Friday, April 30, 2010

Jesus in the Rear-View Mirror

Luke 24:13-35

I love long distance running.  I run all the time. I especially love getting out and running on new trails.  Just keep me off the treadmill, and I’m good. But what I really love is running with other people.  I went to Zondervan’s National Pastors Convention two years, and one of my highlights there was the Runners’ Club.  A whole bunch of us would gather at 7 am to put in some mileage. While we ran, we would talk and get to know each other.  A month or so ago, I met with some guys to run a 12/5 mile loop through the Hocking Hills, and I came out with new friends – and they now call me “Reverend Run”.  When I’m at Annual Conference, I will put in early morning miles with Rob Turner and Blaine Keene.  We talk about all kinds of things, even intensely personal matters. When I was in high school, I didn’t care so much for track meets; what I liked was practice.  Time to spend running, talking, fellowshipping with each other, to use a good “church” word.

One of the guys I met at the National Pastors’ Convention runs ultra-marathons.  Meaning 26.2 miles isn’t enough for him.  He has become pretty well known by his fellow ultra-marathon runners for his Christian testimony – he runs with and talks with enough people, and they get to know each other that way.

Being on foot is a lot different than being in a vehicle.  I was running last week in Florida and I just had to stop to marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.  Sure, there are places you can do that in a car, but what would traffic be like if we all did that on the interstate?

In the scripture I read from Luke 24, Jesus was walking along with two companions, talking about “everything that had happened.” So they walked and talked together and Jesus opened up the scriptures and explained how and why everything had to happen.  But throughout this whole time, they didn’t recognize Jesus.  Luke recounts: As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them.  But God kept them from recognizing him. (Luke 24:15-16).  

I wonder how often we go about our lives, distracted, not recognizing where Jesus is walking with us.  The hymn “In the Garden” has the line And he walks with me and he talks with me.  Sometimes we don’t hear Jesus talking because we’re not walking with him.  We’ve gotten the whole message of Christianity wrong; we asked Jesus to come alongside us and walk with us, but we’re pretty sure of the direction we want to go.  Hey, Jesus, if you want, you can come along with me.  Yeah, I know where I’m going.  No, I’m not going to stop and ask directions. I have my plan mapped out and am confident that I know where I’m going.  So, Jesus, are you with me or not?  I’ve got to get moving; I’m pretty important, and I’ve got places to go and things to do and people to see.  Step it up, Jesus!

Even if we’ve accepted Jesus’ way, we sometimes don’t hear his voice. I used to wonder why Jesus never talked to me, but now I understand it a little differently.  Every evening after work, my dad used to sit and read the paper.  Soon my mom would call him for supper.  He would never hear her calling.  Never.  It’s not that she hadn’t called him; it was more of a case that he was so engrossed in the paper that he didn’t hear.

This happens with us and God, too.  The Holy Spirit is speaking all the time, but we have to listen.  Unfortunately, we’re often listening… to other things.  We’re in the midst of other conversations, and we don’t stop long enough to listen to the Holy Spirit.  What kind of other conversations are we involved in?  Name it, we’re in it.  Some of us are like my dad, nose in the newspaper.  You’re probably not literally distracted by the newspaper, but most of us have our “newspapers” - things that distract us to the point where we aren’t listening to God.  TV… I know it’s not popular to talk out against TV, but really, when I undertook to read the Bible through in 40 days, a lot of people told me I would never have time to do it.  Sure, I made some sacrifices, and one of them was television.  I hardly watched any.  If you think you don’t have any time to hear from God, yet you watch any TV, all you are doing is saying your show is more important than hearing from God.  Or your constant addiction to your cell phone. Or your job.  Or your various volunteer activities.  Even your family and friends can get in the way of you hearing Jesus’ voice.  This is why Jesus was so emphatic and said, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26).

I remember standing by my locker in high school, and one of my friends was talking to me, but I looking for someone, and then my friend confronted me because it was obvious that I wasn’t listening.  I’ve gotten to experience the other side as well.

In seminary, I was assigned to an advisor who didn’t care about me.  How did I know he didn’t care?  He was pretty clear. I came in for an advising session I’d signed up for, class registration papers in hand.  He was on the phone, so I waited by his door.  When he noticed me, he waved me in.  I came in, waiting for him to finish his phone call.  Impatiently, he motioned for me to give him my papers.  He signed them and pushed them back into my hands without even reading them.  He never even paused his phone call.  I knew where I stood with him.

Often we’re like that.  We pretend we’re listening to Jesus, and we say, “sure, I’m good at multitasking.”  But really we’re not.

Not only are we constantly distracted, but we’re often too busy having conversations with other people to notice that Jesus might have something to say.  Now this is a little bit tricky, because we often hear Jesus’ voice best in community.  This is why John Wesley organized his Methodists into bands and class meetings.  It’s why we have cell groups.

That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the groups who gather to gossip and talk trash about other people.  I’ve long known that this is a particularly ugly sin that small towns like ours cling to as a badge of honor.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Gossip is a sin. Living for Jesus is not about infighting and backbiting and who is on whose side.  When we behave like that, we’re definitely not listening to what Jesus has to say.  We’re not living by the Holy Spirit. Paul warned the church in Corinth against divisions in the church. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? 1 Corinthians 3:3. Understand this: if you’re involved in choosing sides and bickering and infighting and gossip, this isn't Christian. If you're going to call yourself a Christian, you need a change of heart.

Something else that distracts us from hearing Jesus’ voice is listening to the wrong voices.  The world is full of people with opinions.  Some of them are very persuasive and intelligent.  Some of them are very popular and dress very nicely and speak soothingly.  The Apostle Paul warned Timothy about this: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

We often don’t take the time to evaluate what we hear from the stage, whether it’s this one or one on TV.  If you’re just listening, just soaking everything in like a sponge, you’re not responding correctly. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, telling them Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

There are plenty of Oprahs out there, selling their line of self-esteem boosters.  There are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers, craftily selling their snake oil of health and wealth.  Neither of these stands the test of scripture.  Did you notice what happened on the road to Emmaus in the scripture I read earlier?  As these two men were walking and discussing everything that had happened, Jesus came alongside them and opened the scriptures (And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27).  This was the only ground Jesus Himself stood on.  The scriptures.  If Jesus Himself used the scriptures to explain himself, we don’t have any other ground to stand on either.  And did you notice that Jesus started with Moses – meaning the first five books of the Bible – and went through the Prophets?  Anyone can dig into scripture and find a verse to support their view.

There’s an old preacher’s joke about taking verses out of context. There was a man who would open his Bible at random, point at a scripture, and claim that as his God-given verse for the day. One day he opened to Matthew 27:5b Judas then went out and hanged himself. He was rather upset by that verse, so he decided to give it another whirl.  He ended up with Luke 10:37b: Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Now he was really upset, so he tried again, this time turning to John 13:27 “What you are bout to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him. So the word that he received that day was “Judas went out and hanged himself; go and do likewise and do it quickly.”

Not exactly the message of the Bible.  This is why reading the whole Bible is important. It’s why Jesus started with Moses and went through the entire Bible.  You get a better perspective of the Scripture when you start with a wide-angle view.  This is why we as a church staff and leadership consider the Progress of Redemption class so important; through it, you get a great picture of the story of the Bible and where it’s going.

When you look at how Jesus showed up to these two men on their way to Emmaus, one thing fascinates me.  At first these two guys didn’t recognize Jesus at all, and when they finally did recognize Him, He didn’t stick around.  I think that happens more frequently than we would like to admit.  It seems like it’s often easier to recognize Jesus in the rear-view mirror. Where was Jesus?  Certainly back there somewhere.  But I think we might have missed Him.  So, how do we recognize Him?

Before I get to these ways to recognize Him, remember that you’re not alone if you don’t recognize Jesus right off.  Remember that these two were followers of Jesus.  They, of all people, should have recognized Him, and they questioned that, asking, were not our hearts burning within us while He talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”(Luke 24:32)  But they didn’t recognize Him.  So take heart.  If you don’t always recognize Him right off, you’re in good company.  But there are some hints in this scripture for us to actually recognize Him.

How was it that these two followers recognized Jesus?  They recognized Him when He did something that was familiar to them.  He blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to them.  They certainly recognized this action from other times when He’d done this: it was the same action as when He fed 5,000, when he fed 4,000, and when He instituted the Lord’s supper.  They recognized Jesus because he did something that they knew Jesus did. 

I believe we can see Jesus, not just in the rear-view mirror, but right now.  As we prepare to celebrate Communion, I want to ask you to slow down.  Remember that the two on the way to Emmaus weren’t running; they were walking.  And still they didn’t recognize Jesus.  It wasn’t until they stopped. This is why we have Communion by intinction, where we come forward to receive the elements. It’s purposely slow.  The idea is that you spend time in prayer before and after you receive the bread and wine.  Take time looking for Jesus.

Another thing to do is behave as if Jesus is right with you.  Now, I’m not talking about simply changing your behavior – like not picking your nose because someone is watching, but really have a conversation with Jesus.  It may be uncomfortable, but find somewhere that you can be alone, and actually speak your feelings to Jesus out loud.  There are actually words for this type of conversation: in Hebrew it’s tephillah and in Greek it’s proseuche.  Translated, we call this word “prayer.” Don’t just say “nice” prayers; pray what you actually feel.  What’s actually in your heart.

Let’s continue to converse with Jesus and see him in the here-and-now, not just in the rear-view mirror.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Sunday: He's ALIVE!

Alive!  John 20:1-18

Over the past six weeks, we have been looking at vital signs from the Gospel According to John: the signs and wonders Jesus performed, and, more importantly, why he did them.  We saw him turn water into wine.  We saw him heal the son of a royal official.  We saw him feed 5000 people with just five small loaves of bread and two small fish.  We saw him walk on water.  He healed a man who was born blind.  And we saw him raise Lazarus from the dead.  Besides their obvious reasons, each of these miracles served an important purpose. They all pointed to Jesus’ true identity.  With several of his miracles, Jesus made some amazing statements:

·         I am the bread of life.
·         I am the light of the world.
·         I am the gate for the sheep.
·         I am the good shepherd.
·         I am the resurrection and the life.
·         I am the way and the truth and the life.
·         I am the true vine.

These are incredible statements from anyone, and if I heard someone saying any of them, I would be instantly skeptical.  Maybe that says more about me than about the speaker. But I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that I want proof when someone makes an outlandish statement, especially about themselves! 

When Jesus made those statements, he was saying a lot more than he even said.  He used the same “I Am” that God used when he spoke his name to Moses through the burning bush.  Jesus told his listeners that he was equal with God.  But of course, he’s not the only one who’s ever said things like that.  Every generation has some wacko who claims to be a god or who claims godlike powers.  I’ve lived in a town dominated by a cult; they truly believed their leader would not die.  When he did in fact die, many of his followers had a crisis. 

You see, the world is full of charismatic leaders who can generate a following.  I read that Ashton Kutcher has 4,703,572 followers on Twitter, and Michael Jackson has 10,478,670 fans on Facebook.  Generating a following is one thing, and making wild statements is another, but when someone can back it up – that’s something completely different.

Jesus claimed to be God, and his actions backed his claims up. He fed multitudes.  He demonstrated power over nature.  He brought Lazarus back from dead.  And then came his crowning moment.  When Satan thought he had found Jesus’ weakness, when the world was shaken, when it seemed like Jesus was defeated, Mary Magdalene and the disciples encountered an empty tomb. 

The tomb is empty, because Jesus is alive!

When I was in seminary, our philosophy professor asked a question.  He asked, “If you heard a news story where an archeologist claimed to have found Jesus’ bones, would you still follow him?” He went further to include not only an archeologist, but the whole religious community: what if the Pope, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Beth Moore, and all of the prominent pastors and preachers across denominational lines agreed that they were Jesus’ bones?  And what if you were convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they had found Jesus’ bones?  Would you still be a Christian?

The Apostle Paul gave us a good answer for this one.  If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (I Corinthians 15:14).  This is why Easter is so important.  Jesus’ resurrection is more important than any other miracle.  It’s more important than any other fulfilled prophecy. It’s so important than our entire faith hinges upon it.

You see, while Jesus’ other miracles were powerful, they were limited.  He transformed water into wine, but once those six stone jars were empty, they were empty.  Jesus fed 5000, and they had 12 baskets full of left-over bread, but once they’d eaten it, it, too, was gone.  Jesus healed the royal official’s son and many others and he even brought Lazarus back to life, but all of those people have since died.  Jesus demonstrated power over the sea and nature, but scripture tells us that Jesus said that “heaven and earth will pass away” (as recorded in Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33), so miracles over nature are limited in their scope as well.

There are some who think of the resurrection as allegorical or spiritual.  They say things like “While Jesus died, his legacy lives on in his followers.  We bring ‘resurrection’ by living out the principles he stood for.”  Seriously?  That’s pretty ridiculous.  It would be like me saying, “My grandmother was resurrected, because we still tell stories about her.  And because my sister has carried on her action of sharing the family bad news and tragedies.”

No, it would be worse, because if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then it makes him a liar.  Jesus spoke clearly to his disciples.  In Matthew 16:21, we read this: From this time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

If he didn’t rise again, what he said was a lie.  And if he lied about that, what else did he lie about? Here’s the problem with lies; you can’t trust a liar.  I used to have a friend who told incredible stories, but you couldn’t believe a word he said.  Even when he told the truth, we’d kind of respond with a “smile and nod.” 

Honestly, our entire faith depends on Jesus rising from the dead.  If he didn’t, then what basis do we have to believe that He and the Father are One?  Because He said so?  (This is a good time to remind you that words have power.)

But the power of Jesus’ resurrection is more than just the power to validate his teaching.  It’s not just Jesus saying, “You want to see that I have the authority to say these things?” He already did that.  When some men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, Jesus said to the paralyzed man Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven. Some of the teachers of the law thought this was blasphemy, but Jesus asked Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” And the man got up and went home.  (Matthew 9:2, 5-7). He has already demonstrated that he is a great teacher who teaches with authority.  But then again, most people would agree that Jesus was a great teacher.

But now Jesus is showing something more.  In dying and coming back to life, Jesus shows his ultimate power.  He defeats death.  In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul writes: The last enemy to be defeated is death.

He goes on: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:54-58)

This has powerful ramifications for us.  If the last enemy to be defeated is death, then what can happen to us?  This is important for us as we navigate this world.  Sometimes life seems hopeless. The economy hasn’t been good for a while.  Terrorists are training.  Politicians are politicking.  And your own news isn’t any cheerier. Life is hard.  Diseases like cancer continue to plague you. Friends still stab you in the back.  You’re still the victim of gossip. Life is hard. Sometimes it seems like it’s easier to just allow the world and its cares defeat you.

Jesus’ followers felt defeated.  His disciples had scattered. Then Mary Magdalene showed up at his tomb to mourn and found the empty tomb!  Jesus is alive!  He had defeated death!  And because of this, they went out and changed the world.  Nothing could defeat them. 

Without Jesus’ resurrection, their faith would have been useless, silly even.  Can you imagine them somehow deciding again to follow Jesus, a dead Jesus in the grave?  But they saw a resurrected Jesus, and that changed their lives.

Listen to the Apostle Paul’s words from Ephesians 2:1-10  As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

Did you get that?  Every one of us was dead.  We all gratified the cravings of our sinful nature.  We were trapped in death.  We had no choice, because that’s who we were.  Dead.  But let’s continue reading.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Every one of us was dead in our sins.  All of us.  Look around you: all you see is formerly dead people.  But because of who He is, because of His grace, He has taken us, dead as we were, and has given us new life.  Grace has been defined as God giving us unmerited favor – giving us something we don’t deserve.  We didn’t deserve to be given life, but God has chosen to do so anyway.  Why?  Because God has prepared good works for us to do.  The Holy Spirit now lives within us, leading us to those good works.  To encourage one another.  To feed the hungry.  To take care of the orphans and widows.  To love one another.

We were made to bring Him glory.  And so, like Mary Magdalene, I invite you to declare the news: I have seen the Lord!  And when we declare this with our words and with our actions, others will see Him, too.