Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 24, 2011 - Easter - Seeing What We Want To See

April 24, 2011

Luke 24:1-12


Seeing What We Want to See

A number of years ago a friend of mine gave me this little sign, which is an optical illusion.

Some people will look at this sign and see only a few shapes and others will see the name Jesus. It’s easier to see the name of Jesus when you step back from this sign, or because you look at the background rather than the shapes.

Whether you see the name of Jesus quickly or not has nothing to do with your faith, but it does remind us that we see things differently.

Why do we see what we see?

If I mention, for instance, UK, what is your response? U of L? Duke? There is a wide gulf in how people see those schools, isn’t there? Why? Certainly one of the reasons has to do with our context. If you were raised in Kentucky you are culturally conditioned to be a UK fan.

What is your reaction when I say the name Barack Obama? Sarah Palin? Donald Trump? Why do people see political figures or political points of view in such radically different ways?

What about music? Mention the Beatles and you’ve got me in complete agreement. Mention Lady Gaga and suddenly I want to pound nails into my ears.

It’s one thing to speak of a sports team, or a musical artist, or even a political figure, but there is one name that brings very divergent opinions – the name of Jesus. The gospels reflect the fact that people looked at Jesus in very different ways, and that is just as true today.

Why do we see what we see? I think in some instances we see exactly what we want to see, and that is especially true when we speak of faith and of Jesus.

In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of books about belief and about unbelief. Both sides of the discussion put forth their claims and their evidences while leaving out the question of why do people see what they see, and why do people believe what they believe.

The gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us of the struggle of the followers of Jesus to accept the resurrection. They did eventually, of course, but at first it was beyond their realm of possibility, even though Jesus spoke of his resurrection on several occasions during his ministry.

Belief is a choice. Faith is a choice.

Thomas, the disciple, the one labeled, doubting Thomas, reflects the attitude of many as he said unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (John 20:24).

Thomas wanted proof. People continue to ask for proof. But what is proof? One person would point to the vastness of the universe and the order in which the stars and planets move and say how could this be chance? Surely this is proof of God. Another may look at the vastness of the universe and the order in which the stars and planets move and say it’s all chance.

Faith is the willingness to take the step and receive the reality of Jesus. It is choosing to believe; it is choosing to see.

That choice, once made, means life is very different. The choice of faith, though, will not guarantee that life will be easier.

For those who are or have been married, did marriage simplify your life? Probably not. Once married, decisions need to be shared, compromises need to be made, and a shared rather than single vision of life must be adopted. And then there are children. Did children simplify your life? Probably not. But marriage and children, while not simplifying life, bring a great richness to life.

As the followers of Jesus chose faith it enriched their lives in tremendous ways, but it also complicated their lives in tremendous ways as well.

To not acknowledge this truth cheapens faith and also runs the risk of abandoning faith when life becomes difficult. Of the apostles, those who were the closest followers of Jesus, only John died a natural death; the others were martyred for their faith. It takes a very deliberate choice to see life in a particular way to be able to accept such a fate.

Why do we see what we see? It is because we make the choice to see.

Francis Collins is the Director of The National Institutes of Health. He is a world-renowned scientist who also directed The Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genome. As one who has been on the cutting edge of science for years, he writes that he was raised in a family where faith just wasn’t important (The Language of God, Francis S. Collins, page 11). As he grew older he became an agnostic and then moved into what he described as confrontational atheism, writing that I felt quite comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of anyone who mentioned them in my presence, and discounted such perspectives as sentimentality and outmoded superstition (page 16).

And then one day, as he sat and talked with a hospital patient who was suffering with untreatable heart disease, the patient asked him what he believed. In spite of all his training in science and medicine, the only reply he could manage was I’m not really sure (page 20). The patient’s question began to haunt him and he decided that as a scientist it was his duty to examine the question of faith, so he set out on a spiritual quest.

After studying all of the major world religions he still wasn’t sure what he believed, so he walked down the his street to visit a Methodist minister who lived in his neighborhood, and asked the minister whether faith made any logical sense. The minister listened and then gave him a book to read. The book was Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, the legendary Oxford scholar who had once been an atheist but came to faith while trying to disprove faith (page 21).

The arguments of Lewis were very convincing to Collins, and writing of the gap between belief and unbelief he says, for a long time I stood trembling on the edge of this yawning gap. Finally…I leapt (page 31).

Francis Collins moved from disinterest in faith to hostility towards faith and finally to embracing faith. What changed his way of seeing faith? Why did he see faith in a different way? There were spiritual and intellectual arguments that he considered, but it came finally to the question of what would he see?

We see what we want to see. As we consider the empty tomb this Easter Sunday, what do you see?

April 24, 2011 - Easter Sunrise Service

April 24, 2011

Mark 16:1-14

Easter Sunrise Service

The Power of Faith

So much of our world is based on winning or losing. March Madness is not long concluded and on one level it really is madness. That so much time, energy, and resources are poured into a game is amazing.

But it’s not just sports. Almost everything in life is divided by winning or losing, and people are then viewed as winners or losers. Politics, at times, is as much about winning or losing as it is about governing. Business deals can be about winning or losing. Social status determines whether one is viewed as a winner or loser. And no one wants the tag of loser hung upon them.

But what is victory? Is victory just a matter of winning a game, a political race, or a business deal? Or is it something much deeper?

Today, obviously, is Easter Sunday. This morning we are here to acknowledge and celebrate a real victory – a victory that deals with ultimate matters of life and death, a real victory that is about changed and changing lives. Easter is a celebration of the ultimate in victories – the victory of love and the victory of life over death.

The entire life of Jesus, but especially his final days, is a challenge to walk like him and to forsake the normal categories of life, such as winner or loser. The Triumphal Entry challenges us to remember that to walk like Jesus means we forsake pride and embrace humility. The Last Supper challenges us to embrace the great command of love and a life of service. The Garden of Gethsemane challenges us to walk in the paths of Jesus even when the walk is difficult and challenging and to seek the will of God rather than our own will. The crucifixion challenges us to embrace forgiveness, as Jesus did as he hung dying on the cross.

And then there is the resurrection, which challenges us to never forget that life has conquered death.

Mark begins the resurrection story by telling us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. There was absolutely no expectation of a resurrection. They fully expected to find the dead, lifeless body of Jesus.

One does not go to a cemetery expecting to find life. We live in a world where so many expect to find life where life will never be found.

But the women continued their journey with Jesus by going to the cemetery. Sometimes faith means you continue even though you cannot see or understand the purposes of God.

The women were greeted with the good news that He has risen! Even then it was too difficult to believe; the news was beyond the scope of their understanding. They were so overwhelmed that their first reaction was to tell no one of what they experienced. Mary Magdalene did eventually make her way to the disciples but they could not believe he had risen.

The fact that Mary Magdalene pronounced the news of the resurrection continues God’s fascinating way of using people as his messengers. As a woman in a patriarchal society Mary’s testimony would not be considered reliable. As one who had been healed of demon possession many saw her as an unstable personality, despite her healing. Bill Hull writes of her, the most momentous news in the spiritual history of mankind was first entrusted to one who by human standards was least qualified to proclaim it (The Broadman Bible Commentary: Luke/John, p. 363).

We are so often judged by our pasts. There were many who would hang Mary’s past upon her, but Jesus freed her from her past. We are freed from our pasts as well. The failures, the regrets, the guilt – Jesus removes it all from us.

It’s important that we emphasize what convinced Mary and the others of the reality of the resurrection – it was a personal experience with Jesus. Jesus came to Mary, he came to the disciples, he came to others, and the reality of their experience brought to them the truth of his resurrection.

The essence of faith remains a personal experience with the risen Christ. The Christian faith is not a belief system, it is not a theology, it is not an organization or an institution – it is a relationship founded upon an experience with the risen Christ.

We can seek to use theology and philosophy and reason in an attempt to convince people of the truth and reality of Jesus, but they are not enough. Theology and philosophy and reason may open a person’s mind to faith, but it takes more – it takes a personal experience.

This is what happened to Peter. Peter, who had denied Jesus but was released from that failure by his experience with the risen Christ. It was an experience, on the road to Damascus, that transformed Paul, the great persecutor of the Church, into the great missionary pastor.

That is a true victory.

The victory is the resurrection that says Jesus is alive and he abides with us and he transforms us. There are those who would be content if Jesus remained simply a character of history and nothing more, but without the resurrection we would know nothing of Jesus. There are those who would be content to say Jesus was a moral teacher of some renown, but it is the resurrection that moves him far beyond just a teacher of morality and into a living presence.

There are countless people throughout history whose lives have been transformed by Jesus. Some of them are notable – Peter, Paul, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but many more who remain nameless. But notable or nameless matters not; what matters is the transformation that occurred in their lives.

It is victory, true victory that comes through the resurrection, and not some manufactured sort of winners and losers as measured by the standards of the world, that we celebrate today. That is the true power of faith.

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 21, 2011, Maundy Thursday - In The Garden

April 21, 2011, Maundy Thursday

Matthew 26:36-46

In the Garden

This evening, on Maundy Thursday, we are here to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus and his time in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maundy Thursday takes its name from John 13:34, when Jesus says a new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. The Latin for new commandment is novum mandatum, which then becomes Maundy.

Reading the passage of Jesus in the garden is difficult, as we see the agony he experienced there. But we also see beauty as well. We see beauty in the gift of relationships.

From the beginning of the Scriptures we learn of our need for relationships. Jesus, while in the garden, sought the fellowship of his disciples. He did not ask his disciples for wisdom or for a defense at his arrest, but simply to be with him. As they entered the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked Peter and James and John to go further into the garden with him, saying my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.

Jesus wanted their company. We must always remember that our presence brings strength to others in times of difficulty. There are those who need our presence in life.

Jesus also sought the presence of God. Jesus knew the presence of God was with him, even though he would cry out on the cross and ask why God had forsaken him. He did what is so important at all times in life – he prayed. We have people praying through the night, just as Jesus prayed in the garden. At all times the presence of God is upon us. Even when we feel as though God has forsaken us we are promised he is ever with us.

We also see the beauty of Jesus’ courage. Jesus did not flee from what was before him. Neither must we flee from what we face in life. We do not live long in this world until we experience difficulty, and as we gather here this evening we know there are those who are in a season of great challenge in their lives.

As difficult as it must have been, Jesus was able to accept the will of God, even when that will led to the cross. We see crosses on jewelry, on communion tables, and on church steeples. During his life on this earth, Jesus saw crosses on hillsides with people nailed to them. He knew full well what was before him, and yet he still prayed not for his own will, but for the will of God to be done.

Jesus met challenge with courage and with conviction, and may his example allow us to do the same.

To see the agony of Jesus in the garden reminds us also that God is well acquainted with suffering. God is not so distant and removed that he is unfamiliar with suffering. God, in the person of Jesus, knew what it was to become tired, to be hungry, to be thirsty, and in the garden knew the agony of imminent death.

Faith will sometimes ask the seemingly impossible of us. While some have twisted faith into a magical formula for bringing wealth and prosperity, the experience of Jesus in the garden and the sacrifice and suffering of many through the ages demonstrates to us that faith can ask a great deal of us.

Jesus was faced with a choice – will he save himself or will he save others? We see far too many examples of those who would save themselves. We see it in the greed that envelopes our world, in the violence that tears apart the family of humanity, and we hear it in the words that tear down rather than build up.

Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray, to be aware that they can fall into that way that is about self. May we watch and pray as well.

At the end of this passage Matthew tells us that Jesus returned to the other disciples, woke them from their slumber, and said, are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!

Jesus did not wait on Judas and the soldiers to come to him; instead, he went to them. Jesus did not shrink from what was ahead but embraced his calling even though it meant his death on the cross. Jesus went and met those who came to arrest him.

C. S. Lewis, in his classic book The Screwtape Letters, asks how it is that Jesus could look round upon a universe from which every trace of Him (God) seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

At the moment when his opponents would believe Jesus was at his weakest, he was actually at his strongest. When it seemed that he had given up on faith; he had actually demonstrated faith in the greatest fashion imaginable; when it seemed he had failed, he actually achieved victory; when it seemed it was over, it had just begun.

Thursday was the beginning of the sufferings of Jesus, and for his followers it seemed the end. They did not understand what was yet to come. A very famous sermon is titled, It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’. While the disciples did not know on that Thursday what Sunday would bring, we do know. And we will celebrate the resurrection on Sunday morning. But for this evening, we remember what had to occur before the resurrection. First, there must come betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. As we gather here, may we remember, in the words of Isaiah, that he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

April 10, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - Following Jesus From A Safe Distance

April 17, 2011, Palm Sunday

Luke 22:54-62

Now, But Not Yet

Following Jesus From A Safe Distance

During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he criticized Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. You were one of Stalin’s colleagues, came the cry. Why didn’t you stop him?

Who said that? demanded Khrushchev. Silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Again, Khrushchev demanded who said that? Then Khrushchev replied quietly, Now you know why.

(Today in the Word, July 13, 1993).

Have you felt that power that a group of people can exert over us? The kind of power that will applies a pressure that tempts us to abandon or forsake a belief, an allegiance, a cause, or a relationship.

As we continue our series of Now, But Not Yet we come to one of the most difficult of all Scripture passages to read. On this Palm Sunday we study the passage that tells of Peter’s denial of Jesus. It is a story included in all four gospels, but Luke adds a note not included by the other three gospel writers – in verse 61 Luke adds the chilling words and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.

Luke begins this portion of the story by telling us that Peter followed at a distance (22:54). After the arrest of Jesus, Peter followed the crowd to the house of the high priest Caiaphas. Though Peter had risen up in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested he was well aware at this point of the danger of following Jesus. The warnings Jesus had spoken about taking up a cross now seemed very real to Peter. When Luke comments about Peter following at a distance he is providing more than a description of physical proximity – it was also a prediction of spiritual distance, as Peter’s faith begins to waver.

Luke tells us a group gathered in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home, and after building a fire they sat down as they waited to see what would happen to Jesus. There is a terrible irony in Peter warming himself by the fire while his devotion to Jesus is quickly cooling. It is an example of the prurient nature of people, I think. The crowd gathers like a group of human vultures, circling around to see what will happen next.

It was while seated around the fire that Peter made the first of his denials. Verse 56 says a servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

Though we have no idea exactly what ran through Peter’s mind at that moment we assume it must have been accompanied by a note of panic. Perhaps Peter spoke before really thinking and simply blurted out his first denial – woman, I don’t know him.

I wonder what Peter must have thought as those words came out of his mouth. We all speak before we think, so we know what it is to blurt out a regrettable comment before we have time to think about it. But this is Peter. Peter, who had traveled with Jesus for three years and who had experienced so much in those years. Peter loved Jesus and as they traveled together he had professed his love and loyalty on more than one occasion. And then, in a moment Peter denies all the experiences of those years as well as his professions of love and loyalty. This was bold, outspoken Peter, frightened into denial by the words of a servant girl. It was not Pilate, nor any of the Sanhedrin, nor a mob of soldiers, but a single waiting-maid, who frightened the self-confident Apostle into denying his Master (The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 9, Luke-John, p. 173). It was only hours before that Peter had proclaimed he would go with you to prison and to death! (verse 33). So much for Peter’s grand intentions.

But are we too hard on Peter for his denials? He hardly acted worse than the other disciples. In fact, Peter was the only one who followed Jesus after his arrest, and he risked his own arrest to be in the Caiaphas’ courtyard that evening. And don’t we know the painful reality that is the difference between our professions and our actions? We also know that despite assertions of our own strength we sometimes have feet of clay more than nerves of steel. It takes great courage to love our enemies and to love and pray for those who would be our persecutors; it takes great strength to say no to our desire to disappear into self-absorption, and it takes great strength to take up our own cross. So we can’t be too hard on Peter as we struggle to match our lives to our words.

Whatever Peter thought after his first denial, it would get worse. A short time after his first denial came the second. Once again someone recognized him as a follower of Jesus and said you also are one of them (verse 58). Without hesitation Peter denies knowing Jesus a second time. We have to wonder what Peter thought at that moment. Perhaps he was making a determination in his mind that it would not happen again, but merely an hour passes and he is challenged a third time, as another looks at him, recognizes him and says, certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean (verse 59). However Peter may have prepared himself for any further challenges he again makes an immediate response, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about! (verse 60).

It is at this point that Luke spares Peter, as he doesn’t mention his cursing as do Matthew (26:24) and Mark (14:71). Matthew and Mark’s details remind us this was not a mild betrayal. Peter was loud and he was insistent and he punctuated his denials with cursing and swearing.

And then comes Luke’s comment that brings a chill – the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter (verse 61).

Jesus predicted, and then witnessed, Peter’s denials. He not only heard the denials, he heard the cursing and swearing that came with them. My guess is these denials may have brought more pain to Jesus than the physical agony he was about to endure. Imagine hearing those words of denial. Have you ever made a comment about someone and then realized they were nearby and heard you? Imagine if every time we spoke bitter words about another they were close enough to hear our words. It would certainly alter what we say.

Peter’s error actually began before the denials. In verse 33, when Peter boasted that he was ready to go to prison or to death with Jesus he should have been asking for strength rather than boasting. Peter overestimated his own strength and underestimated his dependence upon Jesus. It is a reminder of the need for humility.

When Jesus looked at Peter, Peter was suddenly speechless. Peter, who was never short of something to say at that moment had nothing to say. There was nothing to say at that moment. One look from Jesus and Peter’s failure and denial was exposed. How many of us know the look of disappointment in the eyes of someone we love? As William Barclay writes, the penalty of sin is to face, not the anger of Jesus, but the heartbreak in his eyes (Barclay, Luke, p. 270).

After the third denial Luke says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly (verse 62). Peter had failed, terribly.

I have always felt sorry for Peter. Imagine your failure being remembered 2,000 years later. I am in a position where my faults and failures sometimes become a point of discussion among people, but imagine your failure recorded for all the ages. A failure of such magnitude could define one’s life. It could, but it didn’t. People might have said Peter’s not qualified, remember what he did. Peter’s denials keep him from being a leader.

But Jesus restored Peter. Jesus restored Peter after the resurrection. It must have been terribly uncomfortable for Peter to face Jesus and have the shame of denial weighing upon him. But Jesus renews his call to Peter. Once again, as he had done three years prior, Jesus calls Peter with the phrase follow me (John 21:19). Jesus didn’t require Peter to jump through hoops of qualification and he didn’t require him to make amends in any way; he simply asked him once again to follow.

Restoration is one of the specialties of Jesus. Imagine how Peter could actually use this moment to help others – others who also faced failures. Peter could say to them I know what it is to fail. I know what it is to deny Jesus. But I also know what it is to be restored, and you can be restored, just as Jesus restored me.

Peter, instead of being crushed by his failure, was transformed by what happened. Sometimes it takes a crisis to reshape us and make us stronger, which is why we should never waste a crisis. We often look at a crisis as something from which we must recover and we desire to leave it behind forever. But God can use that crisis, and he can use that crisis to shape us and mold us and make us the people he desires us to be. The great church father Ambrose writes this of Peter’s denials although Peter was ready in spirit, he still was weak in physical love…Not even Peter could equal the steadfastness of the divine purpose. The Lord’s Passion has imitators but no equals. I do not criticize Peter’s denials, but I praise his weeping. The one is common to nature, but the other is peculiar to virtue (Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 10:52. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, ed. by Arthur A. Just, Jr. General Editor, Thomas C. Oden, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2003, p. 337). The virtue Peter demonstrated was his brokenness that moved him to open his heart and life to God’s restoring grace.

Peter made no excuses for his denials, and Peter more than redeemed himself, as he eventually gave his life for his faith, on a cross of his own.

God’s grace comes to us when we make no effort to hide who we are, or what we have done. Instead of making excuses or defending himself, Peter allowed the grace of God to pick him up, renew him, and to use him in even greater ways. Great leaders, I believe, are people who are often greatly broken, dismissed of pride and reliance upon their own strength.

Jesus would not allow this failure to be fatal to Peter.

One summer years ago I was working at church camp. I broke a rule that would have sent me home and most likely kept me from returning the rest of the summer. I well remember when the camp director taking me aside to talk to me about the incident. The realization that I had disappointed someone I so admired was very difficult for me. But I remember very vividly that he showed me grace that day, and didn’t send me home, and by doing so made me one of his best workers, because gratitude moved me to want to work harder for him.

Never allow a failure to define your life. Peter restored Jesus; he can restore us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 10, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - Transformation versus Entertainment

April 10, 2011

Luke 23:1-12

Now, But Not Yet

Transformation versus Entertainment

How many of you have been asked by your children or grandchildren what you did in the days before video games, computers, the internet, satellite television, cell phones and all the other electronic devices that are such a part of our lives? It’s hard for some to imagine what life was like back in the days when electronic devices weren’t so prevalent in our lives.

I remember very clearly when some of the predictions of the coming revolution in electronics. Years ago I read an article predicting that one day people would have small satellite dishes attached to their houses. I thought that was the craziest thing I could imagine. Not only was it inconceivable to imagine such a small satellite dish, but the idea that people could own one was beyond my comprehension. Satellite dishes were for NASA, not private homes. At the time we were still putting aluminum foil on our TV antenna and only received about three channels, so a satellite dish seemed like science fiction.

It was hard to conceive of some of the other electronics as well. I remember the beginning of the video game era. In college several friends and I pooled our money and purchased the first video game system – anyone remember Pong?

And how many of you had a phone that was on a party line? Listening in on the party line was basically our form of entertainment. Now I have a cell phone that has video games, TV, music, GPS – more capabilities than I could have ever imagined.

Although all of these technologies have their uses, they have also had some very serious ramifications. Satellites, cable, internet, cell phones, video games – and all the other technologies – have so saturated our culture with entertainment that almost everything has to be placed in the context of entertainment to get people’s attention. These days, to get people’s attention, there are certain requirements, mainly a screen and an entertaining presentation. Without those elements, it can be very difficult to capture people’s attention.

As we continue our series of The Now But Not Yet we are turning our focus to the final days of the earthly ministry of Jesus and our theme is Transformation versus Entertainment.

Today we study the encounter between Jesus and Herod. We find that Jesus was sent to Herod by Pilate. Because Jesus was from Galilee, and Galilee was Herod’s domain, Pilate saw this as an opportunity to wiggle out of a difficult situation. While Pilate was happy to pass Jesus on to someone else, Herod, Luke says, was delighted to see Jesus. For some time Herod had been trying to see Jesus.

For Herod, this was basically an opportunity to see a show. Herod saw Jesus as being a provider of entertainment. Having heard about the miracles of Jesus Luke tells us in verse 8 that Herod was hoping to see some sign performed by Him.

Herod did not get his show. Not only did Jesus refuse to perform a miracle on demand, he was completely silent during Herod’s questioning, never uttering a word. Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate, greatly disappointed in Jesus.

Some might look at this event and wonder why Jesus didn’t give Herod a miracle. When you think about it, wouldn’t that be a great way to get people’s attention? Imagine the platform Jesus would have for his message if he performed a miracle in the court of Herod. Imagine if that miracle brought faith to Herod and his household! What would be wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be a helpful way to communicate Jesus’ message?

Evidently, Jesus didn’t think so.

I think it came down to this – Herod was interested in entertainment; Jesus was interested in transformation. In spite of the many miracles performed by Jesus not everyone believed in him. At the resurrection of Lazarus, for instance, there were many who did not believe in spite of being present at that that moment.

Entertainment is designed to stimulate a temporary interest but transformation is designed to bring about a permanent and significant change, and transformation necessitates the confronting of sometimes difficult and painful truths about ourselves that entertainment will avoid.

Telling the truth is the prophetic function of the Scriptures. Prophets were not just about the future; the primary function of a prophet was to tell the truth. The great example is the prophet Nathan, confronting King David with the truth of what he had done in having a man named Uriah put to death so that he could have his wife, Bathsheba (II Samuel 11 and 12). In one of the most dramatic scenes of the Bible, Nathan comes before David and tells a story about a man who owns many sheep but takes away the one little lamb owned by a poor family. David, not recognizing the story is about him and his guilt in having Uriah killed, is incensed and that’s when Nathan lowers the boom, proclaiming to David you are the man! (II Samuel 12:7).

Now, I’ll be honest and say I don’t like the style of preaching that just beats people up every week. I’ve heard my share of that style over the years and I just don’t like it. That’s not to say I don’t think we need to be confronted with some important truths, but there is a difference between allowing the words of Jesus to speak to us and someone who is preaching and decides to unload a batch of guilt and condemnation upon people.

Jesus presented truth to people, not entertainment. Jesus did not dilute the content of his message when that message needed to confront the need for transformation in the world and in people’s lives.

I don’t know if there were public relations people in Jesus’ day, but if there were he probably drove them crazy. Can you imagine a PR person or a media consultant approaching Jesus? Now Jesus, this stuff about a cross, can we tone that down somewhat? Or better yet, how about leaving that out all together? How about some more miracles? That one with Lazarus was great – now that’s what I’m talking about. Keep doing that and you’ll really pack them in. That’s what you need to do, give the people what they want.

But Jesus would not perform miracles on request because he was not interested in merely providing entertainment or amusement. He performed plenty of miracles, but when he chose to perform miracles it was because they were redemptive and led to transformation.

One of the functions of worship is to bring transformation. As the purpose of Jesus is to transform, so the commissioning of the church is also to transform lives.

And that is where we find the real tragedy of Herod. Herod stood in front of Jesus, God in human flesh, the creator and giver of life, the one who would give his life, and he could see nothing but an opportunity for some entertainment, nothing more than a chance for a temporary amusement.

When Jesus refused to perform a miracle, Herod decided Jesus had nothing to offer to him. Herod then sent Jesus away without understanding that Jesus had everything to offer him. Herod could only see what he wanted from Jesus, he could not see what Jesus actually offered to him. Herod was willing to settle for far less than what he could have had; he wanted a show, Jesus wanted to give life.

But Herod decided that since Jesus wouldn’t provide the entertainment, Jesus must become the entertainment. So Herod’s soldiers put a robe on Jesus, they mocked him and when they finished making Jesus the source of their amusement they send him back to Pilate. Because Herod did not get what he wanted, he considered Jesus to be inconsequential and he refused to take him seriously.

Isn’t that a sad portrait of Herod and his court? Because they failed in their attempt to get what they wanted from Jesus they mistreated and abused him and wrote him off.

But that is the pattern repeated throughout history. When people do not get what they want from Jesus they treat him as though he has no bearing on their lives or as though he is irrelevant and they mock him and send him packing out of their lives.

Jesus always steadfastly refuses to be pushed into what people want him to be; he will not allow himself to be at the mercy of the whims and desires of people.

One of the amazing qualities about Jesus is his level of determination to be true to his mission. Each day of this last week the stakes are getting higher and the conflict over his ministry is becoming greater and yet Jesus remains determined to fulfill his mission. And while he is very determined he is also calm and quiet with his opponents. Jesus said very little at his trial before the Sanhedrin; he has nothing to say to Herod and he had almost nothing to say to Pilate.

I find it interesting to watch how people respond to their critics and their opponents. A lot of people instantly melt under the weight of criticism and opposition; they respond harshly and that just escalates the conflict. Jesus remains very calm, and even more interestingly, he remains very quiet. Jesus makes almost no defense of himself. He has the ear of two influential rulers – Herod and Pilate – and yet he says almost nothing. Here was an opportunity for Jesus to present his plan and to speak to these two very powerful men, and yet he remained quiet.

Jesus decided it was best to let his life and ministry speak for itself. Jesus was supremely confident in who he was and he remained true to his mission. His critics and his opponents could not derail his mission and they could not shake his confidence or altar his determination.

Some years ago I went with a youth group to camp for a week. The speaker for the week was a really gifted preacher, and the worship services each evening included a really good band, lighting, lots of visuals – the type of worship that many of that youth group had not experienced, and they loved it. On the final morning of camp, at closing worship, the speaker made a really great point. He said, many of you will go back to churches where there is no band, there are no lights, there are no visuals, there is no screen, the format is much stiffer and you will probably long for the type of worship we have experienced here this week. Do not believe the worship in your churches is inadequate if they don’t have all these extra things. Worship is worship, whatever the format. What matters is not the style or music or any of those things. What matters is whether or not worship transforms you.

Entertainment surrounds us. Our entertainment-oriented culture can draw our attention away from what matters most in life. Jesus seeks to bring transformation to our lives. May we allow him to bring transformation.

Monday, April 04, 2011

April 3, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - Life's Great Question

April 3, 2011

Matthew 16:13-20

Now, But Not Yet

Life’s Great Question

For the past four years I have taught a class once a week at Highlands Latin School in Louisville. I lead the class through St. Augustine’s great book the City of God. One of the things I do each year is to show my class a series of pictures of Jesus. They are pictures of Jesus from various cultures and it’s interesting not only to see how those cultures view Jesus but also the reaction of the class to the pictures.

This first picture is Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, painted in 1940. This picture is arguably the most well-known portrait of Jesus and it has been commercially reproduced well over 500 million times –

You are probably familiar with another of Sallman’s works – Christ At Heart’s Door

The next picture is one that also has the "classic Jesus" look

We look at those pictures and think, that’s Jesus. But as we move through the pictures they start to change. Next, we see the blonde-hair, blue-eyed Jesus. Though we don't know what Jesus looked like, I'm certain he didn't have blonde hair or blue eyes

Next are several newer renderings of Jesus. First is what I would call the “surfer-dude” Jesus, because he seems to have that laid-back, dude kind of look. It’s certainly a transition from the more serious take on Jesus –

Next is a portrait that most people would not think of as Jesus unless you knew that was the artist’s intent. I would call this the “coffee-house” Jesus, because he looks like someone you would find sitting in a coffee shop reciting poetry or singing a James Taylor song –

Next is a portrait commonly called “the laughing Jesus.” Its original title is “Jesus Christ Liberator” and was painted by Willis Wheatley in 1973. It is another portrait seeking to present a less somber view of Jesus –

Then we come to some portraits that reflect other cultures and their interpretation of Jesus. This is where my class starts to say things such as, that’s not right. Jesus didn’t look like that. Probably not, but he also didn’t look like the others either. The first is the African Jesus –

And another of the African Jesus

Next is the South American Jesus, who looks remarkably like P. Diddy

Then we have the Russian Jesus –

The Asian Jesus

The Native-American Jesus, reflecting the Trinity –

And lastly, a portrayal commissioned by National Geographic magazine. National Geographic commissioned a CSI-type forensics specialist to construct an image of what a 30-something Jewish man in the time of Jesus might look like. Here is the result, which is very unlike Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ

What is the point of showing these pictures? The point relates to the question at the heart of our message this morning from Matthew’s gospel, which is, I believe, Life’s Great Question.

Our Scripture text for today tells us that Jesus takes his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and while there he asks them who do people say the Son of Man is? (the Son of Man being Jesus). The disciples answer that people believed him to be one of the prophets returned, perhaps John the Baptist, or Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets of old.

Then he asks them that most important question, Life’s Great Question – But what about you? Who do you say I am?

Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly ministry, so he confronts his disciples with this question of incredible importance. It is a question that seeks to determine whether they have grasped the truth of who he is or if they possess a view of Jesus based upon the misconceptions people at that time had about Jesus.

Jesus was very intentional, I believe, about taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi to ask this question. Caesarea Philippi was a center of many religions; it was a buffet of religious beliefs. In Caesarea Philippi one would find many temples dedicated to the worship of the Greek and Syrian gods and it also had a temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor. It was a way of asking his disciples if they could sort through all the layers of expectations and interpretations people layered upon Jesus.

What Jesus knew was that people carried all manner of opinions into their view of him, which is still true today, and that’s the point of showing the pictures of Jesus – we tend to see Jesus in light of who we want him to be; we want him to be like us – Jesus, we might think, would not only look like us, but also act like us and think like us, and we then begin to create a Jesus in our image rather than conforming ourselves to his image.

We see this danger in the passage that follows this morning’s Scripture reading. After Peter’s confession of faith Jesus tells his disciples that he must travel to Jerusalem and be crucified. Peter immediately takes him aside and begins, Matthew says to rebuke him (Jesus). Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter had a vision for the way Jesus should act, and going to Jerusalem and being crucified was not a part of that vision, so he literally steps forward in order to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem.

Do you remember the WWJD bracelets that were popular a while back? WWJD stood for What Would Jesus Do? It’s a phrase borrowed from Charles Sheldon’s Book In His Steps, published in 1896. There have been numerous variations of that question in recent years. Now you see What Would Jesus Drive, What Would Jesus Buy, What Would Jesus Cut, What Would Jesus Listen To, Where Would Jesus Shop, How Would Jesus Vote, and on and on. Although I think those are all well-intentioned, the problem is they all hold up a particular lens through which people see Jesus. It’s a way of saying I know what Jesus would or wouldn’t drive, I know what he would or wouldn’t buy, I know where he would or wouldn’t shop, I know what he would or wouldn’t cut from the budget, I know what he would or wouldn’t listen to or read, and I know how he would vote.

I think one of the very clear statements made in the gospels is Jesus often did the unexpected. Just when the disciples thought they had him figured out and knew what to expect Jesus surprised them. And the reason Jesus surprised them, I believe, is because he wanted to blow away the assumptions they made of him and the vision they began to craft of who he should be.

But Jesus does something else fascinating in this passage. Not only does he break down the mistaken assumptions people make about him, he also challenges us to break down the assumptions and limitations people place upon is. He does this in his response to Peter’s confession of faith. Peter’s given name was Simon, but Jesus called him Peter, which is from the Greek word for rock. Peter was anything but a rock, in terms of his faith. He was hardheaded, but he was often stumbling in his faith, which he would tragically prove when he denied Jesus three times. But where others would see failure in Peter, Jesus saw something else. Jesus saw in Peter what no one else saw, and he challenged Peter to not be limited by what others would think of him.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be defined by others. Don’t let people box you in and define you. So many people drag around the labels and the definitions that other people attach to them, and that is so unfortunate. In my younger years I used to be happy to move every few years, because it was always provided a fresh start. Sometimes we need a fresh start to leave behind the limitations people place on us. For the same reason, I’m never been a fan of nicknames, because a nickname can become a label that will define a person for years.

There are some big questions in life – Where will I go to school? What will I do for a living? Who will I marry? We put a lot of thought into those questions.

There is another big question in life – Who is Jesus, and what will he mean to me? It is a question that asks us what we will be. Will we be people who are just rationalistic materialists, seizing what we can from this life while we have it, or will we understand we are not just flesh and blood but also soul and spirit?

A group of us went to see Jesus Christ Superstar at the Derby Dinner Playhouse Friday Night. That is a powerful piece, and a great piece of music. When I was in the ninth grade our youth group went to see it at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling, West Virginia. I remembered being surprised that people were upset that we were going. My reaction was Ian Gillan of the band Deep Purple is playing the part of Jesus; how cool is that? But Superstar bothers people, and one of the reasons why, I think, is because we have a particular way of seeing Jesus, and when someone presents Jesus in a different way, that’s challenging for us.

Who do you say I am? is the question Jesus asked his disciples. It’s the same question he asks each of us as well.