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Archive for the ‘Kingdom’ Category

On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

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“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53

 

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Scripture reading: the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for the grocery shoppers in the congregation.  (Those of you who like yogurt may already know this.)

A few years back, not too long ago, the Dannon company came out with a new brand of yogurt.  They used a Greek method for making the yogurt, and they wanted to emphasize the Greek tradition, so they gave it a Greek name. They called it Oikos.

This yogurt came out while I was in seminary studying Greek.  And it puzzled me why anyone would name their yogurt ‘house’ — which is what oikos means.  When you buy yogurt you’re not buying a house. I’ve heard of ‘house wines’ but I’ve never heard of a ‘house yogurt’.  Is that a thing?

The word ‘oikos’ does have a secondary meaning of household, so maybe what they’re suggesting is this yogurt is ‘right for your household’.  But I don’t know. And Google didn’t have any answers.

So what does all this have to do with our scripture reading for today?

I always like to glance over our weekly scriptures in the original Greek just to see if anything odd jumps out. And this week something did. I found the word oikos in the story of the road to Emmaus – which is definitely odd considering there is no house in the story. In fact the disciples, as they’re traveling, are about as far away from a house as they can get.  So this caught my attention.

The word appears in verse 18, which reads:

“Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?””

The word oikos in this sentence is combined with the prefix ‘para’ – the word we get parallel from – so the word is para-oikos. It literally means ‘to dwell alongside’ – but the implication is that the home isn’t permanent. The word describes a person who doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.  In the 21st century we might call this person a migrant.  But in verse 18 the word is translated ‘stranger’.

Para-oikos is what the disciples call Jesus. And there’s a deep irony in calling a friend, who also happens to be the savior of the world, a ‘stranger’.

But there’s also some truth in it, because as Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world.  The apostle John says in his gospel, “[The Messiah] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)

Even as mere human beings we sometimes find ourselves feeling like strangers in a strange land.  And when we do, I think it shows we were meant for something else, something greater than just this world. We were made for the kingdom of God.

This feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is part of what the disciples are wrestling with as they walk to Emmaus. Exactly a week before this story takes place, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches.  They thought the Messiah had finally come. Then that same week the religious leaders arrested Jesus and crucified him. And the disciples were shattered.

Cleopas and his traveling companion decided to get away from Jerusalem for a while and walk to Emmaus. And just before they left some of the women visited Jesus’ tomb and came back to the disciples saying “he’s alive!” – but that couldn’t be, could it? I mean, dead is dead, right?

These two men have had their entire sense of reality shaken. No wonder they feel like strangers in a strange land. No wonder they’re talking things out, over and over, calling to mind everything they can remember of the past few weeks, trying to make some sense of it, trying to rebuild some foundation to their worlds.

And while they’re talking, Jesus walks up and joins them, but they don’t recognize him.  Luke’s choice of words here implies something supernatural. It’s not that the disciples are so upset they can’t see straight. The words imply they were temporarily prevented from knowing Jesus.  Luke says their eyes didn’t recognize him.  But something in their hearts did.  Later on the disciples say to each other, “did not our hearts burn within us as he was speaking?” So there was something familiar about this stranger.

So Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, and they repeat the story of the crucifixion, and they describe Jesus (to Jesus) as “a prophet mighty in deed and word” who they “had hoped would be the one to redeem Israel”.  His disciples expected the Messiah would save the nation – that he would take charge politically or socially.

It’s interesting that even today people make the mistake of either seeing Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ or as someone who will ‘save the nation’.  These thoughts are, at best, half-truths.  Then, as now, people tend to miss one of two things: either (1) that the Messiah must pass through suffering before he comes to glory, or (2) people grasp Jesus’ suffering, his ability to relate to our pain and walk with us through our trials, but they miss the Messiah’s glory: his awesome power and his kingdom.

It’s not easy to hold in our minds and hearts both the Messiah as Suffering Servant and the Messiah as Glorious King.  But if it makes us feel any better, even the disciples – who knew Jesus personally – didn’t know it perfectly either. Knowledge is a good thing, and studying the scriptures is a very good thing; but our salvation doesn’t depend on us knowing all the answers, thank God. What matters is being teachable when Jesus gives us fresh insights – as he did for these disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So as they were walking along, Jesus gave the disciples a crash course on what the Old Testament teaches about the Messiah. Luke says “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” (And for the past 2000 years Bible scholars have wished we had a recording of that conversation!)

But we can make an educated guess as to some of the things Jesus might have said.  He might have pointed to the promise made to Eve that one of her offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  He might have pointed out that Noah suffered a flood before he was brought to new life.  He would have mentioned the first Passover, when the people of Israel put the blood of a spotless lamb over their doors to protect them from death… and he would have connected that to the crucifixion of the Lamb of God which also happened on Passover.

He probably quoted Isaiah 53, which says: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” And, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away. […] he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9 edited)

Jesus would have mentioned King David, who delivered Israel from the Philistines. He would have quoted David’s words from Psalm 22:  “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads [and saying] “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”” (Psalm 22:7-8) – which were the exact words thrown at Jesus by the scribes and the priests as he was hanging on the cross. David wrote those words 1000 years before it happened.

For the disciples, who were expecting a Messiah who would become king without having suffered, these words would have opened a whole new understanding of reality and of God’s purposes.

And for disciples who may understand the Suffering Servant, but who need to be reminded of the Glorious King, the Old Testament speaks to this as well. Psalm 89 says in part: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’

And Isaiah says: “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Is 49:7)

The Old Testament also predicts glory will to come to God’s people when the Holy Spirit comes.  In the prophet Joel, for example, God says: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

This theme of the Messiah bringing glory to God’s people is carried forward into the New Testament. The apostle John (for example) writes in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. […] what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2, edited)

One of our readings for last Sunday – I Peter chapter 1 – is a passage we hardly ever get to hear because there are so many other great scripture lessons that come around Easter-time, but the passage is very relevant to what we’re talking about.  Peter is writing to a church that is suffering persecution, he says:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:3-4)

Peter goes on to say, “even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold… tested by fire… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:6-7 edited) And the glory Peter is talking about in this passage is glory for us. Faith in Jesus, in the suffering and glorified Messiah, by God’s great mercy, results in praise and glory and honor for us in God’s kingdom.

It’s like Peter is saying that we who are strangers in this world – we who are para-oikos – are being welcomed into God’s house, into God’s oikos. Jesus said “in my Father’s oikos are many mansions, and I go to prepare a place for you.”

So for those of us, and for all people, who sometimes feel like para-oikos, strangers in a strange land: the message of Easter, and the joy of Easter, is that we have an oikos with Jesus… a home where the streets are paved with gold, and the gates are made of gemstones, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

All of this is ours by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Easter… continues.

Amen.

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Scripture reading:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (Luke 24:13-35)

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/30/17

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Scripture Reading: John 12:1-36 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what Jesus is getting at.

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives

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

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

Garden of Gethsemane, with olive trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the heavenly point of view.

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

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

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

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

The story continues on Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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Nicodemus was in a quandary.

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

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

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

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

Nicodemus admired Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++(change to ‘teacher voice’)+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray together.

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

 

 

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

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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
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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
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“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

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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

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[Scripture readings are found at the end of this post.]

“Then Jesus came from Galilee…”

Matthew’s gospel for today begins with the word “then” – which of course leaves us asking, “what happened before then?”  In this particular story – the story of Jesus’ baptism – that’s an important question.

In Matthew’s gospel, after the Christmas story, Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized as a full-grown adult. But what happened in between birth and baptism?

What Matthew skips over, some of the other gospels talk about.  Jesus was born the Son of God, but he was also born a human baby.  And he had to learn all the things that you and I had to learn growing up: how to eat, how to walk, how to do chores around the house.  He did all the things that kids do like playing, and learning to read, and recovering from chicken pox.

It’s important to remember the human side of Jesus.  We see Jesus as Lord and Savior – and rightfully so – but he was also human.  He lived life day to day just like we do.

Which raises the question, how much did Jesus know about himself being the Son of God when he was growing up?  His parents, Mary and Joseph, would have told him about his Father, that he was the Son of God. And they would have told him what the angels said about how the Savior had been born that night, and what the shepherds said and the gifts the wise men brought.

But Jesus would have had to grow into an understanding of what that meant.  I suspect that’s why Jesus as a 12-year-old stayed behind in the temple, asking questions of the religious teachers. He needed to know, he needed to learn, what it meant to be Messiah.  Scriptures say after that he ‘went home and was obedient to his parents’ – which I’m sure was practice for being obedient to his heavenly Father during his ministry.

And after that, Jesus worked in the family business for a while.  He was well liked in the community, and for the first 30 years of his life Jesus led a fairly unremarkable life in Nazareth.  He did not, as some people claim, travel to the far east or to Egypt to study mystical religions.  And the one thing that was a little unusual about his early life was that he did not marry or have children. Sorry, Da Vinci Code.

And then one day all that came to an end.  One day, Matthew says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan”.  We don’t know why that day, other than Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit. We have very few details.  We do know Jesus was around 30 years old, and we know the place where John was baptizing was about 60 miles southeast of Nazareth as the crow flies (not quite as far as from Pittsburgh to Morgantown WV.) And we know Jesus most likely walked to the Jordan. How long would that take? For someone in his shape – with a carpenter’s build – two or three days maybe?

And more than likely Jesus made the trip by himself.  He didn’t have family with him, and he hadn’t called any disciples yet.  But the road he was traveling on was well-traveled, and there were probably other people traveling in the same direction at the same time. And he would have walked with his fellow travelers, and chatted, and maybe shared a sandwich.  For those of you who travel, you know some of the best memories of a trip is the people you meet while you’re on the road. And I imagine these conversations were an encouragement to Jesus, a confirmation of the rightness of what he was about to do.

Where exactly where John the Baptist was baptizing has been lost to history, but most historians believe it was near Jericho or a little further south towards the Dead Sea.  So as Jesus walked, the countryside around him would have changed… from hilly and green in the north, to dusty and dry in the south.

And so at last Jesus arrived at place where John was baptizing.  And there in the wilderness, in semi-desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, a large crowd had gathered.  In the middle of the river, a man wearing camels-hair clothing was listening to people as one by one they came forward and confessed their sins, and were baptized in the water.

In those days in Israel baptism was mostly a thing done for ritual purity, that is, to cleanse oneself after doing something nasty like burying a dead body.  But John taught a different meaning to baptism, a meaning that was taught at the community at Qumran at the time, which was that baptism represents inner cleansing – a way of preparing oneself for the coming of the Lord.

So people came to John and confessed their sins and were dunked, whole body, into the river, and raised out again.  In the meantime, at a slight distance, there were observers: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political elite from Jerusalem.  They came, not to be baptized, but to ask awkward questions and cast doubts on what John was doing.  One theologian I came across said: Remember at the time of John the Baptist, the ‘rulers of the nation… rejected the counsel of God… by refusing John’s baptism’ while the tax collectors and sinners received it.  He said, “we should prefer entering heaven with publicans and harlots over being excluded… with the great and mighty of the earth.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines)

So on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus, after standing in line with everyone else, Jesus enters the water and approaches John.

Now John and Jesus were related, as we heard a couple weeks ago in the Christmas story. But they grew up far apart from each other: Jesus lived in the north in Galilee, and John lived in the south near Jerusalem.  Whether or not they ever met after birth is unknown.  But we do know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, John recognized the Messiah.

(As a side note, I think it’s comforting to know that even John the Baptist – who as baby leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus’ pregnant mother walked into the room – even John had questions and doubts sometimes.  In Luke 7:20 we read, “John the Baptist [sent messengers to Jesus] to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Even for John the shape of Jesus ministry was unexpected. And it’s interesting that Jesus answered “go and tell John… what you see and what you hear”.  Faith comes by hearing, not by sight as we might expect.)

So back to the Jordan.  John sees Jesus, recognizes him as the Messiah, and objects to Jesus being baptized.  He says, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?”  John knows himself to be an imperfect person, as much in need of baptism as the people he’s ministering to.  (Which is true of all of us in ministry.)  And so John confronts Jesus, not saying ‘no’, but asking a question, and giving Jesus the opportunity to respond.

Which Jesus does. He says, “Let it be so now” – and Jesus speaks this as a command, but gently – “for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness.”  Notice how Jesus includes John in this: ‘It is fitting that we fulfill.’ Jesus is – from the very beginning of his public ministry – looking for people to work with him.

And so Jesus is baptized by John. And as he comes up out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove lights on him.  Can you imagine what that looked like? ‘The heavens opened’ – and a voice was heard saying “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John, and all those who witnessed it, knew they were seeing a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event. The Messiah, the savior of the world, the Son of God, come to earth in the flesh, was revealed this day by the very voice of God.

…and then, Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Does this strike you as odd? It does me. I mean, Jesus has finally made himself known – and God has given witness that Jesus is the Messiah – and no sooner is this made public that Jesus is sent into the wilderness for over a month.  This is not the way people usually roll out a new ministry!

But God’s ways are not our ways. And Jesus’ time in the wilderness was necessary, because even though Jesus knew he was the Son of God, there were still some things he needed to grow into.  And I suspect the depth of the meaning of his baptism was one of those things – because Christian baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness, it also represents dying to sin and being raised again.

From this point on, Jesus’s future is set.  The goal of his life is the cross, and the resurrection beyond it.  The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were temptations that called his goal into question… that tempted Jesus to find some other way to achieve his purpose, to find some short cut around the cross.  Praise God it didn’t work.  Jesus was, and always has been, completely faithful.

So I’d like to wrap up with two thoughts.

The first is just how astounding this event is. After 4000 years of waiting for promises to come true, Messiah is finally here!  God says: “my son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism Jesus is identified and his arrival is announced to the world.

This won’t necessarily mean what people think it means.  In Jesus’ day, many people believed the savior would save the nation from the Romans, and return control of Israel to the Jewish people, but they were mistaken about that.  And today there are people who make a similar mistake, thinking Jesus has come to create a Christian nation here on earth.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus is our Savior because he saves us from our sins – which makes it possible for us to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven – which is a whole new ballgame.  The majority of Jesus’ teaching will be about the kingdom of heaven: what the kingdom is like, how much the kingdom is worth, the things we can do here on earth to take with us to the kingdom. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching.

Which leads us to the second thought, summed up in Jesus’ words to John: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, no uncleanness to be washed from.  John’s objection was rooted in an honest, perceptive, and loving heart.  And Jesus does not argue with him or find fault with his theology.  Rather Jesus overrides John with a higher calling.

Jesus is not in need of baptism, but we are, and Jesus came to take our place in every way.  Jesus does not come to earth to judge us or to make demands of us. Jesus comes to identify with us, to become one of us, in order to raise us out of sinfulness and into holiness, out of death and into eternal life.  The Word put on flesh and – as the Message Bible says – “moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14)

It’s an astounding thing to take in, that God would become one of us.  It’s not quite what the Jewish people expected in a Messiah.  And the non-Jews – the Romans and Greeks – were offended by it. They considered it shocking that a god would lower himself to put on flesh.  Greek philosophy taught that human flesh was corrupt, and spirit is our higher nature: so much so that some of the early Greek converts to Christianity started to teach that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh at all, but only appeared to.

I point this out because our society today, without being aware of it, is very much influenced by this thinking. There are many today who try to separate body from spirit, flesh from spirituality, as if what a person does in the body has no effect on the spirit and vice versa.  As if only the spirit is eternal.  The Bible does not teach this.  As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body…” and that’s not just Jesus’ body, we believe in the resurrection of our bodies too.

In Jesus, God has become flesh and blood in order to bring us – body and spirit – into God’s kingdom.  Jesus is born into our world to stand in our place, and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: by his death destroying death and by his resurrection opening the door for us into God’s kingdom.

And all of this is foreshadowed by Jesus’ baptism.

So Jesus says to John: “let us fulfill all righteousness”  And Jesus invites all of us to take part with him in the ministry of reconciling the world to God and God to the world.  How will we respond?

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(In the Methodist Church the sermon on the First Sunday After Epiphany is immediately followed by a ceremony of renewal of baptismal covenant. See Baptismal Covenant IV on this page for the text of the ceremony.  This Sunday we segued into the renewal ceremony with the following comments: )

One of the ways we can respond is by remembering our own baptism.  For some of us, who were baptized as children, we were welcomed into the family of faith even before we can remember.  For others, baptism may have come later in life.  And some of us may not even know if we were baptized.

In the New Testament, baptism is not just for repentance and forgiveness but is also the sign a person has come to faith in Jesus.  Over and over in the New Testament we hear the words, “they believed and were baptized.”  Most of the time in scripture these were adults being baptized, or adults along with their children.

Today we usually baptize our children very young as a sign of their being received into the family of God.  Before we come forward today, we will remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, and recommit ourselves to those promises.

For most of us this will be a service of remembrance, but if anyone has never been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, and would like to be, please let me know after the service.  In the meantime, all are welcome to come forward and touch the waters of baptism.  Let’s remember our baptismal covenant in the words of this ceremony….

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Scriptures for the day:

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17   Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/8/17

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