For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:4-5

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

There is No Cure

Jeremiah chapter 8
      There has been a lot of information in the news lately about health issues.  We’ve heard the stories over the last several weeks of the Ebola crisis in Africa.  According to the BBC as of  October 23rd,” 4,922 people had been reported as having died from the disease in five countries; Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the United States. A further death has been reported in Mali. The total number of reported cases is in excess of 10,000.”  (  A few weeks ago, our neighbor Emmanuel, who is from Liberia, came over to see us and we asked about his family back in Liberia and what they were experiencing.  He told us his family had a distant member who had died of Ebola but no one else had been affected.  But he did tell us that the medical system in Liberia was breaking down.  People were afraid to seek treatment for anything for fear they would be exposed to Ebola.  Medical personnel were afraid of catching the disease.  Whole families were being wiped out in some cases.  It’s a very dire situation in his home country.
This is not the first outbreak of Ebola.  The disease was first identified in 1976 but this is the deadliest outbreak there has ever been.  One of the things that is so scary about Ebola is that there is no cure.  If it’s caught early enough it can be treated and people may be able to recover if symptoms are managed.  But there is no cure.
There has also been news of a young woman who has been diagnosed with brain cancer and had chosen to die on Nov. 1 .  Like Ebola, her disease has no cure.  Unlike the thousands in Africa, she does have access to medicine that can help alleviate some of her symptoms and she doesn’t have to worry about her doctors being afraid to treat her or the entire medical system breaking down on her.  But she will still die.  Some things have no cure.
 In the passage we are looking at today in Jeremiah, God asks the question,  “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (v. 22)  Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judah and these people were suffering from an incurable disease.  Like many facing ebola in Africa today, there was no physician to care for them and no medicine to cure them.  If we read through the whole of chapter 8 we see that the Lord declares that war is coming and the people of Judah will not win it.  They will be overrun.  The graves of the kings, prophets and priests will be desecrated and their bones scattered on the ground.  The crops will fail.  The people who survive the war will wish for death rather than life in the land where they will be banished.  There will be no peace, only terror.
Why is this happening?  Well God asks the same thing. In verses 4-6 he says to Jeremiah  “‘When people fall down, don’t they get up again?  When they discover they’re on the wrong road, don’t they turn back?  Then why do these people stay on their self-destructive path?  Why do the people of Jerusalem refuse to turn back?
They cling tightly to their lies and will not turn around.   I listen to their conversations
and don’t hear a word of truth.  Is anyone sorry for doing wrong?  Does anyone say, “What a terrible thing I have done”?  No! All are running down the path of sin
as swiftly as a horse galloping into battle!”  The people were sinning, refusing to repent or change their ways.
The people of Judah were not living according to the covenant they had made with Yahweh.  They were not keeping the laws He had given them and that they had promised to keep.  They were worshiping other gods, even sacrificing their children to them, something that God said He had never commanded nor had it ever entered His mind to do.  They were participating in practices that were totally detestable to God.  They were going the wrong way, heading down a path of self-destruction and refusing to turn around.  God asks the question – When people discover they are on the wrong road, don’t they turn around?  Don’t they change direction?  Don’t they go back and figure out where the right road is?  Why do these people refuse to turn back?  It makes no sense.
Vandy told me once that he was going somewhere and he had his GPS on but it was telling him a way to go that he didn’t want to go.  Sometimes a GPS will give you the more convoluted way to go.  So he went the way he thought was best.  For a while the GPS kept telling him to turn around when possible.  But he ignored it for so long that it finally just shut up and stopped giving him directions altogether.  That’s what’s about to happen to Judah in the book of Jeremiah.  They have ignored God for so long, going down their own path of self-destruction, that He’s about to stop giving them directions altogether.  He’s going to remove His protection from them, they will be overrun by their enemies, the land will be destroyed, people will be slaughtered, and those who survive will go into exile.  There will be no more nation of Judah.  There will be no cure for them.
God says in verse 2 of this chapter that his people have loved, served, followed, consulted and worshiped other gods.  They put some effort into this.  They changed their lifestyles and devoted themselves to these other gods.  It wasn’t just a casual thing.  They reoriented their lives around idol worship.  It influenced how they thought, their decision making, what they gave priority to, how they spent their money, everything.  Earlier in the book of Jeremiah God compares the people of Judah to an unfaithful wife, who leaves her husband to go after someone else.  Judah is the unfaithful spouse who leaves God to pursue relationships with other gods.  She’s so enamored of these idols that she ends up doing things that God never dreamed of and things for which there is no cure without a complete return to Yahweh.  Reading this places before us the question, what are we orienting our lives around?  What influences our decision making, our prioritizing, how we spend our money and our time?  Is it our relationship with Jesus Christ and the message of His gospel or does something else have a bigger influence over us?  Have we gotten on the wrong road and don’t realize it? 
Chapter 8 of Jeremiah is God’s lament over Judah.  In the class we’ve had the last few weeks on scriptures of lament, we’ve learned that Biblical laments contain several elements including a complaint about what is wrong and then a petition, where the person tells God what they want him to do about their complaint.  In chapter 8 God is the one with the complaint.  His people are going the wrong way.  They are not being faithful to Him but are worshiping other gods.  They say they have the law of God but they don’t know what His law requires of them because their scribes and priests have taught them lies.  They’ve handled God’s laws falsely and corrupted it, telling the people what they want to hear rather than telling them the truth.  The people are greedy and everyone practices deceit.  They are willing to commit any act of violence if it means they will gain from it.  They keep saying peace, peace but there is no peace.  That word peace is “shalom” which means wholeness, soundness, completeness, health in relationships including a sound and healthy covenant relationship with God.  There is none of that in Judah.  But the people refuse to acknowledge the truth of where they are in relation to God and so there is no cure for them.
There are some things that don’t mix well.  Oil and water is a combination that doesn’t mix well.  When I was a kid, I used to have to do the dishes and would have to be reminded not to pour the used cooking oil down the kitchen drain because it wouldn’t wash away.  It would just sit in the drain and clog it up and then the water couldn’t pass through.  Greed and deceit are things that don’t mix well with shalom.  Shalom is like springs of living water.  Shalom brings life.  It flows through relationships among individuals, families, communities, and between humanity and God.  It brings refreshing, creativity, harmony and life.  But greed and deceit will block it.  They will clog the drain. Walls will come up.  Misunderstandings will happen.  People will get hurt.  Someone will be victimized.  Life will be cut off and destruction will be the result.  Wars come about because of greed and deceit.  Families have been destroyed, businesses have been destroyed, and peoples’ futures have been destroyed because of greed and deceit.  Think of the financial scandals that have hit this country in the last several years and how much economic stagnation has happened in different parts of the world because of greed and deceit.  How much development has not taken place around the world, and how much creativity has been stifled because of greed and deceit?  They are like cancerous tumors that must be removed in order for life to continue.  Without their removal, there is no cure. 
The people of Judah have a serious wound, something that will kill them if not treated properly, but they are just putting a bandaid on it.  God says in verse 11 “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.”  As a parent or as anyone who has taken care of young children, we know that any hurt must be tended to.  It might take a wet paper towel, a piece of ice, a kiss, a bandaid, but every hurt must be acknowledged and tended to.  Our young children demand this.  I’m going to tell a cute story about Marcela.  When she was maybe 3 years old, she came to church one day with Pastor Leonard and she was down in the basement over at the old church playing and I was down there as well doing something.  Somehow she hurt her finger I think it was and she got very upset and was about to cry. Pastor Leonard was upstairs or outside at the time and I was trying to soothe her so I asked her if she wanted me to put some Mommy medicine on it.  She said yes, so I kissed her finger.  She waited a minute and then she said “It’s not working!”  I was like “Well it works for Bethannie!”  Obviously I wasn’t treating her wound seriously enough!  But Judah in this passage, isn’t as smart as our young children are.  Judah is suffering a serious wound, but rather than demand treatment, she is content to just put a bandaid on it and let it continue to bleed, and just ignore it.   Judah isn’t even taking the time to acknowledge there is a wound.  There is no cure when we refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the wound or even to take the time to examine it.
In verse 14 the people of Judah speak.  They ask, “why are we just sitting around? We’ve been waiting for peace but it’s not coming.  Instead God has doomed us to perish and so we should go into our fortified cities.”  What are they looking for in their fortified cities?  Do they think that death will be more comfortable there?  They seem to be seeking some measure of control over their death and destruction.  But there is none.  Death and destruction is going to happen.  Their only real recourse is to repent, to get off the wrong road they are on and seek for the right one, to head in a new direction.  But they refuse. They put their trust in their fortified cities rather than in God. And so there is no cure.
In verse 19 God says “listen to the cry of my people from a land far away:  Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?”  God is saying that the people will be taken into exile and they will then cry out where is the Lord.  He’s like a parent watching a child who’s heading for trouble, knowing that heartbreak is ahead of them, knowing they are going to go through pain, and knowing there is nothing He can do to stop it because they are refusing to listen and turn around.  God mourns over the people of Judah in these verses, giving voice to His deep pain at their rejection of him.  He’s the husband whose wife has been unfaithful with multiple partners, even though He has loved Judah and given her a good home and provided abundantly for her.  In verse 21 God says, “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed:  I mourn and horror grips me.”  God will not come out of this unscathed.  He is wounded by the wounds of His people.  He suffers with them.  God is the one who asks the question “Is there no balm in Gilead:  Is there no physician there?  Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”  God is in mourning and he cries out “why.” 
One of my favorite movies is “Steel Magnolias” about a group of Southern women who are friends.  One of the women has a daughter who dies of complications of diabetes.  There is a scene near the end of the movie as the women are leaving the daughter’s grave after the funeral and they tell her mother how well she’s holding up and they are seeking to comfort her.  But then the mother, Ma’Lynne, breaks down and she starts crying and screaming and she says she wants to know why this happened.  She should have gone first, not her daughter.  She’s hurt and she’s incredibly angry and she lets it all out to her friends, saying she just wants to hit something.  That’s what God is doing in this passage.  He’s hurt and He’s angry and He’s letting it out.  We didn’t read further than chapter 8 today but God’s lament continues into chapter 9 where He says “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!  I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”  God realizes that His people will not repent.  They will not change.  There is no cure for them and He mourns deeply for them. 
There are some things for which there is no cure, things like cancer and ebola.  These things can be treated and sometimes people can recover, although there is no guarantee.  But treatment must be sought.  Care must be taken.  The sickness must be acknowledged and treated seriously.  But there are other things that are just as deadly as ebola – greed, hatred, racism, ignorance, a love of self and an individualism that devalues others, a focus on achievement and advancement that leaves no room for God, a refusal to examine our spiritual lives and repent of sin.  Without recognizing the presence of such things and without treating them seriously as the spirit killers that they are, there is no cure. 
What is God mourning for today?  What is causing Him to grieve and cry and scream today?  Isn’t it the same as it was in Jeremiah’s day?  The people are going the wrong way, headed for destruction and refusing to turn around.  We only have to look around us to see that things are not the way they should be.  Shalom is missing.  We don’t have wholeness and health in our world.  There are so many instances of injustice taking place.  Violence and war is all around.  People are greedy for more without considering who suffers as a consequence of that.  People regularly practice deceit, spinning things any which way to sway the way others think.  But there is a balm in Gilead and there is a physician to treat our wounds if we will seek treatment.  We are told in Isaiah 53 that Christ himself took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.  He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace – shalom – was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (v.5)  There is hope for our world.  There is healing possible. 
As the people of God, we need to seek healing for ourselves on a regular basis.  We need to be examining our own lives for signs of spiritual sickness and be seeking healing from Jesus Christ.  But we also need to be joining Christ in intercession for our world.  We need to be crying and raging over the things He is crying and raging about.  We need to be praying for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done so that our world can be healed and people can have shalom. 

As we close this morning I invite you to join me in a prayer found in our blue hymnals, #803. The worship team can join me now. This coming Tuesday is election day in Pennsylvania. We are electing people whose decisions will affect our lives and could possibly affect lives all over the world.  It’s important that we each pray about the decisions we will make as we vote.  But we also need to pray for God’s Spirit to be moving around the world to draw people to Himself, the source of life.  There are several prayer requests mentioned in the bulletin about different situations in the world where God’s intervention is needed.  There is a cure for the problems in our world, but there is no cure if people don’t seek it.  As we pray this prayer together, let us be mindful of our need to continue to pray for the healing of our world and that people will seek healing for their spiritual sickness.

Monday, August 4, 2014

More Than a Shepherd

Psalm 23
            About 6 weeks ago, my family and I went camping for a week for vacation.  It’s the first time in about 4 or 5 years that we’ve been able to go camping together and when we were planning it, we decided we wanted to be in the mountains and we wanted there to be a lake so we could go swimming and boating.  We wanted to be near water. When we got to our campground we saw that there was also a creek right across the road from our site. So we got bonus water.  I’ve noticed that lots of people like to vacation near water.  Pastor Leonard and his family are camping in Maine this week and he posted a photo over the weekend of the water there.  On Facebook, people have been posting pictures at the pool, at the beach, at a swimming hole in the mountains.  And you know in the city, there’s always the option to open the hydrant.  The other week someone had opened the hydrant on our block.  We like to play in and around water in the summer. It refreshes us.
            One of the first things we are told in Psalm 23 is that the Lord leads us beside quiet waters.  I’ve heard that sheep won’t drink from a stream that’s moving.  They will only drink from a place where the water is still.  I don’t know if that’s true or not.  But I would imagine, if one is a sheep, it would feel safer to drink from still water rather than running water.  The picture here in Psalm 23 of the sheep lying down in green pastures and being lead beside quiet waters is a tranquil picture.  It’s one of safety and rest.  In fact the next line after the quiet waters one says “he refreshes my soul.”  When we read the first few verses of Psalm 23, it’s like taking a drink of cold water on a hot day.  It’s soothing and refreshing.  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,  he refreshes my soul.  He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
            The image of God as Shepherd is gentle and kind and yet also strong and capable.  At Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church, where I also pastor, there is a huge stained glass window behind the pulpit with the picture of Jesus as Shepherd, holding the lamb in his arms and he’s looking out over the congregation with, what I think, is a very stern look on his face.  We have jokingly referred to that picture as “evil Jesus” because he’s got such a mean look on his face, like he’s watching the congregation to see who is going to fall asleep or check their phone or something and then he’s going to smack them with his staff.  But one of the members told me one time that they find the picture comforting because Jesus looks so protective of the sheep, like he is guarding them and woe to any enemy that may try to harm his sheep.  To the sheep, the Shepherd is loving, kind, gentle, comforting, providing all that is needed.  But to the enemy, the Shepherd is dangerous, vigilant, strong, and scary. 
            Psalm 23 is attributed to David whose first job was to watch his father’s sheep.  In 1 Samuel 17, when David volunteers to fight the giant Goliath, he tells King Saul that when he was guarding his father’s sheep and a lion or a bear would come and carry off one of the flock, he would follow the animal, hit it and rescue the sheep from its mouth.  And then when the animal would turn on him, he would seize it by the hair, hit it and kill it.  David was just a teenager but he had already killed the lion and the bear and so he thought he was perfectly capable of killing a giant as well.  David was a little crazy.  His protective instincts were off the chart.  No one I know would willingly run after a wild lion or bear, grab it by the hair and then hit it in order to get a sheep back.  Most of us would just consider the sheep a loss and we’d move the flock somewhere where there were no lions or bears.  But the problem with a lion or bear or any animal that preys on livestock, is that once they’ve eaten of your stock, they know where to find food.  They will come back looking for more.  David had to get rid of the enemy of his sheep or they would just come back for seconds. 
            Psalm 23 says the Lord is our Shepherd.  When there is an enemy preying on His people, the Lord will deal with it.  Because, like David, the Lord’s protective instincts, when it comes to His people, are off the chart.  In Deuteronomy 23, the Lord is giving instructions to the Israelites when they are in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and he tells them to make a latrine outside the camp.  They are not to leave their bodily wastes laying on the ground in the camp.  And the reason he gives is this: “For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you.  Your camp must be holy…”  God Himself patrolled their camp to keep His people safe in the wilderness.  And He watched out for their enemies, to deliver them into His people’s hands.
            Psalm 91 speaks a great deal about the protection of the Lord, that he is a refuge and fortress, a strong and safe place.  He saves his people from the snare and from deadly disease. His faithfulness is a shield to his people.  He rescues and protects those who call on His name.  In John 17, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays for his disciples and for all who will believe in him.  He tells the Father that he has protected his disciples by the power of his name while he was with them, but now He is going back to the Father and He asks that the Father now protect His people by that same power, the power of His name. 
            In John 10 Jesus tells his disciples that he is the good Shepherd and he lays down his life for the sheep.  He protects them from all enemies.  The hired man who watches the sheep would run away if an enemy like a wolf would come to steal a sheep.  But the Good Shepherd doesn’t run away. Like David, He faces the enemy and overcomes it.  It is in this context that Jesus speaks of the enemy of His people and says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Our shepherd watches over our lives, protecting us from all enemies, laying down his own life so that we might be safe.  He doesn’t abandon us.
            Psalm 23 goes on in verses 4 and 5 to focus more on the dangers that surround the sheep.  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death) I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”  I remember when I was a preschooler, I was afraid of the dark.  I hated going into a dark room.  It terrified me to think of what might be waiting there in the dark.  Even now I get a little uncomfortable going down into our basement if all the lights are off, because it’s just creepy in the dark. 
            Last month Bethannie and I were house sitting for friends and we were staying overnight at their house, watching their cat.  We had been out on their back porch and I had come in first to go to bed and I checked the front door to make sure it was locked.  But Bethannie was still out back so I left it up to her to lock up the back door.  Well in the middle of the night when it was good and dark, I heard a noise in the house that woke me up.  My first thought was, did the back door get locked.  Was someone in the house?  Then I realized I had left my cell phone in the living room so I couldn’t call 911.  We’re out in Abington and I’m thinking “the serial killers all live in the suburbs!”  Turns out it was just their cat running around.  The point is, it gets scary in the dark.  When we find ourselves walking in the dark, whether literally or figuratively, it gets scary.  It’s hard when we are in a situation and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or what we are going to do.  Our Shepherd walks with us.  When we hear scary things in the dark – news reports of violence and war, news that there’s not enough money to provide for our children’s education, news that our jobs might be in jeopardy, news that our health is in jeopardy, news that our child is in trouble or our parent is sick – we have to be reminded that our Shepherd walks with us.  His rod and staff are there to protect and to comfort.  He’s strong enough to face whatever is going bump in the night.  Even when we face death, He is with us to bring comfort.
            He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  This is a powerful picture of reconciliation.  The table is the place where people come together to meet a basic need.  We all have to eat.  There is something equalizing about being at the table.  We use this image in talking about inclusion.  Everyone has a place at the table.  The Lord our Shepherd prepares a table where we and our enemies can come together, a place of reconciliation where healing can happen.  The anointing of the head with oil is a picture of healing as well as a picture of the blessing of the Lord. 
            This image of the table reminds me of the table where Jesus was with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.  In John 13 Jesus and his disciples were sitting at the table to eat the evening meal.  John tells us right at the beginning that Judas was there and was already planning to betray Jesus.  Jesus was at the table with his enemy but he got up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples, including the feet of Judas.  Jesus knows what it’s like to have a relationship break.  He knows what it’s like to have an enemy.  He knows what it takes to seek healing and reconciliation in that situation.  He understands the level to which a person must humble themselves and how hard it can be to let go of the injustice that one has suffered in order to write off the debt that is owed when we’ve been wronged.  He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies and invites us to take a seat at that table. 
            One of the things that they teach us at seminary is to look at the context of any passage that you preach from.  We tend to think of Psalm 23 or any of the psalms as being their own context.  Each one is its own individual song or poem.  But the truth is that the Psalms are placed in relationship to one another.  So this week I read Psalms 22 and 24 to get a better idea of the context of Psalm 23.  Psalm 22 starts out with the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And it goes on as the psalmist says that he has cried out to God day and night and yet God seems so far from him.    We recognize these first words as the cry of Jesus from the cross.
 In verses 7 and 8 the psalmist says “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.  He trusts in the Lord, they say, let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”  Further on in verses 14 and following it says “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.  Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me, they pierce my hands and my feet.  All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments.”  We recognized this as a description of Jesus’ crucifixion. 
            Psalm 22 sets the context for Psalm 23.  The Lord our Shepherd is the one who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  He is the one who has prepared the table with his own body and blood.  On the night he was betrayed he took the bread and broke it and said “This is my body which is broken for you.” And then he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.”  In John 6 Jesus said “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”  We are all in need of this real food.  At the table the Lord has prepared, all are included because all are equally in need.
            The title for this sermon is “More than a Shepherd” because we see that Jesus, our Lord, is our Good Shepherd but he is also much more than that.  He makes us lie down in green pastures – a place of rest and peace – and He Himself is our peace who has broken down the walls of hostility that separate us from God and from one another.  He leads us beside quiet waters and He gives us living water that becomes a spring of water within us welling up to eternal life and refreshing our souls.  He guides us along the right paths and He himself is the way, the truth and the life.  He is with us even in the darkest places and His very name is Emmanuel- God with us.  He became what we are, laying aside His glory and taking on human flesh in order to be with us.  As I said earlier, He prepares the table before us in the presence of our enemies and He is the bread and the cup that we take.  He anoints our head with oil.  Oil is a symbol of the Spirit of God whom Jesus has sent to be with us, to be our comforter and our teacher and to fill us with power to witness and live as disciples of Jesus. 
            This is good stuff!  We can take comfort when we read Psalm 23 knowing that our God is our Shepherd but He is also so much more.  But in a little bit we are going to leave this place of worship.  Tomorrow, or maybe later today for some of you, we go back to our jobs.  In a little bit we leave here and go back to our neighborhoods and homes.  We go back to relationships that may be strained or broken. We go back to the scary places in our lives.  What about when we go back to the dark?
            I got together with a group of ladies this past week and one of them had just come back from a trip to Rwanda and Tanzania.  She was on a learning trip to Rwanda and heard from people who had been through the genocide and people who were working with survivors to bring healing and she said it was just incredible hearing stories and being with people there.  After that she went to Tanzania on safari and she said she really needed that break after the intensity of experiences in Rwanda.  And so she’s on safari riding in a big truck with a group of people through the Serengeti and they are taking pictures of lions and giraffes and all these wild animals and the animals are just right there, with nothing separating them from you.  Then they get to this camp where they are spending the night and she realizes it doesn’t have any walls around it.  So she says to the guide, “so you have someone patrolling through the camp at night right?”  As we read earlier in Deuteronomy, even Israel had God patrolling their camp at night.  But the guide just laughs at her and says “No, this is camp at your own risk.”  So then she asks if she can sleep in the truck but he just laughs again and says that’s where he’s sleeping.  So she reconciles herself to the fact that she will be sleeping in this little tent in the middle of wild animal country, and that people had slept here the night before and no one was eaten.  But then in the middle of the night, when it’s all dark and scary, she hears this noise, like a purring sound.  She realizes there’s an animal outside her tent.  She tries to ignore it and be still and go back to sleep but it keeps getting louder.  I think she was probably praying by this point as this purring sound is not going away.  Suddenly something nudges her through the tent wall and that’s when she loses it and screams, waking up everyone.  Turns out it was not lions purring in anticipation of a snack.  It was 3 zebras that had wandered into camp.  So after everything settled down, she texted a friend in the US and said, “This isn’t fun anymore.”
            I’m telling you this story because that’s how many of us probably feel.  It’s great when we come together on Sunday morning, we worship, we learn, we pray, we fellowship.  But then when we go back home and there’s a shooting a few houses down from us, as what happened on Freeman and Naomi’s block this week, it’s not fun anymore.  When we hear cop cars in the neighborhood and a helicopter is spotlighting on our block because there’s been a home invasion, as happened over near several of our families in Northwood this past week, then it’s not fun anymore.  When an SUV is carjacked and plows into a fruit stand killing 3 kids and putting their mother in the hospital and it turns out one of the perpetrators lives on your block, as is true of one of our families, then it’s not fun anymore.  When our kids are participating as campers and workers at our summer camp program, and a youth counselor is jumped right here on our property and injured, as happened just on the other side of this wall on Thursday afternoon, then it’s not fun anymore. 

            When we leave this worship space, we go back into a scary dark world and it’s not fun.  It wears us down.  We face real enemies, real problems, real worries that are way bigger than we are.  We realize we are just as helpless as sheep and we need our Shepherd.  I’ve made the observation the last few weeks to several people and they’ve agreed with me, that people seem to just be tired.  It wears us down walking through dark places all the time, dealing with enemies in the dark.  It tires us out dealing with the craziness in the world around us.  We need our Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures and to lead us beside still waters and to restore our souls.  We need to know He’s patrolling through our camp, watching over us in the darkness, keeping us safe, delivering our enemies into our hands.  We need to sit at the table He has prepared for us and eat the food He sets before us.  We need the living water welling up within us each day, refreshing us and giving us life.  Our Shepherd provides all that we need but we have to reach out and take it.
            He leads us beside quiet waters, he gives us living water to drink to refresh our souls.  We need refreshing don’t we?  We need to be filled with the Spirit of God and with the water of life if we are going to be able to face the darkness and the valleys that are waiting for us this week. We need the water that washes us clean and purifies us of our own sin. Ask God to fill you with the living water that refreshes our souls and to give you the rest and renewal you need to face this next week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good News for the Persecuted

Good News for the Persecuted
OCMC 6/15/14
Acts 16:16-34; Matthew 5:10
            First of all I would like to wish all the fathers and grandfathers with us today a very Happy Fathers Day!  May God bless you and continue to give you wisdom and grace as you father your children and grandchildren.         
Today we are ending our sermon series on the beatitudes.  Pastor Leonard said we’ve saved the best for last!  I don’t know, I’ve not been too enthused about this persecution beatitude. In fact last month Pastor Leonard was talking about the beatitude he was working on and was saying it wasn’t very exciting or inspiring and he asked “Can you think of worse beatitude than this one?” and I was like “Hello?  Persecution?”   It’s not like “blessed are the peacemakers” or “blessed are the merciful” or “blessed are the pure in heart.”  The other beatitudes highlight some admirable quality and we’d like to have these qualities.  But I don’t really think of persecution as being an admirable quality to have.  It tends to be something we’d like to avoid if possible. To be persecuted means to be harassed or mistreated.  It sounds painful and unpleasant.  It involves people being evil to one another and that’s something we as Christians are supposed to be working against.  So when I first started working on this sermon, it was hard to get into it.  Actually I’ve been working on it for about 3 weeks and that’s unusual for me.  It usually doesn’t take that long for one to come together.
 I finally realized the problem I was having was the word “persecuted”.  It was taking over the whole beatitude for me and it was hard for me to see what else was there.  It was persecuting me!  So I took it out of the verse.  I just decided to ignore it for a little bit and look for what else might be there and that’s when I was able to focus on the word “righteousness”.  This word refers to God’s saving acts but it also indicates a relationship.  Through God’s saving acts we who trust in Christ are brought into a new relationship with God.  We have a new status as righteous.  It means we’ve been placed into a “right” relationship with God.  We receive this as a gift from God but it places responsibilities on us.  In this new status, God has some claim on our conduct.  We are to live as righteous people.  It’s like if I were to come into your home as a guest, you would have some claim on my conduct.  If you wanted me to take my shoes off at the door, I would need to do that because it’s your house and I’m your guest.  When God brings us into this new relationship of “righteous” He brings us into His household.  Paul writes in Eph. 2:19 that we are “no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.”  So He has a say over how we live as members of His household. 
So now we can go back and add in “persecution” and we see that Jesus is saying “blessed are those who are persecuted because they are in right relationship with God and are living according to the standards of conduct for the members of God’s household.”  The reason for the persecution is because we are doing the right thing.  Peter writes “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (3:17)…If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.  However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (4:15-16).  So the beatitude started to sound a little better to me as I unpacked that word “righteous”.  Being in right relationship with God, and living as members of His household are supposed to live, may invite some persecution from those who are not members of God’s household and don’t live as God wants us to live.  It’s a fact of life as a Christian.  Not everyone is going to like us or like what we stand for and how we live.  And they will let us know.  Jesus is telling us this right at the beginning of his sermon. 
But then I got hung up on the word “blessed.”  No matter how I tried, I couldn’t see blessing in being persecuted, even if the persecution is because of being in right relationship with God and living as He wants members of His household to live.  So I decided to consult a Bible commentary and see what someone else thought about this.  In NT Wright’s commentary on Matthew he translates the word “blessed” as “wonderful news” or “good news.”  Jesus is announcing good news here at the beginning of his sermon. “Good news to you who are poor in spirit.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven.  Good news to you who mourn.  You will be comforted.  Good news to you who are meek.  You will inherit the earth.  Good news to you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  You will be filled.  Good news to you who are merciful.  You will be shown mercy. Good news to you who are pure in heart.  You will see God.  Good news to you who are peacemakers.  You will be called children of God.  Good news to you who are persecuted because you are in right relationship with God and are living as members of His household.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven.”  Good News!  This announcement of Good News begins and ends with the declaration “that the kingdom of heaven is ours.” 
This fits in so well with what Jesus makes clear to everyone is his purpose.  In Luke chapter 4 Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown at the beginning of his ministry and declares “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach or announce or proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Now in Matthew 5 we read a further announcement of good news that the kingdom of heaven is ours.  Matthew and Luke are making it very clear that Jesus is the Messiah – God’s anointed one – who has come to announce that the Kingdom of God is now here on earth as it is in heaven.  And Jesus is not only announcing this, he’s also instituting the rule of God’s kingdom as he goes around forgiving sins, healing the sick, delivering those oppressed by evil, casting out demons, and preaching and teaching how to live as members of God’s household.  He’s advancing the kingdom of God or the rule of God as He does this and He commissions those who are his disciples to do the same.
But as we all know, when a new rule is instituted, when a new regime takes over, the old regime will fight back.  Just this week in Iraq, Sunni militants took over the city of Mosul and that country is on the brink of civil war as Shiite’s organize to fight against them.   Just over a week ago, the world was remembering D-Day, when allied forces invaded France to take back the territory in Europe that Hitler had invaded and placed under Nazi rule.  When one power seeks to assert itself against another power, there is a fight coming.  This is why Jesus announces about persecution.  As the kingdom of heaven advances, those who advance it can expect to meet opposition and persecution.
Paul and Silas experienced this in the story we heard from Acts 16.  Paul and Silas are in Philippi and they’ve met with a few people there who had a habit of gathering near the river to pray together.  There wasn’t a synagogue at Philippi, most likely because there weren’t enough devout Jewish men in that area to form one. But there were several women who gathered regularly and Paul and Silas met them and talked with them about Jesus and they became believers.  So in verse 16 Paul and Silas are on their way to meet these new believers at the place of prayer and this slave girl who was a fortune teller starts following them around yelling that they are servants of the Most High God and are telling people the way to be saved.  So we read that as Christians in 2014 and think, “what’s wrong with that?”  But to the people of Philippi listening to this slave girl, they have no idea that the Most High God is Jesus and that the way to be saved is through faith that he is the Messiah who died for their sins and rose again and this salvation involves living as members of God’s household.  They think she’s talking about Zeus or Jupiter and salvation is wealth, health and power.  She’s distorting the message that Paul and Silas have to bring to this town. 
So here we see Paul and Silas coming up against the spiritual powers of darkness that have been ruling in this girl’s life and in this town.  Through this slave girl, these spiritual powers are trying to distort the announcement of the good news that the kingdom of God has come.  This girl followed them around for many days, yelling like a town crier until finally Paul got so upset that he confronted the spirit in her and commanded it in the name of Jesus to come out of her.  And it did because the Kingdom of God has come and now there is a new authority in place that has to be obeyed.  The spiritual powers of darkness that had ruled for so long were no longer in power and the demon now had to obey the authority of Jesus Christ.
Well, once the demon left the girl she lost her powers of fortune telling and her owners were upset because they had made a lot of money off her.  Luke writes that “they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.”  So now the kingdom of God is coming up against the earthly authorities of government.  We see this so many times in Acts where the Kingdom of God comes against the Empire of Rome.  Paul and Silas are severely flogged and thrown into prison.  That’s persecution.  They are suffering because they are doing the things that members of God’s household do.  They are proclaiming good news and advancing the rule of God by doing the very things that Jesus himself did in confronting the powers of darkness and casting them out. 
Now even in the prison, they pray and worship God and the other prisoners are listening to them.  Even now they are proclaiming good news.  And God intervenes by bringing an earthquake that shakes the foundation of the prison, the doors fly open and everyone’s chains come loose.  This is a pretty big announcement of freedom for the prisoners.  Everyone’s chains are broken, not just Paul and Silas’.  The theme of last week’s Pentecost service was “there is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.”  We see that truth demonstrated here in this story as everyone’s chain is broken.  The kingdom of God is for everyone and there is no opposing power that can stand against the power of God.  Every chain is broken and every power is brought into submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
When the jailor comes and sees that all the doors are open he’s about to kill himself because he thinks all the prisoners have escaped.  But Paul stops him by saying they are all there.  Why would prisoners who are suffering under the empire of Rome, choose to stay when their chains have been broken?  Most likely because they recognized that in this place a new authority has broken in.  This is another part of the good news.  The kingdom of God has come to us right where we are.  We don’t have to go somewhere new to experience the kingdom of God.  We don’t have to move to Jerusalem to live in the kingdom of God.  We don’t have to get our lives straightened out first before we can experience the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God came into the prison and the kingdom of God comes to us wherever we are and breaks all the chains in that place and brings freedom. 
The jailor at some level recognizes that there is a new authority, a new kingdom ruling here because he prostrates himself before Paul and Silas and then asks, “What must I do to be saved?”  He’s the jailor but he’s asking the prisoners what he needs to do.  NT Wright translates the jailor’s question as “Gentlemen, will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?”  And they answer him “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.”  The jailor recognizes that under the old kingdom – the empire of Rome - things are about as messed up as they can be.  His prison is in a shambles and all the prisoners are loose.  He’s in a heap of trouble.  But there’s a new kingdom and he can enter that kingdom and be saved – him and his whole household.  How does the jailer do this?  How do we get out of the shambles that our lives may be?  How do we get out of the mess of broken relationships, bad decisions, financial difficulties, regrets, shame, whatever mess it is we find ourselves in?  We believe in the Lord Jesus.  We recognize and acknowledge his authority as Lord over all.  We enter the kingdom of God and live under His rule as members of His household. 
This doesn’t mean everything will be great, that’s God is going to instantly make right everything that’s been wrong.  All we have to do is look around us to see that’s not true.  But God will fill us with His Spirit, create in us a new heart, transform us from the inside out so that we have a new motivation for living as God wants us to live.  This is what it means to be born again, because we are born into the kingdom of God.  This is the good news.  The kingdom of heaven is ours.  The jailor found out the truth of this as he and his household believe, are baptized and are changed. 
In this beatitude Jesus is declaring the good news that the kingdom of heaven is ours.  We can live in this kingdom with full rights and privileges as God places us in right relationships with Himself through His own gracious acts of salvation.  We can live as members of God’s own household, fulfilling those responsibilities, with God Himself giving us the ability to do this as He fills us with His own Spirit.  There will be persecution as the kingdom of God advances against the kingdoms of darkness.  But there is no power that can stand against the kingdom of God.  It breaks into every place, breaks every chain, overcomes every form of opposition.  God is advancing His kingdom through us, He is working through us.  We are his hands and feet, his eyes and mouth as we work against the powers of darkness and do the things Jesus did in our own network of relationships, our own families, our communities, and around the world. 
The story of Paul and Silas in prison is the story of God at work expanding His kingdom.  God is not just looking out for his boys Paul and Silas.  He’s working to bring freedom to the slave girl, bound by an evil spirit and used by her owners for their own selfish gain.  He’s working to bring freedom to the jailor and his whole household and perhaps to many of the other prisoners as well.  He’s working to bring light into the spiritual darkness of Philippi.  At the end of the story God’s rule now extends over many more lives and will continue expanding as these believers now carry out the commission from Jesus to make disciples.  This is the good news – the kingdom of heaven is ours.
I’ll invite the worship team to come up now as we transition to a time of prayer.  Maybe you are like me and have a hard time with this persecution idea.  Maybe you don’t like to think of the conflict and hard work and change that will need to happen if the kingdom of God is going to advance in your own life.  But to quote Dr. Phil, how is it working for you outside the kingdom of God?  Have you found yourself yet asking the question the jailor asked “How can I get out of this mess?”  Whatever mess we find ourselves in, whatever enemies we find ourselves facing, the good news is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The answer is to face the fight because it is a fight between darkness and light.  We have to make the decision that we will face the discomfort and pain of confronting the powers of darkness as we live under the rule and reign of Jesus in the kingdom of God.

Last week Chantelle spoke to us about peacemaking and reminded us that it wasn’t comfortable.  It’s hard work and it creates its own conflicts.  None of what Jesus is talking about in Matthew chapter 5 is sweet and peaceful and comfortable because he’s talking about the kingdom of God advancing against the kingdom of darkness and that creates conflict.   Jesus says in Mt. 11:12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.”  There’s work involved in living in the kingdom of God.  Are we ready to commit to the work that needs to be done in our own lives, our own families, our own communities and to face the conflict and pain that will be involved as the kingdom of God advances?  As the worship team leads us in our closing song, if you are ready to see the kingdom of God advance in whatever situation you may be facing, then in this time of prayer and worship, make that commitment to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Ask for the power of God to come into your own life in a fresh way so that you can make your stand against the kingdom of darkness.  If you’d like prayer, myself and others from the prayer team can be available here to pray with you as we worship.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jesus Let Lazarus Die!

Ezekiel 37:1-6; John 11:17-26

         This past week I officiated at a funeral for the father of a friend of mine.  When we got to the grave I read from this same passage in John 11.  I always read this at the graveside when I officiate a funeral because it is such a striking contrast.  Here we are burying someone who was loved, who lived a vibrant life, and now they are dead with their family around them grieving, and yet we are also confessing faith in Jesus who says he is the resurrection and the life.  We are putting a body into the ground with the hope that one day it will be raised back to life.  It makes no sense. 
            Here in this passage from John 11, not only is Lazarus dead, but we find out he needn’t have died.  If Jesus had come when the sisters sent for him, if he hadn’t waited 2 more days before leaving for Judea, Lazarus may have lived.  Jesus could have healed him.  Jesus let Lazarus, his friend whom he loved, die.  Now I want to give proper credit.  I didn’t think of this sermon title.  Pastor Leonard told me his friend Pastor Ernie Flores of 2nd Baptist Church in Germantown had this as the title of his sermon last week and when I heard it I thought “Wow.  I have to use this.”  Because this also doesn’t make sense.  When Jesus got word that Lazarus was sick he waited 2 days before leaving to go back to Judea, knowing that Lazarus was going to die.  When he finally does decide to leave, he tells his disciples that Lazarus has died and that he’s glad for their sakes that he wasn’t there so that they may believe.  “Believe what?” is my question when I read this.  We all believe Jesus could have healed Lazarus and that’s why Mary and Martha sent for him in the first place.  Jesus was their hope.  But now that Lazarus is dead, what hope is there?
            Now turning to the Ezekiel passage that Jacob read for us, we see another hopeless situation.  There’s a valley full of dry bones just laying out all over the ground.  The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can live?  And he wisely answers “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”  It would seem to be impossible that all these bones could come back together and live.  They are old bones and very dry.  There’s no life left in them.  The flesh and blood is gone.  Scientists have been able to take old bones and extract DNA from them and study it.  They’ve been able to extract DNA that is thousands of years old, but it has to be under the right conditions.  There are some bones that are too degraded to get any usable DNA.  But even if they can get DNA, they can’t make the bones come back to life. These bones in Ezekiel were degraded, dried out bones. You couldn’t even get DNA from them.  It’s hopeless to think that life can come into them again. 
            So here we have these 2 hopeless situations, one in Ezekiel and one in John, and yet in both we are questioned as to whether we believe there can be life again.  Can these bones live?  Do you believe this?  It doesn’t make sense.
            Another thing these 2 hopeless situations have in common is that God let them both happen.  The valley of the dry bones is a vision of the state of the people of Israel.  At the time of Ezekiel, the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, who had been a nation, were in exile.  Ezekiel was with the exiles in Babylon.  There was no nation of Israel anymore.  The nation that had existed under the reign of King David was done. After the reign of David’s son Solomon, it had been split into two nations – Judah and Israel, and both of these had been overthrown by enemies and the people taken away to foreign lands.  And God had let it happen. 
            You see God and the people of Israel had established a covenant, a binding legal agreement, that the people would worship Yahweh only and would live by His laws as His chosen people.  Yahweh would be their God, protecting them, providing for them, giving them peace, and they would be the people who would show the world what it meant to live in relationship with and to worship the one true God.  If they broke the covenant, if they worshiped other gods and refused to live under God’s laws, His protection would be withdrawn and their enemies would overcome them.  The people of Israel did not remain faithful to the covenant and so God withdrew His protection and let them go into exile.  He didn’t step in to prevent their destruction. 
            In this case, we can understand a little better why God let the people go into exile.  They were reaping the consequences of their sin.  God had warned them and now it had happened.  With Lazarus, we don’t understand.  Why didn’t Jesus just go to Lazarus when the sisters first sent for him?  Why didn’t he just speak a healing word?  He could have just spoken from where he was and Lazarus would have been healed.   Why didn’t God do something? 
            Last week I preached on the passage from John 9 where a man born blind is healed by Jesus.  In that passage, when the disciples see the blind man they ask Jesus “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “No one sinned.  But this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”  Sometimes it’s obvious that bad things happen to us because of our sin.  We reap what we sow.  We run the red light, we get mailed the ticket, right?  But other times bad things just happen through no fault of our own.  That’s what happened with the man born blind and that’s what happened with Lazarus.  And this is when we question God.  Why didn’t you keep me from having this tragedy happen, from losing my job, from losing someone I love, whatever it may be.  God why?
            It’s normal to ask the why question and there’s nothing wrong with asking it, but sometimes it’s better to ask “For what purpose did this happen?”  Jesus said regarding the man born blind that the work of God would be displayed in his life.  Jesus reframed the situation.  He didn’t focus on assigning blame for the tragedy but rather focused on what God was up to in the situation.  The works of God were going to be displayed in this man’s life.  The same is true for the situation in Ezekiel and in John 11.  God reframes both situations to display His work.  Yes, Jesus let Lazarus die and God let Israel be destroyed and taken away into exile.  He could do that because He has the power to restore life.
            In Ezekiel, God shows the prophet that He has the ability to bring life even to old bones that are dried out and degraded.  His word is spoken over those hopeless bones and they come back together, tendons and muscle grow on them and skin covers them and they are bodies once again.  Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind to blow over them, which is a call for God’s Spirit to breathe on them, and when that happens they come back to life and stand up on their feet, not just bodies, but a vast army.  This is a picture of vitality and power and strength.  These old dried out bones are now a healthy, living, strong, vast army.  And God says to Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house of Israel.  The people of Israel think their situation is hopeless.  They are like bodies in the grave.  But God says he’s going to open their graves and bring them up from them and bring them back to the land of Israel and not only that but He will put His Spirit in them and they will live and know that He is the Lord, He has spoken and He has done what He promised.  The works of God are going to be displayed in His people.
            The same is true of Lazarus.  Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  She thought he was talking about the resurrection at the end of time but Jesus was talking about that very day.  The works of God were going to be displayed right there at Lazarus’ grave. And this is the part of the story that we love.  Jesus commands in a loud voice for Lazarus to come out of the grave and he walks out with the grave clothes still wrapped around him, alive and well.  Jesus let Lazarus die, so that it could be seen that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and those who die in Him will live again.  This is good stuff!
            But as I was thinking about this passage this week, I wonder how Lazarus felt about being allowed to die.  Did that thought even cross his mind or was he too overwhelmed by the fact that he was dead for 4 days and then was alive again?  As a 21st century American, I’m not so sure I would want Jesus to let me die just so he could show everyone that he has the power to raise the dead.  If Jesus were to come in here and ask for a volunteer to demonstrate resurrection on, would anyone here raise their hand?  And here we get to the real problem we have with this whole thought that Jesus let Lazarus die.  Our lives are our own and we don’t want anyone messing around with them.  It’s fine if Jesus wants to bless us and prosper us and protect us.  But we don’t want him to let things in our lives die.  We want life, not death.  We want the blessing, not the suffering.  But we can’t have resurrection without death.
            God said in Ezekiel that when His word was fulfilled and the dry bones lived again, then they would know that He is the Lord.  The Lord is the one we submit to.  He’s the one who has the final say over our lives.  The Lord is the one we bow down to and acknowledge as being greater than we are.  So if we are confessing that Jesus is our Lord, then we are saying that He has the final word in our lives and we don’t.  So as a 21st century American, that might go against everything my culture says, but it doesn’t change the truth.  Jesus is either my Lord or he’s not.  If he is my Lord, then he can let me die in order to raise me again.  My life is his to do with as He pleases. 
            We confess that truth here at Oxford Circle.  We sing the song “Where you go, I'll go, where you stay, I'll stay, When you move, I'll move, I will follow you.  Who you love, I'll love, How you serve, I'll serve, If this life I lose, I will follow you.” (Chris Tomlin)  But when it comes down to specific situations in our lives, do we believe that?  Do we live that out?  What if we have a dream that we are following and Jesus wants to let that dream die?  Are we willing to go along with that and let that dream die so that Jesus can raise something new to life?  What about a relationship we may be in?  What if Jesus wants that relationship to die?  Will we submit to Him as Lord and suffer that death?  This is the hard stuff of the Christian life.  Do we trust Jesus with our lives, with all the pieces of our lives, when He may want to let things die? 
            We may be willing to let things die that are not good.  We all want to die to sin.  If there’s sin that we struggle with and want to be free of we’re happy if Jesus wants to put that to death because it’s a bad thing and we would be happy to be delivered from that struggle.  But Lazarus was a friend of Jesus’.  He was a good thing in Jesus’ life.  What if the thing that needs to die is something good?  Before Vandy and I moved to Philadelphia, we lived in Virginia, about 2 hours from where our parents live.  Vandy was working in a church there as associate pastor for youth and could have stayed in that position.  They would have been happy to have him stay there and would have paid him a good salary.  I was working as administrative secretary in a Christian school there and my boss was happy to have me stay as well.  We lived in a nice little townhouse and could have built a nice life for ourselves in suburbia, closer to our families.  But we knew we had to let that life die because God had called us to Philadelphia.  That life was good in many ways.  But it wasn’t what God was calling us to.  It had to die.
            The thing is God is calling us to a relationship with Himself that demands everything we have.  We cannot keep part of our life separate from the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Our complete surrender to His will has to happen.  But the relationship we are being called to is not drudgery as God’s slave.  God is calling us to enter into the relationship that already exists among the Trinity, a relationship of perfect love and unity.  In John 17 Jesus prays that those who believe in Him might be brought to complete unity and might be with Him to see His glory.  We are invited to become the children of God, to be in intimate relationship with the one God who created and sustains all things.  We are being invited into a relationship with the God who has the power to raise the dead.  And we are allowed to call this God Father because the relationship He wants is for us to be His children with all the rights and privileges that go along with that.  I’ll take that.
To what extent has God gone to make this possible?  He became human and lived within time and space.  He confined himself as we are confined.  He lived as humans lived 2000 years ago, without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, modern medicine, cell phones, or internet.  You’d think God would pick a more convenient time period to live in.  But in the fullness of time Jesus came and lived and died and rose again to never die.  I can know that this God is trustworthy and will fulfill His promises to me to give me life because this God has already gone through death and been raised to life Himself.  There is no other who has done this. 
Not only did God let Israel go into exile, not only did He let his friend Lazarus die, He let His own Son die.  And Jesus didn’t die of sickness in his own bed, or die of old age with loved ones around him.  He was publicly executed with people around him mocking him and abusing him.  But then Jesus was resurrected and because He lives, we also can live.  This God we can trust, even when He wants to let things in our lives die.
When we accept God’s invitation to be in covenant relationship with Him as His people, His children, He gives us His Spirit to live within us.  He gives us the power to live as His children.  In Romans chapter 8 Paul writes “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit…If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you….for if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”
If we live in this relationship with God, God’s own Spirit, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, is in us to help us let go and put to death those things that are of the sinful nature.  And he will give us the power and strength to let things die, even good things, that God wants to let die in our lives.  God Himself is with us and will not leave us to do this on our own.  The question left for us is what needs to die?  What things in our lives need to die?  What false ideas about God are we holding on to that need to die?  What harmful habits do we indulge in that need to die?  What relationships are we involved in that need to die?  What lies about ourselves or others do we believe that need to die?  What dreams are we chasing that need to die? 
Another question is what are we holding on to that’s already dead and needs to go in the grave?  What dead things are in our lives that are sucking life out of us?  It might be a habit, a mindset, a relationship.  It might be anger, bitterness, unforgiveness or grief that we are holding on to and it’s a dead thing spreading death in our lives.  We need to put those things in the grave.  If there’s something in our lives that needs to die or is already dead and needs to go in the grave, today is the day to make that happen.
          As the worship team comes up and we transition to a time of prayer, let’s take this message seriously today.  God wants to let some things die in our lives.  We can trust him through this process because He also has the power to bring new life.  I’m not saying He’s going to give you a new and improved resurrected version of whatever you may release to Him.  I’m saying He’s going to give you life in exchange for death.  As the worship team plays, I want us to take the time to pray and listen to what God might say to us about what He wants us to let go of and let die.  And then give those things to Him. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

There's a Party Going On

OCMC 2/2/14
Luke 14:15-24

            Today we are continuing this sermon series “Empowered by the Spirit” which is the beginning phrase of our church mission statement.  If you’ve never seen this before, we had the mission statement and the vision for mission statement printed on these bookmarks with contact information and our logo.  Most of you should be familiar with the mission statement by now because it’s printed on the front of your bulletins every week and we’ve been reading it together every week that we’ve been doing this sermon series.  We wanted to do this series of sermons to focus on our mission as a congregation and focus on the different areas of ministry that we have at OCMC.
            Today we are focusing on the ministry of hospitality.  When I originally thought of this topic, the story of Lydia in Acts 16 came to mind.  She was a woman in Philippi who had a business selling purple cloth and she was converted to Christianity by Paul.  After her conversion she offered for Paul and his companions to stay in her house while they were at Philippi.  When she extended the invitation she said to them, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house.”  I read that and got to thinking how odd that was.  Usually when we invite someone to stay at our house, we don’t think about if they will consider us good people to stay with.  We usually think, is our house clean and comfortable, and what will we need to do to make it that way so our guest feels welcome and their needs are met.  But Lydia is saying, if they think she’s okay to stay with because they consider her to be a believer, then they can stay at her house.
            Then I remembered another story from Luke chapter 7 where a Roman centurion had a servant who was very sick and he sent the Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come heal the man. The Jewish elders said to Jesus “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  (v. 4).  But as Jesus got close to the man’s house, the man sent another messenger to him saying “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  There’s that idea again of, if you consider me good enough, come to my house.  It seems that hospitality in Jesus’ day had some rules attached to it.  With the centurion and with Lydia as well, it can be partly explained by the fact that these were Gentiles interacting with Jews.  The Jewish purity laws would have placed restrictions on Jesus and Paul being able to come into the house of a Gentile.  But it seems that there is also this idea that the host should be worthy of the guest.
            We have the same sort of rules today in certain circumstances.  For example, I’ve never been invited to dinner at the White House.  I’m guessing most of you haven’t either.  And that’s because no one at the White House knows me.  Dinner at the White House with the President is for leaders in the worlds of politics, business, science, the arts and so forth.  It’s for religious leaders like the Pope or Billy Graham.  I’m not in that category yet.  I haven’t done anything to warrant an invitation to dinner at the White House.  This makes sense to us. 
            But if I were in that category and did receive an invitation to the White House, the President certainly would not try to convince me that he was worthy of having me as a guest.  And when we invite people to come over for dinner or to a party or any event we may host, we usually don’t talk about whether we are worthy of having them as our guests.  Hosts don’t usually have to sell themselves as being good people.  Most people consider an invitation to be a gracious gesture and are happy to be thought of.  But in these 2 stories I’ve referred to, the people doing the inviting seem to be having to sell themselves to the invitee.
            Now we come to the passage from Luke 14 that Chantelle read for us.  In this passage a man is having a banquet and he’s already invited people and they have accepted his invitation.   In Jesus’ day, when a person had a big dinner party like this with lots of people invited, they would get confirmation of how many people were planning to attend and then plan for the food.  On the day of the banquet, when the food was ready, they would send out servants to let everyone know it was time to come eat.  When we have dinner parties, we usually tell people what time to come and then plan our food prep so that the food is ready shortly after people arrive but in Jesus’ day they didn’t have the conveniences we have, so they summoned people once the food was ready.
            In this parable that Jesus tells, the servant goes around to let people know it’s time to come, and the invited guests start to give him excuses.  One says he’s bought a field and has to go inspect it.  This is a lame excuse.  No one buys a piece of land without looking at it first and making sure it’s a good property for what you have in mind. 
The second guest says he’s just bought 5 yoke of oxen and needs to go try them out. 
This is another lame excuse.  Oxen were valuable animals in Jesus’ day.  It was no easy thing to pair oxen together for work.  Both of the animals had to have about the same stamina because they would be working together.  You couldn’t have one ox getting tired and trying to lay down while the other was still pulling the plow.  The animals had to like each other.  You couldn’t have 2 oxen fighting each other while trying to get them to plow your field.  They had to be about the same size because they would be yoked together.  No one is going to buy 5 yoke of oxen without first putting them in the field and seeing how they work together.
            The third guest doesn’t even ask to be excused.  He says he’s just gotten married and can’t come.  What he means is he’s too busy with his wife to be disturbed.  In Jesus’ day, this would have been considered a very crude excuse.  The servant comes back and lets his master know that no one is coming.  It has become very plain that, for whatever reason, these invited guests do not consider the host to be worthy of their presence, even though they originally accepted his invitation, and by their excuses and absence, they mean to ruin his banquet.  It’s a real social snub that Jesus is describing.
            So the host is upset and angry and rightfully so. He’s gone to all this trouble and fixed all this food because these people accepted his invitation and now no one’s coming.  These people are insulting him in their refusal to come.  But he does something truly amazing.  He takes his anger and he channels it into extending a broader invitation.  He doesn’t take his anger and channel it into retaliation.  To put it in street terms, he doesn’t worry about the fact he’s been dissed and he doesn’t strike back.  This is grace.  This man has suffered an injustice.  His guests have disrespected him, they have lied to him, they have insulted and embarrassed him.  He gets angry.  But he turns his anger in a positive direction.  He doesn’t strike back and he doesn’t go off and hide.  He doesn’t get depressed and think no one loves him.  Instead he chooses to extend the invitation again, to send his servant out into the streets and alleys and to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. 
            Hospitality doesn’t give up.  Here we see hospitality partnered with grace and it continues to invite people to come share the banquet rather than giving up or striking out.  Hospitality continues to welcome.  The first guests refused to come so the host went out and got other guests.  Plan A didn’t work so, rather than give up, he went to Plan B.  When our invitation is rejected by one person, we can’t give up.  We go to another person and extend the invitation again.
            When I was working in London, we did a lot of street evangelism.  Our youth engaged in this type of evangelism in 2012 when they went to Berlin.  When you do street evangelism, you have to practice this type of hospitality.  When you approach someone to engage them in conversation about the gospel, and they reject you, you simply move on to the next person.  You don’t chase them down or argue or anything else.  That type of behavior will really turn people off and give them one more reason not to listen.  But if you respect their no and move on, they may hang around longer and may end up talking to someone.  Hospitality takes the rejection and continues to extend grace.
            Another thing I see in this parable is that the host sent his servant out to invite in the lame, the blind, the poor, the crippled.  These were people of a lower social class than the host.  Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked that the host would choose to invite these people.  These are people who couldn’t possibly repay this man’s hospitality and they wouldn’t have been considered worthy of the host.  But hospitality breaks the rules.  The hospitality that Jesus is describing here is one that crosses boundaries.  It doesn’t let itself be limited by social mores.  In the face of injustice, like the insult the host suffered from his first guests, biblical hospitality breaks the rules and continues to reach out in a gracious way.
            So the servant goes out and invites the poor, the blind, the crippled and they come but there is still room for more.  So the host tells him to go out into the countryside and make those people who live outside the town come to the banquet.  So now the man is extending the invitation to strangers.  Jesus’ listeners would have understood him to mean possibly Gentiles are being invited.  These are people who aren’t from our neighborhood.  These are not the people that we are familiar with and see as we go about our business.  Now the man is inviting strangers from the countryside.  But this host wants a full house for his banquet and he’s willing to really stretch the boundaries wide and invite unknown people into his house. 
Hospitality has a long arm.  It reaches out pretty far.  It crosses some pretty solid borders.  There have been times in history when, in the face of great injustice, hospitality reached out pretty far.  In the civil rights movement, there were people who dared to cross some pretty intimidating borders.  Last summer Vandy and I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and we saw the Woolworth’s counter where the 4 young African American men sat as they challenged the border of segregation and extended an invitation of inclusion.  Yesterday, google had a doodle honoring Harriet Tubman, a brave woman who crossed the border between North and South many times to bring slaves to a place where they could be free. These are just a couple of examples but there are many times in history where, in the face of great injustice, hospitality has reached out with grace and extended an invitation to something better.
            In our vision for mission statement, we as a congregation have put out an invitation to work together for reconciliation.  I want to read part of this, which was written about 8 years ago.  “Oxford Circle Mennonite Church envisions being a place and a people open to God’s new life.  Having experienced God’s forgiveness of sins, and having committed to imitate Christ’s example, we seek openness to God, each other, and to our larger community through the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  We yearn for increased wholeness – spiritual, physical, environmental and social:  purer hearts, healthier lifestyles, cleaner neighborhoods, and safer streets.  So we commit to bold movements towards reconciliation, because God has made us right with himself through Christ.  We embrace risky opportunities to love our neighbors in order to see the Spirit tear down walls of race, gender, age and class….we sense that there will be increasing hope; new faces and voices; deeper discipleship and communion; more holistically Godly living.  We realize challenges to these efforts, for conflict often accompanies openness to diversity.  However, we trust that honesty and reliance on the Spirit will keep us humble and united, as we listen to God and each other…We believe all this is possible because of God’s grace, which joins us in Jesus Christ, as we together submit ourselves to the Spirit’s wisdom.”
            When we put together this statement, we committed ourselves as a congregation to be a people and a place of hospitality.  Not just hospitality that likes to eat together, although this statement does talk about sharing each other’s ethnic foods, but the type of hospitality that challenges the rules.  The type of hospitality that continues to reach out in the face of injustice.  The type of hospitality that will take the insult and still extend the invitation to come.  This is the type of hospitality that our God practices.  In the face of the great injustice of sin in this world, He offers to invitation to come and be forgiven and reconciled and healed.  Even as Jesus was being crucified he extended the invitation for forgiveness, first to those who were nailing him to the cross, and then to the thief dying beside him.  That’s crossing all kinds of social barriers right there. 
            Ultimately this parable is talking about the great banquet of God. God is the host.  He is the one whose invitation is rejected by those first invited, so he partners his anger with grace and extends the invitation to strangers and to those considered unworthy.  He crosses social and cultural borders because He’s prepared a feast and He wants to see people enjoying it. He’s offering those things that we can’t provide for ourselves.  The poor sick people invited in this parable could never have afforded a feast like they got at this banquet.  God is offering to us what we can’t afford or provide for ourselves.  He’s offering forgiveness of sins, healing of hurts, peace, His presence with us always, His Spirit remaining with us to empower us to live as He wants us to.  He’s offering us life.  Are we going to accept his offer?
What is the invitation that you sense God is extending to you today?  Maybe an invitation to lay down a burden you’ve been carrying, to let Him carry it for you.  Maybe an invitation for forgiveness, to come and be cleansed of whatever it may be that’s on your conscience so you can have peace.  Maybe it’s an invitation to commit to something or someone.  Whatever invitation you sense God is extending to you, understand that he gives this invitation because He loves you.  He knows you might reject it, but he extends it anyway.  He’s reaching across all kinds of barriers to you.