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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

Happy Easter!  We’re now in our second week of Easter, which on the church calendar lasts for a few more weeks yet – and rightfully so, because we as Christians are Easter people.  We believe in resurrection. We believe in hope, and in life.  We believe that death is not the final reality.

We are an Easter people, but we live in a Good Friday world.

We know that Jesus rose from the dead, but most of the world isn’t so sure about that.  People may think Jesus was a great teacher, who set a good example for us to follow, but who sadly died a horrible death and that was it. Their story stops at Good Friday at the Cross. But we are an Easter people.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)  If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our faith is worthless and we’re wasting our time sitting here in church today.

But for those who believe, we know there were hundreds of eye-witnesses to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. And for those who believe, Jesus says we are blessed.

The apostle Thomas was one of those believers.  In our reading from the gospel of John today we see Thomas wrestling with a crisis of faith.  Thomas loved Jesus –  Thomas even offered to die with Jesus.  But when Jesus died on the cross, Thomas wasn’t ready for that. In his shock and in his sorrow he got stuck in a Good Friday mode and couldn’t move past it.  Even when the rest of the disciples saw Jesus and became Easter people, Thomas was still in too much pain to get past Good Friday.

Until he had his ‘Easter moment’.  That ‘Easter moment’ – when we see Jesus for who he is, and believe in him and put our faith in him –  comes at different times and in different ways for all of us, and Jesus understands that.

And just as a side note: Thomas says at one point ‘if I see I will believe’ – nowhere in scripture does God or Jesus say ‘if you see you will believe’.  In fact scripture often points says it’s unbelievers who look for things that they can see.  Scripture says “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  When Thomas finally does see Jesus, Jesus speaks to him and invites him to touch his wounds.  Hearing, and touching… with every sense involved… finally Thomas is able to say with Easter joy, “My Lord and My God!”

And Jesus answers, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” I used to think Jesus was speaking to us sort of over Thomas’ shoulder – saying to us ‘you are blessed because you haven’t seen but yet you believe’.  And in a way that’s true.  But I think Jesus also said it as a way to say to Thomas ‘when you go out and start sharing the good news with others, your hearers will believe, even without having seen me. And they will be blessed.’

And you and I can expect the same thing when we share what we know and what we have experienced about Jesus. Others will believe without having seen; others will be blessed, and others will become Easter people too.

But all of this is just the beginning.  As Easter people, we have a hope and a future – which Jesus says is ‘for those who believe’.  For those who believe, there are promises God gives – in both of our readings today.  Promises that bring joy, and as it says in scripture, ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength’.

The first promise, found in our passage from John, is peace, which God gives.  Three times in this passage Jesus says “Peace be with you”.  Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we can have peace with God and a living relationship with Jesus.

And there are lots more promises found in our reading from I Peter.

I Peter is a book written for Easter people who are living in a Good Friday world.  When Peter wrote this letter he was writing to a church that was facing persecution.  In fact he was writing, rather than visiting as he wanted to, because the believers had moved – they’d been forced out of their homes, and moved hundreds of miles away to get away from people who wanted to kill them.

Sounds like what we hear in the news almost every day doesn’t it?  In a world where Palm Sunday celebrations are turned into bloodshed for our Egyptian brothers and sisters… where a Haitian church in Canada was set on fire on Good Friday… Peter’s words speak to us, where we are: as Easter people in a Good Friday world.

Peter’s words in this letter ring with Easter joy, even in the middle of dark days. He begins his letter to the persecuted church with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

How can he say this in such a dark time? He goes on to explain why: “According to [God’s] great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

In one sentence Peter takes us from Good Friday to Easter. But there’s so much in this sentence we need to unpack it a bit.

Peter says God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.”  We talked about the phrase ‘born again’ a few weeks ago when we talked about Nicodemus. Being ‘born again’ is not joining a socio-political movement. Being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ is what defines a Christian. We literally are Easter people, given a brand new beginning by God’s mercy and power.

Jesus’ resurrection opens the door. Paul says in I Corinthians 15, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

This living hope that Jesus brings means our sins are forgiven. It means we can live our daily lives in relationship with the Living God. It means the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s own. It means that our lives have eternal meaning and purpose. It means we have been born into the family of God, so that all other Christians are our brothers and sisters, literally. These are just a few of the riches that become ours through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This is why Jesus calls us ‘blessed’.

And more than that: the same God who brought Jesus from death to life holds our lives in His hands. This is the foundation of our hope. Peter also says we are born into “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

We can’t inherit something unless someone dies, but Jesus has died – and risen again – and now he shares His inheritance with us. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” This is our inheritance.

And it is being kept, Peter says, guarded by God. A little later on Peter says “you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for salvation” – so both the inheritance and the inheritors are being guarded by God. The word Peter uses for guarded in the Greek has military meaning. It’s like God has a group of soldiers guarding us (only God’s soldiers are angels!) – God has set up a perimeter around us that nothing can break through. Our inheritance and our salvation are absolutely secure and nothing can snatch us from God’s hands. In Romans 8 Paul says:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is what it means to be Easter people.

Christian salvation is not about saying “I hope I make it.” And it’s not – like some people say – “I’ve been a good person, I’ve never killed anybody”. This kind of thinking is a Good Friday mindset – it’s a mindset that says we have to depend on ourselves to be good enough because Jesus is dead and he can’t help us.

Easter people say, “Salvation doesn’t depend on me – it depends on God.” It depends on what Jesus did on the cross, and on Jesus’ resurrection, and the fact that he’s alive now, today. Jesus is keeping the inheritance for us – guarded by His hands and by His angels. We are safe. No matter what happens, and no matter what we see around us, and no matter what the Good Friday people think. This is our hope, which we hold onto by faith, kept by the one who loves us.

Peter goes on to answer his readers’ questions about what to think about the difficulties and trials that come our way in this world. He says:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while… you have been grieved by various trials… so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may… result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The trials we go through as Christians, because of our faith in Jesus, will only last a little while, Peter says. He doesn’t make light of them. He doesn’t say they don’t hurt. In fact, Peter uses the word “grieved” – and life’s hardships do bring us grief.

But Peter says our faith is being refined like gold in the refiner’s fire. It’s being purified.

And it’s also being documented, he says. When we respond with faith to the trials that come – God writes that down in His book. And when Jesus returns, the books will be opened, and our faith will result in praise and glory and honor, for us.

I’m reminded of the family whose father was killed this past week in Ohio, and his death was put on Facebook.  This man’s family are Christians, and one of his daughters said to the press:

“Each one of us forgives the killer.” She said: “The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God. How to fear God. How to love God. And how to forgive.”

She went on to offer words of kindness to the killer’s family.

Peter says God is writing these words down in his book. And can you imagine the honor and glory that will be given to this family in the Kingdom of Heaven?

For each of us – our faithfulness, and our hope, in all of life’s trials, will be our glory and our honor when Jesus returns.

Peter says: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”

Living in God’s power, and not in our own, makes us Easter people. In a Good Friday world, God’s Easter light shines through us, showing the world there is another way, something beyond the darkness, and despair, and death of Good Friday.

We are an Easter people: a beacon of hope in a Good Friday world. Let that light shine. [AMEN.]

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/23/17

~

Readings:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith– being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire– may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – I Peter 1:3-9

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’  Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:19-31

 

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From a sermon I heard at the local Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier today.  This isn’t quite verbatim but it’s how my big-picture brain summed up the details of what the good padre was saying:

“Just as Eve was taken from Adam’s side to be his bride, the church was taken from Jesus’ side to be his bride.”

In the Genesis story, God causes a deep sleep to come over Adam, and takes a rib from his side and forms a wife for him. “This indeed is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” Adam remarks later.

In the Passion story, Jesus enters into the sleep of death, and while he is asleep a spear is thrust into his side to be sure he is dead. His sacrifice, and victory over death, makes possible the body of believers — “the bride of Christ” — who witness his resurrection three days later (and continue to witness to his resurrection).

One day Jesus will look at us and say “this indeed is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and he will delight in us just as Adam and Eve delighted in each other.

If you’ve ever doubted that Jesus loves you…… doubt no longer.

 

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Scripture Reading: John 12:1-36 

Places along the path Jesus followed on Palm Sunday (satellite view)

Today being Palm Sunday, this is the day we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s also the beginning of Holy Week and the road to the Cross.  And as we listen again today to the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and see them throwing palm branches on Jesus’ path, it’s hard to believe many of these same people, five days from now, will be shouting “crucify him!”

So how did this crowd get from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” in five short days?

In a big-picture sense, it’s because it is entirely possible to follow Jesus, to be excited about Jesus, to talk about Jesus, and even to quote prophecy, and still not be hearing what God is saying.

Let me give you an example from our own time, to help set up the story.  There’s a church – not a Protestant church but a church – that started about 150 years ago, that teaches only 144,000 people are going to reign with Jesus in the next life. This belief comes from the Book of Revelation, where it says, “with [the Lamb] were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (Revelation 14:1)

The prophecy is true. But the interpretation is in error, because it fails to take into account other Bible verses that say things like “the righteous shall live by faith” and “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The Bible sometimes calls this kind of mistake a ‘lack of faith’ and sometimes a ‘worldly point of view’.  The Bible doesn’t say this kind of mistake will keep a person out of heaven – God can forgive all kinds of sins – but the mistake needs to be corrected at some point. And the correction can be painful – both for God and for the people who made the mistake.

We see a similar kind of mis-interpretation of scripture in the story of Palm Sunday. There’s a disconnect between how the crowds understand the events that are unfolding, and what God is trying to accomplish.  There’s a worldly point of view, and a heavenly point of view.  And these two viewpoints are on a collision course… with Jesus right in the center.

So I want to try to describe these two viewpoints, to help us to see and experience what the people saw and felt on that first Palm Sunday.

The path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

The worldly viewpoint is the easier of the two to understand, because we’re human. From the point of view of the crowds, excitement has been building around Jesus for the past few years. It started in Galilee when Jesus changed the water into wine at a wedding, and grew a little later when he feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish, and at the same time Jesus started teaching in the synagogues, and he was so much better than all the other teachers. The people loved him, and Jesus’ following kept getting bigger and bigger. Jesus was a hero of the people.

And then in the last few weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, Jesus restored the sight of a man born blind. Nobody had ever done a thing like that before! And then he brought Lazarus back to life.  These were clear signs of the Messiah: this was exactly what the prophets of old said the Messiah would do.

People started to whisper to each other: “Can he be…?” “He must be…” but they were afraid to finish the sentence out loud because the Pharisees said anyone who said Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. And partly because they could scarcely believe it: the Messiah had actually come in their own time? Was it possible? But Jesus was fulfilling every prophecy about the Messiah. He had to be the one.

And up to that point the crowds were right. They were reading the prophecies correctly and interpreting correctly.

Where the crowds went wrong was in how they interpreted the nature of God’s kingdom.  Jesus once commented to Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world” – and that’s the part of the prophecy the crowds missed.  The Messiah’s kingdom comes from God, not from earth.

For example, if we wanted to make Jesus president, in order to make him president we would have to make Jesus lower than he is.  But the worldly point of view doesn’t see that; the worldly point of view says “We need to make Jesus king. Of Israel. Right now.”

And this is not the first time the crowds have made that mistake. Back in John chapter six, after Jesus fed the five thousand, they wanted to make him king right then, but Jesus refused and slipped away.

In today’s reading, though, Jesus does not slip away. He knows the crowd’s desire to make him king will advance God’s plans, so Jesus takes the lead in organizing the event. As the excitement builds around him, huge crowds come out to Bethany to see Jesus and to see Lazarus. And as Jesus climbs onto a donkey and heads toward Jerusalem, the crowds go ahead of him, laying palm branches, and cheering and saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel”.

The crowd is bearing witness to Jesus all over the city – spreading the story of what Jesus has done … and the whole city of Jerusalem is coming out to see who this is.  There has not been such a feeling of hope and promise and joy in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. The people are convinced that finally the Romans will be put in their place and everything is going to be set right.

This worldly point of view is so close to the truth, and yet so far.  Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the rightful king. Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for. But the kingdom of God is so much bigger than Roman-occupied Israel.  The worldly point of view is too narrow to understand what Jesus is doing. It lacks vision; it lacks God’s input; and it’s on a collision course with the heavenly point of view.

(I should mention briefly there is a third point of view in play, which we could call the completely faithless point of view. This is where the chief priests and Pharisees fit in. The chief priests and Pharisees know that Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies. At some level, though they won’t admit it, they know Jesus is who he says he is. But if Jesus is the Messiah, then all of them are out of jobs… and they’re not going to let that happen.  So they decide Jesus needs to be done away with, before all these people start believing in him.)

So the worldly point of view is often rooted in honest misinterpretation. The faithless point of view is rooted in out-and-out rebellion against God.

By contrast to both, the heavenly point of view is what Jesus sees.  Trying to see this story through Jesus’ eyes is not easy for us everyday people, but as his friends we owe it to him to at least try to understand where he’s coming from.

So let’s look at the story again through Jesus’ eyes. As we begin today’s scripture, Jesus arrives in Bethany to visit his friends Lazarus and Martha and Mary. Jesus knows he only has a few more days left to live, and he has come to spend one of his last days with people who love him.

And Lazarus hosts a dinner for Jesus. In our day, the tradition of hosting a dinner for a friend has almost become a thing of the past.  People don’t entertain like they used to, with fancy dishes and the real silverware. But somewhere in our memories we can remember what it was like to gather for a dinner not just with family but with an honored guest and maybe three or four families packed into the dining room – all who knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company.

This would have been a dinner like that. Lazarus reclined at table next to Jesus. Martha served up the food. And then Mary came in at one point to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus for giving them their brother back.  She breaks open an expensive bottle of perfume – they say it was worth about a years’ wages – and she pours it over Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair.

As she does this, Jesus feels a feeling of relaxation and peace and well-being.  The perfume is made out of nard, which is famous (even today) for its ability to soothe and relax the emotions. It was also very strong-smelling and the smell filled the house, and that relaxed feeling was shared among everyone present…

…everyone, that is, except Judas, who is upset and says the perfume should have been sold and money given to the poor. (John tells us Judas would have liked to have had some of that cash for himself.) But Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone, because what she’s doing is in preparation for his burial.

Did Mary know this? Did she know she was anointing Jesus for burial? Bible experts disagree; but in the translation of this verse that is closest to the Greek, Jesus says “against the day of my burying hath she kept this [perfume].” It’s an old English way of saying Mary anticipated the need.

And then Jesus says something that has been badly misinterpreted through the centuries: “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”  These words have been used as an excuse for not serving the poor, or as an excuse for giving to the church while people outside the church go hungry, or worse. This is NOT what Jesus meant. He meant, as one commentator put it:

“There will always be opportunity to give to the poor. There will not always be opportunities to care for those you love who are close to their deaths. Pay attention to the things that are important.”

That’s what Jesus is getting at.

(Side Note: It’s interesting, three of the four gospel writers show a connection between Judas’ decision to betray Jesus, and this smelly perfume moment at Lazarus’ house.  Was it Mary’s generosity that got to Judas? Or was it Jesus’ defense of her? Or was it the loss of money that sent Judas running to the chief priests? I don’t think we’ll ever know… but I do think it’s important to realize: the kind of love and passionate, open-hearted generosity that Mary showed to Jesus often provokes reactions from others that bring to light the secrets of their hearts. It certainly did that night.)

So back to our story.  This last banquet with friends is a time of joy and love and relaxation for Jesus – not that he’s forgetting his mission, not at all – he’s appreciating and enjoying the people who he has come to earth to save.

The next day, Jesus needs to start setting in motion the events that will lead to his crucifixion. He needs to fulfill prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. So he sets out from Bethany and walks to Bethphage with the disciples. He finds a donkey, and a crowd starts to find him, and together they go a little further to the top of the Mount of Olives.

As the crowd reaches the Mount of Olives, Luke says in his gospel “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” [But as Jesus] “came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:37-42 edited)

Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives

Again, we see this juxtaposition between the worldly viewpoint – focused on Jesus’ power – and heaven’s viewpoint, which grieves over a lost city. While the crowd rejoices, Jesus weeps.

Jesus then rides down the Mount of Olives, through Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and up the Temple Mount to the temple in Jerusalem.

Garden of Gethsemane, with olive trees

Shortly after Jesus arrives at the temple, the disciples come to him saying there are some Greeks looking for him who want to see him… and Jesus recognizes yet one more sign that his time has come.  His death and resurrection will open the door for all people of the earth, including the Gentiles, to be God’s chosen people. The prophets predicted the Messiah would be a “light to the Gentiles” – and now this is coming true. So Jesus replies, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

He goes on to explain to the disciples that if he does not die, then God’s plan will not be fulfilled.  Think about it: if Jesus does not die on the cross – if he allows the people to make him king right then and there – his worldly kingdom might last for his lifetime, but then he would grow old and die and history would eventually forget that there was ever a King Jesus.

But if Jesus dies on the cross, he steps out of history and into the eternal kingdom. Jesus will ransom God’s people from death and bring the promise of God’s forgiveness to every people in every age – a beacon of light and hope for all generations.

Jesus knows before he dies that his death will accomplish God’s perfect will. So Jesus invests his life – and his death – where he knows they will have the greatest return for the Kingdom of Heaven.

And Jesus reminds his disciples that his servants must do the same thing, follow the same path.  Jesus says: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (Jn. 12:26)

As Jesus looks ahead to what this last week of his life is going to bring, he says, “What then shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No; for this hour I have come. Father, glorify thy name.”  And God answers from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Speaking about the cross in front of him, Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-32)

This is the heavenly point of view.

But the crowd is stunned when they hear these words.  This isn’t what they had in mind at all. This wasn’t what the Messiah was supposed to do. The Messiah was supposed to be king and take charge, he wasn’t supposed to die!  They answer, “We have heard from the law [that is, reading the prophecies] that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (John 12:34) (Being ‘lifted up’ meant death on a cross.)

After all the weeks of Jesus telling the disciples, “I’m going to die, I’m going to Jerusalem to die…” they finally hear him. But now they’re confused. How can this be, when the Messiah is supposed to reign forever?

Jesus answers, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light…” (John 12:35)

And that’s where the story ends for today.  Jesus visits the temple, then heads back to Bethany for the night, with the disciples, leaving this huge crowd wondering what just happened and where did their king go?

The story continues on Thursday.

For us today, let me just suggest three things we can take home with us.

First, this story reminds us that what God is doing, and what we expect God to be doing, can be very different things. This is one of the reasons why Bible reading and prayer are so important. The more we take time to listen to God, the more we’re aware of what God has in mind, and the less likely we are to find ourselves at cross purposes with God.

Second, we need to be talking to God about our spiritual legacies. When Jesus faced the cross, he was thinking about us.  He knew his actions would mean salvation for generation after generation of people who had not yet been born.  And Jesus calls his followers to think ahead in the same way. How will our lives touch the generations that come after us?  And I’m not talking about money here… although we certainly sit here today in a building that is a legacy from the generations before us. But our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents gave us so much more than just this building. They gave us a faith, and they gave us family and friends, and the results of all the work they did, and the lives they touched. How will we honor what they have given us? And what will we leave for the next generation? How will God be glorified in the way we live and in the way we die? This is something to talk to God about in prayer, asking God for the honor of giving glory to His name.

And finally, during this Holy Week, spend time with Jesus in a personal way, like Mary did. Look for ways to show our love and thanks personally to Jesus. Setting aside all the theology and the ‘churchy’ stuff we do, think about what Jesus means to you personally, as your friend? Tell him this week how much he means to you.

May you and yours have a blessed Holy Week and a joyous Easter.  AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~

Scripture: Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,  5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 

 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well,  11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. 

The Mount of Olives, looking east from Jerusalem

 12  The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!”  14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:  15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”  16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.  17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.  18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.  19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” 

 20  Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 

 27  “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”  35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 

 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

~

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/9/17

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Today’s scripture reading: John 11:1-45 //  This year’s readings for Lent have given us an opportunity to spend time with some unforgettable characters and events in the New Testament, and this week is no exception. Today we see Jesus raising one of his best buddies, Lazarus, from the dead.

Last week we met a man born blind who Jesus healed, who afterwards was dragged in front of the Pharisees to explain what happened. And at one point in the court proceedings, the Pharisees said to the man who had been healed “Give glory to God!” – which was an old-fashioned way of saying “put your hand on this stack of Bibles and speak the truth.”

So in his honor today I’m going to make that phrase the title for our sermon: “Give Glory to God” – because today’s reading from John brings us into full view of God’s glory, and also challenges us to put our hands on the Bible and share the Gospel truth.

As I was reading the apostle John’s words in chapter 11 this week, in my mind I could almost see what was happening, like a play onstage.  So I’ve divided this sermon up into two Acts of two Scenes each, with an Epilogue at the end, to help us keep track of everything that’s going on.

~~~

So Act 1, Scene 1.  The place is Bethany, a small neighborhood just outside Jerusalem. It’s early spring, and we’re looking in on the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who are good friends of Jesus.

Mary and Martha are worried, because their brother Lazarus is very sick. He has gone downhill rapidly, and the doctors have no idea what’s wrong or what to do. Things don’t look good.

Martha and Mary each know what the other is thinking: we need Jesus, and we need him now. But neither one wants to leave Lazarus’ side. So they find a friend to go and find Jesus and give him an urgent message to come quickly.

A few hours after the messenger leaves to find Jesus, Lazarus passes. The sisters and everyone in the neighborhood are thrown into mourning. Family and friends wash Lazarus’ body and anoint it with perfume. They wrap him in grave-cloths and place him in a tomb that same night.

And then the sisters begin the Jewish rite of mourning, called shiva, which means seven… seven days in which Martha and Mary will stay in their home, and friends and neighbors will come and bring food and sit with them in their grief. Jewish tradition says that visitors do not initiate conversation during this time; they allow the family to speak first – or not, as they choose. When there is conversation, they talk about Lazarus, and their memories of him, and the things they loved about him, and the funny things he would say sometimes.

And as evening falls, the curtain falls.

~~~

Act 1 Scene 2. The next day. The place is somewhere on the east side of the Jordan River, about a day’s walk from Jerusalem, not far from where John the Baptist used to baptize.  Jesus and the disciples have come here because the religious authorities in Jerusalem are trying to arrest Jesus. They know the people who live in this part of the country believe in Jesus and support him, and won’t give him up.  The messenger sent by Martha and Mary arrives, breathless, looking for Jesus. He asks around and learns where Jesus and the disciples are staying.

Going and finding Jesus, he says, “I’ve just come from Bethany. Your friends Martha and Mary have sent me to say to you, ‘Lord, the one you love is ill.’”

Jesus answers, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  This is very similar to what Jesus said last week about the man born blind: he wasn’t blind because anybody sinned, but so that God’s work could be seen in his life.  The end result is glory to God.

So having gotten this news, Jesus stays where he is for two more days and then decides to leave for Bethany.

Some people said if Jesus had only left right away Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but that’s not true. First off, Jesus didn’t need to be physically present to heal someone – remember the centurion’s servant? But stepping out of the play for a moment, and looking at scripture, we can count the days: One day for the messenger to get to Jesus from Bethany; two days Jesus waited; one day for Jesus to walk back to Bethany: four days. And when Jesus gets to Bethany, he is told Lazarus has been dead for four days. So Lazarus had to have died the day the messenger left.

So why did Jesus wait?  Nobody knows for sure. My guess is he was waiting for all the family and friends of Lazarus to gather in Bethany. But I think probably the simplest answer is the best: Jesus was waiting until God the Father said “go”. Which is always a wise move.

Jesus then says to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea” and the disciples look at him like he’s gone nuts. They say, “Lord! We just escaped from there. They want to stone you. And you want to go back again?”

And then Jesus says something mysterious about there being twelve hours in a day… which is basically a way of reminding the disciples that God is in control.  If God gives us 12 hours we have 12 hours, and no human power can change that. Things will happen as God intends, when God intends. There’s no need to hurry, and there’s no need to drag feet. The important thing is to walk while there is light, because when the darkness comes it will be too late. And these words are being spoken by the Light of the World… so everything is going to be OK.

Jesus then says to them, “Lazarus has fallen asleep” – meaning Lazarus has died. And he says to the disciples, “I’m glad for your sakes I wasn’t there, so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

And disciple Thomas adds, with a heart full of bravery and loyalty, “Yes, let’s go so we can die with him.”

And the curtain falls.

~~~

Act 2, Scene 1. It’s the next day, just outside of Bethany. Martha has been told Jesus is coming, and rushes out to meet him, while Mary stays at home sitting shiva.

Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.” This is not an accusation; it’s a statement of faith, because she says, “even now I know whatever you ask, God will give you.” (Notice Jesus is observing shiva and allowing Martha to speak first.)

Jesus answers her, “your brother will rise.” In English translations, the words are “Your brother will rise again” but in the original Greek, the word “again” is not there.  Jesus is not talking about the end times, or the coming of God’s kingdom.

But somehow that’s the way Martha hears it – as we tend to also. And she says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus answers, “I AM the resurrection (and the life). The one who believes in me, though he die, will live; and all who live and believe in me will not die.” This time Jesus is talking about eternity. But notice Jesus does not say “I give resurrection” or “I bring resurrection” or “I lead you to resurrection.” Jesus says “I AM the resurrection.”  Knowing Jesus IS eternal life.

And he says to Martha, “Do you believe this?”

And Martha goes beyond ‘yes’. She says, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

And like Martha, we who believe anticipate the glory of God.

~~~

Act 2 Scene 2. There are two locations in this scene: one is the road to the tomb where Lazarus is buried, and the second is the tomb itself.

Martha has run home and pulled Mary aside quietly and told her “the teacher is here and calling for you”.  She does this quietly because Jesus is a public figure, and – then as now – one of the hardest things about being a friend to a person in the public eye is finding privacy… especially during times of grief.

So Mary slips out, and the other mourners see her go, and they assume she’s going to the tomb to grieve, so they follow her.

But Mary finds Jesus, and when she sees him, she falls at his feet weeping, and echoing Martha’s words she says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Same words, but they require a different response.  Martha approached Jesus in faith, needing assurance; Mary needs someone to enter with her into her sorrow.

So Jesus answers, “Where have you laid him?” And Mary says, “Come see.”

The apostle John tells us at this point, “when Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up inside him, and he was deeply troubled.”

Most of our English translations don’t have the word ‘anger’ in this verse – most say ‘deeply moved’ or ‘greatly troubled’ – but the word ‘anger’ is clearly there in the Greek. When Jesus weeps – and he does weep – he is not grieving the passing of Lazarus. He already knows Lazarus is coming back to life.

Jesus is empathizing with Mary’s pain, and with the pain of all who grieve. But what makes him angry is all these people around him grieving like people who have no hope.  The man who is the Resurrection is standing right next to them and they don’t even know him. Jesus must have felt almost invisible!

On top of that, Jesus is deeply, deeply angry at the human condition that keeps people in the dark, bound to death – the human condition that keeps people from knowing the Truth.  This anger is a reflection of God’s anger, not at us but at what sin does to us.

The best way I can think of to explain this is, if you’ve ever been close to a person who is trapped in addiction. You have such love that person, and at the same time you have intense anger at the drug or the drink that’s destroying them. That’s something like what Jesus is feeling here.

Jesus is feeling to the very core of his being why his sacrifice on the cross is so necessary.

Meanwhile, some of the people in the crowd comment “look how much he loved him” – which is true – and a few in the crowd start carping, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man also kept this man from dying?”

Sometimes I think some people are too busy complaining to ever stop and think about salvation… but that’s another sermon for another day.

As everyone arrives at the grave, Jesus says, “take away the stone.”  Martha objects on a very practical level… “Lord… ummm… he’s been dead four days, he’s going to smell.” (or as it says in the King James Version, “Lord, he stinketh.”)

And Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” And as Jesus prays, we listen in on a part of Jesus’ eternal and ongoing conversation with the Father. Jesus prays, “Thank you that you have heard me. I know you always hear me, but I say this on account of those standing around, that they may believe you sent me.”

And then he cries out with a loud voice: not loud and spooky like in an echo chamber, but loud and loving and joyful and full of life, like a friend greeting a long-lost friend. And Jesus shouts two words in Greek. The second word is “out”. The first word is “Come here!” (“Out” is just the direction in which to travel.)

Come here, out of darkness and death and into life. Come here to the One who loves you and calls you. Come here.

Even today Jesus calls us with these words.

This is the glory of God. This is the beginning of THE turning point in all of human history: because in this moment the reality of resurrection breaks into a world doomed to die.

Lazarus’ resurrection is also a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, given to the disciples so they’ll understand what’s about to happen when it happens.

As Jesus’ words echo into the tomb, Lazarus comes out, still wrapped in grave-clothes, and Jesus tells them “unwrap him”. The people witnessing this are astonished and give glory to God, as a dead man walks out of the grave alive.

As the curtain falls, many of the mourners become believers in Jesus and rejoice in the glory of God.  But a whisper comes from the wings: “though many believed… some didn’t.”

And the curtain falls.

~~~

That’s where our reading for today ends.  But there is an epilogue a few verses later, and I think our play should include it.

Epilogue: a few days later. In Jerusalem.

Word of Lazarus’ resurrection has spread like wildfire through the city and all the surrounding area.  The religious authorities – the Sanhedrin – have called an emergency meeting.  As the curtain comes up, the chief priests and scribes and a few Pharisees are debating loudly and getting nowhere.

The question on their minds is what to do.  Not a hand-wringing “what are we going to do?” but rather “What are we doing? We must act…” “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our place and our nation.”

Mind you, the Romans don’t really care what God the Jews believe in so long as they keep the peace. The question betrays their real motives: they’re afraid they’re going to lose their positions, and they’re afraid they’re going to lose control of the people.

Then Caiaphas, the high priest, says, “You know nothing! It is necessary that one man die for the people so the whole nation will not perish.”

John comments, “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (John 11:51-52)

A few days later, in John chapter 12, a large crowd gathers at Lazarus’ house in Bethany, both to see Jesus and to witness Lazarus alive! And when this happens the Sanhedrin decides to kill Lazarus as well.

It makes a person wonder how many times this poor man is going to have to die and be resurrected before they catch on? But for now… the curtain falls…

End of epilogue.

~~~

For those of us observing the drama today, the bottom line is this: Jesus says “I AM the resurrection” and then shows us the glory of God.

When Jesus says “I AM the resurrection” his words imply four things: (1) that death exists; (2) that Jesus exists; (3) that life after death exists, and (4) Jesus is that life.

The first implication, that death exists, sadly goes without saying.

The second implication, that Jesus exists, pretty much also goes without saying, unless you doubt the writings of most of humanity’s greatest historians.

The third implication, that life after death exists, has been debated for as long as people on our planet have known how to debate. But God has consistently said and demonstrated that resurrection does exist. There are examples in both the Old and New Testaments of people returning to life. And even nature shows us resurrection with the return of spring every year. Belief in an eternal future is far more than mere blind faith.

The fourth implication, that Jesus IS The Resurrection and The Life, is exactly what Jesus said he was, and then proved it through Lazarus. The One who is life calls us also to life – not in some abstract way, but calling each of us by name, as he called Lazarus, and saying in a voice of love, “come here”.  When we hear that voice, will we stay in the grave? Or will we go with the one who loves us? Let us join with Lazarus and let our lives illustrate the glory of God. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 4/2/17

~

 

 

 

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Scripture: John 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind (text in full at the end).

In the Old Testament, in the book of Amos, God and Amos were having a conversation, and at one point God held something up and said to Amos, “what do you see?” And Amos said, “a plumb line.” And God said, “I am setting a plumb line in… Israel.”

My husband the carpenter knows more about plumb lines than I do, but basically a plumb line is a weight on the end of a string.  And the weight takes advantage of gravity, so that when you hold the end of the string, the weight makes the string straight up and down.  And when you hold this up against a vertical surface like a wall, it shows whether or not the wall is straight.

So God is setting a plumb line in Israel, spiritually speaking, and the plumb line is Jesus. We see a real-life example of this in our reading from John today. Let’s take a look at the story…

Actually I should back up a couple pages, because the 8th chapter of John sets the scene for our story. In John 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Pharisees decide to test him by bringing him a woman caught in adultery. They ask him, “what should we do about this woman?” The Pharisees think they’re setting a plumb line for Jesus to measure up to: testing him to see if he will live up to that straight line called the Law of Moses.  But Jesus turns the plumb line on them. He says, “whoever of you is without sin cast the first stone.” And they have to admit none of them is sinless, so no stones get thrown.

Immediately after this, Jesus says to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.” And the religious authorities accuse him of having a demon.  Jesus then says something even more shocking: he says, “before Abraham was, I AM”.  “I AM” is the name of God. It’s the way God introduced himself to Moses in the Old Testament. So Jesus is claiming to be God.  And the religious authorities pick up stones to stone him for blasphemy, but Jesus manages to slip away.

So having just escaped the Pharisees – with their words and their rocks still freshly in mind – Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road when they see a man who was born blind. The disciples look at the blind man and then look at Jesus and say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”

Back in those days people thought if something bad happened to you in life, it was God’s punishment for sin. And looking at the law of Moses and at Israel’s history, you could see why they might think so. In the Old Testament, God often said things like “if you obey me and worship me only, I will bless you; but if you rebel against me the blessings will be removed.”  And the Old Testament is full of stories of Israel rebelling against God and losing battles or going into exile.

But the thing is, the Old Testament covenant was between God and the nation of Israel. It didn’t mean good people always had good things happen to them, or that bad people always had bad things happen to them.  Job, for example, had terrible things happen to him, and he was a very godly man.

And this is still true today. I often hear people wonder out loud, for example, whether an illness is God’s punishment for something. The fact is, in a fallen world, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and we don’t always know why.

And that’s the case in our story today.  Where it comes to the man who was born blind, Jesus says his blindness has nothing to do with sin whatsoever.  He says the man was born blind “so God’s workmanship could be revealed in him.”

And I think that’s something to think about for us as well. When life gets tough, it might be an opportunity for God’s work to be revealed in us.  And we can pray for that.  In II Corinthians when Paul prays for a cure to an illness, God says to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responds, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (II Corinthians 12:9)

That’s what’s happening in the life of the blind man.  Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and says ‘go wash in the Pool of Siloam’.  And the blind man does it, and he comes back able to see. But when he comes back, Jesus is gone – he and the disciples have moved on.

A little side note: this isn’t the only blind man Jesus will heal.  But the other blind people will be healed without mud. So why does Jesus make mud this one time?  There are a number of possible reasons but I think one of them was that Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath (making mud on the Sabbath was considered work, and therefore breaking the Sabbath law).  It also sets up a parallel between the healing of the blind man and another healing, the healing of a paralyzed man back in John chapter 5. That healing also happened on a Sabbath, but with different results… and I’ll come back to that in a little bit.

So the blind man returns from the pool able to see, and the whole neighborhood is amazed. “How did this happen?” people ask.  “Is this really the same man who used to sit begging?” “Naah, it just looks like him.” And he’s standing there saying, “YES I am that man!!” And he tells them the story of what Jesus did for him.

Then the neighbors drag the him off to see the Pharisees.  Why would they do this?  They know the Pharisees don’t like Jesus. They know anybody who follows Jesus is in danger of being thrown out of the synagogue – which in that culture means being cut off from the community. So what’s up with this?

The crowd’s reasons were probably mixed. Some people who liked Jesus might have wanted to prove to the Pharisees that Jesus really was a prophet. Others might have wanted to score brownie points with the Pharisees.  Whatever they had in mind, the neighbors ended up bringing a lot of trouble on the blind man and his family, who suddenly found themselves being questioned by the authorities.

So the man tells his story to the Pharisees.  He says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. Then I washed and now I see.”  And a huge argument breaks out among the Pharisees! It’s interesting to know that Pharisees don’t agree on everything. Some said Jesus couldn’t be from God because he didn’t observe the Sabbath. Others said he had to be because no sinner could do such miracles. And the apostle John says, “they were divided.” The word there is “schism” – like a major church split!

Not being able to arrive at any agreement among themselves, the Pharisees then ask the formerly blind man: “what do you say about him?” They don’t really want his opinion! They’re triangulating, looking for places to throw blame.  And the formerly blind man answers, “He is a prophet” – which is not what the Pharisees want to hear.  They refuse to believe. In fact now they’re asking the man if he was really born blind in the first place.

By the way, as a side note – verse 18 says “the Jews did not believe…” and verse 22 also refers to “the Jews”.  The apostle John is talking about the Jewish ruling council or the Sanhedrin. He does not mean all the Jewish people.  The blind man was also Jewish, as was Jesus, and the disciples, and the crowd – in fact everybody in the story is Jewish. I mention this because verses like this have been used from time to time to fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, and that’s a gross mis-interpretation. There is no anti-Semitism here.

So the council calls for the formerly blind man’s parents and questions them. And the parents say ‘yes he was born blind, and yes he is our son, but we don’t know how it is that he can see’. And John comments that ‘his parents said this because they were afraid of the Sanhedrin.’

The parents wrap up their testimony by saying, “our son is of age, ask him.”  And the spotlight swings back on the man who has been healed.

The Pharisees now say to him: “Give glory to God!” which is sort of the ancient way of saying “swear on this stack of Bibles”. (Ironically, giving glory to God is exactly what this man is doing, but the Pharisees are missing that completely.)

So they say to him: “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”  They’re demanding that he agree with them. And the formerly blind man realizes he has a decision to make.  He can save his own skin, pretend to agree with the Pharisees, and life will be good. Or he can stand up for what he knows is true and risk losing everything he has.

His initial answer leaves the door open to dialogue.  He says: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. What I do know, is I was blind and now I see.”  He’s speaking the truth but he’s is not offending, and if the Pharisees mean well it’s an acceptable compromise of an answer.

But it’s not good enough for the Pharisees.  They reject his words and start to bully him. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” Not like they haven’t heard the story already – twice!  And man loses patience and says, “I’ve told you already, but you’re not listening! Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples too?”

At which point they start to heap abuse on him.  They say, “You are his disciple, we are disciples of MosesMoses is from God but we don’t know where this guy comes from.” Completely ignoring the fact that Jesus said to them back in chapter 5, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because Moses wrote about me.” (John 5:46)

The formerly blind man can see the situation is out of control. The Pharisees are not going to accept a compromise, so he makes his decision. He will stand on the truth no matter what.  He says: “Funny thing, isn’t it? You don’t know where this man comes from, but he opened my eyes. We know God doesn’t listen to sinners, but God does listen to the person who worships and obeys him. Never since the beginning of the world has anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.”

And the Pharisees threw him out.

Standing alone and speaking truth to power is a dangerous thing.  People are often willing to stand in a crowd and speak truth to power, but stand alone? Very few people can do it.  And we remember them. People like Joseph in the Old Testament. Or Moses, or Daniel, or the apostle Paul. Or Martin Luther, who stood alone against the entire hierarchy of the church. Or William Tyndale, who stood alone against an unjust law, translating the Bible into English, and paying with his life. Or Winston Churchill, who stood alone against the royalty of Europe, saying there could be no peace with Hitler. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who died in a prison camp rather than allow his church to collaborate with the Nazis. Or Rosa Parks, who sat alone on a bus, against an unjust system of prejudice… or Malala Yousafzai, who stood alone against the Taliban.

Just hearing their names is an inspiration.

Speaking truth to power is one of greatest acts of love a person can do. And it’s also one of the most costly.  Jesus, when he gave his life, did it to pay for our sins open the door for us into God’s kingdom; but from the Pharisees’ point of view, Jesus died because he was too good at speaking truth to power. They had to get rid of him. (They just weren’t counting on his coming back!)

So back to our story. The formerly blind man can now see, but the people he most wanted to see – his parents and his friends and neighbors – aren’t allowed to see him. He’s been kicked out of the synagogue, and he’s more outcast now than he was when he was blind.

And Jesus hears about it, and he goes looking for him.

Now there’s no guarantee this formerly blind man is going to accept Jesus.  Remember the other healing back in John 5 that I mentioned? Jesus had told a paralyzed man to pick up his mat and walk. This also happened on a Sabbath, which riled up the Pharisees because you’re not supposed to carry things on the Sabbath. In this case, later on when Jesus goes and visits him, Jesus says to the man, “Look, you have been made well! Don’t sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:14) And the man immediately runs off and betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Hard as it is to imagine, some people will never commit themselves to Jesus, not even if they witness miracles, not even if they receive a miracle.  Miracles are no guarantee of faith.

Contrast this with our formerly blind man. Jesus comes to him and says, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and he answers, “Who is he, so I can believe?”  And Jesus says, “you see him, and the one who is speaking to you is he.”  And the man says, “Lord, I believe” and worships.

Jesus then comments on the irony of the situation: “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

But wait a minute: this doesn’t seem quite right. A couple weeks ago we were looking at the story of Nicodemus in John 3, and Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) So what’s this talk about judgement?

Here’s where the plumb line comes in.  A plumb line does not judge. A plumb line is what it is: it’s a straight line. But being what it is, a plumb line will show up any flaws, or any crookedness, in what it’s held up next to.

And that’s how it is with Jesus. Jesus does not judge. But simply by being who he is, he shows up any flaws or crookedness in our lives, and in society.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is the light of the world. Those who see, see by the light. Anyone who claims they see – without Jesus – is actually blind.

And that point is not lost on the Pharisees, who say to Jesus, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” And Jesus says, “If you were, you would have no sin. But since you say ‘we see’, your sin remains.”

That’s the real tragedy of the Pharisees. They spend their whole lives trying to live the way God wanted people to live, but they got so focused on the do’s and the do-not’s, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, that they missed God himself when he was looking them in the eyes.  If they had been able to admit their faults, Jesus would have received them. He did it for Nicodemus. But most of are truly blind.

But our story has a happy ending.  Jesus has a new disciple, another soul saved for eternity… and this man loves Jesus very much, and has given up everything to be with him.

So for today, just a few closing thoughts:

First, all of us have weaknesses and issues to deal with in life. Some of us have health issues, some have family issues, some have work issues or financial issues, some of us have all of the above! Having issues is human. Bringing them to Jesus is what God would have us do.

Second, as we trust God, as we walk with Jesus in our lives, we become more the kind of people who, like the formerly blind man, are able to stand alone if necessary and speak the truth in love… even to power.

Third, Jesus is our plumb line. Jesus is the one we need to measure our lives by. Not by each other. Not by our parents or siblings or friends. Not by what other people think we should be. Not even by our own standards sometimes, because we don’t always see ourselves clearly.

When we measure ourselves by Jesus, we may discover some of the things we thought were strengths are actually weaknesses, and some of the things we thought were weaknesses are actually strengths.  In fact it’s kind of a true-ism in ministry that the places where we have been injured in life is where we can best minister to others.  But in order to do that we need to stand next to the plumb line in faith, and we need to trust that God will show his workmanship in us and through us, in spite of our weaknesses.

So especially in this season of Lent, let’s not hesitate to stand next to the plumb line… and let God do his work in and through us. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/26/17

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John 9:1-41  As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,  7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”  10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.  17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18  The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight  19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;  21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24  So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”  25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”  28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”  30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35  Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

 

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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:1-17

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Nicodemus was in a quandary.

There was a new rabbi in town. His name was Jesus. He worked miracles, and the people loved to listen to him. The people were amazed by how loving he was – he loved everybody, even children and prostitutes and tax collectors.

Two weeks ago people had been saying he turned water into wine at a wedding. And last week he’d gone into the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers, and let all the animals that were about to be sacrificed run free through the city, all the while shouting something about ‘house of prayer’ and ‘den of thieves’.

Nicodemus had to admit Jesus was right about that: those money-changers were thieves. And the temple authorities had been looking the other way far too long.

Once when Jesus was teaching in the temple, Nicodemus slipped into the crowd just to listen for a minute. He saw that Jesus taught with wisdom and with humor. Jesus understood the Law of Moses but he understood people too. And he never got caught up in any of those theological-political debates the religious types loved to indulge in.

Nicodemus admired Jesus.

He also knew most of his colleagues didn’t.  See, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And not just any Pharisee. While he wasn’t as high up as the high priests, he was above the synagogue leaders.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. (In the distant future in something called ‘the Methodist Church’, Nicodemus might have been a District Superintendent.)  He had a position of authority over the people, and he had some sway in the religious councils. And he knew a few other Pharisees admired Jesus too; he wasn’t the only one. But they were in the minority.

Nicodemus also knew that ever since that incident in the temple with the money-changers, the religious authorities were looking for ways to silence Jesus. They couldn’t have that kind of thing happening on a regular basis. Too many public scenes and the Romans would come down on the chief priests for not keeping the peace. And since the chief priests were the leaders of the nation, for the sake of the nation Jesus had to be stopped… at least that’s how they thought.

Nicodemus – I’ll call him ‘Nic’ for short – Nic didn’t know what to do. Should he take the risk of speaking up and defending Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin? Should he lay it out there and say “look, this man speaks truth and you know it”? Or should he should resign his position and join Jesus’ followers? And if he did that, what would become of his own disciples? Nic couldn’t see what was the right thing to do.

Finally one day the light bulb came on and Nicodemus said to himself: I know! I should just go talk to Jesus.  Tell him how things are.  Tell him what the Sanhedrin are saying, how they’re plotting against him. Ask him “is there anything I can do to help?”

So one day after work and after he’d had the chance to grab some dinner, Nicodemus went out looking for Jesus.  While he walked, he thought about his family and especially his parents.  His dad had given Nicodemus a name that means “victory of the people.” Nic wasn’t feeling particularly victorious that night, but he appreciated the encouragement. And it was true the people of Israel looked up to him. (In the far future people would have said Nicodemus ‘one of the 99%’ – not like the Sadducees who were the 1%. ) And besides, Nic knew he was not alone in doing what he was doing that night. There were lots of other people looking for Jesus too. Nic was very much one of the people that night.

At last Nicodemus found Jesus. And – in a totally unexpected break – Nic actually caught Jesus in a moment when there weren’t a gazillion people around him! So he introduced himself to Jesus and said “may I have a word with you?” and Jesus invited him to pull up a rock and have a seat. The disciples had a campfire going, taking an edge off the chill of the night air. There were a few men and women gathered around the fire, having conversations. The only person nearby was a young disciple named John who was listening in on their conversation quietly.

Nic started the conversation by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know (‘we’ meaning the Pharisees) – we know you are a teacher from God. Nobody could do the signs you do unless the power of God was in him.”  Of course Nic and Jesus both know that’s not what the Pharisees say in public.  What they say in public is things like “it’s only by Beelzebub that this man casts out demons.” And they tell the people not to follow Jesus.

Nicodemus is just getting ready to say “as a Pharisee I can see their hypocrisy – what do you recommend I do?”  But as the apostle Matthew says, God knows what we need even before we ask, and even before Nic had the chance to ask the question, Jesus answers: “you must be born again.”

Nic is speechless.  He had come prepared to offer Jesus an entrée into Jerusalem’s religious establishment, or to offer to stand by Jesus as he made his case to the Pharisees. But here was Jesus, caring about Nicodemus, and taking the conversation to a level Nicodemus wasn’t even aware existed.  What kind of an answer was this?

+++(change to ‘teacher voice’)+++

I need to step out of the story for a moment to say a word about Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’. In my lifetime (and probably in many of yours) the phrase ‘born again’ has become – depending on where you’re coming from – a cliché, an insult, a badge of honor, a word to describe a group of Christians who don’t believe in denominations, a way to describe people who preach to you on the street corners of Pittsburgh… in short, anything but what Jesus meant.

When contemporary culture has got things so twisted around that you can’t even believe the opposite of what you hear, it’s time to go back to the original language and see what Jesus actually said. “Born again” – gennao anothen in Greek. Gennao, which has the same root as genesis, which means ‘the beginning’. Literally, gennao means to be born; figuratively (and figurative meanings are valid in Greek) it means to be regenerated. Gennao is the word used to describe God’s action in Jesus’ resurrection – what God did when Jesus came back to life.

The second word, anothen, can be translated ‘from above’ or ‘from top to bottom’; or figuratively, in its entirety, from the beginning, or into the future. There’s an element of time implied, which is why the word is so often translated again.

So taken together, gennao anothen as a phrase that means to experience a complete regenerative change in one’s life.  It’s far more than simply turning over a new leaf.  It is being re-created into what God designed us to be in the first place. It is to become, by the power of God and by the action of God, what we were originally intended by God to be.

And I think that’s pretty close to what Jesus meant.  But at the same time, the phrase ‘born again’ can be taken very literally. And that’s where we find Nicodemus.

+++(step back into the story)+++

Nic is puzzled by Jesus’ words. And he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And again Jesus is a step ahead of him, answering a question that’s only halfway asked.

He says: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born both of water and of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus is reaching for it mentally.  He’s starting to track with Jesus, but he’s not quite there yet, so Jesus explains further: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nic recognizes the play on words, because “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word in Greek. But what puzzles him is what Jesus is implying. Because if the second birth, the spiritual birth, is brought about by the Spirit of God, then… then… all the laws of Moses, and all the rules and regulations Nicodemus has lived by all his life and taught other people to live by… can’t bring a person into God’s Kingdom.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks. And Jesus scolds him gently: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things?”

Jesus then presses his case just a little bit further: “The things we know and the things we teach are true but you don’t receive the teaching. What you’ve heard so far is only about things on earth, and you haven’t believed it; how will you believe if I start telling you about things in heaven?”

Nic understands Jesus is speaking about the Pharisees, because the word “you” in these sentences is plural – Jesus’ comments are not aimed at Nicodemus personally. And Nic knows the Pharisees indeed haven’t been willing or able to receive Jesus’ teaching, even about the basics. Jesus is right.

But right now in the moment Nic feels Jesus’ eyes on him, looking at him personally, without accusation… in fact, with understanding and concern. Nic is beginning to see he’s got a decision to make: is he going to keep on thinking and living like a Pharisee, or is he going to start believing and trusting in Jesus? Does he really have to give up everything he’s ever believed in?

Again Jesus answers the un-asked question. He says: “The Son of Man has both ascended to heaven and descended from heaven. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. In fact, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

Nic recognizes the story of the serpent in the wilderness. He knows it well. He remembers how the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, one day found their camp full of poisonous snakes, and how many people had been bitten and died. And they cried out to God, and God told Moses to put a bronze snake on the end of a pole, and whenever someone was bitten, they should look at the snake and they would not die, they would be healed.

And hearing Jesus mention the name of Moses, Nicodemus realizes: he does not have to give up everything he’d always believed in. In fact the story of the snake on the pole explains what Jesus is doing. It made perfect sense to Nic. All the things Moses had done and taught point to Jesus and find their completion in Jesus.

And that’s where the story ends. The apostle John, who has been listening in this whole time, doesn’t tell us what Nicodemus said or did next.  Did Nic experience spiritual rebirth that night? We don’t know. We do know that later on Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees on Jesus’ behalf.  And he will be present at the crucifixion, and will give Jesus’ body a burial worthy of a king.

Christian tradition has it that Nicodemus did become a believer and was one of the founding fathers of the church in Jerusalem. But we don’t know for sure. I hope we get to ask him someday in God’s kingdom.

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So just a few thoughts about what this story might mean to us today.  Thinking about what Jesus said about the wind blowing where it wills, and how we never know exactly where it comes from or where it goes… and how this is like the Holy Spirit when people are born again… John Wesley once said, “it is the work of God alone to justify, to sanctify, and to glorify; [and these three things make up] the whole of salvation.” There is no way that any human being can ever create the spiritual birth or cause it to happen. Only God can do that. We can pray for someone to be born anew, we can share our faith with others, but being born from above is entirely in the hands of God.

At the same time this new birth is ours by faith.  Wesley also said, “I believe [in] justification by faith alone, as much as I believe there is a God.”  God brings the Spirit like a flame; and our faith is like the wick of a candle that God sets on fire. We need faith enough to trust that God knows what he’s doing and to look to Jesus on the cross, who is being held up before our eyes so that anyone who looks at him in faith will have eternal life.

Jesus did come not to judge but to save. He was, in the words of Charles Wesley, “born to give us second birth”.  That new birth, being born of the Spirit into God’s kingdom, is what Jesus is all about. It’s what he came to earth for. And it’s what Nicodemus came looking for, even if he wasn’t quite aware of it yet.

Today there are some people here who have been born of the Spirit and some people who have not yet been born of the Spirit. For those who have, I want to invite you to renew your commitment to Jesus today. And for those who have not yet been born of the Spirit… I invite you to take a page from Nicodemus’ book.  Be honest with Jesus. Ask the hard questions. Be upfront with him about where you are and what you feel. And then keep your eyes and ears open for Jesus’ answer.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is like the wind that goes where it wills. We pray your Spirit will fill us today. Renew and refresh our hearts as we believe in you. And for any who are searching, or doubting, or who fear they may be beyond hope – we pray you will call their name right now and begin in them your new creation. For all of us, Lord, give us the courage to believe… and to be honest with you… and to see the love in your eyes… and to move with your Spirit wherever you lead. Thank you Lord for loving us and for making a place for us in your Kingdom. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/12/17

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As I look over the list of phrases people Google to arrive at this blog, I find a number of questions keep popping up — things like “what are the basics of the faith?” or “what should I feel when I pray?” These questions have inspired a mini-series of posts, of which this is the first: “What is the Creed about?”

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There are actually a number of creeds that have been used by Christian churches down through the years.  The most widely used and most popular are the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

But basically they’re all about the same thing: outlining what it is Christians believe in, and doing it in a way that’s easy to memorize and take to heart. The creeds are meant to be used both as teaching tools for new believers, and in worship.

The creeds teach about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and their actions in history:

  • God is the creator of the universe and all that is in it.
  • Jesus is the unique Son of God, born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, and rose again three days later. Jesus is now “seated at the right hand of God” and will come again in glory as judge of the living and the dead. Jesus is the future King of God’s Eternal Kingdom.
  • The Holy Spirit, “giver of life”, “proceeds from the Father and the Son” and exists in glory with them. The Spirit has spoken through the prophets.

The creeds then list a few other essential beliefs of the faith: that there is one worldwide church, made up of all believers (inclusive of all denominations); forgiveness of sins; and the world to come in which the dead will be resurrected.

The various creeds generally came into being to correct false teachings that threatened the church’s unity at various points in history.

The Apostles’ Creed (late 100’s AD?) is the earliest of the creeds, widely accepted as foundational by most churches.

The Nicene Creed is a product of the First Council of Nicaea (325-381AD). This is the preferred creed of the Eastern and Orthodox churches, and is also used in Western churches. It was originally written to counter the Arian heresy that God predated Jesus; this creed describes Jesus as being co-eternal with the Father.  There are two varieties of this creed, the 325 version and the 381 version. Both may be found by following the link at the beginning of this paragraph.

The Chalcedonian Creed is a product of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in answer to heresies about the nature of Jesus. It specifically teaches that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human.

The Athanasian Creed (early 500’s AD?) is used mainly in Western churches, and focuses on defining the Trinity (Father/Son/Holy Spirit) as both three and One.  Because Christians believe in one God, and because the word ‘trinity’ is not found in the Scriptures, teaching the concept has been a challenge throughout the centuries. The Athanasian Creed takes on that challenge. It has often been helpfully summarized by the illustration below:

 

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