Monday, May 14, 2018

May 13, 2018 What Is It About Jesus? Eternity

Perhaps you heard the story last week of Trenton McKinley, a 13-year-old young man from Alabama who suffered devastating head injuries in an accident.  After being flown by helicopter to a hospital, doctors said his chance of survival was slim, as he had seven skull fractures, and at one point he flatlined for 15 minutes.  The doctors told Trenton’s family to prepare for the worst, and his parents signed the papers to allow doctors to donate his organs.  Shortly after signing the papers, Trenton moved his hand.  Then he moved his feet.  Then he regained consciousness.  Today he is walking, talking, and doing far better than anyone could have imagined.  In an interview, Trenton said, they (said) I’d be a vegetable.  I don't really seem like a vegetable, do I?

There is no shortage of those types of stories, with the label of miracle often attached to them.  I find those stories fascinating, and one of the reasons why I do is because I see them as glimpses of eternity.  I believe they are moments when God decides to pull back the curtain between heaven and earth just a bit, just enough to give us a glimpse of the reality of the eternal world.

This morning we conclude the series of messages titled What Is It About Jesus?  In this series of messages I have traced the ministry of Jesus through various passages in the gospels and focused on those qualities of Jesus that attracted large crowds to him.  Each week I have offered one word that demonstrated one of those qualities, and then used three other words that showed in detail how Jesus lived that particular quality. 
Today the word we will consider is eternity.  People followed Jesus because of his teaching, his love, and other reasons, but I believe that above all other reasons it was because of eternity and the demonstration of the reality of the spiritual world that drew people to Jesus.  After all, if Jesus had been only a moral teacher we would likely never have heard of him.  If Jesus had been simply a person who exhibited great love for people, we would likely never have heard of him.  It was the fact that everything Jesus did and said was predicated on the reality of him as the living embodiment of God that guaranteed not only that he is remembered by history, but also that billions have been his followers throughout the two millennia since his life and ministry.
Our Scripture text comes from a well-known event as recorded in the gospel of Mark.  The event is known as the transfiguration, that moment on the mountain when Jesus for a moment revealed himself in his eternal glory to Peter, James, and John.  I have preached on this passage a number of times over the years, but today I want to approach it from a different perspective.  Instead of going into all the theological details about the meaning of the transfiguration I want to see it as a moment when a glimpse of eternity was revealed to Peter, James, and John.  I don’t know why those moments of eternity come when they come, and I don’t know what causes God to bring them about, but I firmly believe there are those moments – moments more rare than we wish – when we get a glimpse into eternity, as God decides to peel back a bit the curtain that separates heaven and earth.  In our modern, scientific, evidence-based world, I think we need these moments.  We need these moments not so much as proof of God, but as a demonstration of what can be.  So today, the three words that I will use to further define the word eternity, are could, should, and will.  The glimpses that God gives us of eternity, such as at the moment of transfiguration, show us what could be, what should be, and what will be.

Follow along with me, then, as I read Mark 9:2-10 –

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.


I don’t know why Jesus selected only three of his disciples.  Why was it only Peter, James, and John?  I have no idea, except to wonder if it was for this reason – I think the glimpses that God gives of eternity tend to most often be somewhat small, that is, they don’t involve a lot of people, but the testimony of those people becomes important.  I think a glimpse still leaves room for faith, which is always important.  Peter, James, and John were left with the task of telling the others what they had witnessed.  That’s the way those glimpse work; they happen to a few people – or just one person – and they are left to tell others, and we decide what we think about their testimony.  We often want incontrovertible proof, but that is not conducive to faith.  Hebrews 11:1 does say, after all, that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

A glimpse, then, becomes a sort of role model, an example, a sign of what could be.  We have plenty of examples, unfortunately, of what is.  We see far too often the hatred and violence, the division and harshness, the greed and the envy, the tearing apart and rendering of the beauty of what God has created, which is all the more reason, then, of why we need a glimpse of what could be.

When I think of what could, be, I think of the Lord’s Prayer.  In Matthew 6:10 Jesus says your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  When I read those words I hear all three as a reminder of what could be.  As Jesus prayed those words he was saying God’s will could be done on earth; that gives me great hope.  In fact, it gives me more than hope; it gives me peace, confidence, faith, and so many other gifts as well.  At a moment in history when there is so much that troubles us, where there is so much that makes us anxious, and so much that breaks our hearts, we need to hear a word from God – and we need to experience something from God – that will bring to us all that we need.  I think much of Scriptures are examples of what could be.  From the beginning story of the Garden it is a glimpse of what could be.  The message of the prophets was often what could be.  The teaching and the parables of Jesus were examples of what could be.  The stories of the early church were ones of what could be.  And I hope in our time together, in what we experience together in worship, also gives us a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of what could be.


What could be is the vision, the example, the model of what could be.  Should is the command.  Could demonstrates to us the possibility, while should tells us that we need to get to work in order to make it so.  It’s as if God is saying, I’ve told you and shown you what could be, now go and help to make it so.

One of the reasons the should be is not always a reality is because it is not in the interest of those who profit and benefit from what is.  The should be is a rebuke to the people, the principalities and the powers that seek to stand in the way of so much of what could be because it is not in their interest for it to become reality.  Plenty of people benefit from what is, rather than what should be.  When Jesus presents what should be, it is his way of saying that those who have benefitted from resisting what should be are put on notice.  They have had their moment.  In Jesus, God has shown what should be, and we will move toward what should be and will never go back to what is.

At the moment of transfiguration, Peter wanted to build some shelters and stay on the mountaintop and remain in that moment of glory, that moment of eternity.  But then, just as quickly as the moment had come, it also passed.  It was as though Jesus was saying, now that you have seen what could be, now that you have seen what should be, go back down the mountain and make it happen. 

Every time we see a movement towards or a moment of equality, we are seeing what should be and we feel the pull toward what should be.  Every time we see a movement towards or a moment of justice, we are seeing what should be and we feel the pull toward what should be.  Every time we see a movement towards or a moment of freedom, we are seeing what should be and we feel the pull toward what should be.

This is what the could and should ought to do for us – they ought to move us towards making them a reality, because for some reason, God has left it to us to accomplish much of what could and what should be, because an important part of the process is not just that could and the should will happen; an important part of the process is that we get to be part of accomplishing those purposes.
Which leads us into our final point –


Here’s what’s important to remember about the words could and should – they are conditional words.  That is, they might happen.  They could happen.  They should happen.  But could and should does not guarantee that they will happen.

That’s why we have the word will.  It is God’s promise that all that could be, all that should be, one day will be.  All that could be and all that should be become, then, not just a hope, not just a promise; they becomes a reality.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who are poor.  To know that one day they not only could or should be lifted out of poverty; one day they will be.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who struggle to have adequate provision.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have adequate provision; one day they will have adequate provision.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who long for freedom.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have freedom; one day they will have freedom.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who are weary, for those who are worn down by the struggles of the world.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have rest; one day they will have rest.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who struggle to have strength.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have strength; one day they will have strength.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who have been abused.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have safety and shelter; one day they will have safety and shelter.  The promise of will be is a powerful one for those who struggle with fear.  To know that one day they not only could have or should have confidence and certainty; one day they will confidence and certainty. 

One of the most amazing glimpses of eternity that I have known took place here in Shelbyville, at the hospital, over fifteen years ago.  The glimpse began a few years before, in Baptist Northeast Hospital in LaGrange.  One evening a member of our congregation was taken to the hospital after suffering a stroke.  I sat in the hospital through the night with his family, and by morning it was clear that he was not going to survive and, sadly, he did not.  He never regained consciousness, which greatly troubled his wife, because she said numerous times during that hospital vigil that there was so much she still wanted to say to him, and so much that she still wanted to hear from him.  Many of the decisions she would be called upon to make in the coming days were ones that she felt she did not know what he would want, as they had never discussed such a moment.  In the years after his passing she remained greatly troubled about all that was left unsaid.  Then, about five or six years later, another member of our church was in the hospital here in Shelbyville.  He continued to grow increasingly ill until he arrived at the point where his heart stopped, but he was resuscitated.  Not long after his resuscitation, while he was still in the hospital, he said that he wanted to see the woman who had lost her husband.  He had, he said, a message for her from her husband.  Now, what was really interesting about the experience is that those two families were not really close friends.  They knew each other, of course, but they weren’t friends to the point that they spent time with each other and the man in the hospital would not have been aware of the worries and anxiety of the woman who lost her husband.  She came to Shelbyville, visited him in the hospital, and left there a changed person.  Whatever the message was, it lifted all the worry and anxiety from her and it was replaced with a great sense of peace.  I really wanted to know what the message was, but I never asked her.  Several years later I officiated at her funeral, and at the meal following her funeral I was sitting with one of her daughters talking about her life, and I finally asked, did your mother ever tell you what the message was that she received from your father?  Her daughter said, she never talked about it, but whatever it was it really changed her.  Whatever the message, I’m convinced it was a glimpse of eternity.  It was a glimpse of eternity that gave her something she so greatly needed.  It was a glimpse of what will be.

We know what could be, and we know what should be, but most importantly we proclaim what will be!

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

May 6, 2018 What Is It About Jesus? Meaning.

Even though it was common among members of my generation, I never went “in search of myself.”  The Baby Boomer generation was the first generation to go in search of themselves on a large scale.  I suspect this was true largely because we were the first generation that could afford to do so, as we were the first generation to be raised in relative affluence. The search for ourselves was, in reality, a search for meaning.  In the years since my generation began searching for themselves, every succeeding generation has created some form of the same search, to the point that multitudes of people are searching for meaning in their lives.

This morning we continue the series of messages What Is It About Jesus, as we come to the topic of Meaning.  For our Scripture text we will read about the calling of some of the first disciples.  We are most familiar with the version found in Matthew 4:18-22 (18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him) but I tend to favor the version from John’s gospel. 

Follow along as I read our Scripture text for the morning, from John 1:35-45 –

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.
36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus.
41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).
42 And he brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.
45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

I like that telling of the story of the calling of the first disciples because of what we read in verse 41 – the first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “we have found the Messiah.”  After meeting Jesus, the first thing Andrew did was go and tell his brother.  Andrew found Jesus, bringing him a sense of meaning to his life, and in his excitement his desire was to tell others.

As I have been doing in the weeks of this series, this morning I will speak about meaning through three words.  Those words are belonging, purpose, and value.  Those words represent what I believe to be absolute essentials in the life of every person.  Each of us needs to belong somewhere.  Each of us needs to have a sense of purpose in life.  Each of us needs to know that we are of value.  When any of those elements are missing from life there are difficulties.  To feel as though we have nowhere to belong is devastating.  To go through life with no sense of purpose robs much of life’s joy.  And to feel of no value is an incredibly damaging state of being, and we have all seen the tragic results in the lives of those who have believed they are of no value or because they have been told they are of no value.
One of the great blessings of faith, I believe, is its ability to fulfill all three of these needs.  Through church we are given a place to belong.  Through our calling from God we are given a sense of purpose.  And the promise and realization of God’s love certainly provides us with a sense of how we are so greatly valued.


Perhaps you saw a recent survey that received quite a bit of attention in the news in recent days.  A survey by the health insurer Cigna found that loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.  Using one of the best-known tools for measuring loneliness — the UCLA Loneliness Scale (I found it fascinating to discover that such a tool existed)— Cigna surveyed 20,000 adults online across the country.  Scores on the UCLA scale range from 20 to 80.  People scoring 43 and above were considered lonely in the Cigna survey, with a higher score suggesting a greater level of loneliness and social isolation.
More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well.  The survey also found that the average loneliness score in America is 44, which suggests that "most Americans are considered lonely," according to the report.  The survey also found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation.  Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations, says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.  Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, had an overall loneliness score of 48.3.  Millennials, just a little bit older, scored 45.3. By comparison, baby boomers scored 42.4. The Greatest Generation, people ages 72 and above, had a score of 38.6 on the loneliness scale.
I find that very interesting, as well as very troubling.  Perhaps it is the nature of today’s world that is driving a greater sense of loneliness.  Perhaps it is the rise of the digital world and the accompanying decline of face-to-face interaction that contributes to loneliness.  Whatever the cause, it is clear that many people struggle to find a sense of belonging.  The reality is, even to be surrounded by people it is still possible to feel both lonely and that you do not belong.  You can be in a large room of people – such as this sanctuary – and feel alone.  You can go to work in an office full of people and feel alone.  There are many places where it is possible to be surrounded by people and yet feel alone.

There are many reasons why people will visit a church.  Some people drive by a church and are attracted by the facility.  Some people come to a church because they enjoy the music.  Some people come to a church because they enjoy the preaching.  Others come because of the programs, ministries, and outreach opportunities.  People come to church for many reasons, but the reason that will keep people at a church is when they find it to be a place where they can belong.  If people do not feel as if they belong in a church, they will not continue to attend there.  When people feel as though they don’t belong in our church, or that there is no place for them, I can’t help but take that as a personal failure.  It is a very hard pill for me swallow to think there are people who come to our church and do not feel as though they can belong.  If you attend our church and have been trying to figure out how to connect, and don’t know how, talk to me about it.  I want to help you connect with others here and help you to find a place to belong.  I often worry that I’m rushing from place to place and unwittingly communicate an idea that I don’t have time to talk with people, especially on Sunday mornings, but I will take time and talk with you and will do whatever I can to help you find a place to belong.

We are created to be in relationships with others.  God did not create us to live solitary lives.  I believe that Jesus called the disciples for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was certainly to provide for a sense of belonging.  Within that group of twelve, Jesus was providing a model of community that created a template for what it means to live in relationship with others and to be a part of a community that provides us with a sense of belonging.


As I have said on more than one occasion, I have served vocationally as a minister for 37 years, but I’ve had other jobs as well.  It’s interesting how people sometimes respond when I tell them I’m a minister.  Ministers are on the receiving end of a lot of jokes (and yes, that joke about working one day a week is one we have all heard, many, many times and don’t need to hear it any more) about not having a “real” job, but I have had “real” jobs, some of them before entering ministry and some of them concurrent with and supplemental to ministry.  One of my earlier vocational goals was to be a musician.  How hard could that be, right?  After all, Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang get a second hand guitar, chances are you’ll go far (from the song Takin’ Care of Business.  Incidentally, that line is far from accurate.  Chances are you won’t go far).  When I was completing my first semester of seminary I decided to give music a try and dropped out of school to do so and that’s probably all I need to say about that embarrassingly failed effort.  I know I don’t need to talk about how impressed my future in-laws were with the idea.  They were so impressed they moved to another state.  But I found them and moved there.  The only thing worse than making your own really bad vocational choice is letting yourself get drown into someone else’s bad vocational choice.  A friend of mine talked me into going with him when he told his father he was dropping out of college to move to Nashville to try and make it in music.  I can still see his father slowly lowering his newspaper and looking at my friend with shock, and then launching into a lecture that I did not need to hear. 

One of the jobs I had while in seminary was with a cleaning service.  Part of that job involved me being required to clean public restrooms, and let me just say that there is a part of life that you really have not experienced until you have worked a job cleaning public restrooms. Here is one of the things I learned from that job – someone has to clean public restrooms.  In fact, someone has to do a lot of jobs that we cannot imagine doing, and may not be willing to do, and the people who do those jobs understand they are relegated to the bottom of the vocational ladder, and if you get a sense of your purpose from your vocation, as so many people do, that experience is tough to deal with, especially when it is communicated to you by society that you are on the bottom rung of the vocational ladder – and thus of lesser value – because of your job.  I began that cleaning job on a Thursday evening, working that night and Friday night before coming back on Monday.  When I walked in on Monday evening the young lady who led our small cleaning crew was surprised to see me, saying she didn’t think I would be back.  She was in her late 20s, a single mom with several young children, and worked a couple of jobs to provide for her family.  I asked her why she was surprised to see me.  Her answer gave me quite a jolt, as she said, because you’re a seminary student.  We get a lot of seminary students who take these jobs, work one or two nights, and then quit.  And do you know why they quit?  They quit because they think they’re too good for this kind of work.  Do you want to know how that makes me feel?  Well, I didn’t need for her to tell me, as it was quite obvious how it made her feel.

We so strongly tie our sense of purpose to our vocation that we even think of God’s will primarily in terms of vocation.  Over the years, many people have asked me this question – how can I discover God’s will for my life?  Do you know what is almost always meant by that question?  It’s a variation of the same question, which is related to vocation – what should be my vocation?  Should I accept the job that was offered to me?  Do you think I should consider the possibility of a new career?  This is just how we think, because our culture has ingrained in us the idea that we should see most of life through the lens of our vocation.  We so often think of life through that lens of vocation, but do you know how often the Bible speaks about our vocation, especially in terms of God’s will?  Zero times.  In fact, the only time that the Bible mentions an character’s vocation is as a peripheral element to the story.  We know that a few of the disciples were fishermen and one was a tax collector, but we don’t know what the other disciples did for a living.  We are told that Paul was a tentmaker, which was his livelihood (Acts 18:3 says and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.  In Acts 20:34 Paul says that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions).  Paul did not earn a living as a “religious professional,” such as a pastor or church planter.  No, Paul paid his own way in terms of financial support, and this was in order to allow him to fulfill his life purpose, which was not tied to his vocation as a tentmaker.  That vocation was a means to an end, allowing him the financial freedom to move about the Roman Empire, establishing churches and strengthening existing congregations.

The calling of the disciples must have been a surprise to those individuals, because they were not the expected choices.  They were not “religious professionals.”  They were not experts in the Mosaic Law.  They did not have theological degrees or long, spiritual pedigrees.  They were fishermen, a tax collector, and other vocations of which we do not know.  I imagine their reaction, when called by Jesus, was something along the lines of us?  Really?  Why us?  We’re not religious experts.  We’re fishermen and tax collectors.  Why would you want to call us?  Maybe that’s what we need; fewer religious “professionals” and more people of other vocations who see those vocations as a way to further the kingdom of God.

Here’s one of the great gifts of the church – through the ministry of a church your life can have a great sense of purpose, regardless of your vocation.  You can be a Sunday School teacher, you can work with children and youth, you can work in one of the ministries of the church, you can be a Stephen Minister, or one of the other opportunities and it doesn’t matter what you do for a living.  Don’t let your sense of purpose in life be tied to how you earn a living, because it’s not.  When I look back to some of the jobs I had that were not at all church related I see the ways in which God used that work in ways that I could not see or understand at the time.

We spend a lot of time in our society encouraging people to prepare for their vocational lives.  We encourage young people to get a good education and plan for the future.  We emphasize the need to secure a good career.  Do we, though, emphasize enough the intangible matters of life, such as meaning and purpose and where they can be found? 


People need to know they matter.  They need to hear that they matter.  They need to know they are of great worth and value, because so many people don’t believe they have value.  While it’s important to remind young people to make good grades or get a good job, they really need to hear that they are of value.  Young people don’t need to be reminded only to have a good career or to work hard; they need to know they are important and that they matter.  And it’s not only young people who need to hear this; adults do as well, because we all get so beat up by the world and can very easily feel as though we are not of value.

One of the sad realities, I think, of life today is that so many of us fall victim to the lie that we do not have value unless our lives possess certain elements that are constantly trumpeted as being essential to a life of value.  If our lives do not look like those in so many media presentations we believe that our lives are of less value and we are not very significant.  If we are not taking exciting vacations, we wonder what’s wrong with our lives.  If we don’t have the perfect family, a family that meets a particular image, we wonder what’s wrong with our lives and we don’t feel of value.  If our work is not the type of work that is lifted up as being important, either because it doesn’t generate a certain amount of money or doesn’t receive enough attention, we wonder what’s wrong with our lives and we don’t feel of value.

When I was a student I had a good friend who represented everything I wanted to be.  He was outgoing and gregarious, while I was quiet and shy.  He was a great athlete, while I was not.  He was known to everyone at school, while I was someone who blended into the background.  He was popular, while I was a stranger to most everyone.  My friend possessed enormous potential to be almost anything he wanted to be, and I was so envious of him and so wanted to be just like him.  Except for one part of his life.  My friend did not feel valued, because he had a parent who constantly belittled him.  His parent often told him he was no good and that he would never amount to anything.  Many, many times I heard my friend’s parent speak to him in language that communicated one message – you are worthless.  Every time it happened I could see my friend die a little bit more inside, and all the potential he possessed has gone unfulfilled, and as he has moved through his adult life he has struggled in so many ways, all because of his parent who instilled in him the belief that he had no value.

One of the powerful aspects of the ministry of Jesus was the way in which he instilled a sense of value in people.  Zacchaeus, who was a very unpopular man in the city of Jericho, was noticed by Jesus (Luke 19:1-9).  Jesus took the time to visit the home of Zacchaeus and to treat him with love and dignity, and it transformed Zacchaeus’ life.  Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30), which was a great surprise to the woman.  Because of the kindness of Jesus, the woman went back to her town and invited everyone there to meet Jesus.  Jesus, while traveling to Jerusalem, healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19).  There was, perhaps, in the time of Jesus, no other group as outcast as lepers.  No one wanted to risk contact with lepers, so lepers were required to make their presence known so that others could keep their distance.  The fear of such a dreaded disease was understandable, but the treatment of lepers revealed that they were treated with no value or sense of dignity.  Except by Jesus.  Imagine what it must have meant to them to be healed and to restored once again to society.  Once again they could be with friends and family.  What a sense of value and worth it must have given to them!  There was the woman who was dragged before Jesus, a woman who was faced with the terrible fate of stoning (John 8:2-11) because she was taken in adultery.  She had no value to those who accused her or who wanted to take her life.  She had no value to those men, except as a pawn in their attempt to trap and discredit Jesus.  To Jesus, however, she was a person of worth and value, and he saved her life.  What a testament to the value he saw in her life!

We are all searching for meaning in life, and in Jesus we find that meaning.  We find it because we are given a place to belong, we are given a purpose in life, and we know that we are of value!

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

April 29, 2018 What Is It About Jesus - Teaching

Like you, I have been richly blessed by having great teachers who were influential in my life.  Dr. Harold Songer was one of my favorite seminary professors.  I had him for a number of classes and he was one of the most outstanding teachers and lecturers I have ever encountered.  I could enter his classroom in a state of exhaustion, after a long night of work and study, and listen to him for the entirety of the class and barely blink an eye.  His lectures could be described as not just interesting, but fascinating.  Throughout all my years of schooling, I encountered very, very few individuals with such a powerful gift of teaching as Dr. Songer.
It’s hard to teach, whether it be in a classroom, a Sunday School room, or behind a pulpit (preaching is, after all, its own form of teaching).  One of the most challenging parts of teaching is that of being interesting (it’s not an absolute requirement to be interesting in order to be a good teacher, but I think all good teachers are interesting).  I work hard to be interesting, but I realize that working hard is not a guarantee that I will be interesting.  I once led a Bible study and one evening only two people showed up, and about fifteen minutes into our time together they were both asleep.  As they seemed to be getting such a good nap I decided to sit quietly and wait for them to wake up.  I will admit, however, it was a bit discouraging that only two people showed up, and both of them went to sleep!  One thing I always try to keep in mind when leading a Bible study or preaching is that I have the benefit of beginning with really good material, that is, the Scriptures.  If I am not interesting, it is not the fault of the material!  I think the Bible is very interesting, and what I try to do is simply not get in the way of what it has to say, which can be easier said than done. 
This morning we continue with the series of messages What Is It About Jesus, and come to his Teaching.  In this series I have been speaking about the large crowds that Jesus attracted, and pointing to passages in the gospels that tell us what it was about Jesus that attracted those crowds, and continue to attract so much interest.  Follow along as I read our Scripture text for this morning, Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 7:28-29

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,
29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Matthew says that people were amazed at the teaching of Jesus.  In 22:33 Matthew tells us that the crowd was astonished by his teaching.  Sometimes we might be impressed by someone’s teaching, or maybe even enthralled, but the reaction of people to the teaching of Jesus was on an entirely different level.  Jesus was a very powerful teacher, obviously, as evidenced in this week’s Scripture text, and the key word in that passage, I believe, is authority.  Jesus did not, in his teaching, simply parrot the well-worn and familiar interpretations of the Mosaic Law as did the scribes, Pharisees, and experts in the Law.  In his teaching, Jesus spoke from a base of authority that the others did not possess.  Well, that’s obvious, you might say, as Jesus was, after all, God incarnate.  True enough, but most people either could not accept that reality or could not wrap their minds around such a concept at that point in his ministry, so authority became a very important element in the teaching of Jesus.  It was the way in which Jesus differentiated himself from all the other teachers of the time and the way in which he appealed to the heads and the hearts of those who listened to him.

Authority is a necessary element if one is going to be taken seriously, and if others will listen to what one has to say.  I would not, for instance, be taken seriously by anyone if I announced that I was taking a position teaching experimental advanced subatomic theoretical mathematics (if such a subject even exists).  I would not be taken seriously because I don’t have a diploma, any training, or any skill in math that would give me a claim to being an authority on the subject.  The opponents of Jesus used the idea of authority to seek to undermine his ministry.  In Matthew 21:23-27, for instance, we read the following – 23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”  They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”  27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”  Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  By implying that Jesus did not have the authority to give credence to his teaching, they were attempting to undermine what he had to say.  Authority is, then, a critical component of teaching, and this morning I will focus on that word authority as seen through three other words.  Specifically, how did Jesus underline his teaching authority?  He did so, the gospels show us, through his working of miracles, his use of Scripture, and his divine nature.

1.  Miracles.

I very much believe in miracles.  I believe miracles still take place today.  I agree with St. Augustine, who wrote in the 4th century in his great book the City of God, about the reality that miracles still take place.  In Augustine’s day people questioned whether or not miracles still took place, and his reply was that God was always performing miracles, and those miracles are happening all the time, all around us.

I have witnessed many miracles over the course of my ministry.  Many of those miracles have taken place in medical settings, as a test result suddenly came back very different from the original, difficult diagnosis.  I have heard, on more than one occasion, a doctor explain a sudden health reversal by saying there is no other way to explain it except to say that it is a miracle.  I have seen miracles in other settings as well.  I have seen the miracle of greatly changed hearts and lives.  I have seen the miracle of healed relationships that seemed broken beyond repair.  Miracles happen all the time, and they are evidence, I believe, in the way God works in our lives and the world around us.

I must add, at this point, however, that there is always an element of faith in the perception of miracles.  Not everyone who witnessed the miracles of Jesus were moved or convinced by what they saw, and not everyone believed in him, in spite of the miracles he performed.  When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, for instance, the Pharisees were told about what had taken place, but their response was to join with the chief priests in calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  They acknowledged among themselves that Jesus was performing many signs (John 11:47) but those signs did not sway them to accept him for who he claimed to be.  In his hometown of Nazareth Jesus found resistance as well.  Matthew 13:58 tells us that he did not do many miracles there (Nazareth) because of their lack of faith.  Mark 6:5 tells us the same, but Mark also adds, in verse 6, the note that Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith.  People often clamor for miracles as proof for God’s existence, but I think we can say from the experience of Jesus, what does it take to convince some people?  There was plenty of proof in the miracles performed by Jesus, yet it was still not proof enough for some people.  In spite of the fact that Jesus performed miracles, some people did not accept him. The teaching of Jesus, while it contained authority, must be granted authority by the faith and belief of the hearers.

But it wasn’t simply proof Jesus was seeking to provide; Jesus performed miracles also as a means of demonstrating the authority that was behind his teaching.  In Matthew 9:1-8, for example, we read that 1 Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.  In this instance, Jesus healed the man as a way to underscore the authority he possessed to offer forgiveness.  Jesus not only taught about forgiveness; he also had the authority to grant forgiveness, and by performing this miracle demonstrated that authority.

2.  Scripture.

Jesus knew there were those who accused him of either ignoring or seeking to subvert the Mosaic Law, but Jesus was not out to do away with the Law.  In Matthew 5:17, part of our text for today, Jesus says do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  Jesus then proceeds to say, six times, you have heard it said, but I say to you (he said this in relation to commands about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and loving our enemies).  Jesus was not at all undermining the Law; what Jesus was seeking to do was to point out that the teachers of the law, the scribes, and the Pharisees had drifted far from the original intent of the law.  Jesus, in contrast, was seeking to call people back to the original intent of the Law.  Over the years, for instance, there were hundreds of laws that had arisen to define what it meant to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Hundreds!  It was forbidden, for example, to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath, because the chicken had to work to lay the egg.  One could not spit on the Sabbath either, because the dirt would gather around the saliva that hit the ground, and that was considered to be tilling of the soil.  How in the world could anyone keep up with such a myriad of laws?  What began as a good intent – defining what it meant to honor the Sabbath – actually led to the very thing the Sabbath was intended to do, which was to take away burdens from people so they could find rest and refreshment, but who could find any refreshment on the Sabbath while trying to keep up with the demands of hundreds of laws?

It was the interpretation of the Law that led to this point, and this is where things can get really tricky because we must interpret the Scriptures.  In Disciples churches we are very fond of the expression in opinions liberty, in essentials unity, and in all things love, but there is a big hole in that expression and it is this – my opinion may be your essential, or vice versa, and then what do we do?  Must I observe your essential or you observe mine?  Once we start down the road of interpretation, a road we must always travel, we begin to have a good deal of problems.  I was a bit uncomfortable, for instance, on Palm Sunday while performing in the Easter play.  I was given the role of Paul, and some of my lines had to do with his prohibition against women speaking or leading in worship.  During the play I was thinking, our congregation understands where we are on the role of female leadership.  They know and appreciate that we ordain women and see equality in leadership.  But what about someone who might be visiting or who is newer to our congregation?  What if they think we do forbid women from serving in roles of leadership?  I very firmly believe that Paul gave the prohibitions against women in leadership for very specific reasons that were bound to a very specific context, but those reasons and that context are no longer applicable.  In fact, those reasons and that context were not always applicable in Paul’s ministry, as he did not always follow that prohibition (and I would add, for those individuals and congregations that follow that prohibition, you might want to go back and read Paul a bit more closely.  He says in I Corinthians 11:6, for instance, that if a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off.  If you still believe in the prohibition of women leaders then tell me why you don’t follow the command to cut off their hair).  When we interpret the Scriptures we must remember that some things are eternal and some are time-bound, and how do we know the difference?  And how do you know I am right in what I say?  Does the title of minister mean my opinion carries more authority?  Do the degrees listed after my name indicate that I am an expert in what I say?  (It doesn’t at home!)  And how do we manage the competing interpretations between churches, denominations, and even within congregations?  Are those differences and arguments between or among churches a hindrance to the witness, mission, and ministry of the church as a whole?  How does a congregation live with those differences?  Should we mandate an official view? (in Disciples churches, we certainly don’t).

I often get letters and emails from people (outside of our church) who insist on telling me how I must interpret Scripture.  They often tell me (after reading one of my sermons online or one of my columns in the Sentinel-News) that I am very much in error and they see it as their responsibility to set me straight.  I received a very long email the other day and made it about halfway through before giving up, thinking, I have no idea what this person is trying to say.  I do not claim to have all the truth, and I do not claim to be always right.  I believe what I believe and I have come to those beliefs after a great deal of thought, study, and prayer.  I am comfortable in what I believe, but I am most comfortable in understanding that Jesus is the ultimate in determining how we interpret the Word because he was the Word, which leads us to our final point –

3.  Nature.

John 1:1-18 tells us 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.  The ultimate proof of authority for Jesus was his nature, that is, that he was God incarnate. 

As a church, we do not have a creed.  We do not have a statement of faith that we require people to accept.  We do not ask people to sign anything.  We have only a common confession of faith, and it is a confession of faith that is based upon the nature of Jesus as the Messiah.  It is the confession found in Matthew 16:13-16 – 13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter’s response – you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is the confession we acknowledge, and it is the foundation for all we believe.

The earliest followers of Jesus lived by this confession of faith, and in doing so they were making the most important commitment they could possibly offer.  In the time of Jesus, titles such as Prince of Peace, Son of God, Savior, Messiah, and others that were applied to Jesus were to be used only for the Emperor.  It was a capital offense to use any of those titles for anyone other than the Emperor, and yet the followers of Jesus did so.  They did so because they recognized Jesus as the true Prince of Peace, Son of God, Savior, and Messiah, and as they did, they recognized the authority not only for his teaching, but for his authoritative claim on their lives.

I was ordained almost thirty-nine years ago, and I have served vocationally as a minister for almost thirty-eight years.  My vocational identity is serving as a minister, and doing so is very important to me, but my primary identity is as a follower of Jesus.  I hold fast to the same confession that Peter offered, and that confession serves as the basis of my life.  I do so because I recognize the authority of Jesus over my life, and I recognize it not only because of his miracles and his teaching, but most of all I do so because I believe he is the Word, God in human flesh.