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04-21 Face of an Angel

          About 10 years ago, I started walking with a woman through the grief experience of the death of her husband.  She was, of course, deeply upset at the death of her husband.  They had no children.  She now lived in her own home on a very small pension.  When she said, “I have $10 left for the month,” she meant she had only $10 to her name.  Her parents and all her siblings were dead.  She had one niece who lived in Florida.  She had a couple of friends from her church but otherwise she felt very much alone and very isolated.  I would visit with her from time to time until her death a few years ago.  During our time together, she would often wonder aloud, “If I died, would anyone even know?  Would anyone even care?  Do I matter?”

          The last question is a universal question, “Do I matter?”  It is a question as to whether are of value and where does that value come from?  We are asking do we add value to the lives of others?  “Do I matter?” is a question that asks am I invisible or does anyone see me?

          The question of “Do I matter?” is part of the theme to our story today from the Book of Acts, the acts of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. The story focuses primarily on the person of Stephen, a man we know nothing about prior to the Book of Acts and we never hear about again after his death.  I think through Stephen’s life we might be able to answer the widow’s question, “Do I matter?”

          We are first introduced to Stephen in the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts.  A problem emerged in the early Christian church, perhaps the first problem the church faced.  The problem was very simply that the Hebrew speaking widows of the church were receiving food assistance from the church but the Greek speaking widows of the church were not receiving assistance.  The Greek widows were being neglected.  That open neglect was a problem because it was causing a division within the church. Jesus’ Apostles acted quickly to correct the problem by calling upon the church to select seven men to manage the food distribution.  The men selected were to be recognized as having the Holy Spirit and wisdom within them. These seven men would be the first Deacons of the Christian church.  We are told the seven men selected were Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.  These men all had Greek names suggesting Greek speaking men were being put in charge of ensure neither the Hebrew nor the Greek speaking widows were neglected.

          Stephen came to our notice because Stephen came to the notice of the early church members.  The criteria for being selected to manage food distribution was not “Choose the strongest people, or the cleverest people, or best organized people.”  The criteria were to select people who have the Holy Spirit and wisdom.  The first name on the list was Stephen.  This means that early Christians believed Stephen mattered.  Stephen mattered because the people saw that Stephen was allowing himself to be used by the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.  Following the selection of Stephen and the other men, the apostles formally appointed the men as Deacons and Luke wrote, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:7a).  Stephen, used of the Holy Spirit, helped manage food distribution which made the church stronger.  As the church healed its division and became stronger, more people were drawn to the church and its message of hope and salvation through Jesus Christ.

          Now, that might have been the end of the story of Stephen.  It certainly was the end of the story as we know it for five of the seven Deacons because we never hear again about Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.  The history of these five men is that were empowered by the Holy Spirit and faithfully managed the distribution of food for the early church and in doing so contributed to the strength of the early Christian church.

          But for two of the original Deacons, Stephen and Philip, there is more to say.  We will talk a bit more about Philip next week but today, I would like us to continue to focus our exploration of Stephen.

          So, as we know from our prior studies of Scripture that a triumph for the Christian Church often brings about hostility from the world. We see this pattern of triumph and hostility all throughout the New Testament and if we look at the way the world responds to the church today, we see the same thing.  There is hostility toward the church whenever the church no matter whether it preserves or falters.  So as the early Christian Church grew, Luke reported, “Opposition [to the church] arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen” (Acts 6:9).  Jewish histories point to there being 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of the Apostles.  One of these synagogues was formed by people called Freedmen.  Freemen were descendants of Jews who had been taken from Jerusalem as slaves to distant lands when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC.  By AD 20, the Romans allowed the descendants of these captives to return to Jerusalem. Those descendants then established their own synagogue, the Synagogue of the Freedmen.  It is probable that the men of this synagogue were Greek speakers, not Hebrew.  The men of the synagogue were upset with the growing Christian Church, particularly with the work of a Greek-speaking Deacon, named Stephen, and sought to oppose the teachings of the early church.  These freedmen challenged Stephen, perhaps one of their own, and argued with Stephen against the teaching and his adherence to the teachings of Jesus as Savior, “10 But they [the men of the synagogue] could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him [Stephen] as he spoke” (Acts 6:10).

          So, we see again those two important aspects to the life of Stephen. First, he had the Holy Spirit present in his life and second the Spirit gave Stephen wisdom.  As we talked two weeks ago, Stephen had the Holy Spirit because Stephen had committed his life to God through Jesus.  Commitment precedes the receipt of the Holy Spirit. Receipt of the Holy Spirit precedes receipt of spiritual gifts.  Here, Stephen received the Holy Spirit and then the spiritual gift of wisdom.  Such Spiritually gifted wisdom is described as coming from heaven and is “17 first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). This gift was recognized by the early church and by those who opposed the early church, namely the members of the Synagogue of Freedmen.  That wisdom strengthened the church, first in the distribution of food to the widows and secondly in defense of the church.

          The synagogue members then had a problem, what do about Stephen and the early church?  The men then relied upon wisdom of humanity which Scripture says is motivated by bitter envy and selfish ambition.  “15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:15-16).  And so, the members of the synagogue arranged for some men to lie about things Stephen said concerning Moses and God.  With false testimony at the ready, the synagogue members physically dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin, Israel’s best and brightest, to accuse Stephen of crimes against God.  This sort of human invention of false witnesses and false charges that bring people to face penalties under the law is found throughout Scripture and is evident in the way things are still done today.

          Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin.  Accused, alone, and abused.  But Luke added an observation about the proceedings with which we should spend a few moments of time.  Luke wrote, “15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his [Stephen’s] face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).  It is a curious statement to make by saying that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel.  What was the significance of that statement then and how might we see it today?

          First, some may recall that when we studied angels in our Bible study we found that Biblically all angels are adult males or are represented as multi-winged, sometime multi-headed beasts that were scary and fierce in appearance.  Biblically, angels are not feminine, childlike, or extraordinarily gentle in appearance as most artwork and figurines of today would suggest.  I don’t think Luke meant for his readers to believe that Stephen looked like an angelic beast.  So that leaves us with the idea that Stephen looked like an angel who appeared as an adult male, which Stephen was.

Luke who wrote the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke gave us insight into angels.  In Luke’s descriptions of the angels who encountered Zechariah in the Temple, Mary – Jesus’ mother, the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, and with inference at the resurrection of Jesus we would see that Luke suggests angels, messengers from God, have the appearance of courage and confidence.  The arrival of an angel may be frightening but their way and appearance is to give calmness to the faithful.  The angels display the glory of God, a shining of the divine into the mortal world. The term face of an angel used by Luke suggests that Stephen’s appearance then was as though he had light about him that displayed courage, confidence, and calmness while accusations of fake crimes were presented by false witnesses whose faces no doubt expressed the darkness of theatrical outrage at everything Stephen said. Stephen was unmoved and unwavering. Stephen’s face showed no hint of human distress or concern because Stephen, being the messenger of God, was doing and saying exactly what was required.  Stephen knew his life was not his own.  His life had been given to God and therefore, was a life that mattered. Stephen’s life mattered because he knew God and was being used to strengthen God’s church. 

          I think Luke’s observation that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel was placed in the middle of Stephen’s story as a means of conveying to Luke’s audience who now includes you and me a high point we can expect of Christian commitment.  Stephen was a committed Christian, who had the presence of the Holy Spirit within him. Other Christians could see and sense the fullness of the Holy Spirit within Stephen’s life.

          With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Stephen was gifted with Godly wisdom, pure and unmotivated by prejudice.  That gift too could be seen not only by Christians but also by those opposed to Christ. Stephen used that gift of wisdom to heal divisions within the early Church and to bridge divisions with those who had honest questions of the Christian faith journey.  Because of the presence and gift of the Holy Spirit, Stephen had a calm demeanor that stayed that way even when it became clear that he faced severe persecution.  As the pressure upon Stephen increased by the false accusations, his face never showed it. In fact, as the pressure upon Stephen increased, his face appeared less human and more heavenly.

          What does this story then mean to us?  I think there are a few lessons.  First, if we want the life God intends for us, we must first commit our lives to Him.  It sounds like an obvious first step, but I have met too many people who want God to change their life without any commitment to Him first.  Second, once we have committed our life to God, then God’s Holy Spirit will take up residence within us.  We are at the point, fully human with a divine spirit within us to strengthen and guide our behaviors.  Third, with the Holy Spirit, comes spiritual gifts given primarily for us in strengthening the witness of the church of Jesus Christ in this world. All Christians are gifted to strengthen the church.  Fourth, the more we use our gifts, the more the presence of the Holy Spirit becomes within us.  Perhaps said another way, the more we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us, the more we too will have a face that looks like the face of an angel.  Fifth, when we are committed to Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and employing those gifts to strength the church, we can be supremely assured that we matter.  We can be assured that we matter a great deal to God. We can then be assured that our life spent outworking our faith will be noticed within the church and will be noticed by God who will upon our calling home will greet us with the words, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.”

          I think back on these lessons in reflection of the widow I mentioned at the beginning of this message with the question, “Do I matter?”  She had no children, few friends, almost no family, no wealth, no influence over politics or policies.  Yet, I can tell you she mattered.  Why am I so sure?  She was a committed Christian.  She had the Holy Spirit within her.  She had been gifted by the Holy Spirit and she was using her gift to strengthen the church.  How did she do that?  As I mentioned, she was a greeter at her church, a local contemporary church of some size.  She was often the first person members and visitors saw as they entered the building. She was there to hand people a bulletin but more than that she was there to welcome people to be part of Christ. She was particularly gifted in welcoming those who struggled with health issues, those with physical handicaps, and young children.  These people were happy and looked forward to seeing this woman on Sunday mornings because she helped them understand that they mattered.  These people loved coming to church because they felt loved the moment they entered the building.  To these people, this widow had a face like that of an angel.  She mattered.

          Don’t wonder if you matter?  Commit to Christ.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  Accept the gifts given.  Use your gifts to strengthen the church.  Do not undervalue anything you are gifted to do whether it is to help with the distribution of food, greeting those coming to church, writing cards and notes of encouragement, being a musician in the church, teaching others, keeping the church running, and the list goes on.  God values that you are using his gift as though you were using for him.  When we learn and apply these lessons, we are moving toward displaying ourselves with confidence, courage, and calmness because we know our life is not our own.  Our life is in God’s hands, and we matter to Him.  Amen and Amen.

04-14 Consequences of Commitment

          Suppose for a moment that no one in your life would agree to make any commitment to you?  I mean no commitment to you.  The mailman who has made a commitment to deliver the mail six days a week, would never deliver your mail.  The cashiers in the grocery store who have made a commitment to scan and pack customer groceries, simply turned their backs on you and walked away every time you put your items on the conveyer belt.  No matter who you called on the telephone, sent a text message to, or an email to, no one ever replies to you.  No one ever fulfills a commitment to you.  Ever.  Living in that manner would be miserable.  So, as we think just a moment about living a life in which no one commits to us about anything, we come to realize how our lives are dependent upon commitments.  We can see how much commitments means and how much we need commitments.

          So, our physical life is full of needs and is dependent upon commitments we receive and commitments we make.  How is it then that we know our physical life is dependent upon commitments that so many people today believe that their spiritual life requires no commitments?  For example, nearly one-quarter of all Americans categorize their spiritual lives as a “None.”  A “None” is a person who believes themselves to be “skeptical and does not believe in God or religion,” although they might believe in some higher power.  This means that nearly 25% of our population believes in nothing spiritual or in something spiritual, a higher power, that gives nothing and requires nothing.  In other words, 1 in 4 people we will meet this week do not have a spiritual life because they believe there is no God or there is no commitment from their higher power and no commitment they have made to their higher power.  Interestingly enough, when we lack a commitment to our spiritual life we also lack commitment in our physical life.  Studies show that people who lack spiritual commitment vote less often, do less volunteer work, and follow public affairs far less often than religiously affiliated people.

          And the news concerning self-described Christians in America isn’t a great story of commitment either.  Of those who affiliate with a mainline denomination church, we would find that about 1/3 of their members will attend weekly, with the remaining two thirds attending rarely or never.  Who are the mainline churches?  In most literature, mainline churches are considered American Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  The commitment level from parishioners to their God is perhaps in many cases, lukewarm. 

Why is there a growing lack of commitment, in general and to a spiritual life in particular?  There are probably too many reasons people give as to why they do not commit to God for us to consider in the time we have together today.  But let’s just take one overarching reason.  People do not commit because they do not believe there is a need to commit.  We human beings are crisis driven animals.  We are prone to act only when there is a crisis, or we perceive there is a crisis. Consider some very simple examples of small crises we share and experience every day.  Why do we eat?  We eat because we feel hunger pains.  We eat because we feel distressed if we have gone too long without eating.  That is a very small crisis.  Why do we drink fluid?  Same reasons as eating.  We drink because we feel thirst and we become distressed if we have gone too long without drinking.  Again, a very small crisis.  And even though they are small crises, we are forced by hunger pangs and thirst to seek a remedy, namely, we will seek food and water. 

How do the daily crises of food and water translate to humans experiencing of being motivated to act on a spiritual crisis?  Do we experience spiritual crises that cause us to seek remedy? That question is at the heart of our New Testament experience today.

Jesus’ apostles, primarily Peter and John, had been preaching in Jerusalem, in the Temple courts, daily.  The message was very much the same each time they spoke.  Fellow Israelites, “13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he [Pilate] had decided to let him [Jesus] go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer [Barabas] be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life [Jesus], but God raised him [Jesus] from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:13-15). This was the Apostles statement of the spiritual crisis faced by their listeners.  “You handed over God’s son [Jesus] to be killed.  You disowned God’s Son.  You killed the author of life.  You will stand before God and you will be rightfully and justly found guilty by God of betrayal, disowning, and killing God’s only Son.  You have sinned mightily against God.”  Peter and John are not describing a physical crisis.  They are describing a fundamental spiritual crisis, and, worse yet, it is a crisis that their listeners cannot fix on their own. What are they to do?  Peter said, “19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19a).  Repent, stop your life to sin, stop our life to doing things your way.  Instead, commit your life to God and your sins, no matter what they may be, even having personal involvement in the betrayal, disowning, and killing God’s only Son, will be wiped away.  The number who believed in the apostles’ message of crisis and immediately committed their lives to God through Jesus Christ was 3,000 and as the message was preached again and again the number of committed quickly grew to 5,000. The spiritual crisis faced by Peter and John’s listeners was resolved by a commitment to God.  This was a wonderful experience, but not every one saw it that way.

The Jerusalem religious leaders were furious at the apostles for their preaching and had Peter and John arrested.  At the hearing before the religious leaders, Peter and John were ordered not to talk about this spiritual crisis ever again and to never mention the salvation offered in Jesus.  The disciples refused the leader’s order saying, “12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  The apostles were committed, and the disapproval of the religious leaders meant nothing to Peter and John.  The spiritual crisis Peter and John had had was over after they committed to Jesus because their sins were wiped out.  Peter and John knew they would not face God as judge because they had accepted God’s work through Jesus as their savior.  After being warned by the Jerusalem leaders, Peter and John were released.

Shortly after being released, Peter and John were back in the Temple courts preaching salvation through Jesus.  Again, the apostles were arrested and put in a jail cell.  Not longer thereafter, Peter and John were miraculously released from the cell and rather than escape, they immediately began preaching again. Peter and John were again taken into custody and told to stop preaching about Jesus.  Luke reported, “29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.  33 When they [the religious leaders] heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them [the apostles] to death” (Acts 5:29-33).

          Instead of death, the religious leaders had Peter and John flogged and ordered them to not talk anymore about Jesus.  “41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:41-42).  Every day, these apostles, who were committed to God through Jesus, joyfully went against the will of the religious leaders to accomplish the will of God.

          Let’s pause in the story for a moment to realize something about committed people.  There are five things for us to note.  First, committed people move toward their goals with force. They don’t care about the disapproval of others. That is a consequence of a committed person.  Second, committed people are loyal.  They stick with their priorities.  Third, committed people stay with very specific goals.  They know what they have been called to do and they do it.  Fourth, committed people are tough.  They are willing to endure hardship.  Fifth, committed people are happy.  They have deep convicted joy in their life because their life has meaning and purpose to it.  These are the consequences of commitment we saw in the disciples.  After the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles, committed to Jesus, became influential, loyal, dreamers, tough, and joyful people.  This is the type of faith and life Jesus desires for each of us.

          Why then is it that many people who claim Christ are seen as lukewarm.  Jesus warned about being lukewarm.  In the Book of Revelation, we would read, “14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:  These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:14-19).

          God’s Word reveals to us why many people do not commit to Him.  First, the Christians in Laodicea [center of modern-day Turkey] felt physically wealthy giving them the impression they were self-sufficient.  There was a story I read years ago about a Roman emperor who was trying to get Christians under control.  Persecution of the Christians was not working as it only resulted in more people becoming Christians.  After some time in thought, the emperor said, “I know how to tame the Christians.  I will prosper them.”  Americans are wealthy by Biblical standards and therefore do not commit because of their lack of physical need.  “Don’t worry, be happy!”  This makes them dull to needs in general. 

The second thing the scripture from the Book of Revelation revealed is that the Laodiceans who were dull to physical needs became dull to spiritual needs.  These Christians were described as being blind because they could not see how their nakedness, their own sinfulness, before a Holy God.  This passage of Scripture was not directed toward nonbelievers, it was directed at Christians who could not see the spiritual crisis that was coming their way because they were blind and would not had not committed.  They were lukewarm and as a result were being readied to be vomited from the mouth of God.  That is not where we want to find ourselves.  And yet today, a vast number of people are spiritually blind and have been kept that way, in part, because they have no sense or understanding needs. This situation exists, at least in part, too many churches preach only that “God is love,” leading to the idea that a commitment to God does not matter because God will love us anyways and forgive us whether we believe in him or not.  That sort of sentimentality about God is not the gospel message.  The gospel message is that if you want to know what it means that “God is love”, then look at the cross.  God sending His Son to take the penalty for our sin is love. And it is a love far beyond sentimentalism.   And if you want to know how God judges sin, then look at the cross.

I under this dimension of halfhearted Christian commitment as well because I lived it.  While I had come to recognize the gift of salvation given through Jesus Chris was valuable and costly, I behaved more like a child interested in playing with the box and wrapping that surrounded an expensive gift.  Most of us have seen this behavior with little children.  You purchase a nice gift, perhaps an expensive gift, as a Christmas present or birthday present.  You give the present to a child, they excitedly tear the package open, pull the toy out of the box, and then instead of cherishing the toy, the child happily plays with box and wrapping.  It was a turning point for me when I came to terms with the love with which the gift [salvation] was given and to cherish the gift.  I came to realize that God committed to me first.  God, in the person of Jesus Christ, bled and died to wipe away my sins.  He was committed to me.  That realization led me, a Christian, to stop being lukewarm and to commit to Christ. But just like hunger and thirst are a daily crisis, a daily choice to eat and drink, so too is needed to commit to Christ every day to satisfy the spiritual hunger and thirst.  Jesus said it would be such an experience but that in turning over our hunger and thirst for spiritual life would be fulfilled.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Commitment to Christ has consequences.  This is true for the nonbeliever becoming a Christian and for the Christian who may not feel they have fully given themselves to God through Jesus.  Commitment to Christ, first and most importantly, leads us to salvation and righteousness.  We can live freely now and forever.  We will see the cross as a fearsome sight to behold because we can get a sense of the measure of God’s love for us and the sense of guilt that has been removed from us.  Moreover, having committed our lives to Christ whether going from cold to hot or from lukewarm to hot with the fire of the Holy Spirit, we will have some very specific spiritual consequences.  There will be in our life and demeanor a certain spiritual forcefulness and influence. We will become people loyal to Christ, able to follow dreams and visions for the kingdom of God with a toughness toward the objective and a softness toward people.  These are consequences of being committed to Christ.  We also will be joyful people because we will know that Jesus has given our life meaning, purpose, and significance. God wants people to know they stand in the path of death and God is offering them life instead.  Let’s each address the spiritual crisis, repent, and commit to God.  Amen and Amen.

04-07 Make A Commitment

 We are here on the first Sunday after Easter, a day in which we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, the turning point in the world.  As wonderful as it is to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus only changes the world if you and I allow the resurrection to change us. If we see the resurrection of Jesus only as a historical event and not as a moment of personal transformation, then the power of the resurrection slips through our hands like so many grains of sand.

Jesus’ disciples faced the same circumstance.  What were Jesus’ disciples going to do with the historical fact that Jesus had been resurrected.  Jesus died and now was alive.  Were Jesus’ disciples going to be content to treat Jesus’ resurrection only as a historical fact and carry on with their life as good and pleasant people or would they make Jesus’ resurrection a moment of personal transformation turning them into a committed people of faith?  What choice then did the disciples make?

 To begin with, we would find that after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples acted as though everything was lost and everything and everyone was a threat to their mortal life.  In the Gospel of John, we would read that even after there had been reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus disciples stayed together, behind a locked door in fear of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus’ disciples were taking no chances.  They remained hidden, quiet, locked away, and cowering in fear.  In the Greek sense of fear, Jesus’ disciples were held in terror, perhaps believing the cross awaited them next.  John tells us, “19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he [Jesus] showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19-20).  Jesus’ appearance made true the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and the disciples were overjoyed. 

For the next 40 days, Jesus’ disciples spent time with Jesus, learned from him, ate with him, and received the Holy Spirit from Jesus because they believed in Jesus.  One day, Jesus said to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Then, as suddenly as Jesus appeared to the disciples that evening as the disciples held themselves behind a locked door after his resurrection, Jesus, bodily ascended into heaven.  The days of following Jesus in person were over. And Jesus’ last words to his disciples was to be his witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, starting at the best place to share the gospel among Jews of all nations and the most dangerous place to talk about Jesus.  The religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples feared were in Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jerusalem, Jesus said, was to be starting point for Jesus’ disciples.  How humanly fearful that must have been.  The disciples had to decide whether to commit to Jesus and live the transformed life Jesus called them to live or to go home and live as good and pleasant people.

Ten days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, while Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem, they received the promised Holy Spirit.  At the moment the Holy Spirit was poured out onto Jesus disciples there were Jews in Jerusalem from across the known world. There were Parthians, Medes [Med-ezs] and Elamites [Eel-a-mites]; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia [Cap-a-do-see-ya], Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia [Friz-e-ya] and Pamphylia [Pamp-fil-ia], Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene [siren]; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-10).  This was the moment of choice and decision for Jesus’ disciples.  What were they going to do having been commission by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit?

We read earlier today that Peter stood before this crowd of people from across the world.  Peter who deserted Jesus when Jesus was arrested.  Peter who denied Jesus when a servant girl asked him if Peter was a disciple of Jesus.  But this time, Peter did not run and did not hide.  Instead, Peter spoke and said, “22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:22-24; 36).

This was Peter but not the same Peter we know in the gospel stories.  This Peter had been transformed into a flaming disciple, a burning witness.  This Peter had made his decision.  This Peter had committed himself fully to God and Jesus Christ.  This Peter spoke clearly and loudly to citizens from across the world telling them the plain truth about the person of Jesus and the behavior of those who killed Jesus.  Peter made clear that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus was put an end to death, and Peter’s listeners were guilt of being sinners against God.

From the witnesses across the world, came only one question to Peter and the other disciples, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37b).

That question, “What shall we do?” is a universal and timeless question when presented with the testimony about Jesus.  “What shall we do?”  Shall I accept what has been said as a historical fact and live my life as a good and pleasant person or shall I accept the testimony as a moment of personal transformation?  That day, in Jerusalem, Peter said this is what you do, “38 Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  And three thousand people from across the known world accepted the witness testimony of Peter and believed in Jesus as their Lord and Messiah.  These 3,000 people were not witnesses of Jesus.  They accepted Jesus on the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses.  What these people had was the fearless witness testimony of Pete that Jesus was the Lord and Messiah who died for their sins and was raised from the dead. That is the gospel message, the good news that the resurrected Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.  Peter’s sermon that day represent what the earliest Christians believed.  These 3,000 people did not benefit from any of the gospels or letters of the New Testament.  No Bible studies, no choir music, no praise music, no priests, no pastors, no saints, no church as we might know it.  And yet these 3,000 people committed themselves to believing in Jesus as Lord and Messiah freeing them from the death of sin.  Simple.

Now we must ask, “What was the so what of this experience?”  Yes, there were 3,000 people who committed their lives to Jesus and the gospel message.  Were these new early believers transformed in any way by and through their commitment?

Luke gives us a little insight to that question.  After the baptisms of these 3,000 people Luke recorded, “42 They [the new disciples] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

 I think there is something important here that we often overlook.  The new disciples’ behaviors were changed by their commitment and belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  First came the commitment with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and then came the change.  These new disciples committed themselves to Jesus and then:

  • Devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching,
  • Devoted themselves to being in fellowship with other believers.
  • Devoted themselves to eating with other believers.
  • Devoted themselves to prayer.
  • Sold possession and property to make sure the physical needs of other believers were taken care of.
  • Went to the Temple every day.
  • Had sincere and glad hearts.
  • Praised God.

First these disciples committed themselves to God through Jesus Christ.  These people got themselves right with God first and then expressed that rightness with other people.

Why am I emphasizing this pattern from Scripture of commitment to God first and an express a transformed life second.  I am doing so because I do not think this is how discipleship is approached in our churches today.  People are much more apt to come to a church and be invited to a church to participate in the outworking of a Christian life.  Unbelievers, seekers, and “I sort of believers,” come to church and in doing so they might become in their minds disciples of Jesus Christ because they:

  • Listened to a sermon or two to see if the pastor makes convincing arguments or is entertaining to them or spiritually fed.  That is much different than being devoted to the Apostles’ teaching,
  • Attend a potluck dinner after service if they don’t have something else to do.  That is much different from being devoted fellowship with other believers.
  • Might attend a dinner at a believer’s home so long as it was convenient.  That is much different from being devoted to eating with other believers.
  • Will sit quietly while someone else prays.  Different again from being devoted to prayer.
  • Will put a couple of dollars in the collection plate.  Far different from selling one’s possession and property to make sure the physical needs of other believers were taken care of.
  • Will not come to church every week. Christmas, Easter, and maybe once every six weeks or so is the norm.  That is way different from going to church every week, never mind every day.
  • Might have gladness in their hearts but their life is not fundamentally changed in which their hearts love God and love other believers all the time with sincerity and they are glad every time they do so.
  • And lastly, and sadly, they will not praise God.  Why not? Because they have no real relationship with God and do not know what it means to call Jesus Lord and Savior because they never committed themselves to Jesus.


Please understand, what I am saying might sound offensive.  I mean no offense.  I am simply stating facts.  I am trying to paint a picture about the way things are when we try in our own strength to live a transformed life with an eye toward someday making a commitment, I mean a genuine commitment to God.  When we approach our faith with transformed behavior first and then commitment to God, that is opposite the pattern of first disciples, two things happen. First, we fail at transforming our own lives no matter how hard we try because we are not strong enough to do so because we would lack the Holy Spirit.  Second, we will not make a genuine commitment to Christ.  We will feel like we sort of have made the commitment and hope that what we have done is enough to please God.  I know this pattern well.  I lived this pattern for many years until one day I surrendered to Jesus.  In some ways, it was like starting over in my walk of faith because this time I was not doing it in my own strength or for anyone other than my Lord and Savior.

          Peter’s words to his listeners were uncomfortable for them to hear but Peter’s words were sincere as he urged his listeners to stop everything they were doing and consider their relationship with God.  I am asking that this week, we all take Peter’s words most seriously and examine ourselves to see if our first priority has been to make a commitment to God through Jesus Christ that in doing so we would be forgiven and granted the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s make sure we follow the Biblical pattern of commitment to God above everything else.  Amen and Amen.

03-24 Washed by Jesus

          We are continuing our journey towards Easter morning by taking one day at a time in the final week of Jesus’ public ministry.  As we have moved our way through the week, we might have noticed that the level of detail and the depth of information that we are receiving for each measure of time is increasing.  I mentioned before that in my Bible there are about 180 pages of material used to describe the three years of Jesus’ ministry.  But of those 180 pages, 11 pages are devoted to the events and discussions at a single meal, Jesus’ final meal with all his disciples. One hundred 180 pages to describe three years.  Eleven of those pages used to describe just four hours.  That fact alone suggests that the events of that meal had a profound effect on the disciples, the gospel writers in particular, and upon the early Christian Church.

          What happened in those four hours?  There were six actions of significance.  First, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Second, Jesus predicted his betrayal by Judas.  Third, Jesus shared bread with his disciples and said it was his body and he shared the cup and said it was his blood.  Fourth, the disciples argued among themselves about which one of them was the greatest. Fifth, Jesus predicted Peter’s denial. And sixth, Jesus gave one final teaching to the disciples.  Each one of these six actions could be the subject of a sermon or two on its own, so I won’t attempt to cover all these actions today.  I will cover some of those actions today, some on this Thursday evening during the Maundy Thursday service and I will leave the balance for another day. So, let’s begin. 

          The meal celebrated by Jesus and his disciples was the Passover meal.  The Passover meal was then and remains today the occasion used by the Jews to remember that God had redeemed the Hebrew people from the Egyptians.  In Jesus’ time, Jews desired to celebrate the meal within the city of Jerusalem.  And Jesus arranged for the Passover meal within the city and made those arrangements through a man whose identity has been lost to history.  In Mark 14, we read that Jesus sent two of his disciples into Jerusalem and look for a man carrying a jar of water.  Jesus told his disciples, “Follow him. 14Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”  16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So, they prepared the Passover” (Mark 14:13b-16).  There is a bit of secrecy and a little clandestine feel to these arrangements.  The disciples do not know the name of the man that they would follow, only that the man would find them, and the disciples would know he was the right man because the man would be carrying a jar of water.  The disciples did not know where they were going.  They only knew that they were to follow the man with the jug of water and go to the house he entered.  Once at the home, the disciples only knew to ask the owner of that home, another man unknown to them, “Where is the upstairs room?”  There was only one person who knew the whole plan and that was Jesus.  Why the secrecy?  Perhaps secrecy was necessary so that this meal happened without interruption by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.  Whatever the reason, the secrecy would have caught the attention of John’s original readers and highlighted to them the importance Jesus placed on this meal.

          Today, we will work with John’s account of this meal.  John wrote, “2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:2-4).  John was making it clear that while the meal appeared to those attending to be another Passover meal, it was so much more than that.  For at this meal sat Jesus, the Son of God and Judas, who had given himself over to Satan.  The presence of Jesus and Satan tells us that a spiritual battle was being fought while the participants ate.  For in and through this meal, the perfect plan of God the Father would be worked out. It was time for Jesus to complete his mission and return to his glory in heaven.  This meal signal the essential points of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

          John said that while the meal was in progress, “4 He [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5).  The custom of that day was that just prior to the Passover meal people immersed themselves in water to bathe and become ritually clean before the meal.  Likely then everyone had bathed.  Once at the house for the meal, a servant of the host of the meal would clean the feet of each guest upon their arrival, meaning the foot washing occurred before meal.  To the original readers of John’s gospel, Jesus rising in the middle of the meal to wash the disciples’ feet would have been a completely unexpected and thought unnecessary. This fact alone would have alerted John’s readers to something important was about to happen in and through the foot washing and that it would reflect insight into the spiritual battle that was underway.

We know something significant was happening because Jesus said as much with his interaction with Peter.  John wrote, “6 He [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:6-7).  Jesus’ reply confirmed that what Jesus is doing is no ordinary foot washing to remove the dusk of the day because Jesus told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing.”  Well, there were two things the disciples realized were happening.  First, their feet were being washed.  Second, the person washing their feet was not a servant but their Lord, Master, and Rabbi, Jesus.  So, Jesus’ words, “You do not realize now what I am doing,” means that physical foot washing by Jesus was not the true significance of the moment. There was something much deeper going on.

We see that after Jesus washed Peter’s feet, Jesus said again, ““Do you understand what I have done for you?”  This is very much the same statement Jesus made before he washed Peter’s feet.  In Scripture, when we read the same or similar statement such as these statements, it is a signal to look hard at the words between those two statements.  This writing technique is called an inclusio.  It is an ancient writing technique used to emphasis the words between the similar statements.  So, let’s look harder at those in between words. 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.  12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (John 13:6-12).

Jesus’ words, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” gives us insight that the physical washing was representative, symbolic of an action Jesus must take on behalf of his disciples and that to refuse Jesus’ offer meant the disciple could not have a relationship with Jesus at all.  Peter and the other disciples did not realize at that moment, but Jesus was pointing them to events that were about to unfold in the spiritual battle that was underway. The events were the fulfilment of the gospel.  The events included Jesus giving his life upon the cross so that the sins of his disciples would be washed away.  The events included Jesus being raised from the dead.  The significance of Jesus foot washing was that Jesus washes away the sins of his disciples.  The disciples would not understand this significance until later, that is after the resurrection appearance of Jesus.

Being washed by the Son of God is to be cleansed of sin.  To be washed by Jesus is to be redeemed from death into life.  Redemption, coming to be right before God the Father, can only happen if Jesus’ washes away sin.  There is no other way.  John would later write about Christians that, “9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us (wash us clean) from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Jesus will continually wipe away our sins as we confess our faith in Him. 

John wrote, “12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their [the disciples’] feet, he [Jesus] put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15). Certainly, Jesus set the example of humble service to others.  This was the common life physical experience.  But we know now that what Jesus did was more than that.  There was the uncommon spiritual experience of Jesus having washed the disciples clean of their sins.  The disciples had been forgiven by Jesus.  The example Jesus then set was that the disciples then was humble service but more than that it was that we must forgive those who sin against us. We must be willing to follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus taught, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will forgive you.   15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15). Peter asked Jesus how often it was necessary to forgive, and Jesus replied, ““I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22), a number to be taken symbolically, not literally, for the never-ending way that we ought to forgive. 

Jesus liked to use parables to illustrate various aspects of forgiveness. During his conversation with Peter, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew18:23-35). Luke’s gospel has a series of five forgiveness parables:  the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9); the bent over woman (Luke 13:10-13); the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7); the lost coin (Luke15:8-10); and the greatest forgiveness parable of all, the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).  Jesus was extremely kind and merciful in the way that he forgave those who sinned against others. Jesus told the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5); when a sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48); when a woman caught in adultery was brought before him, Jesus said to her “Your sins are forgiven” (John 8:11). 

When Jesus had been resurrected and he met with his disciples, John recorded, “21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:21-22).  The first command of Jesus upon his resurrection was to forgive the sins of others.

The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is about forgiveness of sins so as to restore the perfect relationship with God and transform our minds to restore relationships with one another.  Jesus told his disciples “14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet [I have forgiven you], you also should wash one another’s feet [forgive one another]. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).

The message for us today is the same as it was for Jesus’ disciples.  To be part of Jesus, we must accept and allow Him to wash our feet, that is to cleanse us of sin.  There is no alternative.  To be cleansed by Jesus of unrighteousness is to believe that Jesus died for you, that Jesus was buried, and that Jesus rose from the dead.  To have Jesus is to believe in the gospel. 

But it does not end there.  To believe in Jesus and be cleansed of sin, also means that we must wash the feet of one another, that is to forgive one another the sins committed against us.  If we refuse to forgive the sins of another, then we are saying we do not want Jesus to cleanse us.  Let me say that again.  If we refuse to forgive the sins of another, then we are saying we do not want Jesus to cleanse us.  These are not my thoughts; these are Jesus’ thoughts.  Jesus said, “15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15).

We need to ask ourselves, “Do I understand what Jesus did for me at that meal?  Have I allowed Jesus to wash my feet, that is to cleanse me of my sin? Is there some unconfessed sin I need to have washed away?” Jesus stands ready with a basin and a towel ready to cleanse each of us and make us right before God.  Let’s not wait.  Let’s not hesitate.  Let’s be cleansed.  And if we have been cleansed by Jesus, then have we done as Jesus commanded and followed his example?  Is there someone who we have not forgiven in the same manner Jesus forgave us?  If so, then grab your basin and towel and forgive as Jesus has forgiven you.  Let us pray. 

03-17 Anointed for the Gospel

          We are continuing our journey towards Easter morning by taking one day at a time in the final week of Jesus’ public ministry.  We have seen in the preceding Sundays that Jesus focused his public words towards worship of God.  Jesus entered Jerusalem making the pages of the Old Testament come alive as he rode into the city on a donkey.  While the people who traveled with him cheered and the religious leaders jeered, Jesus teared.  Jesus cried as he came to see the sight of Jerusalem because he understood the people did not see, welcome, and worship God’s arrival. 

The next day, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and cleared the Temple of the buyers and sellers of animals and moneychangers.  Jesus with great force of authority stopped the sacrificial offerings in the Temple and again made the voices of the Old Testament prophets heard again, “The house of the Lord is a place of prayer for all nations!” “Yet, you have made it into a den of robbers.”  Worship of God as it had become was fruitless and destined to wither and die. 

On the subsequent day, Jesus taught the people and fought the religious leaders in the Temple.  In a pinnacle moment, Jesus taught the religious leaders plainly through a story of the wicked tenants that he knew they would soon kill him.  But God would judge them for their refusal to accept Jesus as his Son.  Jesus said all the religious leaders would be swept away and the reigns of worship would be handed over to the most unlikely of people, an odd collection of men that Jesus called his apostles.

Now, today, what we would call the Wednesday of Passion Week, the time for public entrances and public teaching was closing.  The time now was for private matters among friends and family members.  And amid the intimate gatherings the coming Jesus’ death was never far away.  For on this day, two pinnacle events occurred. First, Jesus was anointed as an act of love.  Jesus said the anointing was for his burial by a woman that loved him and understood Jesus was the resurrection and the life.  The second event, Jesus was betrayed by one he loved because Jesus’ betrayer no longer saw Jesus as the earthly king he so wanted.  Love is such an intense and intimate human experience, and it seems to intensify and become more pronounced the nearer the person we love is to death.  The nearness of death strips away our inhibitions and the masks we wear that normally give us the appearance of calmness.  Instead, whatever we want from or for the person we love becomes raw and unashamed.

That intensity of love was shown to Jesus in the anointing of his body.  Each gospel writer spoke of an anointing of Jesus body.  In the four gospel accounts, it seems to me clear that there were two different anointings of Jesus.  One anointing, reported by Luke, occurred in the vicinity of the town of Nain, in Galilee, early in Jesus’ ministry.  The second anointing of Jesus, reported by Mark, Matthew, and John, occurred in Bethany, near Jerusalem, during the last week of Jesus’ mortal life.  I also believe the first anointing of Jesus served as a model for the second anointing.

In the first anointing of Jesus, Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to a dinner by a Pharisee.  During dinner, a woman with a reputation as a sinner, likely meaning a prostitute, arrived at the house where the dinner was being held because she knew Jesus was going to be present.  When the woman was finally in Jesus’ presence, she began to cry.  So hard was this woman crying that she began to cover Jesus’ feet with her tears.

Crying is unique to humans.  Other beings on this earth may express emotions but they do not express such emotions with tears.  We humans are the only beings to cry to express our emotions.  What was emotion was this woman experienced in Jesus’ presence? I think this woman experienced a series of emotions as she felt her life being transformed.  At first, the woman entered the room, no doubt receiving a stare of disgust from the dinner’s host, Simon, and she received a look of acceptance by Jesus.  That began the tears.  This woman while scorned by sinful men was accepted by the one holy man.  In the presence of holiness, the woman realized how sin is an affront to God and yet God welcomes the sinner to come to him. In that realization the woman repented of her past and cried because she now knew she could stay in the presence of holiness.  With a repentant heart, the woman wiped Jesus’ tear wetted feet with her hair, kiss them, and then anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume.  As she did these things for Jesus she cried because she came to realize that her sins had been forgiven, not in part but in the whole. Forgiveness frees us from the pain of the past and the hopelessness of the future.

Simon, a sinful man himself and host of the dinner, saw all that happened, but Simon did so without seeing.  Simon could not see the forgiveness of sins.  Simon could only see a disgusting impure sinner touching a man, and believed that in touching Jesus, this woman made Jesus impure. Simon did not understand that a sinner touching holiness does not change or stain holiness.  A sinner touching holiness changes the sinner.  Jesus understood what had happened and said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50).  The woman’s act of love toward Jesus through her anointing of Jesus’ feet with tears and perfume and her transformation life from sin.  This was an important story for those following Jesus and was no doubt told and retold many times.

Then just days before Jesus’ death, another woman, had the opportunity to anoint Jesus, and that anointing was described for us in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  Today, I would like us to look at the account in Mark, since Mark’s was the first gospel produced.  Mark said the Jesus was in Bethany, just two days away from Passover, which we know would be the day for Jesus’ death.  Mark wrote, “While he [Jesus] was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, [a man different than Simon the Pharisee], a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his [Jesus’] head” (Mark 14:3).  John added some details in his account saying that the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume did so on his feet and then wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair filling the whole house with the fragrance of the perfume. John said the woman was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, a very dear friend of Jesus, a friend Jesus had days earlier raised from the dead.

The woman, we will say, Mary, anointed Jesus and in many ways reenacting the behaviors of the woman from Jesus’ first anointing except that Mary here did not express any tears.  Why not? Because unlike the first anointer, Mary, had been a believer in Jesus.  Mary had sat at the feet of Jesus and came to know him.  Mary witnessed the power of Jesus over life and death and that Jesus chose life for others.  Mary had a desire to show her love for Jesus not with an outpouring of tears but with an outpouring of extravagance.  Mary poured out a perfume worth a year’s wages.  To Mary she imitated the first anointer by expressing her love with extravagance, a treasure.

Mark said, “Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her [Mary] harshly (Mark 14:4-5).  John’s gospel was more specific.  John seems to indicate the loudest voice among the critics was that of Judas Iscariot.  John added Judas complained not on behalf of the poor but because Judas wanted to steal some of the money from the sale of the perfume for himself.  Either way, Mary saw her action as an expression of love through an extravagant gift.  The disciples saw Mary’s actions as a waste of money.

We have once again a single act involving Jesus viewed sharply two different ways. Here, we had one person doing something they believed was loving Jesus, someone they saw as of God, as the resurrection and the life.  The others saw the same act as senseless, emotional, and wasteful of money.  This is a common pattern all throughout the journey of Jesus and particularly in this final week.  The people praised Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and the Pharisees called on Jesus to rebuke them.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus shared with his followers the key to understanding actions, particularly those that involve treasure.  Luke wrote, “16 And he [Jesus] told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  18 “Then he [Jesus] said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’  20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

From the parable, Jesus wanted his followers to choose to be rich in their relationship with God placing their love of God above anything else.  Be rich toward God.  This was the message of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem – be rich toward God and worship him. This was the message of the temple clearing – be rich toward God, stop using the Temple to enrich yourselves. This was the message of the teachings in the Temple the day before – be rich toward God.  Stop producing fruit just for yourselves.

Mary was trying in her own way to be rich toward God by anointing Jesus in a way that showed her great love for him.  The disciples cared more about human treasure and saw the extravagance towards God as a waste.

Jesus’ response to this scene gives clarity to what had transpired.  Jesus said told his disciples “She has done a beautiful thing to me…She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:6-9 selections).  Jesus’ response was unexpected.  Jesus said Mary’s love was not only generous but was necessary - necessary to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  But wait. Bodies are prepared for burial only after someone has died.  Jesus was very much physically alive. 

What then do we make of Jesus’ statement that his body has been made ready for burial?  I believe the key is in what Jesus said next, “Whenever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Mark 14:9).  Jesus was signaling the anointing marked the end of his public ministry and the beginning of the core of the gospel message.  From this point forward, Jesus would speak and act gospel message.  What is the gospel, the good news?  Namely, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.  The heart of the gospel had started with the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial.

Surprisingly, none of the gospel accounts describe any questions of Jesus about his body being readied for burial.  No one seems to have asked, “Jesus, what do you mean Mary anointed you body for burial?  What burial? When?  Why?”

Instead of asking Jesus to clarify what he meant, Mark wrote, “10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They [The chief priests] were delighted to hear this and promised to give him [Judas] money. So he [Judas] watched for an opportunity to hand him [Jesus] over [to the chief priests]” (Mark 14:10-11). Matthew says Judas received 30 pieces of silver.

Judas having witnessed an extravagance of love toward Jesus chose that moment to betray Jesus into the hands of the chief priests.  The chief priests were the very people Jesus had told the disciples on three prior occasions (e.g., Mark 8:11-12; 9:30-32; 10:33-34) would kill him.  If Judas had been paying attention to Jesus’ words, then Judas must have known his betrayal of Jesus would end in Jesus’ death.  What would cause Judas to betray Jesus?  Luke says Satan had entered Judas and Judas decided to betray Jesus.  This does not mean Judas was possessed by Satan and therefore, no long accountable for his actions.  Satan entered Judas meant that Judas who it seems had been drifting away from Christ, as evidenced by his stealing from the moneybag, saw in Jesus’ anointing the last straw.  Judas must have thought whatever pleasures or power he thought he was going to get for himself from Jesus was not going to happen.  Rather than just walk away, Judas opted instead to get some money for his troubles.  The chief priests would be willing to pay for Judas’ help.  Judas’ conduct is as shocking to the reader as Mary’s anointing. Mary showed great love toward Jesus by anointing Jesus extravagantly with perfume costing a year’s wages. Judas showed great bitterness toward Jesus by betraying Jesus for a month’s wages.  Time and again, the gospel writers show us the contrasts in behavior of those who seek to worship God and those who seek to reject God.

What then do we take from these stories of contrast?  I do not think it is hard to see that the closer you come to knowing the person of Jesus, you will either love him or hate him.  Now there are many people who would say, “I know of Jesus, but I do not hate him, I just do not believe in him.”  But they would be missing the point.  To not love Jesus is to hate him.

There simply is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus.  This is not my thought.  This is Jesus’ thought.  Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Jesus then said, “21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (John 14:21).  To not love Jesus is to hate him.

After the resurrection, Jesus spoke with Peter.  15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”  16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”  17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).  To not love Jesus is to hate him. 

Mary loved the Lord extravagantly.  Do we love Jesus extravagantly or do we just love him every so often when we think of him?  Do we love Jesus like the sinful woman because we are forgiven and transformed, or do we love Jesus only on Sunday when we want others to think we have been transformed?  Love the Lord your God.  Do not do as Judas did and allow some bitterness to keep you from love.  Remove whatever is in your way and anoint Jesus extravagantly with your love.  Let us pray. 

03-10 Kingdom Authority

          We are continuing our journey through each day of what many in the Christian community now call Holy Week or Passion Week.  Two Sundays ago, we spoke about Jesus’ decision to make an unmistakable entrance to Jerusalem and weeping that people missed their opportunity to worship God. Last Sunday, we spoke about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and Jesus clearing the Temple.  In clearing the Temple, Jesus indicted the religious leaders with changing God’s house into a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer as God desired where people could be in worship of God.  Jesus’ actions and words were most unwelcomed by the religious leaders, and they furthered their plot to kill him.  But the religious leaders feared the people who were growing more and more attached and attracted to Jesus.

          Today, we find Jesus coming from rest at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany and returning to the Temple.  Jerusalem and the Temple were the heart of Judaism this Passover week and what should be the heart of worship of God.

          We spoke about worship in the prior weeks, but it bears mentioning again.  Worship of God is at the heart, the very core, of the relationship between God and humanity.  When God through Moses went to Pharoah to release the Hebrew people, Moses stood before Pharoah and said, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me!” (Exodus 7:16)  Worship is at the heart of our relationship with God.  While God wants, and yes commands us to care for the poor, God does not judge humanity based upon how many social justice initiatives it has or has not pursued.  Instead, God’s judgement comes exists because our worship is absent or corrupt.  And God knows that if we are not acting with generosity and grace towards those in need, it is because there is something wrong with our worship of God.  Jesus, therefore, returns to Jerusalem again and goes directly to the place where worship is publicly expressed, the Temple, there to teach, to warn, and to encourage worship of God.

          In the Gospel of Mark, we would read that the religious leaders were ready for Jesus’ return.  “27 They [Jesus and his disciples] arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you [Jesus] doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you [Jesus] authority to do this?”  29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”  31 They [The religious leaders] discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) 33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”  Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Mark 11:28-33) Jesus gave the religious leaders a simple question that had only two possible answers.  Either John the Baptist was sent as a prophet by God or John created his message and baptismal practices on his own.  It seems clear the religious leaders believed that John’s baptism was of human origin, not of God.  We know this for two reasons.  First, the religious leaders did not believe John’s message of repentance because they did not repent.  But, secondly, they did not want to say John was of human origin because they feared the people who believed John was from God.  So, when caught in a difficult circumstance in which no matter what answer they gave to that question, the religious leaders felt trapped, they did what most people would do.  They lied. They said, “We don’t know.”  Jesus having exposed them as either liars or fools had no reason to engage them in discussion of the source of his authority. And so he said he would not answer their question about his authority to clear the Temple or teach, warn, and encourage.

          Instead of answering their question directly, Jesus sought to explain to the religious leaders his authority and their behavior toward his authority through a parable.  This was unusual because when Jesus spoke in parables he did so to his followers so that the meaning of his teaching to be hidden from the religious leaders because they believed Jesus was not of God but of the devil.  This time, however, Jesus told a parable and did so in a manner that the religious leaders would understand.  I will be using the account in the Gospel of Mark as our starting point.

          Mark wrote, “1Jesus then began to speak to them [the religious leaders] in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower.’” This briefest of introductions would have been well known to the religious leaders for two reasons. First, there were plenty of vineyards in Israel that looked like the one Jesus described.  They could easily visualize what Jesus has described.  Second, the imagery of the vineyard, wall, winepress, and watchtower was used in the Hebrew scriptures, known well to the religious leaders, as a way to describe Israel itself in relationship to God. For example, from Isaiah Chapter 5 we would read, “My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.  2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.  He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well” (Isaiah 5:1b-2). It is understood here that God is the one who did the work to create the vineyard and Israel is the vineyard.  The religious leaders would have understood the imagery to the opening of Jesus’ parable and now so do we.

          Jesus continued, “Then he [the owner] rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.  (Luke said the owner went away for a long time.) 2 At harvest time he [owner] sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they [the tenants] seized him [the owner’s servant], beat him and sent him away empty-handed.”  The tenant farmers treated the owner’s representative shamefully, literally punching him repeatedly with their fists, and sending him away without anything that was due to the owner.  The religious leaders would have understood this was criminal behavior and the tenants were in violation of their agreement with the owner.  There would have been a sense of outrage growing among the listeners to the behavior of the tenants.

          Jesus continued, “4Then he [the owner] sent another servant to them [tenants]; they [tenants] struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully” (Mark 12:4). Again, a second servant had been sent and this time they did not just punch the man but tried to smash his skull. The tenants sent the man away without any fruit.  The religious leaders listening to this story must have been rightly infuriated at the behavior of the tenants and thought swift justice and punishment is in order.

Jesus continued, “5 He [the owner] sent still another [servant], and that one they [the tenants] killed. He [the owner] sent many others; some of them [servants] they [the tenants] beat, others [servants] they [the tenants] killed” (Mark 12:5).  By now the religious leaders must have thought these farmers deserve capital punishment for killing these servants.  They must have also thought, “What sort of man is this owner that he keeps sending more and more servants back to these farmers in the hopes that they would change their behavior?  Why doesn’t this owner simply seek the authorities to wipe out these farmers for their murderous behavior?”

Jesus continued, “6 He [The owner] had one [servant] left to send, a son, whom he loved. He [The owner] sent him [the son] last of all, saying, ‘They [The tenants] will respect my son’” (Mark 12:6).  The son arrived at the vineyard and made his presence as the son unmistakably known. The tenants understood this man was no ordinary servant.  This man had the power and authority of the father.  This man, the son, could render judgement upon the farmers for their behaviors. This man, the son, had the power and the authority to remove them from the vineyard.  This man, the son, was the only son.  This man was the only one who could inherit the vineyard from the father.

And so, Jesus said, “7 The tenants said to one another, [The tenants conspired among themselves], ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours’” (Mark 12:7). These murderous tenant farmers conspired among themselves that if they were to kill this son, then the vineyard would be theirs to do as they pleased forever.  They believed they would be safe within the walls of the vineyard.

“8 So they [the tenants] took him [the son] and killed him, and threw him [body] out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:8).  The tenants had not only failed to uphold their end of the contract, but they beat and killed servants of the owner, and then had the arrogance and hatred toward the owner to the degree that they would kill the vineyard owner’s own son.  And then to add insult to the owner, the tenants threw the son’s body out of the vineyard to be exposed to the elements as though he was trash.

Jesus then asked the religious leaders, “9 ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others’” (Mark 12:9).  The religious leaders would have understood that such outrageous and murderous behavior would end in the death of the tenants.  Jesus’ question and answer was not a surprise to them. They agreed with Jesus.  So, what then was the purpose of Jesus’ parable if there was nothing to be learned from it?

The purpose of the parable was to get the religious leaders’ minds aligned with Jesus’ mind on a story, so that Jesus could next show the religious leaders through Scripture how they missed the opportunity God had presented to them.

Jesus said, “10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: ‘‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10-11).  The Scripture Jesus quoted here is not just some random piece of Scripture.  Jesus’ words, ‘‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes,” comes from the latter part of Psalm 118.  These words are particularly well known to the religious leaders because Psalms 113 through 118 form a hymn called the Hallel.  The Hallel was a hymn sung at religious festivals, like Passover, three times per day.  Jesus was saying to these religious leaders, “You sing these words of Scripture repeatedly every day but you don’t understand that these words of prophesy are coming true before your very eyes.  You have rejected me, God’s cornerstone as thoroughly and completely as the tenants had rejected the owner’s son and the servants before him. You know and agree with the fate of those murderous tenants and now you know your fate as well.”

Mark wrote that upon hearing the Scripture, “12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away” (Mark 12:12). 

And so we too come to understand what the religious leaders came to realize that in the parable is that the vineyard owner was God, the vineyard was Israel, God’s people, the tenants were the religious leaders themselves, the servants were the prophets sent by God, and the owner’s son was Jesus.  The religious leaders of Israel had a history of abusing and killing God’s prophets and now Jesus told them they would do the same with Jesus.  But the fate of the religious leaders was death and the responsibility for the vineyard, God’s people, would be given to others.

What are we to do with this parable and this Scripture?  I think there are two things.  First, we might ask, “What became of these Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes?”  The historical truth is that they all perished, and their entire sacrificial system and way of life was destroyed completely.  Why did that happen?  Because they chose to remain under the condemnation of the Law, they rejected God’s Son, and did not accept the grace of God Jesus offered.  Nothing has changed.  The story, the fate, for those who chose to reject God, who refuse to worship God, who mock the grace offered by God through His Son, Jesus, remains timeless and unchanged.  They remain condemned under the Law.  That sounds hard and harsh, but it is not of God’s choosing, it is the choice many people willingly make to remain in unresolved, unforgiven sin.  Jesus’ parable from 2,000 years ago remains a warning to today’s unbeliever.

The second point is this. A new set of tenants became responsible for God’s people and vineyard.  The first of those new tenants were this odd collection of fishermen, tax collectors, and other commoners known as Jesus’ apostles.  The chief cornerstone of the vineyard and kingdom was and remains Jesus Christ, who is the one who offers grace to any, to all, who want to become part of the vineyard, the kingdom of God.  The vineyard, the kingdom, is place in which the fruit is developed and matured.  What is that fruit of God’s vineyard?  It is certainly worship and prayer.  It is certainly confession and supplication to God.  It is certainly the sweet fruit of humility, meekness, hospitality, and encouragement.  It is as Paul would later say, “Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  The vineyard, the kingdom, is a place of transformed lives because each member of the vineyard has available to them the mind of Christ, through the Spirit of the Lord, who gives an inner peace unlike the world.

Where do you see yourself in Jesus’ parable? Have you rejected the chief cornerstone of the vineyard, Jesus Christ, by not yet accepting the grace He has offered you?  Why? What is keeping you from choosing Christ?  Lay it aside and come into the vineyard of God’s people.  If you have accepted Christ and claim to be within the vineyard, what fruit are you producing?  How are you cultivating that fruit to make it more abundant and sweeter every day?  Let the grace of Jesus envelop and encourage you, giving you zeal and stamina to yield to God the very best of the vineyard. Amen and Amen.

03-03-My House Is for All People

          We are continuing our journey through each day of what many in the Christian community now call Holy Week or Passion Week.  Last Sunday, we spoke about Jesus’ decision to make an unmistakable entrance to Jerusalem. Crowds saw Jesus as the king come to establish a restored earthly kingdom of Israel.  The Pharisees and Sadducees saw Jesus as a threat to their status, the Temple itself, and to the nation of Israel.  Jesus saw His entry into Jerusalem as a cause for grieving because everyone missed seeing God was among them.  It was a very emotional day for everyone.

After resting for the evening in Bethany, a town about 2 miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples retraced their steps back to Jerusalem on the next morning, what we would now call Monday.  On this day, there would be no riding on a donkey, no palm waving crowds, and no encounters with the Pharisees along the route to the city. But it would be a tremendously passionate week and one that would have much meaning for the people then and for us now.

What exactly happened on Monday?  While the gospels differ somewhat in the sequence of events, it seems clear that two things of significance happened.  One event was private to Jesus and his disciples, and it involved a fig tree.  The other event was very public and involved a temporary stop to sacrificial activities with the Temple of Jerusalem.  These very different events had a common message.  We will look at the fig tree event first, then the Temple activities, and then conclude with the fig tree.

I want to use the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, as our primary source of events for this day.  In looking at Mark, we will find that Mark presented his readers with what some theologians call, “A Goldened Oreo Cookie.”  Mark uses Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree as the outer layer of the cookie, the events in the Temple as the sweet filling of the cookie, and then uses Jesus’ second encounter with the fig tree as the remaining layer of the cookie.  What even kids understand is that the center of the Oreo cookie is the main attraction. Our conversation will follow similar lines with the Temple clearing as the center of Jesus’ activities.

The gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus left Bethany, Jesus became hungry.  Seeing a fig tree in the distance, Jesus went to find out if the tree had any fruit.  This is Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree. When Jesus reached the tree, he found the tree had nothing but leaves, because Mark says it was not the season for figs.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples heard Jesus say to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14).  In reading the account of Jesus and the fig tree in the Gospel of Matthew, we would find no commentary about Jesus’ state of hunger, or on whether it was fig season.  But we do have Jesus saying to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again” (Matthew 21:19). Neither Luke nor John recount an event with a fig tree in their gospels.  What is going on here that the original readers of Mark and Matthew would have understood? 

First, fig trees, in and around Jerusalem, sprout leaves in March and yield two types of figs.  The early figs appear as knobs on the older branches.  Those early figs appear before the tree sprouts new leaves.  The early figs are not ripe until late spring.  The second figs appear on new branches in late spring and are harvested from August to October.  The fig tree described in the gospels was full with leaves so the tree could have or should have been early figs as knobs on the old branches of the tree.  But the tree did not have any early figs, and did not have summer figs because it was not yet the season for summer figs.  The tree only looked inviting with its leaves, but it bore no fruit. 

Second, the first readers of this story, the Jewish ones in particular, would know that fig trees and figs relate to Old Testament prophecies about God’s judgement upon Israel.  The prophet Jeremiah is most relatable here.  Jeremiah said that God would judge Israel for being unfaithful.  In that judgement, Jeremiah said, “13 I [God] will take away their harvest”, declares the Lord.  “There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them” (Jeremiah 8:13). Jesus’ encounter with a barren fig tree sets the stage and helps the disciples recall that God will judge Israel for unfaithfulness. Jesus’ words in this encounter with the fig tree reinforce that sense that a divine pronouncement of judgement has been made against Israel. 

Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree may seem like a small episode of prophesy but as the outer layer of cookie, this encounter was preparing the reader for something much more important to follow.  There was coming a greater encounter and reminder of God’s judgement as the group moved forward to the Temple.

After the encounter with the fig tree, Mark reported Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and made his way to the Temple and its outer courts.  The Temple was the prized centerpiece of the Jewish religion and its sacrificial practices.  The Temple at this time had just completed a 46 year long rebuilding program to make its splendor pronounced and awe inspiring.  This week of celebrating the Passover, the Temple was busy with visits with Jews from across the known world.  Mark said that as Jesus entered the outer court of the Temple, Jesus acted decisively and without warning.  As soon as Jesus enter the Temple courts, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there” (Mark 11:15a).  What were they selling?  Namely, there were people selling and buying sheep and cattle for sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus drove them all out the Temple court, the buyers, the sellers, the cattle, and the sheep.  Jesus here ended the buying and selling of sacrifices in the Temple.

Mark then said, “Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers” (Mark 11:15b). Moneychangers were there to exchange pagan coins, for a fee, for the silver coins made by the Temple authorities and acceptable for offerings to the Temple.  Jesus sent the coins of the world and the coins of the Temple scattering and mixing across the courts of the Temple, effective ending the exchange of money.

Mark then said Jesus overturned the tables of “those selling doves” (Mark 11:15b). Doves were reserved for sale to the poor to offer as sacrifice in the Temple.  Here too, the tables with the coins from dove sales were overturned effectively ending the sales of doves.

Then Mark said, “And [Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts” (Mark 11:16).  Everything associated with the sacrifices within the Temple ended abruptly on that Monday. With everyone’s attention focused on Jesus, Jesus said this, ““Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).  “Is it not written,” is another way of saying, “You know that it is written,” it is written in the Old Testament, the prophesies of Isaiah of God’s desire for the Temple and Jeremiah of God’s judgement upon violators of God’s desire.

First, let’s look at Isaiah, Chapter 56. God revealed through the voice of Isaiah God’s desire for the Temple.  God said the house bearing His name would be open to all, Jews and foreigners, who would bind themselves to the Lord, who would love the Name of the Lord, who would serve the Lord, who would keep the Sabbath, who would hold fast to God’s promises. Each person would be accepted and honored within this Temple, for God’s temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.”  But Jesus observed that it was not a house of prayer for all nations, because not all were welcomed.  First, non-Jews were excluded.  In the context of that period, how could the non-Jewish world encounter God and revere him without being able to access God’s house?  There was no alternative to them.  Second, even Jews could not access the Temple without spending money on sacrificial animals and without providing a separate Temple tax.  God’s house was no longer as God desired, God’s house was a money making machine.

Through Jeremiah we would hear the prophetic words of judgment for failing to do as God desired.  “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.  9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord (Jeremiah 7:2b-11)

          Jesus words, “den of robbers,” invokes all what God had said through Jeremiah with a recognition that the leaders of the Temple were engaged in worthless and useless activities designed primarily to line their pockets with money.  The leaders of the Temple, Sadducees and Pharisees, were acting as though the Temple was a safe haven that shielded them from accountability.

          The combined effect of Jesus’ actions and statements in the Temple were to first stop all sacrifices and offering of gifts to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why?  Because worship of God was to be and must be for everyone without regard to giving favor to any man.  Second, the leaders of the people were charged and indicted as mere robbers who conspired with each other to impoverish the people they were supposed to lead.  The call upon them to “Repent” had gone unanswered and now God’s judgement would be upon them. 

Did the leaders repent?  Not at all.  Instead, the religious leaders were furious at Jesus’ actions and words vowing among themselves with murderous breaths to kill Jesus just as soon as they could do so secretly for the leaders feared the people. 

This is the sweet part of the Golden Oreo cookie – the very heart of the day.  Jesus clearing of the Temple and proclamation that God was to be worshipped by all was the central message on Palm Sunday and was the central message of this day.  Worship of God cannot and must not be restricted and turned into a money-making machine.

          After this encounter and the indictment of the religious leaders the Jesus and his disciples returned to rest in Bethany.  The ending of the story occurs with a return to the fig tree which in the gospel of Mark occurs the following morning.  In the gospel of Matthew, the conclusion of the fig tree occurs on the same day as the first encounter with the fig tree.  The conclusion with the fig tree is very much the second cookie of the Oreo as it draws emphasis to the filing in the middle, namely, the cleansing of the Temple.

          Mark wrote that when Jesus and the disciples encountered the fig tree again, “20b They saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”  The judgement upon the fig tree was symbolic of the judgement coming upon the unrepentant religious leaders and their fruitless worship practices.  Like the fig tree with its lush leaves was very much like the adorned Temple and practices of the Sadducees and Pharisees.  Both were fruitless.  The return to the fig tree finding the tree withered was symbolic of what would happen to the Temple and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  The day was coming in which that whole system would wither and die.  As we mentioned last week, that happened in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  Since that time, nearly 2,000 years there has been no buying and selling of cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices.  There have been no moneychangers.  No merchandise that needed to be moved.  The system of the Temple simply withered and died.

          The heart of the story of the fig tree and the Temple is again the worship of God. God desires earnest prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer that we recite calls us towards ACTS.  In prayer, we offer Adoration of God.  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Holy be your name over all the earth.  It is an act of worship to adore God.  In prayer, we offer Confession to God.  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We are acknowledging to God the need for our forgiveness and restoration.  It is an act of worship to confess to God.  In prayer, we offer Thanksgiving to God.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are giving thanks to all that God has provided to us, is providing, and will provide to us.  It is an act of worship to give thanks to God.  In prayer we give to God our Supplication, our requests.  “Give this day our daily bread…Lead us not into temptation.” We are asking God to sustain our bodies and protect our souls.  It is an act of worship to ask God for mortal and eternal protection.

          God’s house shall be a house of prayer, a place of worship, where we are free to adore God, confess to God, give thanks to God, and seek God’s help.  Jesus’ clearing of the Temple was to show what God desired from people of all nations, simple, unencumbered worship.

          Let us then be glad that we are here today in God’s house cleared by Jesus so that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can worship our wonderful Father and our Savior his Son.  Amen and Amen.