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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “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.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Welcome to the first installment in our our sermon series in Philippians!  This past summer we were in the Old Testament, and now we move into the New Testament, which is a bit closer to our own period in history, and a bit more familiar, thank goodness.

But we’re still looking at history. So for those of you like me who struggled through history class in school: for whatever it’s worth I think history is supposed to be about people, not memorizing places and events and dates. And people are always interesting, no matter what time period they lived in. So as we begin Philippians, I want to start by introducing the people.  If you have a Bible near you in the pews and would like to follow along feel free to do so.

So diving into Philippians. First, the book of Philippians is a letter. It was written by the apostle Paul, when he was in jail, probably around the year 55AD give or take a decade. Paul was writing to the congregation at Philippi. Back in those days when people wrote letters, they would start by identifying the writer first, and then say who the letter is to. The opening of this letter says “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with the bishops and deacons.” So Paul is writing the letter, with Timothy by his side in the jail. Timothy himself is not under arrest; he is there as Paul’s helper – to run errands, to get things, to send letters.

So the letter begins with Paul, who is a familiar person in the New Testament.  In fact probably about half the New Testament was written by Paul.  Paul’s birth-name was Saul, and he was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, in a devout middle-class Jewish family, and he was trained in the family trade of tent-making.  But he also had a gift for theology, so at some point his family sent him to Jerusalem for religious training. Saul developed a reputation as an up-and-coming young man, and he became the student of the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (BTW Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his words save the life of Peter who had been arrested.)

So Saul was educated as a Pharisee, and he was trained not only in religion but also in in Greek philosophy, and eventually Saul became a Pharisee himself.  As a Pharisee, Saul believed in resurrection (which Sadducees did not. The Pharisees and Sadducees were always fighting over this issue.) And as a Pharisee Saul believed in keeping the law of Moses as perfectly as possible. So when Christianity came along, Saul persecuted the early church, not because the church believed in resurrection, but because Saul felt they didn’t observe Jewish law correctly. In fact they allowed Gentiles in the church.  And on top of that Saul wasn’t convinced that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified, so he wasn’t at all certain Jesus could be the Messiah…

…until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and you might say he saw the light. Meeting Jesus turned his whole world upside-down. Jesus called Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (of all things), and Saul’s name was changed to Paul, not because of the conversion, but because Saul is a Jewish name; and Paul is a Greek name – more user-friendly for someone ministering to Gentiles.

Timothy, who was with Paul, was one of Paul’s disciples… sort of a minister-in-training. Timothy’s dad was Greek but his mom and grandmother were devoutly Jewish, and all three of them became believers in Jesus through Paul’s preaching.  Paul invited Timothy to travel with him on his missionary journeys, and Timothy stayed by Paul’s side through thick and thin.  So our letter opens, Paul is writing from his prison cell, with Timothy by his side.

In the first line of the letter, Paul and Timothy describe themselves as “servants of Christ Jesus”.  The Greek word here is actually translates slaves. What they’re trying to tell us is that they are committed to living lives of unquestioning obedience to Jesus Christ. Paul and Timothy understood that to say “no, Lord” is a contradiction in terms.  For Paul and Timothy this is a matter of both duty and pride.  Just as – for example – our military personnel are expected to obey orders, but they also take pride in wearing the uniform, Paul and Timothy obey Jesus’ orders, and they take pride in serving the Son of the Living God.

Paul addresses his letter to the “saints in Philippi”.  Philippi was a city in north-eastern Greece, probably best known in the ancient world as the city where Marc Antony (you remember Marc Antony from the story of Antony & Cleopatra) tracked down the assassins of Julius Caesar and put them to death.  Because of this, Philippi was granted special status in the Roman Empire. Citizens of the city enjoyed tax breaks, and rights other conquered cities didn’t have, and Philippi attracted a lot of people from Rome. So the culture of the city was a mix of Greek and Roman and Jewish, and the religious scene was even more mixed. People in Philippi could worship Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods, the Jewish God, or any number of gods.

So early on in Paul’s ministry, Acts chapter 16 tells us Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (the area surrounding Philippi) saying “come and help us”.  And Paul obeyed the vision, and as a result Philippi became the first place the gospel of Jesus Christ was ever preached in Europe.  Paul came to Philippi, and found some Jewish believers meeting on the banks of the river, and when he shared the gospel with them the first person to believe was a woman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, and she was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.

So Paul addresses his letter to “all the saints… in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”.  In Greek the words here are episkopoi and diaconoi (episkopoi is the word we get “Episcopal” from… ‘episcopal’ is just a fancy word meaning “we have bishops”) and diaconoi we get the word ‘deacon’ from. In those days bishops were more like the business managers of the church, sort of like the president of Council would be today. And the deacons were like our care teams: they helped to take care of the sick and the hungry and the poor. So the church hasn’t changed all that much since then: we may have different titles but we’re doing pretty much the same work.

The other thing we need to know about this letter is: why is Paul writing? What moves him to put pen to paper?  Because people back in those days didn’t just whip off letters at the drop of a hat. Back then you had to make your own paper, and make your own ink. So what moved Paul to go to the trouble?

There are a number of reasons, and we’ll be talking about those reasons over the next few weeks.  But our reading for today sets the character of the letter, and the overall feeling is one of great love and great joy, that Paul wanted to share.  The Philippians were Paul’s first Gentile converts to the faith: that alone made them special in his heart.  But beyond that they stayed faithful, through persecutions, through hard times, giving generously to people in need – and Paul was like a proud papa, he loved these people. And that love shines through the whole letter, even from the first line.

In ancient Greece a letter would usually open with a flowery greeting like “most gracious and humble salutations”. But Paul changes the traditional greeting into a blessing. He writes, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul does not consider his own greetings to be worthy of mentioning. Instead he gives them God’s greetings, with a prayer for grace and peace.

Paul goes on to say, “I thank God every time I remember you”. Can we relate to that? Do we have people in our lives, who whenever we think of them we say “God, thank you for this person”?  I believe many of us do. And some of us are that person for someone else. Having people around us who love Jesus and encourage us in the faith is one of the great blessings of being a member of the family of God.

Paul then goes on to say why he feels this way. He says: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now”.  This letter was probably written around ten years after the church at Philippi was started, and since that time Paul has suffered beatings, stonings, shipwreck, and imprisonments for the sake of the gospel. But when he looks at the faith of the Philippian church he says “it’s all been worth it”.

More than that, the Philippians have given Paul fellowship in the gospel – that is, they have been sharing the good news by his side from the very start. And so Paul is “confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus”. What’s more, the Philippians have not forgotten Paul while he’s in jail (for people in jail, it’s not unusual to feel ‘forgotten’ by the outside world), the Philippians have kept in touch, they’ve sent visitors, they’ve stood by him. So Paul is not only encouraged, but he longs to see them again – and he will, if and when he is set free.

Paul then tells them, “this is my prayer for you: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”  This prayer is the heart and soul of the Christian life.  As followers of Jesus we are called to love everyone we can, as best we can. We believe in a God whose very nature is love. The Bible says “God is love” – not in the sense that love is God (which is a common misunderstanding) but God is love in the sense that rain is wet.  If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain; if God ever stopped loving, God wouldn’t be God.

But the word love can mean so many things, so Paul qualifies his prayer by saying “love with all knowledge and insight.”  Human love can be (and often is) misused, deceived, or led astray. How many love songs have we heard that talk about broken hearts because ‘somebody done somebody wrong’?  In order to love we need to trust and sometimes people just aren’t trustworthy. So love needs discernment and wisdom. Love and truth are two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. So Paul prays for love infused with knowledge. The Greek word here is epignosis. We know the word a-gnostic – which means to not know – epi-gnostic means to know all. Kind of like epic knowledge.  So love infused with great knowledge.  And then Paul adds “and insight” – and the Greek word here is eisthesis, which is the word we get aesthetics from. In other words, the study of beauty.  Which makes sense, because truth alone tends to be a two-edged sword: it can get judgemental, it can be harsh.  But if we combine truth with Godly beauty we get a richness of wisdom that informs and inspires Godly love.

So Paul prays for the Philippians that their love will infused with knowledge and a principled insight into beauty, so that the Philippians may approve what is excellent, and in the day of Christ be found pure and blameless, having produced a harvest of righteousness in their lives. How beautiful is that? This is a prayer that we can pray for others, and I’d like to encourage us to do so this week.

So having prayed this prayer for the Philippians, Paul then gives the Philippians an update on how he himself is doing.  He writes, “beloved friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me” – that is, being thrown in jail – “has actually helped spread the gospel.  It’s become known through the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is for Christ…”.

Aha! So we have an addition to the cast of characters: the ‘imperial guard’.  These were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to be Caesar’s household guards. Most likely Paul’s letter was written when Nero was emperor, which means it’s entirely possible that Emperor Nero heard the gospel on account of Paul being in jail. At the very least we know that many in Nero’s household heard the good news and became believers.

When this happened, Paul’s courage rubbed off on the Christians around him.  Paul says, “most of the brothers and sisters here, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with great boldness and without fear.” And they bring joy to Paul’s heart. Paul sums up by saying “between your prayers and the Spirit of Jesus I expect to be set free from prison… but whether or not I am, whether I live or die, Jesus is being exalted.”

When I read words like these it’s tempting to picture Paul like an evangelistic Arnold Schwarzenegger – as if Paul is this big tough swash-buckling dude who dares to brave prison and laughs in the face of death. Not so. People who knew Paul say that he was actually a small-ish guy, and had some physical difficulties the details of which we don’t know, but at any rate he was no action hero.  The beatings and shipwrecks and imprisonments were not easy for him to bear.

But in spite of all this Paul rejoices to be in jail in this time and in this place because his imprisonment means that people are hearing about Jesus and coming to faith and are finding new life in Christ.  And I wonder: Would you and I be able to say the same? Would we be willing to go to jail if our being there meant people’s lives would be saved?

It’s a tough question to answer. And we really don’t know for sure, unless we find ourselves in the situation.  But I will say this: Christians are called by Jesus to visit those in prison, and if you ever have the chance, I encourage you to do so.  I’ve only had a small taste of prison ministry myself but Paul is right: the opportunites are endless and the joy is amazing.  It’s like taking water to people in the desert.

But there’s a question beyond that, and the question is: What would we be willing to risk if it meant people’s lives being saved? What would we be willing to do so that someone else could know Jesus? Would we risk our jobs? Would we risk our possessions?  Would we risk inviting a foreigner or a refugee into our homes?

I’m not asking these questions to make us feel guilty, but rather to challenge us (myself included) to love Jesus more than anything else we have in life.  To be like the believers who looked at Paul in jail and were made bold, speaking out for the Lord with confidence, and love, and without fear.  We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to say boldly:

“Jesus is King, and the kingdom is coming. Change course, and believe the good news”.

And yes I sometimes do feel shy about sharing the faith, even as a pastor, and sometimes I feel tongue-tied. But I’ve learned we don’t have to worry about results, because God is responsible for the results. It’s enough for us to show up and speak the truth. God takes care of the rest.

Paul loved Jesus so much, and loved people so much, he was willing to be in jail in order to share the gospel with others. And I know there are people here today who also love Jesus that much.  If there’s anyone here today who has not met Jesus yet, and who’s thinking what I’m saying is a bit radical – you’re right. It is radical. And I invite you to join us.

Let’s pray about this… Lord thank you for Paul and thank you for his loving care for the church at Philippi. Thank you that Paul loved your people enough to stay in jail and risk his life if it meant us finding you and getting to know you.  Thank you for Paul’s friends who shared your good news even in the household of Caesar. Thank you most of all Lord that you came to earth to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to God through your death on the cross and your resurrection from the grave.

This morning Lord we rededicate ourselves to you and to sharing your message. And if any are hearing this message for the first time – Lord, we want to know you and love you and be your people.  Forgive our sins and accept us into your kingdom. Help us to experience the joy Paul knew praying for others and sharing the good news. We place our lives in your hands. Use us where and when you will, so that in all things Christ will be exalted. AMEN.

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“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel,  13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;  14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.  15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel;  17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.  20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.” – Philippians 1:1-20

 

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

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Joseph1

Joseph and his brothers meet again

[Scripture reading of the day can be found at the end.]

If we had been following the Old Testament lectionary readings for the past few weeks, last week our sermon would have ended with the words “To Be Continued…” – because at the end of last week’s reading, Jacob’s son Joseph had just been sold into slavery by his brothers, and Jacob was grieving for his son.

Today’s reading in Genesis picks up the story more than twenty years later. By now all of the brothers (including Joseph) have grown up, and gotten married, and had kids. And Joseph – who is now almost 40 years old – has become the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

That’s a huge leap forward! So I want to go back and pick up the story where it left off last week, and then bring us into today’s reading.

At the end of last week’s reading, Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. Picturing the scene, I imagine the caravan slowly moving south along the highway, while Joseph is still looking to the north, weeping and praying his brothers will change their minds and come and get him. But after a while, Joseph realizes they’re not coming; and life as he has known it is gone forever.

For those of us who have lived through the grief of profound loss – whether it be the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a career, or a serious injury or illness (the loss of health) – part of the grieving process is realizing the world as we knew it is gone. People and places may be familiar, but the ‘feel’ of reality has changed. We keep on living in the face of sorrow because we must; but things will never be the same again.

Joseph began that grieving process on the road to Egypt. He began to come to terms with his new reality. By the time the caravan arrived in Egypt – days, maybe weeks later – Joseph was ready to step into his future. Not that his pain was gone, far from it; and not that his tears were done; but with God’s help he had reached a point where he was able to deal with day-to-day life.

We know this because Joseph did well in his new life in spite of his pain. Joseph became the property of a man named Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. In Potiphar’s service, Joseph served with skill and excellence. And God blessed his efforts – so much so that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his whole estate. Genesis tells us:

“The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39:5)

So with Joseph in charge, Potiphar becomes rich, and Joseph enjoys as good a relationship as is possible between a slave and an owner: Potiphar had become more like an employer than a task-master.

There was just one problem. Someone else noticed Joseph: noticed his youth, noticed his build, noticed his good looks. Potiphar’s wife has set her eyes on Joseph. And every time he turned around she was trying to seduce him.

I wonder how many slaves over the course of history have been caught in this catch-22? Say ‘no’ to the lady and the slave is disobedient; say ‘yes’ and the slave is disloyal to the master. There’s no way this is going to end well.

Joseph gives Potiphar’s wife the very best answer he can. He says to her, “my master has put me over everything he has – the only thing he has withheld from me is you, his wife… how could I do this wickedness?” (Genesis 39:8-9, paraphrased)

But she doesn’t listen. And one day when she’s teasing him, she grabs him, and Joseph pulls away, and his coat comes off in her hands, and she uses the coat to frame him for rape. Joseph is thrown in jail. No trial. No appeal. No rights.

God tells us in scripture that slavery and prejudice and mistreatment of foreigners are evil – and Joseph’s story illustrates why. Joseph did good to all, but he suffered cruelty and injustice in return.

While he was in jail, Joseph earned the same respect from the wardens as he had from Potiphar. God continued to be with him, and the jailer put Joseph in charge of the prison. Genesis says “whatever was done there, Joseph was the one who did it.” (Genesis 39:22)

And then one day Pharaoh threw two of his servants in jail and they ended up in Joseph’s care. This is a long story, but to make it short: they both have dreams. And God has given Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams. So Joseph does, and his interpretations come true. And Joseph says to the one: “when you are restored to your job working for Pharaoh, remember me. I’ve done nothing to deserve being in this jail.” (Genesis 40:14 paraphrased)

But the servant forgets Joseph.

And two more years go by.

And then Pharaoh has a dream. And the servant remembers there was this guy in jail who knew how to interpret dreams. So Joseph is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh says, “I hear you can interpret dreams.” And Joseph says, “not I; but God will give Pharaoh an answer.” (Genesis 41:15-16, edited)

And after hearing Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph tells Pharaoh: God has revealed to you the future. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. “…therefore (Joseph says) let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh… take one-fifth of the produce of the land… during the seven good years…” (Genesis 41: 33-34, edited) and store it up for what is to come.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people… only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (Genesis 41:39-41 edited)

In one day Joseph goes from being a convict in jail to being the ruler of all Egypt. Only God could invent a career path like that! Meanwhile 13 years have passed from the day Joseph was sold into slavery until the day he was appointed by Pharaoh. Joseph is now 30 years old.

On that day, Pharaoh gave Joseph a wife, and she gave him two sons. The first son Joseph named Manasseh, which means ‘to forget’. He said, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house”. (Genesis 41:51) And the second son he named Ephraim, which means ‘fruitful’, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (Genesis 41:52

If the story ended there, it would be enough. It would satisfy our desire to see justice done, and to see wrongs set right. It would give Joseph’s story a happy ending. By the same token it would have been enough if Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand, and the story ended there. But in both cases God is just getting started…

And so back in Egypt, there are seven years of peace and plenty, which fly by. Joseph builds up stockpiles of food and enjoys his family life.

And then the famine comes. And it doesn’t just strike Egypt; the whole region around the Mediterranean Sea is suffering a severe famine. Joseph opens the stockpiles and sells food, first to the Egyptians and then to foreigners.

And then one day ten men come from Canaan looking for food.

These men left their youngest brother at home with their father, who is still grieving the loss of his son Joseph. The ten brothers have known years of bitterness – being unforgiven, and unable to forgive themselves.

When he sees them, Joseph recognizes them immediately. But in the past twenty years, Joseph has changed. He’s no longer a teenager, he dresses like a wealthy Egyptian, and he talks like a native. The brothers have no idea Joseph can understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Realizing he hasn’t been recognized, Joseph orchestrates a series of tests for his brothers to see if they’re sorry for what they did to him, and if they would do things differently now, given the chance. As the final test, Joseph tells the brothers they must go home and bring back Benjamin – something their father Jacob would never allow. But eventually Jacob and his sons are so hungry they have no choice.

Which where today’s passage picks up.

Joseph and his brothers have just eaten a banquet in Joseph’s house, which is connected to the royal palace. Then Joseph springs the test: he puts Benjamin’s well-being in jeopardy. He wants to know: if Benjamin’s life is threatened, will his brothers defend him, or will they abandon him? As it turns out, Judah – the same brother who came up with the idea of selling Joseph in the first place – offers his life in exchange for Benjamin, and in doing so proves that the brothers’ hearts have changed. At this point Joseph can no longer control himself, and all the emotions of the years flood to the surface. Joseph orders the servants out and then weeps so loudly Pharaoh can hear it in the other end of the palace.

And he says to his brothers:

“I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3)

His brothers feel like they’re seeing a ghost. It’s bad enough they’ve been carrying around all this guilt, all these years – but then to look into the face of a stranger and see the brother they sold into slavery…!

Joseph draws them closer, and he says, “I am your brother, who you sold into slavery in Egypt.” Joseph confronts the sin, and then he forgives. He says:

“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves… for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life… it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:4-5 edited)

Say what?? It was them who sent him here! It was them who laughed at his tears and sold him for 20 pieces of silver! How can he say ‘it was not you who sent me here…’?

It’s the difference between seeing things without faith and seeing things through the eyes of faith. Without faith we only see what’s right in front of us, and we pass judgement on a human level. With the eyes of faith we see the hand of God moving behind all things, and we are free to choose mercy.

After greeting his brothers with tears, Joseph gives them a command: Go, tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and bring my father and all your families here. There are five more years of famine to come. I will provide for you and for all of them.

Now our story has more than just a happy ending. Now we see grace; we see forgiveness; we see reconciliation, and the restoring of relationships. We see shalom – the peace and well-being that passes understanding. Genesis 37:4 tells us that back in the day, the brothers couldn’t even say ‘shalom’ to Joseph; but now they have found peace.

This joy of reconciliation goes beyond justice and makes a retribution a thing to be scorned. For Joseph, his joy is not complete until his family is reconciled, to him and to each other; until what was broken has been restored. The same is true in the story of Jesus: his joy is not complete until the human family is reconciled to God and to each other; until what was broken in creation has been restored.

So to draw this ancient story into the 21st century – three quick points:

1) God is and always has been in control of history.
When Jacob was told “Joseph is dead”, it must have seemed to him like the whole world had gone mad. Jacob must have wondered: where were God’s promises? God said “your offspring will be as numerous as the stars” but his offspring are at each other’s throats. Where was this great nation God promised? How could God’s word ever come true?

Meanwhile Joseph was keeping the faith – and when all was said and done he was able say to his brothers “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” Joseph trusted God, and God used the tragedies in his life to put him in a position to save people from many nations.

God has a master plan for creation. God had a master plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. Our destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or even a set of morals but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. God is guiding all of history to the focal point of our Lord Jesus.

(2) There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. Theologians would say Joseph is a “type” of Christ because many of the events in his life are like a prophecy of the Messiah. Some of the parallels to be found in Joseph’s story include:

  • God blessed Joseph and made him successful in his work; God blessed Jesus and made him successful in his ministry.
  • Joseph was falsely accused by someone in his own household (Potiphar’s wife) and then turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison. Jesus was falsely accused by one of his own (Judas) and turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison.
  • The formal accusation against Joseph is the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). Jesus is also accused of the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the kingship of the Jewish nation.) The charge they nailed over Jesus’ head on the cross read: “King of the Jews” – but Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. They weren’t listening.
  • Joseph descended into jail and ministered to people while he was there; in between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and ministered to people there. Both Joseph and Jesus work to set the captives free.
  • Joseph is raised from jail and made king over all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Jesus is raised from the dead and “is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • Those who sinned against Joseph came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.
  • Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife; God gives Jesus the Church, that is, the family of believers. In both cases their joy is so great it makes them forget their hardships. Joseph says: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”

(3) One last parallel, but one that deserves its own bullet point: The great joy for both Joseph and Jesus is the restoration of relationships and of love. What this means for us is our stories also – as we remain faithful to God – become stories of restoration of relationships and love.

Of course this will never happen perfectly until Jesus comes into His Kingdom. Until then we struggle, as imperfect people, to follow a perfect Lord. But because we know Jesus is our destination, we can say “fear not!” Troubles will last only a little while; the kingdom of God is forever.

While we wait for that kingdom to come, our calling is to follow the earthly examples of Joseph and of Jesus. Minister to those in prison. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Listen to the lonely. Encourage the despairing. Welcome the stranger. Be a friend to the friendless and a servant to the weak. Bring the good news of the kingdom of our Lord to everyone – because like Joseph, “God has sent us ahead to preserve lives.” Let’s be about it. AMEN.

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“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:1-15

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh – 8/20/17

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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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