Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thy Kingdom Come

Message #2 in the series: the Lord's Prayer

Matthew 6:5-13 (look it up here)

What do you do when you don’t understand something? What do you do when someone uses a word you don’t understand? Admit it; you either figure it out from context, you smile and nod and back away slowly, or you incorporate that word into your daily vocabulary. Nobody asks “what do you mean by that?” Thus we end up as an ignorant generation, all because we didn’t want to look stupid by asking a question.

Ironic, isn’t it?

I believe that when it comes to talking about the Kingdom of God, we have ranged from smiling and nodding to incorporating kingdom language into our conversation without having a really good handle on what it means.

Last fall we studied Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, those who recognize their absolute need for God and their inability to succeed on their own. The Beatitudes are part of a larger sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, which is, in fact, the longest recorded of Jesus’ sermons. In this sermon, Jesus reorganized life and priorities. Our current series is a later part of the Sermon on the Mount, so Jesus has the same things in mind about the Kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of God is a wonderfully Jewish concept that Matthew loves, which is fitting, because Matthew wrote to a primarily Jewish audience. Last week I introduced you to the Qaddish, an ancient Jewish prayer. It starts “Exalted and hallowed be his great Name in the world which He created According to His will.” It continues: "May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the days of the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time.

The people of God have been eagerly awaiting the establishment of God’s Kingdom for years. But I wonder how many have missed out on it. Maybe we don’t understand the concept. The meaning is pretty straightforward: it is God’s sovereignty or rule.

Although the Old Testament does not specifically use the term “Kingdom of God”, it is full of the concept. God is called “Sovereign Lord” nearly 300 times, a kingly term. Psalm 24:10 affirms Who is he, this king of glory? The Lord Almighty – he is the king of glory. Psalm 10:16a: The Lord is king forever and ever; Psalm 146:10 The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.

These and the plethora of prophecies regarding the Messianic King in the line of David have given Kingdom of God such a Jewish nationalistic connotation that many have shied away from this language altogether. Thus, when speaking to Gentile audiences, instead of using Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven language, they turned to terms like “salvation” and “eternity” to describe the same concept.

In God’s original plan for the Jews, he chose Abraham and gave him plentiful descendants. He promised them the nation of Israel, God’s people, led by God as their king. When they were enslaved in Egypt, the demand to Pharaoh to let Israel go is the demand of the lawful king over against the usurper. God led them out of captivity, miraculously provided for them, led them in battle, and brought them into the Promised Land.

But by the time of 1 Samuel 8, they were fed up. All of the lands around them had kings, so they wanted one for themselves. God responded to their request by telling them, essentially, “your will be done.” In 1 Samuel 8:7, God told Samuel, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

They rejected God’s kingship over them. This has continually been the story of God’s people: rejecting His leadership time and again. Now, Jesus is instructing us to reverse that trend, and since he knows we can’t do it on our own, we must turn to God to do it for us. We plead for His Kingdom; to make Him King once again, that His will would be carried out here on earth, just like it is in heaven.

So, what does this look like? Jesus had a lot to say about the Kingdom and what it looked like. He used Kingdom of heaven and Kingdom of God terminology some 35 times in Matthew alone. Jesus took God’s promise to Abraham and gave them one better: He promised not just the kingdom of Israel, but the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom, instead of being geographical in nature, is dynamic. Instead of being limited to Jews, its entrance was opened to all. Only in this Kingdom could humanity find the fulfillment of its ultimate desires for righteousness, justice, peace, happiness, freedom from sin and guilt, and a restored relationship to God – an order in which God was king.

The Kingdom does come with some requirements, however. First, God’s Kingdom is not America! It isn’t a 21st century American representative republic. It is an absolute monarchy, with God as King. It doesn’t allow for elections to decide the course of action: it’s not even God’s way or the highway: there is no highway! Thus there are some solid requirements for participation in the Kingdom.

We must have a childlike faith. In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples asked who would be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ response was clear (18:3): Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Innocence, trust, and dependence are characteristics of little children. To be part of the Kingdom, we have to completely trust God for everything, just like a little child trusts her parents.

As part of the kingdom, we do not merely pay lip service to God. Jesus says (Mt 7:21) Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

In fact, Jesus says that whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:19-20). This is a key to understanding today’s section of the Lord’s Prayer; when we ask God for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking God to empower us to do his will. We can’t do it on our own. Thus receiving the Kingdom can never be misconstrued as a human achievement; it’s always an act of God. The Pharisees and teachers of the law added law upon law in order to try to make sure they didn’t break a law. The righteousness that Jesus talks about is a right relationship with God.

In his research, George Barna found that 80% of believers don’t sense they’ve entered into God’s presence during a typical worship service. ½ of all believers don’t believe they’ve entered into God’s presence/connected with him in an intimate way during the past year. If you haven’t even been in His presence, how can you believe that you are doing God’s will?

Another requirement of the Kingdom is for it to be our primary focus. When Jesus talks about worrying about food, drink, and clothes, and he finishes up saying (Mt. 6:33), “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The awesome thing about it is that when we do seek His Kingdom first, we receive it… and other rewards as well. In fact, he promises (Mk 10:29-30) that no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father of children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields – and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.

God does not force us to spend time with him or to obey him. We’ve seen what happens when that’s the plan; we are still mopping up the damages caused by the Crusades, when Christianity was spread with a sword. God does the opposite: he spreads the Good News with a cross. Therefore the kingdom must always be identified with Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is an already/not yet concept. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom, but we have not yet experienced its fullness. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of the Kingdom in only future terms.

Brian McLaren, a very visible figurehead for the Emergent church movement, has a lot to say about the Kingdom. Though I don’t always agree with everything he has to say, he makes a very valid point about our request to God about His Kingdom.

He comments that Jesus didn’t primarily come to take us to heaven. If he had, we’d have to amend the Lord’s Prayer to say something along the lines of “Thy Kingdom come, and take us to heaven when we die.” Since he didn’t say that, we’ve got to take seriously what he did say, and it will absolutely change the way we deal with people (especially those who are different than us). When we give a cup of cold water to someone, when we visit someone in prison, when we welcome a child… we embody Kingdom principles. Earthly kingdoms can be fine with bombing nations and locking people up and throwing away the key, but as Kingdom people, we aren’t OK with that. It changes everything.

When we limit God’s rule to heaven, we are guilty of not listening to Jesus. While McLaren says Jesus didn’t primarily come to save people for Heaven, I agree; Jesus’ mission was to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, which will culminate beautifully in heaven, face-to-face. But while we are here, we ask God for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done here on earth, just like it is in heaven. While we are here, we take seriously the implications of Kingdom living, that it radically reorganizes our priorities, that, as it says in Colossians 1:20, that through Jesus, God reconciles all things to Himself. All things. All things on earth as well as in heaven. That’s why we care, not only about all humans, but about taking care of the planet.

The Kingdom honors God’s name. The ethics of the Kingdom are the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. The Apostle Paul calls us “Christ’s ambassadors” as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20). As such, we have an obligation to know all that we can about Him and about His will. We don’t have the option to just have a “simple faith” that doesn’t really know anything about the God who we serve. We also need to know about the culture around us, as well. If you were president, what qualities would you want in a potential ambassador?

Wherever the Kingdom is preached, there’s a lot more that goes on as well. Repentance, for example. John the Baptist came, preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 3:2). When Jesus went out preaching the Good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, scripture says he also spent time healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and driving out demons (Mt 4:23). His mission wasn’t simply to heal. His mission was to prepare people to receive a right relationship with God.

Then when he sent out his disciples, his instructions were to “preach this message: ‘the kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons (Mt. 10:7-8). He is telling his disciples to behave like him. Of course, it’s natural for him to tell us to behave like him, because "Jesus’ actions always flow from his life of dependence on the Spirit, doing what he saw the Father doing, and providing a human model of what we should be doing" (J. P. Moreland). That’s what living life as an ambassador of the Kingdom. And that’s what we’re to do as well.

In 2005, University of Colorado Law School professor Paul Campos wrote:
Americans today are on average twice as rich, and far healthier, more youthful and safer than our predecessors were a half century ago… In other words, what is conventionally thought of as the American dream – that you will be better off than your parents, and that your children will in turn be better off than yourself – seems to be coming true. There’s just one problem with this rosy scenario… all this “progress” doesn’t seem to have made Americans any happier. American life is organized around a completely false principle – that ever-increasing levels of wealth, health, and liberty will produce ever-increasing levels of happiness. What people really need instead, he notes, is to acquire meaning in life.

The true meaning of life is Kingdom living. Dallas Willard said this:
Kingdom living is about stepping experientially into the practices of spiritual transformation and the “with God” life of power beyond yourself so that all the truths about God and his Kingdom become truths about your actual existence. This is reality. This is what we live for.

When we ask God for his kingdom to come and his will be done, we ask him to empower us to live that out, to be his ambassadors, to prepare ourselves and others to one day see him face-to-face, but to also experience him in the here and now.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Our Father

Message #1 in the series: The Lord's Prayer

5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9"This, then, is how you should pray:
" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.'

Matthew 6:5-13

Everyone knows that we’re supposed to pray. But how? We know we need to spend time with God in prayer, but what does that look like? Jesus’ disciples had the same question. In Luke’s account, his disciples see him praying ask him to teach them how to pray. In Matthew’s account, Jesus is teaching on prayer, including how not to pray,

So Jesus gives them the model that we still use today: we call it the Lord’s Prayer. We will be spending the next six weeks looking at this model, asking Jesus to teach us to pray.

Today we start with the salutation. This is important because proper worship depends on having the right ideas about who you’re praying to. I used to wonder why we prayed “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven.” We pray to “our Father in Heaven.”

The first word in this prayer is loaded. Jesus tells us to address God in community. God is always our Father, not simply my Father.

That God is our Father points to the intimate relationship between God and his children. The very term “Father” is important and is often dismissed in these days of political correctness. The most PC Christians will often talk about God as creator, sustainer, and protector of creation, but there must be room to talk about God as Father, not just a builder or craftsman. This shouldn’t be confused with biological fatherhood; instead, God’s Fatherhood is concerned with adoption. We talk about when life starts; in bible times, a child was not considered alive until the father had decided to adopt that child. If the father didn’t want the child, it would be abandoned, but if the father wanted the baby, he would adopt him or her. Thus by calling God our Father, we are accepting His adoption of us.

In Luke 10:22, Jesus tells his disciples that No one knows the Father but the Son and the one to whom the Son revealed him. Thus in this prayer, Jesus reveals who the Father is. By doing this, Jesus invites them, and us, to regard God as Father and ourselves as God’s children.

This is important because in accepting this status, we are also accepting the notion that children are supposed to represent the nature of their father in their character. If we are truly His children, we should look like him! Our DNA should match His! Our Deeds, Nature, and Attitude. In accepting His Fatherhood, we are also announcing our own subordinance in rank and authority to God. Furthermore, we are admitting that we need Him. We can’t do it all ourselves, and, if we are using this Prayer as a model, we probably don’t even know what to pray for! So let’s let the Lord’s Prayer teach us how to pray.

The first thing we pray for is bound up in the initial phrase. I would bet that most of us don’t even know what we’re saying when we say, “Hallowed be thy name.” This phrase means “sanctify your name” or “set your holy name apart.” Jesus didn’t make this request up; it was a part of a traditional Jewish prayer, the Qaddish.

Exalted and hallowed be his great Name Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba

In the world which He created According to His will. b'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei

May He establish His kingdom In your lifetime and in your days, v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon

And in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil

Speedily and at a near time. ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru:

And say, Amen. Amein.

This is an extremely important request because it assumes that God’s name hasn’t been adequately set apart. In fact, the opposite has been true: God’s name has been profaned. In Ezekiel 36:20-21, we read this:

20 And wherever [Israel] went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, 'These are the LORD's people, and yet they had to leave his land.' 21 I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

As God’s children, it is our obligation to sanctify God’s name. We do this by behaving in accord with God’s character. However, if you read the Old Testament or if you look at our human experience, we are much better at profaning His name. We say we are Christians, but we behave like the world (or even worse, in some cases). Ask anyone who has worked as a server; typically the worst customers and the worst tippers come on Sunday after church…

The reason we pray to God to set his holy name apart is not simply because we humans have profaned it. In Hebrew thought, there is a much stronger relationship between a name and a person; one’s name is indistinguishable from one’s character. So we ask God to show His character. His character can be described by such words as great, awesome, mighty and honorable, merciful, gracious, righteous, and true. He is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

We, as His children, are supposed to look like Him. Do we? Because we humans are incapable of honoring God’s name to the extent that we are responsible to. Remember that the only reason we pray is because we need help? If we could do it ourselves, we wouldn’t need to ask God to do it!

God’s response is recorded in Ezekiel 36:22-32. 22 "Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.

24 " 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign LORD. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel!

For us, the word “ashamed” doesn’t carry the weight that it did in bible times, but honor and shame were a huge deal then. If you ever watched those old Kung Fu movies, you probably have a greater idea of the concept of shame than some. What Ezekiel is saying is that because of their (poor) actions and behavior, and because of God’s gracious response, the house of Israel has been shamed. Their response, the only available response to such shame, must be to change their actions, to honor God.

2 Timothy 2:19: “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” Naming the name of God means identifying fully with God and his sovereignty and thus turning from wickedness. This is why we pray to God to sanctify His name, to cause us humans to sanctify His name. This petition is like asking God to use me. As Isaiah says, “You, O LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter.”

So as we ask God to sanctify His Name, to set apart His Holy Name, we are also asking Him to transform us into the kind of people who glorify His name everywhere we go. We don’t just passively ask, but then we go out and let our actions show that He is working through us.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Obituary Was Wrong

John 20:1-18

We all read them. Oh, don’t deny it. You know you do. We read them for different reasons, but it’s hard to skip them. I’m talking about the obituaries. I know several people who have told me that the first thing they do in the morning is check the paper for the obituaries. As long as they don’t find theirs, then they need to get up and go about their daily duties!

A few years ago, a technical glitch on the CNN web site revealed obituaries for several famous but not-yet-dead people. Here’s the story, according to Snopes dot com, a web site for debunking urban legends and myths.

It should come as no surprise to those who follow the media that most news outlets prepare obituaries for many prominent political and entertainment figures (especially those advanced in years or in poor health) well before their deaths. The passing of a famous personage is always big news, and nobody wants to get scooped by losing time scrambling to compile an obituary for someone who has died unexpectedly. Since obituaries primarily consist of background biographical information and recountings of career highlights, they can easily be worked up long ahead of time; when the sad day comes, all they require is a little updating and the insertion of details about the time and manner of death, and they're ready to run.

Of course, given our squeamishness about confronting the subject of death, no news outlet likes to advertise the fact that they prepare death notices in advance. This isn't usually an issue, save for the [not so] rare occasions when a newspaper or TV network hastily reacts to a death rumor by rushing out an obituary without proper verification, then has to issue an embarrassing "Sorry, he's not dead yet" retraction. (And even in such a case, it isn't obvious to the public that the obit had already been worked up long before the rumor broke.)

Unfortunately, CNN was caught a bit red-faced on April 16, 2003 when they discovered that a technical glitch had made some obituary templates they'd prepared for several famous but not-yet-dead persons (Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Gerald Ford) accessible to the general public via one of their development web sites.


On Good Friday, Jesus’ obituary was written. I can imagine that some of the religious leaders of the time might have written it up in advance, even trying to sound “fair and balanced” in their treatment of Him. They would, of course, want to bring His followers back under their control, so they would have to be delicate in their treatment of Him.

Maybe that obituary would have read something like this:
JERUSALEM – Jesus of Nazareth, formerly of Bethlehem and Egypt, and most recently, homeless, died Friday at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, of crucifixion. Jesus was born circa 3 BC in Bethlehem. His father was Joseph the carpenter, and his mother was Mary. His father, Joseph, and his cousin John the Baptist preceded him in death. He is survived by his mother, Mary, of Capernaum and his brothers, James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, also of Capernaum, and several sisters. He spent the last three years of his life as an itinerate minister, where witnesses claimed he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored the lame. He was also rumored to have fed 5000 men at one time and another 4000 at another time. This past Sunday, he made news in Jerusalem, riding into town in a kingly ceremony hearkening back to the days of King Jehu. Thursday evening, following a private Passover celebration with his closest associates, Jesus was arrested at the Mount of Olives. In his trial, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, but he chose to act as his own council and offered no defense and called no witnesses to defend him. Friday afternoon, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator, sentenced him to death, despite going on the record having found him innocent. He was executed at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha Hill, outside Jerusalem city proper. He was buried in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish high council. As he died on Friday afternoon, the memorial service will not be held until Sunday morning, following the Sabbath.

So this was the way it would end. The stories of Jesus would remain for a while, and maybe someone would one day write about him, much like others wrote about the Maccabean rebellion – a good idea that didn’t make much difference in the end. His disciples had already scattered, and after a while, the stories about his miracles would fade away.

Except for one small fact. On the third day, when the women went to his tomb, bringing embalming spices, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty! The obituary was wrong! Jesus wasn’t dead! Sure, he had been dead – the obituary was right about that part. But he was no longer dead!

The Jerusalem Times would have to issue a “sorry, he’s not dead!” retraction. In fact, here we are, nearly two thousand years later, and we’re celebrating that retraction. We celebrate that Jesus is alive, that He conquered death once and for all, that God raised Him from the dead, that the obituary was wrong. So, what is it about Easter that brings us to celebrate like we do? Why is this the biggest holiday in Christianity? It is precisely because Jesus defeated death, and what is scarier and more powerful than death?

We began our preparation for Easter back in February as we observed Ash Wednesday, where we contemplated our mortality. We mourned our sinfulness and asked God to remove our sin from us as far as the east is removed from the west. Then during the past six weeks, we dug deep into our emotional health. These were heavy services with difficult topics. It isn’t easy to introspectively examine yourself, especially if you’re finding ugly stuff that hasn’t been dealt with for years. It’s not been easy preparing these messages, either, as they have required me to be brutally open and honest with you.

But on Easter Sunday, we celebrate! We remember that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus conquered death! That last great enemy… vanquished!

But for many American churches, especially in mainline denominations such as ours, it seems like we stopped reading after we read the obituary. We got the Good Friday message; that Jesus died on a cross, but we never read the paper after that. We completely missed out on the retraction!

For so many, the church has become a mausoleum, the tomb of Jesus. We reverently remember Him. Every season, you faithfully bring flowers to His grave. You still have a picture of Him on your end table, and His book is on your nightstand. You used to think you heard His voice. You used to recognize His handiwork all around you. But as the years went on, you saw Him less and less and you stopped hearing Him. Now, He’s more like a distant memory. It’s fun to tell the stories about when Jesus used to be alive. You make sure His grave looks nice so anyone can come and remember Him reverently with you.

Can you imagine what it would be like to watch this happen? I think it would look a lot like the movie The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist. In an early scene, he is having a conversation with Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, who reveals: I see dead people...Walking around like regular people...They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead.

Now, I don’t feel bad about ruining the surprise ending of this movie for you – it’s a nine-year-old movie. In the end of the movie, we find out that Bruce Willis’ character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe died, that all along he’s been one of Cole’s “dead people.” However, he, and, presumably, the audience, don’t realize this until the end. The most difficult part of the movie is watching Crowe’s wife go on without him. First she’s taking anti-depressants, and she watches their wedding video a lot. Later, she’s removed her wedding ring, and then we see her going out on a date. Crowe, who doesn’t know that he’s dead, is devastated.

Unfortunately, the way Crowe’s wife behaved is the way that many behave regarding Jesus. You had a great relationship with Him, but that was before He died. Now it’s time to get on with your life.

No! He’s alive! The obituary was wrong! This building isn’t a mausoleum! The altar isn’t a grave! He’s alive! We celebrate Easter because of Jesus’ victory over death. That victory was over physical death and was also a victory over spiritual death. In Romans 6:3-4, Paul sums this up when he writes, Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Paul goes on to say this in verse 11: In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So what this means is that, in one sense, Jesus has already written obituaries. Not for us, exactly, but for our sin nature. They say things like this: Dateline Easter: your sin nature, originally descended from Adam and Eve, died with your baptism into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This sin nature was full of every kind of evil, and though most of it never came to fruition, it was capable of whatever sin you could imagine. There will be no visitation for the deceased sin nature, and the memorial service will be held on Easter, when Jesus defeated that sin nature and death once and for all. Your sin nature is survived by the Holy Spirit, which now resides in you.

What does the rest of it look like? Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, because He will help you fill in the blanks. He will encourage you and guide you. Now that your sin nature is dead, you get to live the full life that you were meant to live, that God intended for you. This is why we spent six weeks dealing with our emotional health, with the 90% beneath the surface, with grief and loss, with the power of the past, with brokenness and vulnerability. We dealt with it so that we can become who God intended us to be… so we can live lives filled with the Spirit of the Living God. We don’t have to settle for anything less.

And when we are living lives filled by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit bears fruit in every Christian. What is this fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These character traits are found in Jesus Christ, and if we are alive in Him, we will necessarily demonstrate them.

To gain these traits, we must know Him, love Him, remember Him, and imitate Him. If you aren’t bearing spiritual fruit, perhaps your obituary was no mistake. It’s as simple as agriculture – Christians are meant to bear fruit. If we’re not bearing spiritual fruit, perhaps it’s time for CNN to pull out the obituary that was already written for you, the one that says, “Spiritually dead.” Nobody wants that. So allow God, the Creator of all, to re-create you – full of life. Ask the Living Christ, who defeated death, to reign in your life. Invite the Holy Spirit, who makes all things new, to make you new, to bear fruit in you and through you.

Good Friday

Isaiah 53

It’s not popular to talk about this Jesus. We like our Jesus to be neat and tidy, like he was in his senior picture, wearing that clean white robe. We like to see him happy, playing with children, healing people, feeding thousands, walking on water and turning water into wine.

It’s another story to look at Jesus suffering. I have a theory as to why we often don’t look at this side of Jesus. My theory is this: if we think about a happy, smiling Jesus, we can ignore the cross. We can bump him straight from earth to heaven without a struggle. Without suffering.

Why would we want to do that?

Recognizing Jesus as the suffering servant from Isaiah, the one who was despised and rejected, leads to the realization that: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

We caused Him to suffer. It was your sins and mine that nailed him to the cross. We may consider him stricken by God, and it certainly felt like that to Him on the cross, as He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It can be easy to point fingers at other people, especially horrible people like Hitler and Stalin, because my sins are just little things; they don’t hurt anybody. Do you see the problem with that? Besides putting ourselves in the judgment seat, supplanting Jesus Himself, in essence, declaring ourselves to be gods, we end up playing the blame game. Everyone else is to blame, certainly not me. It’s not my sins. I didn’t crucify anyone. It must be those Romans. Or those Jews. Not me.

Oh really? You didn’t crucify anyone? It was because of your sins, because of my sins, that Jesus hung upon the cross.

There is a telling moment in Luke’s account of the Last Supper, where Jesus has just dropped the bombshell: The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table (Luke 22:21). Listen to what happened next: They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this. Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest (Luke 22:23-24).

On the surface, this is hard to fathom; Jesus has just told them that one of them would betray Him, and already they’re arguing about who’s the greatest. But that’s what naturally happens when we stratify ourselves. Even the very thought of “surely not I, Lord” is a stratification of a kind. “Because I’m so great, I would never betray the LORD.” Yet, in every one of our sins, we do exactly that.

Remember that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross.

The other reason to focus on Jesus, the man of sorrows is this: If we can ignore Jesus’ suffering, we can also spiritualize some of his statements away. We can pretend that he was talking in allegory when he said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-35).

That must pertain to someone else. He couldn’t have really meant it literally. Because I’m supposed to live a nice life. Being like Jesus means “getting along with others” doesn’t it? Everyone is supposed to like me and be happy with me, and as a Christian, I will be able to please everybody.

The unfortunate thing is that once we skip over the very real suffering that Jesus went through, and we delude ourselves into thinking that the Christian life is supposed to be sunshine and roses. And when it’s not, we lash out at God for “not holding his end of the bargain” – when that wasn’t His end at all or we ditch our faith. The truth is, it is hard to be a Christian. We are called to fully enter into life, not just ours, but the lives of others, too. It isn’t easy.

But when we really know Jesus, the real Jesus, when we know the Jesus who had no beauty or majesty to attract us, when we know the Jesus who was despised and rejected, when we know the Jesus who suffered, we know a Jesus who fully entered into our existence and experienced the worst this world has to offer. So then when trouble comes our way, we can turn to Jesus, because we know he understands, because we know that he has experienced it… and that He has something in store for us.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Following Jesus' Example of Loving Well

6th message in our series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey toward mature discipleship*.

The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the King of Israel!"

Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,
"Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey's colt."

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

John 12:12-16

It is a fantastic scene: Jesus coming into Jerusalem triumphantly: for as humble as it may seem, this was the answer to prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Truth is, this text, when taken by itself, doesn’t lend itself well to a message on emotional health, especially on Jesus’ example of loving well. I actually struggled with the decision to include the Palm Sunday narrative at all or to fittingly focus Easter Sunday’s message on Jesus’ example of loving well. As it is, I decided to go ahead with both the Palm Sunday text as well as continuing the series on emotional health, because Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is narrative indicative of his love.

There is a Native American saying that goes To truly understand other human beings, we must first walk a mile in their moccasins. There’s a great seminary word to describe what the Native Americans were talking about; that word is incarnation.

Mohandas Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea in the 4th Century said: “Annunciations are frequent, and incarnations are rare.” Meaning, bold announcements about what God is doing or saying are common, while people who follow Jesus’ humble way are much more difficult to find.

Part of our problem is that we Christians often announce what God is doing, but then we don’t live like Jesus. An emotionally healthy Christian doesn’t just tell what God is doing or saying, but acts on it. When she was in college, my sister had a guy tell her, “God told me we were going to get married.” My sister’s response was subtle: “That’s great! But until God tells me the same thing, get lost, creep!” (she told me to tell you that he wore horrible cologne and sprayed it in the vents of his car so it was a stinking, choking mess). The guy was long on declarations from the Lord, but he was short on the other aspects that she was looking for in a potential suitor.

We humans are looking for more than proclamation; we’re looking for God. That’s why sometimes you can go to a church service and hear an incredible sermon and go away feeling just as empty as when you came; because we want, we need to experience God as well as hear from him.

In his book The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Ronald Rolheiser writes:

There is a marvelous story told about a four-year old girl who awoke one night frightened – convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone, she ran to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on a light and reassured the child with these words: “You needn’t be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.”

She replied, “I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!”
God knew we needed his skin, not simply the knowledge that he is everywhere. Thus what it means to be a Christian can only be understood in light of the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation: God took on flesh. John 1:14 is one of the most important verses you can ever learn: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

People today are desperate for “skin”: to be loved, for someone to incarnate with them. They struggle silently: does anyone have any idea of what’s going on in your life? The pain, the agony, the loneliness? Does anybody care? God knew there was no better way to show himself to human beings than by fully entering our world – physically and emotionally.

And as God’s followers, we have been called to follow Jesus’ example of loving well. This is the final principle of emotionally healthy people because it progresses on the previous five messages:

1. We look beneath the surface of our lives so we can share parts of ourselves that we would otherwise never have explored.

2. We break the power of the past, because, having done so, we are able to probe and explore other people’s unique journey and defining moments.

3. Walking in brokenness and vulnerability, our defenses are down enough that we can go beyond surface relationships with others.

4. We receive the gift of limits and boundaries, which allows us to last in ministry.

5. Because we have grieved our own pain and loss, we are able to grieve with others theirs.

Incarnation calls out of the literal, physical comfort zones to meet people where they are. This may sound radical, because we are certainly called to be cross-cultural; but if you want to think radical, Jesus left heaven for earth!

In Philippians 2:3-5, the Apostle Paul writes this: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as Jesus Christ.

As the Native Americans said, “Walk a mile in their moccasins.” As we follow Jesus “incarnate.” Unfortunately, Our fast pace of life and our inability to say “no” to good things in order to say “yes” to the best thing has made it hard, if not impossible to do life together, let alone to serve one another as Jesus served us: He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Jesus’ example is this: putting others first, humbling himself, and obedience.

Putting others first is extremely hard. Henri Nouwen articulated the struggle: one voice says to succeed and achieve. Nouwen spent most of his life heeding this voice: teaching at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale, writing more than a book a year, with a speaking and ministry schedule that threatened to suffocate his spiritual life. The other voice was God’s, telling him he was unconditionally loved. He had nothing to prove. This voice told him the goal of ministry was to recognize the Lord’s voice, his face, and his touch in every person he met. Only in the last 10 years of his life, he said, did he truly listen to that second voice. With the ever-increasing demands on our busy lives, it is very difficult to hear that second voice.

If you want to enter someone else’s world, you must listen. Henri Nouwen said:
To care means first of all to be present to each other. From experience you know that those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak, they speak to you. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms, and they encourage you to take your own life seriously.
In his book Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, David Augsburger wrote: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

Are you a good listener? You’ve got a bulletin inserts with a listening quiz on it (if you want a copy of the listening quiz, ask for one in the comments with an e-mail address, and I'll send you one). Take it home and answer the questions on it; you might find out a thing or two. And if you’re really brave, ask a family member or friend to take the quiz… answering for you!

If you want to be a good listener, try reflective listening. The speaker has the floor; don’t go on and on. Listener repeats back to make sure that he/she understands what was said. Listener attempts to enter the world of the speaker, laying aside questions, agendas, defenses, and simply seeks to understand the other person’s experience. Validate the person; you don’t have to necessarily agree with them, but show understanding. Explore their answers: act like a reporter: “tell me more; help me understand.”

Next, to follow Jesus’ example, we must humble ourselves. Jesus did this by washing his disciples’ feet. In seminary, all of our core classes were titled: “the Servant as…” meaning that the emphasis in evangelism was to serve others. The emphasis of teaching was service. The emphasis of preaching… service. But many pastors have been trained to “teach and instruct” instead of “listen and learn” and there are not enough pastors to be personal pastor to every church member! That’s why we pastors aren’t the only ministers in the church; we, as the Church are called to be servants, to humble ourselves and be God’s hands and feet.

Know that humbling ourselves must come in the context of setting proper boundaries! In the scripture I read today, Jesus entered into Jerusalem in kingly fashion, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. In Luke’s account (19:39-40), some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” “I tell you, he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” What a great chance to take over, to overthrow Roman rule of “the place”. Yet we, 2000 years later, know that Jesus’ mission was not to become an earthly king, but to humble himself, even to death on a cross. This is a good time to mention what happened back in John 6:14-15: After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did [feeding the 5000], they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Why did Jesus do this? Because he wanted to be fully obedient to his purpose. Our purpose is to love God and to love one another. This is not easy. Remember, Jesus’ obedient love took him to the cross. Life would have been more comfortable without entering into our world, without inviting upon Himself the suffering, pain, and death that His Incarnation required. Jesus hung on a cross between Heaven and earth.

It was messy.

The implications for us are overwhelming. Those of us who want to move on from our past, those who have come to the end of the road, can start with our unchanged life, now. We don’t have to wait until we are “mature.” We don’t have to move to a new town or convince others we are serious; we simply start. We begin. We take the first bumbling, stumbling teetering steps toward the spiritual life, even if we’re not very good at it. (Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality).

No matter how much we’ve grown, we still need to grow more. No matter how mature we are, we never stop maturing. And no matter how unspiritual we are, as long as we want to grow more, Jesus will show up in the life of even the messiest of disciples. Take Daryl, for example.

Every month, the youth group at River Road Church visited Holcomb Manor, a local nursing home, to hold church services for the residents. Daryl, a reluctant youth group volunteer, did not like nursing homes. For a long time, he had avoided the monthly services. But when a flu epidemic depleted the group of sponsors, Daryl agreed to help with the next month’s service, as long as he didn’t have to be part of the program.

During the service, Daryl felt awkward and out of place. He leaned against the back wall, between two residents in wheelchairs. Just as the service finished and Daryl was thinking about a quick exit, someone grabbed his hand. Startled, he looked down and saw a very old, frail, and obviously lonely man in a wheelchair. What could Daryl do but hold the man’s hand? The man’s mouth hung open, and his face held no expression. Daryl doubted whether he could hear or see anything.

As everyone began to leave, Daryl realized he didn’t want to leave the old man. Daryl had been left too many times in his own life. Caught somewhat off-guard by his feelings, Daryl leaned over and whispered, “I’m uh sorry, I have to leave, but I’ll be back. I promise.” Without warning the man squeezed Daryl’s hand and then let go. As Daryl’s eyes filled with tears, he grabbed his stuff and started to leave. Inexplicably, he heard himself say to the old man, “I love you,” and he thought, Where did that come from? What’s the matter with me?

Daryl returned the next month and the month after that. Each time it was the same. Daryl would stand in the back, Oliver would grab his hand, Daryl would say that he had to leave, Oliver would squeeze his hand, and Daryl would say softly, “I love you, Mr. Leak.” (he had learned his name, of course). As the months went on, about a week before the Holcomb Manor service, Daryl would find himself looking forward to visiting his aged friend.

On Daryl’s sixth visit, the service started, but Oliver hadn’t been wheeled out. Daryl didn’t feel too concerned at first, because it often took the nurses a long time to wheel everyone out. But halfway into the service, Daryl became alarmed. He went to the head nurse, who asked him to follow her to room 27. Oliver lay in his bed, eyes closed, breathing uneven. Daryl knew he was near death. Slowly he walked to the bed and grabbed Oliver’s hand. When he didn’t respond, tears filled Daryl’s eyes. He knew he might never see Oliver alive again. As Daryl stood to leave, he squeezed Mr. Leak’s hand for the last time. “I’m sorry, Oliver, I have to go. I love you.” As he unclasped his hand, he felt a squeeze. Now the tears were unstoppable, and Daryl stumbled to the door. A young woman was standing at the door, and Daryl almost bumped into her. He apologized. “It’s all right. I’ve been waiting to see you.” She said. “I’m Oliver’s grandaughter. I wanted to meet you. The doctors told me he was dying, so I came immediately. They said he couldn’t talk, but he’s been talking to me. Not much, but I know what he is saying. Last night he woke up. His eyes were bright and alert. He looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘Please say goodbye to Jesus for me,’ and then he laid back down and closed his eyes.

“I whispered to him, “Grandpa, I don’t need to say goodbye to Jesus; you’re going to be with him soon, and you can tell him hello.’ Grandpa struggled to open his eyes again. This time his face lit up with a mischievous smile, and he said as clearly as I’m talking to you, ‘I know, but Jesus comes to see me every month, and he might not know I’ve gone.’ He closed his eyes and hasn’t spoken since.

“I told the nurse what he’d said, and she told me about you, coming every month, holding Grandpa’s hand. I want to thank you for him, for me… and, well, I never thought of Jesus as being as chubby and bald as you, but I imagine that Jesus is very glad to have had you be mistaken for him. I know Grandpa is. Thank you.”

Oliver Leak died peacefully the next morning. If a reluctant follower like Daryl can be mistaken for Jesus, maybe you and I can, too (Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality).

*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.