Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dead or Alive

John 11:1-44

They say that the two things we can count on in this life are death and taxes.  And although it’s almost taboo to talk about death in our culture, I’m sure not touching taxes with a ten foot pole.  So we’re stuck talking about death.

Think about how hard it is to talk about death; we have all sorts of phrases we use to avoid even saying the word.  “passed away” “passed on” “went to be with the LORD” or (Tara’s grandfather’s old favorite) “six feet under.”  We have our bodies embalmed and we say things at funerals like “oh, she looks so natural!” – and sometimes it’s true.  Our culture is obsessed with looking younger and staving off old age.  Just ask a woman how old she is… or maybe don’t!  But here’s the deal: we’re mortal.  We will all die.  The only thing we can be absolutely certain of is that this life always ends with death.  And I don’t think we like that much.  So we do everything we can to avoid even the thought of death.

Furthermore, we do everything we can possibly do to prolong this mortal life.  Think about it; if you don’t want to end up on a ventilator and feeding tube, you have to be clear with your loved ones that this not happen.  The default position is to keep the body alive, even “heroic measures” to prolong life. 

Jesus is well aware of this, and he does something strange; he waits two days before taking any action.  Instead of rushing to Bethany, instead of healing his friend Lazarus on the spot (remember, he has already shown us that he has the ability to do this), or instead of zooming to Bethany (remember after he walked on water, when the disciples took him into the boat, immediately they made it to the other side), he instead waits two days. (Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.) Why would Jesus wait?  Mary and Martha both agree that Jesus could have healed Lazarus.  But now he’s dead.  And there’s no healing death.  It’s the end, the one thing to be feared by everyone.  And Jesus waits on purpose and doesn’t heal Lazarus, and he dies.

Why on earth would Jesus do this? 

For two reasons.  First:  because Jesus is always working in His own timing, not in ours.

Remember this: Jesus does things for a purpose and for a reason.  When he tells us to wait, it’s on purpose.  I’ve lived through this multiple times; when I’ve wanted God to do something for me right now, when I’ve wanted out of hard situations now, and God has told me to wait.  Every time I’ve looked back and realized that God was working in my life then and there and if He hadn’t waited, I wouldn’t have been ready for what I was asking for.  It’s a good reminder that God is not in a hurry.

Jesus also waited because he wanted everyone to know that Lazarus was dead. 

Around Jesus’ time, they had a saying: “For three days [after death] the soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs.” I suppose, short of our modern methods of declaring someone dead, they had to wait to see if a body was really dead before they pronounced it dead.

So Jesus waited on purpose until he and everyone else knew that Lazarus was dead.  This miracle wouldn’t work if people could say, “Lazarus was just in a coma.”  When Tara was young, her brother had a pet chameleon.  One day their mom came in to find it dead in its cage, so she threw it in the trash.  When my brother-in-law came home and ate his snack, there was his chameleon, on top of the trash can!  So he picked it out and stroked it, and, behold! it came back to life!  This isn’t what happened with Jesus.  There was no question about Lazarus.  He wasn’t “mostly dead” – he was dead, and even Martha acknowledged that he was stinky dead.  (11:39 "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.")

So Jesus prepares for a miracle.  But before the miracle happens, we have an important conversation between Jesus and Martha.  Many Christians remember Martha from the incident where she was scurrying around all busy and got offended that Mary wasn’t helping; Jesus told her that Mary had chosen what was right and it wouldn’t be taken away from her.  So Martha sometimes gets a bad rap.  But here, she makes a powerful statement of faith.

"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

Martha believes in Jesus’ power.  She knows He can heal.  But she also recognizes that Jesus has a special “in” with God.  And she makes it clear that she believes in the afterlife.  She knows that the resurrection of the dead will happen.  She is a woman of great faith.

So Jesus makes an amazing statement, again using the “I AM” word that we’ve heard from him several times.  I am the bread of life.  I am the light of the world. Remember that “I AM” is a powerful statement from Jesus, one through which he identifies himself using the same name that God spoke to Moses through the burning bush.

So once again, Jesus is identifying himself as God.  This is absolutely vital. But he’s saying something more.  Martha said she believed in the resurrection at the last day, but Jesus is saying, I am the resurrection and the life.”

Remember that he said this before he did anything for Lazarus.  Real life is in him, is only found in him – nowhere else – and there is no death for those who believe in him. 

To this, Martha makes an incredible statement of faith. "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

Do you have the faith of Martha?  The one whose brother lay in the grave.  The one who waited for Jesus, the One she trusted for healing, and he didn’t come.  Yet she has the faith to affirm her trust in Him as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world, the long-awaited Deliverer, the one sent by God to accomplish his will perfectly.

Amazing faith.  Martha is agreeing with Jesus, accepting his way, not just choosing her own way.  And Jesus goes on to do what nobody expected.  Nobody expected an act of resurrection.

Then along came Mary and the rest of the mourners.  They were weeping and wailing, as was the custom; making a whole lot of noise.  They would have had flute players and professional mourners – can you imagine that being your job? It even seems like some of them made their way all the way from Jerusalem.  And while they wept loudly, Jesus was profoundly moved (When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. - John 11:33) and wept.  Know that he experienced no light emotion, but he did not wail loudly. In other words, this wasn’t for show.  It was because he was deeply moved.

For you Bible trivia fans, here’s the shortest verse in the Bible: John 11:35: Jesus wept.  For this being such a short verse, commentaries have struggled greatly with it.  Probably because they just don’t expect Jesus to weep.  After all, he knows that he’s going to resurrect Lazarus.  That has been his purpose ever since he heard that Lazzie was sick. Yet he still cries.

Though commentaries have offered all sorts of explanations, I think the face value reading is correct: Jesus was overcome with emotion.  Even though he knew that Lazarus would later die, even though he knew that he was holding Lazarus back from heaven, even though he knew that some of the people around would misunderstand the whole situation, even though all of that could be true, I believe Jesus simply wept because of Lazarus’ death.

And if Jesus wept, doesn’t that give each and every one of us the permission to grieve and mourn?  Though Paul wrote to the Thessalonican church We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [die], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  He goes on to tell us to encourage each other with the hope of resurrection.  Yet in the meantime, it’s hard.  And Jesus Himself, aware of the resurrection, wept.  So we who await the resurrection of our loved ones, are allowed to as well.
Furthermore, a weeping Jesus is a Jesus who cares.  This is vitally important.  Jesus actually cares.  We don’t serve a god who is stoic and unaffected by humanity.  We serve the God who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

And we serve a God who weeps over death.  A God who is saddened by sin.  If you look back through your Bible, you’ll find that from the very beginning, sin is what led to death.  Sin brought death into the world, and it disconnects us from God.  Sin equals death. Sin makes God weep; does sin make us weep?  Does your own sin and your own proclivity toward sinful behavior upset you?  How about sinful behavior of others?

And then Jesus prays.  It’s important that we see him pray here, because it’s a reminder that Jesus isn’t working on his own agenda.  He is working God’s agenda here.  Unlike the “faith healers” who ply their trade on earth, Jesus isn’t in it for his own glory.  He only wants to glorify God.  Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." What an awesome attitude.  He already knows it, but he still prays it as a reminder to the people who will witness the miracle.
And then he invites Lazarus to come out. Instead of incantations or spells, Jesus speaks clearly, a familiar action for the One who spoke the world into existence, and Lazarus is brought back to life.

Like all of the other vital signs we have experienced from Jesus, there is a dual purpose to this one.  The first one was to bring Lazarus back to life.  This is only a short-term miracle, because Lazarus has since died.  So there is a deeper purpose.  To establish Jesus as THE life-giver. The moment we put our trust in Jesus we begin to experience that life of the age to come which cannot be touched by death.

We don’t have to wait until the afterlife to begin to really live.  We begin as soon as we accept Jesus.  Martha began it on her confession of Him.  In the past two weeks, our congregation has watched Steve George and Dawn Simpson start that new life through baptism. And you can begin today.

Because if you’re not living the life Jesus died to give you, quite simply put, you’re already dead.  Which will it be?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Blind Crossing

John 9:1-41: Look Out

I don’t know what it was like in your school, but in my school, the cool kids were in the science club.  Well, maybe not the cool kids, per se, but anyway, I was in the science club.  We actually did some really fun activities, including spelunking.  That’s the fancy science word for cave exploring.  We trekked a couple of miles into the backcountry until we got to the cave entrance, and then, flashlights in hand, we went into the cave.  As we got deeper in, it got darker until the only light came from our flashlights.  At one point our guide told us to turn off our flashlights and to be silent.  If you’ve been there, you know how dark it was.  It’s can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. We only stayed in that darkness for a few moments, but it was striking.

It was so good to get to see again.  As we once again turned on our flashlights, as light shone into the darkness and illuminated the cave, we once again appreciated the ability to see.  In John 9, we meet a man who appreciated the ability to see; he had been blind since he was born. 

Jesus’ disciples’ reaction to this blind guy is pretty typical, isn’t it?  We find out later that this guy was a beggar – do they offer to give him money or ask Jesus to heal him?  No, they ask a philosophical/theological question.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  The underlying theory was that someone sinned.  This is why bad things happen.  Either this guy sinned (possibly while he was still in the womb), or his parents sinned. 

Jesus cuts to the chase here.  Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:3).  Did you get that?  Many times we get hung up on a difficulty, a handicap, a problem, or a struggle.  We sit in figurative darkness and cannot see our own hands in front of our eyes, let alone God’s hand in our lives.  We can’t see beyond the issue.  And worse, we elevate the issue to the primary spot in our lives.  In all practicality, we’re saying, “God is less powerful than my handicap.”

What happens when we accept that God might have allowed us to go through tough things for a reason?  That maybe God will use you, the one who has suffered greatly, to do great things? In his commentary The Gospel of John, F.F. Bruce put it this way: God overruled the disaster of the child’s blindness so that, when the child grew to manhood, he might, by recovering his sight, see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

This guy gets to go from not seeing anything straight to seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus!  This guy can really appreciate Jesus – kind of like how much everyone has been appreciating the sunny, warm weather.  When the weather we’ve been having comes in October, people complain at how “cold” it’s getting, but when it comes, melting February’s snow, we really appreciate it.

Jesus then makes an awesome statement: I am the light of the world. You’re ready for this statement, aren’t you?  Only a couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus say “I am the bread of life” and we went into the ramifications of the words he used.  He is equating himself with God here, using the same “I AM” that God spoke to Moses in the burning bush.

In the preface to John’s Gospel, we read this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5).  If we’ve read this and continue reading John’s gospel, we should understand that Jesus is making it abundantly clear who He is.  He is using God’s Name to describe Himself. He is saying that He Himself is the light shining in the darkness. 

Did you notice how John describes the Word?  As co-creator with God… and then, Jesus makes a physical demonstration of his creative power.  Much like God created humans from the dust, Jesus mixes dirt and saliva and re-creates the man’s sight.

Jesus is truly the light of the world.

Not everyone “gets” it.  This isn’t surprising – especially from the readings I’ve been doing this past week in my “through the Bible in 40 days” journey. I’ve been in Isaiah, where Isaiah prophesied the coming king who would reign in righteousness, where the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. (Isaiah 32:3)

Isaiah 42:6-7 likewise prophesies: “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.  I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”  This is exactly what Jesus is doing!  In one action, Jesus has fulfilled the prophecy from Isaiah.  He demonstrates his ability to give sight to the blind. He releases this man from the captivity of his disability.  And he brings light to those who have been sitting in utter darkness, releasing them from their dungeons.

But not everyone is pleased with this development.  The Pharisees, the holiness movement folks who have been doing their best to walk in God’s ways, don’t get it at all.  They determine that the man must not have been born blind.  Last week we talked about people who refuse to believe because they don’t have a category for the miraculous.  Today we see the Pharisees doing something more insidious. They believe in miracles, but they have preconceived notions about who can and cannot do them.  They held that Jesus wasn’t who he said he was, that he didn’t come from God, so he obviously couldn’t have done a miracle, so the miracle did not happen.  Can you see the fault in their “logic?”  Jesus didn’t come from God, and only one from God could have done this miracle, so the miracle that everyone saw… it didn’t happen.

Perhaps besides the episode of Balaam’s donkey, this is maybe the funniest passage of scripture I know. Can you imagine what the Pharisees would do when confronted with their poor logic?  And it gets better.  They go and search out the formerly blind man, and he gives them a straight-up answer. “He is a prophet.” (John 9:17) Since they don’t like this answer, they ask his parents, who deflect their questions: We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself. (John 9:20-21). So they question the formerly blind man again, and (I love this part), he answers them.I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?(John 9:27).

I love it!

But the Pharisees don’t want to become Jesus’ disciples.  They are exactly what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in Isaiah 42:20 You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.”

Jesus tells the formerly blind man,For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind. (John 9:39). The man, born blind, now sees.  The Pharisees around him are indignant. What? Are we blind too? (John 9:40).

They don’t see it at all. It’s just like Isaiah prophesied. [The LORD] said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

The Pharisees have calloused hearts, and they refuse to admit their own blindness.  They are blind, but they’re so used to being blind that they don’t even realize how blind they are.  They are those spoken of in Isaiah 59:9-10 We look for light but all is darkness; for brightness but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead.

While they think they’re seeing, they’re really just groping around in the darkness.   Now, up until this moment, we’ve stayed focused on the Pharisees; it’s easy to target them, because they were so obviously in the wrong.  They finish up this section indignantly asking, “What? Are we blind, too?” (John 9:40) The answer is supposed to be, “Of course not.  I’m talking about other blind guides.”

There are places we don’t like to go and things we don’t like to hear.  One of those things we don’t like to hear is “you’re blind.”   But it’s something that Jesus said – to the Pharisees, the ones who were doing their best to follow the Law.  In short, Jesus was talking to church people like us.  We who have faithfully attended church and done our best for all these years… Jesus is talking to us.  So I have to ask the question: are we blind, too?

It’s one of the hardest questions we can ask, because when we do ask, we get answers.  Where are my blind spots?  This isn’t just about “I’ll do better” because when you’re blind, the point is you can’t see! It’s not just about “doing better” because in your blindness, you have no frame of reference. 

I know what it’s like to be blind, because I have been privileged to be given sight into some of those blind areas.  I remember going on a Walk to Emmaus, which is an intense spiritual retreat weekend, and after a restless night, before everyone else was awake, I went for a run.  I like to pray while I’m running – I’ve found that I’m much less distracted while I’m on the road (I can’t get to a to-do list or any of the items on that list while I’m out). Anyway, I was praying, and my prayer was for the Holy Spirit to show me my blind areas.  If you want an immediate answer to prayer, pray that honestly.  As I ran through downtown Columbus, I would steer clear of the homeless people – probably a good idea in any case, but I realized that I was more aware of those of other races than mine.  If you’d asked me, “Are you racist?” I would have answered “No! Of course not!” but the way I was behaving was racist. 

Then when I returned to the church where the retreat was being held, all of the other men were waking up and preparing for the day, so I hurried to get my stuff so I could get in line for a shower; it was an older building and I knew there wouldn’t be enough hot water for everyone… then it hit me.  Why did I deserve a hot shower over these other men? It was the Holy Spirit opening my eyes to my self-centeredness. 

I tell you these things remind you that I’m no different from you; I have faults, and I’m working on them. This should remind you that we’ve all got blind spots.  What are yours?

If it’s truly a blind spot, you probably won’t recognize it right away, because, well, it’s a blind spot!  It’s hard to recognize blind spots when you’re in darkness – when I was in the cave, my eyes worked, but I couldn’t see at all, not even my hand in front of my face.  So if you truly want to see, you’re going to have to get out of the dark. 

Jesus tells us, “I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5).  He completely lights up the world.  Everything.  Like what was foretold by Isaiah 60:19 The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.  God himself is our light, lighting everything.  And Jesus is identifying Himself as this light – as God Himself.

God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, is that everlasting light that illuminates everything. And we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us, to light our way.

When God lights every aspect of our lives, don’t expect for everything to be easy.  There is an old Russian story about when they first brought electricity and the electric lamp to the Russian countryside.  When the guy who installed the light bulbs came back shortly thereafter, he found the people in darkness.  Yes, their lamps worked fine.  No, there weren’t any problems with the light bulbs.  He started asking questions, and he found out that the problem was with the light itself.  With these new lights, they realized just how filthy their houses really were. So instead of living with the filth and instead of cleaning house, they turned off the lights.

The choice is yours.  Do you allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate every aspect of your life?  Are you willing to allow Him to light up the darkness, even to expose your areas of blindness?  In 1 John 1:5-7 we read: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

He goes on later to write this: 1 John 2:9-11 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.

In other words, we who call ourselves Christians, we who have accepted Jesus in our lives, who have the gift of the Holy Spirit, given in our baptism, have been given the Light.  In one respect, it’s terrifying, because it’s a light that illuminates all of the filth in our lives.  But in another respect, it’s freeing, because not only does the Holy Spirit illuminate every aspect of our lives, but the gift that Jesus gave us on the cross does a deep cleaning as well.

But he gives us some requirements as well. As John wrote, if we claim to be in the light but harbor hatred in our hearts, if we decide that one part of ourselves is “off limits” to the Truth of the Holy Spirit, that “this is my private place, and nobody is allowed there, not even the Holy Spirit” then we’re still in the darkness.  God doesn’t allow us to halfway follow Him.

The choice is ours.  Will you pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate your life?  Will you allow Jesus to clean house?  Will you walk in obedience to Him?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Walk - Don't Walk

John 6:16-24

Are any of you avid boaters?  We are right on Buckeye Lake, so I expect that some of you have pretty much grown up on the water.  But let’s remember that Jesus’ disciples weren’t in powerboats like yours; they were driven by wind or by oar.  And since the wind was against them, they were driven by oar.  I personally did a lot of my growing up in a canoe, but there’s a reason I prefer river canoeing to lake canoeing.  Even the slightest wind makes for a tough lake crossing.  Matthew’s account of this event tells us that the wind was against the boat.  They were struggling.

And in the midst of their struggle, they look out into the storm and they see Jesus.  Now remember that Jesus wasn’t in the boat; they had left without him.

For those of you who have grown up in church and have heard this story again and again, let it sink in.  Here you are, out in the middle of the lake, fighting against a terrible headwind.  You’re exhausted, and you don’t really think you’re making any progress across the water, and then, there, on the lake, is Jesus.  Walking.  On the water. 

The disciples are terrified.  Wouldn’t you be?  Matthew records that they think he’s a ghost.  Not a bad guess; who else could possibly be walking on top of the water?  This goes beyond normal human behavior, and I don’t blame them for interpreting what they see using the criteria at their disposal. In other words, they simply saw what they saw, but since they didn’t have a category for what they saw, their minds placed their observation into a category where it seemed to fit. 

This is why some people sometimes fail to recognize what others see for themselves; a doctor says, “The scanner must be broken” when he can’t find the cancer.  It’s why people say, “he’ll falloff the wagon soon enough” when someone is remarkably and instantaneously delivered from the bondage of addiction. It’s why people find every logical, rational explanation possible for the supernatural; as adults we don’t generally have categories for the miraculous.

And there is Jesus, walking on the water.

How would you react?  Jesus recognizes their fear, and he assures them: It is I; don’t be afraid. (John 6:20).  But besides a simple statement: Then they were willing to take him into the boat, we don’t get to see their reaction.  John doesn’t reveal anything else that happens.  When Matthew records the same event, he includes Peter’s remarkable walk on water; he asks Jesus for proof of who he is: Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water. (Matthew 14:28).  Jesus then invited Peter out of the boat, and he walked on water.  There are 1000 sermons about that, and if I had chosen the Matthew text to preach on this morning, we would have gone there.  But we’re looking at Jesus’ miracles in John’s gospel, and John didn’t include Peter’s walk – and he excluded it on purpose.  I think one of John’s reasons for excluding Peter’s walk on water was his purpose for writing.  You can find his purpose if you read John’s Gospel starting in chapter 1: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18).

Jesus’ miracles have dual purpose; for example, the lower purpose for turning water into wine was to provide wine for a wedding party.  The lower purpose of feeding the 5000 was giving hungry people food.  The lower purpose of Jesus walking on the water was to get from place to place (where there just happened to be a lake between those places).  But the higher purpose of all of these miracles was to point to God.  Specifically to demonstrate that Jesus is God.

This is a good time to remind you that the Gospel writers had agendas.  Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience to prove that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.  Luke wrote to help Theophilus know the certainty of the things he had been taught.  And John wrote to convince his audience that we have seen God; that Jesus is God!

So what is John saying about Jesus (and thus about God)?  Physically, Jesus walking on the water contrasts human helplessness in the face of the awesome forces of nature unleashed in a great storm.
As humans, we are physically helpless in the face of nature.  Think about the earthquake in Haiti.  Hurricane Katrina. Or a flood, a tsunami, or a mudslide.  Or a tornado. I remember being out when a tornado was tearing through town, and it was terrifying. 

When “nature” hits, there’s nothing we can do about it. Have you ever stacked sandbags, knowing that the water is going to come in anyway? But here we see Jesus, calmly walking, on the water, in the face of the storm. Jesus is completely calm, because he is completely in control.  He is the One who is in control, even over the forces of nature. 

But there’s more. It’s not just a matter of a physical control.  Have you ever been in a place where things are out of control in your life?  No matter what kind of situation you’re in, whether it’s with relationships, work, finances, or whatever, it is scary to be in a place where you realize how out of your control things are.

This is where Jesus’ miracle of walking on water is more than just about him walking on water.  To get at that, we need to look at a couple of other passages, in the beginning and the end of the Scriptures.  In Genesis 1, the Spirit of God is presented as hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2). Now flip forward to Revelation 21:1, where we see this setting: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (Rev. 21:1). The waters and the sea represent chaos – un-creation, if you will.  God’s plan moves from chaos to perfection.  In the meantime, we are somewhere in between.  But Jesus, by walking on water, is demonstrating that he isn’t stuck in the in-between.  We are in a state where we await perfection.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans: We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Romans 8:22-26.

Jesus, in one action, gives us reason to hope.  He gives us a glimpse of how things should be – how things will be by showing his power over nature, over the sea, over chaos, over imperfection.  Through this, we can have the hope of the things to come.  Whatever you are struggling with, Jesus is the answer!

When the disciples encounter Jesus walking across the water, they’re initially terrified.  The forces of nature are out of their control, and they’ve see something that can only be a ghost. Did you catch what happened then?

Jesus revealed his identity to his disciples.  It is I.  Don’t be afraid. (John 6:20). And they took him into the boat.  Then, this is possibly miracle number two in this passage: immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.  All of that rowing… all of the pulling the oars, all of the cussing and spitting, all of the swearing and sweating… done with.  Jesus proved that he really was all they needed.  I know I’m supposed to say this, as a pastor, but it really is true.  No matter where your struggle is, Jesus really is enough.

But to experience this truth, you have to take him into your boat.  If you want to continue doing everything on your own, you won’t experience his peace.  Maybe you have encountered Jesus, even miraculously, but you’ve said, “No thanks, dude; I’ve got it. Thanks anyway.” And you’ve gone your own way, trying to pull your own oars. 

Do this and you won’t make it to shore on your own.

Does this mean we can just sit back and ignore the world around us?  Absolutely not.  Jesus calls us to obedience.  There are plenty of times when he calls us to action.  But he also calls us to trust in him wholeheartedly, and you will never gain what you really crave, what you really need, unless you take him into your boat and give leadership of your life to him.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Free Food!

John 6:1-15, 25-40

One of the great things about college ministry was that it was relatively easy to attract college students.  All you had to do was put up a sign that said, “Free pizza.” Everyone loves free food. I remember a really cool promotion held by Carmen’s pizza, the best Chicago deep-dish pizza place in Evanston (where I went to college) – during the first week of school, if you showed your student ID, proving you were a freshman, you got as much free pizza as you could eat.  The line was a block long.

But college students aren’t the only ones who love free food.  Somewhat routinely, Chipotle offers free burritos (if you showed up on Halloween dressed like a burrito, you’d get a free one).  The first time I experienced this, we were driving by and saw a sign proclaiming “free burritos today” and of course we stopped! People were waiting for 45 minutes in a thunderstorm to get free food!

Free food is always a draw.  But as this crowd gathered, they didn’t know they were going to get free food.  They had seen Jesus doing miracles, healing people, and they wanted to get close to him.  They certainly wanted to hear what he had to say, but most likely, they really wanted to see something cool.   I remember doing an experiment when I was a teenager: we were downtown Indianapolis and we got a small group of people to all look up and point… at nothing.  Soon people began to gather, all looking up. When people think there might be something to see, they gather.  Thus the response: Move along! There’s nothing to see here.

Here, people are gathering because of Jesus’ miracles.  And they are hungry.  And there isn’t any food.  So Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother finds a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 small fish, a poor person’s meal, barely a meal at that.

This is a good time to mention that there isn’t “fluff” in the Bible – they don’t waste words.  So even when John tells us the setting (the Jewish Passover was near: John 6:4), this is important.  It reminds us of the Passover, of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt.  Important to remember: while they were wandering in the desert, God fed them miraculously with manna.

And here, Jesus feeds miraculously.  And the people who saw the miraculous sign started to get it: Jesus is the Messiah.  You see, it was said that the Messiah would come and renew the miracle of manna. So they see this miracle and recognize, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world. (John 6:14).  And with that, they began their attempt to make him their king.  While they “get it,” they clearly don’t “get it.” 

They completely miss the point.  They have their idea of what the Messiah will look like and what he will do, and they decide to force Jesus to do what they want him to do.  Here’s how ridiculous that is, as R.F. Bailey put it in his commentary on St. John’s Gospel: He who is already King has come to open his Kingdom to men, but in their blindness men try to force Him to be the kind of king they want: thus they fail to get the king they want and also lose the kingdom He offers.”

This goes hand in hand with the reaction of the people who shortly thereafter make it across the lake and demand a sign (I’ll get to the storm at the sea next Sunday).  They reference the same sign, this time with a combative tone.  Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:31) 

Really, all they want is free food. 

Yet we have to remember that John recognized that this was not simply about feeding people: Jesus’ signs were never just about the miracles themselves.   This sign is a reminder of how powerless we humans are.  We aren’t even capable of providing enough food to survive. 

This was something the people of God always anticipated: the time when they would enjoy the fullness of God’s blessings in the Promised Land: a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing (Deuteronomy 8:9), where you will eat and be satisfied (Deuteronomy 11:15).

Here’s the thing: Jesus is the supplier of peoples’ needs.  Again the people miss the point; they are so concerned with the physical that they neglect the spiritual.  They’re asking for food, but Jesus tells them, For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33).

What the manna had foreshadowed, Jesus now gives perfectly. In fact, Jesus shows that He is greater than their most powerful historical figure, Moses: Moses didn’t actually provide manna; God did. And now Jesus demonstrates his superiority.

While God provided manna to Moses and the Israelites, Jesus proclaims, I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35).  This phrase “I am” isn’t simply a first person singular and a form of be.  It’s not an accident that he uses this phrase either – he’s saying more than he’s saying.  He is using the very phrase God used when revealing His Name to Moses through the burning bush.  Do you remember that scene?  Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

Now Jesus is using the same phrase “I AM” when he tells them “I am the bread of life.” There is no mistaking what Jesus is saying about himself here.

He is equating himself with God.  He is making the statement that He Himself is the Promised One, the answer to prayer, the one thing we most need.

When the people ask him what they need to do (Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"), they completely miss the point.  Though Jesus told them that the Son of Man would give “food that endures to eternal life” they missed the “give” part.  They figured that they would have to work for it.

Quite the opposite, the point was that Jesus’ very life was a gift given to them.  He Himself is the food that endures to eternal life. He is the bread of life. Jesus is not saying, “Hey, all you’ve got to do is just believe intellectually that I’m the one sent by God.”   Intellectual belief is only part of the equation.  Jesus went on to say Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (6:53-54). I want you to try something.  Don’t hear this quote through “Communion ears” – in other words, put yourself into the situation of the disciples, who hadn’t yet been served Communion for the first time.  To understand this, you’ve got to know that in Jewish thought, to eat and drink was to take something into one’s innermost being.   So if you really want the life that Jesus died to bring you, you must take Jesus into your innermost being.

This is true transformation.  This is what we’re all about: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  None of us is truly transformed outside of Jesus Christ – outside of taking him into our innermost beings and allowing him to remake us in his image, changing us from the inside out.