Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm/Passion Sunday

This service was quite different from our usual service. There wasn't a sermon, exactly, but the following is what happened during the service. We had actors who portrayed some of the characters, and the children's choir and adult choir were the crowds in Jerusalem. The children's choir also joined Jesus as the disciples for the "Last Supper" and had Communion with him.

This morning we celebrate a little differently than we usually do. On the calendar, Palm Sunday is listed as Palm/Passion Sunday. We celebrate Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode victoriously into Jerusalem, but the cries of “Hosanna” are quickly drowned out by the cries from the crowd: crucify him!

A hallmark of Judaism was a required pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After Jesus walked on this earth, Christians, too, made the journey to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked. Over time, churches outside Jerusalem began to commemorate Jesus’ final days with their own prayer walks, mirroring the “stations” that were observed in Jerusalem. The purpose of these “stations” was to help Christians make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer, meditating on what Jesus went through on our behalf.

As we recreate some of the key events of the last week before Jesus’ crucifixion, remember that the point of all of this is to help us better understand what Jesus did for us. The whole reason for Jesus’ coming to earth was to save us from our sins and to reconcile us to God. Not just for heaven, but for earth, as well.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of watching a Christmas play or an Easter play and seeing it simply as a historical recreation, or worse, as just a play. Today as we walk with Jesus through some of the major events in the last week before his crucifixion, we have intentionally created elements to remind you of the scene. We have also intentionally left some elements of our current culture. For example, there are historical actors in costume, reminding us that this was a historical event which happened in a specific place and time to real people.

But we also will have participants in modern clothing, reminding us that although these events happened in the past, they still are relevant to us today. We are just like the crowds who celebrate Jesus on Palm Sunday, yet whose sin nails Him to the cross on Good Friday. So remember that we all have a part to play in this Passion Play.

We start at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

Triumphal Entry: Mark 11:1-11
[Jesus comes in while choir and Heaven's Angels sing]

As we continue toward the cross, Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover in the Upper Room. As they celebrated, Jesus instituted Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. We, too, celebrate Communion with Jesus; he is present with us in this celebration every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Last Supper: Mark 14:17-26
[Communion: Children at front with Jesus, served by pastor, congregation in pews, served by ushers]

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Song: In The Garden (314)

The Garden: Mark 14:32-42: Jesus praying in the Garden, then led off by a soldier.

And so it was, that the only truly innocent person was arrested, betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples. He was beaten and questioned, and though they had no basis by which to convict him, he was sentenced to death on a cross. Meanwhile, even Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Good Friday: Mark 15: Jesus is crucified. 

And very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. (Mark 15:1)

Pilate questioned him, but Jesus made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:5). The custom was that at this time, the people could have a prisoner released, and so Pilate asked if they wanted him to release Jesus. The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. (Mark 15:11). When asked what he should do with Jesus, the crowd shouted: Crucify him! (Mark 15:13)

The soldiers led Jesus into the palace. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. (Mark 15:17) They mocked him, beat him, and spit on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

READ Mark 15:25-30
READ Mark 15:33-46
[Jesus taken off the cross and carried out.]

Song: Were You There

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Can You See

Luke 18:35-43

One of the worst feelings in the world is when you can’t find something – you know you just had it, but now you can’t find it. What’s worse is when it is right in front of you and you still can’t find it. About 20 years ago, there was a fad – 3D hidden pictures. The idea was if you looked hard enough at the right angle, then you would see a hidden picture. Honestly, I could almost never see the picture and I always wondered if there really was one.

The idea that someone else could see what I couldn’t always drove me nuts. But it’s a mainstay in Jesus’ ministry; sometimes it seems like the least likely were the ones who saw things the most clearly. In the passage immediately before the one I read today, (Luke 18:31-34) Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the Prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.

The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Here they are, having walked with Jesus for three years. They have been out on amazing mission trips, where they healed the sick, drove out demons and taught about God’s kingdom. But when Jesus explains (for the third time, I must add) everything that is going to happen to him, his disciples don’t understand any of it. Scripture tells us that they did not know what he was talking about.

Kind of like those 3D posters, sometimes something can be in plain sight and we don’t see it. I used to arrogantly look down on the disciples – how could they not see? – but more recently, I’ve become glad that they didn’t; it makes being me a lot easier to bear.

So immediately after a story of how the disciples didn’t see or understand what Jesus plainly told them, Luke presents a picture of someone who does see. A blind man, ironically.

A few weeks ago, I focused on Jesus, who set his face to go to Jerusalem. I told you that all of Luke’s narrative from Luke 9:51 on is pointing to what Jesus is going to do in Jerusalem. This passage is no different. As I mentioned a moment ago, Jesus tells his disciples plainly what is going to happen. Luke mentions this for various reasons – one is to demonstrate their blindness, contrasting with the blind man who is going to approach Jesus in the next passage. Another reason is to further carry the reader on toward the completion of Jesus’ mission, reminding us as well, that Jesus is still heading for Jerusalem. Indeed, as we continue reading, notice that this story isn’t stationary. We have Jesus approaching Jericho. The blind man is sitting by the roadside, hearing the crowd going by. The crowd tells the man that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

We are reminded by the motion of this text that Jesus is on a mission. He isn’t just passing through. He is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. Even the location mentioned has significance – not only was Jericho a significant town in the history of God’s people, but the city of Jericho represented much more; “Jericho is part of the symbolism that speaks of the transition of the tribes from wilderness refugees to possessors of a land of their own as an inheritance from God.” (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Bill T. Arnold and H.G.M. Williamson, eds.). So even the setting points to the movement. Jericho is Jericho, but it’s not just Jericho. It’s more like when you’re heading back home to Ohio, crossing the Ohio River isn’t just a river crossing; it’s a reminder that you’re this much closer to home. Likewise, Jericho, as a location, is a reminder of Jesus’ steadfast resolve to go to Jerusalem.

But on the way, the spotlight turns to this blind man. A little background on this guy; some of us are aware of social classes, but the social classes of our culture aren’t anything like those of the Ancient Near East. This blind man would have been a part of the lowest of the low, a class known as “the expendables.” Lower than a tax collector. Lower than a prostitute or a thief. He was of no use to society and the only way he was able to live was the fact that Jews taught that giving alms was one of the pillars of their faith.

Yet here he was, beside the road, calling out to Jesus.  He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Why is it important that a blind man, an expendable, is crying out to Jesus? It is important because of Luke’s purpose in writing this gospel. Luke set out to write a historical account of Jesus’ life and to show the theological significance of the history. So early on, Jesus reads the Scripture in his synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on 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.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Luke wants his readers to understand that when Jesus said this, he meant it. And even though Jerusalem has become Jesus’ focus, his mission is still the same. He is anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. This is exactly what he’s doing! When Jesus said that the scripture is fulfilled, he is saying that he is the one they have been waiting for.

Here’s the issue: throughout Luke’s gospel, we see people who have physical sight but are spiritually blind. They can see, but they can’t see! But in a surprising reversal, here is a physically blind man whose spiritual eyes are very clearly open. While Jesus’ very disciples are struggling with the things Jesus is telling them, this blind man somehow recognizes Jesus as the promised “Son of David” – the Messiah.

Just as an aside, in some ways, our culture doesn’t seem to be all that different from theirs. Notice the reaction to the blind man – those who were leading the way in the crowd rebuked him. He wasn’t supposed to be bothering Jesus. He was expendable, after all. You have to understand that they would have expected him to ask for alms. Which could have been what his cry for mercy was all about.  After all, with his status, he had to rely on alms to live. So I don’t think their rebuke was so much about him or his cry for mercy, but I believe it was more about his recognition of Jesus as the Son of David, which is more than recognizing Jesus’ lineage. It was about recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah. The crowd didn’t necessarily want to hear this or to know this truth.  Which is like the crowd in our culture. If you want to be rebuked, if you want to be unpopular, then be sure to tell the truth. Especially if the truth involves calling sin what it is.

The sad thing here is that those who are rebuking the blind man are not, in this case, the scribes and Pharisees or Sadducees. They are the leaders among those following Jesus. Maybe even Jesus’ own disciples. And it seems like the worst rebukes we receive come not from non-Christians, but from our fellow believers. If you preach the truth, you’ll get complaints. In fact, I’ve had people leave the church because I called sin “sin.”

I love the response of the blind man. He humbly closed his mouth and went back to begging. NO! Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And because Jesus is who he is, Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

I believe this man first came to Jesus for money. He heard the crowds, found out who it was on the road, and this would be a great time to get some money. And I know people who all they want from God or from the church is money. They are satisfied with getting their regular handout. But when that runs out, they come back, needing another. I don’t mean to discount the good aspects of giving to charity or helping others, especially when they are in terrible need. Like when there is a house fire, the person whose house burned needs relief now.

But many times, including this one, there is something underlying the need. The blind man needed money. There is no question about it. But when Jesus questioned him, the real need surfaced. I need to see.

Ironic, because this blind man had already demonstrated that his spiritual sight was far superior to that of everyone around him.

Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”

I think it’s important that Jesus grants his request and answers his prayer. He asked for sight, and Jesus gives him sight. But it’s also important to note what Jesus says. He says, “Your faith has healed you.” This isn’t to say if you just have enough faith, you will have your wish, I mean prayer, granted. It’s not magic. There’s not a special formula that if you say it right or ask it right or if the right person asks, then you’ll get your request granted. There are times when God answers prayers “yes” and there are times when he answers prayers “no” and there are times when he simply says, “wait.”

The big question is why did Jesus heal this blind beggar? Why did Jesus heal this blind beggar while our loved one suffered and died? Why did Jesus heal this expendable and he lets countless others die? We have all known a situation where we have prayed with our whole hearts and the results haven’t been what we asked for. On my first day at the New Knoxville UMC, my predecessor knocked on my door. He wanted to show me where the local hospital was and to introduce me to a member of the congregation. She was a young mother, pregnant with her second child, and suffering with yet-undiagnosed back pain. Within weeks, the doctors found the cause: stage 4 breast cancer. Though we prayed and fasted, Beth died, leaving her husband and daughter and a tiny premature baby boy. Why does God heal one and not the other?

I will give you the short answer to that one. I don’t know.

Sometimes God chooses to heal. In the case of Lazarus, God even chose to raise him from the dead. Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, this is what he said: [When he heard this, Jesus said,] “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that the Son of Man may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)

So too, with the blind man. Jesus healed this blind man on purpose. The blind man didn’t just happen to be there in this transitional place. It wasn’t coincidence. His healing was intentional. It was a reminder of who Jesus is, as the fulfillment of the passage Jesus read in Isaiah, as well as a signpost along Jesus’ route to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ healing of this man served to glorify God.

Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

The final moment of this scene is beautiful. The blind man is healed! He immediately received his sight. He once was blind, but now he can see. He praised God, as did everyone else. It is a beautiful scene. But it’s not an easy one. Now everything is different for this formerly blind man. Notice that he didn’t sit back down in his begging spot; he followed Jesus. He can never go back to what he was.

One of the problems in life is that many of us have decided to follow Jesus, but we’ve never left our begging spot. We still want to be the same old person we were before we met Him. We have the same ways of thinking, the same sinful old ways of dealing with others, the same selfish ways of dealing with our money, and we just cover it with a thin veneer of Christianity. But this formerly blind man went all-in and followed Jesus, praising God. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do as well. It is time to leave the begging spot and follow Jesus with everything we are!