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04-04 - Easter Sunday

          Welcome to Easter Sunday!  We have been traveling together these past eight weeks with Jesus who had set his face toward Jerusalem, toward his destiny. 

None of Jesus’ disciples who walked that journey with Jesus had any idea of what was about to happen to Jesus, them, or the world. 

No one understood the full meaning of Jesus peacefully entering Jerusalem upon a donkey only to then turn over the tables in the Temple and drive the merchants out with a whip. 

No one understood the testing Jesus underwent at the hands of the best and brightest minds of Israel trying to trap Jesus in his own words or pit the words of God against him. 

At the time, none of the disciples could fully appreciate Jesus washing their feet or given them bread as his body and wine as his blood.

None of those with Jesus fully understood what it meant to be a branch upon the true vine, Jesus, and bear the fruit of God’s plan.

None of the disciples understood Jesus’ prayers of anguish in the garden seeking God’s intervention to remove the cup Jesus was about to drink.  What was in that cup and why was Jesus so upset by what it meant?

And none of the disciples understood the agony of Jesus’ trials before the religious leaders, Herod, and the Romans.

And none understood the unthinkable, the unimaginable horror that the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem had become as he hung on a cross.  Naked. Bloodied.  Barely able to breathe.  Then dead.

Those who had been with Jesus grieved his death.  Each hour of each day seemed like an eternity as those who loved Jesus played and replayed in their minds Jesus’ last words, his last look, and their role in his death. For three days they suffered the all-consuming death of Jesus, their dreams, and their hope.  All of it had been buried behind in a rock tomb.

Three days had passed.  It was time to begin sorting out the shock and trauma of the grief. In that shock, two disciples of Jesus were walking home to a village near Jerusalem named Emmaus.  “14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.” Their grief conversation was probably no different than ours when someone dies unexpectedly, tragically. “If only I had…”  “I should have…”  “then things would be different.”  15 As they [the disciples] talked and discussed these things with each other, [something unexpected, something that could not happen, happened].  Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.  17 He [Jesus] asked them, “What are you discussing [together as you walk along]?”  They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  19 “What things?” he asked.  “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus” (Luke 24:15-24). 

In these a few verses, there is a poignant mirror reflecting the disappointment of what might have been, what was expected to be, and the loss of the future.  We understand the disciples’ feelings and sense of sadness.  When life is not working out the way we had hoped it would or someone important to our life’s story dies, we can become disheartened and discouraged. 

Augustine, a 4th century theologian, observed that when we place our hearts desire on things which can be removed from us, then we become fearful of losing them.  We fear the loss of someone, the loss of health or wealth, status in the community, or whatever we may value, then we can become discouraged when we they are lost.  Augustine thought that there was a better life.  He believed if we placed our heart’s desire on God, something, someone who could not be taken from us, then we would not live through fear. 

The Apostle Paul saw this idea and acknowledged that life can be difficult and have its disappointments.  But that Christians, believers in who Jesus is and what God accomplished in sending him, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

These disciples walking along the road to Emmaus felt crushed, in despair, abandoned, and destroyed.  They felt this way because they did not truly see Jesus as the Son of God and thought too little of God.  They saw God as the giver of a nation not the giver of life.  They did not see God as the one who supplies love, forgiveness, and mercy.

Jesus decided to speak in a way that would shake up these disciples.  “25 He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). 

Jesus was trying to get the recognize him not in the person but in the enduring Scriptures, the Word of God.  Jesus was pointing these weary disciples back toward God and to see what God had accomplished in front of their eyes through the life, ministry, and death of Jesus.  These disciples would later describe these moments of teaching with Jesus as though their hearts were burning within them while Jesus talked with them on the road and opened the Scriptures to them (Luke 24:32).

  This was the effect Jesus desired.  Jesus wanted these downtrodden disciples to become flaming disciples, burning witnesses, with such joy for God that their lives would never be the same.

          There remained only one more thing Jesus needed to do to complete the transformation of these disciples.  Luke said as they [the three] approached the village of Emmaus, the disciples asked Jesus to stay with them.  “30 When he [Jesus] was at the [dinner] table with them [the disciples], he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them [the disciples]. 31 Then their [the disciples] eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).

          Jesus now completed the teaching of the Scriptures through the sharing of the bread, the bread of life.  In that moment of sharing, the blinders that preventing these two disciples from seeing the Scriptures come completely alive within them was removed.  The bread, which Jesus had said was his body, which Jesus had said gave immortal life, made all things understandable.  These disciples were transformed by joy.  The suffering was over, the grieving was over, the fear was over, there was only joy because the disciples recognized Jesus in the bread.

          With this uncontainable joy, these two disciples ran into the night to find the Eleven apostles.  When they arrived, the disciples from Emmaus “35 [Then the two] told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (Luke 24:36).

          The breaking of the bread was and is key for us to see Jesus and understanding the nature of God.  The breaking of the bread was and is key to joy, hope, and life.

          In times earlier, Jesus said, “35 ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.  40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:35, 38, 40).

Jesus then repeated, “48 ‘I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’” (John 6:48-51).

Jesus lifted the disciples from Emmaus and became visible in the breaking of the bread and he can do the same for us.  Jesus called us to pray that we would receive bread daily; seek Jesus daily.  Jesus called us to eat the bread and drink the cup in memory of him but not just the memory of his life, his teachings, but the memory of him in the whole of Scriptures.  He invited us to eat the bread in memory of his death, burial, and resurrection.

Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem that in doing so we could see him, know him, remember him, and find the God he knew and loved.  Jesus’ journey was an ordeal, but it ended in victory. Jesus victory, his resurrection on Easter morning and his walk with his disciples that afternoon, gives us the ability to be joyful people and flaming witnesses to the goodness of God.

This Easter Day let us come and celebrate with great joy the wonders of Jesus as we too will see him fully in the breaking of the bread.  Amen and Amen.

03-28 - Innocence Found Guilty

          In literature, a good story is comprised of five elements.  They are character, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution.  The characters, of course, are the individuals that the story is about. The author of the story gives us enough information about the characters that we can visualize each person.  The setting is the location of the action.  The plot is the actual story around which the entire story revolves. Every story has a conflict to solve.

The plot is centered on this conflict and the ways in which the characters attempt to resolve the problem.  The solution to the problem is the way the conflict is resolved.  In good literature, it is important that the resolution fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity and solve all parts of the conflict.

          In a really great story, the resolution, the ending is a surprise ending.  It is an ending no one could foresee coming.  Such endings cause us to think, did we miss the signs of the coming ending as the story unfolded?  Could the ending have been different?  What if the characters had behaved differently, would the ending have been as we thought it ought to end?  And finally, we are left with the lingering question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          We are here today to explore part of the greatest story ever told.  The story includes characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution and a surprise ending. And we will indeed be left with the question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          This is the story of Jesus’ trial and we come to explore it on the day in which the Christian Church celebrates Palm Sunday, a day of triumph marking Jesus’ kingly entry into Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. But was the triumph of Jesus to be found in his coming to Jerusalem with palm branches waving or is the triumph to be found in his trial?  The answer may surprise you.

          Let’s visit that setting for a moment.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “They [Jesus’ disciples] brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’  ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’  10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’  11 The crowd2s answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matthew 21:7-11).

          Jesus coming into Jerusalem was a noisy and joyous. People waved palm branches and placed their coats on the ground ahead of Jesus.  It was a marvelous moment in history as people celebrated the arrival of a man of peace, wisdom, and compassion.  The people saw Jesus as their coming prophet and king.  After Jesus arrived, he called to his side those people who were ill and whose bodies were broken, and Jesus healed them. 

The hope of the people rested in Jesus as God’s anointed one who would usher in God’s kingdom.  The sense of the people was that nothing but good could happen from hereon.  The hero of the story, the kid from the small town, was about to make it big.  This is how we might write the story.

          But the author of the Jesus story, introduced the conflict into the story for his readers.  In just a matter of a few days, the hero, Jesus, had been arrested.  In the dark of night, men armed with clubs and torches seized Jesus.  He had been betrayed by one of his twelve closest friends.  Betrayed by a kiss.

One pastor described the setting of betrayal and arrest this way. “There comes an orange snake eastward through the night.  A snake of fire, a long snake of torches.  Perhaps the disciples glace down from the Mount of Olives and see it and do not understand.  Jesus understands.  It winds the same path they themselves have followed from the city.  It winks through the trees in a smooth and silent, serpentine approach.  It is a fatal snake.  It kills by kissing.”

The snake struck and Jesus was bound.  The disciples with Jesus, his friends, ran into the night. And the one friend who had vowed to fight for Jesus’ sake even if it meant his own life cowered and three times denied knowing Jesus.

          The people living this story were confused and their faces were downcast.  How could things have gone so badly?  This was not the expected outcome of such a great start to the week.  The Son of God does not end up bound by rope and leather! The Son of God does not stand trial! The Son of God cannot be betrayed! Something was very wrong.

          The people had forgotten what they did not want to believe.  This Jesus, this Son of God, had told them, “31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him’” (Luke 18:31-33a).  Those who heard these words, as well we, have a shared habit of discounting and forgetting the words of a story that do not fit our expectations. But these expectations about Jesus had been told and retold for centuries.

          In the book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, we would find that the God’s anointed one would be “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3, 7).

God does not surprise us in the sense of doing something unexpected.  God reveals what he will do before he does it.  God does this so that we can know which events are of God and which events are not.  The arrest of Jesus was not a surprise to God and Jesus, and neither would the trials be a surprise.

          I use the phrase the trials of Jesus because Jesus was subjected to judgement four times.  First, the arresting officials, the religious leaders, put Jesus on trial.  In the darkness of night, the religious leaders called witnesses to accuse Jesus of all manner of things, but the witnesses could not keep their stories straight. 

Then the Chief Priest intervened and asked questioned Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” dragging out the “s’s” much like the hiss of a snake.  “Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am.’ 71 Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips’” (Luke 22:70b-71). 

The first trial was brief with the prisoner being found guilty.  This sentence of death was a foregone outcome before the trial began because the religious leaders focused on only one thing, putting out the light of Jesus Christ.  The light of Christ had been shining brightly upon the religious leaders, too brightly, just as innocence shines upon the guilty.  They dearly wanted to put out the light.

          But the religious leaders were crafty and cunning. They wanted others to do the work to dispense with Jesus.  And so, Jesus’ second trial was needed.  Luke wrote, “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’  So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.  Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man’” (Luke 23:1-4). Much to the surprise of the religious leaders, Jesus second trial had ended with an acquittal; Jesus was innocent according to Pilate.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          “But they [the religious leaders] insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’  On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he [Pilate] sent him [Jesus] to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time” (Luke 23:5b-7).  Pilate, perhaps wanting to get out of the middle of a Jewish matter, sent Jesus on to Herod.  And so, Jesus underwent a third trial.

          “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he [Herod] had been wanting to see him [Jesus]. From what he [Herod] had heard about him [Jesus], he [Herod] hoped to see him [Jesus] perform a sign of some sort. He [Herod] plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him [Jesus]” (Luke 23:8-11).  The third trial of Jesus had been completed.  The verdict – Jesus was innocent.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          Instead of being released, Herod “Dressing him [Jesus] in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:11b).

          Jesus was experiencing the trials of life and the injustice of the world.  Despite being found not guilty twice by the authorities of law and order, Jesus was no closer to being free now than when he first began.  The world is like that.  Even when the right people make the right decisions, injustices still exist and circumstances do not change.

          Luke tells us that after the third trial, “13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him” (Luke 23:13-16). 

Pilate reminded the religious leaders tha Jesus not guilty and that he intended to release Jesus.  This is the story Luke’s readers would expect.  When we are judged innocent, we expect to be released.

          “18 But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us! ‘19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)  20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ 22 For the third time he [Pilate] spoke to them [the religious leaders]: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore, I will have him punished and then release him’ (Luke 23:18-22).  Again, the verdict had been issued in Pilate’s second trial of Jesus.  Jesus was not guilty and would be released.  The conflict in the story seemed resolved.

          “23 But with loud shouts they [the religious leaders] insistently demanded that he [Jesus] be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:23-25).  The surprising end of Jesus’ fourth trial had been revealed.  Pilate decided that a man named Barabbas, guilty of murder, would be sent free as though he were innocent.  An innocent man, Jesus, would be executed as though he were guilty.

          The Apostle John saw this scene this way, ““19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21).

          The religious leaders hated the light.  They screamed down the sweeter truth; they condemn Jesus to death in order to put out the light.  They wanted dearly to put out the light.  The guilty person was set free, and, in his place, the innocent man was condemned to death.

          Even though the Scriptures and Jesus foretold what would happen, the conviction and sentencing Jesus to death was a surprise ending. Why would a man guilty of death be set free as though he was innocent and a man innocent of any crime be put to death as though he was guilty?  The story does not make sense, unless we realize that God is the author of the story.

          The arrest, trials, and conviction of Jesus explains God’s plan of salvation.  God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it.  Jesus who is sinless would take on the penalty of those guilty of sin.  And those same sinners would be cleansed of their sins and set free as though they had never sinned.  This is God’s way of telling the story of what he wants for us. 

God wants us to accept Jesus and that our record of sin be exchanged for his record of being sinless.  The wages of our sin would be upon Jesus even though he is innocent.  This exchange may not seem fair, and it is not, toward Jesus. But God’s desire was not to be fair but to be willing to love us and offer us grace despite our weakness and despite our failings. 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  This is the surprise ending of the story and the true triumph of Christ.  Celebrate with Jesus and receive him into your life. Amen and Amen.

03-21 - Intimacy with God

          I wanted to begin our conversation today with a concept that is as old as humanity itself.  The concept is called intimacy.  Intimacy, according to the dictionary, is a close familiarity, or friendship, a closeness.   God shared with us his description of intimacy in Genesis, Chapter 2 through the institution of marriage.

God’s Word 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).  God showed us the ultimate expression of intimacy by two people coming together to become one such that there is nothing unknown between them.  It is a relationship such that the joy of one becomes the joy of the other and the sorrow of one becomes the sorrow of the other.

          The Apostle Paul would later pick up this verse on intimacy and apply not only to the relationship between man and woman but also to Jesus’ relationship with those who would believe in him.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31). 

Paul’s point was that Jesus’ relationship with his followers was intended to be as intimate as the relationship of marriage.  The relationship is between two people coming together to become one such there is nothing unknown between them.  It is a relationship such that the joy of one becomes the joy of the other and the sorrow of one becomes the sorrow of the other.

          As we have been walking through the last week of Jesus’ life, we have witnessed an ever-growing intimacy between Jesus and his disciples.  We sat at the table in which they ate together.  Jesus washed the feet of each disciple.  Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples calling the bread his body.  Jesus took a cup of wine and gave it to his disciples calling the wine his blood.  This is intimacy.

          After supper Jesus began to teach the disciples describing their relationship as he as a vine and they as branches.  Jesus called the disciples his friends because he had taught them everything his Father had revealed to him.  He said to his friends to follow what he taught them so that they would share in each other’s joy.  This is intimacy.

And now the time had come for Jesus to share another layer of intimacy, a spiritual intimacy, with his disciples through prayer.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that after supper and a time of teaching, Jesus and his disciples went to a garden, on the mount of olives, to a placed called Gethsemane to pray.

          The name Gethsemane is derived from the Aramaic language and means “oil press.”  Biblical scholars believe then that the garden into which Jesus entered was largely filled with olive trees.  It was a familiar place to Jesus and his disciples.  It would be a quiet place in the dark evening hours in which to pray.

          As Jesus and the now Eleven disciples entered the garden and grove of trees, Jesus said to the disciples, “Sit here while I pray” (Mark 14:32b).  Jesus going to be by himself to pray was not in itself unusual.  There are accounts elsewhere in the gospels of Jesus seeking time to himself to be with God.  And here, Jesus entered the lovely woods, dark and deep seeking time to pray on what he knew would become the darkest evening ever.

As Jesus went to leave the company of the Eleven, Mark records that “33 He [Jesus] took Peter, James and John along with him” (Mark 14:33a).  This was not the first time that Jesus took with him these three disciples.

One time, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the house a man named Jairus. Jairus had sought out Jesus to heal his daughter was gravely ill.  Before Jesus could arrive to the girl’s side, the girl died.

The Gospel of Mark recorded that moment for us, “37 He [Jesus] did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He [Jesus] went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ 40 But they laughed at him.  After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished” (Mark 5:37-42).

          On another occasion, a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, Mark recorded for us that, “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus…As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant” (Mark 9:2-4; 9-10).

          Now as Jesus was entering Gethsemane he was coming to the end of his ministry. And so, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, these closest of friends, with him as he prayed.  The four men walked a short distance and Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled. [He said] 34 ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them [Peter, James, and John], ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  35 Going a little farther, he [Jesus] fell to the ground” (Mark 14:33b-35a). 

Jesus was sad, exceedingly sorrowful, as though the sorrow itself would be the cause of his own death.  Jesus likely felt a tightness in his chest, a shortness of breath, an anxiousness, and exhaustion.  This was a side of Jesus the disciples had never seen but it was important for them and us to see it.

We can understand this scene because all of us have either been similarly distressed or been with a loved one similarly distressed.  There is in those moments nothing left that we do not know.  In anguish, there is intimacy.

Intimacy, some express have come to give it meaning by through the phonetics of the word, intimacy, thinking of it as “Into me see.”  In anguish we see to the very core of the person. In agony, Peter, James, and John could see into Jesus in a way that was not otherwise possible.  The intimacy with Jesus was complete for these three disciples could see into the very depth of Jesus, the Son of God.

What the disciples saw was their friend, laying upon the ground in distress and in that distress, they heard him pray, “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). What can we say about Jesus’ prayer? What do we see inside of Jesus in this moment?  We should use care in trying to overanalyze the mind of Jesus.  It would be best to stay with what we see and know.

What we know is that in distress Jesus gave us an example to follow. In distress, in anxious anticipation of difficult circumstances, we are to draw our closest friends to our side and use our time wisely and pray to God, perhaps more deeply than ever before. Jesus did. 

We are to pray to God with an intimacy.  Call him, “Abba,” as a child would call out “Daddy.”  Jesus did.  We are to affirm our belief in God, in the goodness and righness of God, as the one who can do anything.  Jesus did. 

We are to state clearly what is grieving us, what cup are we about to take that we would rather not.  Jesus did.  We are to affirm to God our understanding that there are two wills in play, his and ours. We are to affirm to God our desire is to follow his will even if our body wants to something different.  Jesus did. 

In his distress, Jesus showed us that in our distress, we need to turn toward God, affirm our relationship as his child, express our emotions, leave nothing hidden, and ask for the own spirit, our will, to be strengthen by his, whatever the outcome may be.  Jesus did.

After a time, Jesus got up from the ground and returned to his friends.  “37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,’ he said to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  39 Once more he [Jesus] went away and prayed the same thing” (Mark 14:37-39).  “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Jesus prayed and the disciples slept.  Jesus was concerned that the disciples, Peter especially, were not preparing themselves for the spiritual battle that lay ahead.  The disciples slept because they did not see the battle that was coming.  While they had an intimacy with Jesus, they did not see that Jesus’ sorrows were soon to be their sorrows.

After praying for a second time, Jesus returned and “40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him” (Mark 14:40).

Jesus left the disciples and again he prayed, “36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). The disciples continued battles with sleep and failed to do the will of Jesus. 

But the behavior of the disciples, did not discourage Jesus from doing what he knew to be the next right thing.  This was another example for us in our walk with Christ.  While we should seek support from our friends in our faith walk, we cannot allow their spiritual sleepiness to overcome our desire to be with God.  We must continue to seek God even when our friends are not able or unwilling to do so. As Jesus did, we also must not stop encouraging our friends from pursuing their walk in faith. 

In my twenties, I was not active in the church and not active in my walk with God.  My then girlfriend, now wife, said to me, “Why don’t you join me and come to church rather than sleeping in on Sunday morning?”  She did what Jesus did.  Jesus encouraged his disciples to stay awake and pray.  This is what my wife did.  My wife helped change my life and you can do the same by helping others awake from their spiritual slumber.

After praying for again, Jesus was prepared for what was to come. Jesus had been fully intimate with God and Jesus’ will was now the same as the will of Abba.  When I read this passage again this week, of Jesus in the darkness of this garden and grove of oil trees, I was struck with the sentiments and the resolve found in a passage from a Robert Frost poem. 

Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Strengthened by prayer, the time had come for Jesus to leave the serenity of the dark and deep grove.  Jesus had promises to keep and miles to go before he would sleep,

Mark said, with great resolve, Jesus “41 Returned for the third time [to his disciples], he said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!’” (Mark 14:41-42)

The desire of God is that we would have an intimate relationship with him through Jesus.  In that relationship, we would come to know that God sees deeply and fully into us and invites us to look deeply into him. 

God knows that all of us will experience joys and triumphs in this life and he wants to share in those celebrations.  God also knows that all of us will experience painful and sorrowful moments and God wants to help carry us through those times. 

Jesus showed us the way because he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  Let’s follow the way of Jesus and be intimate with him so that we may have peace in all circumstances.  Amen and Amen.

03-14 - Love: The First Fruit

          Many people walk through life seeing each of the events, moments, or activities as separable for the other.  I remember growing up and my mother telling me that a family we knew was in financial trouble.  My mother explained to me that the family lived under the impression that if they had checks in the checkbook, they thought that meant they had money.  What my mother was words in jest spoke some truth. The family simply lived each decision in the present without regard to how each action fit the larger narrative of their life.

          But we know too well that life is not just a series of unconnected events.  Each event and activity impinge upon the next shaping what we do in the present and influencing our lives for whatever future we may have.

That same principle is true when we read the Bible.  The Bible is not just a collection of stories unrelated to a larger narrative.  The Bible is a progressive revelation of God to humanity.  The Bible is a complete story in which one event impinges upon the other.

Last week, we spoke about Jesus gathering with his disciples for the Passover meal, a meal celebrating the past and looking forward to the promise of the future.  That future was revealed by God as a coming covenant in which God would make provision for the forgiveness of sin.  Jesus used the symbolism of the Passover meal to inaugurate the Lord’s Supper and in doing so seal the new covenant of God with his blood represented by the fruit of the vine.

Jesus’ behavior was not accidental or spontaneous.  Jesus’ actions were part of God’s larger narrative that was unfolding at an ever-increasing speed in these final moments in Jerusalem. Jesus used rich words to explain what was happening when he took a cup gave it to his disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:27b-28).

After celebrating this new covenant with the fruit of the vine, Judas departed to betray Jesus, and Jesus sat down with his disciples and taught them using these words, ““I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1).  In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was viewed as the vine.  In Psalm 80, we read, “8 You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.  9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land” (Psalm 80:8-9).  The Psalmist gave a description of the nation of Israel that would be seen as having a relationship with God as a vine planted in the promised land by God. 

Jesus said, “I am the true vine.”  Jesus’, God’s Son, represented a fuller experience with God marked by a personal and intimate relationship.  No longer was the primary relation between God and humanity to be seen through a nation.  It would now be seen through a person, through Jesus.  We hear those words so often; I wonder at times if they have any effect on us.  Do we recognize that God who created all that there is, desires us?

Jesus’ words, “I am the true vine,” would have been shocking to the Eleven disciples sitting with them.  Jesus, not Israel, was the true vine having a relationship with God, just like a gardener is to a grapevine.  Jesus explained further, that “2 God cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). 

The disciples must have thought, “If Jesus is the true vine and we are apostles of Jesus, then we must be branches in Jesus.  But are we then branches bearing no fruit to be cut off or branches to be pruned to bear even more fruit?”  This is a challenging question.  Am I in the will of God or am I outside of God’s will?  To be within the will of God is safety, joy, and hope.  To be outside the will of God is to be in freefall, sadness, and hopelessness.  There may have been a moment or two of reflection among the disciples before Jesus spoke again.

When Jesus did speak, he said, “3(But) You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).  Perhaps at that moment, the Eleven were beginning to understand what Jesus was doing hours earlier when Jesus washed their feet.  Remember events are not unconnected.

A few hours earlier, “3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.  6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  7 Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’  9 ‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’  10 Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’ 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean” (John 13:3-11).

          The sense here about being made clean is that Jesus had freed the Eleven from the corrupt state of desiring sin.  The basin of water and the towel were symbolic of the work already done in the disciples by them hearing and responding to the word of God. Because they had received God’s Word they were cleaned and were part of the fruitful branches of the true vine, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, God’s intention for the life of the Eleven was not to cut them off, but to prune them that they might bear even more fruit.

          Jesus’ words that “3(But) You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3), must have come as a relief.  They were still part of God’s desire.

          But to remain part of God’s plan requires that we remain connected to God.  We understand this principle.  I worked 30 plus years for the Federal government.  I retired seven years ago and was separated from that vine.  As a result, though I was once part of the life of that organization for many years, my separation means I no longer have a part in the plans of that organization.  With this principle in mind, Jesus said to the Eleven, “4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  5 “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:4-5).

          Jesus words reveal the simple truth that to be and remain vibrant in our life with God, we must remain attached to Jesus every bit as much as a branch is to a vine.  We know this to true from the physical world.  No branch on its own can produce fruit.  A branch separated from a vine looks fine immediately after separation but then begins to wither under the elements and influences of the world. In short order, that branch is dead. This physical truth teaches us a truth about our spiritual life. 

I know too many people who have separated themselves from a relationship with Jesus.  Rarely did that separation begin abruptly.  It is usually began with the words or sentiment that, “I need a short break from church.”  Then the few weeks missed going to church becomes several weeks, then a few months, and then several months.  That separation usually resulted in the end of reading the Bible, the end of listening to Christian music, and the end of prayers. 

The longer that separation went on the more the world influences the thinking of that individual.  Relationships with the Christian community became more distant and less intimate, often more judgmental.  These steps of separation are predictable and consistent with branches separating from the vine that enter a withering process.  Many of us have seen this process unfold within our families and is difficult to know just what we should do.

          Fortunately, Jesus gave his disciples and us the direction to follow in our lives regardless of the circumstances that surround us. Jesus said to his disciples, “8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).

          There it is said again.  A simple statement of life’s purpose.  Bear much fruit, accomplish many lasting things, by thinking, acting, and speaking the words and mind of Jesus.  Do these things and God is glorified and is fully pleased with us. Our life need not be more complex than that simple recipe.  “Got fruit? Connect to Jesus.”

          Even though Jesus made it simple what was expected to live a full rich life in God’s favor, he recognized that humans need more specifics.  So Jesus continued to provide these instructions in his final hours and minutes with his disciples.  Jesus said, “9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:10-13).

          Jesus uses the word “love” eight times in these few verses.  I think we can then conclude that love is central to his point.  Love has been central to Jesus’ reason for coming to Jerusalem at this moment in time.

When Jesus was coming into the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey, could see the city ahead of him and he wept over it and said, “42 “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:42-44). 

Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem but knew many would reject him and the city itself would be destroyed.  Jesus cried because he loved.  Love expressed deeply and passionately brings us to tears because we peace for someone more than anything else.  We should ask ourselves, “Who do I cry for like Jesus?  When do I cry on behalf of someone else because I want peace restored to their life?”  When we cry in that manner, that is love.  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Love so passionately that you cry for someone.

          When Jesus was challenged by a lawyer in the Temple before the people as to which was the greatest commandment, Jesus said love God and love one another were the greatest commandments.  Jesus was unashamed to publicly state his love for God and love for other people.  He set himself up to be challenged and he welcomed it.  He loved God and wanted people to know it.  He loved people and wanted the world to know it.  That is love.  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Be public about your love.

          Jesus said love does not get any better than to give one’s life for his friends. Jesus would soon do just that and go to the cross for his disciples.  Jesus also went to the cross for you and me.  To give of yourself to another, to make a personal sacrifice of time, talent, treasure, or anything else you value is love.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”  Love is found in doing for others.

The disciples would come to love because they all gave to others until their lives were taken from them.  You and I are here, in faith, because of the love of one of those Eleven men.  Someone shared the love of the gospel message with you because in love someone shared it with them.  That unbroken chain of sharing goes back to one of the Eleven who sat with Jesus and heard the words, “13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Got fruit?  Connect to Jesus.  Love by giving to others.

To further strengthen the disciples in fulfilling God’s desire, Jesus said, “16b I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16b).  There are three things that we need to say in concluding on our conversation here today.

First, Love is the first fruit.  But in Jesus final thoughts on this matter, Jesus brought back the connection of fruit to the branch to the vine.  We, therefore, recall Jesus said, “5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  We must remain connected to Jesus to bear the fruit God desires.

Second, Jesus said “Ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).  Jesus was saying to his disciples, “You may ask in my name because you are a branch connected to the vine, which is cared for by the Gardener, God. You may ask because you have a relationship with God through Jesus.  And because you ask, God will answer.”  Believers can ask of God because they are connected to God through the Jesus.  This is the branch, to the vine, to the Gardener connection we enjoy.

Third, Jesus said, “whatever you ask, God will give you.”  I think many people have taken these specific words too literally making the words seem untrue.  I am confident that I could pray to God and ask to win the Powerball Lottery and my chances of winning will not have improved one bit.  I am confident that I can pray to God and ask we never have winter again and the chances of living warm year-round will not have changed a bit. 

Now the reason God will not answer such petitions is not because he is unable to make these things happen.  The reason these petitions will go unanswered is they have nothing to do with bearing fruit. The promise of answered prayer here is made to the disciples who remain united to Jesus as the fruit-bearing branch is united to the vine.  Therefore, here, whatever we ask God to help us fulfill the bearing of fruit will be given to us.  Our prayers and petitions made in response to these words of Jesus, should be centered on producing the first fruit of love.

Love must be at the center of the Gardener, Vine, branch, and fruit relationship. Jesus made this point again with his final words, Jesus said, “17 This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). 

Got fruit? Connect to Jesus.  Love.  Amen and Amen.

03-07 - Meal Together

          Jesus had set his face on Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.  Jesus had a message for all Judaism and the stage for that message had been set to occur during the celebration of the Passover.  Jesus arrived in Jerusalem as king, prophet, and priest.  The reaction to Jesus was immediate and intense.  People were turning in faith to Jesus and his message of hope.  But the religious leaders saw Jesus and said, “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (John 11:47b-48).

          We read about the passionate reaction of the religious leaders in today’s New Testament passage from the Gospel of Luke.  There we read, “The chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:1b-2).  Jesus had ignited the passions of the people and the passions of the Pharisees, just not in the same sense and direction.  The Pharisees wanted Jesus gone for a while, but they could not seem to find a way to do it.  Something needed to change for them to have the right opportunity to take charge and control.

          Just when it seemed the obstacles to seizing Jesus had become insurmountable, Satan entered the scene.  Luke wrote, “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present” (Luke 22:3-6).  An insider, a confidant of Jesus, had walked into the camp of the Pharisees offering information and insight into the time, day, and place that Jesus’ arrest could happen without the people knowing.

          Luke’s words remind us that Satan is present in the world. Satan’s approach is simple.  He does not so much lead people to be evil and do bad things as much as he reminds people and encourages people to remain in the world and follow the ways of the world.  We need to remember Jesus’ first sermon of nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”  Jesus came to call people to repent, that is turn from the ways of the world, and follow God.  Satan only needs to convince people to stay in the world to accomplish his goals.

          Luke’s words relative to Judas makes clear that Satan convinced Judas to stay in the world and let the world determine his values and destiny. Worldliness has nothing to do with genuine living.  Judas filled his lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.  Why did Judas allow himself to be dragged back into the world?  Was Judas convinced that a handful of coins would make a difference in his life?  Or was Judas convinced that he could create a crisis and cause Jesus to act as king of force leading the people who loved Jesus to battle for the control of Jerusalem? We are not told why Judas betrayed Jesus and once again embraced the world.  We want to know but God keeps that reason to himself.  Why?  Because the reason for Judas’ betrayal did not make a difference to the outcome.  Isn’t that always true?  If someone betrays you, does it really change how much that betrayal hurts if you knew their motivations? Does knowing the reason for the betrayal change the outcome?  The important thing here was that Judas took his eyes off Jesus and allowed Satan and the ways of the world back into his life.  If Satan opposed Jesus in that manner, Satan would have no problem opposing the church, often most effectively from within the church itself.  If Satan opposed Jesus and the Church in that manner, Satan would have no problem creating trouble within your own family. That is the way of Satan.

          While Judas’ betrayal was unknown to the other apostles, Jesus was aware.  Early in the Gospel of John we read Jesus said, ““Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him” (John 6:64).  Knowing there were only hours remaining before these battles would begin, Jesus wanted time with his disciples.  Luke tells us Jesus sent for Peter and John and said, “’Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’  ‘Where do you want us to prepare for it?’ they asked.  10 He replied, ‘As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.’  13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.  14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:8b-15).

          Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem and in Jerusalem, Jesus would suffer. The coming suffering of Jesus was, therefore, not unexpected.  Jesus suffering was part of the plan.  Long before Jesus arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “31The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8:31-33).  In this exchange, we see that Jesus understood that Satan was working on Peter, trying to get Peter to follow the ways of the world by denying God’s plan. Satan’s tactics are not complex, and his objective is always the same; get people to remain in the world and avoid God’s plan.

          God’s plan was for Jesus to come to Jerusalem, to proclaim the message of hope, to heal those who were sick, and to suffer for the sins of others.  But before the suffering, Jesus desired to share a special meal with his disciples, and he asked Peter and John to make the preparations for the meal.  The meal was the Passover meal that the Jews celebrated, and continue to celebrate to this day, recognizing the release of the Jews from bondage in Egypt.  The Passover meal involved the slaughter of a lamb and the meat roasted and eaten at a meal that evening.  At this feast, the Jews looked forward to a future deliverance by the Messiah.  A symbol of that expectation was to set aside a cup of wine for the Messiah should he come that very evening.

          “14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he [Jesus] said to them [the disciples], ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:14).  “19 And he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).  Jesus used bread as a symbol for his body given over for sacrifice much as had been done for the lamb.  Jesus words changed the Passover meal from a repetitious traditional celebration to a new celebration of life given by Jesus, the Son of God.  Jesus’ words of invitation to eat the bread echo words Jesus had spoken much earlier in his ministry.  Jesus had said, “35 “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry… 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day…48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:35, 38, 39-40, 48-51).

          When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you; do this [eat this] in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), Jesus was inviting his disciples into an intimate relationship with him and into the fullness of life.  Jesus was also building up his disciples for the suffering he and they would experience in the days ahead.  To build them up, Jesus gave his disciples a moment to remember, a moment of great symbolism, to draw strength from and remember that though the disciples may not be able to see Jesus, he was nevertheless still within each of them.

          Moments to remember are important to us.  Those who are married, wear a ring as a symbol of their marriage.  When a married person looks at their ring, they are reminded of a shared life.  The ring is a physical, tangible thing that reminds us of unseen, but the real things embodied by words such as love, commitment, and devotion.  We use the shape of a heart in ways to express love for country, a person, or a pet.  That heart shape reminds us and announces to other people that we have a deep affection for something or someone.  There are symbols all around us to remind us.  At this meal, Jesus desired to share with his disciples a symbol of life.  Jesus took ordinary bread, blessed it before God, broke it into pieces for each disciple, and invited them to eat it. This whole scene was a powerful reminder of a share life given to the disciples by Jesus.  A life that was to be built upon the love of God and the love for one another.  The disciples needed this reminder to help them get through the suffer that lay ahead.

          We are no different than the disciples.  We, too, need to know that Jesus is present in our suffering.  Taking the bread of the Lord’s Table, in whatever form it is offered, reminds us that though we cannot see Jesus, he is nevertheless with us. Eating the bread with others reminds us that we are equal in the sight of God, we are equally frail, and we need one another.

          Having transformed the bread from the Passover meal as a symbol of Jesus body, Luke wrote, “20 In the same way, after the supper he [Jesus] took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20). Some scholars speculate the cup Jesus took here was the one set aside for the Messiah.  Jesus was again making use of a symbol, a symbol that the Messiah, God’s anointed messenger, had come with a new covenant.  God had promised a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah. 31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.  “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

          God’s desire was to forgive the sins of his people and God did that through Jesus.  The Apostle Matthew in his account of the Last Supper recorded the scene this way, “27 Then he [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks he [Jesus] gave it to them [the disciples], saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28). 

          Jesus blessed the cup Jesus and given to the disciples was a symbol for them and for us that God has placed his seal, his authority, on the promise of forgiveness.  God is for us.   The Apostle Paul put it this way, “31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).  The cup offered by Jesus is a symbol that God is for us.

          Jesus desired to have this meal with his disciples because this meal symbolized God’s desire to call his people to his side and let them know that no matter what was occurring in their lives, God was for them. We can come now and share in God’s desire and be reminded of Jesus in us and God for us as we take the bread and drink the cup.  Join me now in the Lord’s Supper, a meal of remembrance and life.  Amen and Amen.

02-28 - Tested

          Last week, we talked about Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem as the true king of Israel.  As king, Jesus was responsible to God alone to know the law of God and follow it flawlessly.  And Jesus did just that.

Even in his youth, Jesus astounded people at the depth of his knowledge of the law.  When Jesus was just a boy, while in Jerusalem, Jesus separated himself from his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph.  “45 When they [Mary and Joseph] did not find him [Jesus], they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him [Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:45-47). 

Jesus possessed the mind of the true king because he could proclaim and teach that law and could judge wisely and righteously. Jesus still is king and Lord.  He is more than able to guide us with wisdom and grace.  We just need to be willing to listen and follow him.

          When Jesus last entered Jerusalem as an adult, the people of the city asked, “Who is this?” and those with Jesus said, “This is Jesus, the prophet.”  As a prophet, Jesus came to bring a message of repentance in the presence that there could be a future. 

Jesus conveyed this message of hope from the very beginning of his ministry.  The first sermon Jesus ever gave was recorded in just nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Jesus carried this message everyday in words and actions.

          Throughout Jesus’ ministry among the people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day confronted him on his teaching.  One such time occurred after Jesus had called Matthew, a tax collector as a disciple. “10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

          Jesus was a prophet calling people to come to him in the present to be cleansed that they may have a future with God.  That is still Jesus’ message today.  Jesus asks us to receive that message and then share it with others.

          When Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem for that final time, Jesus gave the prophetic message in deeds and words to all of Judaism.  Jesus cleared the Temple of those marketing goods, changing money, and selling sacrifices. 

Having made room in the Temple, Jesus then acted as a priest and invited in those who were blind and lame.  Jesus invitation was an opportunity to lift these people up before God so that they could be healed.  This is what Jesus meant when he said God desires mercy not sacrifice. This is what Jesus meant when he said he had come for the sinner not the righteous.  This is what Jesus meant when he established his Church.  The Church, in whatever form, is not to appear like a marketplace in any way.  If it must appear as anything, it should more closely resemble a hospital where those who need healing can find it in and through the body of Christ.

Jesus, who had his face set on Jerusalem, had entered the city, and made know the Word of God.  Jesus made known the presence of God through the healings of the sick.  The people were following Jesus because of the authority of his teaching and the healing power of God that he revealed. Jesus was doing exactly what his Father wanted him to do. 

But there are powerful forces in the world that do not want people to follow Jesus.  Why? Because Jesus offered true freedom and a free people are a dangerous lot.  People who are free in God necessarily are free to reject the control of others.  People who are free in God do what is right and not what others tell them to do. People who are free in God speak the truth regardless of the consequences.  People who are free in God have entered a new kingdom that is built on love, grace, mercy, and hope.

Those powerful forces of the world and worldly thinking came to the Temple not to celebrate Jesus’ arrival but to test Jesus.  Those forces hoped to discredit Jesus and prevent him from doing what God had called him to do.  We live in that same world.  We, like Jesus, will be tested in our faith.  We will be tested on our resolve to stay on track with the call upon our lives. There are powerful forces that will try to get us to deviate from the path God has in mind.  Why?  Because the world does not want free people will follow the will of God and not the will of the earthly powers.

In Jesus first test, these worldly forces tried to invoke the power of earthly kingdoms against Jesus.  Matthew recorded for us these words.

“15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’  18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ 21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’  22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).

There are many sermons which have been derived from Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees over the payment of taxes.  But I think the message for us today rests in a single word and that word is “image.”  Matthew used the Greek word, “εἰκών,” (i-kone') which means image or likeness.  What mattered in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees was image or likeness. When asked whether to pay taxes or not, Jesus asked the Pharisees to look at a coin and tell him whose image was upon it.  The Pharisees said the image of Caesar had been struck onto the coin.  Jesus said then the coin bearing Caesar’s image was Caesar’s and, therefore, should be returned to Caesar.  But then Jesus added that the things of God, meaning the things made in God’s image, should be returned to God.

In making this point, Jesus reminded his interrogators that humanity was not made in the image of Caesar. In Genesis, Chapter 1, we read, “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’” (Genesis 1:26-27).  Jesus wanted God’s people to be returned to God and his kingdom.  Jesus original sermon echoed in the Temple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Repent, return to God, for you are created in his likeness.

How does one return to the image and the likeness of God?  We do so by imitating Jesus.  The Apostle Paul said, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  When we repent and turn toward God, accepting Jesus, then the image of the Son of God, into which true Christians are transformed, become our new image.  It is an image, a likeness that begins with our minds, and follows through with our words and actions.  We are made in God’s image and therefore should be expressing that image.

Now Jesus words were strong, and they silenced his critics, at least for a moment.  Then a second challenge came to Jesus.  This time the powerful forces tried to discredit Jesus using the power of God’s own words.  In the Gospel of Mark we read, “28 One of the teachers of the law [some translations say “a lawyer”] came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he [the lawyer] asked him [Jesus], ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’  29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’  32 ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’  34 When Jesus saw that he [the lawyer] had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34a).

Jesus had cleared the Temple of its marketplace activities making way for healing and teaching to occur.  Jesus then met the challenge of the Pharisees regarding whose image mattered more, Caesar or God’s image.  The answer was clear God’s image mattered because we were made in his likeness. Then the lawyer challenged which of God’s commandment was the most important. The hope of the lawyer was that Jesus would be forced to pit God’s Word against itself and be discredited before the people.  Jesus, knowing the law, said there were two commandments that were most important. Jesus said they were to love God and love one another.  Jesus said all the other commandments depended upon these two. 

If we keep these two commandments fully, then the other commandments fall into place.  If we break either of these commandments, then other commandments fall as well.  I think this is one of the clearest messages to the doubting world.  Many people have said and continue to say, “I’m a good person, I don’t believe in God.  But if there is a God heaven, I expect to be in heaven because I’m a good person.” That is simply, not what Jesus said.

Jesus said God desires that we come to him, now, and come to know what love is.  In knowing the love God has for us, we love God, and we will then have the capacity to love one another.  In love, we will bear his image in the world more fully then ever.  The Apostle John said it this way:

“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).

The image of God is found in those who love God and love others.  And, therefore, heaven is for those who bear the image of God.  We cannot expect to be like God when we reject his existence.  We cannot expect to be accorded grace when we deny there is a giver of grace.

Even the lawyer who seemed not to like Jesus very much understood Jesus message for the lawyer said, “33 To love him [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

“34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34a).  Mark then added, “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34b).  The powerful forces had tested Jesus and were found lacking because Jesus never wavered from his bond with his Father.

We, like Jesus, are tested by very powerful forces of the world.  Those tests will come from many sources and they will cite the power of government, science, academia, and even God’s own Words.  Often times the source of those tests will be from people very close to us. The tests will come from our friends and even our own families.  Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem to be tested and in his testing, he could show those who follow him what to do.  That is the important part of this Jerusalem experience.  We can follow Jesus lead and give answers for our faith in simple ways using God’s Word that shares love and the message of hope.  “So now faithhope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is the ultimate expression of a free people. Let us be free to love as God has loved us.  Amen and Amen.

02-21 - Turning the Tables

          Last week, we began a journey with Jesus as he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus had a fierce determination to go to Jerusalem as part of a divine appointment to bring a prophetic message of judgment.  Prophesy is a statement from God calling the people to change in the present to have life in the future. As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, Jesus revealed more and more about God and the mission and ministry that we are to follow.  That is why I wanted us to celebrate Jesus arrival in Jerusalem today, so that we had several weeks to explore what Jesus taught in the last week of his public ministry, all done in Jerusalem and its surrounds.

          Jesus had his face set on Jerusalem and now he had arrived.  Our New Testament reading from the Gospel of Matthew contained one of accounts of Jesus arrival which we remember through Palm Sunday.

          Matthew wrote, “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’  4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 ‘Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’’  6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ 11 The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

          Jesus who had his face set on Jerusalem, had arrived in Jerusalem.  There are a couple of things that we need to think about concerning this arrival. Most recently on this journey, Jesus had been sending his disciples ahead of him to prepare people for his arrival. There does not appear to be any advanced warning that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem.  So when Jesus and the noisy crowd arrived at the city, people from the city asked, “Who is this?”  The crowd of people with Jesus shouted in reply, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus was a prophet.

          But Jesus was more than a prophet.  We read that Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem on a donkey was the fulfilment of a prophesy.  5 ‘Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’’  So Jesus was prophet and king.  In Israel, the true king was supposed to be responsible to God alone.  In the office of kiing, he was expected to know and do the Law of God.  He was to be a proclaimer and teacher of the law and one who judged wisely and righteously. The scene as Jesus entered was the fulfilment of prophesy in which the true king came to Jerusalem in a gentle state riding on a humble donkey.  The people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the beloved king of Israel.

          Matthew wrote at the arrival of Jesus, king and prophet, the whole city was stirred up.  The Greek word Matthew used, σείω, (si’-o) meant to be agitated in one’s mind.  Jesus arrival in the fashion of a prophetic king and as a prophet was causing the people to be mentally nervous, restless, and anxious.  What was this character Jesus up to?  The number of permanent residents in Jerusalem then was perhaps 100,000 people.  But Jesus entered days prior to Passover and the number of people likely swelled by another 250,000 people or more who had come to Jerusalem from all across the known world.  Jesus’ arrival and the proclamation of the crowds with Jesus that said he was a prophet made people curious, anxious, and expectant.  They would not have to wait long for things to begin to happen.

The crowds and the inhabitants of the city understood that a prophet was a person who spoke for God and who communicated God’s message courageously to God’s Chosen People – the nation of Israel.  Sometimes a prophet acted out his message symbolically. Isaiah went naked for three years. Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days and then on his right for 40 days more.  Zechariah broke his two staffs.  Ahijah tore his cloak.  In making a spectacle, the prophets aroused curiosity of the people and scorn from the establishment.

          After arriving in the city, Matthew reported that Jesus, the prophet, wasted no time making his way to the heart of the city, the heart of Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem, and arousing the people and attracting the scorn of the establishment.  We read, “12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’’” (Matthew 21:12-13).

          Jesus who had his face set on Jerusalem had set in motion an irreversible collision and judgment upon the institution of religion.  He did so by doing five things.

          First, Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey setting people’s minds to begin to wonder if Jesus was to come as the true king of Israel and cast off those appointed by Romans.

          Second, Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. The practices within the temple were under the administration of the control of the Sadducees, one of the two powerful religious groups.  Jesus, at least for a moment, end the Sadducees’ profits.

          Third, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.  These were men who exchanged, for a price, pagan coins minted by the Romans or other authorities for silver coins approved by the Pharisees, the other powerful religious establishment.  Jesus was ending the Pharisees profits.

          Fourth, Jesus overturned the benches of those selling doves.   Small birds such as doves were sold to the poor for use in animal sacrifices within the Temple.  Disrupting the sales of the birds sent a message that God was not interested in sacrifices.  Jesus had turned the tables on the religious establishment at the very moment the city was filled and overflowing with Jews from around the known world.

          Fifth, Jesus brought all his actions together with his words, the words of God.  Jesus condemned the establishment with words from the Hebrew Scriptures saying those selling, buying, exchanging money, and giving them place to do so, collectively had turned the Temple from a house of prayer to a den of robbers.  Here the word “den” more accurately means “cave.”  The temple, then, was not a place where violent people went to commit violence, but a place where violent people went to hide.  With this context in mind, Jesus’ use of the phrase becomes clear. The buyers and sellers, who represent the powerful Jewish elite, had turned the temple into a “den of robbers.” They do not go to the temple to commit crimes; they commit crimes, and then hide in the temple. The phrase, then, does not implicate the Jewish elite for being robbers, it implicates the entire Judaic system was oppressing the Jewish population in the name of the temple – that is, in the name of God.  Jesus, in one short moment, has indited the religious establishment as corrupt through and through.  Jesus took this action in front of Jews from every corner of the world assuring his message would be heard throughout all of Judaism.

          Jesus had issued God’s judgment.  The religion had become corrupt and no longer represented God.  Instead, religion represented the interests of perpetuating itself and making comfortable the powerful within its apparatus.  Jesus wanted simplicity of a relationship to exist between each person and God, not between each person and an institution.

The Gospel of Mark added that,” 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him [Jesus], for they feared him [Jesus], because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching” (Mark 11:18).  Jesus message had been received by the establishment and, like most prophets, was completely rejected.

But Jesus with his face set on Jerusalem had more to do that condemn corruption.  Jesus the prophet and king was also Jesus the priest.  Priest were official ministers or worship leaders in the nation of Israel who represented the people before God and performed various rituals to atone for the sins of the people.  Jesus wanted to be among the people lifting them up before God.  To this end, Matthew recorded, “14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14). For the moment, the Temple had been transformed from a religious marketplace to a place of healing.  Those who were suffering came and received comfort. The miraculous power of God to heal the wounds and afflictions of the body were on prominent display.  Again, this was all done in the presence of Jews from the four corners of the world so that the good news could be shared everywhere.

Jesus’ behavior was itself designed to by symbolically prophetic.  The people had been waiting for the sign of a Messiah, a chosen-one of God who would usher in a new era.  The prophet Isaiah told the people that they would know the Messiah by what he said and did. Isaiah wrote, “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.  Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:4-6).  Jesus came with power to save the people from their religion and the power to gently heal broken bodies.  The message of Jesus’ actions was an unmistakable declaration that he was the Messiah.  And the people began to love Jesus and worship God with simplicity and brightness. This too should be the hallmark of our worship.  We should worship God through Jesus and avoid the pitfalls of loving our traditions more than loving God and loving one another.  When we focus of Jesus then we know God more fully and understand our role in the kingdom.

          But people love traditions, and they get upset if tradition is changed and things of tradition are no longer valued.  Look at the reaction of the religious establishment to Jesus transforming the Temple from a marketplace to a place of healing and comfort.  “15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant.  16 ‘Do you [Jesus] hear what these children are saying?’ they [the leaders] asked him [Jesus].  ‘Yes,’ replied Jesus, ‘have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” (Matthew 21:15-16).

          Jesus message was clear. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem for a final encounter, a final opportunity for the religious establishment to free themselves of tradition and embrace the simplicity and brightness of God himself.  Jesus entered the city as the true king of Israel able to guide and govern people in the ways of God.  Jesus presented a threat to no one riding gently upon a donkey.  Those who traveled with Jesus sang songs of praise, not of war. They proclaimed a blessing upon those who come in the name of the Lord.  Jesus captured the attention of the city’s inhabitants making them wonder, “Who is this?”  Indeed, “Who is Jesus?”  Those walking with Jesus said Jesus was a prophet, able to speak the words of God the people so desperately needed to hear.  Jesus gathered attention of Jews of Jerusalem and across the world all there in the Temple of Jerusalem.  He offered by contrast the profound difference between the corruption of religion that only helped those who sought to perpetuate its traditions for profits and the compassion of God who caused the blind to see and the lame to walk. Jesus came to Jerusalem to turn the tables against those things which were not of God to make room for those things which are of God.

          This is the message today. Let Jesus turn the tables of your life and our church.  Let Jesus come and heal whatever pain you experience by giving you life eternal. In return, worship him in simplicity. Let Jesus turn the tables and replace whatever is of tradition and not of the Holy Spirit found in the Christian Church.  In return, let us be empowered to heal the needs of other.  If together, we live our lives in this manner, many will say to us, “Blessed are they that come in the name of the Lord.” Amen and Amen.