Monday, June 25, 2018

Living Dangerously (2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6

(Preached at First Baptist Church, Columbus GA, on June 3, 2018)

Do you give much thought to what it means to live as a Christian in our present context? I do. It’s something we should always think about no matter what our circumstances are. And as we determine what it means to live as a Christian, we should always be doing something about it.

Questions we should ask ourselves include: how do I best follow Jesus? How do I best bear witness to the God that Jesus revealed to us? How do I in my unique life have Christ-like motives, think Christ-like thoughts, say Christ-like words, and carry out Christ-like actions? It is vital that as we develop answers, we act on what we realize. It is also vital that as we live our lives, we continually adjust and adapt in light of our continuing reflection and our experiences.

So do you give much thought to what it means to live as a Christian in our present context? We really should.

Here’s another question: do you give much thought to how you can be as safe as possible? I do.  I live in the woods outside of Yatesville—and we have a security system. But that’s not the kind of safety I’m talking about. What I mean is this: do we try to practice a kind of Christianity that keeps us safe and secure? One way we try to keep ourselves safe is to avoid doing anything that attracts attention. “If they don’t notice me, they won’t bother me, so I’ll be very, very still,” we think.

Here’s a variation on that: if I do good, I’ll be fine. After all, people get rewarded for doing good. And only bad behavior gets negative attention. And we tend to define “good” as “what’s expected.”

The only problem is that none of that is true.

We have an odd situation in the world in which doing good—or even advocating for doing good—produces pushback. It’s disheartening when the pushback comes from Christian folks. It has saddened me over the years to have many Christian people have a knee-jerk reaction against the mere suggestion that the church do something to address the many “isms” that afflict our society.

The truth is that doing good doesn’t always result in approval or reward from people, including religious folks. The further truth is that sometimes doing Jesus things in the Jesus way is dangerous, because Jesus’ way is the way of the cross.

Back during Holy Week, the church we attend when I’m not preaching somewhere else offered the Stations of the Cross. One station included some small crosses. We were invited to take a cross and give it to someone going through difficulty. The instructions also invited us to send a note “to the person receiving the cross.” I understood the positive nature of the exercise. If someone who was struggling or suffering received a cross and an encouraging note, they might realize or remember that Christ suffered for them and joins them in their suffering.

But I am haunted by the phrase “the person receiving the cross.” What does it mean to receive the cross? What does it mean to bear the cross of Christ in your life? That’s what Paul and his missionary partners experienced. They had received “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), but they had received it in fragile, broken vessels. In fact, their experience of the glory of God through Jesus contributed to the brokenness of their lives. He said they were “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (v. 10). Experiencing the life of Jesus leads us to carry the death of Jesus so that other people can see his life in us.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (vv. 11-12). Think about this, though: once the Corinthians experienced that life, they too would be called to take up the cross, and in faithfully doing so, they would make the life of Christ visible and available to others. And so it has continued down through the centuries until now, it has gotten to us. And now, “death is at work in us, but life in [them].”

So much of what it means to follow Jesus is to practice love that shows itself in compassion. When Jesus showed compassion to someone on the Sabbath day, it caused some religious authorities to start planning to kill him. Jesus’ good and compassionate efforts that went against the grain of accepted religious practice contributed to people wanting to get rid of him. It’s dangerous work. It’s risky business.

It’s not that Sabbath observance was or is a bad thing. It’s not; Jesus said it is a gift for our good. The problem was that it had developed into a rigid requirement with little or no room for flexibility when human circumstances called for it. Jesus valued love over rules and compassion over conformity.

One of our favorite television programs is “Father Brown Mysteries.” Father Brown is a priest in an English village who is also an amateur detective. His activities put him in constant contact with murders and other criminals. In episode after episode, he follows the traditional and accepted approach to their situation. He advises them, “God will forgive you if you truly repent. And then you need to turn yourself into the police.” But every once in a while, the particulars of a situation will cause him to take a different approach. He’s even been known to let someone get away if he thought that was the just and compassionate thing to do.

Sometimes, following Jesus means practicing radical compassion. It’s risky business. But is the way of Christ. It is the way of grace, love, and mercy. It is the way of the cross.

Don Marquis was a newspaper columnist who in the early part of the twentieth century invented a character named Archy the cockroach. Archy had the soul of a poet, and at night he would sneak into Marquis’s office to type his stories (which were in all lowercase letters because he couldn’t press two keys at once). One night, Archy had a conversation with a moth.

the lesson of the moth

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

Now, I’m not saying we should want to fry ourselves. But I am saying this: for a follower of Jesus, nothing is more beautiful than the grace and love of God that we see most fully in Jesus Christ. And I’m also saying that to live a beautiful life is to practice Jesus’ radical compassion. I’m also saying that to live his beautiful kind of life is risky and dangerous business.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for us. But when we look at it at Christians, what really matters is that it’s worth it because of what it means to the God we serve and to the people we touch with God’s grace and love.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Without Honor

(A sermon based on Mark 6:1-13 & 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; preached on July 5, 2015)

I've recently moved back to my home territory after forty years away. I have during those forty years functioned as a prophet, if by “prophet” you mean “preacher.” In the places where I have lived and served during those four decades I have been known as the pastor, as the preacher, or as the professor. I have been called “Rev. Ruffin” or “Dr. Ruffin” or “Pastor” or “Preacher.”

Now, though, when I am with my family or with my old friends, I am just “Mike.” I’m the cousin or the nephew or the schoolmate. Some of those folks are aware of who I have been and of what I’ve been doing, but some aren’t. Some of them think they know what it means for me to be a pastor and preacher, but their assumptions are wrong. Some of them know that I’ve changed over the years, that I’m not the same Mike who left all those years ago. Some of them will be disappointed when they find out who I have become.

I try to imagine becoming pastor to the people with whom I grew up and to the people who helped to raise me. It’s not hard to picture them, were I really to challenge their ways of thinking and living, saying to themselves and to each other, “Who does he think he is, anyway? How dare he think that he can talk to us that way!” Oh, they might be a little impressed at first that the hometown boy made good, but it wouldn’t take long for their supposed familiarity to breed contempt, probably because they would think that my familiarity with them was breeding contempt for them.

Jesus had returned to Nazareth, the town in which he had been raised. His public ministry had gotten off to a pretty good start and now he was bringing the good news that he embodied to his hometown. He went to the local synagogue—to the equivalent of his home church—and there he preached. At first people were impressed at his wise words and mighty deeds, but then they got to thinking about it. “Now wait a minute—isn’t this little Jesus who used to run around the neighborhood? Isn’t he Mary’s boy? Why, his brothers and sisters still live around here and they’re as average as you and I are. Wasn’t he a carpenter? Who does he think he is, anyway?”

So Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Sadly, because the people in Nazareth didn’t believe in him, he wasn’t able to have much positive effect on their lives.

The problem was that they had known Jesus in the ordinary things of life and so they could not believe that anything extraordinary could come to them through him. Really, though, their thinking was all wrong; their entire premise was off base. While Jesus was truly extraordinary, and it was a shame that they couldn’t see that, they were wrong in thinking that the extraordinary could not come to them through the ordinary, that the holy could not come to them through the regular, and that the divine could not come to them in the human.

It’s interesting that the very next thing reported by Mark is Jesus sending his disciples out to carry out his ministry in his name; they were to reach out to people with their words and with their actions, just like Jesus was doing. He told them to go without more than basic provisions, to stay with whoever would have them, and, if they were rejected, just to move on. They were not to try to look more successful than they were or to appear stronger than they were. They were to be ordinary people sharing an extraordinary message and bearing an extraordinary grace.

I often hear people in small churches say, “We’re just a small church.” You may be a small group. You have ordinary buildings and your congregation is certainly made up of ordinary people. But I you are a small church, don’t think for a minute that the Lord is not using you; don’t think for a minute that your words and your actions don’t matter. Don’t think for a minute that your very presence is not an important witness to your community.

It’s true that we live in a culture that values the large, the grand, the powerful, the rich, the showy, and the successful. It’s true that a lot of people won’t see that God is speaking and working through the familiar and ordinary witness of this church and of thousands of other churches like it. And that’s a shame.

Some of us may regret our ordinariness and may bemoan our weaknesses. Remember, though, that the Lord Jesus sends us out to live our lives and to carry out our mission of sharing his love and grace. Remember that God’s strength was never more present in Jesus than when he died on the cross. Remember that God’s power is seen in our weakness. Remember that God honors what the world doesn’t.

The hardest thing for a church to do is to be faithful in its witness right where it is. The hardest thing for a Christian to do is to be faithful in her witness right where she is. That’s because we have to trust that God’s extraordinary grace and love are being lived out in our ordinary day to day lives.

Such simple, loving, consistent, sacrificial living will leave us without honor here.

But our Father who sees in secret will reward in secret . . .

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jesus’ Touch

(A sermon based on Mark 5:21-43 and preached on June 28, 2015)

Is there anything in life more meaningful than touch? Does anything mean more to us than a compassionate touch when we are hurting, a reassuring touch when we are frightened, a welcoming touch when we are lonely, or a healing touch when we are sick?

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be touched by Jesus? Today’s Gospel lesson tells us of two women who were restored by his touch.

One was the twelve-year-old daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus. He came to Jesus seeking help for her because she was at the point of death. Many of us can empathize with Jairus. I will never forget how I felt when our twenty-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a massive blood clot in her leg a few years ago. I will especially never forget how it felt to hear the doctor explain to her how they were going to treat her and about the risk of a piece of the clot breaking off and going to her lung, heart, or brain. “That could be fatal,” she said. Thankfully, though, everything went fine and she is well and thriving today.

All parents can sympathize with Jairus, whether or not our child has ever been seriously ill.

The other woman in our text was one who had a menstrual flow that had lasted for twelve years. Despite treatment from many doctors that had caused her much physical suffering and great financial loss (there was no such thing as health insurance, subsidized or otherwise, back then!), she had grown worse. She had heard about Jesus and she desperately wanted to gain access to his healing power.

“If I can just touch his clothes,” she said, “I’ll be healed.”

Isn’t it interesting that she just wanted to touch his clothes? She didn’t demand his full attention; she apparently didn’t want him even to know that she had touched him. We know people—maybe some of us are such people—who want all the attention, be it of the Lord, of their fellow Christians, of their family, or of their friends, to be on them. We need to remember that the Lord and the Lord’s people have lots of folks who need their touch. I’m just as important as any of them—but I’m no more important than any of them. The same goes for all of us.

The woman was healed when she touched Jesus. And even though she had just touched his cloak, Jesus knew that someone had touched him. Be assured that Jesus knows our need and that when we approach him trusting that he will help us, he will. Jesus touches us because Jesus loves us, accepts us, and wants to make us whole.

But how do the people around us experience the touch of Jesus since Jesus is not physically here? They experience it through the touch of his body, the Church. As St. Teresa of Avila put it,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

Our hands are the hands of Jesus; our hands are the hands that touch others and that share Christ’s love. There are stories about Jesus healing people without touching them; I’m not sure we can help anyone without touching them. That doesn’t mean that the touch will necessarily be physical; we can touch people through our prayers and through our support of organizations and ministries that help folks, among other ways. We are called, though, to touch people with the love and compassion of God.

How else will they know of our presence and of our love unless we touch them? How else will they know of the presence and love of Christ unless we reach out to them?

Before we can touch them, though, we have to realize that they’re there. Jesus knew he had been touched because Jesus was always aware of the people around him and of their needs. But do we notice?

I saw a cartoon depicting a fellow who had arrived at the gate of heaven; St. Peter was checking his record. Peter said, “You know, you had a really good life. Unfortunately you were too busy looking at your phone to notice.”

We live in an age when, thanks to technology, we are more connected with each other than we have ever been. We also live in an age when, thanks to technology, we are less personal and more distant than we have ever been.

Let’s lift our eyes and pay attention to who is around us. Let’s not miss those who are right in front of us, desperately needing a touch from us that might make all the difference.

Before Jesus could get to Jairus’s house, word came that his daughter had died. When he arrived at the house, Jesus took Peter, James, John, and the girl’s parents into her room. He touched her—he took her by the hand—and he told her to get up. And she did!

The touch of Jesus even overcame death!

Touch helps people when they are dying.

I’ve been with a lot of people in the last moments of their life and I’ve learned a few things about what to do. But not everyone has had that experience. A few months ago my wife’s oldest sister was dying; it was evident that she was drawing her last breaths and that her three siblings and her granddaughter who were there with her were paralyzed by their grief. I suggested, “Put your hands on her. No one should die alone. She needs to feel your touch. She needs to know that you are with her.”

Jesus’ touch, given to us by the Spirit of God and by the people who love us, can help us to live until we die.

Jesus’ touch, given to us by the Spirit of God and by the people of God, can raise us to new life right here and now.

Jesus’ touch, because he has been raised from the dead, will raise us one day to live forevermore.

It’s good to receive Jesus’ touch.

And it’s good to pass it along …

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What I’ve Been Trying to Say: Practice Love!

(A sermon based on Philippians 2:1-18 for Sunday, April 26th, 2015--my last sermon as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

When all is said and done, it all comes down to love. So “love” is the word and the reality with which I want to leave you.

Well, actually it all comes down to worshipping God. But God is love—that is, God is most defined by God’s love and so to worship God is to worship the One who is perfect love. And actually it all comes down to following Jesus. But Jesus showed us what kind of love God’s love is so to follow Jesus is to practice God’s kind of love.

To worship God is to worship the One who is love.

To follow Jesus is to follow the One who showed us what love is.

So it all comes down to love.

I decided long ago that I would in living my life always try to come down on the side of love. I decided long ago that I would in carrying out my ministry always try to come down on the side of love. I decided long ago that I would in leading the churches I had the privilege of pastoring always try to come down on the side of love. I have made many mistakes along the way but I hope that I made the vast majority of them trying to come down on the side of love.

It is not possible for a church to love too much.

We of the Church should be the most loving people in town; indeed, we should be the most loving people in the world. Now don’t get me wrong—you don’t have to be a Christian to practice love; indeed, lots of people who are not Christians nonetheless love greatly and sacrificially. Still, we Christians should be more fully aware of the presence of God in our lives and thus of the presence of God’s love in our lives than anyone else is. We should love with God’s love because God’s love is in us and is filling us up more and more.

What does such Christian love look like?

Christian love is humble love. It is love that causes us to think of others more than we do of ourselves; it causes us to think of others before we think of ourselves. When God’s love as seen in Jesus is in us, we cannot think that others are not worthy of our loving action on their behalf; after all, Jesus was with the Father in heaven with all of the prerogatives that accompanied his status and he laid it all down to empty himself and to become a servant. Indeed, he emptied himself all the way to the point of death on a cross.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too humble.

Christian love is compassionate love. It is love that causes us to care about others so much that we take action on their behalf. “For God so loved the world that he gave …” “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God’s love leads to action on behalf of people in need. People’s greatest need is the Lord and we bear witness to God’s love for people in every way that we can; we care for them in all the aspects of their being: spirit, mind, body, and relationships.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too compassionate.

Christian love is generous love. Christ gave himself away because he was compelled by love to do so. As we become more and more filled with the love of Christ we will be more and more compelled to give ourselves away, too. I have said many times that “greedy Christian” is an oxymoron; it just might be an impossibility. To be filled with Christian love is to be filled to overflowing with generosity.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too generous.

Christian love is accepting love. Christian love leads us to accept ourselves; it leads us to see ourselves as we really are, to know that God loves us as we really are, and to love others as they are. Christian love does not expect people to conform to some preconceived notion of what someone is supposed to be; it leads us to celebrate diversity and to embrace uniqueness. Christian love inspires us not to pass judgment on people but to welcome them with our hearts and arms wide open.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too accepting.

Christian love is committed love. When the Bible talks about love, the closest synonym to what it means is “commitment.” God loved Israel; that means God was committed to Israel. God expected Israel to love God; that means that God expected Israel to be committed to God. God loved the world; that means that God was so committed to the people in the world that he sent Jesus to die for us. God expects us to love God and to love each other; that means that God expects us to be committed to God and to be committed to each other.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too committed.

Christian love is constant love. “Love never ends,” Paul says. That means that love is eternal so love is a constant reality for us here and now. So no matter what, we are there for each other. No matter how far one of us falls, we are there for each other. The more wounded one of us is, the more we are there for the wounded one.

Christians can’t love too much; Christian love can’t be too faithful.

These are the last words that I will share with you from this pulpit as your pastor. With these last three sermons I have tried to summarize what I have been trying to say for the last six years. I have said that I have been saying that we should worship God. I have said that I have been saying that we should follow Jesus.

Now at the end of this final sermon I leave you with one more statement of the other thing I have been trying to say and in voicing it I am glad for what the last word that you will hear me say as your pastor is as I implore you: “Practice love!”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

What I’ve Been Trying to Say: Follow Jesus!

(A sermon based on Mark 8:27-38 for April 19, 2015. Second in a series of my final three sermons as Pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, GA)

“I have decided to follow Jesus.” How many times have we sung it? Hopefully every time we sing it we make a recommitment to follow Jesus. In fact, that’s a recommitment we need to make every day.

For the last six years I’ve been steadily encouraging us to follow Jesus. I believe that most of us want to do so; the question is how do we do it?

We follow Jesus by following Jesus. And we have to see Jesus and to see where Jesus is going if we are going to follow him; we have to keep our eyes on Jesus. There are several ways we can keep our eyes on him.

One is to pray regularly. Remember: the crucified and resurrected Jesus is present in you and with you. You have a personal relationship with him and that relationship can and should be developed and deepened. Jesus is not an object to be admired; he is a person to be known and loved.

Another is to study our Bibles and especially the four Gospels. God in God’s grace gave us four Gospels so that we could see Jesus from various angles and perspectives. As we follow Jesus in our reading of the Bible Jesus will lead us in our understanding of the Bible. A truly Christian reading of Scripture reads it always through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Another is to watch what is happening to the outcasts, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Because where they are, Jesus is.

We follow Jesus by opening our hearts up to him. We cannot follow Jesus in our own power and in our own ability. We can follow Jesus only with Jesus’ help and he is always there, ready to help us, ready to lead us, and ready to teach us.

Grace is utterly vital to our following of Jesus. Jesus accepts us just like we are and says “Come, follow me.” We could not follow Jesus if Jesus did not want to be followed. We can follow Jesus because he invites us to follow him. Jesus can and will have amazing influence on our lives if we will just let him.

We follow Jesus by dying to self. That is what it means for us to take up our cross and follow him. When Jesus said that we have to lose our lives to find them what he meant was that we have to move beyond the limited and limiting obsession with our own lives, with our own desires, with our own agendas, and with our own fears. That’s how Jesus lived his life and that’s how he calls us to live ours.

We follow Jesus by seeing and loving people like he does. We extend grace to them; we extend mercy to them, and we extend forgiveness to them. We follow Jesus by seeing people not as categories but as beloved children for whom Jesus went to the cross.

Think about what a difference it would make in us, in our church, and to our community if we really follow Jesus!

It’s very appropriate that we talk about following Jesus on Children’s Sunday. After all, it is through simple child-like faith that we trust in Jesus and commit our lives to following him. That’s why it’s so much harder for adults to make that commitment—we have developed too many layers of resistance caused by our efforts at self-reliance. To follow Jesus means to give ourselves over completely to him and that’s a child-like thing to do.

But we expect our children to grow up, don’t we? While we hope they retain such child-like qualities as a sense of wonder and that sense of trust, we also expect that they will grow and mature; we expect that they will learn to live as responsible adults in the real world.
We should expect the same kind of growth in our following of Jesus. To mature in our following of Jesus means a lot of things but surely at the top of the list is that we will think less and less of self and more and more of others; surely at the top of the list is that we will, as we continue to follow Jesus, move in the direction that he moved, namely, toward a place where it becomes clear that we are willing to give ourselves completely up for the sake of God and for the sake of others.

Why do I say that? I say that because to follow Jesus is to follow him all the way to the cross. It is more and more to give up our self-centeredness, our self-protectiveness, and our self-absorption and to turn our attention more and more to the needs of others and to turn our efforts more and more to helping those who need help.

And that’s what I’ve been trying to say …

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What I’ve Been Trying to Say: Worship God!

(A sermon based on Psalm 8 for Sunday, April 12, 2015. First in a series of my final three sermons as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

Psalm 8 addresses these words to God: “When I consider the works of your hands …”

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Roman Christians, “I appeal to you … brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

When you put those three biblical passages together you pretty much get what I’ve been trying to say about God during these last six years: (1) consider God, (2) love God, and (3) serve God.

All three passages presume, as the entire Bible presumes, that God is. We Christians presume that, too. But do we move beyond presuming to actually thinking about God? How much attention do we actually pay to God? How much do we take God into account in our thinking and in our acting?

How much do we marvel over the reality of God? Do we consider the moon and the stars and all the works of God’s hands? Do we stand in awe of God as seen in the majesty of creation? Do we marvel at the image of God that is present in the people that we meet? Do we marvel over that image in ourselves?

How much do we marvel over the revelation of God? “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” is the question very reasonably posed to God by the Psalmist. Yet God in God’s grace has chosen to reveal God’s self to us. Were it not for that grace we would not know God. God has revealed God’s self to us in nature, in history, and in various ways in our own lives. The greatest, clearest, and most helpful revelation of God to us is in God’s Son Jesus Christ. God came to us in the flesh; God walked around in our world with people just like us; God in Christ died on the cross for our sins. God in Christ rose from the grave and God in the Holy Spirit still comes to us to be with us and to dwell in and among us.

How much do we marvel over the love of God? How much do we marvel over the fact that when God thinks of us, God loves us? That love is seen most fully in Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In God’s love God wants to be known by us and so God comes to us in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit and in other ways. God’s love is a giving, humble, and sacrificial love. Do we give much thought to God’s love? And when we do, are we amazed that God’s love led to God giving up so much of God’s self for us? Are we amazed that God lovingly, willingly, and graciously entered into our pain and death so as to share in it with us and so as to defeat it for us?

I have for the last six years been encouraging us all to give more thought to God. I have been encouraging us to remember constantly that God is our God and that God is to have our ultimate allegiance and our total dedication. Jesus said that we are to love the Lord our God with our entire being, with everything that we are. As we draw ever closer to God and as we get to know God better and better we will come to be more and more taken possession of by God’s life and by God’s love. And so we will grow in love and will show that love more and more consistently, willingly, and sacrificially.

We gather Sunday after Sunday to worship God; we gather to praise God for the wonder, majesty, and power that characterize God. But mainly we gather to praise God for God’s great love, a love that is seen most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ. We worship God because God has lavished God’s love on us and because God has poured God’s love into us.That is why I have encouraged us to focus the attention of our worship where it belongs: on God. Worship is our offering to God; it is our praise of God for who God is. Worship is not about us, it is about God. When we worship, God is the audience and we are not.

We do benefit from our participation in our worship services, though; we benefit because in here we practice for our lives out there. Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with everything we are and Paul tells us that we are to present our bodies to God as our “spiritual worship.” That is what we do all day long every day of our lives; we worship God by serving God all the time.

How do we worship God? We worship God by serving God. And how do we serve God? We serve God by serving others. How do we demonstrate our love for God? We demonstrate it by loving other people.

And that’s what I’ve been trying to say for the last 6+ years: let’s think about God. Let’s worship God. Let’s love God. Let’s serve God by serving others …

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Following Jesus: Out of the Tomb

(A sermon based on Mark 16:1-8 for Easter Sunday)

We have been following Jesus through all that he experienced during Holy Week. We followed him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we followed him into Simon’s house (where he was anointed by an anonymous woman) on Wednesday, we followed him to the table on Thursday, and we followed him to the cross and the tomb on Friday. Now, on this Easter Sunday morning, we are going to follow him out of the tomb.

Interestingly, we are told less about Jesus’s resurrection than we are any of the other events at which we have looked. While we are given some wonderful and helpful stories about his post-resurrection appearances, we are told nothing of what actually happened in the resurrection. Oh, we know that he rose from the dead—and that’s enough—but we are told nothing of the process and we are given none of the details. There are good reasons for those intentional omissions. For one, no one actually saw what happened. For another, if someone had seen it they probably wouldn’t have been able to describe it. So the event is left, as it should be left, shrouded in mystery.

How then can we follow Jesus out of the tomb when the Bible doesn’t let us go into the tomb with him? How can we even imagine coming out of the tomb with Jesus when we are not told what happened when he was raised from the dead?

In a real sense we can’t. Jesus’s tomb is Jesus’s tomb and we can’t go into it. But we have our own tombs. And because Jesus came out of his tomb we can come out of ours.

Many of us are entombed by our awareness of our mortality and by an accompanying fear of death. We need to hear the great truth that because Jesus came out of his tomb by the power of God we will come out of our tombs by the power of God.

One day Jesus will return and our graves will open and we will be raised. That is wonderful news! Some of the most powerful passages in Scripture lead us to celebrate our future resurrection. Here is one of them:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-57).

So death holds no ultimate power over us; one day because Christ has been raised we will be raised.

Many of us are entombed in our sins. We all too often reduce our sin to the wrong or bad things we do. The heart of sin, though, is pride; it is thinking that we matter more than anyone or anything else and living as if we do. Such sin robs us of real love and of real life.
But the sin that drains our life from us also holds no ultimate power over those who have trusted in Christ; right here and now in this day we can be raised with Christ and we can walk in newness of life. That is wonderful news also! And here is an equally powerful text from Paul about that new life:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11).

The sin—the mindset and heart stance of pride, self-centeredness, and self-protectiveness that shows itself in words, actions, habits, and practices that cause us to harm others and ourselves—does not have to keep locking us away from the life that can be ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we open our hearts and lives up to the resurrected Lord he will empower us to live the resurrected life here and now.

And that life will be so full of God’s love, of God’s grace, and God’s life that we will be amazed.

Once we experience the life- and love-giving power of God in this life, we will have no trouble believing that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also cause us to rise. Once we experience the life that God can give us now, we will have no trouble believing that God will give us life then.

We can follow Jesus out of the tomb now and we can follow Jesus out of the tomb then.

Thanks be to God …