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 …

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Following Jesus: All Along the Way

(An Easter sermon based on Luke 24:13-36)

It was the Sunday on which Jesus was raised from the dead and two disciples of Jesus—one was named Cleopas and the other remains anonymous—were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a journey of some seven miles. Some of the women who followed Jesus had already encountered the risen Christ outside the empty tomb that morning and had told the eleven remaining disciples and “all the rest” about it. Evidently Cleopas and his friend were among “all the rest” because they knew all about the report. But they didn’t know what to make of it so they went ahead and left town. They were just walking down the road, burdened with sadness and disappointment as they talked about the awful crucifixion of their beloved rabbi.

Suddenly they were joined by a stranger who seemed oddly unaware of what had happened on the previous Friday. When he asked what they were talking about, they told him about the prophet Jesus of Nazareth and how they had hoped he might be the Messiah but that, sadly, he had been executed. They even shared what the women had told them about Jesus being alive and said that some of the disciples had seen the empty tomb but had not seen the risen Jesus.

The risen Jesus fussed at them a bit for their failure to understand what had been going on but he pivoted quickly from fussing at them for not understanding to helping them to understand; “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27). As they got to Emmaus Jesus kept walking but they insisted that he stay with them. During supper, when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” they recognized him—and then he was gone. They high-tailed it all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples who, before Cleopas and his friend could file their report, told them that Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter (funny that they didn’t mention the previous report of the women, isn’t it?).

So here we are, 2000 years after that first Easter Sunday. We are on our journey to wherever it is we’re going; hopefully it is a journey on which we are serving God and following Jesus. And the resurrected Jesus is walking with us all along the way.

But are our eyes open to his presence? Are we aware that he is right there—right here—with us? Well, he is and we need to cultivate and nurture our awareness of his presence. Notice that when Cleopas and his friend asked Jesus to come in and stay with them, he did. We need always to be asking Jesus to come in and to stay with us.

How do we do that? We do it primarily through prayer. Prayer is our ongoing communion and communication with God. That communion and communication is to be unceasing so that we are always aware that Jesus is with us and that we are with Jesus. O. Hallesby in his classic book on prayer insists that the primary biblical image of prayer is that of Jesus standing at the door of our heart and knocking; all we have to do, Hallesby says, is let him in. So there he stands; don’t keep him waiting. Let him in! Spend special times in prayer but also be growing into having all of your time be a time of prayer. That way you will always be aware that the risen Christ is with you.

Another way that we experience the presence of the risen Christ is through communion—both communion with a small c and Communion with a capital C. Jesus made himself known to Cleopas and his companion as they were sitting around the table having a meal. Jesus makes himself known to us when we share in Christian fellowship; when we are living in real Christian love—the kind that compels us to think more of others than we do of ourselves and to give ourselves away for the sake of others—then the presence of the risen Christ is obvious to us.

Christ also makes himself known to us when we share in Communion with a capital C, when we share in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. That is because the bread and the cup remind us that the risen Christ really is present in and among us. When we share in Communion we “remember the Lord’s death until he comes”—and he will come because he is still alive!

The resurrected Christ also is known to us in and through Scripture. Even more importantly, though, the resurrected Christ is our key to and our guide in our reading and understanding of Scripture. When we read our Bibles in the community of saints with our hearts opened up in prayer to Jesus, the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit teaches us how to read. We should read every word of Scripture in light of the life, the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we read the Bible in any way that does not communicate the grace, love, and power of God that are seen in the crucified and resurrected Christ, we are not reading it as well as we could and should.

Jesus is alive! Jesus is with us! God wants us to be fully aware of the presence of Jesus in our lives as we pray, as we fellowship, as we partake of the Lord’s Supper, and as we study our Bibles.

Understand this, too: the presence of the risen Christ in our lives makes us get up and go. Notice that Cleopas and his friend used the lateness of the day to convince Jesus to stay with them. But as soon as they realized that Jesus had been with them, they immediately got up and took off for Jerusalem, lateness be hanged! They had to go! They had to move! They had to tell! When you realize that the resurrected Christ is with you, you get going. His presence changes the way you live. His presence changes everything.

Every Sunday morning at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald we repeat a brief three-line confession of faith. It goes like this: “Christ the Lord was crucified! Christ the Lord is risen! Christ the Lord will come again!” Notice the tense of the verbs in the first two lines: “Christ the Lord was crucified!” but “Christ the Lord is risen!” We don’t say “Christ the Lord was risen!”; we say “Christ the Lord is risen!” Christ the Lord is still risen! We don’t sing “He lived!”; we sing “He lives!” We don’t sing “Because he lived”; we sing “Because he lives.”

So as we live our lives, as we travel our road, as we head on down the line, let’s remember and never forget: Christ the Lord is risen! He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with us and talks with us along life’s narrow way. He lives! He lives!”

Friday, April 3, 2015

Following Jesus: To the Tomb

(A Good Friday Meditation)

Today we follow Jesus all the way to his tomb.

We follow him as he is mocked and beaten and spit upon.

We follow him as he takes up his cross and begins the long walk through Jerusalem out to Golgotha.

We follow him as he stumbles under his burden until Simon of Cyrene is pulled out of the crowd to help him.

We follow him as he is nailed to the cross.

We follow him as he suffers and dies.

We follow him as he is taken down from the cross.

We follow him as he is carried to the garden tomb.

We follow him as the stone is rolled over the mouth of the tomb.

We follow him as he lies there in the silent darkness.

That’s what we do today: we follow him all along the way as he moves from his trial to his entombment.

And if we want to we can go to Jerusalem and walk along the Via Dolorosa, literally following in the footsteps of Jesus.

But are we following Jesus to the tomb in our real daily lives? Jesus called his disciples and Jesus calls us (we are also his disciples) to take up our cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake. Jesus calls us to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus calls us to love each other like he loves us, which means that we willingly give ourselves up for each other.

Jesus died for our sins but he also calls us to die to our sins. What is in our hearts that needs to die? What kinds of motives or fears need to die? How does our pride still need to die?

Our following of Jesus begins not with our feet but with our hearts. If we are going to die with Jesus, we will start with these prejudices, biases, fears, grudges, and other things that we harbor and nurture because they feed our egos.

Will we follow Jesus all the way to the tomb? Will we die with him?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Following Jesus: To the Table

(A Maundy Thursday sermon based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

It’s Thursday night—let’s follow Jesus to the table.

There Jesus shared a meal with his disciples; he did so because he loved them—“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (v. 1b). When Jesus knew that his time to leave this world was at hand, he got together for a meal with his friends.
We who follow Jesus are his friends; we are also friends to one another. When we get together we get together as friends; as we live our lives we live them together as friends.

In a very real way, though, we are more than friends to each other because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In a very real way, we are more than friends to Jesus and Jesus is certainly more than a friend to us—he is our Lord and we are his disciples.
So we want to pay very close attention to what Jesus teaches us by his words and through his actions. We want to see how he related to his followers so that we will know how we are to relate to one another.

And what we see is that, on his last night on Earth and with his friends, he got up from the table, removed his robe, wrapped a towel around himself, got a basin of water, and washed the feet of his disciples. What we hear is him saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (vv. 14-15).

So there it is and it is plain and simple—we are to serve one another.

Motivation matters, though. Why should we serve one another beyond the reason that Jesus told us to do so (as important as that reason is!)? We should serve one another because we love one another—which Jesus also told us to do: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (vv. 34-35).

Really, though, love can’t be commanded. It has to be given—and God has given it to us! It has to be caught—and we have caught it from Jesus! It has to be lived out—and Jesus has shown us how to live it out.

To love one another, you see, means to give ourselves up for one another. Love for the Christian is not a feeling; it is rather a life-long commitment that leads us to put others ahead of ourselves. Christian love does not lead me to see others as equal to me; Christian love leads me to see others as better than myself. As Paul said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Christian loves leads me not to want to be served but leads me rather to do everything I can do to be a servant to others. And as Jesus said elsewhere, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-44).

So tonight as we follow Jesus to the table let’s reflect on the fact that we are following him with our lives. Let’s reflect on the fact that his love in us inspires and compels us to pour our love out on one another. Let’s reflect on the fact that his service leads us to lay down our lives for each other.

And let’s ask ourselves the hard questions. What attitudes or prejudices do I need to give up in order to love my sisters and brothers? Do I nurture an inappropriate sense of superiority that is actually an unchristian sense of self-righteousness that keeps me from loving my brothers and sisters? If I see any of my sisters and brothers as unworthy of my love and service am I living out the love of Jesus?

As we come to the table let’s be aware that while it matters who we are as we approach the table, it matters even more who we are when we leave it...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Following Jesus: To Simon's House

(A sermon based on Mark 14:1-11 for Wednesday of Holy Week)

What does it mean to follow Jesus? We learn a couple of things that it means from this anonymous woman who anointed Jesus on Wednesday of Holy Week, just two days before he would be crucified. From her we learn that following Jesus means to embrace who Jesus says he is. Another thing she teaches us that following Jesus means to participate in what he is doing.

This woman is an intriguing character about whom we know nothing other than that she performed this beautiful act of anointing Jesus. It stands to reason, though, that she had encountered Jesus previously and even that she was a follower of Jesus. Indeed, it just may be that Mark purposely contrasts her with other followers of Jesus in order to show through her what a true follower of Jesus looks like. Whereas others failed at following Jesus, she succeeded. Whereas others failed at understanding Jesus, she succeeded.

Think back, for example, to the conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus began telling them that as the Messiah he would suffer and die and rise again. Peter rebuked Jesus and was in turn rebuked by Jesus.

Peter got it. But Peter didn’t get it. Peter said the right word but had the wrong meaning.

This woman got it in ways that Peter didn’t. Had she heard what Jesus had said about his impending suffering and death? Probably. Did she intend to anoint Jesus for his burial? He certainly interpreted her action in that way.

The evidence indicates, then, that the woman accepted Jesus’s words about who he was and about what it meant for him to be who he was. She accepted his teaching that he was a suffering Messiah who would give his life up even to the point of death. She understood that his death was drawing near and she acted toward him in ways that befit such understanding. She accepted and honored him as he truly was and didn’t try to force him into a box defined by her preconceived notions or traditional expectations.

Have we really understood Jesus? Have we really accepted who Jesus is? Or do we insist that he really was not a self-emptying, humble, sacrificial Messiah? We say we follow Jesus—what do our lives show about our understanding of the Jesus that we follow?

This anonymous woman not only understood who Jesus was; she also participated in what he was doing. She anointed his body beforehand for his burial. In that way she participated in his death; she declared her allegiance to and her willingness to share in his coming death.

Do we really participate in what Jesus is doing? We live on the other side of the death of Jesus; we live as those who know the whole story. We believe fervently and appropriately that Jesus died for our sins but do we believe just as fervently that Jesus calls us to participate in his death? How do we give ourselves up? How do we give ourselves away? After all, Jesus both died for us and calls us to come die with him and for others.

Maybe it all, like most things, comes downs to love. This woman clearly loved Jesus greatly which led her to give sacrificially. How is our love for Jesus leading us not only to accept what he does for us but also to do what we can with and for him?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Following Jesus: Into Jerusalem

(A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11 for Palm Sunday 2015)

We are Christians; that means that we are followers of Jesus Christ. So during this Holy Week let’s follow Jesus through his last week on Earth and in so following let’s see what we can learn about what it means to follow him. To paraphrase the question he asked James and John when they asked to be seated at his right hand and his left in his kingdom, “Are we able to drink the cup that he drank?” Are we able—are we willing—to follow in his way?

There’s goes Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Let’s follow him.

We should note right off that Jesus went to Jerusalem intentionally and purposefully. He was not dragged to that city in which he knew his life would be in danger; he went there on purpose. No one forced him to enter the place where the forces who wanted him gone were gathered; he went there voluntarily. He knew what going there would cost him and he went anyway.

Have we counted the cost of discipleship? Have we taken a good hard look at what it means to follow Jesus wherever he goes and to serve him wherever we go?

When Mark first tells us that Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, he also tells us that Jesus told the Twelve what was coming: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:33-34).

Implied in his words was an invitation to his disciples: “So come along with me!” Implied in his words is an invitation from Jesus to us: “Come along with me!”

In the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, when Jesus tells the disciples that it’s time to go to where the deceased Lazarus lies, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Nobody says that when Jesus says it’s time to go to Jerusalem, but they could have. And we should.

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

To go to Jerusalem with Jesus is to die with Jesus.

To go to Jerusalem with Jesus is to give up your life with, to, and for Jesus.

To follow Jesus is to die with Jesus; it is to give up your life with, to, and for Jesus.

Such following means to choose the narrow way over the broad way, to choose the hard way over the easy way, to choose the selfless way over the selfish way, to choose the generous way over the greedy way, to choose the dangerous way over the cautious way, and to choose God’s way over the world’s way.

And so the King of the Universe, the Lord of Creation, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. As Dom Crossan and the late Marcus Borg pointed out [The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pp. 2-5], at about the same time the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate would have led his own procession into Jerusalem with flags flying, with trumpets blaring, and with soldiers marching; his arrival was ostentatious and impressive. Jesus, though, was hailed as King by a motley crew of commoners and outcasts.

Jesus fulfilled the expectations of Israel in unexpected ways. He came in the true power of God—in the power of humility, of love, of service, and of sacrifice. He had tried to tell his disciples how it would be but they did not get it until after his resurrection.

Now here we are 2000 years after his resurrection but we still have a hard time getting it.

But it is still true—“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And it is still true—if we are to be his disciples, we must take up our cross daily and follow him. And what the 20th century theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said is still true: “When Christ summons you, he bids you come and die.”

Jesus is our King; we are his subjects. Our King says to us, “Come follow me to Jerusalem with full acceptance of what that means—that you are willing to give up your self-centered, self-serving, self-protecting ways in order to love God with all you are and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus is my King; I am his subject. Will I follow him?

Where will my King and I go? How will my King and I serve? How will my King and I give ourselves up for God’s sake and for others’ sake?

Where will your King and you go? How will your King and you serve? How will your King and you give yourselves up for God’s sake and for others’ sake?

Will We Be Strong People?

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:14-17 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent preached on March 22, 2015)

As Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians while away from them, so I will be praying for you when I am away from you. I’ll be praying the same kind of prayers that I’ve been praying for you while I have been here with you.

I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God.

What can keep you from knowing God? Oh, lots of things can.

Failing to think about God can keep you from knowing God. Too many of us are “practical atheists”; we say we believe God exists but live as if we don’t really think that God exists—or at least as if we don’t remember that God exists. Such behavior can take many forms but I have in mind a failure to consider God in all of our attitudes, our motives, and our actions. We can’t really know God if we don’t keep God constantly in mind.

Substituting activity for relationship can keep your from knowing God. We have a busy and active church and that is good but we don’t want to let busyness and activity—even in service to the church—become the totality of our life with God because such a life has shallow roots. When we have shallow roots we will eventually find ourselves withering up and dying.

Forgetting to pay attention to your life can keep you from knowing God. We get so busy with the things of life that we sometimes fail to notice what is really going on in our life. It is so important that we take regular soundings of our spirit to see how deep or shallow we are running—otherwise we will not know when we are at risk of getting lost in open waters or of running aground in shallow water. It is vital that we pay attention to the state of our life because it is only in our life that we can know God.

I pray that none of these things—nor any other things—will get in the way of you knowing God.

I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God.

I pray that you will know God in God’s fullness. Notice that Paul said that he prayed to the Father that the Ephesians would be strengthened through the Spirit and that Christ would dwell in their hearts. So Paul prayed that God in God’s fullness—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—would be known in the lives of the Ephesians.

Let’s be amazed at the grace of God that causes God to come to us so that we can know God. We are talking about the Creator and Sustainer of all that is; we are talking about the Sovereign of the universe. And that Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign knows us and wants to be known by us. “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!” What a privilege we have to know God in God’s fullness!

I pray that you will be blessed “according to the riches of (God’s) glory.” God has all the resources of the universe—and them some—available; it is out of that unimaginable abundance that God wants to bless us. Be careful, though, how you think about this. Paul does not pray that the Ephesian church will be the biggest, richest, most prominent, most influential organization in town.

No, Paul is very specific in his prayer. He prays that the Ephesians would be strengthened in their inner being through the Holy Spirit. I pray the same for you and I hope you will pray the same thing for yourselves. Imagine—we can have the strength of God because we have the Spirit of God. God comes to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit; what could make us stronger than having God’s Spirit in us?

Notice, though, where this strength is known: in our inner being. It is known down deep where we are who we really are; it is experienced in our innermost self. It is necessary, then, that we know ourselves, that we know who we really are in our spirit, so that we can know the strength of God in the ways we really need it. In our innermost being masks don’t matter, appearances don’t matter, and reputation doesn’t matter. All that matters is who we really are and how God touches us as we really are.

So again we see that we need to tend to our spirit; we need to tend to our innermost self through prayer, through reflection, and through repentance so that we will encounter God with more openness and so that we will receive God’s strength with more awareness. And we need that strength if we are going to be the kind of people and if we are going to be the kind of church that live out God’s way in the world and in our relationships with each other.

Paul also prays that Christ would dwell in the hearts of the Ephesians through faith. He is talking about the ongoing indwelling of Christ in their hearts, which is another way of saying their “inner being.” I pray that you will grow to trust in God more and more so that you may know the presence of Christ more and more.

What can you do to build your trust in God? You can pray. You can worship. You can pay attention. You can give your life over to God daily. You can in every moment commit to follow Christ more. You can always remember and never forget that Christ is with you, that Christ is in you, and that Christ is among you.

As you do all of that, your lives will be more and more “rooted and grounded in love”; your lives will be based more and more on the love of God that is seen most fully in Jesus Christ and that is present in us as the body of Christ. (I’ll have much more to say about that on the Sunday after Easter.)

Please remember that I will be praying for you. I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God …

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Listen to Jesus

(A sermon based on Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration Sunday 2015)

To whom do you listen?

So many voices vie for our attention and for our allegiance.

The voices of our past may call us to live in guilt or regret. The voices of our family and friends may call us to live our life the way they think we should live it. The voices of commentators may call us to view the world the way they see it. The voices of our fellow church members and of our preachers may call us to think about things from a point of view that calls itself “Christian” but may not have much to do with the actual way of Christ. The voice of our ego may call us to focus our energies on self-interest and self-protection.

The voice of God, though, calls us to listen to Jesus.

And we should.

Jesus is, after all, the One who is the culmination and the apex of God’s way in the world. He is, after all, the fulfillment of the promises of God. He is, after all, the beloved Son of God. He is, after all, the resurrected and glorified Savior of the world.

Those are some of the truths about Jesus that his Transfiguration revealed.

Jesus took his inner circle of Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain; a mountain in the Bible often serves as a place where a special revelation from God is given and received—and that is certainly what takes place on this mountain. There on that mountain in front of those three disciples Jesus was transfigured; that means that he was changed in a way that revealed the glory that would be his following his coming crucifixion and resurrection. So Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of how Jesus would appear after his glorification.

Elijah and Moses appeared and talked with Jesus. Both of them were regarded in Jewish tradition as being forerunners of and pointers to the Messiah. Moreover, Elijah represented the Prophets and Moses represented the Torah; when they are gone and Jesus is left alone the truth is pictured that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything toward which the Law and the Prophets pointed. Then they heard the voice of God telling them what that voice had affirmed for Jesus at his baptism: he is the Son of God.

And since Jesus is the Son of God, the voice of God said, Jesus’s disciples—the ones who know Jesus and know that he is the Son of God—are to listen to him. Jesus’s voice is the voice to which they are to pay attention; Jesus’s voice is the voice to which they are to give their allegiance.

God clearly was willing to go to great extremes to convince the disciples that they should listen to Jesus.

Why was it so hard for the disciples to do that?

Why is it so hard for us to do that?

You may have noticed that our passage began with the phrase “Six days later” which raises the question “six days later than what?” For the answer we have to look back to the previous chapter in which we read about a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples at a place called Caesarea Philippi (it begins at 8:27). There he asked him who people were saying he was; they gave various answers. Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am” and Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus set about explaining to the disciples what it meant for him to be the Messiah; he said that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Peter didn’t like that at all; he began to tell Jesus that he was wrong. Jesus, “looking at his disciples” (because it was very important that they understand just how terribly wrong Peter was), rebuked Peter by saying “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33).

Jesus knew the ways of God because Jesus was the Son of God. The followers of Jesus, be they the ones who walked with him in the first century or the ones who walk with him in the twenty-first century, need to listen to him because he knows the ways of God—not only for his life but also for our lives.

And there’s the rub.

Perhaps Peter, being the smart guy that he was, realized that if Jesus was going to walk such a difficult road his disciples might be expected to walk it, too. If Jesus was going to give rather than receive, he might expect them to do that also. If he was going to give his power up rather than seize power for himself, he might expect them to do that also. If he was going to offer up his life rather than protect it, he might expect them to do that also.

Jesus in fact went on to make that very point: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus closed his words with this startling statement: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).

Ashamed of what words? Of the words that Jesus had just spoken about the way he was taking and about the way that his disciples were to take. The disciples had to get it. We disciples have to get it. It is absolutely necessary for us to embrace the fact that the road is long and the way is hard and the path is treacherous that leads to glory.

So six days later God further hammered the point home by letting three disciples—and because it’s in our Bibles, letting all of us—see Jesus in the state that would be his once he traveled the road that was his to travel.

Then God said, “Listen to him!”

Now God says, “Listen to him!”

But why don’t we?

We don’t because we’d rather listen to other voices that tell us that the way can be easy and the path can be smooth. We don’t because we’d rather listen to the loudest voice of all—the one that tells us that it’s all about us. We don’t because down deep we believe that our way is better than his way.

We need to listen to Jesus.

We have to listen to Jesus.

And Jesus tells us that his way is our way—the way of selflessness, the way of service, and the way of sacrifice.

It is the way of love.

It is the way of Jesus.

If we follow Jesus it is our way …

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wait. Move. Stay. Go.

(A sermon based on Isaiah 40:21-31 & Mark 1:29-39 for Sunday, February 8)

What has you stuck? What has you stuck in a rut, stuck in a mess, stuck in a quandary, or stuck in your life?

Maybe it’s the state of the world that has you stuck. You look around you at all that is happening in the world and you wonder if anybody can do anything about it and if anybody even cares about it. You may even wonder if God cares.

That’s the way it was for many of the people addressed by the prophet whose words are found in Isaiah 40-55. They were in exile in Babylon, having been ripped from their homeland in Judah a few decades before the prophet spoke these words. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the temple within it had been levelled; the faith of many people was destroyed along with the buildings. Their thinking went something like this: Babylon had conquered Judah so Babylon was stronger than Judah; Babylon’s gods had defeated Judah’s God so those gods must be stronger than the Lord.

You can understand how they would feel that way. Maybe you even feel that way. Maybe you look at the ways in which so many people in this world as suffering because of the horrible actions of a misguided few. Consider ISIS, for example, that radical so-called Islamist force comprised of an estimated 30,000 fighters that is creating havoc in the Middle East and that so cruelly executes its captives. Maybe you look at that and at the other evils that people perpetrate against other people and sometimes find yourself thinking that God has written us off.

In response to such thoughts the prophet thunders, “Have you not known? Have you not heart? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). We must never forget that God is indeed God and that the cruelties that seem so strong will in time and in fact fall.

There was a day when it was crystal clear that the forces of evil, of cruelty, and of hate had won. It was on a long-ago Friday on Golgotha’s hill when the only perfectly loving, fully gracious, and totally selfless person who ever lived was executed in the most humiliating fashion possible. On Friday night he lay in the tomb; on Saturday and into Sunday morning he lay there, dead. But on Sunday morning something happened. On Sunday morning love won over hate, selflessness won over selfishness, humility won over arrogance, and God won over all the forces of evil that had been reveling in their seeming victory.

“He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31). Sometimes we have to wait but God in God’s time and in God’s grace will get us moving. God got the people moving back from Babylon to Judah. God got the people moving rebuilding their temple. God got the people moving reconstituting their nation. But they had to wait a while.

And on Easter Sunday morning, God got Jesus moving so that he was no longer dead but was alive. But Jesus had to wait a while.

God will give us strength to get moving, too—but sometimes we have to wait a while.

So maybe it’s the state of the world that has you stuck. Wait on God; God will get you moving.

Or maybe it’s the state of your life that has you stuck. That was the case with Simon’s mother-in-law; she was sick and confined to bed. That meant not only that she was physically ill but that she was unable to fulfill the social expectations that gave so much of the meaning to people in her environment.

Is there something about your life that has you stuck? Is there something that drains the meaning from your life or that makes you feel like life is not worth living? Jesus wants to touch you and raise you up so you can really live again. And when Jesus raises you up he will set you on your feet so you can do what most needs doing—he will enable you to serve others.

Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve her guests as soon as her feet hit the floor. Jesus helps us for own sake, to be sure, but he also helps us so we can help others. Jesus helps us because he loves us, to be sure, but he also helps us because he wants us to love others.

Sometimes we have to wait for Jesus’ touch, too—but once he has raised us up, it’s time to get moving and to give ourselves away for the sake of others. His grace is too great for us to keep it to ourselves!

That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to wait for complete restoration before we start serving; if we wait for that we’ll never serve. Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever went away but I’m sure she had other problems—if not then, then eventually; Jacob limped after his encounter with God; Jesus’ wounds were still visible after his resurrection. We are all, to use Henri Nouwen’s famous term, wounded healers.

Maybe it’s the state of our perspective that has us stuck.

Lots of people then came to Jesus for his healing touch. The next morning, he went out by himself to pray but Simon came looking for him. “Everyone is looking for you,” Simon told him. Simon wanted to alert Jesus to the fact that there was still much to do; perhaps he wanted Jesus to be aware of the fact that if he was going to build a big following in the local area he was going to have to stay with it.

But Jesus told him he couldn’t stay there; there were other people in other places and he needed to go because that was why he came. He came not to pile his grace up in one place; he came rather to spread it around.

Bill Moyers once said that Baptists are like jalapeno peppers—spread them around and they add flavor to life but put too many of them in one place and they’ll bring tears to your eyes. Israel has two large lakes, one called the Sea of Galilee and the other the Dead Sea. Do you know why the Sea of Galilee is alive and the Dead Sea is dead? It’s because the Jordan River flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee but only flows into the Dead Sea. The reason the Sea of Galilee is alive is that it passes the life-giving river along; the reason the Dead Sea is dead is that it keeps the river for itself.

If our perspective is that it is better to keep God’s grace for ourselves and to try to keep piling it here for us and for ours, then we are likely to bring tears to stagnate to the point that we become sick and make others sick. But if our perspective is that it is better to pass along the love and grace and healing and mercy and forgiveness that we have received from Jesus, then we will become healthier and healthier and will contribute more and more to the health of the community and the world around us.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about vaccinations in the light of the recent measles outbreak in our country. One thing I have learned is that there is such a thing as “herd immunity” or “community immunity.” It is defined this way:

When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines—such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals—get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. []

We get inoculated and we have our children inoculated, in other words, not only for our sake but for the sake of others.

What will we do with the life and the healing and the grace that God has given us?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Church is an Expectant Body

(A sermon based on Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 for February 1, 2015)

“Blessed are those who don’t expect much for they shall not be disappointed.” So goes a saying I picked up somewhere along the road. It’s also a saying that I have decided to throw down on the ground and stomp to smithereens because it is, from a Christian perspective, an abysmally inappropriate attitude. We should be the most expectant people on the planet; we should be always on the lookout for what God is doing and for how God is calling us to help out.

We are looking for what is going to happen. We are looking expectantly for the coming of the Lord and for God’s bringing about of a new heaven and a new earth; we are looking for God’s fulfilling of all of God’s purposes and for God making all things like God intends for them to be. So Paul advised the Corinthians—and he is careful in 1 Corinthians 7 to say that he is offering his opinion and not a word from the Lord—to “deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (v. 31a). Why? Because, he said, “the present from of this world is passing away” (v. 32a).

Now, we can no more live in the world without living in it than the Corinthians could. And Paul makes it abundantly clear through his many instructions in his letters that we Christians are to live fully in this world—indeed, we should live in it more fully than anyone else! But Paul offers us a very important corrective to the line of thinking that all too many of us follow without even realizing it: we say we believe in heaven but we treat this world as if it is all there is. As C. S. Lewis said, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 119].

There is a new world coming and we are looking for God to bring it about when Jesus comes again.

But we are also looking expectantly at what is happening. We are looking expectantly for God’s kingdom right here and now on this old Earth because it is already present on this old Earth. God’s kingdom came when Jesus made his appearance on Earth and especially when he undertook his ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he proclaimed as he began his preaching ministry (Mark 1:15a). Elsewhere he said that we shouldn’t pay attention to people telling us “The kingdom is there” because, he said, the kingdom is among us (Luke 17:21).

So Jesus began his ministry by preaching that the kingdom was near. And then he immediately set about calling people to work alongside him in doing the work of the kingdom.

Jesus is still doing that.

Jesus calls each and every one of us to serve alongside him, too. The call to salvation is also a call to service—and what an opportunity to serve is ours!

The Gospels name those whom Jesus called. Jesus did not just call “some people” to be his disciples; he called Simon and Andrew and James and John. He calls us in particular, too. He calls our church and he calls each one of us in our individuality and in our particularity. We all follow Jesus but we do not follow Jesus in exactly the same way.

So we need to grow in our knowledge of who God made us to be—again, both as individuals and as a church—so that we can respond as who we really are and serve as we really are. Before we are called to do what we are supposed to do we are called to be who we are supposed to be; before we are called to do something we are called to follow someone.

Being a Christian is a highly personal thing—we have a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ our Lord and we follow personally.

I could legitimately tell you that you are all members of the body of Christ and that if you aren’t here to fill your place and to do your job then we are not fully the body of Christ. That is true; emphasizing that point is one of the reasons that we are having this special Body of Christ Sunday. I want to go to a deeper place and to a prior necessity, though: I want to call each of us to open our lives up to Jesus, to ask him to show us who we really are, and to speak to us of who he would have us be and of what he would have us do.

There is a Hasidic tale of the Rabbi Zusya who said that in the world to come they would not ask him “Why weren’t you Moses?” They would ask instead, he said, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

God does not want you to be Paul or Mary or some contemporary Christian that you admire. God wants you to be you. God does not want us to be some other church; God wants us to be us.

This is our time. The kingdom is coming but the kingdom is also already here. We expect God to do great things in the future but God expects us to do great things in the present.

We can only do them as we open our lives us to Jesus and as we ask him to show us who we are and as we then live like that.

Let’s live expecting Jesus to show us who we are. Let’s live expecting us to live our lives as he shows us how to live them. Let’s live …

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Church is a Known Body

(A sermon based on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 & John 1:43-51 for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany and preached on January 18, 2015)

Big Brother is watching you.

We live in an age of ever-increasing surveillance. Security cameras are becoming more and more prevalent; Facebook and Google know more about you than your mother does; the debate will continue over how much access to your personal information the government is entitled to as it monitors cell phone records in order to try to prevent terrorist attacks. It’s a complicated situation as we try to walk the line between fostering security and protecting privacy. We want to be safe but we don’t want people to know our business.

Would it make you nervous to know that there is someone who knows everything about you—who knows everything you have ever done, every thought you have ever had, every motive you have ever followed—from whom absolutely nothing about you can or will be hidden? Well, God does in fact know everything about you; God knows everything about everybody.

Our knowledge about God’s knowledge about us might indeed make us nervous. After all, it means that all of those things about ourselves that we have so carefully hidden from everyone are not in fact hidden; it means that the selfish motives that lay behind some of our good acts are known; it means that the corners we have cut to get ahead are not secret.

Our heavenly Father is watching us.

Perhaps our knowledge of God’s knowledge of us should inspire us individually to ask that God forgive us and help us move by God’s grace and power toward being who God has made us capable of being. Perhaps it should inspire us as a church to ask that God forgive us for putting other things ahead of loving God and loving other people; perhaps it should lead us to examine ourselves carefully to see if when we pray that God’s will be done we really mean it and if when we pray in Jesus’ name our prayer actually reflect the character and actions of Jesus.

But we need to come at this from another angle. Aren’t there times when you are reasonably sure that your heart is right with God? Aren’t there times when you are relatively certain that your motives are good and your integrity is intact? Don’t you wish at such times that someone knew that, at least at that moment in your life, you really are ok? After all, there are so many people with twisted motives and a lack of integrity that they figure everybody else has those same conditions as well and so they can’t believe that anybody has sound motives and a pure heart. Rest assured, though, that if and when you do approach sound motives and a pure heart, God knows it.

So when Nathanael approached Jesus, the Son of God said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Now, the original Israelite was the Jacob about whom we read in the book of Genesis; he was the one who had his name changed to Israel. And Jacob, the original Israel, was hardly a person of no deceit; indeed, he was renowned for his chicanery and shenanigans. But he did grow and change and mature. Evidently Nathanael had grown and changed and matured, too; even before he started following Jesus he was identified by Jesus as a person of faithfulness and integrity.

I have to confess, though, that I am a bit taken aback by Nathanael’s response when Jesus said that of him—he seems to accept it as a valid judgment of his character. I mean, even Jesus, when someone called him “good,” said “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except God alone.” Perhaps humility wasn’t Nathanael’s strongest point. Or perhaps he really was doing the best he could and he knew it; there’s nothing wrong with knowing such about yourself so long as you take your judgment of yourself with a grain of salt.

It’s the same with our church. We can be hard on ourselves sometimes but let’s not fail to realize the good things about our fellowship; we have come a long way and we are doing many good things. I think that we’ve grown a lot in knowing who Jesus is and in knowing what he would have us be and do. I think that we are growing in being open to the work of God in us through the Holy Spirit. I believe that we are coming to understand better and better that our being must precede our doing. Sure, we have a long way to go and we always will, but I believe the Lord has some very good things to say about us. We can accept them with gratitude.

It was impressive—Nathanael was certainly impressed—that Jesus had seen Nathanael under the fig tree (something which we are to take, I think, as divine insight) even before Nathanael came to him. But it is even more impressive that Jesus was able to see into Nathanael’s heart and know what kind of person he was.

He can and does do the same with us as individuals and as a church.

And he is the one who can help us to grow toward being all that we are meant to be and all that we are capable of being because he is the one through whom heaven and Earth are connected; he is the one who gives us access to God and who brings God to us. The ladder that Jacob saw in his dream was a symbol of such a connection; Jesus was that connection. And because of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he is still that connection for us.

We are known by God; nothing about us, be it good, bad, or mediocre, is unknown to God. That might make us nervous or glad or both simultaneously. The best news is that because of Jesus Christ we can—if we will but follow Jesus Christ—grow slowly but surely into being true Christians and a true Church in which there is no deceit and which there is much integrity marked by grace, love, hope, trust, and peace …

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Church is a Baptized Body

(A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11 & Acts 19:1-7 for Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

When we think about baptism the first thing we think about is water. We Baptists are known for the extravagant employment of water in our baptisms; we put you in a big pool and we get you wet all over. Regardless of the baptismal mode and of the amount of water employed, though, when we are baptized we are baptized in much more than water—we are baptized in the Holy Spirit of God. We get water on our bodies but we get the Holy Spirit in our spirits.

The presence of the Spirit in us is absolutely vital to our identity as the Church, to our life as the Church, and to our witness as the Church. Without the Spirit we are not the Church; with the Spirit we are much more the Church than we have ever imagined or have ever shown.

John the Baptist preached that while he baptized people with water, when the One who was to come arrived he would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus came to be baptized by John; as Jesus was coming up out of the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10). The coming down of the Spirit on Jesus communicated that Jesus’s life and ministry were guided and empowered by the presence of God. The Holy Spirit is vital in the coming of the kingdom of God into the world; the Spirit was with Jesus and Jesus in turn passed the Spirit on to the Church. The Spirit is our legacy; the Spirit is our life.

The Spirit of God comes into all people who come to trust in Christ. In the narrative of the book of Acts, the Spirit comes in very powerful ways upon people who might have been expected to remain outside the body of Christ or at least to have been pushed out to the edges of it; such is the case with Samaritans, with Gentiles, and, in today’s text, with disciples of Jesus whose baptism had not been in the name of Jesus but rather had been John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. God evidently wanted to make it very clear that those who might have been regarded as “inferior” Christians were in no way inferior; God made that clear by sending the Spirit on them in ways that were very obvious. Also, while the commitment of these men to repent, to change their lives, and to follow Jesus was no doubt sincere and legitimate, they could be fully a part of the Church only if they had the Spirit of God upon them.

So when Paul encountered twelve men in Ephesus who had been baptized with John’s baptism, they were baptized in the name of Jesus and when Paul laid hands on them “the Holy Spirit came upon them.” Then, “they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).

We the Church constitute a baptized body; we are baptized in water but more importantly we are baptized in the Spirit that the water symbolizes.

Because we are baptized in the Spirit, we speak in unknown tongues, too. Now, in the book of Acts there are two different kinds of speaking in unknown tongues. On the day of Pentecost, those on whom the Spirit fell were able to speak in languages that were unknown to them but that were known to others. But in other cases, including this one of the twelve Ephesian disciples, the language in which they spoke was apparently a kind of communication between God and them. It was a heavenly language, we might accurately say.

All who are Christians have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and all who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are to speak in unknown tongues. I don’t mean by that we should speak verbally or even mentally in words that no one can understand; I mean rather that we are to be in deep, real, ongoing communication with God. I also mean that we will speak and live in ways that most people find impossible to understand because we will speak the language of love, of grace, of forgiveness, of service, and of sacrifice.

Thus it is vital that we practice such disciplines as worship, prayer, Bible study, and service to put ourselves in the best position possible to be open to what God wants to say to us and to do through us.

All who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are also to prophesy. Understand that biblically speaking to “prophesy” is not to forecast the future; it is rather to tell the good news of what God is doing in the world right here and right now. We are all to tell the good news of Jesus Christ with every aspect of our lives, including our thoughts, motives, decisions, words, and actions. We are to translate into words and actions those great truths of God that are so wonderful as to be almost inexpressible.

As the Church we are a baptized body; we are baptized with water and we are baptized with the Holy Spirit.

On the one hand, because we are baptized we think, feel, speak, and act in ways that are almost impossible for people to understand.

On the other hand, because we are baptized we display such love, grace, and mercy that we might as well be dripping wet …

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Good News for Everybody!

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2015)

It was 1969 and Timothy Leary was running for Governor of California. He asked John Lennon if he would write a song for his campaign, the theme of which was “Come Together.” Lennon dashed off a song that got played a few times in ads on California radio stations. Lennon and the Beatles then worked on it some more and recorded the version that became track #1 on the Abbey Road album. Leary was a bit irritated that Lennon had made such use of the song that was written for him; Lennon’s response was that he was like a tailor and that if someone orders a suit and never comes back for it you give it to someone else. Some of you will know that the opening line to that song is “Here come old flattop”; what you might not know is that it was lifted (perhaps unintentionally) from a Chuck Berry song so Berry’s publisher sued Lennon for plagiarism. Lennon agreed to record three of the publisher’s songs to settle the lawsuit [Steve Turner, The Beatles A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Song (New York: MJF Books, 1994), p. 304].

Come together, indeed.

It’s pretty ironic that a song about coming together caused so much division, don’t you think?

Well, it’s nothing compared to the irony with which we live in the Church.

After all, the stories of Jesus’ nativity make it very clear that the coming of Christ into the world was for absolutely everybody. The family into which Jesus was born was common, not elite. The first ones to hear the announcement of the birth of the child were shepherds who were considered disreputable by the “reputable” and unclean by the “clean”—but at least they were members of the chosen people of God. At least they were “us” and not “them”; at least they weren’t Gentiles.

But then God gave the good news of Jesus’s birth to some Persian or Arabian astrologers, to people who practiced a different religion and who came from a different culture than the ones to whom the promises of God had come steadily and faithfully ever since the time of Abraham.

What in the world was going on? What in the world was that all about?

What was going on was that God was making it plain that his Son had come into the world not for the sake of a privileged few but for the sake of anyone and everyone. What it was all about was the amazingly gracious if mysterious plan of God that had been in God’s heart from before time.

God’s plan—the critical element of which was the coming of Jesus into the world—was and is a plan designed to bring all people and all things together in Christ. Christ came for all, Christ demonstrates the love of God for all, and Christ died for all. Paul says that the great truth that Jews and Gentiles all had access to God in Christ without having to depend on the works of the law had come to him in a revelation; we can perhaps assume that it came to him as part of his vision of Christ on the Damascus Road [F. F. Bruce, “The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 311-312]. Regardless, the good news that in Christ everyone has equal access to God was a basic part of his message. As he put it, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). And they had done so not by following some rules and regulations and not by becoming identified with a certain ethnicity or nationality or religion—they had done so by and only by the amazing grace of God.

Still, after the Wise Men visited the Christ Child and his family, they went back to where they had come from. And that’s what we tend to do: we retreat to our corners and if we come out to meet at all, we all too often come out fighting. Some of our divisions are cultural; it is hard for human beings to cross the lines that have been passed down to us or into which we have allowed ourselves to get settled.

It’s easier for us to talk about what God was up to “back then” or to affirm the general principle that Christ came and died for everybody than it is for us to live out of such a reality in our own day and time. But the Church is meant to be an amalgam and a conglomeration of every type of person on the face of the Earth; we are meant to bear witness here and now to what will one day be the eternal reality.

Isn’t it ironic that Christ came to live and die for all of us and to bring all of us together in him and yet we all too often seem determined to build all the walls we can and strengthen all the divisions we can find?

We will do well to begin practicing right here the unity that Christ came to bring; we will do well to begin by reveling in the diversity of the makeup of our own congregation. We will also do well to be open to an expansion of that diversity. We will furthermore do well to be grateful for the great kaleidoscope of humanity that makes up the Church Universal. We will furthermore do well to practice grace with each other rather than to judge each other in a legalistic fashion. We will furthermore do well to live in the church and in the world in ways that will cause others to know that they will be accepted and embraced in the church rather than be judged and looked down on—how we treat each other lets them know how we would treat them.

Yes, the coming of Jesus was good news for everybody. It is good news even for someone like “them.” It is good news even for someone like you. It is good news even for someone like me.

What is that good news? It is that in Christ we can know and live in light of the fact that we are loved by God. And related to that good news is some more good news: in Christ we can come together, right now, over him …