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02-11 - Who Is This Jesus

          For nearly three years, Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter or laborer by trade, had walked the lands of Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and modern-day Lebanon.  Throughout those three years, Jesus met with and preached to thousands of people, fed thousands of people, healed hundreds if not thousands of people of blindness, deafness, paralysis, bleeding, demonic possession, and he even raised at least three people from the dead.  During those three years, Jesus spoke plainly and bluntly to his critics and spoke in parables to those who followed him about the kingdom of God.  Those who met Jesus agreed on one thing; no one had ever met anyone like Jesus before. Some of those who met Jesus, including his family, thought at times that Jesus was mentally ill.  His harshest critics thought Jesus was possessed by an evil spirit or was none other than Beelzebub, the master of demons.  Some who were fond of Jesus thought he was a miracle worker, a prophet of God, the new king of Israel or even the beloved John the Baptist brought back to life.  A few believed Jesus’ own words about himself that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God and that the Messiah was the Son of God himself.  All were left with the question, “Who is this Jesus?” With differing and competing views of Jesus, how could people come to know who Jesus was and what he wanted from them? I believe the last week of Jesus’ journey was dedicated to answering that question once and for all time.

          The task of telling the story of Jesus’ journey, including his last week, would eventually come to rest upon four men.  Each man wrote their own short book, called a gospel, meaning the good news, about Jesus’ journey.  They never assigned their names to their gospels.  The oldest of these books people would come to believe was written by a man named Mark, sometimes also called John Mark.  Mark was a protégé of Jesus’ close friend and apostle, Simon Peter, who gave Mark direction on what to write.  The second gospel was believed produced by a man named Matthew, who was previously known as Levi, a tax collector, a disciple of Jesus.  Matthew, wrote his gospel primarily for Jewish people hoping to help the Jewish people come to faith in Christ.  The third gospel was believed authored by Luke, a physician by trade.  Luke, as far as we know, never met Jesus.  How then did Luke write about Jesus?  Luke did so by collecting documents from others such as Mark and Matthew as well as collecting eyewitness testimony.  One of those people Luke met was a woman named Mary, Jesus’ mother. Finally, there was a man named John who historians say wrote the last gospel account of Jesus’ journey.  John, like Matthew, had been on the journey with Jesus. John’s gospel account was different from those of Mark, Matthew, and Luke in that John wrote extensively about the relationship of Jesus and God the Father.

          All tolled the gospel writers compiled about 180 pages of material on Jesus’ 3-year journey.  But of these 180 pages, about 64 pages were dedicated to just one week of time, the last week of Jesus’ journey.  Over 1/3 of everything written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John concerned itself with that final week, eight days to be precise, from what we call Palm Sunday to what we call Easter Sunday.  The events of Jesus’ final week were to become the center of the preaching of the early church as well (Acts 2:23-36; 3:13-26; 1 Corinthians 15:1-7).  It follows then that we ought to spend some time exploring these eight days to understand what happened, how God was revealed, what was the “so what” of the events on those days, and then finally, now what are we going to do with our understanding of those eight days.  Therefore, I would like to take each day in turn over the next eight weeks beginning today with what we now call Palm Sunday.

          What exactly happened on the day we call Palm Sunday?  That day began with Jesus in residence in the town of Bethany, about 2 miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18).  The house where Jesus stayed was that of his friend’s Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus.  The time of the Passover festival was just days away and the number of Jewish pilgrims flowing into Jerusalem from all parts of the known world was steadily increasing.  Some scholars believe as many as 200,000 or more people would flow into the city for Passover.

          Amid the movement of the people, there was also movement of stories of Jesus with one story getting much attention.  People were excitedly retelling the story of the death of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus, who after four days in the tomb, was brought back to life at the command of Jesus. Four days Lazarus was dead.  This was a significant detail because many Jews would leave the tomb open for three days after the death in case the mourners were mistaken, and the person was not dead.  And many Jews believed the spirit of the deceased person remained near the body for three days before departing.  Jesus arrived on the fourth day.  Lazarus was dead, his spirit was gone, and the tomb sealed.  Jesus ordered the tomb unsealed but Martha, Lazarus’ sister, protested because she knew the stench of death from Lazarus’ decaying body would be overwhelming.  And despite the reality of Lazarus’ condition, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead with restored spirit and a restored body.  The gospel of John tells us, “17 Now the crowd that was with him [Jesus] when he [Jesus] called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him [Lazarus] from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he [Jesus] had performed this sign, went out to meet him [Jesus]. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him [Jesus]!’” (John 12:17-19).

          And so, this day began with growing excitement among the people at the restoration of life to Lazarus, the excitement of following Jesus, and the opportunity of sharing this news with the thousands of pilgrims flowing into the city of Jerusalem.  And for these very same reasons, there was a growing fear among the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, that Jesus was making them and their traditions irrelevant, unnecessary, even burdensome to the people.

          Out of fear, John said in his gospel, “47 The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’  49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish’ (John 11:47-50)…“ 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his [Jesus’] life” (John 11:53)…“57 The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him” (John 11:57).  Finally, “10 The chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him [Lazarus] many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him [Jesus]” (John 12:50-51).

          And so, this day began with two groups of passionate people.  There were those following Jesus who were excited at what Jesus had accomplished and the power Jesus displayed.  The people’s excitement spilled over with the prospect that Jesus, this week of Passover, this week of celebrating the liberation of the Jews from Pharoah of Egypt, would become their king and free the Jews from the Emperor of Rome.  The mood among many people was electric.

          Then there was the other passionate group of the Sanhedrin who were fearful that Jesus would make everything the people hoped occur.  The Sanhedrin, the best and the brightest of society, decided to resolve their concerns by become murderers.  They would murder Jesus to end the excitement.  They would murder Lazarus to end the story of Jesus’ marvelous works. They set their traps and watches to make sure that Jesus would be found and not enter the city unnoticed.

          Amid the excitement and fear, there was Jesus.  Jesus had a plan for this day.  Jesus’ plan was to live out the promises of God’s Word.  I like that expression.  Jesus’ plan was to live out the promises of God’s Word.  Can you imagine for a moment if someone came up to you and said, “How are you?  What have you been up to lately?”  To which you reply, “I am fine.  What have I been up to?  I have been living out the promises of God’s Word.”  Now, that is a conversation starting response or a conversation ending response.  Either way, we would be following Jesus, for on this day, Jesus would be living out the promises of God’s Word.

          How exactly did Jesus intend to live out God’s Word?  Jesus told his disciples that they were going into the city of Jerusalem.  Only this time, instead of walking quietly and unassumingly into the city as they had done whenever they traveled these past three years, today would be different.  Today, Jesus asked his disciples to make ready a donkey for Jesus to ride into the city.  Today, Jesus would make sure he was noticed coming into the city.

          Jesus mounted the donkey and began the ride into Jerusalem.  Jesus was living out the promise of the Old Testament, God’s Word, from the prophet Zechariah who wrote, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!  Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!  See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:5; cf. Zechariah 9:9).  Zechariah said the purpose of the king coming on the foal of donkey was to break the instruments of war, to proclaim peace, to establish a covenant in blood, to free people from hopelessness, to announce the restoration of the soul, and to save the people. (Zechariah 9:10-16).

          Luke said the people responded.  “The whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (Luke 19:37b).  Mark said, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields” (Mark 11:8).  John said, the people began shouting “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13). The excitement of the people overflowed for they believed their king had arrived.

          The religious leaders hearing the commotion came swiftly to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” (Luke 19:39).  Fear caused the Pharisees to seek Jesus to silence the joyful voices.  The Pharisees were saying, “Please Jesus, make these people stop shouting.  Make them stop being excited about you.”  Fear chokes joy.

          Jesus’ response was simple and yet likely sent a shockwave of terror into the Pharisees.  “I tell you, he replied [Jesus said], “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40).  There are two ways to see Jesus’ response.  First, a simple reading.  Jesus’ words sound like, “If you Pharisees fear the people’s joy over Lazarus’ return from the dead and my entry to Jerusalem, consider how they would react if I caused the rocks themselves to begin to sing!”  The second reading is a bit speculative, but the possibility is intriguing.  Luke said this scene played out very near Jerusalem down from the Mount of Olives. It is in this location there sits a very large ancient cemetery.  The Jews believed that it in this cemetery the Resurrection of the Dead would begin with the Messiah appearing on the Mount of Olives and head toward the Temple Mount. Perhaps Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, “If you are concerned with the songs of the people now, consider how you would feel about the dead raising from the stones of this cemetery and they started joining the song?”  Either way, the Pharisees said nothing further, and I suspect the Pharisees’ fear only grew because of Jesus’ reply.

          So, the followers of Jesus were excited and joyful singing as the group made their way to Jerusalem and the Pharisees shock in murderous fear and anger.  And then something genuinely unexpected happened.  A new emotion burst onto the scene.  It was the overwhelming emotion of grief.  Luke shared, “41 As he [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he [Jesus] wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:41-44).  Jesus wept.  Jesus grieved.  Why? Because Jesus knew the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants would be destroyed.  The cause of this destruction.  The failure to recognize God and worship God.  The city was destroyed in the year 70 AD.  The only part not dismantled was the western wall of the city, now called the Wailing Wall, so named because it is the place Jews have come to mourn the loss of the Temple.  Finally, “10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’” (Matthew 21:10). That is the central question.  Who is this?

          What do we make of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.  First, we can see that Jesus’ entry could not overlooked. The presence of Jesus was this point forward would make the name of Jesus know throughout the world and through the ages. The presence of Jesus today is unavoidable.  In this country, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone of mature age who has not at least heard the name Jesus.  And yet, the question as Jesus approach Jerusalem then remains with us today, “Who is this Jesus?”  To the religious leaders then, Jesus was a threat to their way of life, their Temple, and their sense of nationhood.  To the people, Jesus was a conquering hero, a king, who would give rise to a new champion of Israel.  To God, Jesus remained his Son coming to bring people into worship and to make know judgement comes to those who willing reject God.  The same is true today.  The heart of the faith journey when Jesus entered Jerusalem was bringing people into worship of God.  That is still who Jesus is today and what he is doing.  Jesus pronounced a coming judgement upon Jerusalem because they did not recognize and worship the presence of the one true God.  Judgement did not come because social justice initiatives were left undone, or parents were not honored, or the right things were not said.  Judgement came because the worship of God was absent.  This has been the case throughout the Bible.  We also know that when worship of God is vibrant and strong then social justice initiatives get completed, parents are honored, and the right things are said with meaning. 

Who is this Jesus? He is the one gently enters our life and calls us to worship God and be spared judgement.  And because Jesus leads us to worship God and be spared judgement, Jesus is rightly called Savior.  Is this your Jesus?  Is Jesus your Savior?  Let us pray.

01-21 - God or Traditions

          I suspect that most here today have seen in whole or in part a presentation of Fiddler on the Roof. There is a part of the play and movie in which the central character, Tevye, (Tev-e-ya) spoke of traditions. He said, “Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years.  Here in Anatevka (Anna-tef-ka) we have traditions for to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes.  For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl...This shows our constant devotion to God.  You may ask, how did this tradition start?  I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition...Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

          Traditions.  What are they?  The dictionary says that traditions are “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.”  Everyone has a set of traditions.  Growing up we had traditions for major holidays.  For Christmas, I remember a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and opening our stockings in bed on Christmas morning.  In theology, a tradition is a little different. A tradition is “a doctrine, a set of beliefs taught by the church, believed to have divine authority, coming from God, but [There is always a but.] which is not found in the Scriptures.”  What might be some of these traditions of the broader Christian Church not found in Scripture?  Those traditions include the observance of Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Advent, and Christmas just to name a few.  Strictly speaking, none of these cherished traditional observances have a specific foundation in Scripture.  This is why some Christian groups do not observe any of these practices.  Today, Baptists tend to pick and choose which traditions they want to follow, of course, in their own way.

          Traditions in church may or may not be helpful in our faith journey.  How can traditions be harmful?  Our friend Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof shared with us the danger of traditions when he said, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."  Traditions become very harmful when they replace the authority of God and God’s Word. Traditions become harmful to our faith walk when we follow our traditions and not Scripture as the guide for our behavior and conduct.  Traditions become harmful when the tradition themselves and not Scripture serve as the basis for our ethics, our Christian Ethics.

          Traditions was one of the things that Jesus fought against all throughout his public ministry.  In Jesus’ day, there were two major camps of tradition among Judaism.  There were the traditions of the Pharisees and the traditions of the Sadducees. These groups had divergent beliefs. The Sadducees, primarily the keepers of the Temple practices, believed only in the words of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  The Torah, the written word, was binding on their beliefs and practices.  All other religious writings by the prophets and others while perhaps of interest to the Sadducees were not binding.  The Pharisees believed that the Torah, Psalms, and words of the prophets were part of the God’s Word as well as how those words had been practiced as conveyed through oral tradition.  There in lay a significant difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees.  What Scripture to follow?  What oral tradition to follow as though it was Scripture? And, most importantly, who gets to decide what oral tradition is and how it is to be followed?

          The Roman historian, Josephus, reported that the Pharisees had great influence over the common people who respected their piety and gave great credibility to their words.  The Sadducees did not enjoy such popularity with the masses and only had influence over the rich.  This gave each sect a unique adherent constituency, the Pharisees with the multitudes and the Sadducees with the wealthy.

          Over time, the Pharisees and Sadducees each courted the favor of the king seeking a power advantage over the other group.  At one point in their history, the Pharisees fell from favor with the king of Israel who then crucified 800 Pharisees in front of their families.  In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees and Pharisees had come to a balance of power, each holding to their own traditions, and having a combined ruling council of Pharisees and Sadducees called the Sanhedrin to resolve any differences peaceably.  We will have a little more to say about the Sanhedrin later.

          So, into the tension of power over traditions, Jesus entered the scene with the gospel message, with miraculous healings, and a growing following of people.  Earlier today we witnessed the clash, seemingly a simple clash, with Jesus and traditions when we read from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7.  Mark wrote, “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law [Sadducees?] who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his [Jesus’] disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)  So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He [Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:1-8).

          A seemingly simple and minor infraction of a common tradition held by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the ceremonial cleansing of one’s hands before eating, led to an indictment by Jesus that, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” In Jesus’ view, the Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders of the people, had done as Isaiah had prophesied and Tevye sang about, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”  Jesus had pointed out that the heart of the conflict between Him and the Pharisees and the Sadducees was and would be, “Who should be worshipped God or man? Whose word should be followed, God or man?  Would our ethics or public and private behaviors be derived from Scripture or human tradition?” 

I think in many ways Jesus would point out to us that the very same conflict today.  Is our life going to be informed and be based on the holy ground of the voice of God or will our life be based on the shifting sands of the voice of human tradition?

          Jesus was blunt about what He thought of the Pharisees and Sadducees for following their traditions over words of Scripture. Jesus called them [the Pharisees and Sadducees] hypocrites.  To be clear, hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform.  The Pharisees and Sadducees claimed the moral standard of being upright and holding to God’s word but they practiced their beliefs without regard to what Scripture said.  In fact, Jesus was accusing the Pharisees and Sadducees of following their own traditions in public to gain the praise of other men.  To this Jesus said, when people seek the praise of other people, then they will receive no reward from God.  Jesus, in calling the Pharisees and Sadducees hypocrites, took these two groups who coexisted with uneasy tension, and managed to unite them with a common and intense hatred of Jesus.

          I have no doubt that Jesus understood his words would infuriated the Pharisees and Sadducees.  But Jesus needed to tell the truth because Jesus could do nothing but tell the truth.  Yet, Jesus was still willing to teach the Pharisees and Sadducees the error of their ways so that they might repent.  Jesus taught the Pharisees and Sadducees not by parable but with plain language. Jesus said, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you [Pharisees and Sadducees] say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you [Pharisees and Sadducees] have handed down. And you [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:9-13).

          What is Jesus talking about here?  First, we need to know that there was a Jewish tradition of taking something and declaring your intent to make that thing, be it an animal, a vegetable, or precious metal as a religious gift, a Corban, reserved for God.  Once reserved to God under this tradition, then the giver could not be released from that commitment even if that asset was needed to care for one’s aging or sick parents.  Jesus pointed out that this tradition, however good it seemed on the surface to devote something to God, conflicted with God’s command that children honor their mothers and their fathers.  Jesus said, “You [Pharisees and Sadducees] do many things like that” (Mark 7:13). Simply, the Pharisees and Sadducees were turning the Word of God upside down and substituting their own traditions for what God desired of them.

          What then are we to do with Jesus’ teaching as we seek to follow proper Christian Ethics?  I think there are three things we must be willing to do.

          First, we must subject our behaviors to examination to ensure we know why we are doing them and that they are consistent with Scripture.  Allow me to illustrate with an example outside of church.  Shortly after I was promoted to a supervisory position in the federal government, a member of my staff brought a letter to me to sign.  The letter granted government approval of a plan presented by a contractor.  I said to the staff member, “Why are we doing this? Why are we approving this request?” She replied to me, “This is the way we have always done it.”  I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?”  She replied to me, “This is what your predecessor wanted us to do.” I said to the staff member again, “Why are we doing this?”  Looking a bit frustrated with me, she thought for a moment, and then said, “I have no idea.” I said to her, “Good answer.  How about we find out together what we should be doing?”

          We need to be willing to submit our personal decisions to act or to not act against the Word of God. “Why am I doing what I am doing? Why am I not doing what I am not doing? What is my motivation to act the way I am acting?  Am I acting this way to be praised by others?  Am I not acting in the way God wants me to act because I am seeking to escape the scorn of others?”  If we want to live a life that flourishes with God and follows Christian Ethics, then we need to know what Jesus said and what Jesus did.

          Second, corporately, as a church, when we meet for worship, we are doing two very different things at the same time.  In one context, we are organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening to renew and enrich our lives with a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We want worship to be a wonderful and meaningful experience.  We want to be challenged and we want to be uplifted.   The assembling of the body of Christ into the public setting should be a cause for joy. That is first purpose of worship.

          However, at the same time we are seeking to uplift the faithful we are also organizing ourselves into action, song, prayer, and listening for those people who do not usually attend worship.  We ask of ourselves, “How do we include those seeking the joy of worship into the family rather than exclude them?  The Pharisees and Sadducees thought Jesus’ disciples should be excluded from dining because their hands were not ceremonially clean.  These groups used their traditions to keep the things [people] they believed were impure from contaminating that which had been made holy. Holiness does not work that way. Jesus touched the leper, and the leper was made clean, Jesus was not made sick.  Holiness works the same way.  Holiness transforms whatever it touches.  We must ensure that our traditions, or behaviors, as a church are not stumbling blocks to those seeking God’s grace.  That is our second purpose when we worship.

          Finally, we should be able to see from this short passage that Jesus stood out from the crowd.  But why did he stand out?  Did Jesus stand out because of what said?  In part, yes, he did.  Did Jesus stand out because of what he did?  In part, yes, he did.  But I think the thing that cause Jesus to stand out head and shoulders above all others was that Jesus lived out the word of God in both what he said and what he did. Jesus was accused of being many things. He was called mentally ill, demon possessed, a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel, and a revolutionary.  But no one ever called Jesus a hypocrite.  Jesus did as he said he would do.  Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors seeking to transform their lives and make them holy.  Jesus visited with the Pharisees and Sadducees answering questions in the hopes of making their lives holy.  Jesus raised up those who were troubled to lead them to holiness, and he humbled those who were proud to lead them to holiness.  Do we stand out from the world around us?  Do people hear our words and see our deeds and give the glory to God? 

          Sadly though, the traditions of the man and not the Word of God were too attractive to Pharisees and Sadducees.  These groups feared Jesus’ popularity and self-testimony that he was the Messiah and the Son of God.  And so, the Sanhedrin, the best and brightest of both the Pharisees and Sadducees met not to resolve differences between them.  Instead, the Sanhedrin met in unity to confront Jesus for his beliefs. The verdict of the Sanhedrin was Jesus believed what He said, acted accordingly, and gave weight only to the Word of God.  This the Pharisees and Sadducees could not accept and so they set in motion their desire to kill Jesus and end the conflict.  But.  There is always a but.  But God chose to show the Pharisees, the Sadducees, as well as Jesus’ followers that holiness cannot be corrupted.  God chose to raise Jesus from the dead demonstrating Jesus was who he said he was and that the traditions of men were nothing but vanity before God.

          Friends, let us not be found vain before God.  Let us live out God’s word, standing out in the world because we follow Jesus in word and in deed.  Let others see that God’s Word is the holy ground upon which we stand and that God through Jesus Christ has made our hands holy giving grace to others by what we do in Jesus’ name.  Amen and Amen.

01-14 - The Covenant We Share

          As we start the new year, I wanted to spend a few weeks on what it means to act like a Christian.  To act like a Christian comes under the broad topic of Christian Ethics.  Some of you know that I teach a lay study course on Christian Ethics.  I do not intend to repeat that course here in sermon form, but I think the topic of Christian Ethics is an important one.  Ethics deals with revealing what we genuinely believe through our observable and private actions.  So, Christian Ethics deals with revealing what we genuinely believe about having Christ in our life through our actions, those actions that can be observed by others and those action that are done in private.

          We began worship today with a statement about our Christian Ethics when we read the Church Covenant as our call to worship.  The Church Covenant lays out a series of commitments to behaviors that express we had accepted Jesus Christ into our lives.  Our committed behaviors are expected to reveal the influence of Jesus upon our lives.  Why is that so?  Because we committed to walk in brotherly love, to not forsake coming to church every week, to pray for one another, to give financial support to the church, to educate our children in the ways of the Lord, and to spread the gospel among the nations.  Our church covenant makes Christian Ethics an integral part of our life.  We entered a covenant mutually committing to behaviors to imitate Christ as a sign of what we believe and to enrich the lives of each other.

          And so, we can see that covenants are powerful commitments of faith.  Now, we do not very often speak of covenants. But covenants are part of our heritage. Even as a kid, we made covenants, even if we did not call them covenants.  I can remember when we would make an important promise with a friend, we would put a cut into our thumbs and press the cuts together to seal the deal in blood.  We probably got the idea of a blood seal from watching movies about the old west and not from church.  Nevertheless, a covenant remains part of the Christian faith journey and every month we celebrate a covenantal relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. We read about the covenant we celebrate each month in our Scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 26, verse 26 through 30 when we read, “26 While they [Jesus and his disciples] were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  27 Then he [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he [Jesus] gave it [the cup] to them [his disciples], saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’  30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:26-30).

          There is so much going on in those few words of Scripture, we cannot hope to cover all of them today.  So for today, I would like us to note that Jesus used this meal, we call this meal the Lord’s Supper, to establish and cement into place for us a covenantal relationship with God.  The covenant with God through Jesus Christ gives us confidence and security to live our lives in a righteous manner.  At that meal, Jesus held a cup of wine said, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:27b-29). 

This was not so much a new covenant as it was a promise from long ago. God made the promise of this covenant, this arrangement, hundreds of years earlier and told of it through the prophet Jeremiah.  31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

          Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, was putting in place this promised covenant that had three key points of faith for those who would follow Jesus.  First, the covenant was inaugurated by blood.  Not just any blood.  It was inaugurated by the blood of the Son of God and Son of Man. The blood signified that the covenant was not only binding upon God but that the debt for all sin would be paid for by God, in and through Jesus’ death upon the cross.  Jesus would stand in our place granting us forgiveness of sin.  Jesus’ words were most remarkable because he was making clear that the access to God was being assured not just for the disciples but for many others by addressing their sin even before the sins were committed. Think of it this way, through this covenant, your sins and my sins were addressed, paid for, even before we were born. All we need to do is ask for forgiveness and it is provided.

          The key second point also deals with forgiveness and is very important.  The forgiveness of sin Jesus said was “for many” but not for all.  Jesus going to the cross was sufficient for all the sins of the world but not everyone will accept Jesus’ offer to come into the covenant with God.  There are a great many people who are too proud, too arrogant, too argumentative, too self-centered, and too sure of their own minds to ever receive Jesus.  The covenant is available to all and many will join but not everyone.

          Finally, the words of Jesus that inaugurated the covenant grants security to the believer.  Jesus said he would make this covenant in his blood symbolized by the cup the disciples would share.  Then Jesus said that he would one day drink of the cup again with his disciples. Jesus’ statement was a foretelling that Jesus’ death would not be the end but the beginning of eternal life. Jesus’ resurrection means that Jesus will be present with all of believers.  I think this is one reason why calling this meal the Lord’s Supper is more accurate than calling it the Last Supper because it was not the last supper with Jesus.

          The covenant inaugurated and guaranteed by Jesus for those who would believe in Him gives great relief that our sins are covered, we have been forgiven all, and that Jesus will be with us for all eternity.  It is small wonder that when the disciples finished the meal of the new covenant, they did so by singing a hymn.  This covenant by Jesus gives us the basis for us to enter covenant with one another and to live out our life in a righteous manner.

          But what is that righteous manner?  We find the charge for living our life at the very end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, risen from the dead, when Jesus spoke to the remaining eleven disciples to do one more thing under the covenant.  Jesus said to the eleven, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus wanted the eleven to share the good news of the covenant and to teach new disciples to follow everything Jesus had commanded of the eleven.  And in that statement, to follow the commands of Jesus, Christian Ethics, the summation of behaviors imitating Christ, was commissioned.

          Christian Ethics, born in a covenantal relationship with Jesus, then becomes following the commands of Christ in the way we act.  Now, we could go through the commands of Christ, list them, and say this is Christian Ethics, go forth and do them.  But I think Jesus helped us more to understand what was involved in Christian Ethics by following those commands himself.  So I think it would be good if we looked at Christian Ethics through the behaviors of Jesus.

          Let’s consider this example, from the Gospel of Mark.  Mark wrote, “1Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them [the Pharisees] were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they [the Pharisees] watched him [Jesus] closely to see if he [Jesus] would heal him [the man] on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them [the Pharisees], ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they [the Pharisees] remained silent.  He [Jesus] looked around at them [the Pharisees] in anger and, deeply distressed at their [the Pharisees] stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He [The man] stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they [the Pharisees and Herodians] might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:1-6).  What then are the Christian Ethics Jesus was teaching us through this story.

          First, from this account, we see that Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to worship and pray. So we see that our Christian Ethics, our Christian behavior, involves a desire to be gathered for each occasion of worship.  Jesus did not go to the synagogue out of guilt or force. Jesus went to the synagogue out of a yearning to foster the covenantal relationship between himself and the Father and the covenantal relationship between himself and other worshippers.  Faithfulness in worship is part of Christian Ethics.  We should then do as Jesus’ commands by his example.

Second, from this account, we notice that Jesus was interested in who attended worship with particular emphasis on the those who may be suffering. Jesus saw the man with the shriveled hand, a cause of significant suffering.  The man did not come to Jesus.  Jesus saw the suffering of the man and went to him.  So, Jesus teaches us that Christian Ethics requires us to be observant for the suffering of others and seek out those people who are suffering rather than waiting for them to seek us out.  Seeking the suffering people who are part of the congregation gathered to worship is particularly important.  What message does it send to the world about Christian Ethics if Christians do not tend to the suffering of their own?  Therefore, we should do as Jesus’ commands by his example.

Third, from this account, we notice that Jesus was interested in the intent, the purpose of Scripture, and not a surface reading of the text.  Jesus wanted to live out the Scripture through his behaviors.  In this account, Jesus chose to examine the purpose of the Sabbath.  Jesus asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”  We might rephrase this question slightly and ask it this way, “What is the purpose of the Sabbath?  Is the purpose of the Sabbath to do good and save life or is the purpose of the Sabbath to do evil and kill?”  At the heart of this question then is “Does God seek to limit the number of days of doing good for one another?”  In the Old Testament, God said, “19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deuteronomy 3:19).  Jesus was teaching us that we need to understand there is no limit to the days of doing good.  To come to the conclusion, we need to understand the purpose of Scripture and uses it to guide our actions, our behaviors.  We cannot live out Christian Ethics without understanding God’s Word. We should do as Jesus’ commands by his example.

Fourth, from this account, we note that in response to Jesus’ question about the purpose of the Sabbath, the Pharisees remained silent and began to seethe in anger.  After Jesus healed the man’s hand, the Pharisees and Herodians immediately conspired to kill Jesus.  The Pharisees, because of their anger, saw a problem with Jesus’ healing the man but saw no problem turning the Sabbath into a day of doing evil and seeking to kill. Jesus for his part was deeply troubled for the Pharisees and their stubborn hearts.  Jesus teaches us that we need to practice the spiritual discipline of allowing weekly worship, the seeing and hearing of the testimony of God to crack the hardness worldly thinking places upon our hearts.  Jesus showed the Pharisees a better way without resorting to anger and hardness himself.  We should do as Jesus’ commands by his example.

The Gospels are rich with examples of what Jesus did to show the people of the new covenant what they are to do and can do.  This is Christian Ethics Jesus is calling us to live out. 

We began our exploration of Christian Ethics by renewing our covenant with each other.  Let us now come to the table of the Lord and remember the covenant we have with God through Jesus Christ.  Amen and Amen.

12-31 What Am I Waiting For?

          The season of Advent for 2023 is officially over.  Each year, we wait until December for Advent to begin and then quickly Advent is over on Christmas Day.  We now must wait again until December 2024 to observe Advent once again. Waiting is one of the things in life we must come to accept.

          Learning to wait is an important part of the life of faithful people.  But, in our faith journey, we need to learn to wait long enough for God to lead us but not so long that God has moved on and is now no longer in our sight.  Our New Testament reading speaks of confidently waiting on God’s timing and knowing that God has a larger understanding of life’s picture than we do.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2.  Luke is a superb storyteller who took testimony from a variety of sources and presented a unified account of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.  One of the features that is unique to Luke’s gospel account is telling about Jesus through the pairing of accounts from men and women. For example, Luke began his gospel account with a visitation by an angel to Zechariah to tell of the coming birth of John the Baptist.  Shortly thereafter, Luke gave the account of the angel’s visit to Mary to tell of the coming of the birth of Jesus.  Today’s Scripture begins with the account of a man, Simeon, seeing Jesus in the temple and ends with the account of a woman, Anna, embracing Jesus in the temple.  All throughout the gospel, Luke weaves together the story of Jesus alternating between the interactions of Jesus with men and women. Luke’s telling Jesus’ story this way appeals to the modern mind of showing equality between men and women in Jesus’ reach to all people.  But Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus through men and women probably has more to do with prophesy than modern concepts of gender equality.  In sharing the story of Jesus through men and women, Luke is more likely showing the confident fulfillment of the Scriptures is occurring and will occur.  Luke’s opening words of his gospel says, “1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1).  Luke is concerned with helping people understand that the time of confidently waiting on God is over because God’s promises were fulfilled in their day. Specifically, Luke may be looking at the prophesy that in the day of the Lord’s coming, God would pour out His Spirit on all people and that sons and daughters of Abraham would prophesy, that is speak the truth about God.  So, Luke’s storytelling is perhaps more about God using men and women to proclaim the fulfillment of God’s own promises and to do so through the enablement of God’s own Holy Spirit.

And so as we enter this passage, we learn that Jesus was born to Mary and her husband. Joseph and the time had come to present this newborn baby at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The passage begins this way, “22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22-24). We read these words, and we wonder what is going on here.  Is Luke describing some arcane rituals that now have no meaning to us?  Or is there something we can glean from Luke’s description of purification rites, presentation to the Lord, and offering of doves or pigeons?

          Luke is describing here two rituals that are very much a part of the Jewish history.  The first is the purification of Mary.  Under the law, the rules dating back to Moses, blood was considered the source of life. Animal blood was used in worship practices by priests to consecrate, make holy, the altar of God, and used in ceremonies to atone for sin.  Blood was very much a part of the temple practices.  Yet, at the same time, contact with human blood, the source of human life, was anything but a consecrating act.  In fact, contact with human blood would make a person ceremonially unclean for worship. Women who had given birth were considered thus ceremonially impure after giving birth because of the blood that is naturally released as part of giving birth to a child.  So, under the Law of Moses, a woman, 40 days after giving birth, was required to undergo purification by offering as a sin sacrifice a dove or pigeon.  Mary, being a devote Jewish woman, a daughter of Abraham, presented herself at the temple to offer the purification sacrifice.

          Secondly, under the law of Moses, the first-born male of woman was to be consecrated to the Lord, meaning to be given over to the Lord.  The father was then allowed to redeem the child back into their possession by given money to the temple priest or offering of a dove or pigeon.

          In our opening, Mary and Joseph were carefully following ancient rituals of the Hebrew law by Mary going through purification and the redemption of Jesus as Mary’s first-born male child.  Even though Mary and Joseph were aware that Jesus was the Son of God, they followed the laws carefully waiting upon God to further reveal what was going to happen in and through their son.

          With Jesus, Joseph, and Mary at the temple, Luke introduces to us the next pairing of a son and daughter of Abraham, namely, Simeon and Anna, with these words, “25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25a).  I think most modern translations of the Bible make this sentence less forceful, less attention grabbing, than Luke intended. The opening Greek word of this sentence is ἰδού, id-oo, which is translated most often as “Behold.”  For example,

  • And (ἰδού, id-oo) behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus (Lk 1:31)
  • And (ἰδού, id-oo) behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid (Lk 2:9)
  • Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for (ἰδού, id-oo) behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people (Lk 2:10)

Luke was using the word, ἰδού, id-oo, to grab people attention that something important and rich with God’s presence was about to take place or was taking place with Simeon.  So, if we read that last verse of Scripture again with translating ἰδού, id-oo, as “Behold,” instead of “Now,” we would read, “Behold there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25a).  Luke was alerting his readers that something was going to happen through Simeon, this faithful son of Abraham, that they did not want to miss.

Readied for action, we move to the second half of verse 25, “He [Simeon] was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him” (Luke 2:25b).  And there we have the reason for “Behold.”  Simeon was under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  It was the same Holy Spirit that Luke said was in the baby John the Baptist while John was in his mother’s womb and the same Holy Spirit through which Mary conceived was present in this man Simeon.  The Holy Spirit was being poured out onto the sons and daughters of Abraham to equip them to speak God’s truth.  And Simeon, Luke said, was waiting patiently and confidently that God would send the “consolation of Israel.”  What is the consolation of Israel?  The consolation of Israel was not something at all, it was someone. The consolation of Israel that Simeon waited for was the person called Messiah.  The Messiah was the person sent by God to bring the kingdom of God to the people of Israel and to reveal salvation for all people.  There was nothing Simeon expected in life that could be greater than the Messiah.  If we asked Simeon, this righteous and devout man, “What are you waiting for Simeon?” he would have answered, “The Messiah.”  God blessed Simeon with the Holy Spirit to guide him and comfort him in his time of waiting. 

In verse 26, we read, “26 It had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he [Simeon] would not die before he [Simeon] had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon lived his life with great confidence knowing that God would keep his promises. God would send his Messiah and that Simeon would give testimony to the fulfilment of God’s promise in his days. Starting with verse 27, Luke brought us to a God arranged meeting.  “27 Moved by the Spirit, he [Simeon] went into the temple courts” (Luke 2:27a).  On this day, when the time was right, God moved Simeon to the Temple.  The Holy Spirit was saying to Simeon, “Get up Simeon and go to the Temple.  Drop everything else you are doing or care to do and get there this moment.”  Now Simeon could have said to himself, “I am too tired.  I was just there yesterday.  I need to rest.  I need to be at home today.”  There are countless reasons why Simeon could have done something other than going to the Temple.  We are all faced with Simeon’s situation.  We feel moved to do something and yet there is that tug on our life saying, “Why bother? Don’t you want to do something else?” 

One time I was counseling a man.  Toward the end of our planned time together, I felt moved to ask some deeper questions about the subtle differences in the way he was acting that day. I knew these questions would be hard for the person to answer and that the questions would extend our time together. But this time, I followed the movement within me, silenced the other concerns in my mind, and asked those deeper questions.  The person revealed they were having deep and dark thoughts.  They had decided it would be all right if they took their own life. The person had a plan to use a very specific knife to open their veins and bleed to death.  He was ready.  We talked a bit and I asked if it would be all right if I kept this knife for them. I would keep the knife at the church and whenever they wanted the knife back, I would meet them at the church and return it to them.  The person thought for a moment and said that sounded like the right thing to do. Plans changed.  In that moment, nothing else was more important than to walk with this person.  I believe it was one of those moments in life in which I followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit and silenced the lesser concerns I had about the day.  I am sure there were many other days I chose not to following the Holy Spirits lead.  Simeon waited until God acted and then followed God’s lead.  Simeon made sure he did not linger and miss God in action by paying attention to the lesser things of life.

Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit, and Luke wrote, “When the parents [Mary and Joseph] brought in the child Jesus to do for him [Jesus] what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms” (Luke 2:27b-28a). Just briefly, here again, the English translations seem less than what Luke may have intended when it says, “Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms.”  The Greek word from which we get “took him” is δέχομαι, dekh'-om-ahee, which is more commonly translated as “received.”  Luke uses the word δέχομαιdekh'-om-ahee several times in the gospel as people received Jesus and as people received God’s word.  So, it seems more appropriate here to see the picture as Simeon “received” the child “into his arms” and so the promise of Holy Spirit to Simeon that Simeon should see the Lord’s Messiah was fulfilled.  Mary had placed into Simeon’s arms and Simeon becomes the bearer of Christ.  This same picture is true of us when we accept Christ.

Simeon’s response in holding Jesus, the Messiah, Luke said was to respond by “praising God” and then Simeon began to prophesy, that is to speak the truth openly and publicly, as Simeon spoke these words to God: “29 Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation 31 Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, 32 A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).  Simeon was confident in his waiting that God would fulfill His promise of not just sending the Messiah, but that Simeon would live long enough to see the Messiah.

Can you image Simeon’s feelings at this moment as he held baby Jesus? Simeon must have experienced a wonderful sense of closeness to God and privilege to hold the Messiah.  Now, here is the thing.  We can share that same experience.  Jesus offers to you and me the privilege of receiving Jesus.  That is why Jesus came to earth.  Jesus says to us, “20 (ἰδού, id-oo) Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).  Even Jesus himself says, “Behold,” pay most careful attention.

As Simeon who had received the Messiah, cradling Christ in his arms, was returning the baby to Mary, Luke wrote, “36 Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; 37 and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38).  Anna, the woman our storyteller Luke paired with Simeon, came upon the scene and she too was able to discern that Jesus was the Messiah and she too prophesied, that is spoke the truth about what God was doing.  Anna observed that Mary and Joseph came to the temple to redeem Jesus as part of the ancient rituals, but it would be Jesus who would redeem all of Israel.  Anna no longer needed to wait because the Messiah had come.

The example Simeon and Anna should be on our minds as one-year ends and a new one begins.  Rather than a series of new year resolutions that few, if anyone keeps, we should simply ask ourselves one question, “What am I waiting for?”  God’s desire is that we would rejoice in his Messiah and live a righteous and devout life.  So, what thing, event, or information do you lack, that you are waiting upon, before receiving Jesus and his Holy Spirit?  Perhaps you have received Jesus but you are not living out are life in Christ to the fullest.  Ask then, “What am I waiting for?”  Maybe feel like you are living your life in Christ but you have never been baptized. Ask then, “What am I waiting for?” Perhaps, we do not really have any reason for our inaction other than we do not feel worth of Jesus.  We might think, as I once did, we need to get our lives in order and be better before accepting Jesus.  I need to be good so that my accepting Jesus makes sense to others. Friends, Jesus died for us when we are sinners.  Jesus came because none of us are good enough on our own.  There can be no reason to wait to get good because on our own we cannot. Ask then, “What am I waiting for?”

Let’s start the year like Simeon and Anna, willing to wait on God for him to lead and then following the leading of the Holy Spirit that we could receive Jesus the Messiah.  Let’s deal with the question, “What am I waiting for?”  Think about the question.  Talk to God about it.  But do not wait too long before getting up and receiving Jesus, becoming empowered by Him to live and share a righteous and devout life before God and others as we wait for Jesus to come again.  Amen and Amen.

12-17 Christ Our King

          We are in the fourth week of our celebration of Advent.  We have come to see that Advent is about preparing our hearts to receive the miracle of Christmas Day.  It is for us to see the wonder of the Son of God coming into the world as a baby being born, born also as the Son of Man.  It is for us to experience the joy in the prophecies, the promises of God, fulfilled in the coming of this baby, and in the words of promise Jesus would speak to the people of his day.  It is for us to experience the comfort and peace in known that this baby came as our priest, to intercede for us, that in following Jesus we would have great confidence that Jesus would lead us right into the throne of God’s grace.  These are the things we experienced these past three weeks.  Today, I would like us to look at one final blessing in the birth of Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, prophet, and priest.  And that is that Jesus came as the king of a new kingdom of God.

          Now, culturally, people living in the United States have some difficulty with understanding the notion of a true king.  After all, every July 4th, we proudly and loudly celebrate Independence Day in which the American colonists declared their independence from England’s King George III.  In the United States, we are inclined to make kings out of people and things that entertain us.  Michael Jackson was named the King of Pop.  Louis Armstrong was named the King of Jazz.  Football is named the King of Sports.  And in comedy, there was a group called the Kings of Comedy comprised of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.  All these kings are very accomplished and talented entities but none of them is a true king.

          What then in the original Biblical context is a true king?  A king was a male monarch, a supreme ruler, having dominion over a given territory of land and people living upon that land.  A king had that dominion, held that rule, for life. The king’s words were the law of the land.  Whatever the king demanded was to be given to him because, after all, it was his to begin with.  There was no higher human authority than the king.  Of the 195 countries in the world today, there are only seven countries considered absolute monarchies.  They are Brunei, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Eswatini (Swaziland), and Vatican City. 

In Biblical context, the Hebrew people did not have an earthly king to start out.  The Hebrew people were governed by judges.  But then the people cried out for a king and despite warnings from God, the people chose a king.  His name was Saul.  Why Saul? Because the Bible tells us that Saul was handsome and “and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). Well, at least they had some good reasons for choosing Saul as king.  For the people of Israel, the king was to serve God and rule over the people with righteousness.  But alas each of Israel’s kings had difficulties governing because they had difficulties with sin.

God then decided to act decisively and to send his Son to earth, as a human, to come as king and speak of the kingdom of God. But the kingship of the Son of God, the Son of Man, would be far different than people expected.  The people of Israel were looking for God to send a king, but an earthly warrior king who would fight their battles and once and for all time set the lands of Israel free from foreign, pagan, kings such as the likes of the Roman emperor Caesar.  The people wanted to have their king again.

But, as we know, there are the fantasies of people and the reality of God.  In that reality, God sent his angel to a young woman named Mary who told Mary that she would give birth to a son who “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32b-33).  So, a king was coming.  We also learned that “1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1-3).  The Magi, pagans themselves, realized that a new king had been born to the Jewish nation. The Jewish nation that longed for a great king to restore Israel, including its current King Herod, was not aware of the birth.  King Herod, though the King of the Jewish people, was not of the Jewish bloodlines. The Romans had appointed Herod to rule over Israel at their direction.  Hearing the news of a new King of the Jews was very disturbing to the present king.  So disturbing was the coming of a new king to Herod, that Herod ordered the execution of all boys two years old and young in and around the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Herod hoped in doing so the new King of Jews would lay among the dead boys.

So, Jesus’ entry to the world was marked by joy of his birth as well as sadness following a murderous rage both fueled by a desire for a king.  But what of Jesus’ kingship?  What was the reality of that kingship?  Our New Testament reading today put Jesus’ kingship into context.  Scripture says, “1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.  5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”?  Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?  6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Hebrews 1:1-3).  The Scripture here made clear that God, the Sovereign, the ultimate Majesty, had decided to speak through and rule through his own Son. God’s Son received the anointing of God as king and was to be worshipped by all of God’s angels because God’s Son was superior even to the angels.  To the ancient Israel minds this statement is quite significant and telling.  For in antiquity, it was believed that every nation state was under the guidance and protection of its own angel.  There was even the idea that the fate of one nation’s battle against another nation was determined by a heavenly battle between their respective angels.  Therefore, to say that all angels are to worship God’s Son was another way of saying God’s Son, Jesus, was the king over all nations.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when Jesus began his public ministry he began with a royal command.  Jesus began with a kingly order, but it was unlike any previous royal command, and was universal, meaning Jesus’ command applied to everyone.  What did Jesus command?  Jesus commanded, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Jesus’ first command to “Repent,” that is to turn from one’s own ways and turn toward God, should have been a signal that there was something different about his kingdom and him being king.  Jesus’ command to “Repent,” was not about land acquisition or domination over the people.  Jesus did not say, “Gather your swords and let’s get those Romans out of here!” Instead, Jesus said, “Repent,” and “39 Do not resist an evil person. (Matthew 5:39a).  Jesus would go on to issue other royal commands that established a very different sort of kingdom indeed.  Jesus commanded such things as:

  •  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:16)
  • Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:33)
  • Make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19)
  • If you love me, keep my commands. (Jn. 14:15)

There are more of Jesus’ commands, but we get the picture that Jesus was a different type of king and one who was calling people to join a new kingdom.  It was not a kingdom of brutish conquest, it was a kingdom built upon the restoration and redemption of souls.

          Despite Jesus’ teachings and commands, many people insisted on seeing Jesus as an earthly king of territory and conquest.  For example, one time, Jesus fed 5,000 men plus women and children.  “14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15). The people were overwhelmed by Jesus’ miraculous feeding and thought, “Ah, if we could just make him our king, think of the life we could live by the things this guy could do for us.”  Jesus would have not part of earthly plans for his kingdom was different.  But the people would did not understand.

          The ending of Jesus’ public ministry began with his arrest not by the Romans but by the Jewish religious authorities, people who should have been looking for God to send a king.  Instead of welcoming Jesus as king, the religious authorities became jealous of love and following of Jesus’ disciples for Jesus.  The religious leaders were angry at Jesus for his teachings and uncomfortable with Jesus’ challenges to their understanding of Scripture.  So, the religious leaders arrested Jesus and once Jesus was bound hand and foot, the religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Governor claiming Jesus guilt of all sorts of crimes including claiming Jesus said he was the King of the Jews.  Pilate spoke to Jesus about the claims of the religious people.  33b “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”  35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said” (John 19:33b-38).  Jesus confirmed to Pilate that he, Jesus, had been born to speak about the kingdom in which Jesus was king but it was a different kingdom than would be found on earth.

          Pilate argued with the religious leader insisting again and again that there was no basis of a charge against Jesus that merited death.  12b But the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 20:12b).  Pilate then asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.  “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. (John 20:15b).  And with that statement from the high priest, “We have no king but Caesar,” the crowd shouted to destroy Jesus.  “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” the crowd shouted.  They wanted Jesus out of their brutish savage kingdom.  The crowd had chosen sides and they had chosen to remain an enemy of God. 

And yet, in that same moment of intense hatred and shouts to “Crucify Him!”, Jesus was willing to transform any of those present to come into His kingdom. Jesus would do so by loving them, forgiving them, and renewing them to be of the right spirit and personhood. Jesus would later bring one person into the kingdom.  A thief was crucified next to Jesus, and said to Jesus,42 “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  43 Jesus answered him [the thief], “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).  Jesus’ words are profound because they mean that Jesus was born to establish a new kingdom and upon Jesus’ death, the king, would open His kingdom to all those who would repent and follow him.

What then are we to do with our spiritual understanding of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom?  I think there is only one thing to consider.  Are we willing to be part of the kingdom of Jesus Christ?  We are not forced to be part of the kingdom.  We can live our lives without being subject to the commands of the king.  In fact, more people live outside the kingdom than live within it, so we would have plenty of company.  Living outside the kingdom of God is living in a fantasy.  If you don’t believe me that many people live a fantasy, then I encourage you to pick up a newspaper or scroll through a newsfeed on your phone and see for yourself the number of people who are making things up as they go and forcing other people to celebrate their delusions.  Life outside of God’s will is a fantasy.

Or we could accept for ourselves the reality of God.  We could accept that reality that God who created all things as good has called us into his kingdom.  This God who invites us sent his son, Jesus, to be our king. Jesus, in his own words, came to be a king of a different kingdom, a kingdom founded on bring each member of the kingdom into a right relationship with God so that they could experience the treasures of the kingdom: forgiveness, peace that surpasses all understanding, love, and eternal life.  Life lived within God’s will following our king, Jesus, is the reality that we should seek and encourage others to celebrate.  Amen and Amen. 

12-10 Jesus Our Priest

          We are in the third week of our celebration of Advent.  It is that time of year in which we celebrate that Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, changed the world forever.  In our first two weeks, we saw that Jesus, the Son of God came to earth as the Son of Man, fully human and yet fully God.  Jesus lived the human experience, including the experience of death that we would have life abundant now and forever.  Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, also came to give the prophetic word of God as God’s final prophet.  Jesus’ words called people, including us to action in the present, so that we could be assured of a future.  This week we will look at how Jesus changed the world by filling the role as the final high priest.

          Now, Baptist struggle a bit with the idea of priests and the priesthood because, well, we don’t have any person who serves in the Baptist tradition as a priest. I am not a priest.  I serve as a pastor.  We Baptists hold to Scripture that Jesus came to fulfill the role, once and for all time, as of our priest.

          So according to Scripture, what was the role of the priest.  Under the Old Testament, God had set forth the Law, the commands of what the people of Israel must and must not do.  We saw that law structure in Genesis when God said to the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:16a).  The man and woman were free to not sin by refraining from eating that fruit or were free to sin by eating the fruit.  This was the original law.  We, of course, learn later that the couple ate that fruit, choosing to sin, and thus break the law.  As evil behaviors from that point spread further, more elements, more commands, were added to the law, to constrain evil.  We can think most famously of the Ten Commandments as part of the structure of the law.  But the choice for the people was the same.  People were free to choose to sin or to not sin.  To atone, to address, those occasions when people sinned, a system of ritual animal sacrifices emerged.  The sacrifice was intended to serve as an atonement from choosing to sin. Those sacrifices were a religious rite performed on behalf of the sinner by someone designated as a priest.

In this sense, the priest represented the people to God and interceded with God for the people and even the nation of Israel. Over and over, for hundreds of years, the priests of Israel sacrificed animals and burned them as an offering to God for the forgiveness of the sins by the priests themselves, the congregation, and nation of Israel.  This was the system when the people had the choice to sin or not to sin.

The apostle Paul would later say that the choice to follow the law or not, the choice to sin or not sin, had left him a slave to sin.  The law, Paul would say, was holy, righteous, and good and showed that with the choice to sin or not sin, we were helpless against sinning and had become slaves to sinning.  And so, with this slavery to inevitable sin, there was a near endless repetition of priestly sacrifice for the sin. 

          But then something happened.  Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man came into the world as human and divine came as a priest.  Now, Jesus was to be a different sort of priest to be sure because Jesus never performed the priestly sacrificial function of the Jewish religion.  And yet Jesus was considered a priest because Jesus represented, was the intercessor, for the people to God.  Let’s look at today’s Scripture readings to understand Jesus’ role as priest and why it matters today.

          We read from the Book of Hebrews last week, and again this week, these words from Chapter 2 of the Book of Hebrews, 14 Since the children have flesh and blood (you and I), he (Jesus) too shared in their (our) humanity so that by his (Jesus’) death he (Jesus) might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).  The writer of Hebrews is saying here that Jesus came to break the power that was leading people to be slaves to sin.  The babe that we celebrate this Advent came to change the world and grant us a new kind of freedom.

          The writer of Hebrews continued, “17 For this reason (to break the power of the devil and sin), he (Jesus) had to be made like them (us), fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17a).  To change the choices of humans, Jesus, the Son of God, needed to come as a human himself, the Son of Man.  This is why we Jesus was born.  Having been born as a human, Jesus, the Son of God, “might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” (Hebrews 2:17b). A role Jesus would take on to change the world for humanity would be as a high priest.  Jesus would represent people to God and Jesus would do so faithfully, that is without sin, and Jesus would represent the people to God.  How would Jesus accomplish this role differently from the priests of the past?  What would be world changing in Jesus’ way of addressing sin?  The writer of Hebrews says, “He (Jesus) might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17c).  Jesus, the Son of God, would be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people.  The atoning redemption of humanity from all its sins would be made by Jesus, the high priest himself, the sinless Son of God and the Son of Man.  Because Jesus was the Son of God, nothing greater could ever be offered to address the sins of humanity and because Jesus was the Son of Man, the sacrifice could only be offered one time.  When Jesus completed his work of changing the world, Jesus would ascend into heaven and once again take up his seat of honor and glory.

          Jesus changed the world through his sacrifice but how then does what Jesus did directly change us?  It does so in the most important way.  As we discussed, under the law, we were free to sin or to not sin. That was our choice.  And we know that under the law, we became slaves to sin. But under the grace of Jesus, through his one-time perfect atonement for our sins, there was a new freedom because Jesus we were made free from sin.  Under Christ, we are free from sin by believing in Jesus and by following Him, making Jesus our choice, we become free from sin.  The Apostle Paul says in following Jesus we are, “Set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22). 

We need to breathe for a moment and take in how Jesus, the priest changed the world.  Jesus came to deal with the problem, the human condition of sinful choices.  This is why Jesus said so famously to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).  Jesus is the way to freedom from sin and to God.  And in the course of their time together, Jesus, the Son of Man, had shown God to his disciples, because Jesus was also the Son of God, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3).  Jesus had changed the world giving us the freedom from sin by following Him into the very presence of God.         

We then read in Hebrews, Chapter 4, “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess [faith in Jesus Christ]. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).  The call from Scripture then is to remain in the freedom from sin that we have by following Jesus, the perfect, sinless high priest, who offered as a sacrifice for sin, himself, perfect and without blemish.

The writer of Hebrews then went a little further and said, “23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:23-27).  From this passage, we come to understand that Jesus who lives intercedes for us.  Jesus represents us to God and therefore, we no longer need an earthly priest to represent us to God.  Hence, in Baptist traditions, we do not have priests because our intercessor, our priest, is Jesus, who offered himself once for all time.

What then are we to do with the spiritual understandings we have gathered from these Scriptures.  I think there are two things for us to consider.

First, for the unbeliever, they still only have the freedom of choice in life to sin or not to sin.  For the unbeliever, they are not allowing their world to be changed by Jesus.  As such, the unbeliever will predictably choose sin. The truth of that statement is found throughout the Bible.  Unbelievers are slaves to sin and have freely chosen to reject God.  What is the “So What?” for the unbeliever?  Jesus, the prophet and priest, shared with the believer and nonbeliever their respective destinies in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus said, “19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  (We learn later the rich man lived the life of an unbeliever.)  20 At his [the rich man’s] gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his [Lazarus’] sores.  (The name Lazarus means “God has helped,” a name given by Jesus to show Lazarus lived as a believer.)  22 The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his [Abraham’s] side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  25 But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he [Lazarus] is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:19-25).  The parable goes on from there, but this part of the parable shows the destinies of the believer and the unbeliever.  Here, Jesus showed to all that in mortal life, a believer may, and often will, experience difficulties but in eternal life the believer will only experience good things.  In a similar way, Jesus shows that whatever joy the unbeliever has will happen in this life for in the next, the eternal life, the unbeliever will only be agony. Why is agony the fate of the unbeliever? Because the unbeliever has rejected God, has rejected the completed work of Christ, has rejected the pathway of grace God offered, and has simply sinned without redemption.  If you have not accepted Jesus as your savior, your high priest, as the atonement for your sins, please, I beg you, do not wait. Celebrate the joy of Advent by accepting what Jesus has done for you now and for all time.

          The second thing we learn today is that the believer in Jesus has made a life choice to chose between freedom from sin by following Christ.  Freedom from sin is not the same as choosing not to sin.  To choose not to sin is to fight temptation on your own which is a plan destined to fail.  To choose freedom from sin in Christ is to let Christ be your intercessor, the last and highest priest.  In choosing freedom from sin, it is Jesus who gives you strength and power through his Holy Spirit to follow Jesus thus living a life free from sin.  And, yes, when, we in our humanness and frailness do sin, believers receive grace from Jesus to redeem them from that sin because of that perfect sacrifice from sin given by Jesus upon the cross, once and for all. 

Let’s celebrate our freedom from sin in the birth of your Savior, High Priest, and Redeemer, Jesus.  For Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life.  Amen and Amen.

12-03 Jesus the Prophet

          Last week, as we began our celebration of Advent, we spoke about the humanity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, Son of God, was at the same time, the Son of Man.  Jesus was fully human and, in his humanness, experienced death for us, that we might not taste of death ourselves.  Jesus’ death did not mean our bodies would not falter into death, but Jesus’ death did mean we would not perish.  Instead, through the grace of Jesus’ redeeming grace we would be live abundantly now and eternally with God.

          This week, in our second week of Advent, I would like for us to explore the actions Jesus’ undertook in coming in human form.  Namely, Jesus came to share the prophetic words of God.  Now the words, “the prophetic words of God,” form an interesting phrase.  Whenever I get together with other pastors, I experience an inward groan and distress when a pastor begins a sentence with the words, “God gave me a prophetic word to preach on Sunday.”  I feel this distress because too often what follows is something like, “God gave me a prophetic word to preach on Sunday that we should enter into a capital building campaign” or something similar to that.  I cringe because I do not think of promoting a capital building fund as a prophetic word of God.  It may be true that the Holy Spirit moves people to think more deeply about the future work of the kingdom but I struggle with the notion that God said something to that pastor like “If you build it and they will come.”  Why do I say that and why does it matter?

          Our New Testament reading from the opening Book of Hebrews helps us in this regard.  The opening verses talk about Jesus coming to share the prophet word of God.  The Scripture says, “1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he (God) appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he(Jesus) had provided purification for sins, he (Jesus) sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:1-3). 

The Scripture here tells us two things about the prophetic word of God. First, the prophetic word had been shared and recorded for us in the Old Testament through the likes of people named Joel, Amos, Hosea, Jonah, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Malachi just to name a few.  And when the ancient prophets spoke, they made it clear they were not speaking their own words but words that God had given them.  The prophets would issue their prophetic proclamation and add terms like “Thus declares the Lord” or “Thus says the Lord.”  Moreover, the message of the prophets was almost always uncomfortable for people to hear.  The words that God had the prophets speak often served as mirrors.  The Prophets, if you will, held up a mirror to the world or to a person providing a way for things to be seen clearly and plainly. The mirror provides the way into seeing how God sees things, not as we imagine we see them.

Second, this Scripture tells us that God brought a close to the prophets of the Old Testament and instead the prophetic word of God was spoken by his Son, Jesus, who is the exact representation of God.  And Jesus, having spoken what was needed to be said returned to his place of glory in heaven.  If this is true, and I believe it to be so, why would God then find the need to share a new prophetic word through the likes a pastor and to do so in the context of collecting money.  Hence, I inwardly groan and get distress when someone says, “God gave me a prophetic word to share.”

That inward groan comes also from the opening to Chapter 2 of the Book of Hebrews that say, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him” (Hebrews 2:1-3).

I like the opening, “We must pay the most careful attention.”  It is not sufficient that we pay attention or that we pay careful attention, but we must pay the “most careful attention.”  To what?  “To what we have heard.”  What have we heard?  The prophetic word of Jesus concerning salvation, which was first announced by the Lord.  Why must we pay most careful attention to Jesus’ words about salvation?  Because it would be easy for us “to drift away.”  The Scripture tells us that Jesus came to give the prophetic word of God, not just occasionally, but every time Jesus spoke.

What were Jesus’ words to which we must pay most careful attention? Let’s begin with the first words attributed to Jesus when Jesus began his public ministry.  Jesus said, ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  These are prophetic words because they represent a call for people to change, that is to repent, in the present in order that they will have a future, in the kingdom.  It is the role of a prophet to call people to change in the present to have an assured future.  Jesus’ words to “Repent” are prophetic words because they represent a mirror for the people to see how their relationship with God is and not how they imagined it. Jesus’ call to “Repent” was a call to turn away from their own ways and to turn back toward God.  Jesus’ call was to leave behind sin and pursue holiness.

Now the people in Jesus’ time thought they had a fine and acceptable method of repentance.  The people and priests offered ritual sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem.  For example, there was the chatat (sha tat’).  This was a sin offering to atone for and purge a sin. It was to be an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with God.  The Hebrew term for this type of offering is chatat, from the word chayt, meaning "missing the mark."  The size of the offering varied according to the nature of the sin and the financial means of the sinner.

So why wasn’t the ritual offering sufficient?  Why did Jesus say, “Repent.”  We know that familiarity and repetition can remove the meaning from any ritual or often repeated expression.  The sacrificial system only had merit when people reflected upon their behaviors leading to the sacrifice and underlying intent of the sacrifice.  We know this to be true from the story of the very first sacrifice recorded for us.  In Genesis 4, we would read, “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” (Genesis 4:2b-5a).  Two sacrificial offerings were made to God.  One sacrifice, from Abel, represented the very best that Abel had and Abell gave it over to God as an act of genuine worship and thanksgiving to God. God found favor with the sacrifice because God found favor with Abel’s attitude and worship.  The other sacrifice, from Cain, was what Cain felt he could afford to give to a ritual.  God did not find favor with Cain’s sacrifice because God did not find favor with Cain because Cain performed a ritual without reflection, without worship, without repentance.  By Jesus’ time, the highly developed sacrificial system at the temple in Jerusalem had become a ritualized practice devoid of reflection, worship, and repentance. The prophetic words of Jesus called upon people to genuinely repent, and quickly, as the kingdom of God had arrived. It was not a call for ritual sacrifice, it was a call for inner repentance.

We too share the risk of our ancient ancestors that what we do often can become ritual lacking in reflection, worship, and repentance. What might that be?  Let’s consider just one example, why do we come to church?  Do we come to church because it is our habit, our ritual for Sunday?  If we do, we begin to resemble a Cain like attitude of completing a ritual.  Or do we come to church as an expression of an inner desire to put aside the distractions of life and genuinely seek reflection, worship, and repentance with God and the body of Christ?  That would be an Abel like attitude.  Are you here today more like Cain or more like Abel?  It is important that we pay most careful attention to what Jesus said as it will reveal our true attitude and inner desires.

Now the prophetic words of Jesus that called for repentance were only the beginning and not the only way Jesus offered the prophetic word of God. The Gospel of John placed an important prophetic event early in Jesus’ public ministry.  John shared with us this story.

“13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:13-17).

Jesus had unleashed the prophetic word of God in a dramatic and unforgettable way.  The unthinking ritualized sacrifices we talked about a moment ago had turned the temple itself into a supermarket of sorts where the rich and the poor could purchase, for a profit, of course, an animal suitable for the desired sacrifice. The temple had become a place of commerce, littered with animal dung.  The temple was supposed to be about prayer, a place of sanctuary, a place of reflection, worship, and repentance.  Instead, the temple had become polluted and defiled and Jesus dramatically gave the prophetic word of God, “Get these out of here!  Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” It was a call to look into the mirror and see how things were and not as the way people imagined.

We latter saw Jesus shared again the prophetic word of God through a parable regarding the purpose of the temple.  Jesus said, 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other (Pharisee), went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).  The temple was indeed intended to be a place of reflection, worship, and repentance. This was something the tax collector, a sinner, understood.

          We too share the risk of our ancient ancestors that what we do here can become a supermarket and not a place of reflection, worship, and repentance.  Certainly, we carefully control selling things in the church, particularly in the sanctuary itself.  So what is our risk?  Our risk is that we, as some churches have done, might turn the sanctuary, the pulpit, into a supermarket of contemporary and novel ideas about who God is and what the role of the church should be in society.  I listened the other day to a pastor preach on the fall of humanity in Genesis when the serpent deceived the woman leading to the woman and her husband eating the fruit God told them not to eat, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The pastor’s take on this Scripture was novel.  According to the pastor, God had lied to Adam and Eve and that it was the serpent who spoke the truth.  That is novel.  Eve was the heroine of the story who acquired the knowledge of good and evil that God denied to humanity, knowledge, the pastor said, that stunted the maturing of humanity to its fullness.  The pastor then went on to say that because Eve had eaten of the fruit, women now were uniquely equipped to discern the rightness and necessity of abortion.  I think if we listen hard enough to the pastor’s message, we could hear Jesus in the background saying, “Get these out of here!”  Our time here is not to be a supermarket of profane thought or social reengineering.  In our time here, is important for us to pay most careful attention to what Jesus has said to us.

          Jesus spoke the prophetic word of God in simple sermons, interesting parables of contrast, and in dramatic ways that overturned tables and upset a great many people.  Jesus did so because Jesus was born to do so.  We mark this time of year as a time in which Jesus came to give us each a gift, a mirror, through which we could examine our inner attitudes with deep reflection about our desire to worship God and the need to repent.  This should not be a burden to us but should be a joy.  The writer of Hebrews said, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard.” (Hebrews 2:1a).  Let us pray.