Monday, October 22, 2012

We Do Not Know What We Are Asking

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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 10:35-45)

I have been preaching for three years now, and this passage fueled one of my first sermons.  I, of course, jumped on the James-and-John-bashing bandwagon, pointing out the ambition of the two apostles and how we should strive to live lives of "service" and not "status."  However, three years later, I note there are several positive aspects to James' and John's request.  If we take out the ambition aspect, the sons of Zebedee attempting to get special treatment from our Lord and a higher status above the other ten, we see some good things in the brothers' prayer.  Yes, it IS a prayer.  Just because they are seeing our Lord in the flesh and talking to him physically doesn't make it any less a prayer.

First, the brothers ASK.  This sounds simple, but how many of us do not ask things of our Lord for various reasons, such as us not thinking our requests are any good.  Elsewhere in the Gospels we have scenes where Jesus asks the apostles what they are talking about.  "Nothing!" they respond, even though Jesus already knows: they were arguing about who was the greatest.  Here, James and John actually come up to Jesus and ask him!  How often we stop ourselves from praying, because of our lack of faith in not only God but ourselves.  I don't know how to pray, we tell ourselves, and so we don't.  When we remember that prayer is a dialogue with the creator of the universe, we realize that practicing conversation with God is more important than just coming up with a good request.  When we get in the habit of conversing with God, we find that we are more ready to ask, when we need to.

Second, the brothers' request is DEFINITE.  There is a particular thing that they ask for.  They aren't general.  They want to be at Jesus' right and left hand in his GLORY.  You can't get more specific than that!  How often do we have no faith in the praying process.  We have no faith that we can ask for the right things, and we even have no faith that God will fulfill our requests, and so we say general prayers like, "your will be done," or, "you know what's best for me, so just do that."  We're not really taking God seriously. Jesus says, be specific.  Ask for something, even if it is a dumb request.  If we are asking for dumb things, when the important things come up, we won't hesitate to ask.

Third, the brothers were SINCERE.  They really wanted this request to be fulfilled.  They didn't just think that morning, "what should we ask Jesus for today?  I know!  Glory!"  They had been pondering this for some time.  This is a sincere request.  We, too, don't really believe that prayer is effective, that it works, and so our requests are not really sincere.  We don't plead with all our hearts and souls.  We fulfill our prayer duty for the day and then we move on to REAL life.

Because of the sincerity of James' and John's request, we have to try to understand this request better.  What exactly is it?  It is a request to be AS CLOSE TO JESUS AS POSSIBLE.  In the end, I see nothing WRONG with this prayer.  We write it off as too ambitious or status-seeking.  But I don't think that the sons of Zebedee considered that they were asking to be above the other apostles with this petition.  They were only thinking that they wanted to be as near Jesus as possible.  The other ten complained when, from their point of view, the request turned out be at their expense, but James and John were simply asking to be as close to our Lord as possible.  This is a GOOD prayer, and it is one that should be in our prayer lives often: "God, bring me as close to you as possible!"

Now, Jesus' response is an interesting one.  It is, "you don't know what you are asking!"  We understand this in its immediate context, that the way to Jesus' glory is through death and torture and rejection and crucifixion.  James and John don't know what they are asking.  They think this is easy street.  They are wrong.  We, too, are wrong.  We don't know what we are asking--across the board--from asking for a new bike to being as close to Christ as possible.  When we understand that whenever we pray, we don't know what we are asking for, two things become clear:

First, we will understand why the answer to prayer is sometimes "No."  Why?  Because we don't know what we are asking.  God sees the big picture.  We cannot.  He knows when we can handle a prayer being fulfilled or not.  When the answer is no, it is because we are not ready for it to be yes.  This becomes clear when we realize that we don't know what we are asking.

Second, when the answer is YES, but we don't see that the prayer has been fulfilled, because it has been fulfilled in such an unexpected way.  Sometimes it takes us YEARS to see that the prayer was fulfilled.  When you pray for someone to get off drugs and instead they go to jail.  Well, they DID get off drugs, didn't they?  When you pray for someone who has cancer to be healed, and instead they die.  Well, that soul is completely healed now.  When we understand that WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE ARE ASKING, both of these things make sense, and we will understand when they happen.

Three years after sermonizing on this passage and still there was so much to learn from these words.  James' and John's prayer was a GOOD ONE.  They asked.  They were definite.  They were sincere.  Still, they did not know what they were asking.  When we pray to the Lord, we should make sure we ask, we should be definite, and we should be sincere.  And over all that we should remember that we do not know what we are asking.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ruthie's Kitchen on November 6

Something else to look forward to on election day: Church of the Good Shepherd will be the host of Ruthie's Kitchen on Tuesday, November 6th. This takes place every Tuesday evening at His Dream Center (205 Baltic Street, Nags Head). All churches on the OBX participate to feed the homeless, poor, and hungry. Setup will begin at 4pm and dinner will be served at 5pm. I have written about how Christians desire to remove themselves from the world in order to not be stained by the culture's brush. The Apostle James says that this is only one half of what religion is all about. The other half is to visit the poor and needy in their affliction. The Christian cannot have one half of the equation without the other, and both are needed to practice true hospitality. Ruthie's kitchen will give us the opportunity to practice both outreach and upholding the truth in Christ. We hope you will want to join us in this expression of true Christian love.

Asking the Question

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Is this a valid question?  It sounds like it on the surface.  In fact, it sounds like the most valid question possible--the most important question possible.  Eternal life is the most important thing a person can inherit, so this sounds like it would be a good question to ask our Lord.  Jesus answers, essentially, "Keep the commandments."  Now, here is where the young questioner gets arrogant, gets obstinate.  He suddenly holds his head up high and says, I've been there, done that.  I've kept all those commandments since my birth.

What does Jesus respond?  If we were he, we'd all be shouting LIAR!  But Jesus is not so crass.  He looks on him and loves him.  He knows what is in the man's heart.  The man is not lying.  He honestly believes he has kept the commandments.  Once I led someone through the Confession of Sin and when we got to the line, "We have not loved you with our whole heart," she stopped.  "I can't say that," she told me, "because I HAVE loved God with my whole heart."  What do you say to that?

Well, did you have breakfast this morning?  Yes.  Did you pray over your breakfast before eating?  Yes.  Did you think about God while you ate?  Well, no.  I had a issue of the Coastland Times in front of me.  I was thinking about a ratchet that I was going to buy at Ace Hardware.  You see, we CANNOT love God with our whole heart.  It is impossible to love God with our whole hearts, because it means constantly thinking about him and loving him.  We have too many distractions.

But it wouldn't matter if you got rid of all those distractions.  Get rid of the World and you have the Flesh and the Devil to contend with.  Somewhere, there is a monk in a cell kneeling for prayers.  He is trying to love God with his whole heart, but suddenly this song from childhood pops into his head, and he is distracted from God.

Jesus responds in an interesting way.  This is a very misunderstood response, because it seems that the young man has stumped Jesus with his answer, "I HAVE kept all the commandments," and Jesus now has to think of another challenge for the man.  "Drat!" Jesus thinks, "Now I have to think of something... Aha!  Now, what I want you to do is to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor!"  There!  Try that one on for size.  Sure enough the young man walks away.

Is that what is happening?  No!  Jesus is not turning the tables.  He's not adding a layer of challenge on the already righteous young man to weigh him down.  Jesus is merely pointing out the "untruth" in the young man's response.  Jesus is merely saying that IF one is REALLY keeping the commandments, then he has ALREADY sold all of his possessions and given the money to the poor.  IF you have NOT done such a thing then you are not really keeping the commandments.  Did I mention that the commandments are impossible to keep?

What does it look like when you keep the commandments?  Well, it looks like selling your stuff and giving the money to the poor.  Have any of us in this room done that fully?  I know we are charitable, but have we given up everything? No.  Because we can't keep the commandments.  We are unworthy for eternal life.  Now, here is something interesting that Jesus tacks onto the end of his command.  He adds this, "THEN, follow me!"  Those two words, "follow me," are actually the ANSWER to the young man's original question. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  "Follow me."

So why the other stuff in the middle?  Why does Jesus go through the Q & A with the young man when the answer is really just "follow me?"  It seems like Jesus is setting up a sequence.  FIRST, obey the commandments, okay?  Done that?  Now SECOND, give everything to the poor.  And then, once you've done that, THIRD, follow me.  Shouldn't we be following Jesus first?

Exactly, and that is why the young man's original question is NOT A VALID QUESTION TO ASK GOD! We thought it was.  It sounded great.  It's a question that we all want to know the answer to, but the question should never have been asked.  The young man should merely have dropped everything and followed Jesus.  That is why Jesus went through all this Q & A.  Because he already knew that the young man was NOT CALLED to follow him.  The young man is trying to achieve salvation through human means: WHAT MUST I DO, and Jesus has called him out.

Did Jesus come up to the twelve and say to them, "have you kept the commandments?  Have you given all your stuff to the poor?  Then follow me!"  No, he said to them, "follow me," and they followed.  It's only AFTER we are following God's call that we are able to keep the commandments and begin to release ourselves from all the garbage that we have gathered unto ourselves that distract us from God.  I have a massive DVD collection that has been sitting in the cabinet for years without being watched.  Following Jesus comes first.

Jesus knows that the young man will not follow him.  Jesus knew that when the first question was asked.  You are hearing these words, reading this far, because God's voice is calling your heart to follow him.  What must we do to inherit eternal life?  Follow Jesus.  Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things--keeping the commandments and giving to the poor--will be added unto you.  Following Jesus is the answer to the question.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Petitioning the King

Although, the Old Testament events are actual history, they are also parables, and since the central character is God, we can look at Old Testament events as parables about God and the Kingdom of God.  Our reading from Esther this morning is a great example (Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22).

Characters: the king represents God, Queen Esther represents us, and Haman represents who?  The devil?  Ungodly man?  Let's say the World, the Flesh, and the Devil: the temptations that we face every day.  We won't really get into Haman's role here.

The first thing we learn from this passage is that God is the initiator.  Esther 7:2: the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."  The king spoke first.  God speaks first.  As we talked about last week: God is always previous.  We tend to think of us asking for God first, but God has put the idea into our heads.  We look at Jesus walking on water, and we think that Peter telling Jesus to command him onto the water, too, means that the whole relationship process with God is up to us to initiate: “Jesus, command me onto the water with you!”  But the idea wouldn't have occurred to Peter had he not seen Jesus walking toward him first.  Likewise, we don't think of a relationship with God until we see God coming toward us, asking us, as he asks Esther, “What is your petition?”

Some may say that Esther invited the King to her dinner, which puts the initiation back in Esther's, and subsequently our, hands.  However, we must always remember that the King picked Esther to be his queen.  We could say that he “elected” her.  Likewise, the King elects us to be part of his kingdom.  Once again, the initiation falls into the king's hands.

The second thing we learn is something we usually consider a throwaway statement: even up to half of my kingdom.  Dude!  God just offered us half of his kingdom!  Why would we not take that?  In fact, that is EXACTLY what we, in our fallen states, would choose. Our sin-depraved selves would always choose the material possessions and power that this world offers over anything else—even our own lives. That is the predicament we are in!

But Queen Esther does not respond that way.  She passes the test.  We, too, must pass the test, if we are to enter God's kingdom, and choose something other than worldly things.  Esther chooses life.  Verse 3: Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me.”  She is pleading for her life.  We, too, when asked by God what our petition is, must respond with “everlasting life.”

Let's look at some other examples.  Here is first Kings 3:5: “At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”  See the similarity?  One, God initiates.  Two, the sky is the limit on what we can ask for!  What does Solomon ask for? “Give to your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”  Wisdom.  And from scripture we know that Wisdom is Christ; 1 Corinthians 1:24 says, “Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God.  Knowledge of Christ is also everlasting life.  As it says in John 17: “This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  Wisdom and knowledge of God are everlasting life.  Essentially Solomon asked for life.

In 2 Kings 2:9 Elisha asks for a double helping of God's spirit.  Here is another who passes the test, and instead of asking for wealth and riches and power, Elisha is asking for God's spirit.  The Holy Spirit, Wisdom, and Everlasting Life are all bound and wrapped up in each other.

So, Esther asks for life.  She describes her situation thus: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.”  This is the human condition she is describing.  We have sold ourselves into the enemy's hands and our destination is destruction, annihilation.  Everlasting death.  Esther says that if we had merely sold ourselves into slavery, we would still have peace.  We are slaves to sin.  We are slaves to unrighteousness, but that's not the problem.  The wages of sin is death.  If we were merely slaves on this earth and then continued on to everlasting life, that would be okay.  But, as we stand, our paths lead to everlasting death.  And in the meantime, we are slaves.  We think we have liberty when we are not following God, and that following God then restricts us.  We instinctively reject following God.  But the truth is that we are slaves NOW.  We have no liberty NOW, and when we follow God, he liberates us.  We are freed from slavery.  It's as if we were purchased by someone we thought was a slave master, but when we fall into his hands, he immediately frees us.  However, we are too scared to choose God, because he appears to be a slave master.

So, take your pick.  The way out of this slavery that leads to everlasting death is one of three things: either Wisdom or Spirit or Everlasting Life.  All of those things are wrapped up in Jesus Christ.  So take your pick: Jesus or slavery.  It sounds like a reasonable choice, doesn't it, and yet we will choose slavery all of the time.  God is the one who walks to us on the water and asks us the question, “what is your petition?”  Otherwise we would never desire to choose life, and we would remain slaves to death forever.

Turn to Christ, and as it says in that final verse in our Esther reading, we will gain relief from our enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—and our days will turn for us from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; and we should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

Rejoice the Lord is King; Again I Say Rejoice.