Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Extended Lenten Devotional : Days seventeen and eighteen, Tuesday and Wednesday Feb. 26th and 27th "Woe Woe Your Boat"

Gospel Reading: Luke 8-13Devotional Emphasis: Luke 11:52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who where entering.”

The big turning point in the gospel of Luke occurs in 9:51 as Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem. Up until this point we have seen Jesus fulfilling what he set out to do: He has brought sight to the blind, good news to the poor, release to the captives. Peter has just confessed that he believes Jesus to the messiah. Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John. Now, Jesus begins to tell them that this trip to Jerusalem will lead to his suffering and death. He then tells his disciples that they must daily do as he does and follow him.

Along Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem he takes some time to teach, to heal others, and to hang out with the religious folks of the day. The only problem with the religious folks is that Jesus often had more critiques than he had words of encouragement. In one of the dinner engagements, Jesus told them they were doing six things wrong, designated as the six woes. (1) They give a tenth of their money, but neglect justice and love of God. They need to do both. (2) They love power and to be praised. (3) They are causing people who follow their ways to sin with them knowing it. (4) They load people down with commandments without helping them to be obedient. (5) On the one hand they acclaim the prophets while they live the same way as the people who put the prophets to death. (6) They hinder people who truly seek the knowledge of God because they themselves do no really seek after God.

This is quite a list of accusations Jesus is making and those who invited him over for dinner are quite unhappy with him. Although the times have certainly changed, I am still convinced that Jesus’ advice is sound for the church today in our post-modern context. When I survey current books on Christianity, I see a growing frustration with the way we do church. The frustration seems to be that the church is keeping people from experiencing an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.

An article that ran this week in the Washington Post sums up this trend well.

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.
"In the past, certain religions had a real holding power, where people from one generation to the next would stay," said Penn State University sociologist Roger Finke, who consulted in the survey planning. "Right now, there is a dropping confidence in organized religion, especially in the traditional religious forms."

Lugo said the 44 percent figure is "a very conservative estimate," and more research is planned to determine the causes.
"It does seem in keeping with the high tolerance among Americans for change," Lugo said. "People move a lot, people change jobs a lot. It's a very fluid society."
The religious demographic benefiting the most from this religious churn is those who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin.

The majority of the unaffiliated _ 12 percent of the overall population _ describe their religion as "nothing in particular," and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them. Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.
The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping, the survey found. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they're Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.

The share of the population that identifies as Catholic, however, has remained fairly stable in recent decades thanks to an influx of immigrant Catholics, mostly from Latin America. Nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic, the survey found.

On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

Many Americans have vague denominational ties at best. People who call themselves "just a Protestant," in fact, account for nearly 10 percent of all Protestants.

Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the "unchurched," the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.[i]

The question or questions for us to consider is: Why are churches not reaching post-moderns and what can churches do differently to reach this generation? Could the problem be that the church, much like the religious folks Jesus was talking to, be turning people away from God?

John Burke, in his book No Perfect People Allowed talks about five things post-moderns struggle with which cause them to find meaning in life outside of the church. He says post-moderns struggle with (1) trust (2) tolerance (3) truth (4) brokenness (5) aloneness.[ii] Post-moderns have distrust for authority, which does not play well for the church. This distrust is only heightened when we see pastor after pastor charged with scandals and sex offensive. We see televangelist making millions of dollars by telling poor people God will make them rich if they give to their ministry. In the age of pluralism post-moderns believe that truth is ultimately up to the individual rather than their being an “ultimate truth.” Therefore post-moderns believe we should be tolerant of other people’s faith because it is only a personal choice. Like never before we are seeing people with tremendous brokenness due to neglect from parents, the high divorce rate, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Our culture is also growing further into individualism and we desperately need to be a community.

Although I am 32 and squarely in the post-modern generation I do not have all the answers. I do think we can learn a great deal from Jesus’ venting to the religious leaders of his day. It seems that the gist of what Jesus says is this: “We cannot change people by making them behave in certain ways; we must allow them to experience the grace of God and change their heart.” John Burke says it like this, “Our responsibility is not to make people grow or change. Our task is to create the right soil, a rich healthy environment, in which people can grow up in faith until the invisible God is made visible through his Body the church.” Burke also goes on to suggest that people do not reject Christianity based on how great the arguments are that we present. They reject it or accept it based on whether or not they want to be like the person who is modeling Christianity.[iii]

I believe this is the hope we have for reaching the post-modern church. I also believe it has been the hope that has driven Christianity through the ages. We have to model our faith is such a way that people will want to be like us. When they see how God has mended our brokenness through Jesus, they will then open themselves up to that same transforming love.
[i] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:
[ii] John Burke, No Perfect People Allowed (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005)
[iii] Ibid

Monday, February 25, 2008

Message Given on Wednesday Feb 27th "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth"

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth
Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Time Magazine ran an article not too long ago called, The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth. Lev Grossman writes in the article that what the world saw as being “uncool” in the 90’s is not the thing that is “cool” today. Take for example, Harry Potter which is about a secrete wizarding community and the good wizards battle the Dark Lord. The things that used to be geeky is now the things we are all into today. The geeks have one the world.

In a similar way, Jesus is telling his listeners that the “meek” will be the ones who inherit the earth. This Greek word praus used in Matthew 5:5 has been translated several different ways. It can be translated as “meek”, “humble”, or “gentle”. This is the first beatitude that we find in Matthew and not in Luke. However, there is a startling similarity between this beatitude and the first one we studied, “Blessed is the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The reason scholars believe there is a similarity in these two beatitudes is because of two Old Testament verses. Isaiah 61:1, which is the foundation of the first beatitude, uses the same Greek word for “poor” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) as does Psalm 37:11, which is the foundation for the third beatitude. This is because the Hebrew word anav means “poor, afflicted, humble, and meek.”

Psalm 37 may be helpful to us as we uncover what it truly means to be “meek” Psalm 37:8-11 says,

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more;though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.

Notice first, this Psalm defines the meek as being the people who cease from anger when the people around them are doing evil things to get ahead in life. Psalm 37 begins by telling the reader not to fret about people who do wrong when they seem to be the ones getting ahead. In the end, it will be the meek who inherit the land.

The Second thing Psalm 37 says about being meek is that we have to wait on the Lord instead of giving in to the temptation to get ahead with evil. The psalm goes on to say that the wicked will get what they have coming.

Erik Kolbell is correct when he summarizes the meaning of “meek” in the Old Testament as “quiet perseverance in the face of brute rage.” It is being able to trust that no matter what circumstance we are faced with and how badly our situation seems, that God will one day intervene. It calls for the followers of God to be patient and wait on God to act rather than sinking down to the level of those who use evil to get ahead.[i]

I am not a political analyst nor do I pretend to be, but it seems to me that at times our country jumps the gun (literally speaking) in certain places. After 9/11, we had the whole world on our side, but we were so caught up in getting revenge for the awful things that happened on Sept. 11th, that we caused the world to turn against us. We sunk down to the level of the terrorist who attacked us. Being “meek” is when we are able to stay above board and trust God rather than our might to solve situations.

The word praus, according to William Barclay can also refer to the taming of a wild animal. If we are to become meek, we have to tame ourselves. We have to become entirely self-controlled. We have to control our natural urges to seek revenge and allow God to deal with the situation.

The Land

In the Old Testament land is a huge deal. The Hebrew word for land is erets and is used around 230 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy and the Old Testament, Israel is promised that if they will obey the laws of God then they will live well in the land. If they break the laws, however, the land would spit them out.

As the Old Testament story continues on, we see Israel being disobedient to God until they are finally sent off into exile. Psalm 37, which we look at a earlier may have been written while Israel was in exile as a way of saying that the Jews should be patient and be meek and God will deliverer you back to their land.

When Jesus comes on the scene, the Jews are back in their land, but they are under foreign rule. Jesus is telling them that they can inherit the land again, if thy will allow God to rule them again.

True Humility

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, “According to the Christian teaches, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastely, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[ii]

Lewis is very hard on the attitude of pride and for good reason. Pride is the very thing that leads us into sin and away from God. If we want to live in a relationship with God, the one thing God cannot live with is our pride. Pride is placing ourselves as the supreme ruler of our lives instead of God. Pride is what leads to the destruction of our relationships. Humility is so important because it is the thing that trumps pride. Humility means to admit that we are human and that God is the lord of our lives. It means to step aside and let God have full control of us.

Lewis goes on to say that truly humble people do not beat themselves up either. He suggests that a person who is humble will be someone who you have a conversation with and realize that they said nothing about themselves because they were so interested in you. This is important because humility does not mean degrading yourself. We can have a good, healthy self-esteem and still be humble before God. Honestly, when we degrade ourselves we are looking for assurance from others. God wants us to be thankful for the gifts and graces we have. God just wants us to allow God to control our lives and uses these gifts and graces for God’s glory and for the building of God’s kingdom.

[i] Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2003) 59.
[ii] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper San Francisco: New York 1952) “The Greatest Sin, pgs 121-128.

Lenten Devotional: Days Fifteen and Sixteen, Feb 23rd and 25th

Gospel Reading: Matthew 16-20Devotional Emphasis:
Matthew 20:15 “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”

It seems that everybody who was keeping up with Jesus wanted Jesus to prove to them that he was who he was claiming to be. Earlier John the Baptist even had some questions about who Jesus really was. Instead of being defensive, Jesus seems to let his actions do the talking. He simply tells folks to keep the head up and eyes open to what is happening around them. He also makes it known that the kingdom everyone else is looking for is not quite what he has in mind. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not be a conqueror, but a sufferer. Often in these chapters in Matthew we see the disciples having a false sense of expectation of what they believe the kingdom will look like. They want to know who will be the greatest in the kingdom and who will have seats of power. Jesus simply continues to respond that the first will be last and the last will be first.

This role reversal is really seen in story form when Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Some worked all day, while others worked shorter amounts. Some only worked one hour that day, but everyone was paid the same. Jesus said those who worked all day were upset because they felt they had earned more money. The landowner responds by saying that he has the right to be gracious to anyone he chooses because it is his money to give. In the same way, God can be gracious to whomever he chooses, because it is his to give. If God wants to offer salvation to people outside of the ordinary Jewish person, then God can do that.

In thinking about this passage, I can sympathize with those who have worked all day. It doesn’t seem very fair from our 21st century lens. We believer people should earn their living. We also think people should show themselves worthy of God’s grace. Oftentimes we even try to distinguish who should be in and who should be out. The problem is that God does not work that way. In God’s kingdom we will see that people will receive grace who we least expect, therefore we should learn to be more God-like in extending grace to those who deserve it least.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lenten Devoional: Days thirteen and fourteen, Febuary 21st and 22nd "Help me with my Unbelief"

Gospel Reading: Mark 6-10
Devotional Emphasis: Mark 9:24 “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me to overcome my unbelief.”

Mark continues his theme of showing those persons who have eyes to see and ears to hear. In chapters 6 and 7 we see examples of those persons who have little faith (having eyes, but not seeing) verses those who do. Beginning in chapter 8 Mark throws us a curve ball because it is the disciples we have eyes but only see partially. Jesus paints this picture well when he goes to heal the blind man and he only sees partially. After a second healing, he sees clearly. After this, Peter confesses Jesus to be the messiah, but when Jesus predicts his death three times in the following chapters, the disciples fail to understand and are rebuked. Chapter 10 ends with another story of a blind man gaining sight, possible to show that one day the disciples will see and understand.

After Jesus takes three of his disciples to a mountain and God turns his clothes bright white and the disciples see Moses and Elijah, they encounter the rest of the disciples trying to cast out an evil spirit. They are having a hard time so Jesus talks with the father of the child who has the evil spirit. He tells to the father that anything is possible for those who believe, to which the father replies, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” This stands in contrast to the disciples who were standing around unable to cats out this demon. Of coarse Jesus tells them that this demon can only come out through prayer. (Some texts add “fasting”)

As I was reading these verses this morning I found the father’s words refreshing and Jesus response to them as comforting. As First-Centenary approaches opening up our new building and we move The Vine worship service into it, I cannot help but worry about whether or not the service will grow. I know deep down that our growing is dependent upon God and I believe with all my heart that this is true. However, part of me can’t help but worry. So, with the father in this passage, my prayer to God is: “I do believe, help me to overcome my unbelief.” I imagine that this is our prayer as we deal with lots of life situations. It seems that Jesus responds to this kind of faith and I am very thankful.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Days Eleven and Twelve, Feb. 19th and 20th "Heaven Isn't too far Away"

Gospel Reading: Matthew 11-15
Devotional Emphasis: Matthew 13:33 “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount off flour until it worked all through the dough.”

These five chapters in Matthew cover quite a lot of material. We began reading about John’s followers asking Jesus to give John a sign about being the true messiah. Jesus talks about how great John is, but that those who believe his message are just as important, if not more so. Jesus is constantly defending himself and his followers throughout these five chapters. He walks on water and Peter falls in the lake. On two separate occasions Jesus is able to take a small amount of food and multiply it to feed 5,000 men plus woman and children on one occasion and 4,000 men plus women and children on another.

Fitted tightly in the midst of all this, we find Jesus taking time to teach his followers from a boat about the kingdom of heaven. He uses several parables to describe the kingdom: (1) The sower spreading seed (2) the weeds (3) the mustard seed (4) yeast (5) hidden treasure (6) the pearl (7) and the net. If we were to use these parables to show us different aspects of the kingdom of heaven we could say that the kingdom of heaven is not easily understood or comprehended, it is difficult now to tell who is in and who is out, it begins small, but will spread quickly, once it is discovered, and it is the most valuable thing we can possess.

My favorite description of the kingdom of heaven is to think of it as yeast working through the dough of the bread. It is just a small part in the beginning, but eventually spreads through the whole thing. I see the kingdom of heaven working that way now. Sometimes it seems that this world is falling apart, but then I can see God’s grace working around me, reminding me that God’s kingdom is a present reality. Like the 80’s song “Heaven isn’t too far away, it is closer every day” I believe God’s kingdom is spreading throughout our world slowly but surely. The question I must ask myself is: I am contributing to bringing God’s kingdom or am I working against it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Ten, Monday Feb. 18th "When God Steps Up and Steps In."

Gospel Reading: Matthew 8-10
Devotional Emphasis: Matthew 8:26 “He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the waves, and it was completely calm.”

In looking at these three chapters in Matthew, you may have noticed a nice ABABAB pattern in the maters. A represents Jesus’ miracles and B represents those who want to follow Jesus. It breaks down as follows

A- Jesus heals the man with leprosy, the centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in law.
B- Jesus turns two people away from following him
A- Jesus calms the storm, heals the demon possessed man and the paralytic
B- Jesus calls Matthew and defends his choice.
A- Jesus brings a dead girl back from the dead, heals a woman subject to bleeding, heals and heals the blind men.
B- Jesus says the workers a few, but the harvest is great and sends his disciples out to work.

In taking a closer look at these stories, they all resonate with having faith or the lack there of. It takes faith to come to Jesus and ask for healing and it takes faith to follow Jesus. There is a noticeable difference between the two people who are turned away by Jesus and those who take on the task of being true followers. It is true though, that even those who follow Jesus in faith struggle at times. When Jesus is with his disciples and they are crossing the lake, a storm emerges. Some of the disciples are very familiar with the water and know that they are in serious danger. In a panic, they wake Jesus up and ask him to save him. Jesus calms the storm and saves their lives.

As Jesus is calming the storm, he says, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid.” I have had times when I have felt like the disciples in the boat. I have been overwhelmed with the storms of life or the stress that crashes in around me. I have cried out to God that I cannot do it and I have thought about Jesus saying, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid.” After this I have also experienced the calming of the storm and the waves dying down because again and again, Jesus comes through. We all have our times when we have too little faith. It seems that when this happens, God always steps up and steps in. I pray that God will step up and step in for you when you reach this point.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sermon 2/17/08 The Beatitudes Part 2:"Cry Over Spilled Milk

“Cry Over Spilled Milk”
Matthew 5:3-12 from Tom Wright Matthew for Everyone

Scripture Reading

Wonderful news for poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
Wonderful news for the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
Wonderful news for the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
Wonderful news for people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
Wonderful news for the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourself.
Wonderful news for the pure in heart! You will see God.
Wonderful news for the peacemakers! You’ll be called children of God.
Wonderful news for people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
Wonderful news for you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.

When I was working as a chaplain at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky one summer, we all took turns being “on call.” This typically meant responding to emergencies as they came up. I carried around a pager with me when I was on call. One day while I was on call, I got a page because one of the nurses had just found out that her brother had died. She was in the lobby of the hospital waiting on her family to come and pick her up. They had asked for a chaplain to visit with her until her family arrived.

I made my way down to the lobby and I immediately saw her because she was crying uncontrollably. She had another nurse with her. I walked up to her and introduced myself, which she seemed not to really notice me. She finally sat down in one of the chairs and continued to cry, so I sat in another chair. Sometimes I have some very intelligent things to say, but those moments are few, so I remained silent. I remember this being one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. Here was someone in deep mourning and I, as the chaplain, was in no way capable of doing anything to comfort her. As a matter of fact, I was looking for some comfort myself.

There is something strange about being in the presence of people who are suffering. Our first instinct is to give comfort, not so much for the person who is suffering, but for our sake. We think if we can make them feel better, it will bring comfort to us. It seems odd to me that Jesus would tell the crowd gathered around him on the Mountain top. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”[i] It is strikes me as more odd that Luke would record Jesus’ beatitude as saying, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” It also says, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”[ii] It seems this would be the opposite of what we would think of as “being blessed.”

“Being blessed when we Mourn”

NT Wright in translating the beatitudes uses the phrase “Wonderful news for” when translating the Greek word makarios, which we usually translate as “happy” or “blessed.” The word itself means having self-contained joy. It is ironic that the second beatitude says, “Wonderful news for the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.” There obviously has to be some kind of explanation for why this is wonderful news.

(1) Mourning for our sins

John Wesley believed that each of the beatitudes is contingent on the one above it. So, he suggests, if we are to be poor in spirit, we would recognize our own sin and then we would be mournful of our sins. For Wesley, being mournful was to feel guilty for our sins. Wesley says that it is when we pursue righteousness and see our own sin that we mourn. He goes on to say that in these moments God gives us comfort.[iii]

I am sure we have all experienced times in our own lives when we have be confronted with our sin. Surely our sin is a cause for mourning. I have experienced huge amounts of grief over seeing my sins and then thinking about all that God has done for me. We believe when we come into God’s presence he does give us comfort from our sins and the assurance of forgiveness.

Crying Over Spilled Milk

(2) Mourning for our loses
In Jesus’ day people would mourn in particular ways. When someone died or something tragic would happen, people would often (1) Tear their clothing (2)dress in sackcloth (3) Sometimes cut their beard or hear (4) and wearing ashes. Different mourning periods are mentioned in the Bible and it was common for persons to mourn a year after the death of a parent. This may sound somewhat strange to us because we live in a culture that does every thing we can to hide our emotions. We do not want people to see us in our moments of weakness. We get uncomfortable when people cry and mourn.

I have recently read that crying can actually be healthy. I read an article entitled, Go ahead, Cry over Spilled Milk which basically confirmed my assumption that Crying is not only healthy, but suppressing our grief and tears can be harmful.[iv] The wonderful news that Jesus gives us in the beatitude is that God gives us permission to mourn.

When something bad happens to us and we are deeply hurt it is like having a deep cut on our body. If we do not address the deep cut, the cut will scar up and never properly heal. There will be signs of the hurt that will play out until we enable ourselves to mourn for that hurt in out lives. This beatitude gives us permission to mourn for our loses and to not keep those things bottled up inside. It is OK to allow ourselves to undergo the grieving process.

The Message says, “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the one most dear to you.”[v] This beatitude certainly is telling us that there are going to be times in our own lives when we will need to mourn or weep. We should listen to Jesus and take the time to cry, weep, and mourn our losses.

The Fog Lifted

(3) Mourning for collective sins

The meaning of those who mourn could also best be expressed by Isaiah 61:1-3. It says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called mighty oaks,
a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah was written to the Jews who were in exile. They were in mourning because they had turned their backs on God and because of this; they were driven from their land. The message of Isaiah is that those who weep, because of Israel’s sin and exile, will be comforted. Their hope was that they would one day be restored to their land and they would live as God’s people again. I am sure this seemed like a long way off.

I went backpacking with some friends on the ridge top of Iron Mountain in Northeastern Tennessee one weekend. When we got up there it was cold, rainy, and foggy. We could not see a thing off the side of the mountain. We were disappointed to say the least because we had gone on this trip to get into nature and see God in the breathtaking views off the side of the mountain. It was the fall and the leaves were turning, but the fog was so bad, we could barely see each other, much less any spectacular view of God’s creation. After a full day of hiking, we stayed in a shelter.

It got down to about 20 degrees that night. But when we woke up, we walked around to the back of the shelter and we could see the sun coming up over the mountain across from us. The fog had lifted and we had one of the most breathtaking view of the sun coming up across the river and the mountains. Just like the fog lifted and we saw a wonderful view, there is a time when God lifts our sadness and we are comforted. This was the hope Isaiah wrote about for the Jewish people in exile and this is the hope of comfort that Jesus offers us the beatitudes.

I believe God’s comfort ultimately gets its hope in the cross of Jesus. In Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his resurrection, we see how our mourning can turn into rejoicing. John Calvin says it like this,

But Christ does not merely affirm that mourners are not unhappy. He shows, that their very mourning contributes to a happy life, by preparing them to receive eternal joy, and by furnishing them with excitements to seek true comfort in God alone.[vi]

I believe Calvin is right that God is able to take all of our mourning and somehow uses it to contribute to a happily life in which we find our comfort in God. One day, when all is said and done and we look back on our lives from the vantage point of redemption, we will be able to see how God used our mourning to bring us the ultimate comfort.

[i] Matthew 5:4
[ii] Luke 6:21 and 25
[iii] John Wesley, “Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discource 1” John Welsey on the Sermon on the Mount: The Standard Sermons in Modern English vol. II, 21-33. Ed. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn (Abington Press:Nashville, 2002) 49-52.
[v] Eugene Peterson, The Message Matthew 5:4

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Nine, Saturday Feb. 16th "No Perfect People Allowed"

Gospel Reading: Luke 6:12-7
Devotional Emphasis: Luke 7:47 “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In Luke’s gospel, the famous sermon Jesus preaches is known as “The Sermon on the Plains” because he comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place. You will notice some obvious differences between the sermons in Matthew and Luke. Luke only uses four beatitudes, but adds four woes to go with them. He does not include the “You have heard it said,” phrases or the teachings on piety. He does not talk about “treasures in heaven.” Luke focuses on the poor and the hungry, on loving your enemies, judges others, bearing fruit, and building your house by obeying Jesus’ words. After the shorter sermon in Luke we see Jesus perform two miracles, one for a centurion (A Roman) and one for a Widow’s son, reminding us of Elijah’s ministry in 1 Kings. We then see John’s disciples coming to Jesus and asking if he is really the messiah, which Jesus responds by showing how Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled. He says the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

Later Jesus is invited to a dinner by one of the Pharisees. It does not take long for Jesus to cause a commotion. A person who Luke calls “a woman who had lived a sinful life” shows up and begins wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing his feet, and pouring perfume on them. When the Pharisees notice what is happening, they are taken back and begin to wonder why Jesus would allow this type of behavior. Jesus explains her actions by giving a word problem. Two people are in debt, one owes more than the other and their debts are both forgiven, who will be the most thankful. Obviously the one that has the most debt will be the most thankful. Jesus then says this lady loves God more because she has been forgiven the most debt. She showed this reality in that she actually did to Jesus’ feet what a good host should have done, but the host of this party had done nothing.

Jesus’ comment that people who are forgiven much love much and those who are forgiven a little, love just a little. It makes me wonder if Jesus is saying we should be “big sinners” so that we can experience more forgiveness. Surely not! Paul tells us that we should NOT sin more so we receive more grace. I think Jesus has something else in mind. I think Jesus is saying we all sin a great deal and it is the one who admits their need for forgiveness that loves a lot. As the title of a great book says, “No Perfect People Allowed” we need to create an atmosphere where people are free to acknowledge their imperfections and breathe in the fresh grace of God and experience God’s forgiveness. When we do, we will fall in love with God all the more.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Nine, Friday Feb 15th "Treasure Chest"

Gospel Reading: Matthew 5-7
Devotional Emphasis: Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the greatest sermon ever preached. It definitely contains some of the most well known teachings of Jesus. Jesus begins this sermon by listing nine blessing we call “The beatitudes.” (Some scholars believe there are 8 beatitudes, the ninth being a summery.) He then introduces the theme and declares that he is not taking away from the law or the prophets, but fulfilling them. The body of the sermon really has three main points: (1) How to live out the law? (2) How to practice piety? (3) How to live our lives faithfully to God? Jesus ends the sermon by telling his listeners that if they obey his words it will be like building a house on a solid foundation.

After Jesus finishes telling his listeners how they could better practice some of the foundational aspects of the faith, namely alms giving, prayer, and fasting, he tells them they should not store up treasures on earth, but rather they should store up treasures in heaven. His reasoning for this is that treasures on earth will be destroyed or be stolen, but treasures in heaven will be had for the long haul. The thing we are aiming for determines where our heart lies. The heart in ancient Jewish thought controlled the emotions, so if the heart was corrupt, our actions would be corrupt. If we live our lives as if money if the most important thing, then it is money that we have our heart set on. Jesus is telling us that when this happens, we will simply be striving for something that eventually fades away.

CS Lewis once wrote that if we aim at things in earth, we will get nothing, but if we aim at things in heaven we would get earth thrown in. I think this is something like what Jesus had in mind. I believe it is only when we experience the love of God that all the other things we have and desire in life find their true meaning. Yesterday was Valentine’s Day in which we reflected on those most dear to us. The love we share with these persons by itself would never satisfy our desire to be loved, unless we understand these loves through the greatest love, the love that makes all loves possible, the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Eight, Thursday Feb 14th "Hearing and Seeing"

Gospel Reading: Mark 4-5
Devotional Emphasis: Mark 4:24 “Consider carefully what you hear. With the measure you use it, it will be measured to you- and even more.”

Today’s reading in Mark begins with the parable of the sower in which Jesus tells of the sower planting seeds in different types of soil: some seed was on the path and was eaten by birds, some on rocky soil and was burnt up, some on thorns and was chocked out, but others fell on good soil and produced fruit. Jesus explains that this is what happens when his message is preached, some never hear or understand it, but some do get it and produce fruit. In some ways the stories we read about beginning in chapter five show how this works in the lives of the people Jesus encountered. The Demon possessed man on seeing what Jesus did for him believed while those around him didn’t. Jairus believed, but others with him laughed at Jesus, but his daughter was healed. The woman with bleeding believed took bold moves just to touch Jesus and was healed.

Jesus explains why he teaches in parables by quoting from Isaiah, so that persons will be ever seeing, but never perceiving, ever hearing, but never understanding because if they were, they might turn and be forgiven. This is a difficult teaching from Jesus because it makes it appear that Jesus is saying that if he would talk in plain Aramaic or Hebrew, the people may actually understand him and repent. However, because he uses these parables, it is like secrete code causing the people to be ignorant. After explaining the meaning of the sower parable to the disciples because even they did not understand it, he asks them if they hide their lamps under a bowl or the bed. Of coarse the answer is no. In the same way Jesus says, the thing that were meant to be hidden are now coming to light and the things that were concealed are now being opened. What is the meaning of this?

I think Jesus is saying that he uses parables because he wants to make things that have been hidden come to light. People should be able to understand what Jesus is saying. However, Jesus is also saying that people have to WANT to understand and they have to LISTEN to his words and they have to USE what he is saying. If they do, they will receive more knowledge. If not, they will loose what they get. The reason people will hear and not understand is because they do not really want to understand. Sometimes we can be so closed minded to what others say because we think we have all the answers that we miss out of the truth that is right before us. That was what happened to those who opposed Jesus and that happens to us. When we listen and use what we hear from God, we will then gain more insight.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Seven, Wednesday Feb 13th "Spirit and in Truth"

Gospel Reading: John 3-4
Devotional Emphasis: John 4:23“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father is spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”

Today’s reading begins with perhaps one of the most famous stories in the entire bible, namely the story of Nicodemus asking Jesus how he could be “born again a second time.” Jesus’ answer is that one must be born of “water and spirit.” In other words, one must be born physically and spiritually. The section we read today spends a great deal of time talking about “eternal life.” God so loved the word that he gave his only son and those who believe in him will have eternal life.” John the Baptist echoes this testimony and the woman at the well is told that if she drinks the water Jesus offers she will have eternal life. Jesus heals the Official’s son, marking his second miracle in John’s gospel so that people will believe, thus giving them eternal life. The word eternal does not have to mean “everlasting”; it can also mean “having an eternal quality of life.” Both definitions are important.

In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman as he is passing by. She is hanging out at the well at noon, which means she is going during the heat of the day, maybe in order to be there while there is no crowd. Jesus asks her for a drink and she is taken back b this because she is both a Samaritan and a woman. This story may remind us of famous “well story meetings in the Old Testament such as Isaac’s servant and Rebecca and Moses and his wife and sisters. In return Jesus offers her water that will completely quench her thirst. They also have a conversation about worship. Samaritans worshipped at a temple on Mount Gerizim and the Jews believed the temple in Jerusalem was the true temple. Jesus being the good Jew he was agreed with the Jewish view, but added that a time was coming when they would not worship on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem, but would worship in Spirit and in Truth.

What does it mean to worship in Spirit and in truth? Jesus gives us the answer in part by saying that God is spirit. God is not bound to one certain place, but is active everywhere. Obviously the woman at the well was confused because she could not figure out what Jesus was saying because she wanted the Messiah to come and explain it all to her. Jesus then says he is the Messiah. I think from this context worshiping in spirit and truth means to worship God as revealed by Jesus, the Christ. Jesus takes the place of either temple and reveals the heart and character of God. So often we make worship about the sermon or the music, but worship in spirit and truth is making worship about Jesus! The heart of true worship is all about Jesus and we need to learn, like the Samaritan woman to make worship about Jesus and worship in spirit and in truth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Six, Tuesday Feb. 12th "Jesus Vision Statement"

Gospel Reading: Luke 4-6:11
Devotional Emphasis: Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

After yesterday’s reading of Mark 1-3, you will notice that today’s reading covers most of the same material. Luke adds the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown and he doesn’t name the disciples at the point in the gospel. Jesus still cast out some demons and heals the paralytic, causing his fame to spread. Jesus also gets into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors and healing on the Sabbath. His disciples refuse to fast.

The story of Jesus preaching in his hometown marks one of the most important stories in Luke’s gospel. Jesus gets up and reads a scroll which contains Isaiah 61:1-2, which the prophet says he has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners, give sight to the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of Jubilee. I have a feeling that this was Jesus' motto which framed his ministry. It was his vision statement. He then makes the statement that he himself will fulfill these words. This is big claim. The people listening in want evidenced that Jesus can do these things and that he is who he says he is. When Jesus refuses and then tells them that he will do these things for other people instead, they get mad and want to through him off a cliff.

I have not seen a church today that has threatened to through the preacher off a cliff, but I am sure that some churches have been just as selfish as this group listening to Jesus. It is hard for us to understand sometimes that God cares for people other than ourselves. We want God to be “for us” and “against them.” When Jesus told his “home church” that God was for “us and them” they did not like that. As the church today, we have to remember that God sent Jesus to bring good news to the poor. Instead of being selfish and keeping Jesus to ourselves, how about we share Jesus with the world. Instead of focusing on what it best for our individual churches maybe we can think about how to best reach those who are oppressed, the prisoners, and the blind. Let’s proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor for all those who suffer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Five, Monday Feb. 11th "Stand Up for God"

Gospel Reading: Mark 1-3
Devotional Emphasis: Mark 3:35 “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Gospel of Mark begins Jesus’ life and ministry on the fast track. There is no birth account and Jesus’ trials in the wilderness are abbreviated. There is no genealogy like we find in Matthew and Luke and no elaborate introduction to Jesus like we have in John. It takes Mark no time to get into the famous and infamous Jesus. In chapter one of Mark we see Jesus’ fame spreading after he casts out a demonic spirit the synagogue of Capernaum. Jesus then heals lots of people causing the word to get out.

As you might image, as Jesus’ popularity rises, so do the jealousy of other religious folks who cannot do what Jesus is doing. Beginning in chapter two Jesus is questioned on several accounts by the religious types. They question his telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven; they get upset that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and sinners. They get upset that he does not make his disciples fast and that he heals people on the Sabbath. At the end of chapter three, they even accuse him of being Beelzebub, who was the prince of the demons. Jesus had become quite the rebel in the first three chapter of Mark, but it makes me wonder what has happened to this image of Jesus today.

At the end of this section, Jesus’ family comes by probably because they are embarrassed by what Jesus has been doing. When Jesus is told his mother and brothers are there to get him, he responds by saying everyone who does the will of God is my mother, brother, and sister. Following Jesus sometimes leads us to “stand out” in a crowd and sometimes will bring us into opposition with others, but this is what it means to stand with Jesus in doing God’s will. I don’t mean we are supposed make fools of ourselves, but we are called to take the right stand against injustices we see around us. That is how I see Jesus doing God’s will.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon 2/10/08 The Beatitudes Part One: "Filing Spiritual Bankruptcy"

Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

I had the privilege of going on a mission trip to Zimbabwe and we stayed at Africa University and worked on some projects for the school. We also visited a couple of orphanages and played with the kids. Each night, we would meet as a mission team and do a devotional. I had prepared some devotionals on the Beatitudes, so that we could study one each day. We would talk about how we saw the beatitudes lived out around us.

What was interesting was that when we studied these beatitudes we noticed that while the people we worked with were often very poor, they were also very content. One of the members of our group noticed that the Africans we were working with embodied that it means to be “poor in spirit” and at the same time, “be blessed.”

The first beatitude from Matthew is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”[i] In Luke’s gospel, the beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor.”[ii] There has been some interesting reasons given for why Matthew adds “in spirit” to the “poor.” It has been suggested that Matthew was not targeting the poor as much as Luke did, so Matthew called it “poor in spirit.” John Calvin believed Matthew was closer to what Jesus actually had in mind.[iii]

The Poor in Spirit

The Greek word translated as “poor” is ptochos and is an adjective used to describe someone who crouches or begs. The poor are described as crouching and begging this way because they have to depend on other people for the necessities of life. As a noun the Greek root of ptochos means “the poor or the pitiful.”

If we look back at the Old Testament, the poor were actually seen as being the people who God defended. For example, the Psalmist writes, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”

I think there is a good reason why the Biblical writers placed value on the poor. The society in which Jesus lived was an honor shame society so that the people who were seen as poor had no influence, power, or prestige.

William Barclay points out that the Hebrew word for poor. In which we find in the Old Testament, went through a four stage development. It began by meaning simple “poor,” like you and I would use the word today. Then the word went on to mean “because a person in poor, they have no influence, power, prestige. The third stage went on to say because they have no influence, power, or prestige, they were down-trodden and oppressed. Finally, the word came to be known as the person who has no earthy resources at all and therefore puts his whole trust in God.[iv]

When Matthew uses the term “poor in spirit” I do not believe Matthew is simply attempting to spiritualize the poor. I think he is helping his readers understand what Jesus meant by the term “poor”. Instead of concentrating on the physical need of material possessions, he is focusing on the emotional need for material possessions. By implying the poor as being someone who places all their trust in God, he is saying this person has no resources, has no influence, power, or prestige, and is oppressed. He wants us to feel what it is like to be poor or be of the mindset of someone who is poor. When we are in this mindset, we have to place our trust in God. Erik Kolbell, in his little book entitled What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and the Meaning of Life writes,

Poverty in the spirit, as Jesus learned, as the psalmist wrote, and as the rabbis taught, is not a rejection of things per se but a repudiation of the power they have to control out lives, to dictate who we are. By this I mean if I am poor of spirit I turn my back on all culturally bound measures of my wealth and worth and pay no more mind to human standards of success or failures.[v]

I can remember several times in my own life when I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I remember when I first moved to seminary I realized for the first time what it felt like to not have the necessities of life. I was driving back to Wilmore from a visit in Chattanooga when I had to stop for gas. I tried to use my check card and it would not work. I did not have any cash on me and the gas station would not take checks. Here I was, sitting in the middle of Kentucky at a gas station with no money and no gas. I felt helpless and embarrassed. There had been plenty of times in my life where I had not been able to afford things I wanted, but this was the first time I had not been able to afford something that I needed.

I learned a great deal that day. I learned to deposit my paycheck into the bank before leaving on a trip. I also learned a small taste of what it felt like to be poor. It is difficult for us to come to a place in our lives when we admit that we need help. Having to depend on someone else is one of the worst feelings we can have. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to be able to pave our own roads. Remember though, that Jesus has a way of taking things the world values and replacing it with the opposite. When it comes to our relationship with God, Jesus says we have to become God-dependant. If we could live a life totally pleasing to God, independent of God’s grace, then we would have no reason for needed God’s grace. We have to come to the realization in our own lives that we cannot do it on our own. Instead of being independent, we have to be dependent of God.

The Kingdom of Heaven

It is no wonder then that Jesus says that the criterion for being in the Kingdom of Heaven is being “poor in spirit.” Not only do people lack resources for life, but they also lack resources to live for God. It is only when we recognize our need, both physically and spiritually, can we be utterly dependant on God. This dependence on God is what seems to be necessary to be apart of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned a lot in the book of Matthew. John the Baptist said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus then comes “preaching the good news of the Kingdom.” He tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like throughout the gospel by telling parables. The phrases “Kingdom of God and “Kingdom of Heaven” are really expressing the same idea. It is to separate the things of God from the things of the world.

In proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, the Bible teaches us that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that is present, but not yet fully realized. When we say ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs will be the kingdom of Heaven”, we are saying that they are living the way someone who lives in the Kingdom of Heaven will live. They will be the ones who help others recognize the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s reign.

Filing Bankruptcy with God

I think The Message says it best by saying, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”[vi]

On November 20, 1988, the Las Angeles Times reported a story that a woman had become trapped in her car that was dangling from a freeway transition road in East Los Angeles. Apparently, she had fallen asleep behind the wheel at about 12:15am. The car had gone though the guard rail and was left hanging over the intersection by the rear wheel. The article said that some motorist had stopped, grabbed some rope and tied the rope to the back of the woman’s car and held onto the car until the rescue team could arrive. In all, it took two and a half hours to rescue the car and free the woman. As interesting as the story is, the most fascinating piece came when one of the rescue team recalled that while they were trying to pull the car to safety, the woman kept saying to them, “I’ll do it myself.”

I do realize that most of the time, independence is a sign of strength and it is desired in order to be successful. Having to depend on someone else is one of the worst feelings we can have. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to be able to pave our own roads. The sermon title this morning is “Filing Spiritual Bankruptcy” because I think we often approach God as if we have it all together spiritually. God wants people in the Kingdom of Heaven that are willing to say they are broken spiritually and depend on God. We need to admit that the things we have will not gives us complete happiness. We need to learn to fall to our knees and ask God to provide for us. Just like the lady in the car who was being rescued, no matter the helplessness of our situation, we want to cry out to God, “I can do it myself.” When we file spiritual bankruptcy with God, then we allow God to reign in our lives and fill us with blessing.

[i] Matthew 5:3
[ii] Luke 6:20
[iv] William Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew, Part One” The Daily Study Bible Series
[v] Erik Kolbell What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 1989) 30.
[vi] Eugene Peterson The Message, Matthew 5:13

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Four, Saturday Feb. 9th "Turning the Ordinary into the Extraordinary."

Gospel Reading: John 1-2
Devotional Emphasis John 2:11 “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”

The gospel of John begins with what some scholars believe is a hymn, proclaiming that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and that the Word has now been made flesh in Jesus and came to dwell among us. After this powerful introduction, John’s gospel takes us to the story of John the Baptist who points out Jesus to his followers as the one who is the messiah. The next day Andrew and Simon Peter become followers of Jesus. The day after that Philip and Nathanael choose to follow Jesus and Jesus tells them that they are in for a big treat because they will see some wonderful things.

Sure enough, on the third day, Jesus is with his new companions at a wedding and they run out of wine. Jesus’ mom asks for Jesus’ help, so he eventually gives in and has them fill some jars up with water and turns it into wine. This wine is even better than the expensive stuff that was being consumed at the beginning of the party. At the end of the story, we read that Jesus “revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him.”

This miracle is the first of seven famous miracles that are written about in John’s gospel. Each of the stories reveals God’s glory to the disciples, the first witnesses, to John’s original readers and to us who read it today. The purpose is for us to read the stories, see God’s glory revealed in Jesus and to place our faith in him. Just as Jesus can take ordinary jars of water and turn them into wine, Jesus can take our ordinary life and make something miraculous happen if only we will put our faith in him.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Three, Friday Feb. 8th: "Good News...Bad News"

Gospel Reading: Luke 2-3
Devotional Emphasis Luke 2:9b “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Yesterday we read Jesus’ birth story through the eyes of Matthew and you may have noted some differences in the two stories. Luke goes into much more detail about the situation surrounding Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary went to register for the census being taken. The interesting thing about Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is the people who became witnesses to Jesus. First, the shepherds in the fields are visited by an angel and then they see the baby Jesus. Simeon and Anna meet Jesus in their old age when he is brought to the temple to be dedicated. When Jesus is twelve, he actually gets left at the temple and he is found among the teachers of law having a theological conversation. It seems everyone who runs into Jesus is astonished by him. Last, but not least, we meet John the Baptist who is preaching that people repent of their sins and receive forgiveness.

One of the thoughts through these two chapters that I could not help be focusing on was, “Good News.” The shepherds were told that the angle had “good news” and Luke tells us that John was preaching the “good news.” It made me wonder what Luke meant by “good news.” When I think of good news, I think of something happening that will be beneficial to me. The shepherds seems to have gotten some of the “good news” that I would expect. They are told that the “Christ” or “Messiah” who is supposed to deliverer them has been born. John’s “good news” hardly seems like something I would want to here. He calls people “broods of vipers” and tells them to flee from the coming wrath. He warns them that being Jewish is not good enough, that their lives ought to reflect their faith.

As I thought about this “good news” it seems that sometimes our perspective about the news changes everything. If we are people who have truly suffered from a particular system, like the poor shepherds, then liberation from this system that has them in bondage is truly good news. However, if we have been taking advantage of people by using a system, then the words of Luke that Jesus will redeem the people from the system will be very bad. I believe this is why John asked people to repent or have a change in heart and stop working against God and join God. I believe the same call is made for us today. God calls us to stop working against him and to join him by following Jesus’ way. If you are unsure of Jesus’ way, keep reading the gospels through then Lenten season and learn for yourself and then follow him.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day Two, Thursday Feb. 7th "Worship First, Gifts Second"

Gospel Reading: Matthew 1-4
Devotional Emphasis Matthew 2:11 “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented gifts of gold, and of incense, and of myrrh.”

Matthew’s gospel provides us with a very interesting commentary on the life of Jesus. Notice the order of events in Jesus life as compared to the nation of Israel as recorder in the first five books of the Old Testament. (1) Moses was born at a time when the Pharoah had order children to be killed vs. Herod had ordered the death of children in order to kill Jesus. (2) Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Egypt vs. Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to protect Jesus. (3) Moses led the Hebrews across the Red Sea (actually Reed Sea) vs. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. (4) The Hebrew people were in the wilderness for 40 years vs. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert and then was tempted by Satan. It seems Matthew is trying to make an important comparison between Israel and Jesus as if to say, “Jesus is the new Israel.”

In chapter two we meet a group of people known as “Magi” from the east. We do not actually know where they are from, how many of them there were, the exact date they arrive to see Jesus, what kind of star they were following. All we really know about them comes from this small text in Matthew. Matthew tells us they followed the start until they found Jesus and when they saw him, they first worshipped him and then the gave him three gifts, gold, incense, and myrrh. It has been said that these gifts correlate with who Jesus was: Gold for a king, incense for a priest (incense was used in offering sacrifices) and myrrh as a burial ointment to symbolize Jesus’ future death for the world.

What I find particularly interesting about Matthew 2:11, is that the first thing the Magi do when they meet Jesus, is worship him, then they offer him their gifts. I find the order of their actions important because it is our worship that we offer that makes our gifts meaningful. So often we want to “work” or “give money” without worshipping. I believe God really loves us and wants our worship and adoration first. After we have offered ourselves, then we can offer our gifts.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Day One, Wednesday Feb. 6th "Something About Mary"

Gospel Reading: Luke 1
Devotional Emphasis: Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s Servant,” Mary said. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angle left her.

The first chapter of Luke provides us with two birth announcements to people who were unlikely candidates to have children. First, Zechariah is told he and his wife Elizabeth will have a baby, but they have been unable to have a child. Second, Mary, who is engaged, but not married, will have a baby. Both Zechariah and Mary wonder as to how this will happen. Both end up remaining faithful to the news God gives them and they both sing songs of praise for what they see God doing in their lives and in the lives of Israel.

I have often wondered, “Why Mary?” The text is not explicit about the reasons for God choosing Mary. The anger Gabriel tells her she is “has found favor with God.” Perhaps she was just a really devote person who God liked and decided to make her the mother of Jesus. It could be that she was a virgin and God chose her to make a point that he could use anyone to accomplish his purposes; even a virgin can have a child.

In my own reading of this story I have concluded that Mary was just like you and I. She was a human being who struggled with similar things you and I struggle with. In some ways she lived in a different world from us, but we both worlds have their sets of difficulties. What makes Mary so special is that she said “yes” to God. Despite the way this announcement must of sounded to her, she was willing to be the person God has called her to be. I hope as we begin our Lenten journey through the gospels, we will learn to say yes we believe Jesus is telling us to do something. May we be the Lord’s Servant.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Introduction to the Beatitudes: The Simple Life

I read a story going back to the late 1940s in America. A family from a remote part of the country was making their first visit to a big city. They checked in to a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen a elevator before, and just stared at it, quite unable to work out what it was for. An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside and the door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman. The dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, "Go get your mother, son."

In the season of Lent, the sermons from First-Centenary will focus on the beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel. As the dad in the story wanted his wife to change, I believe a study of the beatitudes could be life changing as well. Only, we are seeking to change our character, not our looks.

In each of the messages, we will read all of the beatitudes together and I will use a different translation each time.

3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.[i]

John Wesley says that the Sermon on the Mount, in which the beatitudes introduces, “Jesus is teaching us the true way to life everlasting, the royal road that leads to his kingdom and the only true way to live.”[ii] Harvey Cox calls Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount his Mona Lisa.[iii] It is quite clear that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount may be the most important piece of literature in the entire Bible, maybe even the most important piece of literature in the world.

As I have said, The Beatitudes are the beginning of a much larger section of literature, in the Gospel of Matthew, called the Sermon on the Mount. Each of the Beatitudes is said to present us with both a challenge and a blessing. The Beatitudes are the gateway into the Sermon on the Mount. The best way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is to know that the message of the Beatitudes are foundational and are interwoven throughout the entire Sermon and the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. We may see these themes in larger sections or in individual verses.

Some people think the beatitudes represent rules that we must follow to be a part of God’s kingdom while others see them as things that are given to us as a result of being a child of God. I think it is a combination of both. I believe Jesus wants to challenge us to be like the Beatitudes, but I also think these things are given to us as a result of having a relationship with God.

It seems as if the Beatitudes take the things that are valued on earth, like wealth, power, etc, and turn them upside down. I think Jesus is trying to tell us that the things the world values and the things that God values are not the same. The things that are valued to Jesus in the Beatitudes are things like being poor in spirit, making peace, being meek, etc. Maybe living for God is not as easy as it appears!

Be Blessed

The Beatitudes derive its name from the Latin word beatitude, which means “blessed” or “happy.” The Greek word that is translated “blessed” is makarios. The meaning of makarios can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus he makaria ( the feminine form of the adjective), which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never have to go beyond its coastland to find the perfect happy life.[iv]

In other words, when we think of happiness, we think of being happy because something good happens to us. We get good grades in school, we get a new vehicle, we get a raise at work, or we find the perfect date. To be “happy” or “blessed” in the beatitudes means that we are happy no matter what our circumstance. It is a happiness that is self-contained. True happiness is not contained in things we obtain.

The problem we have with happiness is that our culture tells us that our happiness is directly related to our status, our wealth, our possessions, and our lifestyle. We generally believe the person with the most toys in life wins the game. With this in mind, we do seem quite perplexed at what Jesus tells us leads to a “blessed life.” Look at this list of things Jesus tells us leads to “happiness”: Being poor, or at least living as if you are, mourning, humility, hungering and thirsting, being merciful, have a pure heart, being a peacemaker, and being persecuted for what you believe in. Notice what does not make the list: Being wealthy, have a good time, being self-assured, being able to climb the corporate ladder, being cleaver to get ahead of your opponent, engaging in activities that make you “feel good.” The list could go on and on.

At first glance, it seems Jesus may not quite be in touch with reality. After all, he lived in an “honor-shame society.” The idea of this society was to “gain honor in whatever way one could.” Honor was something you ascribed to yourself and was acknowledged by your peers. Some people in Jesus’ day would do anything to gain honor, even if it meant shaming someone else. Jesus’ list of beatitudes would not have done much better in his day than it would in ours. Being poor was not way to gain honor. We often see humility as a virtue, but not so in Jesus’ day. If honor came from claiming it and having it confirmed, being humble was defiantly out.

While Jesus is certainly counter-cultural, he may have been on to something. The other day I was in the grocery store buying stuff for a Super Bowl party when the guy in front of me read a headline from a tabloid out loud. I did not catch the name of the magazine or the person it was talking about, but the headline mentioned that another Hollywood star was pregnant. He said, “I hope it is with her husband, but who knows with those people.” He then said, “Man, they have way too much drama in their lives for me. If having that much money and fame brings all that drama, they can keep their money and their fame.”

The more I thought about his guy’s comment, the more I understood Jesus’ opening for the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was saying something like, “I understand what you think brings happiness, but I tell you happiness comes when you stop striving for all that stuff and let god take care of you.”

Some time back, there was a show on TV called The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie, who is very wealthy, goes from town to town and lives the simple life. Most of the show is about how “backwards” the folks are compared to Paris and Nichole. Normally the pair shock their host families and creates lots of tension in the family. As painful as it is watching the dynamic due (no sarcasm at all) the show has left me with one impression. It makes me wonder if Paris and Nichole would have actually been happier and healthier people if they had lived more of the “simple life.” I cannot help but feel sorry for them because, while they have more money than I will ever see in a lifetime they seem so sad and lonely. It makes me sad that the thing they value the most may be the thing that keeps them from experiencing all that God has for them.

[i] KJV Matthew 5:3-12
[ii] John Wesley, “Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discource 1” John Welsey on the Sermon on the Mount: The Standard Sermons in Modern English vol. II, 21-33. Ed. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn (Abington Press:Nashville, 2002) 37.
[iii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston 2004) 121
[iv] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 The Daily Bible Study Series)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sermon 2/3/08 Life's Toughest Questions Part 4: Why do People Suffer

I can still remember what I was doing on September 11th, 2001 as two planes flew into the world trade center, killing more than 2,000 people. I had just gotten out of the shower and I was getting ready to go to class when my dad called. My roommate, who was half asleep, answered the phone and handed it to me. My dad was trying to explain to me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, but when his words failed to convey the enormity of the event unfolding, he told me to just turn on the TV. I remember having the TV on and watching the second plane hit the other tower. Driving to school that day all I could think about was, “How this could have happened?” As we all know now, September 11th has changed our lives forever.

The last seven years has seen its share of tragedy. The tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 killing more than 200,00 people, Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast and all but destroyed the city of New Orleans in 2005, and the school shooting at Virginia Tech in 2006. The list could go on and on, which leaves tough questions to be answered. Many people look at all of the evil in the world, whether from human hands or natural disastrous and wonder how a loving God who is all powerful could allow such horrible things to happen to our world. This challenge to the belief of God is commonly called “The Problem of Evil.”

In December of 2007, our congregation took a survey about life’s toughest questions. The question, “Why do people suffer” was the most asked question we received. Almost 19% of the surveys asked this question.

The Problem Defined
In the 1950’s J.L. Mackie wrote that the “problem of evil” poses the greatest challenge to the belief in God. He argues that people who believe in God believe: (1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is wholly good and (3) evil exists. He claims these three things cannot all be true. If evil exists, then God cannot be omnipotent or wholly good. If God is both these things, then evil cannot exist. To understand what Mackie is getting at, we have to understand how we views both omnipotent and wholly good. By omnipotent, we means that there is no limits on what God can do and that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.

Theist, or people who claim that God does exist and is both omnipotent and wholly good have attempted to defend their belief in God in the face of evil in the world. These arguments have often been called theodicy’s, which comes from two Greek words meaning “God” and “justice,” meaning “the justice of God” or “to justify God in the face of evil.” Theists believe that they can hold a belief in God’s omnipotence and that God is wholly good if there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil in the world.

While it has been shown by many Theist that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, some atheists now claim that God does not have a morally sufficient reason to allow the types and the shear volume of evil. For example, If God is omniscient, but he had sufficient reason to allow evil in order to accomplish his purposes, it would seem that he would only allow the evil that is necessary and he would illuminate the evil that is unnecessary. The goal of the theist is to not only show that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, but that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing the kinds of evil we now see in our world.

Before going on, it is important to note that the “problem of evil” in which we find ourselves faced with is really only an issue if one (1) believes in God and (2) believes certain things about God’s character, namely that God is omnipotent and that God is wholly good. If someone does not believe in the one or two, or both these things, then there is really no problem of evil. The suffering in the world can all be explained by human and the laws of nature. Even when we raise the question of the “problem of evil”, we are actually assuming there is a God, or we would not really have a “problem of evil.”

Two Explanations
The first theodicy is called the free will theodicy, based on teachings from Augustine of Hippo. This theodicy basically argues human beings were created with the capacity to choose good or evil. Human beings have chosen to misuse their freedom and choose evil, therefore there is evil in the world. People who believe the free will theodicy believe that most, if not all the evil in the world can be accounted for by our misuse of freedom.

In saying this, it is important to note that God’s choice to create people with a free will, in some ways limits what God can do. If God gives someone free will, God cannot control what they will choice to do with their freedom. It is not that God is not omnipotent, but that God cannot do something that is logically impossible to do. That would be like asking God to create a square circle or a married bachelor. God being all-powerful means that God can do anything that is logically possible to do.

It is believed by those who endorse the free will theodicy believe the moral sufficient reason for allowing evil is because evil is the price we have to pay for free will. Free will is the “greater good.” Augustine uses an example of a real horse and a stone horse and says that the real horse, while it may be a runaway horse is better than the stone horse because while it runs away, it does so because it has self-movement and sense perception. The reason the stone horse does not run is because it cannot. In the same way, creatures that have free will and sin are better than people who do not sin because they have not free will

The second theodicy is called the soul making theodicy and has its roots in the teaching of Irenaeus. Basically, this teaching suggests that this world is designed to be a place of soul-making or a place in which God teaches us how to be more like God. The world has a certain amount of adversity built into it to help us grow by our overcoming the obstacles in front of us. This does not have to mean that God causes evil in the world, but God does allow them to occur in order for us to grow. An important point to make is that it would be logically impossible for God to create us perfect because only perseverance through suffering can cause that.[i]

The reason for the suffering and the amount of suffering that takes place are necessary for a greater good because it is what enables creatures to reach the potential that God created them to be. God could have taken away the evil and suffering, but it would have been at the cost of human beings not being who God wants them to be.

The Bible does not tell is explicitly which of these two theories are correct. I do want to suggest that both of them can be found implicitly in the biblical narrative and the Bible at times addresses this very important topic. To being with, let us turn to the book of Job.

The Old Testament
The Old Testament deals with suffering right off the bat in Genesis 1-11.
The Bible is an amazing book and it often answers questions that we do not expect it to. Many times it answers them in places that we least expect to find answers. Take the present question, “Why is there war and hate in the world?” If you begin to read in the Bible about the creation story, you will notice the first chapter of Genesis God creates the world and then the text says, “God saw that it was good.”[ii] Then, God creates human beings and says, “He saw all that he had made and it was very good.”[iii]

The next logical question that could pop into one’s mind is this: “If God created everything good, then why do we find a world that has gone so wrong?” Why is there hate and war in the world if God created the world and it was very good?

The story suggests the destruction of innocence occurred when Adam and Eve made a choice to eat fruit that God had forbidden them not to eat. On the outset, this seems like a very trivial thing to be the cause of such hatred and war, but I believe the writer is trying to use this story to explain a deeper truth about human nature. Notice the reasoning for which Adam and Eve ate the fruit. The consequence of eating the fruit, according to the wise serpent was that they would be like God, knowing good and evil. God had told them that they could eat any of the fruit from any of the trees. God would provide for their every desire if they would only trust him. BUT NO!!!
Genesis says that Eve ate the fruit for three reasons. (1) It was pleasing to the eyes, (2) it was desirable for gaining wisdom (3) and it was good food. In other words, she did not trust God to give her these things, so she went outside of good for them. Apparently Adam agreed with her and did the same thing.
The interesting thing about this event was that it set off a chain reaction of events that followed. The consequences of this action meant that humanity would struggle against each other, against creation itself, and against God. In the next chapter we see Cain kill his brother Able. In chapter six the sin of humanity has completely corrupted the world. In chapter eleven the people all want to be like God so they build a tower to the heavens.
The Old Testament then assumes this truth throughout most of it’s pages (1) God is all-powerful (2) God is wholly God (3) Humanity causes the sufferings that it endures. A great example of this is found in Psalm 1.
Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.[iv]
The Old Testament world view states that the suffering we encounter is due to our own sinfulness and it is used as a means by which God punishes us or judges us. This seems to be the dominate thought until we get to the book of Job.
Job’s dilemma

Within the context of the book of Job we are told that one day the angles came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan shows up. The Lord asks him if he has considered his servant Job and he explains that Job is an upright person. Satan then says that Job will curse him if he were to lose everything. So, the Lord gives Satan permission take away everything as long as he does not touch him. Satan then takes most his family and property. It is after this that Job uses the quote from above.After this the Lord again asks Satan about Job and talks about his faithfulness even after Satan took things from him. The Lord actually says, “And he maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”[v] Of coarse Satan says that if the Lord will allow him to cause him pain, then Job will curse him. The Lord says that he can as long as he spares his life. Satan then inflicts sores all over his body. Now Job has lost all his family but his wife, positions, and now he is physically in pain.

The next part of the book involves Job and his friends trying to figure out why this has happened to him. Job holds the position that he is innocent and God is unjustly punishing him. He is asking God for an explanation. Job’s friends on the other hand, believe that Job has done something wrong in order to bring about the disaster that has befallen him.

This conversation goes back and forth for quite sometime until God finally breaks his silence in chapter 38. God responds not by given a straight answer to Job’s question, but by asking Job a whole linty of questions. Afterwards, Job repents and God restores to him everything plus some.

Gregory Boyd, in his book Satan and the Problem of Evil concludes this about Job,

[Job’s] arrogance as well as the arrogance of his friends was in mistakenly thinking that they could trace everything directly back to God or human sin. Such logic inevitably results in people either concluding that people suffer because God is punishing them (Job’s friends) or that God runs the cosmos arbitrarily (Job himself). Peace comes to Job only when he learns that, though suffering is a mystery, he can and must nevertheless humbly trust God. His suffering is not God’s fault, and God is not against him. God’s character is trustworthy.[vi]

I think Boyd is correct in suggesting that God does not explain his reasoning in Job’s case because Job probably would not have understood. Rather, he just asks for Job to trust him. When Job trusts God, he is then redeemed.

The wisdom of the book of Job does turn traditional Jewish wisdom over on its head. The book of Job concludes (1) Job did not sin and cause his own suffering and (2) It was not God causing Job’s suffering.

Evil and Redemption

Job is not the only book that flies in the face of traditional wisdom, we see examples of people suffering when they do not deserve it. For example, the suffering servant in Isaiah 40-55 suffers greatly. In Isaiah 53 we are told of a servant who was despised and rejected (vs. 3) took our pain (vs. 4) was punished (vs. 5) oppressed and afflicted (vs.6) and died (vs. 7).

NT Wright picks up an important theme when he says,

[T]he parallel between Job and YHWAH’s Servant in Isaiah remains striking. The Servant is innocent, after all, just as Job is. He doesn’t complain, as Job does, yet he too suffers indignity, pain, and despair. To look again at the larger context of the whole canon of Scripture, there may be something to be said for seeing the book of Job as an anticipation of the harrowing scene in Gethsemane, where the comforter again fail and creation itself goes dark as the monsters close in around the innocent figure who is asking what it’s all about.[vii]

Job foreshadows the death of Jesus, where God ultimately deals with the problem of evil. Evil choices put Jesus on the cross and killed him. Just as God redeemed the life of Job, God redeemed the life of Jesus in his resurrection from the dead. In this way, the God who is loving and all powerful deals with the problem of evil in the world by redeeming it. As Augustine and other theologians have said, human choices cause misery and pain, but God deals with this pain by allowing Jesus to suffer and then redeeming his life. God intends to deal with all the pain of the world in precisely this way.[viii]

“Why Suffering” may be the Wrong Question

Let me take a moment to summarize where I am with the Question: “Why do people Suffer?”

1. Most of the suffering that happens in the world are due to our misuse of freedom, which God gives us because it is what makes true love exists.
2. There are some sufferings that happen and these sufferings are not due to our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others.
3. The Bible really does not address why these unmerited sufferings happen, but it does address what God has done and will continue to do about the present suffering
4. God identifies with is in our sufferings as Jesus suffered on a cross
5. God intends to redeem our suffering so that one day it will all make sense.

When we go through tragedy, whether it is caused by our own bone headed choices, the bad choices of others, or for some unknown reason, God intends to use this tragedy for redemptive purposes. If God can redeem the death of Jesus on a cross, God can redeem us in any situation. Jerry Walls once wrote,

I have sometimes met people who have given up their faith in God because of some tragedy or misfortune which they have experienced. No what is interesting is that they sometimes imply that they have gained some advantage by rejecting belief in God. God has failed them they say, so they will turn their backs on Him…. But here is the reality that we must all face. Suffering and tragedy are part of life. Turning our backs on God will not change that. Those who turn their backs on God in the face of tragedy still have the tragedy to deal with. They will still grow old, their bodies will weaken, and they will die. Their loved ones will be struck with cancer or die in an automobile accident. The only difference is that they have given up on the best reason to hope such tragedies can be redeemed.[ix]

Jerry Walls points to one of the greatest promises in the Bible. Revelation 21 says, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the order of things has passed away.”[x] Enough said, the end!
[i] See Philosophy and Religion, chapter 5, ‘The Problem of Evil” for a fuller discussion.
[ii] NIV Genesis 1:25
[iii] NIV Genesis 1:31
[iv] TNIVPsalm 1
[v] TNIV Job 2:3
[vi] Gregory Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2001) 226. See chapters 8 and 9 for explanations for the Problem of Evil
[vii] NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2006) 71. Wright makes the argument that innocent people suffering points to the cross where Jesus suffered on all our behalf.
[viii] I am indebting to Marilyn McCord Adams for this discussion in Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God(Cornell University Press: London, 1999) pgs 165-168. Adams argues that God identifies with our sufferings by becoming human in Jesus and by doing so makes the victim’s experience of suffering so meaningful that in retrospect, one would not wish it away.
[ix] Jerry Walls, Wiping Away Our Tears, “The Asbury Herald” Vol. 112, number 2 and 3. Pgs, 3-6. In the article, Walls compares the two theodicy’s mentioned above and concludes with this thought from this quote.
[x] TNIV Revelation 21:3-4