Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 16, 2011 - Cleaning House

January 16, 2011

John 2:12-20

Now, But Not Yet

Cleaning House

When I was in high school our youth group had a very interesting discussion one Sunday evening. A girl in our group brought the guy she was dating, and she always dated some interesting characters. Her father was a very prominent person in our community and she seemed to pick her boyfriends by how much they would irritate her father. The guys she dated lived along the edges of legal activity and were usually very abrasive in personality. On this Sunday evening she brought with her the most abrasive.

We didn’t have a student minister – adult volunteers led our group – and he was peppering them with questions, mostly to irritate them. I remember one of those questions very well, because it troubled me for a long time. He asked how could Jesus have been perfect, since he showed anger when he drove the moneychangers from the temple, and anger is a sin. We all sat there not knowing how to answer the question. We looked at each other, and at the leaders, and they looked at us, and one of them said, let’s go find the minister’s wife. See, when you really need the answer to a question, don’t bother with me; just go find Tanya. She came into the room, pondered the question, and said she didn’t know. Believing that minister’s wives know everything, I was very puzzled.

She went in search of her husband and I can still see him standing in the doorway of the room not knowing how to answer the question. It was a long time before I finally realized the answer to the question – who said anger is a sin? Anger is an emotion, not a sin! Scripture gives us warnings about the danger of anger, but never says that anger itself is a sin. Ephesians 4:26 says in your anger do not sin.

This morning, continuing with our series Now, But Not Yet, we come to the story of Jesus clearing the temple. Using John’s telling of the story we read of this incredibly dramatic moment when anger flares in Jesus as he looks around at what is taking place in the temple. John tells us he takes some cords and fashioned them into a whip and drove from the temple those who were conducting business by selling sacrificial animals and he overturned the tables of those who were moneychangers, proclaiming in his anger to get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! And though he hardly needed to at that point, Jesus practically dares them to kill him by saying destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.

If you read this passage in all the gospels you will find that John does something very interesting with the story – he places this event at the beginning of his gospel; it’s one of the first events in the ministry of Jesus that John records. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the story immediately after the Triumphal Entry, during the last week of Jesus’ life, but John places it at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. We need to remember that the gospels record historical events but they don’t always follow a chronological order, because the gospel writers were concerned about what does this event mean, rather than in what order did these events happen? John took an event that takes place in the last days of Jesus and tells it at the beginning of his story of Jesus, and it’s his way of saying here is something that happened that set the tone for the entire ministry of Jesus, this is an event that tells us something of incredible importance about who Jesus is.

Jesus was a person of incredible passion.

This image of Jesus clearing the temple is very much at odds with the traditional image we have of Jesus – the meek and mild Jesus, always nice and forever kind. This is the outrageous Jesus, the one whose righteous anger is willing to challenge those who are taking advantage of others in the name of God and is willing to upset those in power.

I think the definitive screen portrayal of Jesus is by the British actor Robert Powell, who plays Jesus in the 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, although I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t speak with a proper British accent. The scene of the clearing of the temple as portrayed by Powell gives us a glimpse, I think, of the passion Jesus portrayed.

Jesus was extremely passionate. He was passionate about his love for people, he was passionate about his commitment to his mission and ministry, he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about being open to all people – passion just oozed out of every part of his being. I get frustrated when people see Jesus as this boring, white-bread personality. Jesus was a living, breathing embodiment of passion.

Jesus was passionate about giving love and grace to the prodigal son, to the woman taken in adultery, to the leper, to the tax collector; he was passionate about just one lost sheep; he was passionate in his love for the great city of Jerusalem as he wept over it; he was passionate about love, and grace, and forgiveness.

Jesus railed against the commercialization and corruption of faith.

When you look around at the landscape of faith today it can make one wonder if people think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or a Cash Cow. There are legitimate religious products but sometimes I wonder if the name of Jesus gets slapped on some products just because it’ll help to make a few dollars.

Someone once commented that perhaps the followers of Jesus are called sheep because they are so easily fleeced. There are certainly people out to fleece others by using the name of Jesus.

The commercialization of faith is not a new problem. Jesus walks into the temple and he sees a place where trade and commerce had replaced worship. Those engaged in the commerce in the temple would argue they were simply providing a necessary service. There were thousands and thousands of religious pilgrims visiting Jerusalem because it was Passover, and when those individuals came into the temple to give of their gifts they had to change their money because money with an image was unacceptable. For those who needed to purchase an animal for sacrifice it was necessary to be able to get an animal somewhere. The problem was the amount of corruption that was part of the temple and all the associate activity. It was not considered wrong to charge a commission for these services, but the rate being charged had risen to the point where it was almost extortion; it was certainly taking advantage of people who could not afford being taken advantage of.

It’s important to note that Jesus did not condemn the temple; Jesus had great love and respect for the temple, but he railed against the way the leadership were using it for their own financial benefit. Instead of praying for people, they were preying upon people.

Jesus never gave up on the temple. Jesus is sometimes portrayed as one who stood against institutional faith, but that’s not accurate.

My older brother and I have had many conversations about church, and especially the institutional side of the church. After some years of serving as minister in traditional services my brother gave up and decided to plant a new church. They rented space and he would tell me how great it was to not have to worry about taking care of a building. Now he’s in his second church start and they have purchased a building. He’s right back where he started! As much as church frustrated my brother he wasn’t out to abandon it but to seek to bring a sense of renewal, which is what Jesus was doing.

Jesus saw what was happening in the temple as a blot on the face of faith, just as we see the same sad fact today. Those who seek to profit in the name of God by preying upon others are still with us.

Jesus was opening worship.

The temple was divided into several sections. The clearing of the temple took place in the outermost area, which was called the Court of the Gentiles. This picture, which is a model of the temple, shows the large area inside the other walls – this is the Court of the Gentiles.

This is the only area of the temple where non-Jewish people were allowed entrance. This was a big area, and it was a convenient area to use for the commerce that was taking place.

One of the things that so incensed Jesus was the insensitivity toward those who could only enter this portion of the temple. This was the area of worship for many, many people who could not enter any other part of the temple, but commerce had overtaken to the point that worship could not take place.

There was an exclusivity within the temple that caused people to forget something very important – Isaiah 56:7 says my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. The leadership of the temple had forgotten that the temple was for all people. It wasn’t just for the leadership; it wasn’t just for the Jewish people; it was for all people. In fact, in Mark’s telling of this story he includes Jesus quoting that verse – my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.

The temple was never to be owned by one particular group, but what had happened was a very large group of people had been pushed to the outermost area and not only were they pushed to the outermost area but that area was turned into a marketplace where it was impossible for worship to take place.

Church was never meant to be owned by church people. The church is for all people, but the same dynamic can happen in churches as happened in the temple, with some people pushed to the outer edges because and they are pushed to the outer edges because they are seen as less important, if they are seen to have any importance at all.

Back in the fall Tanya and I took a week off and decided not to travel anywhere. Most of the time, when we take time off, we travel to see our families. Staying home sounded like a great idea to me. I thought we could go out to lunch and to see some movies so I was pretty excited about it. So I asked Tanya what her idea was for the week, and she said I want us to clean out and organize the garage. We spent three days together in the garage. After the first hour of the first day I was asking if I could just go on to work.

Jesus was about transformation, where sometimes you have to sweep life clean, where you have to clean house. We live in a time of greatly oppositional forces – culture wars, political wars – that demand we answer which side we are on. People were always doing the same to Jesus, wanting him to be on one side as opposed to the other. Are you for or against paying taxes to Caesar? Are you for or against the temple? Are you for or against the Romans? Are you for or against rebellion?

Jesus was about transformation. He was about transforming that which ran counter or opposite of the kingdom of God. May we be about the same.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Dangerous Road of Temptation - Luke 4:1-13

January 9, 2011

Luke 4:1-13

Now, But Not Yet

The Dangerous Road of Temptation

Sometimes you hear stories that just really get you. A salesman was waiting in an office to submit his company’s bid. When the person he was to submit the bid to stepped out for a few

minutes, the salesman noticed a competitor’s bid on the desk, but the amount was covered by a drink can. No one was around so he decided to take a quick look to see if he needed to adjust the bid. What he didn’t know was he was being tested. There was no bottom on the can and it was full of BBs, which went everywhere when he lifted the can.

The Dangerous Road of Temptation is our topic this morning, as we continue our series Now, But Not Yet.

This is a series about the kingdom of God breaking into the world and the changes the kingdom brings. Going until Easter we will study events from the life of Jesus that teach us what the coming of the Kingdom of God means to us and to our world. It’s not a chronological study.

We return to Luke’s gospel this week to study the temptation of Jesus. After his baptism Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days where he faced a series of temptations.

Temptation #1 – Turning Stones Into Bread – Forsaking the Spiritual.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of wilderness, I think of a forest. A lush forest with streams of sparkling clear water, and maybe some wild blackberries, some fruit trees – the kind of place where you could live off the land for forty days.

That is not the type of wilderness Jesus experienced. The wilderness where Jesus spent his forty days was so harsh and desolate it was called The Devastation (Barclay, p. 43).

In fact, here is a picture of what that wilderness looks like -

I don’t see any wild blackberries or fruit trees there, do you? Forty days is a long time to survive in the harshness of that terrain, and the hunger that would settle in must have been tremendous. Scattered throughout the terrain would be rocks like these some of which look like small loaves of bread.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t do hungry very well. Sometimes I struggle with forty minutes of doing without food, let alone forty days. In fact, I think the wrong word is used; I would call it a slow rather than a fast. What are you doing today? Well, today I’m slowing.

Imagine the hunger that must have been gnawing at Jesus, and into that hunger comes the first temptation – if you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.

On the surface it makes a great deal of sense, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t Jesus do something to take care of his hunger? What could possibly be wrong with providing some bread for himself?

Didn’t God miraculously provide for the Hebrew people while they wandered in the wilderness? Wouldn’t he be better prepared for his ministry after having some physical sustenance?

The key, I think, is in the meaning of the word fast. The word fast, means to demonstrate a firm and unshakeable commitment. To hold fast to something, is what we say. When Jesus began his fast it wasn’t just to avoid eating for the sake of avoiding eating; Jesus was fasting and was committed to that fast because he was about to begin his public ministry and he was demonstrating an absolute, unshakeable commitment to that ministry. Nothing was going to come between Jesus and his mission. It wasn’t that Jesus shouldn’t have eaten; this was about what was going to matter most to Jesus.

Here is where the lesson is for us – do not forsake the spiritual component of life or forsake the mission God has given us in life. We live in such a demanding time, where the daily grind of making a living and providing for our family overwhelms us to the point that we can forget there is a spiritual side of life that must be nourished and nurtured.

Will our lives be defined by the physical, the temporal, and the daily list of urgencies that pop up on our radar screen every day? Will life be only about putting bread on the table, enjoying some entertainment, and accumulating a pile of stuff, or will there be a spiritual component and will we hold fast to the spiritual? We are far more than just stomachs that have to be filled and bodies that have to be clothed; we are spiritual beings with a calling to remember that life is about far more than just visible and temporal matters.

Temptation #2 – Worshipping Power – How Do We Advance the Kingdom of God?

The second temptation is one that has been with us since the beginning of time. It has inspired stories from the literary classic Faustus, where Doctor Faustus makes a deal with the devil for power, to Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s about a trade – a very bad trade.

Jesus is presented with a trade – I’ll give you the world, the devil tells Jesus, if you bow down and worship me. There are all kinds of dangers in this temptation, but the one I want us to consider is the temptation of power, and specifically, how do we further the kingdom of God? This is a question that could lead us into its own series of messages, so trying to answer that question in one point of one message is very challenging, so I’ll simply say this – we must be very careful how we view and use power. Power is very tempting.

The most recent election brought about a change in the balance of power in Washington, and that is a city that is all about power – who has power and who doesn’t have power. The currency of politics is power.

The political view of power permeates every facet of society. If you want to get something done in our culture then you seek power to accomplish what you want. Jesus would face near constant temptation to use political power to accomplish his mission. Even his closest disciples carried the hope that he would usher in a new political age for the nation of Israel by becoming a political Messiah.

But the currency of God’s kingdom is not power; it is love, which is a far great power. The gospel has political overtones, but there are many dangers when political power is used to advance the gospel. The gospel does not need political power in order to be advanced. In fact, I believe we run the risk of diminishing the gospel when we mix it improperly with politics. Charles Colson, who went to prison for is role in the Watergate break-in back in the 70s and was converted while in prison, made quite an interesting comment. Colson said this – the early church had no political power, but had tremendous influence; the modern church has great political power, but very little influence.

I think he is absolutely correct. The kingdom grows through the power of love, not the power of politics.

Temptation #3 – Leaping From the Temple – Do We Trust God?

Many of you have done what’s called a trust fall. It’s hard to let yourself fall back while trusting others to catch you.

What Jesus is being asked is this – are you sure you can trust God? Don’t you think you ought to put him to the test? He says you can trust him, but don’t you think you should make him prove he is trustworthy?

Our temptation is the same – do we trust God? Do we trust God when life turns difficult? Do we trust God when we get a challenging diagnosis from the doctor? Do we trust God when things get tight financially? Do we trust God when standing for our beliefs begins to cost us something? Do we trust God when we look at a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams?

The thread that connects all these temptations together is the importance of choosing what matters most in life. As parents we try and instill in our children the importance of looking at the long-term ramifications of decision making, of the danger of making a decision that brings us a short-term desire but has terrible long-term consequences.

Jesus gives the warning in Matthew 16:26 – For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? And what will a man give in exchange for his soul? What will a man give in exchange for his soul? What is the price tag on a soul?

The danger is that it is easy to sell our souls a little bit at a time. Life has a way of wearing us down and driving us into compromises where we are trading away our soul, one small piece at a time. What seems like a small temptation leads to a bad decision that leads to another bad decision and soon we find that piece by piece, we have given away our soul.

I used to enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles. Everyone has their own system for how to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Some start with the border; I would look for similar pieces, which gave me several disconnected sections. I would look at those sections and try to figure out how it all fit together. I think this is a metaphor for life. We see life in pieces, and those pieces often seem unconnected to us. We keep looking but we can’t figure out how the pieces fit together into some kind of whole. God, though, sees the whole picture. We must trust that while we cannot always see the big picture, God does, and he is always at work making connections and pulling our lives together.

The Dangerous Road of Temptation is ever before us. Beware of that road.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Kingdom Is On the Way - January 2, 2011

January 2, 2011

Luke 4:14-21

Now, But Not Yet

The Kingdom Is On the Way

Charles Dickens begins his novel A Tale of Two Cities with some of the most immortal lines in literary history – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...it was a season of light, a season of darkness…the spring of hope, the winter of despair. One of the truths those words reflect is how there are different layers to life. Dickens recognized that for some it was the best of times. There were some who were prospering and enjoying the best the world had to offer but for others it was the absolute worst of times as they struggled to survive.

The same layers are present today – it is the best of times to some, but the worst of times to others. We live in the best of times when it comes to the quality of medical care. The advancements in medical care in the last generation alone are mind-boggling; they are also very expensive, so if you can afford it, it is the best of times. If not, well, it’s the worst of times.

This morning, I am beginning a new series of messages that will take us through Easter, and I have titled it Now, But Not Yet. That title reflects this layered time in which we live, this combination of the best and the worst.

This is one of the most prevalent themes in the gospels – Now, But Not Yet. It tells us that God’s kingdom has broken into the world with the coming of Jesus, but the kingdom is not yet fully realized. The kingdom has entered the world but the kingdom has yet to penetrate into every area of life. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus reflects this as he prayers thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

This morning we begin with The Kingdom Is On the Way – the promise that God’s kingdom has taken root in this world and is growing and one day will be fully realized. And with that arrival is the promise of a new day and a new age.

For our Scripture text this morning we read from the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, where Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (verses 18-19). And then he rolled up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. And as everyone waits for his teaching about the passage he says Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing (verse 21).

That’s a good way to get people’s attention – tell them one of the greatest prophecies in the history of the nation of Israel, one of the greatest hopes, one of the greatest dreams – was suddenly fulfilled. The crowd is abuzz with talk about the wonderful words Jesus had spoken and a sense of excitement begins to build.

But Jesus speaks again and this time his words offend the people so much they take him out to the edge of a cliff with the intent of throwing him over. How do you preach a sermon where in the space of a few moments you have people speaking well of you and then wanting to kill you? I’ve said some things over the years that people haven’t liked, but thankfully they never took me out and tried to throw me off a cliff! What Jesus said that so upset people was that one of the reasons why the kingdom had yet to fully arrive is because people get in the way of the kingdom.

The kingdoms of this world don’t give up easily. Though the kingdom of God has entered this world, the kingdoms of the world aren’t packing up and saying, okay, we’re done! There are too many people who benefit from the structures of the world and who have vested interests in things staying the way they are for them to want any change to come about, even if that means that some people suffer because of the way things are.

Why did people fight against equal rights for all citizens? Because the very structure that denied equality to some people benefited others, so why would they want anything to change?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That’s beautiful. That’s poetic. That’s powerful. And most importantly, it’s true, and it is a direct challenge to the kingdoms and structures of this world who benefit from allowing things to stay the way they are.

So Jesus is speaking a word of challenge to those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom and a word of comfort to those what are so anxious for the coming of the kingdom. To the kingdoms of the world he is saying your time is coming to an end. You may have power now, but that power is going to end. You will not always have the power to oppress and deny.

Tyrants eventually fall. We have seen it in our own lifetimes, and we’ll see it again. The temporal powers that resist the coming kingdom continue to fight to hold onto their power but they are fighting a losing battle. One of the great Advent passages is Isaiah 2:4-5 – He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

And to those who wonder if God’s kingdom will ever come he is saying it may seem that the promises of God’s kingdom are slow in coming, but they are coming. War may continue to tear at our world, but peace is coming. Poverty may continue to define the lives of millions, but provision is coming. Illness and disease may plague us, but healing is coming. Grief and sadness may permeate our hearts, but comfort is coming. Brokenness may define many lives, but wholeness is coming. Creation itself may be groaning for relief, but restoration is coming.

As long as there are poor, the kingdom has work to do. As long as there are those who are prisoners, the kingdom has work to do. As long as there are people who are blind and afflicted with other ailments, the kingdom has work to do. As long as people are oppressed, the kingdom has work to do. And if the kingdom has work to do, it means we have work to do as well. We are heralds of the kingdom; we are the hands and feet of the kingdom.

Tanya gave me this great DVD for Christmas – it’s a DVD of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Does anyone know how many times they were on the Ed Sullivan Show? Four times? Do you know how many songs they performed on those four shows? Twenty songs. I didn’t remember how many times they were on or how many songs they performed; I only remember watching and being totally captivated by their music; it was the moment I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. What’s fascinating about these DVDs is they contain not only the performances of the Beatles, but the entire Ed Sullivan Show segments – even the commercials. As I watched them what struck me was how you could see on these shows the passing from one era to another. The Beatles represented a completely new era in music that was sweeping away another era. It didn’t happen overnight; the two eras continued together for a time, but as time passed one did pass away.

Think back one year. As we stood at the cusp of a new year, and thought about our hopes and dreams for a new year, how many surprises were there? How many of us experienced struggles that were not at all on our radar screens? How many of us experienced struggles that were so difficult that it shook even our faith to the core? Who knows what is ahead for this year. Who knows what challenges and struggles may be ahead. We will continue to live in this layered time, the Now, But Not Yet. But whatever happens, know the kingdom of God is already here and at work in our lives. The kingdom of God is here and at work and the world is changing. There are still many struggles and many problems, but the promise of the kingdom is that all this will pass.