Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Twelve Apostles

On Maundy Thursday, we celebrate Communion with Jesus and His disciples. Some of his disciples are pretty well known, but others aren't well-known outside of the biblical record. But tradition is rich with what they did following Jesus' resurrection.

Celebrating Communion with Jesus' disciples gives us insight into who they were, and though most of them fell away (only John stuck around for the crucifixion), and Peter famously denied even knowing Jesus, they went on to change the world.

Simon Peter: Native of Galilee, was a fisherman with his father, Jonas, and his brother, Andrew. He was originally a disciple of John the Baptist, but his brother, Andrew, came to him with good news: “We have found the Messiah!” So he goes to meet Jesus, who immediately gives him the nickname, “Cephas” or “Peter” (meaning “Rock”). He was one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers and he became the regular spokesman for the disciples, taking a place of leadership among them. It was Peter who stepped out of the boat and walked on water, and it was Peter who confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, but it was also Peter who denied Jesus three times as Jesus was going to His death. Jesus famously reinstated Peter, telling him “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.” After Jesus’ ascension, Peter took a primary role in the church fulfilling Jesus’ prediction that he would be the rock of the church and the holder of the keys of heaven. He preached famously on the Day of Pentecost, when God sent His Holy Spirit in power. Peter was the source for the Gospel According to Mark and wrote two letters to the church, 1st and 2nd Peter. Peter was crucified by Nero in Rome c. AD 64.

Andrew:  Originally a disciple of John the Baptist, but was led to become Jesus’ disciple when John pointed out “the Lamb of God.” Andrew was the first disciple of Jesus to be called by name. He immediately went and told his brother Simon Peter about Jesus, and later they left their fishing nets to follow Jesus. Andrew became part of Jesus’ inner circle, and it was he who brought the boy with the loaves and fishes and brought inquisitive Greeks to Jesus. Andrew brought the Gospel to the Scythians (modern day Georgia) and Thracians (modern day Bulgaria). According to tradition, it was in Achaia, Greece, in the town of Patra that Andrew died a martyr. When Governor Aegeas' wife was healed and converted to the Christian faith, and shortly after that the Governor's brother became a Christian, Aegeas was enraged. He arrested Andrew and condemned him to die on the cross. Andrew, feeling unworthy to be crucified on the same-shaped cross as his Master, begged that his be different. So, he was crucified on an X-shaped cross, which is still called Saint Andrew's cross. 

James, son of Zebedee: from Bethesda, from a family of some wealth and influence, probably from a profitable fishing trade. He and his brother John were called the “Sons of Thunder” because of their fiery temperament. He and his family had high aspirations, wanting special places in the Kingdom of God. He was part of Jesus’ inner circle. James was beheaded by the sword in AD 44 and his body sawed into pieces, during the persecution undertaken by Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the twelve to die. But even in his death, James was an evangelist; the officer who brought James to his tribunal was so moved by his bold declaration of faith that he embraced the Gospel and accepted Jesus Christ.

John, son of Zebedee: like his brother, James, John was from Bethesda, a family of some wealth and influence, probably from a profitable fishing trade. He and his brother James were called the “Sons of Thunder” because of their temperament. He was part of Jesus’ inner circle and was known as “the Disciple Jesus Loved.” He was the only one of the Twelve to have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (along with the women). After Jesus’ crucifixion, he took Jesus’ mother Mary into his own home to care for her. John was exiled to the Island of Patmos. There is no biblical record of John’s death, and he is believed to have died of natural causes due to old age.

Philip: also from Bethesda. He was also one of John the Baptist’s disciples before he met Jesus. He had clear expectations of the Old Testament Messiah and immediately brought news of the Messiah to his friend, Nathaniel, who shared his messianic expectations. Clement of Alexandreia assumes that it was Philip who told Jesus, “Let me first go and bury my father,” to which Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury their own; follow me.” But Philip grew into a missionary; when some Greeks came to Jerusalem to worship, it was Philip who they came to and who (along with Andrew) brought them to Jesus. He is also known for later sharing the Gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch and baptizing him.  Philip preached in Phrygia and was crucified upside down in AD 54.

Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel): His full name was most likely Nathaniel Bar-Tholami, brought to Jesus by Philip. He was a native of Cana in Galilee. Jesus pronounced him “a true Israelite without guile” and he made a profound declaration of Jesus as Messiah. He was a great searcher of the Scripture and a scholar in the Law and the Prophets. He was a man of complete sincerity, a man earnest in prayer, a man who made complete surrender to the Carpenter of Nazareth, and one of the Church's most adventurous missionaries. He is said to have preached with Philip in Phrygia and Hierapolis; also in Armenia. The Armenian Church claims him as its founder and martyr. Bartholomew preached in India, where he also brought the Gospel According to Matthew. Bartholomew was crucified upside down.

Thomas, the Twin: Was called “Didymus, meaning “The Twin.” He was from Antioch. He is often known as “Doubting Thomas” for his misgivings concerning Jesus’ resurrection, yet he made a remarkable stand of faith, urging the disciples to go with Jesus to Judea so that they might die with him. After the resurrection, when Jesus appears to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, Thomas confesses that Jesus is Lord and God, one of the most profound and clear declarations of Jesus’ divinity. Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians. He was killed by a spear in AD 72 and was buried in Edessa.

Matthew (also known as Levi): was the son of Alphaeus (not the same Alphaeus who was the father of James the Less). He was a tax collector whom Jesus called from his tax collection booth. It’s likely that his full name was Matthew Levi – either from birth or from his conversion. His tax collection booth was on one of the main trade highways near Capernaum, where he collected tolls for Herod Antipas from commercial trade traffic coming through this area. After Jesus called Matthew to follow him, he held a huge banquet for Jesus, inviting his fellow tax collectors and “sinners.” He was the author of the Gospel According to Matthew. After Jesus’ death, Matthew remained in Jerusalem for fifteen years, preaching to Jews. After this, he traveled to Ethiopia, Persia, and Macedonia, where he preached primarily to Jews. Early Church Fathers accepted that he did not die a martyr’s death, but later tradition includes his martyrdom.

James, son of Alphaeus: is also known as “James the Younger” – the son of Mary and the brother of Joses – or “James the Less” (for his younger age, smaller stature, or lesser renown). His mother, Mary, was at Jesus’ crucifixion and at the discovery of the empty tomb, and his father, Clopas, was likely Joseph’s brother, making James Jesus’ cousin. Jews stoned him to death after he preached in Jerusalem. He was buried by the Temple.

Thaddaeus: was also known as Jude or Judas, son of James. Judas is probably his given name and Thaddaeus is a nickname or place name. His only recorded New Testament activity was asking Jesus a question during the Last Supper: “But Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” He was hoping for a conquering king messiah, not a suffering servant. He preached the gospel in Syria and Edessa, from whence he traveled to Assyria. He was martyred in Phoenecia.

Simon the Zealot: “Simon the Cananaean” a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word for “zeal” or “zealot.” He was a zealous nationalist prior to his call to follow Jesus, and this may indicate some of his ongoing temperament. Later the term zealot was used to designate religiously motivated Jewish revolutionaries who were active in guerilla-type warfare in the period leading up to A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem. Simon was crucified in AD 74.

Judas Iscariot: Iscariot likely identifies his place of origin; his father was Simon Iscariot.  He was the treasurer for the Twelve, a position which assumes positive characteristics. Later it was indicated that he was a thief, stealing from the treasury funds. For thirty pieces of silver, Judas betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He led them to Jesus and betrayed him with a kiss. Wracked by guilt, he returned the money, throwing it into the temple. Judas then committed suicide. The Jewish leaders used the money to buy the potter’s field, which they used as a burial place for foreigners. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jesus the King*

Good Friday Community Service

Everything started exactly right. Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, with God as their God and friend. But you know the story; they sinned, and the entire world felt the sting. Separation from God ensued. The God of the Universe pursued His creation, created from nobody a people, a people He would bless to be a blessing to the world. The Lord would be their God and they would be His people. God led Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Later, God called Moses to lead His people out of Egyptian captivity – leading Israel in a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. But in the last five chapters of the book of Judges, three times we find the phrase: “in those days Israel had no king.” This is an important designation, because a king was not simply the ruler of his people. In the Ancient Near East, a king didn’t function quite like a king or ruler might function today. It was the universal understanding that the king was not the top dog – the deity who that nation worshiped was the top dog. The realm of the gods is the realm of life and blessing, and that life and blessing is mediated by the king to the people.

The flow of life comes from God through the king to the people. Psalm 72 is a good place to look for this. A feature of this flow is military might and protection. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. (Psalm 72:4). Another feature is justice. Endow the king with your justice, O God… He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. (Psalm 72:1-2) A third area is the flow of order being brought out of chaos, and a fourth is agricultural bounty: He will be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth…

There is also the sense of intimacy between the deity and the king – because the king mediates the deity’s life and blessing to the people, the king is seen as the son of the deity.

So when Judges 17:6, 18:1, and 21:25 tell us that in those days Israel had no king, this is super bad news. It’s not that they were aimless or leaderless; it is that they are unable to access their god’s life and blessing. So it is in this context that we read that “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”

Of course everyone did as he saw fit, as there was no mediator to deliver God’s life and blessing to the people. People will do what they have to do.

And so we see in 1 Samuel 8, the people demand a king, and they get one. They first get King Saul, who disobeys God, and from whom God withdraws his anointing in 1 Samuel 15. So God instructs Samuel to anoint David King.

And to King David and his descendants, God makes this audacious promise (in Jeremiah 23:5): “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David [or from David’s line] a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.

Now everyone in the Ancient Near East understood that a king must be anointed; anointing is said to symbolize the descent of God’s holiness upon the king and as a sign of a bond never to be broken. God sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to anoint one of his sons as king. In 1 Samuel 16, we see the scene where Samuel wonders over each son, is this the one? Finally, the youngest son is brought in from tending the sheep, and the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power. (1 Samuel 16:12-13)

In the end of Matthew 3, we find Jesus’ baptism. Like in the anointing ceremony, God’s prophet is present. Samuel was there for David, John the Baptist for Jesus. But for Jesus, right when he went up out of the water, at that moment heaven was opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. (Matthew 3:16). It is the Holy Spirit who does the anointing, God’s holiness descending on him as a sign of the bond never to be broken!

During the baptism, an audible voice from heaven is heard, and do you remember what it says? Let me read Matthew 3:17: Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Remember the intimate “son of the gods” symbolism of the king?

There is no question that Jesus is being anointed king. And like David, who had to wait years, Jesus’ anointing and enthronement were distant. Though Jesus was anointed, he wasn’t crowned king until later.

Even before Jesus was anointed king, there were those who recognized him as king. Remember the magi, or, as we often call them, the wise men? Matthew 2:1-2 tells us that After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Foreign mystics knew that this was the king. When Herod went looking, the chief priests and teachers of the law affirmed that some 400 years previously, Micah had prophesied that the coming king would be born in Bethlehem.

In John 1:49, we see Nathanael recognizing who Jesus is when he declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus went about his ministry, always talking about the kingdom of heaven – where is it? Who gets in? What’s it like? And then this past Sunday, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which is full of kingdom imagery. Like every king of Israel, Jesus rides up into Jerusalem triumphantly. Someone might have expected the king to ride a warhorse, but Jesus specifically fulfills the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 by riding in on a lowly donkey. Even the palms were waved in acknowledgement of his kingship – just as the people waved palm boughs in the festal procession of Psalm 118.

Not only this, but the kingly processional included riding not only into Jerusalem, but up to the Temple. The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118:27). Where did Jesus go once he arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Directly to the Temple.

And so Jesus was arrested for blasphemy and sedition. His trial, as recorded in
John 18, includes this interchange between Jesus and Pilate: Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:33-37)

And so Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The cross even had a “seat” for the crime of sedition. The soldiers dressed Jesus up in royal purple robes and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. (Matthew 27:28-29)

Even the crucifixion itself was set up to mock Jesus. There were three crosses, with the center cross taller than the others, with the two crosses to left and right are the “two assistants on his left and right.” Remember how James and John, the sons of Zebedee asked to sit at his right and left hand? This is the scene in a throne room. So not only was the cross a horrible, cruel means of execution, in this case it is also a mockery of his royal throne room.
And the sign is nailed to his cross, written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And when some of the chief priests and Jews complained, wanting the sign changed, Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:19, 22)

And the crowds mocked him, shouting, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42)

Jesus went through every step to be crowned king, culminating with this mocking coronation ceremony… and through this mockery, they actually crowned him King of the Jews… and Jesus accepted it.

But if we go back to Psalm 72, we realize that to be crowned King of the Jews is far more than just to be crowned king of one group of people. In Psalm 72, we read this: He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Psalm 72:8). All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Psalm 72:11) All nations will be blessed through him and they will call him blessed. Praise to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen. (Psalm 72:17b, 19)

The King of Israel is now the King of the World! And so we can now understand Revelation 1:4-5, where the greeting is given: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Jesus is not merely a king, but he is the ruler of all the kings of the earth, the King of kings. This is why we read this in Revelation 19:16: On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords.

And so, in Jesus’ crucifixion, he not only takes our sin upon himself, but he is also crowned King of Kings – Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

So here on Good Friday, you have an opportunity to bow your knee and confess that Jesus is Lord. Will you join in His Kingdom for God’s glory?

*NOTE: most of the inspiration and even information for this sermon came from a lecture that Dr. Joseph Dongell of Asbury Theological Seminary brought to a pastors' day apart (in the Shawnee Valley District of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church) on December 8, 2012. I am grateful to Dr. Dongell for his scholarship and for the important lecture. When he stated that Jesus accepted the mocking "coronation" ceremony, I was in tears. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday 2013

Matthew 21:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, and with Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, when we recognize the immense sacrifice that Jesus made for us. But Holy Week doesn’t start with resurrection; neither does it start with crucifixion. Holy Week starts with coronation. I will get more into this on Friday at our Lenten service at noon.

But as we look at this text, the first thing that stands out to me is that this is a story of obedience. Jesus told the disciples to do something, and instead of asking questions like, “Did you already clear this with the owner of the donkey?” they simply obeyed. I love the verse that says, “The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.”

When I’m talking with church people, one thing I hear a lot is “I don’t really know the Bible all that well.” While I agree that our culture is almost entirely biblically illiterate, this is usually a cop-out. Here’s an example: Jesus commanded (not asked) his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) How many of us didn’t know this until I said it today?

This isn’t new news. But here’s the unfortunate thing: our biblical literacy, as weak as it is, well overshadows our biblical obedience. What I mean by that is that we don’t obey what we already know, and that’s worse than not knowing.

That said, biblical illiteracy is also disobedience. It’s disobedience on two levels. First, it is disobedience on the part of Christians, who have been commanded to teach new disciples “everything [Jesus] commanded us” – which means we are commanded to teach the Bible. One reason people don’t know the Bible is because we don’t teach the Bible. We can manage to do everything in a church but study the Word of God. I don’t know how many groups have gathered to study books about the Bible, but when it comes down to the Bible itself, they’re not interested.

The other reason biblical illiteracy is disobedience is because God commands his people to know his Word. Listen to the command from Deuteronomy 6:6-9: These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

When we casually avoid even reading the Bible, it’s not just laziness or ignorance; it’s willful disobedience. But we see Jesus’ disciples; even though Jesus tells them to do something rather unorthodox, they obey.

One of the most important things to learn in Bible study is that context is key. Leading up to today’s scripture, Jesus has been teaching extensively on the kingdom of heaven. Who is the greatest in the kingdom? What is the kingdom like? Who does the kingdom belong to? Who will sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom? And now we have a scene that looks strange: Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. But this goes along with the context; this, too, is kingdom-oriented. Even as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, it was also a royal entry. This scene is vitally important to set up Jesus’ coronation as King. Even the pericope immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem sets up the scene: as he approaches Jerusalem, two blind men call out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

First of all, the designation of Son of David establishes that he is in line to be the king of all Israel. But that he gave sight to the blind is also extremely important. Listen to Psalm 14:7-8: The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.

How about Isaiah 29:18: In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.

Another prophecy about end times from Isaiah (35:5): Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

And in Isaiah 42:7, about the coming Servant of the Lord, who is called: to open eyes that are blind…

Isaiah 42:8: Lead out those who have eyes but are blind…

And in Luke 4:18-19, we find Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah (what is considered by many to be Jesus’ mission statement): The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus is truly the king – this is why the people are shouting “Hosanna.” This is a Hebrew expression of “save” that became an exclamation of praise. It has become one of those Christianese words that we say once a year and nobody knows what it means – it’s like singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year. What does that really mean? Hosanna means “save” and when we cry “save” we, by definition, require a savior!

And to need a savior, we need saved from something. If you want to talk about Christianese words that have lost their impact, let’s talk for a moment about salvation. Most of us would agree that we’ve been “saved” but when it comes to the world around us, they don’t know what that means.

If I’m in the water, caught in a riptide and a lifeguard comes out and pulls me out of the water, I’ve been saved and I know it. I have been saved from drowning. If my house is on fire and the fire fighters come in and drag me out of the burning building, I’ve been saved and I know it. I have been saved from burning. So when we talk about salvation in church, what are we really talking about?

Our culture says we don’t need saving. We are intrinsically good enough, that we have enough goodness within us, that all we have to do is dig deep or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. The truth is that we can never save ourselves. On our own, we are incapable. We are stained with sin, and our human inclination is to sin. Sin is our default setting. Who has to teach our babies to be selfish? Who has to teach a 2 year old to say, “NO!” or “Mine!”? Who has to teach their children how to fight or to lie or to steal or talk back? We don’t have to because it comes naturally. And God’s standard is perfection. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as my heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).

We need saved. And there isn’t anything we can do to deserve it. And God shows us mercy anyway when we ask for it. So we cry “Hosanna!” – save me! Save us!

Besides “Hosanna,” the crowds are shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” which is originally from in Psalm 118:25-27, which is also a cry from God’s people for God to save them. O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give you thanks.

Jesus lets us know that it is He who comes in the name of the Lord. It is Jesus who is God, who makes His light shine upon us. The people of Jerusalem understood who this was, and they joined in the procession to the altar, palm boughs in hand. Because they recognized this Jesus as the Messiah, the Promised Savior, the one who would deliver them, the King in the royal line of David. Again, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is only one thing, and that is a royal entry. Jesus is king.

But the people of Jerusalem got all riled up and asked, “Who is this?”

This has been the question all along: who is Jesus? Back in Matthew 16, Jesus was with his disciples, and when they came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:13-17)

Lots of people have a lot to say about Jesus. He’s a great teacher. He’s a moral leader. He’s a good example. He’s my homeboy. But who is He really? And who is He to you?

This isn’t about who Jesus is to your parents or grandparents. This isn’t about who Jesus is to me. Have you accepted what Jesus did for you on the cross? Have you recognized that you can’t save yourself? Have you admitted that you need a savior? Who is Jesus? What happens when Jesus comes marching into your life?

Jesus is the Savior. Is He also Lord? Many have recognized Jesus as Savior but have failed to make Him Lord of their lives. To make Him Lord is to give everything to Him. Will you do that today?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Does God Want?

Psalm 51:16-19

When I chose Psalm 51 for the scripture for my first Sunday back from vacation, I had no idea that it would be a three-part series. I thought I would cover Psalm 51 in one sermon. .. As it is, we are in our third week on Psalm 51 and the plan is to finish up today. Next Sunday we will celebrate Palm Sunday, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Thursday evening at 7 we will celebrate Communion and look into the lives of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, and Friday at noon we will gather with the community churches next door at the Presbyterian Church and look at Jesus’ coronation ceremony. Then it will be Easter, time to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

We started in Psalm 51, looking at the human condition, selfish, unholy, and full of sin – we stand in desperate need for God’s intervention. Last week we looked into the celebration that happens when lost people come to Christ – and how we are saved so we can have an impact on their lives, so we can stir all heaven to celebrate when the one lost one comes home.

Today we are coming to the end of Psalm 51, where we are going to tackle the question: What does God really want? Before we get into the text, let’s pray.

Last Sunday afternoon, my boys went over to Harry’s house to play. Harry’s mom reported that the boys were hunting golf balls in the woods and were very serious about it. One boy would be looking through binoculars and shouting directions to the other boys (this way, no, the other way!), while the other boys tried to follow those directions and find the golf balls.

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like that when we’re following God? It can be confusing to know what God wants of us, especially when we have people shouting at us, “This way! No, the other way!”  It is unfortunate that many people have wrong ideas about just what it is that God wants and expects from us.

I hear a lot of “as long as I’m trying my hardest” or “I’m hoping my good deeds outweigh my bad” or “I try to be good to others” – then I’m doing my duty to God. From others, the sentiment is “as long as I show up for church on Sunday (or on Easter and Christmas, depending on how often that person actually attends church).” Or “I need to be busy – so keep me involved in everything going on in the church.” Or “I need to put something in the offering plate” or “my parents/grandparents were pillars of this church.”

But King David recognizes that when things go wrong, he needs something bigger than all of this. He’s already cycled through “I’m God’s chosen King of Israel” and “I defeated Goliath.” And he goes to the next possibility: religious duty.

After all, there were prescribed sacrifices for just about anything – they have to work. That will put him back in right standing with God, right?

In Psalm 51:16, David says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” Why would David even come to this conclusion? It was God who told His people to offer these sacrifices. But as the author of the Book of Hebrews states: The law [this includes the entire sacrificial system] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4)

If you didn’t get what Hebrews 10 was saying, it’s saying that if the sacrificial system were perfect, it would have made those who participated in it perfect. But what the sacrificial system accomplished was pointing to a reality greater than itself. By the sacrificial system, it is possible to follow the letter of God’s Law without following God’s heart. One could presumably give perfect sacrifices and still have a hard heart. In Matthew 23, Jesus addressed this tendency in the Pharisees. For those who aren’t familiar with the Pharisees, they have gotten a bad rap because Jesus was always critical of them, but they were the Holiness Movement of their time. They saw where God’s Law was being broken and they created a system to keep people from even accidentally breaking God’s Law. On its face, it just sounds like healthy accountability: for example, many of us have been affected by alcoholism, whether we or a loved one is the alcoholic. We recognize that an alcoholic will drink, so we make rules like: don’t go to the bar. I don’t think any of us would have problems with making parameters like that – in fact, many people with drug and alcohol problems would be well served to set up some parameters and accountability.

And the whole aim of the Pharisees was to keep God’s Law. Every bit of it. Yet here is what Jesus says to them in Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” They went to every length to give a tenth of the most insignificant spices, but meanwhile, they were neglecting the bigger matters of the heart.

This isn’t what God wants from us.

There are some long-time Christians who are some of the most grumpy, mean people I’ve ever met. If you have ever picketed a funeral, told someone that they are going to Hell because they don’t agree with you, or chased someone out of “your” pew, I just might be talking to you. Some of you have fastidiously carried out every aspect of the Christian life, yet your heart is cold and hard.

The old story is told of a mother, repeatedly telling her little boy to sit down. The boy continued to stand, disobeying his mother. Finally, the mother went to him and forced him down in a chair. The boy said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but on the inside I'm still standing up!”

If God doesn’t delight in rote obedience, what does God want?

David nails it in Psalm 51:17: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

Friends, it is all about the heart. Someone who obeys but has a hateful heart is just as guilty as someone who disobeys. Jesus seemed to retain his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and others who did exactly this.

Most of the problems in the American church right now aren’t doctrine problems, though we do have problems with doctrine. Most of the problems in the American church right now aren’t discipline problems, though we have them, too. Most of the problems in the American church right now aren’t problems of lack of Bible knowledge, though I would contend that our lack of Bible knowledge is a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is a heart problem.

What do we do about a heart problem? Well, first we have to be willing to have it diagnosed. If you are, ask the Spirit to examine your heart. Pray the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Because when we are humble enough to pray this prayer, this is how God responds, from Ezekiel 36:26-27: I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Notice the difference here – if we start with following God’s laws, in other words, by doing good deeds, we can continue to do them and miss God’s heart. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, to give us heart transplants, then God moves in our hearts to move us to follow God’s laws, to do good deeds in God’s name.

The whole goal isn’t the good deeds, however. The top goal is to bring glory to God. We do this partially by doing good deeds in God’s name. But as Christians, everything we strive for should be for God’s glory.

Now, it could be easy for David to pray simply for himself, because his sin was a big deal and he is finally taking that sin seriously – that his deserves the punishment he’s getting, and that punishment is ultimately separation from God. But David’s prayer does not stop there. So David concludes this prayer by praying May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem.

Did you notice what he did here? He went from praying for himself to praying for the nation. He prays that for Zion – if you ever wonder where that terminology came from, Zion is the hill where the Jebusite fortress was located – the one that David conquered and where David built his palace. Similarly to when we would talk about Russian leadership by referencing “the Kremlin” (which is really the fortress in Moscow), when there is talk about Zion, it is short for all of Israel, especially bringing to mind the strength, prosperity, but not only this. Zion was later to become the dwelling place of God Himself. So praying for Zion and Jerusalem was not merely praying for his land or his rule – it was praying for the people of God.

David recognized that he had sinned, but as the king, he realized he wasn’t alone, and the sin of the people had similarly caused them problems. The sin of the people had separated them from God, and so when he prays for Zion to prosper, he prays for the same kind of mercy for the people that he asks for himself. He doesn’t ask because of their inherent goodness or righteousness or their good deeds; he is fully reliant upon God’s character.

I don’t have a lot of time to go into this, but there has been a lot of misinformation regarding prayer for God’s people to prosper. Many have twisted this prayer into a “health and wealth” gospel which says that if you follow God, you will be healthy, happy, and rich. The unfortunate side-teaching to this is the converse – that if you are sick, unhappy, or poor, that you must be sinning. While David certainly hopes and prays for this kind of prosperity for Israel, it is only a tiny part and is certainly at best a misreading of the text. To see it in its context is to understand that he wants Israel to be in right relationship with God, and that such right relationship leads to their prosperity, whether they have money or not. To have money and not have God is to be impoverished. David also prays for God’s protection over his people, protection that comes when they, again, are in right relationship with God. He is, in essence, praying the same prayer he prayed for himself for the nation: cast them not away from your presence, and do not withdraw your Holy Spirit from them.

And their response will be giving to God in thanksgiving: Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

In a sense, he is restating what he said about himself. The response to someone restored to right relationship with God is giving glory and thanks to God. So as we prayerfully position ourselves back in right relationship with God, do not stop there, but continue to pray for those who aren’t, that they will glorify God and will enjoy God’s prosperity and protection.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Saved for Celebration

Psalm 51, part 2: Saved for Celebration
Psalm 51:11-15

Last week we ended with the reminder that Christianity isn’t about what we do or how much we have done, because we are all sinners by nature and we can never do enough to somehow appease God or to outweigh our “naughty” list with our “nice.” Christianity is not a religion of “do” – it’s a relationship with Jesus, who has already “done” what we could not do.

We are in Psalm 51, the song David wrote after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. As we return to the text, let’s take a moment in prayer.

In college, my indoor soccer team was playing for the league championship. Late in the game, the opponents were rushing toward the goal. I was the last defender back. As the guy with the ball passed the ball across the goal toward his wide-open teammate, I stuck my foot out… and the ball bounced off my foot, past our goalkeeper, and into the goal. We lost the championship game by one goal. In retrospect, that doesn’t matter a whole lot, but there are times when we mess something up to the point where we know the consequences are going to be disastrous.

A danger we have on this side of Calvary, where we know and understand God’s forgiveness in a whole new light, is to understate the consequences of our sin, to easily gloss over them, to shrug and say, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven,” without realizing that every sin actually serves as a barrier between us and God; they effectively push us away from God. So David prays: Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51:11) Do you ever think about the consequences of sin? How it grieves the Lord? How God has every right to cast us out of His presence? It is because of God’s mercy and precisely because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross that God doesn’t do this. But every time we sin, especially those sins we know of, we harden our hearts and force the Holy Spirit out. Although God is supreme and can do anything, the one place God won’t stay is where He is not wanted. If But every time we sin, especially those sins we know of, we harden our hearts and force the Holy Spirit out. Although God is supreme and can do anything, the one place God won’t stay is where He is not wanted. If we, by our actions and attitudes, demonstrate that we don’t want the Holy Spirit inside us, He won’t stay.

So David, realizing the depth of his depravity, prays: Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:12) David understands that forgiveness isn’t all that God has to offer – God offers true joy, joy in spite of adverse situations and circumstances, but that this gift isn’t given independently from salvation. How could a loving God leave us feeling miserable? Because that misery is often an indicator.

We don’t like indicators – for example, when I ruptured my spleen in college, the doctors in the Emergency Room wouldn’t give me a pain killer. No, they wanted to use pain as an indicator. Similarly, when Baby Lily was sick in December, we were really frustrated as the hospital kept giving her Motrin to bring her fever down but they didn’t know what was causing the fever, so as soon as the Motrin ran out, boom, there was the fever again. The fever was an indicator that something else was wrong!

Could it be that God sometimes uses our uneasiness, our struggle, even our misery, to point to our need for Him? This is one reason why Heaven is so appealing, because then we will experience full joy, where every tear is wiped away. And because God knows that the journey is difficult, he grants us a willing spirit to sustain us. Realize that sometimes we aren’t sustained because we don’t have a willing spirit. A covenant is always between two parties; if we’re not willing to obey, God is not forced to uphold His part. So how much more awesome is it that God chooses to love us even when we do not obey?

Remember that God is not forced to love us just because we’ve done good things for Him. All of our good deeds are not what puts us in right standing with God. In fact, the Bible says that all of our good deeds are like filthy rags. We can never do it on our own. BUT once we experience the true joy of God’s salvation, we live our life as a testimony to God. David puts it this way: Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.

Sometimes it can be hard to overcome a reputation. You’ve done everything wrong for so long – who would believe you are now different? Take heart – perhaps God will use your struggle to build a new reputation to turn others to Him. I’ve had conversations with people who think that my life, my Christian life, is so easy, that everything must always be easy for me. But when they hear that I struggle, even with the same things they do, but that living for Christ has given me purpose and meaning, they wonder, “maybe Jesus has something for me, too.”

When people see genuine life transformation, it catches their attention and their imagination. They see who you used to be and they see who you are today and they’re amazed. Sure, they are skeptical to begin with – when’s she going to outgrow this new phase? – but when you continue to live it out, they’ll notice.

Which gets me to this: there are Christian people who are just miserable to be around. They suck the life out of every room they’re in. They’re constantly critiquing everything. They have a permanent frown etched across their faces. Nobody wants to be around them. This is not the picture that God gives us in the Bible. Someone who acts like this has a better chance of driving people away from God than to turn sinners toward Him. If this has described you, it’s time to repent.

David prays for God to: Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. (Psalm 51:14)

David was literally guilty of bloodshed, as he had caused the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Now, many of us aren’t guilty of the same bloodshed David was guilty of, but if we harbor anger in our hearts, we are just as guilty. Jesus says that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:22a)

How seriously do we take our sin? Do we understand that every time we sin, whether in deed or attitude or thought, we are sinning against God? We are opening a rift between us and a Holy, Perfect God who will not allow sin in his presence? So when we sin, it is only God who can repair the relationship – it is only God who can deliver.

I cannot understate the severity of our sin. Again, we can just gloss over it, but it separates us from God and leads to Hell, which is the ultimate separation from God. This is what our sin deserves. So the fact that when we ask God, that we have the assurance that we are forgiven – this is cause for serious celebration!

In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables about loss – a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, and the response when each the sheep, the coin, and the son are found… is celebration! Listen to what Jesus says: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) “In the same way, I tell you there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

Did you notice who is doing the celebrating? If there is celebrating in heaven in the presence of the angels, that must mean that it is either the great cloud of witnesses who goes before us, or God Himself, or both. I fully believe that it is both. That God Himself celebrates over one sinner who repents. And this isn’t just a smile and a handshake kind of celebration. God is doing the Harlem Shake for that sinner. God dances wildly when a sinner returns to Him.

How do we respond when someone comes to Jesus? Are we like the older brother, who resented his younger brother coming home, or do we celebrate? Even David recognizes where the celebration comes from: Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:15) Did you notice that he even asked God to give him the content of the praise? He didn’t have words to praise God on his own, so he asked God to provide. This is extremely important as we look to praise God in all circumstances and in all situations – even when we don’t feel like it. God will provide the content!

Which gets me to this: the mission statement of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, of the Shawnee Valley District, and of Hope UMC in Wellston are all the same: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The biggest celebration in the life of the Christian is the celebration of seeing new disciples accepting Jesus. When was the last time you celebrated a lost soul coming to the Lord?

We are posed in a great place – because there are tons of people right around us who need the Lord. This church can be the instrument through whom God moves in a powerful way. But it has to start with each one of us.

It starts with us acknowledging where we’ve come from. That we are sinners by nature, and that on our own we are helpless to do anything about it. That it is even purely by God’s grace that any one of us can even approach God’s holy throne, but because of God’s character, he paved the way for us.

When we realize this and as we reflect on what it means, let that be the catalyst for change in our own hearts. On our own, our hearts are constantly focused inward; what do I like? What do I want?  What makes me happy? Our hearts are horribly selfish, but God’s transformation not only transforms us from sinner into clean but from selfish to selfless. Then we, too, will lead fellow sinners to God, and then let the celebration begin!

If you want to begin to turn from inward to outward, if you are willing to do your part, if you maybe haven’t started but you need the push, I want to offer a prayer time where we can begin praying together to do God’s will.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Psalm 51, part 1

It’s not my fault. Someone else is to blame. I would never have done that. I’m the victim here.

These are not new claims; in fact, they are the oldest excuses in the book – the Bible, that is. They go all the way back to Genesis, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake…

It seems like the same thing gets repeated again and again and again and as we repeat it, we get better at it. We even start to believe it ourselves! The more we tell a story, the truer we think it is. And one story we tell a lot is “it isn’t my fault.”

If you don’t know the back story behind Psalm 51, in 2 Samuel 11, King David was at the height of his power, but in the Spring, when kings go to war, David was lollygagging around the palace, spying on a neighbor woman bathing. He acted upon his urges, got her pregnant, tried to cover it up by bringing her husband home from war, but when he wouldn’t sleep with her, David had the husband killed in the war. He felt pretty good about himself and his scheme until 2 Samuel 12, where God sends Nathan the Prophet to confront him.

And when Nathan confronts David, David’s immediate response is, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13a)

Then David composed Psalm 51. He doesn’t hem and haw around here – he gets right to the heart of the matter. In the first verse, David knows that God already knows what he has done, so he goes straight to God, asking for mercy.

How often is this our response? Or do we try to argue or rationalize? Everyone does it. I deserve this. You don’t know how it is. I’ve worked so hard, and all I ask for is… Or we even deny any wrongdoing, and the apologies we offer are along the lines of “well, if you were offended, I’m sorry,” which isn’t really an apology, if you’re thinking about using it. Or we try to outweigh our sin with our good deeds – I’ve done all this for you, God, and all I did against you was this little thing…

David doesn’t go there. Instead, David says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” David knows that God knows, and so he goes straight to God, asking for mercy. But David doesn’t ask for mercy based on his previous actions. David doesn’t say, “Hey God, I’m your anointed one.” He doesn’t say, “God, you were the one who named me king.” He doesn’t go back on his track record and say, “Remember who led all your people through all these battles? And who beat Goliath? Yeah, that was me.”

It seems to be our human nature to ask for mercy based on our own merits – I’m a good guy; I made a mistake; I’ve never done this before; I have a good reason. But David doesn’t do that. He goes straight to God’s character. He asks for mercy according to God’s unfailing love and great compassion.

To ask for God’s mercy, you have to know God’s character. You have to know the God who described himself to Moses as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

What might happen if we started there? What might our attitude look like if we only approached God with God’s character?

Only then does David ask for forgiveness. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Something about this verse caught me. David’s sin bothers him. I know far too many people who are only unhappy once they are caught – when they have to live out the consequences of their sin, they are “sorry” for what they did, but until then, they enjoy it. And others are so hardened that they don’t care about their sin; they can sin with impunity. Still others either aren’t in relationship with God or their hearts are so hardened that they don’t even see sin as sin. But David’s sin is always before me. He can’t look himself in the mirror; all he sees is “SINNER.”

There are a lot of people in our society who can relate to this; they know they will never live up to what they see as an unachievable standard. Their sin is always before them. Some self-medicate – drugs and alcohol are just two ways of dealing. Perfectionism and becoming a workaholic are two others. What do you do when you sin and you know it?

David gets to the heart of sin in verse 4. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.

There is no such thing as “just a little sin” that “doesn’t hurt anybody.” Our culture loves to stratify sins; this sin is bad while another isn’t. We play the comparison game and think I’m fine “as long as I don’t…” and then we fill in the blank with something that I obviously don’t do. But someone else does it, and so we look down our noses at “them.” Jesus puts it this way: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [which is an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”(Matthew 5:21-22). Down in verses 27-28 he goes on to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

What he’s saying is sin is sin is sin. Don’t try to justify yourself when you have a sinful heart. Our culture operates from a flawed premise: that people are generally good at heart – for someone to go astray, something must have happened to them. But David gets to the heart of the matter: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Original sin casts its pallor over all of us. The truth is that we are all sinful at birth – which one of us had to teach our child to be selfish? Who had to teach your two year old to say, “NO!” Who had to teach your child to hate or to fight? The reason why we don’t have to teach these things is because they come naturally. But did you notice what David does? He doesn’t use original sin as an excuse or a cop-out. He admits that he is sinful by nature, but that God doesn’t want him to stay that way! In Methodist theology, when we talk about this concept, we call it “Prevenient Grace” – God’s grace going before us, wooing us, calling us to Himself even before we are aware of Him. Because on our own, we are incapable of even knowing of God, let alone coming to Him.

It can be easy to shake our heads at the sin in our world and wonder how anyone can come to that, but the truth is, it is far more surprising that more of us don’t sin grievously. Each of us is perfectly capable of the most horrendous evil. What do we do with that? Do we pat ourselves on the back for not doing them, or do we recognize our own sin, not even corporate sin, meaning the sin of the whole group, but our own individual sin? And when we recognize it, how do we respond?

Do we recognize how stuck we are in it? Can we admit that on our own, we can only avoid the behaviors if we try really, really hard, but that on the inside, we still have the same evil desires that we have always had, only now they are suppressed and repressed?

One of the questions that is asked of pastors at Ordination is “Are you going on to perfection?” Whether or not we believe that sinless perfection is possible in this life, the question remains: Do we even want Christlikeness?

I pose that most of us don’t. And none of us do on our own. But that’s what God wants for us. So what do we do about it? David prays for God to cleanse him. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. No matter what we do, we cannot cleanse ourselves. If we could, then Jesus went to the cross in vain. If we think we can clean ourselves up, we are telling Jesus, “Yes, you did a pretty tough thing on the cross, but I don’t need you I’ve got this one.”

But when God cleans, he doesn’t just wipe off the bad from the outside, he actually transforms us into good from the inside out. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

This sounds a lot like what God said through Ezekiel: “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. 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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. (Ezekiel 36:25-29a)

Do you want Christlikeness? If you don’t, ask God to change your heart. If you do want Christlikeness, ask God to change your heart!

I like to leave you with something concrete to do and maybe that’s my own bias showing through, but this message isn’t about us doing something – it’s about what Jesus has already done. It’s about accepting what God wants for us.