story of Jesus throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Cleansing the Temple might not be quite the right idea. Something like Jesus Confronts Temple Corruption might come a little closer. Matthew, Mark and Luke all put this story right after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It seems to be the trigger that gets the Temple leaders to take action to eliminate Jesus. In John 11:45-53 the resurrection of Lazarus is what prompts the plot to kill Jesus. But John 2:13-22 starts the story of Jesus’ public ministry with his confrontation in the Temple.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
B. John’s Gospel is not organized chronologically but thematically or theologically. The puzzle is the timing of these stories. Did Jesus run the merchants and money changers out of the Temple once after Palm Sunday, or had he done it before at the start of his ministry? If he only did it once, was John mistaken to put it at the beginning instead of the end? Matthew and Luke sound like this happened on Palm Sunday, but Mark specifies it was the next day. But a careful reading of Matthew and Luke wouldn’t preclude a day’s delay, even though they don’t mention it specifically. I read convincing, contradictory arguments for one and two confrontations in the Temple and why John was right or wrong in where he put it in his Gospel. Not only am I not smart enough to tell which argument is right, I have concluded that trying to come to a conclusion actually distracts us from what we’re supposed to hear from God in this story. Instead I think we do better to ask why John puts a story that points so clearly to the cross at the start of his Gospel.
C. If you are reading John’s Gospel continuously and not in little clips and bits, just before this story you will have read that John the Baptizer called Jesus the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. None of the other Gospels report that.
1. Matthew and Mark (but not Luke) do mention the doves, but only John says that Jesus drove the cattle and sheep out of the Temple with a whip. The other Gospels don’t say anything about a whip, and John only says he used it on the animals.
2. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect this happened just once right before Jesus’ crucifixion. John has identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and before he is crucified he drives the animals destined for sacrifice out of the Temple. They won’t be needed any more because he is going to offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice.
D. 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that Jews demand signs. In John 2:18 the Temple leaders demand Jesus show them a sign for what he has done. In effect they are saying, “You just acted like one of the ancient prophets. Now prove it by showing us a sign of God’s power.” Rather than doing a miracle, Jesus gives them a riddle about destroying and raising up “this temple.” Several commentators think he was pointing to himself, but the Temple leaders didn’t get it. John explains he was talking about his body. The disciples don’t get it, however, until after he is raised from the dead. But the readers of John’s Gospel know from the very beginning how this story will end – with Jesus death and resurrection. John is not building the suspense as the other Gospels do. He is clear that this story is all about the cross. Jesus’ death is not an accident.
1. If, as I suspect, the confrontation in the Temple happens on Monday after Palm Sunday, the disciples would have no trouble remembering what Jesus said about raising up in three days only a week later.
2. While Jesus is running the merchants out of the Temple, the disciples remembered that Psalm 69:9 said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” They recognize that Jesus is not opposed to the Temple, only to the misuse of the Temple. And farther on Psalm 69:21 says, “They have given me vinegar to drink.” Wow! A snapshot of Jesus on the cross!
E. The path to power and wisdom is the cross of Christ.
IV. I would not blame you if you feel tangled here and want to say to me, “Norm, you obviously spent some time and brain cells on John’s account of Jesus confrontation in the Temple. I don’t think I need to know whether Jesus threw the merchants and money changers out of the Temple once or twice, on Sunday or Monday. If this is the wisdom and power of God in 1 Corinthians 1, it does feel kind of foolish and weak to me. And I’m not even close to being an Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. How is the cross of Christ the path to wisdom and power for me?”
A. I certainly wouldn’t suggest Steve Jobs as a Christian theologian or spiritual leader, but in his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 he said something that I believe points to the cross, though he may not have realized it himself. He said, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
B. The cross of Christ is both a graphic sign of the reality of death, and the entrance into the freedom of knowing that death does not have the last word. After three days, Jesus was raised up! The cross of Christ opens up the new.
C. Politicians like to speak of Americans as a free people, as though freedom is something we invented and achieved by and for ourselves. The cross of Christ is the sign that we are a freed people. By the very thing that seems weak and foolish, we have been set free by Jesus when we were absolutely helpless to free ourselves.
D. What we read this morning from Exodus 20:1-6 is what Jewish scholars call the First Word of the Ten Words or Commandments. It goes on to explain the First Word, but that First Word is that God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery.” The First Word is about God, not about us. It is about the God whose very nature is to liberate! The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary restrictive rules, but are the terms of God’s covenant with us. They show us how to live as a freed people who are becoming liberators like the God who freed us.
E. Lent is our invitation to God’s power and wisdom in the cross of Christ. As we ramp up our prayer, Bible reading and corporate worship at this season, we see the cross. We let go of our demands for knowledge and signs. Little by little we are freed from what binds us by the power and wisdom of God.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What Kind of Faith Counts?

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
March 4, 2012
© 2012

I. Tuesday evening I watched the PBS American Experience documentary The Amish with considerable interest. Their rigidity of behavioral conformity and harsh discipline, their isolation from the larger world, their disdain for anything but basic education, their incongruities and inconsistencies make dismissing them all too easy. Their demise has been repeatedly predicted, yet they have grown from 10,000 to 250,000 in the past century. As I watched, knowing I would be preaching this passage today, I kept hearing the words of Jesus from Mark 8:34, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What kind of faith counts for Jesus’ disciples? We may dismiss the Amish as trying to live as Jesus’ disciples in the nineteenth century, but we cannot dismiss God’s call to us to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century.

A. Ours is a highly individualistic society built for self-fulfillment, not self-denial. While the Amish seem to have pushed to an extreme, something about valuing the community over the individual and mission over comfort and convenience resonates with Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

B. The American frontier nourished the profound respect for individual Christian conscience of our Disciples of Christ tradition. The church growth movement of recent decades has cast churches in a marketing environment. “Come to our church to get what appeals to your interests.” Even in our churches we hear Jesus’ call for self-denial as sharply counter-cultural.

C. What faith counts? How do we define discipleship today?

1. Though the U.S. Constitution rightly prohibits any religious test for holding any public office in this country, the religion of the presidential candidates is much discussed. Whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is legitimately Christian or mainstream has been questioned. Rick Santorum has rejected the distinction between public life and private faith made by fellow Roman Catholic John Kennedy half a century ago. Though he apologized, Franklin Graham expressed his doubts about Barack Obama’s Christian confession. In such public discourse, most Americans if not most Christians would be content with a very genetic affirmation of belief in God.

2. For those of us who aspire to be Jesus’ disciples, that is not enough. In some circles the faith that counts is defined as ascribing to correct doctrine. In others faith that counts is to be able to tell an appropriate conversion story. Some groups define faith that counts as practicing a particular moral code. Our Disciples of Christ forbearers rightly saw that neither the Bible nor Jesus left such sharp boundaries.

3. As we look at the example of Abraham’s faith in the passages we read in Genesis and Romans, faith that counts seems to be a matter of trusting God to follow when we cannot see where we are going and things are not as well defined as we would like. Such faith is not about us but about believing God will act in the most unlikely and unexpected situations.

II. Paul writes that Abraham is the father of us all who share his faith. (Romans 4:16) We take our cue from Abraham. From nothing God creates the faith by which we follow Jesus on his journey of suffering, rejection and death to resurrection.A. God confirms the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and now the third time in 17.

1. Unlike the universal covenant with Noah we looked at last week, this covenant is specifically with Abraham and his descendants. In Romans 4:16-17 and Galatians 3:7, Paul defines the meaning of descendants to be all of Christ’s people of faith.

2. Also unlike the unconditional covenant with Noah from last week, God expects Abraham to walk before him. Genesis 17 goes on the institute circumcision as the sign of that covenant. To walk before God is not to follow certain rituals or rules, nor to adopt a detailed theology. Rather, to walk before God is to follow God’s leading into the unknown.

B. In Romans 4:3, 22 and Galatians 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 16:6 that Abraham’s faith was reckoned or counted to him as righteousness. This faith that counts is that Abraham believed God could and would give him a son through Sarah, even though they were childless and aged.

1. Abraham hoped against hope (v. 18). He did not let what seemed impossible stop him from believing God would act. No distrust made him waver (20). But we know that Abraham did waver, so how can Paul say he didn’t?

a) Twice, in Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister to protect himself. He betrayed both the weakness of his faith and his respect for Sarah.

b) In Genesis 16 Abraham and Sarah’s faith wavered, and they agree that he should father a son by Hagar. The descendants of Isaac – the Jews – and the descendants of Ismael – the Arabs – have been at each other for well over 3,000 years as a result.

2. Faith is not something Abraham gave to God, rather the faith that enabled Abraham to walk before God is something God gave to Abraham. Paul writes in Romans 4:17 that God “calls into existence things that do not exist.” The same word of God that created the universe created faith in Abraham when he had none. This faith is not a static entity, but Romans 4:20 says that Abraham’s faith “grew strong as he gave glory to God.”

III. Genesis 17 and Romans 4 are binocular lenses that bring into focus the kind of faith that counts. We see what walking before God means in Mark 8:31-38 when Jesus called those who want to be his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Jesus had fed the crowd of 4,000 and healed a blind man. He had warned against the Pharisees and against Herod. Peter had just made his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He 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.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A. Jesus’ definition of Messiah was confounding, counter-cultural. Jesus’ crucifixion was not an accidental derailing of his messianic mission. Emphatically no! Suffering, rejection and death were essential to the plan the Father had sent him to accomplish.

1. Popular messianic hopes were for a military and political liberator to overthrow Rome and replace it with a worldwide Israelite empire centered in Jerusalem. Even Peter who has been in the closest inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and teaching cannot accept messianic suffering, rejection and death.

2. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter as Satan does not suggest a diabolically evil temptation but an attractive, human alternative. No one intentionally embarks on a journey of suffering, rejection and death without trusting God to lead the way through the dark.

3. We tend to think that when Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is banishing him. However, the Greek idiom and the call to costly discipleship that follows indicate the Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get in line behind me and follow where I am going into suffering, rejection and death.”

4. We, too, have a hard time following that path to resurrection.

B. Jesus’ call to discipleship was equally challenging and counter-cultural. Jesus issues this call, not just to the twelve disciples, not just to those who had already decided to follow him, but to the whole crowd. Jesus was not building an elite spiritual corps. Jesus wants everyone to be a descendant of Abraham walking before God.

1. Denying ourselves does not mean self-denigration or loss of individual personhood. But it does mean as Philippians 2:4 says, Letting each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Special sensitivity to those who are weak and wounded is at the core of Christian self-denial. And in the life of the church, it means putting a higher priority on what is good for the whole congregation than what I might prefer for myself. This is likely to be tested many times as you make changes that are uncomfortable for you to effectively bring the Gospel to new people.

2. Taking up the cross is not a matter of putting up with some irritation or inconvenience. It is a matter of giving yourself away, risking failure to bring the Gospel to wounded people who need Jesus. As you plan for your future, you will not experience 100% success. Faith that counts grows in risk and failure.

3. From nothing God creates the faith by which we follow Jesus on his journey of suffering, rejection and death to resurrection.

IV. You have probably not heard of Telemachus. I hadn’t either until I was doing research to find examples of people who lived by faith that counts.

Telemachus lived at the end of the 4th century, after the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Almost immediately the faith of the Church weakened. Many of the decadent excesses of ancient Rome continued, though no longer in the name of the pagan gods. Most of what we know about Telemachus comes from what the Bishop Theodoret of Cyprus wrote about 50 years after his death. As a young man, Telemachus was sucked into the world of pleasure and indulgence. He wandered aimlessly for several years trying to find fun and excitement. Finally recognizing the emptiness of his life, he decided to follow Jesus and entered a monastery. By the year 402 AD he realized that his reclusive love for God was really selfish love. He had to go to the cities and mingle with people in pain so he could love God by loving people.

The Roman army had just defeated the Goths, and the Emperor ordered a circus be held for the celebrating crowd. Telemachus got caught up in the crowd and swept into the arena where the gladiators were about to fight to the death in bloody hand to hand combat. The gladiators addressed the Emperor, “We who are about to die salute you!” The crowd was in a blood thirsty ecstasy. Realizing what was about to happen, Telemachus jumped over the wall, running between the combatants, shouting over and over, “In the name of Jesus, stop!”Whether Telemachus was killed by the battling gladiators or in response to the angry cries of the crowd is unclear, but his act of self-denial and taking up his cross to follow Jesus is credited with bringing the end to gladiator battles on January 1, 404 AD.

A. I don’t expect any of you to get killed by running onto the field at a Cowboys’ game or the ice at a Stars’ hockey brawl. Nor do I expect any of you to move to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to join the Amish. But I do hope this Lent you will ask yourself how your faith counts as you walk before God following Jesus.

B. In the asset mapping exercise after dinner last Sunday more people voted with their feet for youth ministry and outreach/evangelism than the other action groups. As you plan for your future with a new pastor, you can make your faith count by not asking what kind of church would I want in the next ten years but ask, what kind of church will young people like my grandchildren want? what kind of church can best introduce unchurched people to Jesus?