Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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

~

Read Full Post »

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

~

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

~

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.”

 

Read Full Post »

“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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

mountain

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” – Exodus 24:12-18

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ – Matthew 17:1-9
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The very best stories in the world are stories about love. Have you ever noticed that? They’re the ones that stick with you, whether it be movies, or TV, or books. The ones we go back to time and again are love stories. Not necessarily romantic stories (though they count). But take for example the Harry Potter stories – you’ve got Harry’s love for his parents, and his parents’ love for Harry, and Harry’s love for his friends, and the self-sacrificing love of Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape, which Harry honors by naming his first child after them. Love is what makes these stories so unforgettable.

Today’s scripture readings may not look like love stories at first glance, but they are. And like most stories about love, they’re not just about love, they’re about life. And, like most love stories, “the path of true love never did run smooth”.

Our love story for today – told in two parts on two different mountains – is a love story between God and God’s people. (The beginning of the story is actually back in Genesis chapter one but we’re not going to go back that far.) For today we’ll start where most love stories start: with a meeting. Only in this case we’re not talking about a meeting between people, we’re talking about a meeting between God and a group of people who are about to become a nation.

The scene opens at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Arabian desert. It’s been about three months since the people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry land. God has been leading them through the wilderness in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day, but the people haven’t actually met God. They’ve only heard God’s words through Moses.

But then today comes. God has called 70 of the leaders of the people to come part-way up the mountain and have a feast with God. From where they are sitting they can see up the mountain just a bit of the glory of God. They see fire and smoke and “something like a pavement of sapphire stone” it says in verse 10.

This feast is a celebration of the new partnership between God and God’s people: because back in chapter 20 God gave Moses the Ten Commandments – verbally, that is (the written version isn’t here just yet). And when Moses gives God’s words to the Israelites they answer with one voice “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3)

Giving and receiving a list of commandments may not sound like much of a love story, unless we look at it as a love story between a parent and children who are deeply loved. Because God is our parent, and we are God’s children. As Jesus says, the Spirit within us cries “Abba, Father”. And just like any loving parent, our heavenly parent has some house rules. We may not understand them right away, but as members of the family we are expected to follow them. So just like our parents taught us to shut the door, and “no snacks before dinnertime”, and “wash your hands before you eat”, God also has house rules: honor God, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no wanting what somebody else has.

So Moses gives this message to the people, and the people say “sounds good to us!” – and the feast is a celebration of that agreement.

But love stories are never quite that easy. After the banquet, God asks Moses and Joshua to meet him further up the mountain so they can receive the Ten Commandments written on stone. And this is where our reading for today begins. Moses goes up with Joshua. Before he goes he tells the 70 elders “stay here, wait for us until we come to you again. If you have any problems while we’re away, talk to Aaron, he will help you out.”

So Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and they see the glory of God. Seven days later God gives Moses the Ten Commandments written on stone. And then God decides to keep Moses a bit longer. God says Israel needs a place to worship, and God gives detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle. These instructions take up Exodus chapters 25 through 31 – six chapters! By the time God has told Moses all these things, 40 days have gone by. And that’s as far as our reading for today goes.

But we know what happens next. While Moses has been talking with God on the mountain, “the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses… we do not know what has become of him.”” (Exodus 32)

It’s only been four months since the people walked through the Red Sea, and less than a month since the people saw God’s glory on the mountain, and already they’ve forgotten what they saw and forgotten the promises they made. The creation of the golden calf breaks the First Commandment, which then leads to breaking all the other commandments.

But that’s another story for another day. For now let’s just say the path of true love never does run smooth.

One side-note: it is still true today that most of what is wrong in the world happens after the First Commandment is broken. False gods lead to ‘alternate truths’, ‘fake news’ and from there to every sin in the book. The sin of worshiping something other than God, or valuing something more highly than God – whether it be money or power or security or self-gratification, or whatever it may be – is the pressing sin of our generation.

So back to Exodus. The part of the story we read today – the part where Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and see the glory of the Lord – that’s the part we want to focus on today. And here are some things to sort of mentally bookmark before we head into Matthew.

As I mentioned earlier, God and God’s people are just getting to know each other at this point. In the book of Genesis, God’s relationship was mostly with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – the patriarchs and their immediate families. But now, 300 years after Joseph, Jacob’s descendants have grown into a huge group of people. And God has plans to make them into a holy nation.

So God is introducing himself, and God is making himself known to the people. The whole point of this scene of glory on the mountaintop is God communicating who God is. The fire and the smoke are not God, but they are an expression of God’s greatness and power. And the commandments are not God, but they are a reflection of the holy character of God, as well as instructions for the children of God.

But above all, God is a God of love. And it is the nature of love to want to share oneself with the beloved. And so God makes himself known. It is also the nature of love to hope to be loved back. And in order for the people to love back, they need to know who they’re loving, because it’s impossible to love someone you don’t know.

We tried when we were younger though, didn’t we? Do you remember your first crush? ‘Some enchanted evening’ we looked across a crowded room, and… there that person was! A crush might feel like love, but if the other person isn’t involved we’re just in love with the thought of being in love.

The same is true in our relationship with God. We may worship God from a distance, but ‘from a distance’ we don’t really know God. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like that song “God is Watching Us From a Distance” – because it’s not true. If God is at a distance, we can’t know God. We can’t know what psychologists call The Other. And God wants us to know, God wants to be known.

As we get to know God, one of the first things we notice about God is God’s glory. God’s glory has to do with beauty and majesty and holiness and weightiness (in the sense that it’s not something to be taken lightly). In Exodus, God’s glory is represented by fire and cloud. But a little further on in Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory specifically. And God answers:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’… But… you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God’s glory, taken straight on, is more than mere human beings can bear. So God says, “There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by…” (Exodus 33:18-23)

So God makes provision for Moses by hiding him in a cleft of the rock. Which reminds me of that old gospel song:

“He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand…”

God shelters us, just like God sheltered Moses, in the cleft of the Rock. And the name of that Rock is Jesus.

Which brings us to the second mountain.

Matthew starts out his passage by saying “six days later” – which tells us we need to look back to see what happened six days before. Six days before, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven. And although they didn’t say exactly what they were looking for, what they probably meant was a sign to prove Jesus is the Son of God. And Jesus didn’t give them one.

But later Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say that I am?” – and Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus answers, “God has revealed this to you… and on this rock” – that is, on the rock of knowing who Jesus really is – “on this rock I will build my church”.

And then Jesus starts to talk about being killed by the chief priests and the scribes, and rising from the dead three days later. And he tells the disciples, “you also must take up your cross and follow me.”

So six days after these conversations, Jesus takes Peter and James and John and leads them up a tall mountain. And when they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured – the Greek word here is “metamorphosis”. (Isn’t it wonderful when Greek actually makes sense?) And suddenly Jesus’ face is shining like the sun, and his clothes are dazzling white.

And suddenly Jesus is in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah are there representing the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. And Jesus is consulting with them. While the Bible doesn’t say what they were talking about, my guess is Jesus was talking with them about his death and resurrection. (Who else could Jesus talk to about things like that?)

While this conversation is going on, Peter offers to set up some tents, which would have been appropriate hospitality back then. But while he is speaking, a bright cloud comes over them – similar to the one in Exodus, I imagine – and a voice speaks out of the cloud saying “this is my Son, my beloved… listen to him”.

And the disciples are overcome with fear. (One version says “…and they were sore afraid.”) But Jesus says, “get up, do not be afraid.” And when they look up the vision is gone and they are alone with Jesus and things are back to ‘normal’.

Here on this mountain, just like on Moses’ mountain, God is making Himself known. What the disciples saw when they looked at Jesus, shining like the sun, is a glimpse of Jesus as he really is – the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s as if Jesus is saying “know me for who I really am, so that you can trust me and love me for who I really am.” Jesus already knows us, and loves us. Now we need to know Jesus.

At the same time the disciples learn something about God’s power. When God speaks to the disciples directly they fall to the ground in fear. When Jesus says “don’t be afraid” – this is not an expression of sympathy, it’s a command, spoken by the same voice that once said “let there be light”.

With a word Jesus takes away our fears, because it’s impossible to love someone we’re afraid of, and Jesus knows that. He makes it possible for us to stand in God’s presence.

In this moment we are touching God’s Kingdom. Because it will be the same way on that great resurrection day. It will be a fearful day, but Jesus will have the word of command to make it possible for us to stand. Jesus will make us what we need to be… and what we long to be. By the power of his word and by the power of his death and resurrection, Jesus makes us into children of God.

These two mountaintops give us the opportunity to know the God who loves us, and who invites us into a relationship of love that will last for an eternity.

In Exodus we learn about God’s mercy and God’s character. In Matthew, we learn about Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and about his glory and his word of command. These two mountains lift us out of the everyday. They help us to remember who we really are as children of God. They help us to grow into a mature love for God – knowing who we love, and loving without fear. And while all this is going on, we are being remade into God’s likeness.

And like the elders of Israel, we have been invited to a feast. It’s a banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, prepared for us by a God of infinite love. Our response (hopefully!) is to say “yes!” to the invitation… and then to share the invitation with others, telling them what we have seen and heard.

This is a love story. Like all love stories, the road has not always run straight – not even in each of our lives. There has been pain and struggle and hope and fear… but through it all there has been God’s faithful love.

And on these mountaintops – for a moment – we can see where this love story leads. And in the distance, bathed in brilliant light, we see the happiest of endings.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/26/17
~

Read Full Post »

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

~

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »