Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Passover to Come

Look at Luke 22:15 and 16. I want to focus on what Jesus says here: "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Here is something that we usually overlook: we see the word Passover and we think of a big feast that Jesus preparing for us, as if we were the center of everything. We remember his words, "I have a mansion with many rooms, and I am preparing rooms for you." And we also hear him say, "I will eat with you at the Passover feast." We think of a celebration. We think, "oh Jesus is making a lot of food for us. Preparing a feast takes a lot of work!  What with all those people who were going to eat at the feast!" But Jesus says here that he is not going to partake in the Passover until it has been FULFILLED in the kingdom of heaven--in the kingdom of God.

We partake in communion every Sunday and extra days like today (Maundy Thursday).  We are feasting. Jesus isn't participating in this feast. He is involved, yes, in that we are eating his body and blood, but he is not communing with us. He is the sacrificial lamb. This is the communion of the Saints. Jesus is telling us that he is holding off participating in this feast until it has been fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Think of this. The Passover. There is to be ANOTHER Passover.

First let's look at a common minor heresy.  It's not a huge heresy.  There are heresies that are so massive that all the other doctrines collapse like a heap of dominoes when you follow this heresy, but there are small heresies that don't seem interfere with the main doctrines (even though even small heresies do creep in and erode the main things eventually).  One of these is that of an early rapture. Do you believe in the rapture? Well, yes, it's called the judgment--it's called Judgment Day, and if you look at what Jesus says in Scripture, you WANT to be left behind.  You see all of these books about being left behind--the left behind series of books--but when you read scripture, Jesus says, the final days will be like the days of NOAH.  What happened in the days of Noah? The wicked were swept away with the floodwaters. Noah and his family remained: THEY were left behind.

Now, here is Jesus setting up the same thing, saying, "I will not feast until the Passover has come to fruition in the kingdom of God."  There is to be another Passover and it's the same thing as the flood in Genesis and the Passover in Exodus.  It's the same thing: the wicked are to be destroyed.  They are to be ripped out, like the tares from among the wheat.  Remember that parable?  The field tender comes to the owner and says, "the enemy has sown tares among the wheat!  What should I do?"  The owner says, "wait for all the crop to grow to maturity, then you will be able to tell the wheat from the tares, and then you can pull the tares out first."  This is what is happening at Passover.  We put blood around our doorways and the angel of death passes us over.  Everyone else is destroyed.

In Exodus 12 we get instructions on how to kill the lamb, how to prepare the lamb, how to eat the lamb: there's a sense of urgency.  You were to eat the lamb dressed, with your staff in hand, ready to take off.  There is this sense of urgency, but here is the crucial part.  Verse 12: "for I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments--I am the Lord.  The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt." This is not just an interesting story from the Old Testament.  This is prophecy.  Egypt is a microcosm of a worldwide Passover.  This is what Jesus is saying when he says, "I will not enjoy this Passover feast until it has been fulfilled in the kingdom of heaven."  What needs to be fulfilled is the Passover--the worldwide Passover--in which the angel of death comes and kills all of the people who are dead in their sins, who are lost to God forever, people who do not have faith in Christ.

Essentially, what we do instead of putting blood around doorways, to keep the angel of death from coming in and destroying us, what we do is we have faith in Christ, faith in the blood of the Christ, the one whose meal here we partake in every Sunday.  We are expressing our faith physically here in the body and blood of Christ.  We devote ourselves to Jesus.  We put him first in all that we do.  We always include thoughts about God.

WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? is an example.  How do we live our lives?  We don't just ask what would Jesus do, because then we're assuming that Jesus would ever do anything related to the sort of lives we live now in this modern era, but what we are saying is not "What Would Jesus Do?" but "do I put Jesus first?"  What do I do as a future resident of the kingdom of heaven? How should I act? How should I behave? I look to the scriptures, the word of God.  The Scriptures are all testimony about Jesus Christ. I learn there everything that there is to know about Jesus Christ and therefore about God himself.  THAT is putting my faith in Jesus: believing God, believing in God, and believing what God says, believing his testimony about his son, Jesus.

I put my faith in all of that.  It's difficult to do, but God draws his chosen people into it.  That is the new way of putting blood around our doorways.  This isn't the temporary blood of a lamb on that night in Exodus.  This is an everlasting, REAL blood that saves us from eternal destruction.  On Good Friday I'm going to talk about the shadow versus the reality.  The Passover that happened in Egypt in Moses' time was a shadow of the real Passover--the true Passover--which is to come: the Judgment Day, the end of everything.  And at that time we will be passed over by the angel of death.  We will survive to the other side, because of the blood of the lamb around our doorways.

The lamb is Jesus Christ the righteous, who did not sin but became sin for us.  We impute our sins to the lamb.  He imputes his righteousness to us.  We have faith in his blood.  The angel of death passes over us.  The world will pass away, but Jesus's words will never pass away. We will survive the Passover because of Christ, and though many will be lost, because they do not believe and do not have faith--the firstborn of the world, the first born children of all the world--essentially the leaders, principalities, powers, the wicked--all gone, yet we will remain.  We will be passed over.  We will survive, thanks to Jesus.  And after these things he will join us in the Passover feast.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Temptation and Accusation

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the Lord was standing by.(Zechariah 3:1-5)

The devil has two roles: to tempt us and to accuse us.  Usually, it's a one-two punch.  He first tempts us, and then when we have given into the temptation, he then accuses us, something along the lines of saying, "God would never love you now, after what you've done."

We tend to think of these temptations as being for heinous sins, but sometimes it is something as simple as engaging someone in conversation.  Face to face conversation is usually very good, but sometimes anonymous social-media conversation is an example of Satan tempting us into sin.  We see someone who seems to be struggling with Biblical truths, seems to be honestly seeking God, but we have to remember that anonymous (and even non-anonymous), social-media is not the place to engage in these type of discussions.  We are to engage each other to help each other with our walks with Christ, but face-to-face engagements are part of the ministries God puts us in where we are geographically.  Missionaries don't "phone it in" over the Web from their homes.  They travel great distances for the face-to-face engagement.  Chances are, these Internet "seekers" are merely tools of the tempter, to a trap us in a discussion that will go nowhere. After we have engaged and have tried to be faithful to the scriptures and our Lord, the accusations then come flying.  You're not a REAL Christian!  You're not faithful to God!  You are just like the Pharisees!  Why would God ever love YOU?

We have to remember the lessons from the Zechariah passage above:

1. The devil is the one tempting us, not other people.  The other person in the conversation was tempted by the devil to engage us in the first place.  Forgive and bless them.

2. We can't listen to the accusations.  Of course, we are not worthy of God's love.  None of us is worthy of God's love, but God has taken our filthy rags away.  He has dressed us in clean clothes.  We don't deserve any of his love, neither person in the conversation, but God has done this for us anyway.

3. Remember that God's elect have been snatched from the fire.  We have been saved, not by anything we have done to deserve it, but because God has chosen it.  God has done the work of salvation, not us.  We will backslide and give into even small temptations like engaging in social-media arguments, but when the accusations inevitably come out, remember that we are brands plucked from the fire.  Focus on Jesus by studying scripture and receiving encouragement from other Christians, and the temptations will lessen and finally cease.  Remember, we are children of the Lord, and the tares will eventually be ripped up from among the wheat and thrown into the fire.

Stand strong, residents of Jerusalem.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Quote of the day

Those who would know God go through both darkness and light, down into valleys as well as up over hills. Sinclair Ferguson

The Evangelism of Pilate

I want to talk about Jesus' evangelism of...Pilate! We don't really think of Jesus as evangelizing Pilate during his interview with the Roman leader, but if we turn to 1 Timothy 6:13, we see in the letter of Paul to Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate...

So Jesus testified a good confession to Pilate? Now, let's go back to our Luke passage (Luke 23) and see what Jesus does. I know other gospels have more that Jesus says to Pilate, but here we have Jesus saying one single thing to Pilate, and the rest of what he says is nothing at all. Jesus is silent in the face of his accusers and people deciding whether he lives or dies. Now, what we see is Jesus saying one thing to Pilate in response to a question. Pilate asks Jesus, "are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus responds with something that when I was a child was perhaps confusing to me, because it wasn't something that I expected Jesus to say.

In the dramatizations that they showed on TV and in movies, Jesus always seems to respond with this statement: "you say so," or, "you say that I am." What does this sound like to our modern sensibilities? Our modern sensibilities, especially in this country, revolve around personal defense.  We do not like to be caught or to be trapped by our own words. We do not like to be put into a corner. We defend ourselves. We distance ourselves from what we say. We care so much about what other people, even strangers, think about us! We care so much!   We don't want to make waves. We do not want to stir up the pot, so from my modern childlike sensibilities, being immersed in the public school system, being taught to always be paranoid about what people are thinking about me, I saw Jesus as responding to Pilate with words that amounted to, "I never said that! YOU are the ones who said that, not me! Those are YOUR words, not mine! You are the ones who are saying that I am a king; I never said that I was a king." But that's not what Jesus actually said.

He does say, "you say so," in our modern, politically correct, NRSV translation, but in the NASB, which is the preferred translation, Jesus says, "It is as you say." This is a self-affirming statement. Jesus is saying, "you say SO! You speak the truth." He is essentially saying, "yes!" Yes! Emphatically YES! Is this really evangelism? What is the result of this word of Jesus to Pilate? Well, we see several things. We see, firstly, that Pilate does not want to kill Jesus. He may be acting legally. He may officially see nothing wrong with him, but we do have scenes of Pilate being very anxious. We see Pilate's wife being anxious about this. We see Pilate greatly disturbed by what is going on. Jesus has affirmed what the Jews had said about him. He has not backed away. He has not tried to defend himself by lying his way out. He has not stood up and said, "you know what? I will just go back to my little quiet life teaching my disciples, and I won't do anything that will upset anybody ever again. I promise, if you let me go, that I will be docile. I will be just sitting around, minding my own business, okay? I'll go back to carpentry!" None of this happens. Jesus says, "yes," and in other places he says nothing at all, and Pilate is greatly disturbed. It's as if Jesus WANTS to be killed. Pilate continues to try to save him from death and fails.

We also see that Pilate does not become a Christian convert. He does not suddenly take up his cross and change his ways. In fact, it says in this very gospel, that he and Herod become friends. He does not exhibit an alteration of life, a willful amendment of his evil ways. So, in that way, Jesus' evangelism doesn't really work. It is what we moderns would call "unsuccessful" evangelism, because to modern Christians, every act of evangelism needs to result in a convert.  Why is God himself unable to convert Pilate? Now, God is not unable. God's will is such that he does not want Pilate to be converted, but that doesn't stop Jesus' words from having a strong impact on Pilate. We wonder what would have happened if other Christian seeds had been planted in Pilate's life along the way. Do you see that we're getting into this kind of hybrid "everything is God's will," but he also wills us to be the means of grace in each others lives.  He uses our wills to bring about his kingdom.

Let's get back to this kind of evangelism that Jesus is practicing. There seem to be three responses to preaching, to relating the gospel to someone. We can see this come to life in Acts 17. Paul preaches to the Athenians. He stands there and preaches about Jesus and the resurrection. The Athenians have three responses. The first is, "what is this babbler saying? This is ridiculous! I am leaving! I am not even going to respond to this nonsense." The other extreme is conversion.  "I believe in what you just said, Paul. I want to become a Christian, thank you!"

The middle way is, "this was very interesting; can you come back tomorrow? I want to hear more."  A seed has been planted, but conversion has not taken place. This is what Jesus does with Pilate. A seed has been planted, but conversion has not taken place. Sometimes it takes 5, 10, 20 times of planting seeds before anything has taken root.  We see this middle-way in the New Testament. John the Baptist is brought before Herod every day, because Herod likes to hear John preach, and John is preaching AGAINST Herod. John is tearing into Herod because of his marriage to his brother's wife, but the scriptures say that Herod ENJOYED listening to him.  The same with Felix and Drusilla in Acts. Paul is preaching about self-control and yet Felix keeps bringing him back day after day for two years.  He wants to hear more but there is no conversion. This kind of evangelism is important, because Jesus does it. Paul does it. John the Baptist does it. How can we do it?

We are under the mistaken impression that our evangelism has to result in someone coming to Christ right there on the spot.  This is wrong.  Most evangelism is this planting of seeds, but it is HOW we evangelize that is important. A seed is planted when we say, like Jesus said to Pilate, "yes it is as you say." Yes. Affirm what you believe. We hear people say to us, "you don't believe that nonsense do you?" and we respond, "well it's good for me, but it may not be good for you. I mean, I have my own truth, and you have your own truth, so don't worry about it. I, of course, do believe this, but you don't have to believe it if you don't want to." Jesus corrects us. Say "yes!" Let your yes be yes. Yes, I believe this. Everything that I say is true is true. None of this wishy-washy garbage. We have to stand firm in faith. And now we get to our Old Testament passage:

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? (Isaiah 50:4-9a)

The Lord God has given me the tongue of disciples (NASB). The tongue of disciples: we are to be disciples.  Knowing God is not just everlasting life; it is life in also the present. God is sovereign.  He ordains all things.  He is in all things.  To not know God and to be in this world is a hazard. As Peter says, we should be ready to give a reasoned defense for everything we believe. If we are not immersing ourselves in the word of God every day--and when not reading this Bible, listening to sermons and other people talk about God's word--we become unable to give ourselves or others the proper assistance in dealing with life.

If I were to grab you right now, put you in a cage, drag you down to the Amazon jungle, release you into the wild there without any supplies, without any mention of what I'm doing--I'm mute about it--would you consider what I did cruel? If I drag someone from the Amazon jungle and stick them in Times Square without any discussion of what I was doing, without any tools for survival, would you think I was being cruel? Of course I'd be cruel! But here we all are, born into this world and we either ignore, or we deliberately withhold, information, tools necessary for survival.  We deliberately withhold the knowledge of God from each other.  That is just as bad as if I dragged you down to the jungle and left you for dead. You would not last 24 hours in the Amazon jungle without any supplies, without any way to get out, and yet we do it every day to each other by withholding knowledge of God from each other is this world. God, Chesterton said, is like the sun: you can't look directly at Him, but without Him you cannot look at anything else. We need God to understand the world we live in.  We need God to survive.  We cannot withhold God from each other.

So the Lord has given us the tongue of disciples that we may know how to sustain the weary one with the word.  Look at Jesus.  One word, yes, is what he responds. Yes is what he says. You are correct, sir, yes. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Do we listen as disciples? Do we immerse ourselves in the word? Do we listen as disciples? Do we listen to sermons? Christian audiobooks? Do we listen to our Christian friends? Are we in active discourse with other Christians about the gospel, or do we sit around talking about other things like what was on CSI last night? Did you see CSI? That was great! No, we shouldn't be talking about worldly things with other Christians.  We should be talking about Christian things with other Christians.  We should be enhancing other people's knowledge of God, to feed each other.  Remember, Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.  As Christians we should be helping each other out of the Amazon Forest.

I gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who yanked out my beard. I did not cover my face from humiliation and spitting.  This is obviously prophecy about the suffering servant, Jesus, but it is also the reaction that we are going to get from people, when we stand firm in faith, and we have to be able to say, "yes." We cannot back away and say, "well it's true for me, and your truth is true for you.  You don't have to believe what I believe; you can just believe your own thing. We'll just agree to disagree." But no: we are to allow people to strike us; we are to allow people to yank out or beards, so to speak; we are not to cover our faces from humiliation and spitting; we are not to shy away from this, because (verse seven) the Lord God helps me, therefore I am not disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed.  He who vindicates me is near.  Who will contend with me? Let us stand up to each other; who has a case against me? Let him draw near to me. Behold the Lord God helps me. Who is he who condemns me? Behold they will wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them.

We are not to shy away. We are to say "yes" when someone asks us, "you don't believe that garbage, do you?" We answer, "yes, it is as you say, yes," and in the end, we may have only planted a seed. We may never see that seed come to fruition; we may never see that seed grow. Somebody else will plant another seed, and then another person, and perhaps God intends that person never to come to Christ, and to die in his sins and be lost like Pilate, like Herod, like Felix. Perhaps that is God's will. But we don't know. So let your yes be yes and your no be no. Make a firm stand; set your face like flint; do not shy away from the truth; always speak the truth in love; but speak the truth. Jesus did it. We do it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Holy Week at Good Shepherd

To utilize Good Shepherd's new space to the fullest, we are having a fuller Holy Week this year:

Thursday, March 28, 7:30pm: Maundy Thursday Service (Eucharist)
Friday, March 29, 10am & 7:30pm: Good Friday Service
Saturday, March 30, 10am: Holy Saturday Service
Sunday, March 31, 10am: Easter Sunday Service (Eucharist)

Invite friends and family to participate in this new life of our church this Holy Week.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Our Prodigal Identity

The parable of the Prodigal Son is considered one of the greatest parables, if not THE greatest parable in all the Bible.  Why?  It's the parable that the most people turn to Christ through.  Why?  Because we are each able to IDENTIFY with the Prodigal Son.  The truth is that we actually should NOT be able to identify with this individual, but we do anyway.  Let me make my case:

Who is the Prodigal Son?  He is a person who wastes things frivolously.  He has no consideration for others.  He takes what he thinks is his, and he squanders it all.  So far, that sounds like us in a nutshell.  Let's look at the entire passage:

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"  (Luke 15:11-32)

The first thing that varies from our own stories is that the Prodigal Son hits rock bottom.  This is very difficult to achieve in this country.  Even our poorest have basic distractions that keep them from feeling that they have actually hit the bottom of the barrel.  I know there are some who have, but in general, we have too many cultural distractions that keep us from feeling at the end of our ropes.  However, we STILL feel like we are there, even though we are not.

The next thing we notice is the repentance.  Yes!  Now we are getting somewhere!  Our Psalm for today confirms it:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

We know how to repent, right? We all know people who take and they take and they squander, and they never repent, and we say to ourselves, "all that guy needs to do is repent, and he will be saved," but there seems to be an everlasting supply of material to squander, and so the person never does repent.  We know how to repent, though, right?

Look at this passage from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

So, we know how to repent, right?  When we repent of our sins, have we become a new creation?  Is the old YOU gone and a new YOU taken its place?  Even the simple advice of repentance seems to be short-sighted.  We've seen people repent before, and the next week they are back to their old tricks, pillaging from others and squandering.  Here is something that may be missing.  Let's look at the parable again:

 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 

Along with the repentance that is there is a willingness to live life from this point on at a distinct disadvantage. The Prodigal Son is willing to live life as one of his Father's hired hands.  Even though he has had a pretty plush life from here to his fall, he is not willing to go back to the extravagance, but just the basics: room and board.  He is willing to sacrifice all his former life for a life of service.

THIS is why we cannot identify with the Prodigal Son, our repentance never comes with a willingness to live life disadvantageously.  We want things back the way they were, and the moment we get that opportunity, we take it!  Without amendment of life into a subservient role, we cannot truly repent, and we cannot properly be identified with the Prodigal Son in this parable.

So who are we?  We are the other son, of course, and you have probably heard this already: we are jealous holders of the rules.  We are Pharisees.  We have been moderately successful at saving ourselves, and we do not think it's FAIR that someone else can waste a fortune, hit rock bottom, repent, BE WILLING TO AMEND, and be welcomed into the father's arms.  Our brother has squandered his half of the Father's money.  Think about that.  The Father was supposed to have died, and then each of the two sons would get HALF of the estate.  The younger took his earlier and spent it all.  The Father is still alive and living off the other son's inheritance.  This is truly not FAIR.

This is who we identify with, truth be told.  And what does the other son need to do to get right with God?  We don't see it, do we?  We see the Father tell the other son that what was lost has been found, etc.  What is the other son supposed to do?  Well, according to this template, he is to repent of his sin of envy and amend HIS life to a DISADVANTAGE, too.  What does that look like?

Well, let's look at the Father.  We never do that, because the Father represents God in this parable, and who are we to assume the role of God for even a brief second?  But look at the Father's behavior: he allows his younger son to take his inheritance early, knowing full well that the son is going to waste it all.  How many of us would do that?  Nada.  He lets him take half of the estate, even though he is now going to have to live on his other son's half of the inheritance.  He then sees the repentant son coming down the road and runs to meet him halfway.  He celebrates with the son, knowing that true repentance has happened and that there is amendment of life to the son's willing disadvantage.

This is impossible for us to do.  It would be foolish in the extreme.  Just throwing our money down a hole in the ground!  It doesn't even seem Christian.  And here's the crux: God KNOWS it sounds foolish.  He knows that none of us is willing to be so foolish with our talents as to give them to a whoremonger.  What's below burying your one talent in the ground?  Giving it to the Prodigal Son, that's what!  God knows that we cannot do this.  Our wills are just too weak.  We have been taught otherwise our whole lives.  What do we do?

God provides a solution.  He allows us to identify with the Prodigal Son, even though we shouldn't.  He allows us to feel that we've hit rock bottom, even though we haven't.  He allows us to amend our lives in incremental disadvantages instead of enslaving ourselves in one fell swoop. The Grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ allows us to think of ourselves as what we are not, so that we can receive from him what we do not deserve.

And that is why we all identify with the Prodigal Son.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Single and Upward

Have you noticed a theme going through all the readings this morning?  Here is a verse from the Old Testament:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. (Isaiah 43:18)

And here's a verse from the New Testament:

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Do you see the theme?  We have a forward motion--a straight path, like that of a racepath, and the goal at the end is of a singular thing.  The goal here is Jesus.  At the same time, I was reading St. Irenaeus of Lyons. He was the student of Polycarp, who was the student of the Apostle John.  Here is what Irenaeus wrote:

For the way of all those who see is single and upward, illumined by the heavenly light, but the ways of those who do not see are many, dark and divergent; the one leads to the kingdom, uniting man to God, while the others lead down to death, separating from God.

Once again we have the singular path, as that of a race, and it now has an upward slope, because it leads to the highest of the high: Jesus Christ.  The other way is a way of darkness.  Of course it is.  Jesus is the light of the world, and any other way than Jesus will be dark, even if it seems to be a well-lit path.  In this country, we like to have our thumbs in many different pies, because we're hedging our bets.  Let's see: I'll follow Jesus on Sunday, and then my palm-reader on Wednesday, and then I'll read Buddha on Friday.  The Learning Channel has some great advice on Saturday.  Remember any way that is not the singular and upward of Jesus is dark and divergent.

I know someone who has left the church and is now focusing on his ministry: teaching children.  This is a noble cause, and it doesn't seem dark, does it?  However, if one is not aiming for the single, upward race toward the goal of Jesus, this person will lose all.  Even Mother Theresa put Jesus first.  She prayed, she communed with the saints, the followed the apostolic teaching, and she had fellowship with other Christians.  These are the fundamental elements of the church, and without them, we are not part of the universal church on earth.  We aren't aiming for Jesus, and all the good works we do mean rubbish, as Paul says in his letter to the Philippians.  If we aim for the schoolchildren, we get neither the Kingdom nor the children.  If we aim for Jesus, we get both the Lord and the children.

Because, without Jesus, we fill the space with dark and divergent ways.  The children aren't enough.  Next there comes the clubbing, and the drinking, and the hanging with people who draw you away from God.  And then we've lost all.  But at least we're helping the children, right?

This leads us to the gospel passage:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." (John 12:1-8)

Here we see the two ways in stark contrast.  Mary's is the single, upward way to Jesus.  She can only think of Jesus.  He is her all in all.  There is no splitting of her mind between Jesus and anything else.  This is the thing that none of us can seem to achieve.  Which is the many, dark, and divergent way?  Judas Iscariot's.  He is a thief, he is a politician, he is a socialist.  He has many things going at once.  Over here he's betraying Jesus.  Over here he's robbing the till.  Over here is is pontificating about being compassionate.  Jesus reminds him that his methods will never work.  I saw a stand-up comedian say to his audience that if everyone on earth gave their money to all the poor on the earth there would be peace.  Jesus rebuts this thought with the words, "the poor will always be with you."  As mature adults, we know Socialism is an impossibility.  But here is Judas proposing the same thing.  His way are many, dark, and divergent.  True socialism can only be achieved by NOT following socialism but following Jesus and ONLY Jesus.

Jesus also has this upward call, even though the goal is not for himself.  Why did the incarnation happen?  There was a single, upward goal of Jesus.  What was it?  To save the world from its sin.  To reestablish the Kingdom of God on earth, and to begin the new creation.  This is the goal: salvation.  So, when we get a scene like the garden of Gethsemane, what do we think about it?

As individualistic Americans, here is what we tend to think: Jesus is grieved to the point of death, he tells Peter and James and John.  Why?  We assume it is because he is gearing up for a a very painful rest of his life.  He is going to be crucified.  He's sweating blood for himself.  Please, Daddy, don't let them do this to me!  Do we believe this?  Do we think Jesus would be so self-centered?

Look at the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount.  These are good attributes to have as Christians, yes, but these are also the attributes of Christ: blessed is he who mourns.  Blessed is he who is poor in spirit.  Is Jesus mourning for himself?  Should he be?  No, he is mourning for the world.  Because, here in the garden of Gethsemane, everything has reached critical mass.  The world has hit its corruption acme point.  There is no turning back.  The earth is now in place for another flood.  The earth is like Sodom and Gomorrah now, and should be lit on fire, burned to a cinder.  Everything is lost.  Even Peter and James and John?  They fell asleep, you see, they couldn't even stay awake to pray.  Did you think that they were just being lookouts for the people coming to take Jesus prisoner?

No, this is it, this is the moment, where the world has completely rejected its creator and is going to extinguish his life.  The world at this point is not worth saving, and this is what causes Jesus to be distressed.  He is praying for the world.  He is grieving for the world.  He is sweating blood, not because it is time for him to die, but because the world is lost.  He is completely alone.  I would die for my four daughters, if it meant that they would be saved from everlasting destruction, but I would still mourn first that they were destined for that destruction.  Until the garden, there was a remnant of the faithful.  In the garden the moment comes when no remnant exists.  It's time for Jesus to save the world through his death, but the grieving comes first.  The world was not able to stand.  Like Abraham, he was not able to find one person left worthy of salvation.  And as Paul says in Romans, it's when we are at our most unworthy that Jesus comes in and actually DOES save us.

Single and upward.  Jesus never strays from his goal.  He doesn't have doubt in the garden.  He doesn't plead with the Father to spare his life.  He only wishes that the world wouldn't need his salvation after all.  But the earth is lost.  We, too, should be mourning for the world every waking moment.  It's a beatitude, and it's part of the single, upward motion toward the goal of Christ.  We don't have TIME for the many, dark, and divergent ways of the lost.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


We are in the season of lent, so I want to discuss a difficult topic: repentance.  Along with this difficult topic, I'd like to begin with a difficult part of the Bible: the book of Joshua.  This book is difficult, because we have the new nation of Israel coming into the land of Canaan to receive its inheritance, to take the land.  The only problem is that the land is already occupied, and God has told Israel that it is okay to just go in there and destroy everything, down to every man, woman, and child.

Squirming yet?  Well, what if I told you that God told his people in the book of Deuteronomy to not pity the people they are about to destroy, because those very people have had every possible opportunity to repent.  In fact, God has given them hundreds of years to repent, and not only have they NOT repented, they are more corrupt than ever.  Imagine a society where every man, woman, and even child was corrupt.  A society where the parents taught the children to kill, engage in lusts of the flesh, and the worst kind of behavior.  It may not be a stretch to imagine.  We have evidence of such corruption in the world today, even in our own country. But can we imagine a society where every single person was that corrupt?

And even then, is that an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth?  Our problem is that we engage in comparisons, and we look at Israel, and we look at the people of Canaan, and we compare them.  Who is Israel to be favored by God?  Why did God choose them?  Do they think they are better than the people of Canaan?  Well, the answer is obviously NO.  The people of Israel are no better than the people of Canaan, and that is where our problem lies.

We think of mankind as inherently good, and that corruption happens within a subset of mankind and lowers these people into evil.  The truth is that because of the fall, we are born inherently corrupt already, and it is only the grace of God that lifts us out of such corruption.  Israel is no better than the people of Canaan, except that God chose it to be so.  He lifted them out of the corruption, and placed them in a favorable position in the world, in order to do his work.  As God told Abraham in the book of Genesis, "all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you."  Israel had a mission to the world, and one of the main steps in that mission was to be in that land.

But as we read the Old Testament, we see that Israel fails in its mission.  The chosen people stop obeying God, and they fall back to their original state of corruption.  Without God's hedge of protection, other nations come rushing in and take Israel by force.  We have been looking at everything wrong.  The question we should have asked was not, "why was Canaan condemned?" The question should have been, "why was Israel blessed?"  The issue is not the destruction of the people in Canaan but the favor of the people of Israel.

We see something similar in the book of Jonah.  Nineveh is a thoroughly corrupt city, and it is doomed for destruction.  It is a huge city too, and it takes three days to get from one end to the other.  Jonah walks in to the center, about a day's journey, and he relates this message: "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown."  That's it.  No "or else."  No "repent!"  There are no conditions.  It's just a matter of fact: in forty days you all are goners.  Done.  End of statement.  And yet, word spreads throughout the city like wildfire and everyone repents.  Even the animals were dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  Here we have a situation where a corrupt city is elevated out of destruction by God's graces.  And this city was not in Israel.  It had nothing to do with Israel.

Now we get to our gospel passage:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13:1-9)

Here, Jesus is affirming everything we have been talking about.  It's not that the disciples are better people than the people who were sacrificed to pagan idols or crushed under the tower of Siloam.  No, you disciples are just as bad, and if you don't want a tower to fall on you tomorrow, then you need to repent.  The first tower is a warning to you.  God wants you to live a bit longer.  He hopes you get the message of the tower and repent, because tomorrow another tower is coming for you, and its pieces may be falling as we speak.

Now we get a parable that seems to be unrelated, until we begin assigning roles.  The vineyard owner is the Father, and he is tired of us, the fig tree, not producing any fruit.  We are not even talking about bad fruit.  We are talking about no fruit at all!  Canaan was producing bad fruit.  Nineveh was producing bad fruit.  Israel was producing good fruit and then it began producing bad fruit.  But here we are, chosen by God to be a part of his kingdom.  At least we aren't producing bad fruit, we think!  But are we producing no fruit at all?  That may be even worse!  Bad fruit produced may be responded to with a message of repentance, but when one produces no fruit, there seems to be no warning.  Dig that tree out and throw it away, the Father says.  We are just taking up space!

But here is where the grace of God comes in.  Jesus, the gardener, stays the Father's hand.  Give me another year, he says.  I will dig a trench around it and put fertilizer in it.  We will see if it produces fruit then, and after that, then you can cut it down.  Jesus stays the Father's destruction upon us, because we don't deserve life.  We are like the Canaanites, the Ninevites, the Israelites.  We don't deserve any of God's blessings.  We deserve to be chopped down and thrown onto the fire.  But the Son, who died on the cross for us, he stays the Father's hand, through his sacrifice, and he pleads our case, and we have been granted an extra year.  An extra year to repent and to receive his Spirit in our lives, so that good fruit can be produced.  Look to the letters of Paul to see what these fruits consist of.

One last word about repentance.  We think of it as getting on our knees and begging God to save us from a particular sin that we are confessing.  This is only half the job of repentance.  Many times we stay there, kneeling, and we feel the sin coming back, getting closer, opening the door behind us, and we are pleading with God to stop it.  Keep it from crashing down on me!  Look!  Here it is!  And it overtakes us again, and we blame the Father for not doing something!

The second half of repentance is getting up, turning around and moving away from the old life of sin and destruction and toward the new life in Christ.  Moving toward God is as simple as singing a hymn and praising his name.  Singing a hymn puts our focus on God and away from ourselves.  Staying on the floor kneeling as the sin overtakes us again is still focusing on ourselves.  It's just a selfishness of desperation this time instead of self-indulgence.  We repent of the sin, confess it to God, and then we turn away, praising God through song and worship.  Focus on God is the final part of repentance, and it is the way we know we have truly repented.  The people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes, yes, but they then called on God earnestly and turned from their wicked ways.  That means they turned away from their sins and began moving toward God, with his name upon their lips.

Repenting is actually an uplifting exercise when it involves song and worship.  Praise be to God!