Monday, March 27, 2017

March 26, 2017 The Road to Jerusalem: Reclining At the Table

The text of yesterday's message - The Road to Jerusalem: Reclining At the Table.
Today’s message is the third message I worked on this week. The first two just didn’t seem to mesh with what I was sensing from many people, including myself. In recent days I have heard many people express how they feel overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. In the words of several, they had hit a wall, and the reality of hitting a wall is that the wall doesn’t give.
It is obvious that we live lives filled with a great deal of responsibility, stress, and exhaustion. We struggle mightily at times to keep up with all we need to do; to be all the places we need to be; and to fulfill our duties, obligations, and responsibilities. If you have not been at that point recently, you will be at some time in the future.
Am I speaking to anyone this morning? I believe I am.
As we continue our Easter series of messages – The Road to Jerusalem – this week we come to the topic Reclining At the Table. The Scripture passage we will read in a few moments is one that took place shortly after the Triumphal Entry. Its setting is in the midst of an incredibly stressful time for Jesus. Although many of his followers expressed great excitement about the welcome Jesus received in Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry, Jesus knew what was ahead – his arrest, trail, scourging, and crucifixion 
After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus would depart the city in the evenings and stay in the village of Bethany, which was about a mile and a half to the east, situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was in Bethany that Mary and Martha lived, and where Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). It was after the miraculous raising of Lazarus that the religious leaders made the decision to kill Jesus – so from that day on they plotted to take his life (John 11:53).
After his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus would go out to Bethany each evening for a couple of reasons. He went to Bethany because it was a safe haven for him. Jesus knew, obviously, of the plot to kill him, and to take advantage of his remaining few days with his disciples meant it was better for him to leave the city at night for a more secure location, where he could be with his closest followers without fear of harm, allowing him to offer his final teachings. Second, it also afforded him the opportunity to relax, which was especially important in light of what was about to take place.
Follow along with me, please, as I read our Scripture text for the morning – Mark 14:1-9
1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.
2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?
5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.
8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
I really like the image of verse 3 – while he was in Bethany, reclining at the table. In the day of Jesus, people did not sit at a table for their meals as we do, but would lean against pillows that were placed around a very low table that held the food and utensils. The word reclining provides an image of a relaxing time spent together by family and friends and, in light of what was about to happen, must have provided an atmosphere of comfort and encouragement to Jesus. As we live with so much stress and anxiety, we would do well to enjoy some reclining at the table. So, with that image in mind, here is what I want us to hear today – 
1. Remember that you are loved.
Bethany was a good place for Jesus. When in Bethany, Jesus was surrounded by people who loved him, such as Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His disciples were also there with him, and presumably others who loved him and cared about him. Sometimes, admittedly, that love from others was a bit tenuous. Martha, you’ll remember, confronted Jesus as he approached Bethany to tell him that Lazarus had died. She told him "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” John 11:17-22). Jesus already had a plan to resurrect Lazarus, but it must have stung to hear those words from Martha. Peter, as we all know, denied Jesus. Not once, but three times. And, Luke tells us, Jesus heard each of those denials (The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." Luke 22:61). 
But they loved Jesus, in spite of the fact that their love was sometimes less than perfect. And lest we be too hard on their somewhat tenuous love, we can all be, at times, tenuous with our love. Sometimes, we say things that hurt other people. Sometimes we do things that hurt other people. Sometimes, we fail to say or fail to do things, and that hurts people. It’s not that we mean to hurt others; it’s just that our love is sometimes tenuous and less than perfect. Other people are not always what we would like them to be, but neither are we.
But, in spite of the fact that the love of his followers was less than perfect, Jesus was in the midst of people who loved him, and that meant a great deal to him, I’m sure, especially in the midst of the most trying time of his life. Jesus says in verse 7, "you will not always have me." That was a sobering warning to his followers. "Don’t forget this moment, don’t forget that this moment will not always be available, I won’t always be here with you," he is saying. I don’t mean to be depressing, but that is a reality we must keep in mind with those we love. Remember you are loved, but remember also that the people God has chosen to place in our lives are not always going to be with us. Where would we be without those who love us? How would we face the trials and difficulties of life without those who love us? How would we enjoy the blessings of life as deeply if not for those who love us? It would be difficult, if not impossible, but we must remember that every moment they are on our lives is a great gift, so we should, 
2. Do what you can while you can.
The woman in this story is forever known as one who took this very expensive jar of perfume and broke it open, and then took the contents and poured them onto the head of Jesus. In response, Jesus said "truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (verse 9). Some of those present criticized her very harshly for her actions, saying the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. It was worth a year’s income for most people, but if they were really interested in selling it and giving the money to the poor, they would have done it already. No, they simply wanted to criticize her.
The response of Jesus is beautiful – "she did what she could" (verse 8). She did what she could. Because we don’t have all the time in the world, we must do what we can, while we can. Do what you can while you can. You don’t have forever. Sorry for that reminder, but it is the truth. I would like, at times, nothing more than to sink into my own life, doing only what I want to do and withdraw from the hectic, difficult, stressful, world of all that happens around us. We all get to that point, I think, but there is so much important work to do.
I am so often impressed at what you do. I know you have a finite amount of time and that you are pulled in many directions and must balance the stress of trying to balance all the responsibilities and opportunities that come your way. And with so much to do, there you are, at the Touched Twice Clinic, at the Diersen House, teaching Sunday School, leading VBS, working at the Christian Care Community, feeding people at the Serenity Center and God’s Kitchen, and serving in so many other ways. Because I am a vocational minister, my time is filled with being in those places as well, but that is what I do; I don’t have to fit in those responsibilities and opportunities in a life filled with work responsibilities. 
3. In the midst of so much to do, in the midst of so much stress, in the midst of so much that pulls at us, take time and recline at the table.
It is really remarkable that Jesus could be so calm when so much chaos swirled about him. There he was, just days from betrayal, from his arrest, from his crucifixion, and he was reclining at the table like all was well. Even though he was among those who loved him, there was conflict over the beautiful, grace-filled action of this woman to anoint him, and there was betrayal in the air. But you know what Jesus didn’t do? He didn’t freak out! It’s hard to remain calm in the midst of stress, but look at Jesus, reclining at the table. I can guarantee you that I would be freaking out! But not Jesus. One of the reasons why Jesus could be so calm was that he took the time to recline at the table. We must do what we can, while we can, but we must not forget that it is also necessary to take the time to recline at the table, where we can recharge our batteries and refresh and renew our spirits.
There are days I feel so discouraged. There are days I want to quit. But I refuse to give in to discouragement, and I will not despair, and I won’t because of reclining at the table, allowing God to bring peace, comfort, and strength. When you come to worship, I hope you can put aside your worries and stresses and that the Spirit will release you from them. I know when we leave here, that if your electric bill needs to be paid, it will still need to be paid. I know that when we leave here, if you have a tattered relationship that needs mending, it will still be in need of mending when you leave. I know that when we leave here, if you look at your life you and see what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle, that obstacle won’t just up and go away. But I hope and pray that coming to worship, reclining at the table, will give you a renewed sense of strength and determination. I hope and pray that you will leave with a greater conviction that God is with you now and will be with you always.
I would like for you to close your eyes so I can pray for you. I want to pray that, as you recline at the table, God will bring renewal to you.

Monday, March 20, 2017

March 19, 2017 The Road to Jerusalem: There Is None So Blind...

Can anyone tell me what it says on the bulletin board on the left wall (as you are walking towards the back entrance), halfway down the main hallway of the church?  Jesus Loves All Children of the World.  I thought about that bulletin board a couple of times this week, because of a song I heard on the radio.  Does anyone remember the singer Ray Stevens?  Several times in the past week or two I’ve heard what is arguably his best and most well-known song, Everything Is Beautiful.  I like the way he starts the song with the words to Jesus Loves the Little Children –

Jesus loves the little children
All the little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

And then he goes into the first verse of the song –
Everything is beautiful
In its own way
Like a starry summer night
Or a snow covered winter's day
Everybody's beautiful
In their own way
Under God's heaven
The world's gonna find a way

And the next line contains some great truth, and is a variation on a line that dates to centuries ago  

There is none so blind…can anyone finish the line?
As he who will not see
—Everything Is Beautiful, by Ray Stevens.

In that line, Stevens reminds us that there is more than one kind of blindness.  There is physical blindness, certainly, but there is also spiritual blindness, which inflicts far more people than does physical blindness.
As we continue our series of messages titled The Road to Jerusalem, this week our text tells us of a blind man who, in spite of his inability to physically see, possessed a depth of insight that was not available to many people who possessed very keen eyesight.
Follow along with me, please, as I read our Scripture text for this morning –

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.
36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening.
37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him,
41 “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God
There are several fascinating elements in this passage that I want to speak to this morning.  They are elements that are more fascinating, more interesting, and more exciting than March Madness, which we are in the midst of –

1.  Even those closest to Jesus don’t always understand him.
As the text begins, Jesus had begun his journey to Jerusalem, a journey that would culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection.  In Luke 18:31-33 we read that Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be handed over to the Gentiles.  They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.  On the third day he will rise again.  I can’t imagine how Jesus could be any more blunt than that, but in the next verse Luke tells us that the disciples did not understand any of this.  Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.  How could they not understand what Jesus was saying?  How much more obvious could he be?
Sometimes the disciples couldn’t see what was right in front of them.  It is also, let us be honest, true of us as well.  Sometimes, we don’t see – or perhaps we don’t want to see – what God puts right in front of us.  We all have our blind spots (and even being aware of our blind spots is difficult, because they are, after all blind spots, which means we are unaware of them.  If we were aware of them, they wouldn’t be called blind spots).  All of us – yes, all of us – are blind to some truths.  We are blind knowingly or unknowingly, but we are blind nonetheless. 

Perhaps one of the ways in which we are blind is in not taking the time or care to note what is happening in the lives of others.  The crowd might have, for instance, been willingly blind to the man as he begged.  To be honest, don’t we sometimes want to look past some needs?  It’s complicated to be drawn into the lives of others.  Sometimes, it’s overwhelming.  Working with people is complicated and overwhelming, so it’s a natural tendency to want to, as we say, turn a blind eye to what is around us.

2.  The cry for mercy must be our cry as well.

Listen again to verses 38 and 39 – 38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Who in the world would rebuke a man who was blind, a man simply crying out for mercy?  Does it seem odd that someone seeking help would find rebuke?  All he is doing is looking for help, which makes it the height of absurdity that someone would be rebuked for doing what is totally natural, which is to search for help!  Jesus was passing by, and the fame of Jesus was such that the man could hope that, perhaps, Jesus would heal him.  So who wouldn’t cry out for mercy in such a situation?  Wouldn’t we all?  Wouldn’t that be the logical reaction?  If it meant we could find some help, of course we would!  And who would fault us for doing so?  Telling someone not to cry out to Jesus for mercy would be like telling someone in church not to pray!  Imagine!  Jim, don’t pray!  It feels wrong even using it as an example!

Well, the man was rebuked, simply for seeking help from Jesus.  And take note of who it was who rebuked him – those who led the way!  What kind of leaders were they!  This points to the importance of example.  If a leader can’t lead by example they ought to get out of the way.  Just get out of the way!  People will model what they see, for good or ill, and leaders have the responsibility to provide an example of compassion and care, whether they are religious leaders, political leaders, community leaders, or wherever you find leaders.

Maybe these leaders didn’t like the blind man calling attention to the fact that there were people in their midst who had very grave needs.  Perhaps they wanted to cover up those needs because it looked bad for them. Maybe they thought it was bad for business for the blind man to call out.  Maybe it made them feel uncomfortable.  And maybe it reminded them that they too stood in need of mercy, and perhaps they didn’t want to admit to that.

I remember traveling to a city some years ago for a large convention and in the days leading up to the convention the city cleared the streets of homeless people.  They wanted them out of sight because they didn’t want any of the visitors to see the needs in that city.  Well, we’re sorry that human need is sometimes inconvenient to the powers that be.  The care of people with great physical needs is often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency; sometimes, it’s simply an easy target, because the recipients don’t have much of a political voice and don’t always have a political champion.  Sometimes it is said that the care of the poor is the responsibility of churches.  I think that’s true, but maybe that’s a convenient excuse.  I happen to think there is a place for government, especially with the resources on hand for the government, and I believe that is a way in which God works as well.  And certainly, if we say we live in a Christian nation shouldn’t then our nation act in a Christian manner?

We are called to be mercy providers.  Being merciful isn’t simple though, is it, and because it’s not simple it’s easy to say things such as they’re just out to scam everyone.  Yes, some do.  We deal with that here on a regular basis.  We do our best and try to be careful but we get taken sometimes, and if we do, we do; that’s not on us.  But honestly, if I were desperate, what might I do?  It’s easy to be righteous when life is pretty good, but what if I had been raised in grinding poverty? It’s easy to be righteous when I grew up in a good home, but what if I grew up in a terrible dysfunctional, abusive home?  It’s easy to be righteous when I grew up in a home where all my needs were met, but what if I were desperate to take care of my family?  What might I do? 

There are voices crying out, and those voices cannot be silenced.  The crowd could not stop the voice of this blind man, and nothing will stop the crowds of people who cry out and beg for mercy.  Just as when the religious leaders told Jesus to silence the crowds at the Triumphal Entry and his reply was I tell you…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40).  Jesus stopped what he was doing.  He might have been teaching his disciples as he walked along, but whatever he was doing, he stopped out of response to the need of this blind man. There are so many desperate voices crying out, and they must be heard.

The man knew to ask for mercy. We all need mercy.  Sometimes we are the blind man, crying out to God.  It might not be blindness, but it’s something.  We all have something, at some time, that leads us to cry out to God.

And isn’t it a wonderful gift to receive mercy?  We all need to receive mercy at times, regardless of who we are and regardless of our station in life.  The mercy of God often comes through other people, and I am grateful to receive that mercy, and much of it comes from you.  It is that mercy that keeps me going and I consider you saints for offering it.

3.  Jesus healed a blind man, opening his eyes, and he wants to open our eyes as well.

Sometimes, we just don’t see.  Sometimes, it’s fear that keeps us from being able to see.  Sometimes, we are so afraid of a change in viewpoint, a change in thinking, or a change in living that we close our eyes.  Maybe it’s a hard heart.  It could be many things.

What Jesus wants to do is to open our eyes, just as he did the blind man.  We might have great eyesight, but every one of us needs our eyes opened to something, and that’s what Jesus seeks to do for us.

A number of years ago there was a commercial for a luxury car that I found very interesting.  Two young men were backpacking through the countryside, perhaps somewhere in Europe or here in the states.  By appearances, they carried to be carrying a few meager possessions with them, and seemed to be determined to live simple, humble lives.  One was talking excitedly about his plan to major in pottery and devote his life to his art, content to make a meager living from his work.  Suddenly, on the horizon, a beautiful luxury car appears and they put out their thumbs in hope of getting a ride.  The driver pulls over and the two young men get into the back seat of the car.  The young man who was talking about pottery was obviously impressed by the beauty and luxury of the car.  He ran his hand lovingly over the leather seat and cast an impressed eye at the high-tech dashboard.  Overcome by the luxury of the car he said, I can always minor in pottery.  Boom!  In a single moment his entire worldview is reoriented.  In a moment he went from a lifetime dedicated to his art and living a simple life to the desire for luxury and, presumably, pursing the wealth it would take to obtain such a life.

By the healing action of Jesus, the life of the blind man was changed in a single moment.  From blindness to sight, the man received the tremendous blessing of healing as his sight was restored.  For the crowd, it was a moment to be amazed by the healing power of Jesus, but it was also a teachable moment.  How many in the crowd understood what Jesus sought to teach, however, is unknown to us.  Some, surely, had the spiritual sight restored; others, presumably, remained in their blindness.

As we continue to travel The Road to Jerusalem with Jesus, may our prayer be that we will allow Jesus to open our eyes, because there is none so blind, as he who will not see. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March 12, 2017 The Road to Jerusalem: A Love That Lasts

Today we begin a new series of messages, titled The Road to Jerusalem.  The series will take us to Easter, and in this series we will study some of the events that took place as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, as well as some of the people he encountered along the way.

We begin with a passage that sets the tone for what follows in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus is about to begin his trip to Jerusalem, for the final days of his earthly ministry.  To an outside observer, it would have appeared that things were going very well.  As Luke says in verse 25, there were large crowds who were traveling with Jesus.  Now, honestly, who doesn’t want to draw a large crowd?  There isn’t a church in existence or a minister on the face of the planet who wouldn’t love to have that description attached to them – large crowds were following. We are in the midst of March Madness, where large crowds are the norm.  Imagine what March Madness would be without a crowd!  Imagine the Yum Center or Rupp Arena with only a few hundred people!  A crowd offers excitement and possibility.

One of the tricky aspects of a crowd, however, is that once you have a crowd, you don’t want to say or do anything that jeopardizes the ability to continue drawing that crowd.  When you have a handful of people, not much is at stake.  But with a crowd, you suddenly have more to lose.  For churches, the temptation that comes with a crowd is to become very cautious, taking care not to lose anyone.  And yet, in a very interesting move, this is exactly what Jesus does not do.  With large crowds following him, Jesus offers words that jeopardize his ability to continue drawing crowds.
Follow along as I read our Scripture text, which comes from Luke 14:25-35 –

25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,
30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?
32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?
35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Do we have any “fine print” readers here this morning?  We’ve all received mailings that promise great deals, espcially at Christmas, where a flyer might advertise a computer or large screen TV for an outrageously low price, but in the fine print it will say only one per store, or includes no monitor, hard drive, software or anything you actually need to make a computer work.  I especially like the car commercials, advertising a car for $99 a month and no money down.  But the announcer at the end goes through the disclaimers so fast that you can’t hear them say, offer applies only to people who are filthy rich and make a down payment of $30,000.  Have you ever read the fine print in a privacy policy?  You haven’t, have you?  When you set up your accounts online you just click accept without actually reading all that legal-ese langauge, and when they come in the mail you probably toss them straight into the trash. 

Our Scripture passage for this morning is one we might call the fine print of the gospel.  It’s very easy to focus on the Scriptural passages of comfort, encouragement, and beauty.  This is not one of those passages.  It is a tough and difficult passage, reminding us that life – and faith – can be very difficult.  Jesus was never one to underestimate either the difficulty of life or the difficulty of faith.  At this point in his ministry Jesus, as he was drawing large crowds, had come to a point where he wanted people to understand that there is an element of faith that is very challenging.  In these verses he is careful to present the plain truth to his followers.  Truth is not always easy to hear, but we can be grateful that Jesus did not “sugar coat” the facts about life and faith.

Jesus, in revealing the fine print of the gospel, helps us to understand how to build the kind of faith and the kind of love that will stand the test of time and the test of any challenge.  So how do we build that kind of love?

By Building a Strong Foundation.
When I was young, in front of our house, on our small farm, was a field extending a couple hundred yards to the road.  About half the length of that field, just on the other side of the property line, nestled into a small grove of trees, was the foundation of a never-completed house.  As kids, we liked to play around that foundation, which had the block walls in place and the openings for doors and windows.  It was a great fort for our pretend adventures.  It became a fort, a castle, and all manner of other adventure-related locations for the imaginative minds of a group of young boys.  The foundation, obviously, had been there a long time, as there were trees growing in the middle of it and also out of the mounds of dirt that had long ago been piled up in order to level the ground.  Many times over the years I wondered about that foundation.  Why was it never completed?  Did they run out of money?  Did they move?  No one in our neighborhood that I asked seemed to have any idea.  It was a visible reminder of the words of Jesus, that anyone building a tower must first calculate the cost so they can determine whether or not they have the finances to complete the project.

Building a foundation of love is a lot like building a house.  You have to have a good foundation if it is going to last across the years.  Building that foundation takes work, it takes sweat and effort.  It is much more than just memorizing a few rules and regulations that allow a person to give a “correct” theological answer.  If you can’t build an adequate foundation, it is impossible to build a strong building.

I believe there should be disclaimers on some things, such as a marriage certificate, saying sometimes things will be difficult.  There should be a disclaimer on faith and upon love as well.  Perhaps that is what Jesus does in this passage – he is providing a disclaimer.  There is no bait and switch with Jesus.  He is saying it will be difficult to follow him.  He certainly could have added that it can be dangerous to be his follower as well.  Reading through the book of Acts we certainly see the danger that befell the apostles.  Every one of the twelve, with the exception of John, was martyred for their faith.  Reading through the book of Acts things become dangerous for the church in general.  We read of the apostles being imprisoned, and of the first Christian martyr of record, Stephen.  As we progress through the book of Acts we read of the looming trial of Paul, in Rome, where he was eventually martyred for his faith.  The early centuries of the church is filled with periods of persecution of the followers of Jesus.  It continues today.  In parts of our world it remains very dangerous to be a follower of Jesus, and some estimate that more people have already been martyred for their faith in the 21st century than at any other period in the history of the church.  China, where the church is booming, is cracking down in increasingly harsh ways as a way to inhibit the growth of the church.  The government of China – officially atheistic – has tried to stop the church but is unable to do so.  In about twenty years China will have more Christians than any other country, in spite of persecution.  In the Middle East, where our faith was birthed, there is great persecution, and many believers have found it necessary to flee their homes in order to survive.  The followers of Jesus in such areas of the world are well aware of the dangers of being a follower of Jesus.  We are blessed – so blessed – that we are not persecuted for our faith.  I know that some people say Christians are persecuted in our country but we have no idea what persecution really looks like, certainly when compared to the parts of our world where being a follower of Jesus can put one at risk of death.

Jesus wanted people to carefully consider the implications of faith and love to their lives, and what it meant to follow him.  What would they do when they discovered it might bring difficulty upon them?  What would they do when they discovered he was not interested in becoming a political messiah?  What would they do when they discovered they would not receive everything they wanted and their lives are not magically made simpler and easier?

Be Remaining Faithful, Always.
My MacBook is now eight or nine years old.  A while back I went into the Apple store to ask a question about fixing a problem and the young man helping me referred to it as “vintage.”  Vintage?  At the time it was six or seven years old, so I asked the young man, what does that make me?  Ancient?

There is a reality that companies don’t want us to know, and that is that their products are not made to last very long.  Are you familiar with the concept of planned obsolescence? Planned obsolescence is the idea that manufacturers “plan” for their products to last for a shorter period of time so they can sell more products.  Imagine a care that lasts fifty years, an appliance that lasts sixty years, and clothing that not only lasted, but stayed in style, for several generations.  If products last a long time, sales decline.  When Tanya and I married, her parents gave us a washer and dryer set that lasted twenty-five years.  I had replaced a few heating elements in the dryer and both were still in good working order, but over the years the hard water had eaten away at the bottom of the washer, necessitating replacement.  Guess how long the next set lasted?  Only a few years!  We are now on our third set, and we hope they will last longer. 

We live in an era of disposability and impermanence, and in a disposable, impermanent society, everything is in danger of becoming merely temporary and disposable.  The question that lurks behind this passage, does anything last?  And, sadly, we learn by experience that not everything does last, and I’m not talking about products, but much deeper and more important things, such as relationships.  Even love, sadly, can become temporary.  Not every relationship survives.  Not every friendship survives.  Not every marriage survives.

What lasts?  Jesus talks about building a love that lasts, and moving beyond the temporariness of so much of life.  There are, certainly, a lot of fads that capture our imagination, and these influence our attitudes just the same as so many of the other temporary and impermanent things of life.  Remember the WWJD bracelets from not too many years ago? What Would Jesus Do?  It was quite a big fad. Well, for starters, he probably wouldn’t get caught up in a fad.

At one point in time, as I spoke with couples before their weddings, I noticed a change in the thinking of some of them.  It became increasingly common to hear them speak of their commitment in language that was temporary, not permanent.  It was expressed in phrases such as we’ll be together as long as we can make this work and we’ll love one another as long as we are happy.  Now, I know things happen and marriages end; I’m not condemning anyone for a marriage that comes to an end.  I am saying, however, that entering into a marriage with an attitude that has an uncertain sense of commitment is not a healthy way to enter into marriage.

By Embracing the Challenge of Love.
In this passage, Jesus is not telling us we need to hate our families, although we all have our moments, don’t we?  Those first verses can be a bit of a jolt, because the language sounds so strong – If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple that they are sometimes misunderstood.  The language Jesus uses in those verses is his way of framing the deepest kind of love we can imagine.  It is the deepest, greatest love of all – the love we call agape, which is the divine love of God.  This is the love to which we aspire, and compared to the often stumbling, limited human love, the love of God, by way of comparison, makes all other loves seem very slight indeed.  It is a divine love that lifts us above the pettiness, the conflicts, and the struggles of life.  It is a love that allows us to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable.  It is the love that enables someone to sacrifice for another – even to the point of laying down their life, as did Jesus.  It is extremely challenging, yes, but this is the love to which we are called.

Don’t ever underestimate the reality of hatred and evil in this world.  We hear of it every day and sometimes we experience it.  Hatred and evil has, and always will, push back against love, especially God’s love.  It is not always easy to be a follower of Jesus, and in some parts of our world, it is difficult and very dangerous.  We must pray for our brothers and sisters who live in such difficult circumstances, and we must be certain and build a foundation for our faith that will see us through until the end.

How do we build a love that lasts?  We build a love that lasts by seeking to do what we have always sought to do – to be like Jesus; to live like him and to love like him.  To be like Jesus is to hold on to love regardless of what might come our way or happen to us.  So let’s do it – let’s build a love that lasts!

Monday, March 06, 2017

March 5, 2017 - The Power of Healing

As I have mentioned the past few weeks, today’s message is an addendum to the series of four messages about prayer.  Although today’s message is not directly about prayer, it addresses one of the biggest theological questions we have, not only about prayer, but about the workings of God in general, and that is, what part does prayer play in healing?  How does God decide when, how, and who to heal?  And on and on we could go with associated questions.

I read a very interesting article in the Washington Post recently by a doctor at Harvard Medical School who also has a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.  He wrote about a young girl by the name of Anna, who was miraculously healed from an incurable illness after a near fatal fall.  Her story was the basis of the recent move Miracles From Heaven.  Among the very interesting comments in his article were these –

I have listened to more than 100 of these remarkably cured individuals, despite the fact that in medical school, I was taught that reports of spontaneous remission are rare, “anecdotes” and “flukes” from which nothing can be learned.
That assumption appears to be wrong.  In my studies of more than 100 people with medical evidence for recovery from incurable illness, the similarity in their paths suggests to me identifiable mental and spiritual principles associated with their recoveries.

And here is the really interesting part of the article –

I believe that miracles only contradict what we know of nature at this point in time. Modern physics is, for example, way ahead of traditional science, and its implications have not been fully incorporated into its perspectives and methods yet. So I believe that miracles actually are consistent with mental and spiritual laws that we are only beginning to study. This is the only way I can understand the similarities among all those with remarkable recoveries whom I have been interviewing.

If you would like to read the entire article it will be at the end of the text of my message once I post it online, which you can find on Facebook, on my page and the church page; on the church web site; and also on the web site where I post my messages.

For our Scripture text this morning, I am using pieces of three different passages about healing – miraculous healing.  This is not, I will emphasize again, a message about he way that healing works, at least not in terms of why some people are healed while others are not.  Obviously, no one in this world has the answers to questions such as that one.  I cannot offer a scientific or medical answer to such questions, but I will offer a pastoral perspective based upon my 35+ years of ministry.

Follow along, if you will, as I read those passages of Scripture at this time.

Matthew 4:23-25
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.
25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

Luke 9:1-2
1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases,
and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

John 5:1-9
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”
At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Some years ago, as I was sat with a family who had just received an extremely difficult health diagnosis, and I was struggling to find something to say.  Which can be a mistake, as when we try to find something to say we can say the wrong thing; there are times when it’s all right to say nothing at all.  But I could sense they were looking to me to have some kind of encouraging word.  I told them this, and at the time I wondered if it was the right thing to say, but over the years this is what I’ve come to believe very strongly.  I said there was good news and bad news about their loved one’s diagnosis.  First, I was convinced healing would come to their loved one.  That, I said, was the good news.  The bad news, I added, is that healing doesn’t always come in this life.  One of the great Christian promises about eternity is that we are granted healing.  Whatever ailments and struggles we have in this life, they disappear in the next.  Healing connects the temporal – this world –with the eternal.  To get a better understanding of healing I believe we need to reconnect the temporal and eternal and remember that one of the great promises of eternity is healing.  In fact, Revelation 21:4 reminds us that in eternity there will be some things that will no longer exist – there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.  These are things associated with illness and entrance into eternity does away with them all.

I absolutely believe in healing.  I believe God heals people.  I believe in the power of prayer to heal people.  I have seen people who have experienced what can only be described as miraculous healings.  I also believe, though, that we define healing too narrowly if we think of it only in terms of illness and disease.  When we speak of healing we speak almost exclusively of healing from a physical problem, but the Bible presents healing as something far greater than just healing from a physical ailment or illness.

I am always amazed at the number of people in the hospital on any given day.  If you visit any hospital in Louisville or the surrounding area on any weekday you will find them packed with people preparing for surgery, recovering from surgery, or dealing with some kind of illness.  It’s a lot of people.  But for all the people who are dealing with difficulties related to physical health I believe there are even more people struggling with problems of emotional and spiritual unhealthiness.  Though we have more doctors, more hospitals, and more medicines than ever, we have more unhealthiness, because we live in a world full of emotional and spiritual unhealthiness.  Our world is one full of dis-ease.  There is more dis-ease, I believe, than disease.  In spite of all our health care, we often lack a wholistic view of healing.

There is so much in the Bible about healing, especially in the gospels and in the book of Acts.  Our Scripture readings this morning tell us about the scores of people healed by Jesus, and the commission for his followers to go and heal as well.  Anyone who has read the healing stories of the Bible has probably wondered why physical healing seems to have been so much more prevalent in those days than in our own.  I don’t really have an answer to that question, and my emphasis today is not really on that question anyway.  This morning, I want us to think about the healing that God brings to our lives.  Yes, sometimes that healing is a physical healing, but let’s think also of the emotional and spiritual healing God brings as well.

Here is a tragic truth – many people spend a great deal of their lives healthy in a physical sense, but unhealthy when it comes to their emotional and spiritual lives.  I believe that if we want to experience the abundant life of which Jesus speaks (John 10:10), we must find healing.  There are many passages in Scripture about healing even though we don’t generally associate them with healing.  Think, for example, about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  That’s not just a parable about who we consider our neighbor; it’s a parable about how the love of God can break down the barriers that divide people and bring healing to relationships that previously seemed impossibly broken.  The fractious divisions that exist between people serve as an example of a spiritual illness that needs healing, and the occurrences of this kind of illness probably outnumber any kind of physical illness.  Think about the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  That is a parable about love and grace but it’s also a parable about the healing of the relationship between a father and son.  It tells us of a young man who in callous disregard of his father goes his own way and God heals his wayward mind and soul – God brings the young man to his senses as the story tells us (Luke 15:17).  It’s a healing of how this young man thought about himself, his family, and God.  When Jesus told the parable about the rich man who planned to tear down his barns to build bigger ones to hold his possessions (Luke 12:13-21) Jesus is telling about how to be healed of the tyranny of our possessions and how we can be healed of the desire to possess more and more things; it is a parable of healing a soul sick with materialism and greed.  When Jesus healed Bartimaeus of blindness (Mark 10:46-52) it wasn’t just a case of physical healing, it was an opportunity for Jesus to point out that even people with sight can be blind because the hardness of their hearts and minds prevent them from seeing truth, and a hard heart is a heart that needs healing.

So after that lengthy introduction, allow me to offer three brief thoughts about healing.

Do You Want to Get Well?
That is, actually, a very Biblical question.  In fact, that question comes straight from Jesus.  In the fifth chapter of John’s gospel we read of Jesus’ encounter with a man who had been ill for 38 years.  He was at the pool at Bethesda, in hopes that he would find healing there.  Jesus saw the man, and knowing he had been sick a long time, asked what sounds like a very strange question.  Jesus asked the man, do you wish to get well? (John 5:5).  Not only was it an odd question, but the man offers an odd response.  Note that he doesn’t answer Jesus’ question.  It would seem that anyone in his position would immediately answer yes!  But instead, he tells Jesus why he is not able to be healed (the traditional belief was that when the water in the pool was troubled an angel had entered, and the first person in the pool would be healed.  Being an invalid, he was unable to be the first in the pool, and he had no one to get him into the pool ahead of the others who were seeking healing).  I am not a good patient.  When I have even a small injury I want to get well.  If I stub my toe, the world needs to some to a halt and tend to my injury.  Ask me if I want to be healed and I will shout yes!  Absolutely!  Right now!  Here was a man who had been an invalid for 38 years; you would think he would be more than ready to be made well.  But here is a strange truth about humanity – when it comes to illnesses that are emotional and spiritual, we don’t always want to get well.  I’m more and more convinced of this strange truth as I observe people – including myself.  For various reasons, we not only resist healing, we even nurture our emotional and spiritual illnesses.  How many times, for instance, do we call up a hurt and anger from something that may have happened long ago?  That hurt and anger can poison our souls, but sometimes we insist on holding on to it and even nurturing it.

There are signs that help us to see when we are holding on to our hurts.  Are you angry and bitter?  Anger and bitterness very often are signs of a spiritual sickness that has not been healed, but very badly needs to be healed.  You may not be able to identify why you are angry or bitter because the source has been pushed down and so deeply buried.

Are you self-absorbed?  Well, if you are you probably wouldn’t notice; that’s one of the problems of being self-absorbed.  A symptom of spiritual sickness is self-absorption.  People who are spiritually ill are self-absorbed, just as churches that are spiritually ill are self-absorbed.

Can you see the goodness in your life?  I’m often touched by people, even in very difficult circumstances, are able to express thankfulness for the blessings in their lives.  That’s a pretty healthy way of looking at life.  Some people – even when they have seemingly everything – can’t be thankful for anything.  Their demeanor and their words and their attitude is negative and angry and bitter and resentful.  That will eat away at our souls!
Embrace the Wholeness of Salvation.
I think it’s interesting to study words and their root meanings, even though I was never successful at the study of languages.  I had a year of Spanish in 9th grade and can count to ten and offer a greeting of hello, how are you.  Greek and Hebrew were very difficult for me, but still, I am very interested in the meaning of words.  We learn a lot when we learn about the roots of words.  Take the word salvation, for instance.  The root of the word salvation is a Latin word, salvus, and it comes from a word meaning – can you guess?  Healing.  Isn’t that fascinating?

Salvation is the act of God granting us eternal life but it encompasses more.  The saving work of God is not only to grant us eternal life but also to put things right in the world, to undo the damage done by sin and the fall –  and to bring healing to his creation.

This is why Jesus was the very embodiment of healing.  Read through the gospels; you hardly find a page where there isn’t some kind of healing that is taking place.  Being saved means allowing God to bring healing to our hearts, our minds, and our souls.  We need to pray for this.  We see the physical ailments and pray about those, as we should, but we must go beyond them.  Keep a prayer list of people for whom you pray, and don’t just pray for the physical ailments – pray for the emotional and spiritual ones as well.  And keep praying.  We can track the progress of a fractured bone, but when does a fractured heart really heal?  It takes six weeks, approximately, for a bone to heal; a fractured heart takes a lot longer.

Don’t give up on healing; keep praying for healing.  A lot of people, I’m afraid, give up on healing.  They live day after day and year after year never believing that any change can come to their life.  

Don’t give up.

Be An Instrument of Healing.
We are almost finished with our Stephen Ministry training.  The participants in that training will have amassed 50 hours of training by the time we finish later this month.  Fifty hours!  Laine Kephart has done a tremendous work of leading us in that training and has devoted an amazing amount of time and effort into preparing us for this important ministry.  The Stephen Ministry shapes those who participate into instruments of healing.  And we need as many instruments of healing as we can find.
One reason for the need of instruments of healing can be seen from the following story, with which I’ll close.  A number of years ago I had been visiting a young man with a terminal illness.  He fought the illness bravely, but succumbed to it at the age of 41.  His father, understandably, was heartbroken, and was angry at God for what he described as the act of taking his son.  He remarked to me one day Jesus said, “which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9).  That’s a great verse, speaking to us about the goodness and the love of God.  But he was angry at God for not healing his son, and then said, all God has given me is a sack of rocks.

Those words still haunt me, and I have thought of them a great deal over the years.  And so I come back to the good news and the bad news of healing.  The good news is that father’s son was healed; the bad news is that the healing took place in eternity rather than this life.  And I do not say that to minimize, in any way, the pain of losing a loved one.  It hurts, and it hurts a great deal.  But I believe that at the heart of the Christian faith is hope, a hope that tells us that the final breath in this life becomes the first breath in eternal life; the sunset in this life becomes the sunrise in the next life; and that just as the book of Revelation tells us that one day, one day, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).

And I can live with that.

Every person in this room has a need for some type of healing in their life.  Perhaps it’s a tattered or fractured relationship that needs healing; perhaps it’s forgiveness that needs to be offered or accepted; perhaps it’s guilt that needs to be let go of; perhaps it’s grief that has stayed with you for so long.  There are as many different needs for healing as there are people here.  Come, come to Jesus, and experience The Power of Healing.

Below is the entire text of the Washington Post article –

When I went to see “Miracles from Heaven,” I saw more laughter, crying and applause than I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Clearly, this new movie — the real-life story of a young girl, suffering from an incurable illness, who was inexplicably healed after a nearly fatal accident — touches a chord, at least in the theater in Boston where I saw it.
To doctors, events like the story that this girl’s mother (played in the film by Jennifer Garner) recounted in her memoir are impossible to explain. Scientists call them “spontaneous remission” or “placebo responses.”
Religious people generally use a different word: “miracle.”
I’m trained in both medicine and theology. I’ve been investigating the medical evidence in stories like these since 2003. And I can say unequivocally that much of physical reality, remarkable as it may sound, is created in our minds.
I do not believe that we can think ourselves into health.  But I do believe that principles of mind and spirit exist that we have not even begun to scientifically map in the West, and that we should be doing so.
Think of it this way: Two people can sit on a park bench together, and yet live in very different worlds. One person can be living in hell, with a turbulent, frightened inner world, noticing and experiencing an outer world full of violence and pain. The other person, sitting right next to him, may be living in a completely different universe, full of love, connection and beauty.
Those people might have totally different medical outcomes, influenced solely by the way they see the world.
It’s amazing to me that in the history of medicine we have never studied the people who beat the odds and find a path to health after being told that their illness is incurable or that they are going to die. You would think that these are the people that we would most want to study, that perhaps they found golden keys to health and vitality that we would want to understand. Certainly it’s true that if I wanted to become a great athlete I would study Michael Jordan or Serena Williams. But in medicine we have too long ignored or dismissed people with remarkable recoveries.
I have listened to more than 100 of these remarkably cured individuals, despite the fact that in medical school, I was taught that reports of spontaneous remission are rare, “anecdotes” and “flukes” from which nothing can be learned.
That assumption appears to be wrong.  In my studies of more than 100 people with medical evidence for recovery from incurable illness, the similarity in their paths suggests to me identifiable mental and spiritual principles associated with their recoveries.
Take Claire Haser, for example.  She said she was diagnosed in 2008 by biopsy with adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, a brutal form of cancer. Without surgery at an early stage, it is essentially a death sentence.  Radiation and chemotherapy can delay death, but only briefly.
Haser was told that she was going to die. She values science highly and has a long history of pursuing the best that traditional medicine can offer. After much consideration, however, she said that she knew at a deep level that she needed to not chase a cure but rather to change her relationship with fear.
Five years after deciding not to go through cancer treatment, Haser had an abdominal CT for unrelated reasons. It turned out, she said, that her cancer was gone.
Haser did the same thing that I see over and over in these remarkable patients. She faced her fears and at a deep level changed her relationship with herself.
To move through fear and self-criticism in a way that genuinely changes how one relates to the world, to change not just one’s thoughts, but one’s experience and perception — that is a major feat, whether done as an adult or a child, and whether that process occurs in 10 minutes or 10 years.
As for Anna, the subject of “Miracles from Heaven,” I have not reviewed the medical evidence for myself nor spoken with her doctors, but the diagnosis does appear to have been made very carefully, after multiple tests and evaluations. And the medical evidence, and the psychological pattern that one typically finds after such remarkable recoveries, appear to support her story as well.
I believe Anna. But I disagree with one common viewpoint that the movie espouses. At the very beginning, it defines a “miracle” as a contradiction of natural law.
I believe that miracles only contradict what we know of nature at this point in time. Modern physics is, for example, way ahead of traditional science, and its implications have not been fully incorporated into its perspectives and methods yet. So I believe that miracles actually are consistent with mental and spiritual laws that we are only beginning to study. This is the only way I can understand the similarities among all those with remarkable recoveries whom I have been interviewing.
From whatever perspective you look at it—from the standpoint of Eastern philosophy or of modern physics, from my personal training as a scientist or as a theologian—you see a deeper relationship between the mind and physical reality.
As Scripture says, the Kingdom of Heaven is within and at hand—as near as our souls are to our bodies.  Life really is a matter of perception. Perception changes experience, even perhaps to the point of changing physical bodies.
Anna may have experienced a piece of heaven. The astonishing medical evidence suggests her body changed to match her inner experience.

Jeffrey D. Rediger is an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A medical doctor, he also earned a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.