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08-28 - New Purpose in Christ

          The last couple of weeks we have been speaking about newness in Christ.  We spoke about having a new life in Christ and a new attitude in Christ.  Today, I would like us to talk about the new purpose Christ gives to our life.

          Every life has a purpose. By purpose we mean to say that there is a reason, an aim, and a goal for each life.  The purpose of life that are common to all people were first described in the Book of Genesis.  The Bible says, “The Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden… The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:8a, 9).  After having created the garden, God created humanity.  After creating the man, “15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 1:15).  The first purpose of humanity was revealed.  The man was charged by God with being a steward, a caretaker, of what God had created.

          After the man, God created the woman.  The Book of Genesis again says, “27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:27-28).  God gave humanity additional purposes.  Namely, the man and woman were to form a partnership and together fulfil the purpose of caring for what God provided.  The natural outcome of that man and woman partnership was expected to be children who would grow in number and care for the entirety of the earth.  The Book of Genesis says, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This then is another purpose for humanity.  That the partnership of man and woman would become a marriage, and that marriage was to be the nucleus of the growing family. 

The man and woman were not to be independent nomads coming together just for the purpose of creating children and then going their separate ways.  The purpose of humanity was to come together for the purpose of forming families with the marriage of the man and woman at the center.

God was laying out for humanity that there was a purpose to be served.  Those purposes included stewardship of what God created, stewardship of marriage, and stewardship of the offspring of that man/woman relationship.  These God-given purposes are universal purposes; meaning these purposes are given to every man and every woman.  And, we don’t want to miss this point, these God-given purposes were given to humanity with one and only one rule, obey God.  Following God’s word, obedience to God, was the glue that would hold together the other purposes of life.  What did obedience mean then?  Obey God’s word: “Do not eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

So in the beginning, all of humanity was given four purposes.  Be stewards of God’s creation.  Be stewards of marriage.  Be stewards of the children.  And be obedient to God.

None of those purposes have ever changed or been revoked by God and each purpose remains applicable to every man and woman.  Let me explain that latter point just a bit. Everyone is to be a steward of what God has created.  I think we all get that point.  We are here on earth and must do our part to care for what has been entrusted to us. Everyone is to be a steward of marriage. To fulfill that purpose, those who are married are expected to care for each other in the marriage and those who are married or unmarried must encourage the marriage of others and respect the boundaries of those marriages.  When we attend a wedding, whether we are married or single ourselves, we are fulfilling one of our God-given purposes by encouraging and supporting the couple getting married.  When we attend the funeral of someone’s spouse, whether we ourselves are married or single, we are fulfilling one of our God-given purposes by giving honor and acknowledgement to the grief of the surviving spouse.  All of us are responsible for being stewards of marriage.

All of us are responsible for the stewardship of the children among us.  Certainly, the parents bear a primary role but every one of us plays a supporting role. We are entrusted to support the development of children.  Think of it this way.  Suppose for a moment, you come out of church building, and you see a child, a toddler of two years old, standing in the street.  There are no other adults around or near the child.  You see cars coming up the street in the direction of this toddler. I have absolutely no doubt that every person here, regardless of parental status, physical limitations, or marital status would respond as quickly as they could to guide that child to safety.  None of us would think, “I hope someone else like their parent comes along to guide that kid out of the road.”  Why would we respond quickly to that child?  Because every person here knows in their bones that they have a God-giving purpose of stewardship for children.

I have taken a lot of our time thus far to talk about these universal purposes because I want us all to see that from the beginning, God has shown himself to be a God of purpose.  And every one of the God-given purposes, caring for his creation, nurturing marriage, caring for children, and following his word is intended to bring about abundant life.  God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

Unfortunately, the first man and woman, did not adhere to all the God-given purposes.  The man and woman did not follow God’s word and ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Sin came into their lives and sin spread into the lives of their children leading to the corruption of every one of the other God-given purposes.  How badly corrupted did our purposes in life become?  Think of it this way.  The Bible contains 1,540 words about life lived in which people followed God’s word and his purposes.  And the Bible contains an additional 781,597 words about life lived after sin entered and corrupted God’s purposes.  We come to see that absent following God’s word, humanity is unable and unwilling to follow its God-given purposes of caring for creation, marriages, and children.  Oh, there are many who work hard at caring for creation, relationships, and children but ultimately all these efforts are destined to fall short unless people first submit to following God’s word.

That latter point is a sobering thought.  Unless there is an expression of obedience to God, then all our efforts to have a society that genuinely cares about creation, marriage, family, and children will necessarily fall short.  Why?  Because if we make care for creation, marriage, family, and children our idea, done our way, as our self-given purpose, well then, we can also choose not to have those purposes.  There is nothing binding me to my own purposes except me and my resolve, my emotions, and my feelings can change in an instant and so can yours.  But if we accept caring for creation, marriage, family, and children in accordance with God’s word as God-given purposes, then we cannot change those purposes.  We can only follow them or not.

How then do we see this picture of God-given purposes and obedience to God play out in our life today?  What is it that God is telling us today?  Let’s look at those questions through the passage we read earlier from the Book of Acts.

We enter the scene as the Apostle Paul, was giving testimony to King Agrippa about Paul’s behavior towards the followers of Christ before Paul encountered Christ on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Paul was speaking, “I [Paul] too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name [everything about the person] of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests, I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they [the Christians] were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them [the Christians] punished, and I tried to force them [Christians} to blaspheme [publicly renounce Christ]. I was so obsessed with persecuting them [Christians] that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:9-12).  Let’s just catch our breath for a moment.  Paul held nothing back.  Paul laid bare that he, Paul, had made it his purpose in life to destroy the life of Jesus Christ and to destroy or take the life of any man, woman, or child who dared to believe in Jesus Christ.  We hear Paul’s summary of his behavior, and we should be able to tell right away that Paul is on the wrong side of God.  Remember, we know from Genesis that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.  Paul’s self-given purpose was to bring about misery and death.  We, therefore, know from Genesis that Paul was acting outside the will of God, outside obedience to God.  Let’s see how Paul’s disobedience was addressed.

Paul continued his testimony to King Agrippa, “12 On one of these journeys [to a foreign city] I [Paul] was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests [to continue hunting Christians]. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road [Jerusalem to Damascus], I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  15 Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied’” (Acts 26:13-15).  Jesus made himself known to Paul in a unique way; like a blazing white light that knocked everyone to the ground.  In that encounter, Jesus charged Paul with being disobedient to God’s will by Paul making it his own purpose to persecute Christians and thus persecute Jesus himself. I could well imagine that Paul must have thought this was his end.  Remember, though, we know from Genesis that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

With that in mind, we return to the final segment of the passage today of Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa.  Paul testified that Jesus said to Paul, “16 ‘Now [Paul] get up and stand on your feet. I [Jesus] have appeared to you to appoint you [Paul] as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people [the Jews] and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they [those hearing your testimony] may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made right with God] by faith in me’” (Acts 26:16-18).

Let’s see what Jesus did here.  First, rather than end Paul’s life for being disobedient, Jesus gave Paul a new life.  Two weeks ago, we spoke about the fact that those who accept Jesus have two lives. One life lived following Jesus in the here and now and a second life lived in the spirit with Christ in heaven. 

Paul would later share the with the Christians in the church of Philippi the two-life condition of Christians.  Paul said, “21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die [bodily] is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 2:21-24).  Paul learned on that road from Jerusalem to Damascus under searing white light the truth we know as well.  In Christ, we live twice because in Christ we have new life now and life even after death of the body.

Jesus then told Paul, “I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17b-18). Paul said his identity had been established for him as he carried his commission from the high priest in Jerusalem. Now, Jesus said, “Paul, with your new life you will get a new identity and that identity is from me.”

Paul had a new life and a new identity.  We then should expect Paul to have a new purpose.  And that is what we see coming from Jesus next.  Jesus said to Paul, “I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17b-18a). Jesus told Paul to call the Jews and the Gentiles to repent, that is turn from their own ways (darkness) and come to Christ (the light), to turn from the power of Satan to the power of God. Why did God want people to turn from darkness to light and Satan to God?  Jesus said it was so those hearing Paul’s testimony about Jesus, “may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made right with God] by faith in me [Jesus]’ (Acts 26:18).  God sent Jesus for the purpose of bringing about the redemption of humanity from sin to obedience so that they could be right with God.  Jesus was now sending Paul with the purpose of sharing the redemption message with others.  And we know that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

Paul obeyed Jesus and shared the good news of life, identity, and purpose in Jesus.  The other apostles obeyed Jesus and shared the good news of life, identity, and purpose in Jesus.  Those who heard the apostles likewise shared the good news with others and that pattern has been repeated to include those who shared the good news with you and me. We are heirs of the same purpose Jesus gave to Paul.  We too are to share the good news with others and encourage a turning from darkness to light, from death to life.  There are many “spiritual” toddlers in your life and my life standing alone in the street in the path of oncoming traffic who need you and me, not someone else, to guide them out of the street and into the safety of Christ.  Jesus has given you and me that purpose.  Let’s go, obedient to God, and accept as our purpose to bring life to others.  Let’s share the good news of Jesus.  Let’s be obedient to God’s word.  And let’s care for what God has created, care for the institution of marriage, and care for the children.  These are the God-given purposes given to us in our new life and new identity.  These purposes always bring about abundant life.    Amen and Amen.

8-21 - New Attitude in Christ

          We spoke last week that believers in Jesus Christ have two lives.  In Christ, we have an abundant life in this world as we follow Jesus’ and a second life awaits us in the spirit with God in heaven.  Today, since we are here in this world, let’s speak a bit more about our life in Christ in this world.

          When we accept Christ in the here and now, our identity becomes fixed to Christ’s identity.  Our identity is so set by Christ that we openly carry the label, Christians.  To be a Christian is to state that we are a follower of Christ.  To be a Christian does not mean we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or any other denomination of church.  To be a Christian is a complete identity.  When we say we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Lutheran we are simply describing the setting in which we choose to practice the outworking of our identity in Christ.

          So, if we accept Christ and the identity of being Christian in the here and now, what does that mean?  How does our new identity in Christ expected to be seen by others?  I think one of the best ways to see what it means to be a Christian is by looking through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early church.  Paul wrote his letter about 50 AD to 60 AD.  The frame in which Paul wrote was simpler than today.  For Paul, there were two groups of people: pagans and Jews. Gradually, coming from each of those two groups was an emerging group called the People of the Way or Christians. When Paul wrote his letters, there were no denominations of Christians.  However, at the time of the emergence of the Christians, the Jews began persecuting the Christians for being Christians.  Later, the pagans would become the chief persecutors of the Christians.

          In the emergence of the Christians, under persecution, instruction was needed as to what it meant to identity as a Christian.  We know from our own natural lives that for instructions to be effective, instructions must be simple, easily remembered, able to survive the test of time, and be applicable under all circumstances.  Paul’s letters provided instruction to the emerging church.  But Paul knew his instructions to church must not be his own. Paul knew his instructions needed to be of God because Jesus intended the Church to be the instrument of proclaiming God’s good news.  And that good news, the gospel message of salvation, was to change the world.  The latter point bears repeating.  The Church founded by Jesus was intended to be an instrument through which God would share the salvation message and move the world to change.  And so, Paul’s instruction to the Church about what it meant to identify as having a new life in Christ, needed to simple, easily remembered, survive the test of time, be applicable under all circumstances, and lead to changing the world. What was it then that Paul was moved to write about the identity of Christians?

          Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.  Paul began his letter with these opening statements.

  • 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.
  • 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. 
  • 27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

There are a couple of important points we need to make here.  First, Paul was writing to other Christians.  Paul’s letter is not for the world at large.  Paul’s letter is a letter to a Church, and must be read in the context of the Church.  Second, we see that Paul was joyful at the thought of Christians in the Church.  It did not matter to Paul what city the people were in who formed the church.  What mattered was the world was changing because the church existed.  Third, Paul prayed for these people.  Paul prayed for a deepening of their faith, of their understanding, and for a more bountiful harvest of the fruit, the product of their righteous behavior.  Paul wanted these people to flourish.  Finally, Paul prayed that whatever this collection of Christians did, that it would do so in a manner worthy of Jesus.

Paul’s letter was providing Christians that we should be joyful every time we see that Christians are gathered, whether that is expressed in the form of a new church or in the form of a worship service.  Paul’s words mean that we should be celebrating not only what we do together as Christians, but we should also celebrate what other Christians are accomplishing, whether across the world or across the street.  We should be joyfully praying for them.

In my devotional this week, I read an illustration that I want to adapt here.  Almost all of us at some point in our life had a sports team, or individual involved in competition, or watched with anticipation an Olympic sporting event on television.  We were rooting for someone or some team in those competitions.  We wanted our team or person to win against the others. Perhaps in that event, someone from the other team or the opponent committed a foul, stepped over the line, or went out of bounds causing that team or individual to face a penalty or other added challenge.  What did we do in response to their transgression?  We cheered hurrah, of course.  This is natural.  We are excited to see our team prosper and be recognized for their hard work even if it meant we cheered a new hardship for the opposing team.  Sometimes in the economy of church life, we forget to pray for the work of other churches and even sometimes we can have a bit of delight in the failings and struggles of another church.

But we must ask ourselves this, “Does God cheer when someone we know goes out of bounds and sins?  Does God say “Hurrah” when another church struggles or stumbles along because of a misstep in their faithfulness?”  I do not think so.  I think God is grieved by sin and missteps by individuals or churches themselves.  Paul was telling his friends in Philippi that he prayed for them always.  He prayed for them in their success and in their stumbling. We should likewise be praying in joy for other Christians and churches whether they are enjoying a season of success or a season of distress.

Why should we pray in such a way? We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better.  Let me say that again.  We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better.  Now in today’s chaotic and conflicted society, you might be inclined to think I have lost my mind to say that the world is getting better.  My sanity or the state of the world would be a good topic of debate but not for today. Instead, what I want you to image is what the world would be like without Christians.  If you think society is coarse and life is not worth what it should be worth today, can you imagine what this world would be like without the influence of Jesus through his people, the church?  I shudder to think what life on earth would be like.  Jesus changed the world and is continuing to do so through his church.  Paul recognized what the church was accomplishing before his own eyes, and Paul was overjoyed.

From a posture of joy and prayer for Christians, Paul then imparted the much-needed guidance to all Christians about how to live out an identity with Christ.  Paul said it in just a few words which we can sum up this way, “If you identify with Christ, if you are a Christian, then “adopt the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:5a).

People who identify with Christ have a new life with Christ and therefore, Paul says, ought to have a new attitude in toward life.  And the attitude of a Christian is not a mystery or tailored to be different from one Christian to the next.  Paul said the attitude of all Christians for all times for all parts of the word, expressed in all languages and in all denominations should be the same attitude that Jesus Christ expressed.

Attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event.  Paul said that Christian, the Church, must adopt the attitude of Jesus Christ.  We think about that for a moment, and we think that makes sense.  If my identity is tied to Jesus, then by attitude should come from him.  We think, “Yeah, that makes sense…but wait, what is the attitude of Jesus Christ?”  Paul would say, I am glad you asked.

Paul wrote, “5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.  7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant,  taking on the likeness of humanity.  And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).  Jesus’ attitude in a single word was one of humility.

          Paul said Jesus expressed his humility first by emptying himself of status in heaven and taking on the likeness of humanity, becoming flesh and blood.  So in heaven, Jesus humbled himself to become human.  That was step one.  On earth, Paul said, Jesus then expressed his humility by “assuming the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).  So on earth, Jesus humbled himself to serve others.  Jesus was and is God.  He has absolute power over all there ever was, is and will be.  And yet he humbled himself in heaven to become human and then as a human, he humbled himself on earth to become servant.

          I was reading something the other day that made me think. It began with the proposition we have heard before, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  This little proverbial saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” means that whenever a person has power over others, that power corrupts him or her.  Power morally destroys a person’s nature and fills them with destructive pride. However, this was not true of Jesus.  Jesus had absolute power and yet power never corrupted Jesus.  Why was Jesus not corrupted by power?  Perhaps it is because the proverbial saying should be, “Absolute power, removes the mask we wear, absolutely.”  Meaning whenever a person has power over others, that power eventually removes any masks they wear revealing their true self.  This proverb would be true for Jesus and all of humanity. The absolute power of Jesus Christ removed any mask any might claim Jesus wore and in doing so we discover Jesus is the same with or without any mask.  Jesus was and is humble through and through.  Jesus was and is slow to anger, abounding in love, bringing comfort and encouragement.  This is what Paul meant by the attitude of Jesus.  But we know that people, we have people in our life, that have power over others, and they like to appear kindhearted, generous, and benevolent. And yet, as they gain power the mask fails and drops, and we see a very different person.  This is who we are as humans.  This is the world. 

Paul was saying we cannot wear the mask of being Christ, we must adopt the same through and through attitude of Christ.  And the attitude of Christ is thoroughly humble. Now being humble does not mean we are to become a doormat to others or live like a monk or have a low sense of self-esteem.  Paul gave descriptors to the humble nature of Christ in the opening of the second chapter of his letter.  Let’s look at how Christ expressed humility.

In verse 2, Paul asked whether his readers had:

  • Encouragement in Christ.  The humility of Jesus was expressed as being an encourager of people.  Jesus was available to people who were discouraged and lacking hope.  He lifted people up and walked with them through their fears.  We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must be open to others and be encouragers.
  • Consolation in [His] love.  The humility of Jesus was expressed in loving others, particularly those who the society refused to love or respect.  Jesus loved and elevated in this life women, children, Samaritans, Phoenicians, fishermen, and tax collectors all who of whom were outside the center of religious life. But more important than elevating them socially, Jesus loved them before God.  We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must love others and use our sense of love to elevate them.  We must love others to lift them up before God.  Love them by praying for them.
  • Fellowship in the Spirit.  Jesus expressed humility through fellowship.  Jesus celebrated life and broke bread with his disciples, with friends, and even detractors.  Jesus invested in the lives of others in intimate ways.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be willing to be intimate with others.  If we have a home, do we open it to be used for fellowship.  If we do not have a home to receive people, do we walk with people or make an effort to include them into the fellowship of the church?  Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Having the same attitude as Christ is to draw people together in fellowship so that Christ is evident in the Spirit.
  • Affection and Mercy.  Jesus expressed humility through affection toward others and conveying mercy.  Jesus called his disciples “friends,” a term of affection.  In mercy, Jesus gave relief to others.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be appropriately affectionate toward others not as a response to affection received but in advance of receiving affection. We need to become good enduring friends to each other and offer relief without asking.

In verse 3 and 4, Paul went further and told his readers that to adopt the same attitude as Christ meant, “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Jesus’ concern was for others.  The concern for others was the reason God sent Jesus.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be concerned and act in the best interests of others.

Believers have the identity of Christ but must express that identity with the same attitude as Christ that is with through and through humility.  Christ’s humility is expressed toward other believers with encouragement, love, and affection.  It is a humility that offers fellowship and mercy as well as acts on behalf of one another. The attitude, the humility of Christ, expressed by Christians is a light into an otherwise dark world of self-centeredness.  The humility of Christ did and will continue to change the world and Jesus invites each of us to be part of that exciting future.  Amen and Amen.

8-14 - New Life in Christ

          I find it interesting to look at odd statistics about people who live in the United States or perhaps it is statistics about odd people who live in the United States.  Either way, I looked at statistics about how many those living in the United States own cats.  The data suggests that one in every four American households has one or more cats. In fact, of those households with cats, they have an average of 1.8 cats.  I am not sure what a 0.8 cat looks like.  Of cats, many owners will say, their cat has nine lives.  The idea of a cat having nine lives is an old idea likely coming from ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.  It is an interesting thought that a cat could have more than one life. But we know they have only one life.

          Whether you are a cat owner or not, we all share this same trait with cats.  We too only have one life.  We are born from our mothers only one time.  We had no say over being conceived or being born.  But each of us came to receive our one life. Despite what some celebrities might say about having lived in a prior life, we do not possess the myth of the cat in which we have nine or more lives.   Believing that we can comeback in a new body and live our life over again is a delusion.

We have only one life.  While we share with the cat that we each only have one life, there is a substantial difference between our life and the life of a cat.  A cat has a physical life only.  But our life is composed of two parts: a physical being, we call the body, and a spiritual being we call the soul or spirit.  When a cat dies a physical death, the cat’s life is complete. When we die a physical death, our bodies cease but our life defined by our soul continues.  Upon the death of our body, our soul or our spirit continues.

Earlier this year, in the Thursday night Bible study, we explored what happens to our soul or spirit upon the death of our bodies.  Early Biblical beliefs found in the Old Testament, suggested that upon death, the souls of all humanity came to rest in Sheol, a shadowy place of eternal nothingness.  Sheol was a place to be avoided because whether you were faithful or disobedient, existence was the same, a complete separation from God.  The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described Sheol this way, “18 For the grave cannot praise you [God], death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18).  It was thought that death was hell for all.

While the view of death and the destiny of the soul changed somewhat over time, it was not until the coming of Jesus, God in the flesh, that the truth was made plain.  And the truth Jesus revealed was mind-blowing.  We read a little insight from Jesus about the soul’s destiny earlier today when Jesus said, “32 Whoever acknowledges me before others [other people], I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others [other people], I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).  Jesus brought forth a new revelation that changed everything.  Acknowledging Jesus in life before our physical death meant that Jesus would acknowledge us to God in heaven.  Renouncing Jesus before our physical death meant Jesus would renounce us to God in heaven.  Jesus’ point was that there is something other than Sheol that awaits those who believe.  That other thing is heaven.  Jesus would also say:

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  For the believer there is not eternal nothingness, there is eternal life.
  • I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).  For the believer there is life not death.
  • “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).  For the believer there is not nothingness for the soul, there is something exciting awaiting, a home with God.

Jesus revealed that what we believe in our one life as body and soul had a direct bearing on what became of our soul upon the death of our body.  For all souls were destined to Sheol, later named hell or Hades, unless acknowledgement of Jesus was made prior to physical death.  In acknowledging and following Jesus, then it is not death that awaits the soul but life.

Jesus explained this revelation to one of Israel’s teachers of Scripture, Nicodemus, this way.  “Jesus replied [said], ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’  ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:3-6).  We sang the substance of this passage earlier when we sang: “A ruler once came to Jesus by night, to ask Him the way of salvation and light; The Master made answer in words true and plain, ‘Ye must be born again.’”

Jesus’ message confounded the learned teacher Nicodemus.  How indeed can a person be born again?  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4b). Nicodemus was, of course, correct. We cannot be physically born again. Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth.  He was talking about a spiritual rebirth.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus left open the question, “How does someone experience a spiritual rebirth?” 

In the natural life cycle, birth precedes death. Logically then rebirth, a second birth, must follow a death.  Jesus explained the spiritual rebirth this way, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          I suspect when Jesus revealed this truth to his disciples, his followers, and even his detractors, people hearing Jesus’ words had to take a moment and think about what Jesus said.  We can think of Jesus’ words this way.  “If we never look beyond [our physical] life, we will die twice.  First, the body eventually dies, then the soul suffers a second death as it is cast away from God forever.  But if we die to self and trust in Christ, then we live twice.  We live in this life first, and then, when the physical heart fails, our spiritual ‘heart,’ having loved God is united to him forever.”[1]  Thinking in the context of two lives or two deaths is a way of understanding Jesus’ words, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          Jesus spoke again of these two deaths and two lives just before his own physical death.  “23 Jesus replied [said], ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me’” (John 12:23-26).

To live twice, we must lose our life to Christ.

          Jesus was laying out a revolutionary thought about physical life and eternal spiritual life.  Jesus’ revelation carried risk and danger.  To place faith in Jesus meant people had to abandon the religious practices of their families and society.  To place faith in Jesus meant people of no faith must abandon the world of doubters and skeptics and come to belief.  Jesus’ revelation was an announcement that spiritual warfare had begun.

          Jesus said to accept him is to engage in warfare against everything else in life. Jesus understood that his message was so revealing and radical that at first to follow him would cause strife not peace.  We read earlier today that Jesus said, “34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34-36).  Jesus understood to become his disciple would not be universally accepted by family and friends.  Becoming Jesus’ disciple was not then and is not today universally accepted. 

In fact, today there is a growing intolerance to Christians even in the United States.  I read last week an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that non-religious parents are a growing segment of the American population raising non-religious children.  The editor acknowledged that America is becoming less moral as it becomes more secular but that should not worry anyone because there are societies such as Japan and Scandinavian that do not embrace Judeo-Christian values but are peaceful societies.  The editor seems to want to ignore data coming from societies that alternately persecuted, outlawed, or widely reviled religion in which over 90 million people were killed in such places as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan.  The spiritual warfare Jesus spoke about first occurs in the family setting but eventually plays itself out in the politics and moral practices of governments.

          Jesus knew his message of hope would cause tension because we must continually choose to follow Jesus even if members of our own family are opposed to our choice. Our life must be guided by the wishes of God over the wishes of our own loved one.  Jesus said, “37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). 

Jesus’ words seem harsh and hard to hear and they may be hard for us to fully comprehend.  Jesus explained what he meant this way.  As Jesus was walking along the road one day, several people were following him, interested in becoming a disciple.  “One man said to him [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  58 Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  59 He [Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he [that man] replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  60 Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-60). 

Let’s focus on the second conversation the man who wanted to bury his dead father, but Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus’ words on one level seem harsh. The man’s father is dead, and he would like a moment to bury his father before continuing his journey was Jesus. That seems reasonable.  But Jesus rebuffs that idea and offers the man a seemingly ridiculous solution, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  “Let the dead undertaker bury your dead father.”  And we walk away confused by this exchange unless we realize that the man’s father is not dead but very much alive.

Let’s look at this exchange again in that context. Jesus said to a man walking with him, “Follow me.”  That man replied, “Lord, let me go and first bury my father.  As long as my father is alive he would never bless or accept my decision to follow you.  Let me wait to follow you after he is dead and buried.”  Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead.  Your father in refusing to accept me is and will remain spiritually dead.  Let those like your father who are also spiritually dead bury him when he dies. But you, to accept me means that you are alive.  You who are alive must go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  In this context, we see that the man was struggling to accept Jesus because his family would not accept his decision or him.  We now see what Jesus meant when he said, “35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father’” (Matthew 10:35a).

Jesus said to his disciples, and he is saying to each one of us today, choose to follow me that you may be born again into that second life.  It is a life in which Jesus’ becomes the guide of our life now and our advocate before God.  And our choice matters not just to us but matters to the society in which we will live out our physical life.  But discipleship in Jesus is costly.  To follow Jesus means we have so test ourselves and see if our heart is committed to Christ.  Is Jesus really the most important thing in our life?  Is Jesus more important than money, sports, leisure activities, travel, friendships, work ethic, prayer, and study?  Or is Jesus so important to us that he informs every aspect of our life? Are we proclaiming the kingdom of God as we walk through life?  Does our belief in him inform the ways we spend money, engage in sports and leisure activities, travel, friendships, work, prayer, and study?  Have our beliefs cost us anything?

We have before us today a choice of two deaths or two lives.  What determines the difference between death and life is whether we publicly accept Jesus before others and live that choice sincerely.  If you have publicly accepted Jesus, blessings on you.  You have chosen the path of two lives, now live it out by proclaiming the kingdom of God in everything you do.  If you have never been invited to publicly accept Jesus or was hesitant to accept previous invitations, today is the day for you make a choice for two lives.  Don’t hesitate.  Don’t say, “I’ll do it is someone else goes first.”  There may not be another opportunity to publicly express your faith in Jesus and know with certainty that you have passed over from death to life. If this is where you are today, then as we sing our next hymn, just come and stand next to me as we sing our praises together.  Jesus’ words call to you, “Come, follow me.”  Amen and Amen.

[1] Doriani, Daniel M., Matthew: Volume I: Chapters 1-13; Reformed Expository Commentary, (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ), 452.


07-31 - Righteousness

          This past week three churches combined efforts to promote and participate in Vacation Bible School. It was a high energy week in which we had about 20 kids attending.  The theme of the week was that God can do all things and that with Jesus all things are possible.  Each day, the theme was reinforced through Bible stories, songs, experiments, crafts, snacks, storytelling, and games.  The children who attended came from the three churches (Latham, Saratoga, and the Ghana church) as well as other churches in Latham and at least a couple of kids who had no church affiliation at all.

          The central theme of the week was “Jesus Does the Impossible.”  We explored the theme through five scenes in of the New Testament. The first scene was from the Gospel of John that recounted Jesus’ first miracle when Jesus turned water into wine. The second scene was from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus walked on water.  The third of the five scenes came from the Gospel of Mark when Jesus healed a woman who had a bleeding issue and Jesus raised a young girl from the dead. Our fourth scene came from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus himself was raised from the dead and appeared to his followers.  And our final day came from the Book of Acts in which Jesus stopped in his tracks a persecutor of Christians, a man named Saul, and changed Saul into the Apostle Paul and sent Paul to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

          The ideas behind using these five scenes were to see Jesus is God and cares about us, to know that Jesus is with us all the time, to experience the healing presence of Jesus, to realize that Jesus saves us and gives us life, and finally, that Jesus calls us to tell others about Him.  It was a good, productive and at times, an exhausting week.  But in the end, I think we helped the children understand that Jesus does the impossible.

          The keys to each of these accounts is to see that Jesus is God and that faith in Jesus changes us. As we consider those same two points, how might we see faith in Jesus changing us as adults?  How does this faith play itself out in our everyday living? I would like to explore the answers to those questions through a sermon that Jesus gave and is found in the Gospel of Matthew.  We call it the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus gave this sermon to his immediate disciples while upon the hillside or mount.  The sermon goes for nearly three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew.  If we were to distill the sermon to a single word, we could say the sermon is about “righteousness.”

          Righteousness is the quality of being morally upright or justifiable.  Righteousness is a personal ethical conduct in which the person seeks to live evermore properly to God’s standards.  Righteousness should not be confused with self-righteousness in which the person seeks to have other people live evermore properly to that person’s standard all they while claiming they themselves were living to God’s standards. A person acting in a self-righteousness manner has an air of moral superiority in their attitude toward others.

          Near the beginning for the sermon on righteousness, Jesus told his disciples, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  Jesus was not telling his disciples to be better at being a Pharisee than the Pharisee.  Jesus was telling his disciples, “I know you respect the perceived righteousness of the Pharisees, but much more than what the Pharisees will be required of you to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus would explain that righteousness is living a life in which even the toeholds of sin are kept out of one’s life.  The hallmark of a righteous life then would be seeking the kingdom of God first and foremost and acquiring the righteousness of God himself.  Seeking first the righteousness of God makes all other things possible.

          In the pursuit of righteousness, Jesus said some very specific changes would be evident in disciples’ lives.  Seeking the righteousness of God would make the disciples different from the rest of the world.  Jesus’ words mean we too must necessarily be different from the rest of the world.

          Let’s look at just a couple of those changes.  Verses 1 and 2 of Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus’ words that say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1).  These words of Jesus are known by Christians and non-Christians.  Christians know them because they are often the subject of sermons.  Non-Christians know these words because non-Christians use these words as a jab at Christians with such taunts as, “You call yourself a Christian, but you are so judgmental of others.”

          There are a couple of things we need to consider here.  Jesus was not saying, “Do not judge anything!”  Quite the contrary.  All throughout the sermon, Jesus was giving his disciple example after example of how the disciples were to judge their own behavior against the standards of God’s righteousness.  Jesus said, “Don’t babble when praying” (Matthew 6:7).  Jesus said, “When you fast don’t disfigure your face like some do in order to be noticed.  Instead, be presentable.  When fasting put oil n you head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17).  Jesus did not prohibit his disciples from judging whether involving themselves in an event was proper or not.  Jesus disciples were expected to judge whether something was wholesome or savagery.  What Jesus said was that his disciples were not engage in judgments for and about others in the judgement of righteousness.  Jesus was saying that it was not the disciples’ role to set the standards for the righteousness of others but to seek God’s righteousness for themselves.  First seeking God’s righteousness makes possible judgements we must make to know what is good and pleasing to God.

          I recently saw an interview by a British commentator, Piers Morgan, of Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham.  Morgan continually accused Graham of judging the righteousness of certain groups of people. Each time, Graham responded politely that he judged no one and spoke against no one.  Graham said he only pointed out for himself and for other Christians to behaviors that Jesus set for his followers.  Graham was steadfast that he would never judge others by setting a standard for righteousness but would always encourage people to see what God said was the standard of righteousness provided by God.

          Jesus then used some humor with his disciples to get his point across.  Jesus said, ““Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

          Jesus used some great humor here to make the point about judgements about the righteousness.  Jesus asked his disciples to envision having a plank of wood sticking out of their eye and then being so presumptuous that they could not only see a bit of sawdust in the eye of another person but also believe they could take action to remove the sawdust all the while impeded by the plank in their own eye.  Jesus displayed a great sense of humor through this illustration.  Jesus made clear that self-righteous behavior makes someone not only look ridiculous but makes the task of fixing someone else impossible.

          Instead, Jesus said fix what is wrong with yourself, remove the plank from your own eye no matter how small we might imagine them to be.  Jesus’ point was that his disciples must first seek the righteousness of God by knowing what it means to be in a right relationship with God.  The disciples must get rid of what obscures their view of God, namely sin.  Once the disciples’ relationship with God is made right, then it will be possible for them to manage our relationships with others and, perhaps, even off help to others.

          But, Jesus said, even in the pursuit of God’s treasured righteousness, they must exercise great in sharing that treasure. In furtherance of this point, Jesus presented to his disciples this proverbial command, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6).  There are a couple of ways to view Jesus’ words.  First, could be that we should not share the wisdom of God’s kingdom with those who have no interest in God’s kingdom for that would be a waste.  It would be like giving something sacred to a dog or putting pearls on a pig.  They recipient will not respect the sacred or the treasure.  This would be a perfectly good reading of Jesus words except that most people who are not interested in God’s righteousness tend to walk away and not turn on you to tear you apart.

          As such, we must consider a possible second way of reading Jesus’ words. Perhaps, Jesus was still commanding his disciples to avoid being self-righteous.  Jesus had told his disciples to not judge the righteousness of others or deal with people with a plank in their own eye.  Perhaps then Jesus meant this proverb to mean, “If you have acquired God’s wisdom and a measure of His righteousness, genuinely sacred and treasured things, do not share what you know with other as though they were mere dogs or swine.  Strip away your sense of superiority before you share, otherwise those to whom you speak will trample your words and then turn on you for treating them with contempt.”

          Think about our experiences in life.  Have you ever had someone approach you in a smug and superior manner?  I know I have.  Their presence is like sandpaper being rubbed on your body.  It is irritating and unpleasant to be in their presence. Their words are hard to receive even when they might be right.  Often the thought we have is, “Get off your high horse and stop acting holier than thou!”

          I think the second interpretation fits better Jesus’ proverbial teaching.  Acting with superior attitudes towards others impedes the work of the kingdom and prevents the righteousness of God from being received by others.

          Having given his disciples three admonishments about self-righteousness, Jesus said this, ““Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  Jesus here appears to be encouraging his disciples to pursue and petition God by asking, seeking, and knocking on His door to receive, find, and have opened to them.  What is it that Jesus means here?

          Some people have a view that Jesus was making a open invitation to ask God for anything and it would be granted.  If that were so, then there are a lot of disappointed Christians in the pews today because they prayed that God might bless them to win the $1.3 Billion Mega Millions jackpot Friday night and their prayers went unanswered.  I have heard many pastors preach that not all prayers are answered because the request is not within the will of God.  God will only answer what is within his will.

Accepting that understanding then, I do not believe Jesus was talking to his disciples about open ended petitions to God.  I do not believe Jesus had left the topic of righteousness.  I think we might get a better understand of Jesus’ words this way, “Ask and God’s righteousness [it] will be given to you; seek [God’s righteousness] and you will find [it]; knock and the door [to God’s righteousness and kingdom] will be opened to you.  For everyone [no one is excluded] who asks for [God’s righteousness] receives; the one who seeks [God’s righteousness] finds [it]; and to the one who knocks, the door [to God’s righteousness and kingdom] will be opened.” 

Jesus wanted his disciples and us to know that entry into the kingdom of God and access to the righteousness of God was available to us if we would just ask, seek, and knock on the door.  Jesus also wanted his disciples, including you and me, to know that to pray for a right relationship with God as suggested in verses 7 and 8, was a prayer God would absolutely answer.  To pray for righteousness, is within the will of God because Jesus said so.  Praying for a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ means what had been impossible, abundant life in the present and eternal life with God, was now not only possible but assured.

Our kids had a high energy week of coming to know that Jesus accomplished for us what was not possible for us to do.  Jesus that we could be free from sin and could enter a daily and unending life with God. We should then pay heed to Jesus’ words about how to live worth of the gift we have received.  We should not treat that sacred gift and treasure by trampling it.  We should seek wisdom and understanding of the gift God has given, honor it, and lift it up to others without elevating ourselves in the process.  If we do so, then all things become possible through Jesus. Amen and Amen.

07-24 Got Faith?

          Last week, Becky and I had an opportunity to spend some time way to refresh and relax.  During our time away, we attended a theatrical production of the Biblical story of David at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  The theater holds 2,000 people and it is sold out for two shows per day throughout most of the year.  The people who attended when we were there came in all sizes, shapes, colors, ages, and I am sure all different Christian denominations. All the people came for one reason. They wanted to see the story of David played out before them.  They wanted to see the pages of their Bibles made of delicate and thin paper turned into robust three dimensions with people making the Biblical story alive.  We were not disappointed.  The presentation was engaging, at times humorous, at other times sad, but always thought provoking.

          David, as we learn from the Bible, was referred to as a “man after God’s own heart.” David desired God and David would repeatedly show his love of God throughout his life.  But.  There is always a but!  But David also did some proudly ungodly things.  David committed adultery with a married woman, Bathsheba.  Bathsheba became pregnant through her relationship with David. David, then king of Israel, attempted to use deceit to coverup Bathsheba’s pregnancy but failed to do so.  Having failed in deceit, David concluded there was only one way to hide the truth about his relationship with Bathsheba and that was to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed in battle.  David carried through on his plan and had Uriah killed in battle.  David thus moved from adulterer and liar to murderer.  And despite these ungodly acts, David was still considered a man after God’s own heart.

          The story of David, like the stories of Jesus’ disciples, like our own stories, teach us that we are an odd mixture of saint and sinner.  One moment we can be saintly expressing our love for God and one another and then another moment we can be sinners doing exactly what we ought not do.  The Apostle Paul put it this way, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).  What is it that drives us to do what we want to do?  What is missing then when we do what we do not want to do?  I would like to explore the answer to our two opposing behaviors from the perspective of faith.   

          Let’s look at faith through two Biblical accounts. This first comes from our Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel, Chapter 17.  This is a familiar story to many.  As the scene opens, we see that the battlelines were drawn between the Philistines and the Israelites.  The Philistines placed at the head of their army a giant named Goliath to intimidate the Israelites.  Goliath was a very tall and imposing figure.  There is some variation in how scholars calculate the measurements for Goliath.  Estimates place Goliath’s height as no less than 6’ 9” tall to as much as 9’ 9” tall. Goliath taunted the Israelites for forty days calling upon them to send a warrior to fight him in a winner take all match.  The Israelites acted powerless.  The Israelites could see no earthly way to defeat such a physically strong opponent.

          Then, one day, a young man, David, about 17 years old, arrived at this scene. David, perhaps all of 5 feet tall, might also have seen there was no earthly way to defeat Goliath.  David saw that the giant, Goliath, on one side of the valley and the paralyzed Israelites on the other side.  In surveying the scene, David, unlike Israelite army, knew God was present and that it was God’s will that the Philistines be defeated.  David knew that while an earthly battle was needed, the outcome of that battle would be decided supernaturally by God.   

With such an understanding, with such faith that God was involved in this battle, David entered the battlefield against Goliath.  The scene presents two contrasting emotions.  The first emotion we see in the Philistines.  The giant and his fellow soldiers were supremely self-confident this battle would end with the David’s brutal death.  Goliath was a champion warrior of massive proportions.  He was a self-sufficient fighting force, and army of one.  The second emotion we see in the Israelites.  There is great tension and apprehension.  David was brand new to battle, completely untested against a human warrior.  David was small and armed with only a sling and five smooth stones.  David possessed nothing that should allow him to defeat this mighty foe.  Just as the battle was to begin, David told Goliath the outcome.  He said the Lord God of Israel would use David to strike Goliath dead.  At that, “49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.”  The battle was over.  The giant of Philistines was dead.  The invisible God made himself known through by empowering the faithful hands of David. 

David put his faith in God into action.  David did what God wanted him to do because David placed his faith in God.  David did not focus on the intimidation and taunts of Goliath.  David’s focus was on God.  Faith then can be said most simply as “a life lived focused upon God.”

Our second account of faith comes from the New Testament, the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  The passage is a familiar story and we enter this scene with Jesus’ disciples in a boat in the middle of the sea working against the winds and waves.

“25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them [the disciples], [by] walking on the lake [Sea of Galilee]. 26 When the disciples saw him [Jesus] walking on the lake [sea], they [the disciples] were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they [the disciples] said, and cried out in fear” (Matthew 14:25-26).  As we look at this scene, we can see that the disciples were working against the waves but did not seem concerned by the weather. The boat must have been secure, and Jesus had told them to cross to the other side of the sea.  Jesus’ disciples were focused on accomplishing the mission. The disciples had faith that they would be successful.  But then, something the disciples had not experienced before came upon them.  A ghost, or they thought a ghost, appeared. The collective focus of the twelve disciples had shifted from the mission to a ghostly figure walking on the water and all the disciples cried out in fear.  The disciples shifted their focus from Jesus’ mission for them to get to the other side of the sea to the ghost.  The disciples shifted from faith to fear.  Faith and fear are like opposite sides of a coin.  If faith is visible, fear is hidden.  If fear is visible, faith is hidden.

Jesus knew what was going on and Jesus wanted his disciples to shift back, flip that coin over if you will, from fear back to faith.  “27 Jesus immediately said to them [the disciples]: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’”  Jesus was calling his disciples to shift they focus back to faith and away from fear.  “Take courage! – Have faith!  It is I.” Got faith?

Peter broke the tension and Peter shouted out to Jesus, “28 ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.’  29 ‘Come,’ he [Jesus] said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus” (Matthew 14:28-29).  What a marvelous picture of faith in action.  Peter was totally focused on Jesus and following Jesus.  So focused was Peter that Peter believed by faith that he could do something impossible, namely, walk on water.  In response to Jesus and keeping his eyes on Jesus, Peter fearlessly got out of the boat and began walking on the water to Jesus. Peter understood the power of the sea and no doubt knew of others who had drown on the sea.  Peter was like young David who understood the power of Goliath to kill people in battle.  And yet both David and Peter knew that in faith God would conquer their giants. What a breathtaking moment this must have been in Peter’s life, to walk on water by faith.

          Then came the next twist in the story. Matthew wrote, “30 But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he [Peter] was afraid and, beginning to sink” (Matthew 14:30a).  Peter had flipped the faith-fear coin over from faith to fear.  With focus on Jesus, in faith, Peter walked on water.  With focus on the winds, in fear, Peter began to sink beneath the waves.  We are beginning to see how faith and fear oppose each other.  We feel bad for Peter and disappointed for him and maybe disappointed in him.

          And just when we have this disappointment, we might miss the fact that Peter flipped the coin again from fear to faith.  As Peter is sinking beneath the waves, Matthew wrote that Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”  (Matthew 14:30b).  Peter’s words, “Lord, save me!” were an expression of faith that even as Peter was about to perish, Peter knew, he had faith, that Jesus could save him.  Faith, fear, faith, and fear.  We are a marvelous mixture of believer and doubter, faithful saint and fearful sinner.

          Here is the good news.  Matthew wrote that in response to Peter’s cry, “31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him [Peter] (Matthew 14:31b). Jesus saved Peter in response to Peter’s faith in Jesus.  Paul would later write, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

          Jesus acknowledged Peter’s faith.  Jesus said, “You [Peter] of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31b). Some commentators see Jesus words as a chastisement by Jesus of Peter.  I don’t see it that way.  I do not think Jesus chastises us for faith.  Instead, he encourages those who express faith by showing them how much they accomplished with just a little faith.  With just a little faith, Peter had walked on water.  Jesus words then are for a friend, “Oh, Peter did you not see how much you accomplished with a little faith?  Had you not doubted, you could have accomplished so much more.”

          Matthew wrote that after Jesus and Peter had this conversation, they climbed into the boat and the winds died down.  “33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:33).  And in case we missed it, the faith-fear coin had been flipped again from fear to faith.  Jesus disciples had yet another reason to place their faith in Jesus believing correctly that Jesus was the living God.

What do we learn from these encounters about faith?  From the example with David, we learn that faith is a trust in God; not in our self-confidence or self-sufficiency.  When we do things without the need for God; that is not faith, it is self-sufficiency. Faith is an acknowledgement that God is doing battle but doing it through humanity for His own glory. Faith is about revealing the character and purpose of God and not about demonstrating human knowledge, skills, and abilities. Faith is about a supernatural empowerment of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things for God.  It is defeating the giants who stand against us.  Faith is edgy and exciting.  Faith resides deep within a person but displayed publicly.  When we fear, then all thoughts of faith disappear because fear means we are measuring the tasks against our own strengths.

From the experience with the disciples upon the boat in the storm, we learn from that story the key ending point, Jesus is God incarnate.  Jesus is God in human form in whom we can have faith and trust.  We learn again that faith seeks to experience the character of God.  Faith is standing fast in your beliefs even when circumstances are difficult.  Faith is about laying aside fear and moving forward with Jesus. 

From both examples, we see that faith is demanding.  It requires the faithful to be public about their desires and trust so that God can act and show forth his character and purpose to others.

This leaves us with a simple question, “Got faith?”  Do we genuinely trust in Jesus Christ?  Are we active in that faith asking Jesus to fulfil what we need most?  Are we more inclined to act in faith or retreat in fear?

Like David and Peter, the words of God, become more alive than ever if we live out God’s word in dramatic three dimensions.  But to make God’s word real, we must experience it.  Until we accept God through Jesus Christ, no description of the wonderful nature of God’s word can be understood.  If I described the beauty and the power of the ocean, you might appreciate it, but it is not real until you see it for yourself. 

“God did not design us simply to stand by and watch life pass as we wonder why we aren’t more fulfilled. God created us to take risks in faith and to conquer the giants that paralyze us with fear.”[1] This week, I am asking each of us to examine our lives and lives of this church and ask in the most positive ways, “How am I expressing faith in Jesus Christ in an active and public way?  How are we as a church expressing faith in Jesus as the head of this church? How are we following Jesus’ lead in expressing that faith to our community?”  Got faith?  Let’s pray.


[1][1] Kerry & Chris Shook, One Month to Live; Thirty Days to a Np-Regrets Life, p. 14.

07-03 - Remember Me

          We might not realize it, but God, through the gift of memory, has blessed our lives in a mighty way. Now humans share the capacity for memory with other creatures of this earth.  But human memory is very different from the memory given to other earthly creatures because our God-given capacity for memory allows us to assign meaning, emotion, and significance to what we remember.  In our remembering, we take all of that meaning, emotion, and significance and represent it by a symbol.

          A symbol allows us the ability to recall more than what the symbol appears to be.  A symbol is always physical, but it conveys a depth of meaning that cannot be expressed simply by how it appears.  I know at this point I am sounding like the old joke about pastors. “Pastors are invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh.”  I don’t mean to be hard to understand.  It is important that we get the point about memory and symbols.  When we see a physical symbol, we can recall an expansive meaning that that symbol represents.

          Let me give you an example. Not that many years ago, on a beautiful Tuesday morning, our nation was attacked by terrorists using highjacked aircraft.  Sometime during the rescue and recovery operations, New York City firefighters displayed an American flag rising about the rubble.  The desire to display American flags, a physical symbol, across the country became virtually insatiable.  Flag makers could not meet the demand.  Why?  Because people wanted, needed, to remember.  We had been shaken to our core and we needed to remember.  We needed to remember the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise that the flag represented.  The flag itself does not directly offer any of those cherished and desired emotions.  The flag was a symbol of something so much larger than its physical self.  This is what symbols do for us.  When we see a physical symbol, we can recall an expansive meaning that that symbol represents.  This is a trait of memory uniquely given to us by God.

          Why was it important for God to give us the capacity to see what is physical and recall the meaning that those physical things represent?  I think the answer lays in the truth that we, in our human capacity, cannot fully and completely comprehend an infinite God.   The Old Testament Book of Job contains a conversation between God and Job in which for several chapters, God quizzed Job about Job’s understanding of God and God’s ways.  God asks: 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.  5 Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!  Who stretched a measuring line across it?  6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?  8 “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, 9 when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, 10 when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, 11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”(Job 38:4-11)   Job had no answers. 

Job endured a few chapters of God’s questions and then finally replied, “2 I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:1-3).  The totality of God cannot be fully and completely understood and, therefore, God refers Job to certain physical things as a symbol of God’s power.  But…There is always a but isn’t there?  But the risk with physical symbols is that we will love the symbol more than we love what that symbol represents.  God knows we have that tendency and so God forbid that we would make any idols and worship them.  So, we are to see physical things as symbols but not worship them.  The symbol must not rise higher or equal to what it represents, otherwise that it has become an idol.

With that bit of background on memory, making meaning from memory, symbols, and idols, I think we are ready to explore our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Matthew.  We are looking today at Matthew, Chapter 26, verses 17 through 28. 

We begin with verses 17 through 19.  “17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?’  18 He replied, ‘Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’’ 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover (Matthew 26:17-19).  As we begin looking at this passage, we immediately encounter a religious symbol, the Passover.

          The Passover to Jesus and the Jews of that time was a physical thing that served as a vehicle to the greater spiritual truth. The Passover contained many symbols of an emotional quality for the Jewish people.  The Passover meal included a roasted lamb shank bone as a reminder of the Hebrews who placed lambs’ blood on the doors of their homes so that God would pass over their homes when death came to the first born in Egypt.  The unleavened bread used in the meal was a symbol of the haste with which the Hebrews had to leave Egypt upon God’s command. The bitter herbs of the meal eaten in the Passover meal reminded the Jewish people of the embittered lives they lived as slaves under the Egyptians.  All these symbols taken together reminded the Jews that they had been chosen by God to be his people and to become a light unto the rest of the world.  And so, we begin this scene with the Passover, a comforting moment of gathering the Jewish people together to remember the provision of God and the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise offered by God to them.

          But the comforting mood of that gathering was about to change drastically.  Matthew wrote, “20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’  22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?’  23 Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’  Jesus answered, ‘You have said so’” (Matthew 26:20-25).

          “Betrayal” is an emotionally powerful word conveying the awful, ugly, and uncomfortable breach of trust of someone close. Betrayal is singular and complete. Betrayal whether in one thing or many things is betrayal through and through.  Jesus’ words stung.

          The disciples were alarmed and alert because they understood what that word “betray” symbolized.  Jesus had told them on three separate occasions that betrayal would mean he would “will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” (Matthew 20:18b-19).

          One by one the disciples said to Jesus, “Surely it is not I?”  The disciples were frightened that they might fail Jesus and cause him harm.  The disciples’ question reveals that within faithful people Godly impulses and foolish impulses exists within us.  Side-by-side within us rests the capacity for faithfulness and betrayal.

          It must have seemed to the disciples that the emotive qualities of the Passover with its safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise were completely gone. The meal that was supposed to bring comfort had become exceptionally bitter.  We know this to be true from our own life experiences.  If you have ever suffered betrayal, you can attest that betrayal is a bitter and gut-wrenching experience.  For the disciples, the concept and symbolism of the Passover meal had ended.

          Jesus knew that his announcement of betrayal ended the symbolism of the Passover meal.  Jesus said what it said at the time he said it because Jesus wanted to create a new symbolic meal to replace the old one.  Matthew recorded for us, “26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he 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 gave it to them [the 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’” (Matthew 26:26-28).

          Jesus took two elements; bread that resembles the firmness of his body and wine that resembles the flowiness of blood.  The bread was a symbol of his body and the wine a symbol of his blood.  The bread Jesus said was given that his disciples should eat of it.  His blood was given to his disciples that they should drink of it.  The essence of Jesus life, his body and blood were to be consumed.  Why did Jesus want his disciples to see the bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood to be consumed?  Jesus wanted his disciples to remember.

          What is it that they and now we were to remember? There are three things I think we should take see from these symbols of bread and wine.

          First, is that Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus’ teachings and his miracles were inspirational and captivating and give the wisdom and encouragement needed to move in the direction of God.  But Jesus’ teachings and miracles are not enough because his disciples remain an odd mixture of Godly impulses and foolish impulses.  Jesus disciples sin and in the economy of God, sin is death. This is why Jesus needed to go to the cross.  Jesus paid the price for sin and because Jesus who was sinless went to the cross, he can extend to forgiveness to his disciples for their, our, foolish impulses. We can remember that all our foolish impulses of sin are covered by Jesus.

          Second, Jesus offers forgiveness to all but does not forgive everyone.  Jesus work on the cross was sufficient to cover all the sins of the world but Jesus said his blood was given for the forgiveness of many but not all.  The forgiveness of Jesus, the pardon offered by Jesus, is given freely only to those who receive him.  Judas for example stood condemned because he would not receive Christ.  Judas’ sins were not forgiven.  We can remember that if we believe and accept Jesus as our savior, then we are forgiven, completely.

          Third, Jesus is the center of his disciples’ life. Jesus gave this meal amid the discussion of his betrayal and his death.  Shortly after this meal, the disciples would desert him, and Peter would deny him.  Chaos, confusion, and conflict consumed the disciples.  Yet, amid the darkness of the moment, the meal, the bread and the wine, stood as a bright light reminder of the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise Jesus continued to offer.  Our lives can become confusing and chaotic.  Life can be noisy, and we can become disheartened.  The voices of some can drown out the still small and reassuring voice of God.  Yet, amid our darkness, we can come back to the meal, the bread and the cup, and experience it as the fullness of Christ.  We can take part of the meal in this complex world and remember the simplicity that Jesus offers us.

          In just a few moments, we will come to the Lord’s Table and remember.  We will remember that Jesus is not just the Savior of the world, Jesus is your savior and my savior, because we have accepted him.  We will remember that in Jesus our lives are made simpler because he leads us to act in right ways and to love and do what is good and pleasing to God.  We will remember through the powerful symbols of the bread and the cup.  Amen and Amen.

06-26 - Smell

          It has been a fast five-week journey of exploring our understanding of God and our place with Him through our five physical senses. 

We came to see that through our sense of vision that God sent Jesus to be the spiritual light of the world to illuminate our lives within and to see God as God really is.

We then saw that through our sense of taste that we will remember Jesus as the sweetness of choice wedding wine of hope and love, the saltiness of the gospel message to change all who hear it, the bitterness that can invade our lives if we do not follow Jesus’ example of forgiveness , and the sourness of vinegar used to enliven Jesus’ mouth to proclaim to our benefit, “It is finished” and they are freed from sin.

We move from vision and taste to hearing and came to learn that God sent Jesus Christ that we could hear the words that through faith we are not condemned but we are saved, and that Holy Spirit has given us a full vocabulary to use that we can speak plainly about God.

Last week we affirmed that in accepting Jesus, we are touched spiritually and given the mission to make God real to other through the touch of love.  When we reach out in the name of Christ, we can touch the lives of others and make character of God real through us.

This week we will look through the lens of our sense of smell.  Scientists and medical experts tell us that our sense of smell can distinguish from among tens of thousands of different odors. And as we know, our perception of those odors is influenced by personal preferences.  Just go to a farm someday and note how some folks will say the farm smells lovely and earthy and others will say about the same odors that, “It stinks!”

But one of the most significant elements of our sense of smell is how smell relates to our memory.  The scientists and medical experts tell us that our sense of smell is linked to our memory more so than any of the other senses.  For many people, recall of a specific moment in time or a specific event can be triggered by a smell that was present at that moment.  The smell of freshly baked bread may flood us with memories of a childhood experience of coming home to bread baking in the oven.  Those memories may not have been with us for years but suddenly they are as fresh as yesterday. 

In working with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, there is often a desire to preserve articles of clothing of the loved one for the scent contained in the clothing.  That scent can bring back or refresh memories of that person.

Our sense of smell can also be used to create an experience in the present.  In some Christian church traditions, incense is burned to create an experience of solemnity and mystery to the worship service.  The visual imagery of smoke and smell creates the idea that worship service connects heaven with earth.  So, in some cases, church has used our sense of smell to create a spiritual or religious experience.

But what might the Bible say of the sense of smell?  How might the Bible reveal to us how our sense of smell is used to understand God and God’s will for our life?  Let’s take a quick look at what the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, reveal to us.

The first revelation of the sense of smell and its relationship to God came about in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 8.  Noah and his family had been on the ark, the floods were over, and now it was time to come out of the ship and begin rebuilding.  “18 So Noah came out [of the ark], together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.  22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’” (Genesis 8:18-22).

Noah’s first act upon leaving the ark was to worship God.  Noah did so in the form of a burnt offering of selected animals and birds. The Bible said that “Lord smelled the pleasing aroma.”  There are two senses of smell playing here.  The first view of smell is Noah’s.  In human terms, Noah created an offering that Noah found pleasing to smell. We tend to believe that if we find the experience satisfying then so will God.  But God experiences things differently.  So, the second view of the aroma comes fro God.  The aroma that pleased God was not the physical aroma that please Noah.  For God, the pleasing aroma was found by the entirety of the experience of worship of gratitude expressed by Noah.  The behavior of Noah, that in Noah’s heart, Noah’s first act upon landing on dry land was to give thanks to God without being instructed so.  That Noah would seek to worship God was sweet, aromatic, and pleasing to God.  Worship and prayers offered with a proper heart that expresses gratitude and love of God are acts that create, in a spiritual manner, an experience expressed as a fragrance, an aroma, that is pleasing to God.

After Noah, the Israelites developed and participated in detailed steps for burnt offerings.  In those burnt offerings, the Israelites desired to create a pleasing aroma, a pleasing experience, for God.  At times, when the people offered worship with a proper heart, God received these burnt offerings as a pleasing aroma, but God did not always receive those experiences.  In the Book of Amos, we would read that the Israelites practiced their religious traditions, including burnt offerings, out of obligation not in gratitude.  Aside from the moments of worship, the people had turned from God’s righteousness and lived lives of injustice and bitterness. The people, in a selfish manner, offered the same burnt offerings to God that once gave the same pleasant aroma to those making the offering believing God would be equally pleased.  What was God’s response to such religious gatherings and offerings offered out of obligation and tradition?  God said:  21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.  22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

The burnt offerings had not changed but the people had changed.  The people were no longer behaving as God’s people and so God experienced their gatherings and burnt offerings as a stench instead of a pleasing aroma.  A stench, a strong and very unpleasant smell, like rotting fish, is something that turns our stomachs.  To God, the people had become an experience of stench, a stomach-turning odor, because the people refused to pursue righteousness and to act justly.  The burnt offerings had not changed but the people had changed.

God’s words are hard.  I do not think any of us want to be known as a stench.  And while God’s words are hard, they are hard to shake people up to change, to repent, and return to righteousness.

Repentance and righteousness are at the center of God’s call upon our lives and the focus of Jesus’ teachings.  Jesus began teaching with a simple message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  In repenting, Jesus then said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

How then does Jesus make use of our sense of smell physically and spiritually to help to inform us about God and God’s will?  Well, let’s look at one example from the Gospel of John.  John wrote, “1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him” (John 12:1-2).  In our opening scene, Jesus had returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. This is shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, resuscitating him to life in the flesh and blood once again. The family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were hosting a dinner in Jesus’ honor.

While Jesus and others reclined at the table, “3 Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3-4).  Mary took a pint of nard, some 16 ounces of perfume, and pour it all out upon Jesus’ feet. A bottle that size was worth about one year’s wages.  Then Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, sending the fragrance throughout the entire house.  Everyone was drawn into the experience.  Everywhere that fragrance could be smelled people were reminded of the presence of Christ and extravagance of Mary’s heart toward Jesus.

But virtually all stories involving Jesus have a twist and this story is no exception.  After Mary worshipped Jesus with creating a fragrant experience revealing Mary’s heart, that pleasing fragrance also revealed the heart of Judas.  John wrote, “4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him objected [to Mary’s behavior], 5 ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ 6 [Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he [Judas] was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he [Judas] used to help himself to what [the money that] was put into it” (John 12:4-6).

The pleasing fragrance of Mary’s extravagance worship of Jesus was a stench to Judas because the fragrance filling the house meant the perfume could no longer be converted to cash.  Judas wanted that money that perfume could have brought because Judas was a thief and was using the group’s money for Judas’ own enrichment.  Judas behavior was unrighteous and unjust.  In this story, the same fragrance was used to reveal the pleasing aroma of righteousness of Mary who followed Jesus with her heart and the stench of unrighteousness of Judas who followed Jesus for his own enrichment.

John ended this account this way, Jesus said, “7 ‘Leave her alone.  It was intended that she [Mary] should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me’” (John 12:7-8).  Jesus saw his death coming and the desire for his friend to anoint his body in death.  But Jesus could also see that his death was necessary for his friends to have life and to be able to fill whatever house they entered with the aroma of Christ.

The aroma of Christ was seen as both reflective of life and death.  We understand this latter point from the writings of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth.  Paul wrote, “14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14).  Paul brought out that Christians are to spread an aroma among the people of the world by spreading the knowledge of Jesus, of his love and righteousness wherever we go.  Paul said that the same aroma of Christians, the thoughts, words, and deeds of Christians expressing their heart-felt love of Christ, would be received three different ways.

First, Paul said, “15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15a).  Like Noah’s original burnt offering given in gratitude and righteousness that gave a pleasing aroma to God, Christians who live and work in righteousness and gratitude through Jesus are a pleasing aroma to God.  Our life matters to God, and we can be pleasing to God.

Second, Paul said, “Among those who are being saved…[we] are an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17 selected).  To people who accept the word of God, who are encouraged by what they witness in our life, they are saved.  To them we are an aroma of life, an abundant life now and forever with God.  Our sharing of the gospel through our words and actions is a sweet fragrance of life.  Perhaps we could think of it as the wonderful smell of a clean newborn baby. There is no greater gift we can give than life itself.

Thirdly, Paul said, “And those who are perishing, …we are an aroma that brings death” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17 selected).  To those who reject the message of the gospel our testimony reminds them that absent the savior a certain and everlasting death awaits them.

Christians who follow Jesus in a heartfelt manner of gratitude and righteousness are the same aroma experienced three different ways.  To God we are the pleasing aroma of Christ.  To one another, Christians are the pleasing aroma of life.  To the nonbeliever, Christians are the aroma of death.

What then are we to do?  Our call is simple.  Jesus said, “Repent,” meaning turn from pursuing our own understanding and move toward God.  Second, Jesus said, “Seek God’s righteousness.”  Think, speak, and act as God would desire us to do.  How do we do that?  We imitate Jesus.  In our lifelong transformation of discipleship of Jesus, our life becomes more and more pleasing to God.  If you will, we smell more like the fragrance of Christ.  In being more like the fragrance of Christ, we reveal the difference in the aroma between spiritual life and spiritual death.  That is our task and the opportunity God has given us. Let us then be a sweet, sweet spirit revealing the fragrance of Christ.  Amen and Amen.