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09-26 - Fellowship - Christ & His Church

                    Last week, we began exploring Christ’s formulation of His church.  We saw that the Biblical image of church was compared to the intimate relationship of marriage in which Jesus serve as the groom and the church as his bride.  As in the human experience of marriage, the two shall become one.  In the Biblical image, the same holds true, Christ and the church become one.  We saw the foundation of the Christ/Church relationship was established upon the unconditional commitment of Christ and the individual commitments of members of the church.  Jesus Christ’s commitment to the church was expressed throughout by his life on earth, but mostly by his death on the cross.  Christ held nothing back from His church.  The commitment of individual Christians, you and me, remains an open matter.  The image of marriage compels us to take the plunge and be immersed in all that Jesus has for us.  We must be committed to Christ to experience the intimate relationship God intends for us to have with Him.

          In that commitment to Christ, Jesus said that one behavior would evidence that we had committed our lives to Christ.  As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own arrest, trial, and execution, Jesus said to this disciples and to you and me, “33 My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.  34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 16:33-35).

          This is the only time in the four gospels we have recorded for us a simple command from Jesus to his church, to those who were and are his disciples, to “love one another.”  Moreover, Jesus said the presence of love between and among believers in Christ, was the only criterion necessary to evidence to the unbelieving world that Jesus was the Lord of the believers’ life.  Jesus’ command and criterion make sense.  If we claim Christ, but do not love another believer something is very wrong.

          Jesus’ apostle, John, understood this message and conveyed its meaning to his churches this way, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).  John was speaking to Christians about their behavior toward other Christians.

          There is an often-told story of a church that was searching for a pastor.  A pastoral candidate came to the church one Sunday and gave an inspired sermon on loving one another.  The congregation was thrilled.  They believed they had found their past and so they voted unanimously to call the preacher as their pastor.  The following Sunday, the new pastor came to deliver the sermon.  There was much anticipation about what he would say. But the new pastor preached the same sermon on loving one another he had the week before, word for word.  The congregation was pleased by the sermon but a little concerned that it was the same as previous week’s sermon.  The next Sunday, the new pastor delivered the sermon. He preached the same sermon on loving one another again, word for word.  The congregation was very concerned and wondered if this pastor had only one sermon to offer.  A group from the congregation decided to meet with the pastor to express their concerns. They told the pastor his sermon on loving one another was great the first time, good the second time, but troubling to hear the third time.  The group asked the pastor if he knew there were other commands and topics about which he could preach.  The pastor said he was aware of the other commands and could preach excellently on those topics.  But he said there was not point talking about other topics and other commands if they did not love one another.

          From the Biblical accounts and that story we come to learn that Christ intended for his church to be comprised of committed disciples who would evidence that commitment by loving one another.  The early Christians had a word for this type of love between believers.  It came from the Greek language, koinonia, which we translate into English as fellowship.

          Fellowship then is an essential character of the body of Christ expressed through and within the church.  It is a deep inclusive caring for those who are here.  Church should be a society of friends not a building of passing strangers.  The earliest expression of fellowship, koinonia, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. The church had just begun.  Luke described the behavior of the early Christians this way, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [committed] and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

          The early Christians, the founders of Jesus command for a church, practiced their belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, by loving one another was a bright beacon on the landscape.  They were committed to the teachings of the apostles.  People were committed to Christ.  They were hungry for Jesus.  They did not want the day to go by without immersing themselves into the word of God.  And these committed Christians were engaged in fellowship, koinonia.  They wanted to spend time with other Christians. They wanted to know their stories and celebrate the new life that each of them had in Christ.  Everyone was excited by the prospect of more people into the church because it meant more people were being saved and would be expressing their lives through koinonia, or Christian fellowship.

          The Apostle John saw the development of church and fellowship this way, “That which was from the beginning (Jesus), which we (his disciples) have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared (Jesus); we (his disciples) have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We (his disciples) proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus ChristWe write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

          John saw the gathering of the early church as the company of the committed coming together to be in fellowship with God through Jesus and in fellowship with each other.  John’s view was that fellowship with Jesus made possible fellowship with other believers.

          To John, joy in Christ became complete with and through the fellowship with other believers.  Sadly, there are many people across our communities who enter a church building, pray, perhaps sing, and leave without speaking to another human being or having another human being speak to them.  Why does that happen with such frequency?  I think this happens because there is no desire for genuine fellowship.

          In some cases, people enter a church and welcome the idea that they did not have to speak to anyone because too often those exchanges come across as judgement rather than welcome.  The visitor feels their past will be judged instead of their present life in Christ being celebrated.  This is not a new phenomenon. 

Consider the case of the Apostle Paul who was originally known as Saul from the city of Tarsus.  Saul was a devoted Jew who ruthlessly persecuted Christians.  Saul encouraged a mob to stone to death a Christian named, Stephen.  Saul went house to house dragging Christians from their homes and sending them to prison simply because they were Christians.  Then, Saul encountered Jesus and committed his life over to Christ, fully, unconditionally.  Saul had given up his former ways and had a new life in Christ.  But Saul wanted fellowship with other Christians to make his joy in Christ complete.

          But look at what happened to Saul when he tried to make that joy in Christ complete by engaging other Christians.  “26 When he (Saul) came to Jerusalem, he (Saul) tried to join the disciples (the other committed believers), but they (the members of the church) were all afraid of him (Saul), not believing that he (Saul) really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  The members of the church had reason to be concerned with Saul the Jewish persecutor.  That Saul was destructive and dangerous.  But the Saul who came to the church was Saul the committed Christian.  The church was not buying it, preferring instead to remember Saul as his was.

That might have been the end of the Saul’s story in the church of Christ if not for that all important word at the beginning of the next verse, verse 27.  “They were all afraid of Saul, not believing that Saul really was a disciple.  27 But Barnabas (a member of the church) took Saul brought him to the apostles. He (Barnabas) told them (the Apostles) how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him (Saul), and how in Damascus he (Saul) had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them (the church) and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:26b-28). 

But Barnabas took Saul.”  Barnabas, committed to Christ, took charge of Saul, and spent time with Saul to learn Saul’s new life in Christ.  Barnabas was not interested in Saul’s previous behaviors.  What Barnabas wanted to know was what God had done and was doing through Saul’s life now.  Barnabas then took the next step to make his joy, Saul’s joy, and the joy of the church complete by bringing Saul into the fellowship of believers.  Barnabas’ example teaches us that at any given point we might be called to serve as the “but” person who welcomes the stranger into the fellowship of the church.  We might be the person who says “but look at what is happening in this person’s life since they came to Christ.”

Saul, who would later change his name to Paul and establish many churches encouraged Christians to acknowledge the power of Christ’s forgiveness within a believer which made every new.  Paul wrote, “11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:11-14). Paul, who had been forgiven by Christ and brought into the Christian fellowship by the aid of Barnabas, encouraged others, you and me, to express fellowship with other believers through compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness and then to bind all those virtues in love. 

Paul’s words give a wonderful expression of Christian fellowship expressed between believers.  How could joy not be found in that image?  How could that image not express to the unbelieving world the power of Christ to change lives for good?  I think the answer is clear that to love in this manner would be convincing evidence of the Christ in our lives.

I want to encourage you this week to reflect on Christ’s purpose for His church to be a company of committed disciples and that that commitment would be expressed through fellowship.  Let the idea of Koinonia, that deep intimate belief that members of Christ’s body should be loving to one another sink into our conscious thinking. Examine what you do and how you express yourself to and about other believers.  Think about Barnabas and whether you are that “but in” person who needs to stand up and bring another person into this church.  Think about your opportunities to express compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness to another believer. Think about how you can bind all those wonder virtues by love so that church may be seen to the unbelieving world as loving society of friends.  Afterall, to love one another is the only criterion established by Christ to mark a genuine church.  Let us pray.

09-19 - Commitment - Christ & His Church

          Today, is national “Back to Church Sunday.”  This is the Sunday in which the most summer routines have been completed, school routines have been started, and church comes back in play for many people. I thought as we came to this date, it would be profitable for us if we spent a few weeks together exploring the significance of Christ’s church.  What did Christ mean when he established church?  Why does church exist?  What does God expectation for His Church and, more specifically, for this church?

          To start us off, I want to frame our conversation about church in the Biblical terms.  To do, I ask that bear with me as I share with you some work I did in seminary on the topic of pre-marital counseling.

While in seminary, I took pastoral counseling class that included a study of marital counseling.  We had a final project in that course of presenting a research paper and accompanying set of slides detailing the topics and content of a premarital counseling plan.  I decided at that time to provide counseling to prospective marital candidates on five topics all beginning with the letter “C.”  The topics were Commitment, Communication, Conflict Resolution, Children, and Church.  I would later add a six topic, Cake, after witnessing some painful moments of new husband’s smashing cake into the face of their wife at the reception. I really dislike that practice.

          I chose the original five topics because they seemed most important to the marriage setting.  Marriage has been and remains the foundational of human society. In fact, marriage is the first institution of the human experience.  The Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, tells us, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24-25). 

Biblical marriage is, therefore, presented to us as an intimate bond, a weaving together, of lives.  In that unity, there virtues emerge of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances of life shift. These virtues are to be a continual and active exchange between the participants of the marriage.  There are not supposed to be any spectators in a marriage.  Both the woman and man are members of the same active living body. This is how God chose to describe marriage at the very beginning of humanity’s existence.

          As we continue to look at the Biblical account of marriage, we find later, in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus affirmed Genesis’ picture of marriage saying, “’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:5-6).  Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, confirmed for us the image of marriage as a active living body.

          Later in the Bible, the Apostle Paul would speak to this same verse from Genesis, affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, in Paul’s letter to the believers in the city of Ephesus.  Paul wrote, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Ephesians 5:31).  The image is affirmed again.

But Paul then added a very important new meaning to these words that makes those words from Genesis apply to each of us, whether we are or not presently married.  Paul said, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).  Paul’s words in verse 32, makes clear that the Christ and the church must be seen through the image of marriage, of two become one. 

Marriage then, whether the institution comprised of husband and wife, or the institution Christ and the church, is union.  Neither institution, marriage or church, can be viewed as a contract with an expiration date or having an escape clause.  Neither institution can be entered into by keeping one’s fingers crossed and hoping things will somehow work out.  The union of marriage or of church there are to be the virtues of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances shift. These virtues are to be continual and actively exchanged between the participants of the union.  There can be no spectators in a union.  Both are members of the same body.

If we were to condense the foundation of the union that Paul was spoke about to a single word, that word would be commitment.  Therefore, both institutions of union, marriage and church, require a commitment without reservation with an attitude for better or worse.

This is why I found in premarital counseling the first and most important “C” among the now six topics that I share with an engaged couple is Commitment.  Using the parallels from the Apostle Paul, it would follow that the first and most important “C” for each of us as participants in the marriage of Christ through the church is Commitment; a commitment without reservation with a “for better or worse” attitude.  Our commitment to Christ through the church ought to be one expressed by the words, “to have and to hold from this day forward” coupled with a vow to “forsake all others.”  We could go on with other marital phrases to describe our demeanor toward church, but I think we can get the sense that our commitment to Christ through the church parallels solemn vows people use when uniting with a spouse.

Let’s look at how commitment plays out in the New Testament. First, Jesus and others spoke about Jesus as a groom.

  • John the Baptist said, “29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend (speaking of himself) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (John 3:29).  John the Baptist recognized Jesus was preparing himself for a marriage to his church and that in that union there would be joy.
  • 14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him (Jesus), ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’  15 Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14-15).  Jesus acknowledged that his relationship with his followers was likened to a marriage and that would be reason to celebrate.

Jesus equated that marital relationship to the union of himself and his disciples through the institution of church.  Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:17-18a).  Jesus here describes his groom and bride relationship as being between him (the groom) and the church (his bride).

The Apostle Paul saw this union relationship established by Jesus and offered these words, “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). The Christ and the church are a marriage in which Jesus’ goal as an active participant is a perfect union. Paul saw Jesus’ commitment to this goal expressed by Jesus, coming as a man, and giving everything to the marriage. Paul said, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).  Jesus, the perfect groom, expressed his commitment to the church and gave everything to his imperfect bride, the church, so that she, those of the church, could become perfect through him.

Second, let’s look at Christ’s bride, the church, and see how commitment to the marriage of Christ and the church is to be expressed.  Again, from the marriage symbol, in Genesis, in the Gospels, and in Paul’s letter, marriage is described as the union of two into one.  Paul begins by giving us an illustration. Paul wrote, “18 And he (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18a).  Christ and the church are a union forming one complete body.  The church, Jesus’ disciples, are to be in union with Jesus as a single body active and engaged.

Paul continued in a letter to the church in Corinth explaining, “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27).

Paul’s message is clear that the two, Christ and his church, the divine groom and earthly bride, comprised of many individual members, have formed a marital union in which the two become one body.

          So, the church, made up of many members, like a body, is in a marital relationship with Christ, who serves as the head of the body.  This means that we must be committed to Christ through the church. So how committed to that relationship must the individual members be?  There are three points we could examine.

          First, let’s talk about the most obvious element of commitment. Commitment, for it to be genuine, must evidence an excited presence.  It is plain to see that two cannot become one if they are never together with each other.  To become one there must be a commitment to spend time together, not occasionally but frequently.  In the New Testament Book of Hebrews we read, “23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he [Jesus, the groom] who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we [parts of the body] may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:23-25a).  For the body to be a body the parts must commit to be present.

          Think about this way by considering a silly illustration about the union of the body.  Suppose you wake up tomorrow morning and you begin to make your way out of bed. Suddenly, you realize that your left foot is not there.  Not only that but your right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all missing.  How well do you think your body is going to function that day?  It is going to be hard for your body to do what it was intended to do.  In this silly illustration, you manage to struggle through the day, lay down again at night and go to sleep.  The next morning you wake up and find with great relief that your left foot, right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all back in place.  Praise God!  But then you discover your right foot, left knee, right hip, left kidney, and right shoulder are all missing.  Again, the body suffers just like the church suffers when its members are absent.

          Paul’s descriptor of church as being like the body is easy to understand.  The parts of the body work together because they are all needed, they are committed, and connected unconditionally to each other.  Each person serves as a part of the body of a church and is needed to make the body complete and functional.  So, commitment is not an abstract intellectual assent to the idea of church. Commitment involves an active continual presence and participation in the body of Christ.  This is why we should dismiss the idea that an otherwise healthy person can say, “I don’t need to be part of a church to be a faithful Christian.”  There is no part of a body that can function as intended when separated from the body.

          The second part of commitment to the Christ and church relationship is the willingness to take the plunge.  What do I mean by that?  To take the plunge has been an expression used when two people decide to get married. To take the plunge is to take on a momentous and challenging decision.  But here is the thing.  To take the plunge means we are willing to put everything we have into the experience. We are trusting and immersing ourselves fully.

          In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, we read that many of the people who were following Jesus left him.  When Jesus said to be a disciple you must be willing to eat of his body and drink of his blood, they left.  John wrote, “66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  67 ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.  68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:66-68a).

The disciples who had left Jesus had not taken the plunge.  They had been dipping their toes in the water. They were ready to step back out when it suited them.  The disciples on the other hand had taken the plunge.  They were committed to following Jesus even if what he said was hard to understand.  Commitment to faith, like commitment to marriage, means you are willing to take the plunge.  We cannot be just dipping our toes in the experience.

          Finally, commitment to the Christ and church relationship is a willingness to be concerned for the whole body and each part of that same body.  Think again this again through a silly illustration.  You are working in the kitchen cutting some vegetables.  The knife slips and you slice open the index finger of your left hand.  Your finger begins to bleed.  Under normal circumstances, your right hand would grab a towel and wrap the left index finger to stop the bleeding.  Only this time, the right-hand refuses, saying, “I do not like the left index finger. Let the left elbow handle the problem!” I admit, it is a silly illustration, but the point is that each part of the body must honor the other parts for the body to be healthy and be willing to do the work that it has been gifted to do .

          Jesus said it this way, 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).  The body of Christ must love itself.  It cannot be a war with itself.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:29-30).  Commitment to the Christ and church relationship means we love each part of the body simply because it is part of the body.

          Our relationship with Christ must be based upon a commitment to become part of one body with him through his church.  But do we see our commitment toward Christ through the church that way?  Are we committed to Christ through the church for one hour a week on Sunday and then committed to other things for the remaining 167 hours of the week?  Or do we have so many commitments that practically speaking we are committed to nothing, including Christ through the church?

          I invite you to take the plunge into the Christ and Church relationship.  Be as committed to the body of Christ as your hands are committed to your own body.  Be excited in this venture of faith as together we make our membership in the body of Christ mean something; something to treasure and something to share.  Welcome back to church.  I am glad you are here.  Amen and Amen.

08-29 - Heaven - Outside the Lines

          Today, I would like us to conclude our four-part series of exploring how Jesus colored outside the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions.  We have explored how Jesus came to talk about the kingdom of God as something far different than people thought it was and far different from the kingdoms of the world.  For in the kingdom of God there is forgiveness, mercy, and grace for each person. In the kingdom of God, there is an inverted order to things where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  In the kingdom of God, women and men are equal in God’s eyes.  And so today, I would like us to explore one final dimension of Jesus coloring outside the lines. 

Today, I would like us to explore what Jesus had to share with us about the afterlife, heaven, and hell.  We may not realize it but what Jesus had to say was deeply surprising to his audience.  For some people, what Jesus said about the afterlife was deeply disturbing and for others what Jesus said was wonderfully encouraging.  The same is true today.  For some of what Jesus said is disturbing and some it is encouraging. Our hope is that we are encouraged by what Jesus said and be strengthened to share our good news with those who may be disturbed by what Jesus said.

As we begin, we might want to know where we and our neighbors stand on the idea of heaven and hell.  A survey in the United States, revealed that about 70% of the people believe in some form of heaven.  About 60% of Americans believe in some form of hell.  Americans hold that heaven is a good place and hell is a bad place.  Apparently, we like the idea of heaven more than the idea of hell.

The balance of Americans, about 30%, believe that life only exists in the present time as living human beings.  They believe when we die, that is it.  There is nothing, no future, nothing beyond this immediate life. 

I share this snapshot of views of contemporary thinking in our country because in many ways these same concepts existed in Jesus’ day. Different groups had differing beliefs. The Sadducees, one of the main Jewish religious groups of Jesus’ day, did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection of the body.  The believed that once you were dead, you were dead.  There beliefs came about because they only followed the first five books of the Bible, and little is said in those books about an afterlife. 

The Pharisees, the other main religious group in Jesus’ day, believed in the afterlife.  It just wasn’t clear the afterlife was all that great as many believed everyone went to the same place.

Jesus entered the scene, and he had some very definite ideas about the afterlife.  Jesus began sharing about the afterlife and his words created great emotions in his audience.  Some of those who heard Jesus speak were moved to joy, others to sadness, and others were moved to mock Jesus for what he said.  Well, what did Jesus have to say about the afterlife?

One time, Jesus was teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God and Jesus wanted to talk about the subject of the afterlife.  As we previously talked about, Jesus acquainted people with things they did not know by telling a story about things that they did know.  The Gospel writer, Luke, recorded one of Jesus’ stories about the afterlife for us.

Jesus said, “19‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day [Many in Jesus’ day saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing.] 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. [Many in Jesus’ day saw poverty and illness as a sign of God’s disfavor.] 22 The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [the rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  25 ‘But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (Luke 16:19-26).

Jesus’ disciples could understand the story. They knew of rich people and poor people.  The disciples could understand living and dead.  The disciples knew Abraham was called by God, loved by God, and was the father of the Hebrew people.  Finally, Jesus’ disciples could understand the difference between comfort and misery. We also understand these elements to Jesus’ story.  So, from what Jesus said the disciples and we had no difficulty understanding the context of the story.  With that in place, the disciples, and we, can make some sense of heaven, hell, and eternal life.  Let’s look at four points.

First, Jesus taught that all human life is eternal. There are no exceptions.  There is a time of living in human form and a time of living after death.  The Pharisees would have liked hearing that and the Sadducees would have been disturbed by that truth.

Second, Jesus taught that there are two destinations in the afterlife.  One is pleasant and comforting and the other is not.  I think the Pharisees who saw themselves as being favored by God for their religious adherence to worship activities would have liked to hear that news.

Third, Jesus taught that each person’s destination is fixed by their conduct in this life.  Those who are first shall be last, those who are last shall be first.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who are humble will be exalted.  The kingdom of God is open to each person but what way we choose to live could prevent our own entry to heaven.  Heaven was not for the wealthy and selfish it was for the faithful.  That news would have disturbed many.

Fourth, Jesus taught that our destination is fixed for eternity.  There is no movement from one destination to the other.  Those in comfort cannot now help those in misery and those in misery cannot later move to the place of comfort.  This news would have terrified many.  Redemption was not possible after death.  Redemption was only for the living in the present.

In one simple story, Jesus wiped clean all the conflicting ideas of existence and destiny.  Did Jesus clear up all the questions we could ask about heaven and hell? Of course not.  He did not intend to do that.  What Jesus intended to do was to put to rest the question as to whether there is an afterlife.  Short answer, “Yes, there is an afterlife.”  Jesus then put to rest the question whether in that afterlife was there but one place for all or were their two places, a place of comfort and a place of misery?  Short answer, “There are two places, one of comfort and one of misery.”  Jesus was not trying to give a description of heaven or of hell.  He was speaking to the character of heaven, with comfort and fellowship, and the character of hell, as misery and loneliness. 

Jesus’ words were probably unsettling to everyone who heard them because his words would cause everyone to reflect upon their beliefs and behaviors.  Right now, some of us might be reflecting on our past or about the past of a loved one. Is there something in our past or in their past that set their destination for something other than heaven? It is a frightening thought.

As Jesus’ disciples, and we think about this simple story, there seems to me to be a natural desire to want to be closer to Christ.  For if Jesus knows the truth about heaven and hell, then certainly he share words that would lead each person to know the path to heaven.

In that reflection and desire to be closer to Jesus, suddenly words Jesus said in the past carried with them much greater significance.  Jesus once told his disciples, “13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus was saying the road to our eternal destination in heaven was narrow and only a few would find it.  My goodness!  You mean, we could miss the gate and the narrow path?  Yes. In fact, Jesus said more people will miss it than find it! The wide gate and the broad road would be easily found and more comfortable to walk.  And many would choose that gate and road.  But that road leads to destruction not life.  Jesus words would make us anxious.  What are we to do?  How will we find the narrow gate?  How will we travel the narrow road?  How will we know we are on the right road?

Jesus knew the anxiousness of the disciples as well as our anxiousness about finding the gate, the narrow road, and life eternal. So, Jesus gave a very simple instruction for those seeking the narrow gate and path.  Jesus condensed his teaching to just two words, “Follow me.”

  • Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
  • Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
  • My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
  • If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).
  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

We could continue with examples of Jesus saying, “Follow me!” but I think you get the point.  Jesus was making it clear; you have but one choice to make.  That choice is to either follow Jesus or not.  If we follow Jesus, then he will show us the narrow gate and keep us on the narrow road.  Jesus was really coloring outside the lines of the world and religious tradition. Jesus was saying there is a heaven and hell and that he would show those who would follow him the right path to get to heaven.

Now accepting what Jesus said would mean that we believe that we are on the right path and that being on the right path we willingly respond in joy.  Out of our joy we would do the right things for others.  Doing right things on the broad road is nice but none of those nice things help us to find the narrow gate and the narrow road to life.  Only Jesus can guide us to the narrow gate and narrow road.

I think the disciples were beginning to understand that they had a future in Jesus in this life and the next.  Then everything seemed to change.

Jesus began speaking of betrayal and arrest. Then just moments before Jesus was arrested, Jesus accentuated the plan for eternal life through him.  Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6).  Jesus was no longer talking in stories or parables.  He was speaking plainly.  Jesus was saying of himself, “I am the narrow gate.  I am the narrow road.  I am only voice that you need to hear in this life.  For there is no other way to be with God except by following me.” What Jesus said was so powerful and so outside the lines that he was, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, either a madman or the Son of God.

No sooner had Jesus finished saying these words, men of the world and religion came in force, armed with swords, torches, and bindings.  They came in great strength to arrest and bind Jesus and spirit him away for trial. These men could no longer stand for Jesus, coloring outside the lines of their beliefs.  These men had no intention of following Jesus, and they were not about to let anyone else follow him. 

We know the story quiet well.  In a matter of a few hours, Jesus, this troublemaking preacher was tried, beaten, humiliated in the streets of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, died, lanced with a spear, and sealed up behind a well-guarded rock tomb.  Jesus public ministry of three years seemed to over in fewer than 12 hours.  Those who did this to Jesus slept well believing the days of Jesus coloring outside the lines were finished.

And what about those who followed Jesus? There were men and women who had given their time, treasure, talents, and tears believing they had found the narrow gate and were on the narrow road.  They believed in Jesus as the Son of God.  But now what were they to do?  Following Jesus’ arrest and execution, everything Jesus said seemed muddled and infinitely harder to believe.  Jesus was dead.  Fear abounded.  There were so many questions and so many doubts.  I am sure the disciples asked themselves, “Did we make a terrible mistake? How was it possible for Jesus to be taken and killed?”

Days passed.  Then suddenly, without warning, exceptionally strange news began to emerge. Jesus was not dead.  He had risen from the grave.  No one rises from the grave.  His women followers ran from the tomb with the news.  His disciples ran from hiding to the tomb to see for themselves. Two other followers from Emmaus ran to Jerusalem with the news that they had seen Jesus.  Everyone was running and excited.  Could this be true?  Then Jesus himself ended the questions.  Jesus entered the locked room of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you!”

Suddenly the grief, the dread of another day, the anxiousness, and the horror of Jesus’ death was lifted from the men and women in that room.  All those emotions were replaced with joy, abounding joy!  With Jesus’ resurrection, all of Jesus’ words became so much more powerful and so much clearer.  He was not a madman.  Jesus was the Son of God and therefore his is all he said he was.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  He is the narrow gate.  He is the narrow path.  He is the life eternal.  He is the only way to the Father.  All the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions that encumbered the disciples were shattered.  These men and women became fearless and bold in their faith.  You could not silence these people.  Instead of just Jesus coloring outside the lines, now dozens of men and women were coloring outside the lines talking about the kingdom of God, salvation, and forgiveness all fueled by the resurrection of Christ.  From those dozens, cane 500 followers, then 3,000 followers, and  from there the number of followers began multiplying.  They had found the gate and the narrow path.

“Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’”  Please do not leave to chance which gate you have entered and which road you are on.  Listen to the words Jesus has for you, “Follow me.”  For in following Jesus, we will live an abundant life now and a life of peace for all eternity.  Now that is coloring outside the lines.  Amen and Amen.

08-22-Women-Outside the Lines

          The last few weeks we have been talking about Jesus’ coloring outside the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions.  Jesus was introducing us to the kingdom of God where things are vastly different from the worldly kingdoms.  Jesus, in the way he was coloring, was making God, of God’s chosen Messiah, and of the kingdom of God unrecognizable to the image people held in their minds.  In doing so, Jesus was accomplishing his mission.  The adults of Jesus’ day, the religious leaders and the government authorities were displeased with Jesus.  They constantly wanted to Jesus to stay within the lines and color the pretty picture they desired.  We do much the same with children when they are learning to color.  We look at their work of art with its scribbles and give them a new page and say, “Try again and see if you can stay within the lines.” Jesus wanted people to look at the images he was coloring not the outline they wanted him to stay within.

          Jesus’ teachings conflicted with those of his day and even today.  One of the areas that Jesus conflicted with the culture of his day, dealt with women. I think it would be profitable for us to explore the image Jesus was painting for and about women because that image was very different from the image of the world or religious leaders. Why was it different?  Because once again, Jesus was coloring outside the lines.

          Talking about women from a Biblical perspective can be a challenge.  Where do you start?  I always find it helpful to start at the beginning, namely, the Book of Genesis. 

          The Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, says this: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:26-28). 

In life, the simplest answer or simplest expression, is usually the best answer.  This principle is also true of reading Scripture.  So, in the simplest terms, our reading from the Book of Genesis teaches us that God created man and God created woman, though physical different, both were created in God’s image.  And in recognizing the equality of the man and the woman before God, God blessed them.

          The simplest image, the simplest expression of how God saw and sees men and women is that they are each of His image and stand equally before Him.  From a blank canvas, God colored a picture of Biblical equality of men and women for all of us to see.

          But we know that once sin entered the world, God’s picture of Biblical equality faded from humanity’s memory.  In place of God’s picture, men placed lines and limitations on the image of women.  By the time Jesus was born, those lines had become impressed into the fabric of worldly thinking and religious traditions. Written household codes had even been developed defining the roles for women.  These codes existed in Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures.  One such code said, “A virtuous woman ought to be most visible in her husband's company, and to stay in the house and hide herself when he is away.” Another said, “The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house…A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion.”  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  If you will, in the coloring books Jesus’ day, we would find the expectation that women say nothing and stay home.

          Now, Jesus was born into this world at the time God decided it was right for his chosen one to come and make God known anew.  To announce the coming of God’s anointed messenger, the Messiah, God began working through the lives of two senior citizens: Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Their union would produce John the Baptist who would announce the coming of Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah.  In the Gospel of Luke, we would read, “Both of them [Elizabeth and Zechariah] were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6).  Here begins something unusual.  Ancient writings rarely mentioned the role of women in a story and even less so highlighted women as role models.  However, in the opening of Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth is not only mentioned but she is held out as being equal to Zechariah in God’s eyes.  They were both righteous.

          Shortly after Luke introduced Elizabeth to us, we learn that in her old age Elizabeth had become pregnant.  Elizabeth’s response to her pregnancy was telling. Elizabeth said, “25 ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she [Elizabeth] said. ‘In these days he [God] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25). God had broken the lines constructed by Elizabeth’s culture that blamed women for not becoming pregnant. Elizabeth recognized that God did not color inside the lines of mankind.  God broke the lines.

          Within a few months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent an angel to find another women, this time a young woman named Mary.  The angel said to Mary, “‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus...34 ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’  35 The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’ 38 ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:32b-38).

          This time a young woman was seen as standing before God as a role model because she was someone God found favor.  More coloring by God outside the lines of tradition and household codes as the story of Jesus developed.

          Finally, Jesus arrived, and, at the right moment, Jesus began his public ministry.  The first miracle Jesus’ performed was to turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana. This miracle was prompted by the witness and testimony of Jesus’ mother Mary who said to the wedding servers who were without wine, “‘Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it’” (John 2:5).  While Mary’s words dealt with the wedding wine, Mary’s words were prophetic because they are words each of us needs to hear, “Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it.”  The original readers of the Gospels would be getting a hint that something was very strange about the story of Jesus.  Women were playing key roles in the telling of Jesus story.  This is highly unusual.

          The unusual nature of Jesus story continued.  One day, while Jesus was engaged in his public ministry, “5 He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; 6and Jacob’s well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour [Noon].  7There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give Me a drink.’ 8For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  9Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)  10Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water’” (John 4:5-10).

          A woman approached the well in the heat of the day, noon.  She was following the household codes.  Namely, that women carried the water and women of questionable moral standing were not to join other women who came for water in the cool of the morning.  Women of questionable moral standing were to draw water by themselves at the heat of the day.  Jesus spoke to this woman and shattered her household codes and those codes that prevented communication between Jews and Samaritans.  But the key here is what Jesus said to the woman. Jesus, using water as symbol for eternal life, said to this woman, “If you acknowledge me before others, I will bless you as righteous before God.”  This woman of questionable moral standing would be made righteous by Jesus if she would believe.  A woman was being used to illustrate the central message of redemption for which Jesus came to proclaim.  The woman would leave Jesus at the well and hurry to her home city without her water. The Bible says, “39From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman” (John 4:39). The story of Jesus that showcased women as witnesses, giving testimony, about God was way outside the lines.

          We could go on with other examples of women from Jesus public ministry with accounts such as:

  • A woman, a prostitute, anointed Jesus’ feet with oil while a man, a Pharisee, did nothing to honor Jesus.  Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).
  • Women supported Jesus’ ministry.  “Jesus began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, 2and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means” (Luke 8:1-3).
  • A woman troubled by bleeding for twelve years broke the rules that said she must stay home while bleeding, entered the crowded public square, and in faith touched the robe of Jesus believing she would be healed. Jesus said, “48 ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace’” (Luke 8:48).
  • It was women, accompanied by the Apostle John, who stood at the cross of Jesus when he was crucified.
  • It was women who were the first witnesses to the risen Jesus at his tomb and proclaimed that message even though household codes of the day said women could not testify because they were unreliable.  Jesus wanted the world to know he lived, and He made that known through women.

Example after example is available to us in the Gospels to show that Jesus came to restore the image of equality of all humanity before God.  Salvation is for all of humanity and Jesus was more than willing to have women share that good news. 

What then are we to do with this glimpse into the Biblical treatment of women from Genesis and by Jesus? What is the broader message for us? I think there are three key points.

First, our brief exploration today should invigorate us to examine the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, for other evidence of Jesus breaking the codes and rules of culture in order that we not only see the kingdom of God but that we would live within it now.  We have seen in the past few weeks that living in the kingdom of God means we are forgiving people; the world is not.  Living in the kingdom means we are to be noticed not by being first in line of privilege but being first in line of humility.  Living in the kingdom means we see that God examines the heart of a person without regard to gender.  God wants to see us as being blameless and righteous before him which means we must be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Second, we need to remember that what we read in the Bible are not just quaint stories or just interesting teachings.  The things we read in the Bible happened.  The stories of the emerging Christian community are not fairytales.  They are stories of women and men who were thrilled to be part of a fellowship having a divine purpose.  They were thrilled that they were turning the world upside down not by violence but by coloring outside the lines of the world and using the powerful tools of forgiveness, mercy, and the love of God.  We ought to be thrilled that we are part of that same fellowship having the same divine purpose.  We are to continue to turn the world upside down and live in the world as citizens of the kingdom of God.

Lastly, and more specifically to today’s topic of the equality of women, we should see that Jesus’ coloring outside the lines us a glimpse into the way God created the world and gave us an understanding of the direction we must take to ministries, missions, and governance of church.  The sin of envy, power, and privilege are relentless forces always seeking to constrain others, to diminish others, and to establish codes for others to follow. I am so glad that we are part of the American Baptist Churches that seeks to live out the principles Jesus taught. We welcome women and men pastors equally.  We welcome men and women as members of Trustees, Deacons, Mission Boards, and as teachers.  We welcome women and men to join common Bible studies and spiritual retreats.  We must continue to color beyond the lines of privilege and bigotry and fully embrace women.

We have a cross as the symbol of our faith.  We should see it plainly and simply.  The vertical member of the cross means that each of us, female and male, stand equally before God, just as it was in the beginning.  The horizontal member of the cross means that we have a fellowship which crosses all boundaries.  We are all equal and all called to be the salt of the earth and light of the world.  We are all equal and all called to worship God. We are all equal and all called to serve one another.

The call on our life is unlike the patterns of the world.  We are called to be like Christ and color outside the lines of the world and color a new picture, a brighter picture, coming from the kingdom of God. Amen and Amen.

08-15-Priority-Outline the Lines

          Last week, we began talking about how Jesus was a nonconformist who colored outside the lines of the world and even the religious traditions of Israel.  Jesus called people away from the construct of worldly living that was and remains governed by sin.  Jesus called people away from hollow religious traditions that served only their interests and distorted the image of God.  And for those who heeded Jesus call to follow him, Jesus granted forgiveness of all sins giving them a clean slate before God and a new life in the kingdom of God.

          The kingdom into which Jesus called people and continues to call his followers is unlike any other kingdom that there ever was or ever will be.  In worldly thinking, a kingdom is about privilege, power, and prestige.  A worldly kingdom is about royalty and class, opulence and finery, and it is about being served and being first. Jesus was colored outside the lines of worldly thinking and came to paint a bright and new picture of the so the kingdom of God that the people then and now simply did not know.

          We cannot know what we do not know unless someone first acquaints what we do not know to something we do know.  In every culture, we most often come to know what we do not know through the power of story. As a child, our parents, siblings, and teachers shared simple stories with us that we could understand in the hopes that we would learn a broad message about something we did not know. 

The ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, is famous for teaching morality through short fables.  Aesop once wrote a fable about a dog to teach a very human lesson.  Aesop said, “A dog was carrying a piece of meat in his mouth to eat it in peace at home. On his way he had to cross a plank across a brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own reflection in the water. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that piece of meat also. So, he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was lost.” The moral of Aesop’s story was that we need to curb our foolish human desire for more and be content with what we have in hand.

          Stories have such power.  Jesus likewise taught about the kingdom of God using stories, parables.  We read today from the Gospel of Matthew a parable about the kingdom and how the kingdom of God was very much different from any earthly kingdom. 

Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”  The story began with a landowner hiring day laborers.  The custom in Jesus day was that laborers worked from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. A common wage for a day’s work was one denarius, an amount of money needed to buy food for one day.  The workers and the landowners agreed that the wage for the work was fair.

          “About nine in the morning he [the landowner] went out and saw others [people] standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He [The landowner] told them [those people], ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they [the workers] went.”  More workers now join the first set of workers in the field but no specific agreement on the compensation set except that the landowner agreed to do what is right.

          “He [the landowner] went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon [at the eleventh hour of the day] he [the landowner] went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.  He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’”  We now have five different groups of people who began working in the same vineyard doing the same work at 6:00 AM, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.

          “When evening [6:00 PM] came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired [those hired at 5:00 PM] and going on to the first [those hired at 6:00 AM].’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius [a day’s wage]. 10 So when those came who were hired first [6:00 AM], they expected to receive more [than one denarius]. But each one of them also received a denarius.  11 When they received it [the denarius], they began to grumble against the landowner.  12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’”

          What is going on here?  We are seeing this parable through the lens of the first workers hired and the landowner. The first workers have toiled the entire day and saw workers who worked a little as one hour receive a day’s pay. The workers who came at 6:00 AM see equal compensation of all workers as grossly unfair.  If the pay for one hour’s work was one denarius, why then isn’t the pay for 12 hours work be 12 denarii, not one as well?  Jesus’ story was pointing out the way we think when we think in worldly terms.  Jesus knew this was something his disciples understood.  This was the known in the story.

          From what was known, Jesus needed to teach his disciples about the unknown, the kingdom of God.  “13 But he [the landowner] answered one of them [disgruntled workers], ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

          We learn much we did not know about the kingdom of God in these words when we come to see the landowner as representing God. In this story, God called those who were first available to come and follow him.  In exchange for immediately coming into his vineyard, into his estate, God made a promise.  What is God’s promise?  The Gospel of John said it so eloquently, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  God promised eternal life.  In the story, when the day was done, those who first answered landowner’s call to enter his estate received what had been promised.  In our life story, when our day is done, we who have answered God’s call to enter his estate will receive what God has promised, eternal life.  In God’s kingdom, we now know that promises made to us are kept.

          But in our story, there was a conflict because others were hired after the first workers, and they received the same as had been promised to the first.  In the story, the first workers grumbled. In response, the landowner began his conversation not as boss speaking to a worker, but the landowner began his response to the complainers by calling them “friend.”  The parable teaches us that when we enter the kingdom of God, we are not just some unknown entities or nameless, faceless workers.  Not at all.  Instead, we become a friend to the owner of the estate, God.  In God’s kingdom we now know that we are valued and known to God, even when we are grumbling at Him.  In earthly kingdoms, very few people are known to the king. In the kingdom of God, all are known to God and called friend.

          To be known as a friend of God is shocking and something people had not contemplated in Jesus’ day and I am not sure how many people think about today. And yet now knowing that, we are still left with the conflict that landowner, God, gave the same reward to each worker, including those who entered the estate at the eleventh hour.  From this we come to know that in the kingdom of God, all who enter the estate receive the same generous and extraordinary gift of eternal life regardless of the time or circumstances upon which they entered God’s estate.  We learn that God is generous and gracious to everyone who answers his call, and rather than grumbling with envy about the prize others have received we should find joy in God’s generosity.  Because of God’s generous nature, we are to never give up praying that those who have not entered God’s estate would do so, even at the eleventh hour of their life.

          Jesus was coloring outside the lines and creating a picture of a new kind of kingdom.  It was not a kingdom of opulence but of simplicity and humble labors.  It was not a kingdom of favorites but a kingdom of friends with equal standing.  It was not a kingdom of whims from the powerful that they disregarded at any moment but a kingdom of promises made and kept.  It was not a kingdom of stinginess but a kingdom of generosity.  The kingdom Jesus was coloring, the kingdom desired on earth as it in in heaven, was a very different kingdom than the people knew.

          To accentuate the extreme differences between the kingdom of God that Jesus wanted people to know from the kingdoms of earth they knew, Jesus concluded the parable with one final sentence, that can be perplexing.  Jesus said, “16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).  Now that is really coloring outside the lines.  What on earth, or better said, what in heaven was Jesus talking about?

          “16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).  Jesus had said such things before.  In Matthew, Chapter 19, verse 30, Jesus said, “30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”  Also, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught that we must not be so concerned with the things of the earthly kingdom such as clothing, food, and wines.  Jesus said,  32a The pagans [Non-believers] run after all these things.. 33 But [you should] seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness...”  Jesus was again coloring outside the lines of earthly thought and beliefs to encourage people to choose a kingdom so different in God.  It would seem that Jesus was saying, “Yes, in choosing God you will perhaps be last in world’s book of ‘Who’s Who,’ or will be last in to have your life chronicled in on the television program, ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ but you will be among the first in God’s eyes for you will be His friend.  “16 So the last (the humble) will be first, and the first (proud) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).

          But there may be more to Jesus’ expression.  One time Jesus spoke with the very religious people of the day, the Pharisees.  They were faithful to their religious beliefs and genuinely thought they were doing what God wanted.  Jesus told the Pharisees another story.  Jesus said, “28 ‘What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.  31 Which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first,’ they answered.  Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him’” (Matthew 21:28-32). 

Jesus was pointing out that religious practices no matter how faithfully performed are a substitute for a repentant heart.  Being religious is the way of the world.  Being repentant and accepting Christ is the only way to enter the kingdom of God.  We may do things to make ourselves look to be at the head of the line of religious traditions but the prostitutes who give their lives to Jesus will be entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of us.  “16 So the last (repentant) will be first, and the first (religious) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).

          But there may be still more to Jesus’ expression.  One time Jesus was with his disciples, men who had given everything to be with Jesus.  While together, “46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48). 

Even those who have accepted Jesus, who have been repentant, must use care that they do not become self-absorbed believing their works merit privilege.  When we start believing in privilege for our Christian service, we begin losing our desire for friendship with Jesus.  Most friendships do not end with a bang but with a whimper.  Just as we can slowly drift out of earthly friendship, we can drift out of love for the Lord.  We can give up in the joy of our redemption as pride in our Christian service rises. When we do that, we move our standing before the Lord as we distance ourselves from Him.  And “16 So the last (faithful servant) will be first, and the first (the proud leader) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).

          Jesus came to keep God’s promises of redemption and freedom from sin.  Such redemption was not to come through works or religious practices.  Redemption would come by wiping the slate clean and learning to draw a bold and exciting picture of a new and unknown kingdom of God.  In that kingdom, we would be called friends and the promise of eternal life would be kept for all who would enter God’s holy estate.  When we as we live in the worldly kingdoms and act as though we are living in the kingdom of God, we are coloring outside the lines like Jesus.  When we forgive, when we treat people equally even when others expect more from us, some will grumble against us in envy of our generosity.  We must remain firm in our faith and live out that new life in the kingdom of God.

We need to ask ourselves, “What is my standing today?  Am I first in line within the kingdom or the world or religious tradition or am I last in those lines?  Have I repented and enter God’s kingdom or am I still standing in the marketplace doing nothing?”  Where we stand has eternal significance.  Let’s not leave it to chance.  Amen and Amen.

08-08 - Forgiveness - Outside the Lines

          If you hand a very young child a box of crayons and page from a coloring book, you can expect some interesting artwork.  The child will usually choose the crayon with their favorite color and begin to scribble lines across the page, in many cases, making the outline of the original coloring book image unrecognizable.  The color selected for the animals does not matter nor does it matter to the child whether they stay within the lines.

          If you hand an adult a box of crayons and a page from a coloring book, you can expect some interesting artwork.  The adult with usually choose the crayons that best fits the image on the page. The adult will neatly color the page. The color selected for animals will matter for adults and there will likely be very little variability from adult to adult.  It matters to adults whether they stayed within the lines.

          What has the difference between the way children and adults color in a book have to do with our faith journey?  I would suggest the difference lays in conformity.  Adults are conformists.  The older and more mature we get, the greater our tendency to want our life to be carefully defined and under control.  Things which are inconsistent with our worldview bother us and must be made to fit our expectations.

Children are inherently nonconformists.  Children do not recognize nonconformity.  They are willing to explore new relationships and are not the least bit bothered by lines on a page. 

How does coloring relate to our faith journey?  Jesus explained it this way.  “He [Jesus] called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he [Jesus] said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’” (Matthew 18:2-5).  Jesus said to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become like children and willing to be nonconformists to the world and to religion.

Why did Jesus say such a thing?  Jesus said this because Jesus was a nonconformist.  Jesus came not to color within the lines.  Jesus came to color outside the lines.  Jesus colored a different picture of the world than the world wanted him to color.  Jesus colored a different picture of God than the religious people wanted him to color. Jesus did not color within the lines and every time he did not color inside the lines some adult objected. Over and over Jesus refused to color the picture people handed him.  Instead, Jesus said, “You have heard it said…But I tell you…”  Jesus was telling people the lines from their coloring book were wrong.  If they stayed inside the lines they had created, they would miss the incredibly beautiful picture God intended.

For the next few weeks, I would like us to explore Jesus’ coloring outside the lines in the hopes that we too could be invigorated to be nonconformists to the world and to religious tradition.  And today, I would like us to begin our journey outside the lines with Jesus by talking about the greatest nonconformity in life: sin and forgiveness.

Sin, of course, is conformity to the world.  The world, our culture, gives contours and shape to our lives. The world is constantly painting pictures for us of what the perfect life is supposed to be like.  We are then tempted to conform to those images.  The desire to fit into the world is enormous.  That pressure begins early in life and never relents.  Our middle and high school children are continually exposed to peer pressure toward popularity and conformity.  In fact, the pressures on our children and even adults in our society are so great that even those who have faith tend to display an inverted hypocrisy.  It is an inverted hypocrisy because we try to hide our virtue and seem worse than we are.  Think for a moment about simply giving thanks for our food.  Many people are comfortable at the home dinner table holding the hand of the person seating next to them and offering a prayer of thanks before eating.  Change the venue to a public restaurant and the number of people who hold hands and pray plummets.  This is inverted hypocrisy.  We feel the pressure to conform to the world so that we become popular or at the very least do not standout.

The pressure to conform to the world has always been present.  But God’s way is to call people to be nonconformists to the world. Look at our Old Testament reading today from Genesis, Chapter 12.  “1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.  ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

          God was calling on Abraham, later Abraham, to stop conforming to the world. Abram was to no longer conform to the customs of his nation.  He was to no longer conform to the traditions of his tribe.  He was no longer to follow the traditions of his father.  All the lines in which Abram colored his life were to be wiped clean. 

With a clean sheet, God would give the Abram the tools to build his life into a great nation, into a blessed people, and into a father whom people would admire because he had broken free from the world. Abram would be free to color outside the lines because God had wipe clean the lines of the world.  Breaking free from the lines, the pressures of the world, was and remains God’s way to give us a life in freedom from the bonds of sin.

          But we know that sin does not give up easily.  So when Jesus came, his first message, his first sermon, was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The call to repent was again a call away from sin, a call away from conformity to the world and to accept a completely new life in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God.  It was the same message Abram had received.  Jesus’ message was that the time had come to color outside the lines of the world and religious tradition.

          How do we know that Jesus’ message was about coloring outside the lines?  Let’s look at a few passages from the Gospel to see. One day, Jesus, “9 saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.  10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’  12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:9-13).

Jesus came for the sinners of the world and that Jesus would come for the sinners was a behavior that upset the traditional religious.  It was outrages to think God would send someone to call sinners and not to applaud the religious.  But Jesus’ response to the religious people suggested they had conformed to their own view of God because they no longer understood the meaning of God’s words.  In the mind of the religious people, the lines they constructed on the page and faithfully color said there was only room for sacrifice and no room for mercy.

          Coloring inside the lines of the world or the lines of tradition even in religious thought creates the opportunity for sin.  Jesus came to wipe the slate clean so that people could understand afresh the kingdom of God.

          Understanding the kingdom of God was a central message of Jesus.  Repeatedly, Jesus used parables to speak about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God.  Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like:

  •  A man who sowed good seed in his field (Matthew 13:24)
  • A mustard seed (Matthew 13:31)
  • Yeast (Matthew 13:33)
  • Treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44)
  • A merchant looking for fine pearls (Matthew 13:45)
  • A net that was let down into the lake (Matthew 13:47)
  • The owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52)
  • A great banquet (Luke 14:15)

Jesus used parables, a story about a common life experience knowable to his audience, to explain what kingdom of God which was unknown to his audience.  Jesus told these stories to break the conformity of people’s thinking about the kingdom of God and giving them the freedom to see the kingdom as it was. Jesus was coloring outside the lines.

Jesus’ coloring outside the lines was intended to separate people from the worldly sin and wrong thinking about God.  And to demonstrate the significance of his message that he came to destroy humanity’s conformity to sin, Jesus began to forgive people of their sins.  Let’s take a look at what happened.

           Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:3-7).  Jesus was wiping the paralyzed man’s slate clean by forgiving him of his sins and giving his legs new strength.  Both actions gave the man the ability to break all the patterns of his former life.  The religious leaders hated the idea that Jesus was coloring outside their lines.

          On another occasion, Jesus was a dinner guest of a Pharisee.  At that event, a woman, a prostitute, cleaned Jesus’ feet with her tears and soothed his feet with oil while the Pharisee did nothing for Jesus.  “44 Then he (Jesus) turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’ 48 Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’  49 The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’  50 Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ (Luke 7:44-50).

          Again, Jesus forgave sins so that the person could be free from their past conformity to sin and live a new life in the kingdom of God.  Sadly, the religious leaders again wanted Jesus to color inside the lines and make sinners conform to the burdens of hollow religious practices.

          Jesus was all about wiping the slate clean of sin and giving people the freedom to live a new life.  Jesus was so dedicated to this proposition that he willingly gave his life to wipe clean all sin.

          On the evening before his death, Jesus gathered with his disciples.  “27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:27-28).  Jesus was wiping the slate clean of all sin for all who would follow him.

          Jesus broke the power of sin giving his disciples, you, and me the opportunity for a clean slate and a new life that no longer conforms to the world nor to the traditions of hollow religion.  The Apostle Paul saw this scene as he described it to the church in Rome, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).  Paul’s message was simple.  Accept the forgiveness that Christ offers and have the patterns of this world broken within you.  Be free to live life in the kingdom of God and do that which is pleasing to God.  When we are free from sin, we can color outside the lines just like Jesus.

          Now with the freedom in Jesus to break from the patterns of the world comes great responsibility.  That responsibility is exercised through the power of forgiveness.

          Forgiveness is an awesome and fearsome power that can be used either as an instrument of peace or a weapon of warfare.  Let’s see how Jesus explained the responsibility and the use of forgiveness as an instrument of peace or warfare.

          “21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’  22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (Matthew 18:21-22).  Some translations quote Jesus as say, “Seven times Seventy.”  Either way, following Jesus carries with it a huge responsibility to forgive.

          Jesus then explained the concept of forgiveness to Peter this way.  Jesus used a parable so that he could acquaint Peter with something Peter knew to teach Peter something he did not know.  Jesus said, “23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.   26 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go’” (Luke 18:23-27). 

Here Jesus explained that having our slate wiped clean by God is an act of great grace and mercy by God.  Having our freedom restored by God gives us a new life and opportunity.  Forgiveness then was used by God as an instrument of peace. The expectation and responsibility then is that we would do likewise.

          Jesus continued with the story.  “28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’  30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (Matthew 18:28-30). 

The forgiven servant uttered those powerful words, “I will never forgive you for what you have done to me!”  With that, forgiveness an instrument of peace in God’s kingdom became a weapon of warfare to imprison the offender.   Forgiveness is powerful however it is wielded.  We can free someone or imprison them with how we use forgiveness. The world would have us color within the lines and use all things powerful as a weapon of warfare.  God would have us color outside the lines and use all things powerful as an instrument of peace.  The servant withheld forgiveness as an instrument of warfare.  We do the same when we are unforgiving.

          Jesus then finished the story.  “31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart’” (Matthew 18:28-35).

          When we dishonor the awesome power God has given us in forgiveness and use it as a weapon of warfare, we not only imprison others but we ourselves are imprisoned by that same weapon.  Forgiveness was central to the life and mission of Jesus. He used forgiveness always as an instrument of peace and in all ways to break people out of captivity so that they could enter the kingdom of God.  This was Jesus’ ultimate act of coloring outside the lines.

          We have been forgiven.  We have a clean slate before God.  We are free from the lines that constrain us to the world and to the traditions of hollow religion.  We should not act as inverted hypocrites and hide our virtue but in humility we should live out the virtues of Christ though our lives.  We have been forgiven and therefore we have been given the awesome and fearsome power of forgiveness.  How shall we use that power?  Shall we use it as an instrument of peace or as a weapon of warfare?  I think we know the answer.  It is time to be nonconformists and join Jesus in coloring outside the lines.  Amen and Amen.

07-25 - Be Prepared

          Last week, my wife and I traveled to Maine to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.  Several weeks before we traveled, we made some telephone calls to find a motel room and make a reservation.  The motel asked us to send along a check for the first night’s stay as a deposit to guarantee our room would be available to us.  The day before we traveled, we got our suitcases out, checked the weather forecast, and began to select the clothes we wanted to take with us.  On the morning we departed for Maine, we put the address of the motel into our GPS to alert us should there be any traffic accidents arise that could delay our arrival.  We took all these steps because we wanted to know there was a place for us, that the journey would be guided, and that our days in Maine would be pleasant.

          What I have described is not novel or unique.  I am sure all of you have taken similar measures before you traveled on vacation whether it was to Maine, across the country, or overseas.  The point of my story is that to go just a few hundred miles for just a few days we will do a lot of thinking and put a lot of effort in our preparation for those few miles and few days.  Yet, millions of people willingly give no thought to their preparations for eternity. They are willing to leave their destination, their journey, and the pleasantness of that destination all to chance.

          I remember hearing a story about a tombstone in a cemetery in Indiana that is more than 100 years old with the following inscription on it:

Pause stranger when you pass me by, 

As you are now - so once was I.

As I am now - so you will be,

Prepare yourself to follow me.


There was, however, a note that someone added that read:  

To follow you - I am not content

Until I know which way, you went.


You are here today because you have decided not to leave to chance your destiny for eternity, the journey, and whether your destination will be a pleasant experience.  You are unwilling to follow anyone unless you know which way they went.   Because you are here today, you are seeking to “Be Prepared.”

          Be Prepared might be a good motto for the Christian Church. It is the motto for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts, said “Be Prepared,” means that you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.  For the Christian, to “Be Prepared,” is much more about spiritual preparedness.

          Throughout time, God has dealt with humanity in two stages.  There is always a time of preparation and a time of fulfillment.  The Christian Bible is composed of two stages. We see the Old Testament as preparation, a revelation of God in the form of prophesies and promises.  The New Testament we see as the fulfillment of God’s preparations for humanity.  What is the promise and what is the fulfillment?  God embodied both promise and fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.

          In our Old Testament reading today, we experienced the sense of preparation.  The psalmist wrote: “10 Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.  11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.  12 The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. 13 Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps” (Psalm 85:10-13). 

The days of preparation were intended to bring together the marriage of power spiritual emotions.  Love and faithfulness would come together as though being married.  Similarly, righteousness and peace would embrace and kiss as mutual lovers.  Faithfulness would be expressed by those of the earth and righteousness would come from heaven.  The will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven.  The uniting of humanity and the divine would be very much like a blessed marriage.  These things would all come to pass by God, and he would call them good.

          This goodness, the coming together of love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace, God’s promise, was expressed in many ways throughout the Old Testament.  God was promising and preparing his people to receive him in the most intimate and personal way.  The way God chose to fulfill his promise was by coming as righteousness in human form through his son, Jesus.

          Now, to receive God in person was a radical change in God’s revelation to humanity.  And to prepare the people for the change, God commissioned a radical person named John to make known God’s coming. 

We heard John’s call this morning in our first New Testament reading. Matthew wrote, “1In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Matthew 3:1-3).

          God’s message through John was simple, “Repent.” To repent is an act of preparation.  Repentance, getting rid of those things that keep us from God, prepares us to be filled by God’s presence.  We can think of many things, many sins, that keep us from God.  But the chief thing, the chief sin, among all those that keep people from God is pride.

Pride was the chief element of the first sin.  The first couple believed that eating the fruit they had been commanded not to eat would make them like God.  Pride includes the desire to be as God.  Christian writer Andrew Murray opined that, “All the wretchedness of which this world has been the scene, all its wars and bloodshed among the nations, all its selfishness and suffering, all its vain ambitions and jealousies, all its broken and embittered lives, with all its daily unhappiness, have their origin in what this cursed pride – our own or that of others – has brought upon us.”

So, in John’s day, to acquire and imitate the radical love of Jesus required preparation, namely giving up prideful thoughts and belief that people really knew God.  Matthew reported that, “People went out to him [John] from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:5-6).

          Average people in great numbers responded to John’s call to prepare themselves for Jesus.  Those people expressed their preparation by confessing their sins privately to God and then were baptized publicly before other people.  Both the confession and the baptism evidence the person being serious about their preparations for eternity.  The confession and baptism evidenced a person spiritually prepared to know God.

          In our day, to acquire and imitate the radical love of Jesus requires preparation, namely giving up prideful thoughts and belief that we really know God.  The acts of preparation remain the same as those in John’s day.  We are called to repent, talk to God and rid ourselves of pride and come into agreement with God about what we must change in our life.  And then, just as in John’s day, our preparation includes being baptized before others.  Both acts of preparation, repentance and baptism, say to God and others, “God, I am ready to receive whatever You have for me.”

          Now in John’s day, not everyone who had an interest in God or in what God had in mind, were willing to prepare themselves.  They were neither willing to repent and speak to God nor were they willing to be baptized as a sign of preparation.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “But when he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he [John] was baptizing, he [John] said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Matthew 3:7-10).

          The Pharisees and Sadducees were proud of their association with God and the Jerusalem Temple.  They were too proud to be prepared to receive someone as radical as Jesus.  They were too proud to talk to God and confess their frailties to God.  They were too proud to be baptized before others as evidence of their need for God and their release of pride to receive him. 

Jesus would later tell a parable of two men who went to the synagogue to pray.  One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:11-14).  You can hear the pride in the Pharisee and the repentance in the tax collector.

          We must not be too proud to talk to God and we must not be too proud to be baptized before others.  In my own faith journey, I walked a long time before I came into agreement with God on my need to be baptized.  I urge you not to make the same error I did.  We are talking about our journey for all eternity. 

For that journey Jesus said choose to be baptized as a way of expressing before all humanity that you seek me.  If you have never personally chosen to be baptized, please talk to me.  I know this church would welcome an opportunity to gather many together and express the joy of being baptized into Christ.

          For baptism is a symbolic union of humanity and the divine.  It is the chief moment when we can see and experience the promise and fulfillment in the marriage of love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace. I call it a marriage because in baptism we are expressing our preparation to become fully one with Christ through the Church.

          The Apostle Paul would express this human/divine union in his letter to the church at Ephesus. Paul wrote, “31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).  Paul saw the coming together into the church in marital terms in which the husband and wife became one.  The groom, Paul saw, represented Jesus and the bride represented the Church with its many members.

          Marriage is a good way to look at preparation to receive Jesus and follow him into eternity.  We do not experience the deepest joys of marriage by keeping our fingers crossed ready to run if things start to fail.  We experience the deepest joys of marriage when we commit ourselves without reservation with a “for better or worse” attitude.  The same principle holds true when we commit ourselves to Jesus and follow him without reservation.

          Following Jesus as he leads us into abundant life now and into eternity requires that we keep track of what we are doing.  We need to have a spiritual GPS.  Look for example of the two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Jesus loved them and they knew Jesus well. Luke shared with us that, “38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’  41 ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 8:38-42).

          I believe Luke included this short story to help those who believe in Jesus to exercise care in the continuing activities to follow Jesus.  Martha, seeking to serve Jesus and his followers, became mired in meal preparations.  Luke’s description gives us a sense that Martha was running frantically from the cook fire to the table and then to the bread oven. 

Martha was probably sweating physically and sweating within herself with anxiousness trying to complete all of the meal preparations so that everything would be perfect for everyone. Martha was following the approach that busyness is a sign of commitment.  There are certain occasions when busyness is a sign of commitment but more often busyness is a sign of avoiding going deeper. 

Referring again to the marriage example, many marriages fail when the children leave the home because the marriage became about busyness of the children and not something deeper.

          In contrast to Martha, her sister Mary was seated at the feet of Jesus.  Mary was not content to just be in the room with Jesus, she wanted to be as physically close to Jesus as possible.  Mary too was preparing, only Mary’s preparations were to receive all she was able to absorb from Jesus.  Mary was committed to Jesus for better or worse and was working hard on the marriage of the human and the divine.  Jesus told Martha and those present that Mary had chosen the better thing and it would not be taken from her.

          We are on a journey.  Like every journey, preparations are needed to make sure that there is room for us and that our time on the journey and at our destination will be pleasant.  You are here as part of your work of preparation. But as in all preparations, there is a purpose to them. 

What is God preparing you and asking you to prepare for?  Talk to him about it.  Get a sense of where God is leading you this moment in your life.  If some of your preparations are incomplete, don’t panic. Complete what God has asked.  Do not be too proud.  Afterall, you are entering a marriage of the human and the divine that will last forever.  This is the best thing there is and it will not be taken from you.  Amen and Amen.