Parade or Funeral Procession?

Palm Sunday Sermon March 28 2021 bwk/ Elim Lutheran Church, Ogden, UT

Mark 11:1-11

Celebrity Parade—Jesus is immensely popular with the populace.  He is kind, warm, accepting.  He has healed countless people and raised the dead.  His understanding of God is radically different.  The welcoming crowds are happy and noisy.  There is a party atmosphere.  Coats and palm branches are strewn in front of Him.  Jesus is the celebrity of the day.  The would-be-king.  The hoped-for-deliverer.  And He was riding a donkey, the foal of a donkey—unbroken, yet willing to let Jesus ride on it.  

It looks like a celebrity parade.  Party time.  And yet…and yet… something else was going on that the neither the crowds nor the disciples could comprehend.  Is this a parade or a death march—a funeral procession? 

Death March—Funeral Procession—a captured Messiah beaten and tortured and then marched to the place of His crucifixion as a common criminal?  In just a couple of days Jesus would be arrested at night while He was praying.  He would be taken under the cover of darkness and tried by the power brokers of the day; a fake trial, on trumped up charges.  Because He was too popular.  The power brokers were jealous.  Their edge of control over the people was threatened.  So they conspired to kill Jesus.  And, with the help of the political powers of Rome they succeeded.  

How could that happen?  How could evil win the day?  How could the innocent  succumb yet again and be overpowered.  Where is God in all this?  How could God let this happen?  

Consider our current world.  Chaos on the southern boarder because thousands flee violence and terror in their home countries. Violent weather due to climate change, dictators, evil gangs and governments have ravaged and destroyed the safety of thousands.  Where can they turn?  America, their last desperate hope. What of the mass shootings; senseless killings and death? Yesterday’s shootings leave the count of mass shootings for our country for this year at 105.  

Plus a year of pandemic isolation and economic fallout, the needless death of numerous black and brown citizens and the resulting national protests against police aggression.  Black and brown lives do matter.  And, yes, blue lives matter.  However, until black and brown folk are equally as respected and safe as white people, then all lives do not matter. We still have a ways to go.  

Our world is a mess.  But that is not new.  Consider all the wars and violence down through the years.  Our own civil war, World Wars I & II, the Serbian violence, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  And what about all the innocent children?  And then just when hope was growing, Jesus is killed.

No wonder the hopeful disciples caved in to despair as they watched this week unfold.  They had believed that maybe finally God was on the move and that Jesus would defeat evil once for all.  But the bad guys won.  Again.  And hope died with Jesus on the cross.

Today is Palm Sunday—Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  This week is the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.  And to the disciples nothing makes sense.  Evil wins.  Hope is shattered.  

Some might say, but wait.  we know the rest of the story.  We’ve read the last chapter.  We know about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We know Sunday is coming.  Yet, so many I talk with struggle just like the disciples did.  We see all this evil and we wonder, where is God in all this?  Why doesn’t God do something? 

Some of the people I have listened to have responded to all this by saying, “come, Lord Jesus!”  Rescue us.  Bring all this to an end!

That is why we need to revisit the story of Jesus; why we need to remember Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday.  

God has done something.  God, in Christ, came into our world as One of us.  Jesus took on our broken, frail humanity.  Picture this.  God-in-Christ took all our “stuff,” all the worst, scraped it all together in a huge pile.  All the evil, sin, brokenness and violence of all the ages—past, present and future—all of it and took it on Himself.  

When Jesus stepped out of the waters of the Jordan River at His baptism He was clothed with our humanity.  He carried all of humanities inhumanity, all our evil, all the abuse, shame, greed, guilt and pain on His shoulders.  For three years He carried it.  For three years He healed the sick, cured the lame, gave sight to the blind, speech and hearing to the mute and deaf.  He even raised the dead, confronted hypocrisy, challenged the power-brokers of His day and helped people discover the loving and gracious side of God.  

And now, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, He enters it as our Savior and Lord, our Redeemer, our Deliverer—not as a conquering King, but as our Suffering Servant.  

Then He says to the prince of darkness and to all the evil of all time and eternity, “Here I am.  You can have Me.  Defeat Me if you can. I won’t resist.”  They took Him, tortured Him at will, and nailed Him to a cross and thought they were done with Him. They thought they’d won the day.  No one could ever challenge their right to control and abuse and cause pain and hurt at their will and pleasure.  

BUT…Jesus wasn’t killed.  Yes, He died, but He gave up His life.  When the payment for all the sin of the entire world was satisfied by God’s blood—Jesus’ blood on the cross, He breathed His last and gave up His spirit.  He died as victor.  Death was defeated.  Satan’s power was broken and destroyed.  The hour of darkness was shattered by the light of God’s love in Christ.  

Jesus stayed in the grave to prove that He really did die.  He did not stay in the grave because He was defeated and powerless.  He rose again on the third day to prove sin, death and the devil were forever defeated.  This is absolutely phenomenal!  

But, some might say, why does evil still prevail?  We still struggle with our own sinfulness.  Our world is till broken. We wait because God is waiting.  Waiting for what?  Peter tells us God is waiting patiently for “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  

So, do we just have to give in to evil in the meantime?  Are we stuck and powerless?  Not at all!  Now we are the body of Christ in the world.  Jesus lives in and through you and me.  We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16 & 6:19-20).  We can make a difference  because God lives in and through us.

When we demand that God do something, God says to us, “You do something!  You are My people, My body, My presence in the world. I am counting on you to make a difference in society by how you live. You hold the fort until all have had a chance to find life in Me.  Then I will come.”

Holy Week reminds us that life is not easy.  We struggle with our own brokenness.  We are affected by the sins of others.  Relationships are hard work.  Misunderstandings and miscommunication happens.  Bad things still happen.  Evil still seems to win.  But it doesn’t. Not really. God has the final word.  Jesus is God’s final Word.  Love really does win.  We are forgiven and empowered.  God lives in and through us.  Don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Keep on believing, living and trusting in such a way that we make a difference, albeit seemingly small, in the lives of those we know.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

To Tell the Truth

March 21, 2021 BWK, Elim Lutheran Church

John 12:20-33 (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Madeleine L’Engle’s quote:  The Frightening Truth! (see the ending)

Some of us might remember the old television series “To Tell the Truth” that goes back to the 50’ and 60’s.  There is a new version of that now.

Hosted by “black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, “TO TELL THE TRUTH.” It is a funny reimagination of the earlier version.  In each round, the panel is presented with three people who all claim to be the same person with the same incredible talent, job or achievement. One is sworn to tell the truth while the other two use every trick they can to deceive the panel. The panel of celebrities has a chance to grill each participant before taking turns deciding who they think is telling the truth. 

How do you decide who is telling the truth and who is pulling your leg?  What makes someone believable?  Unbelievable?  Have you ever fallen for a line? Have you ever been taken in by a con-artist?  Scammers and con-artists are having a hay-day during these tumultuous times.  I know over numerous individuals who have been tricked and lost money.  It is embarrassing.  

A couple of pieces of advice:

  • Never give any information over the phone to someone who is calling you.  Some tricksters pretend to be a grandchild who is in trouble and ask for money, or a gift card.  But they are imposters.  Don’t believe them.  
  • Never click on a link someone sends you when you do not recognize the sender’s email.  Clicking the link can take you to a risky website or give a stranger access to parts of your computer.  I never click on links even from companies that look familiar before I check the sender’s address.  It is always best to go to the website you are familiar with.  Play it safe.

Unfortunately there are hucksters and tricksters in the spiritual and religious realm too.  “Qanon” has many evangelical followers who believe in these crazy, outlandish conspiracy theories.  There are even “evangelical preachers” who claim to be prophets making political and end-time predictions.  Don’t give them credence.  Don’t believe them.  There are false prophets today just as there were in former days.  

Remember Jesus’ warning to us:

23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.  Matthew 24:23-25 (NIV)

Moses told the children of Israel that God would send a “prophet like him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-22).  This is a messianic prophecy regarding the coming of Jesus.  Connected with that promise is the warning that if a prophet said they spoke for God and that prophecy did not come true, then that prophet was a false prophet.  Moses then says do not be afraid of that prophet.  Don’t listen to them.

Jesus is no false Messiah.  He is the One we need to focus on and listen to.  Jesus, in our Gospel reading says, “very truly I tell you…”  He is saying, “I tell you the truth…” and then speaks about the necessity of His approaching death on the cross on our behalf.  He is our Messiah; the Savior of the world.  He knows His purpose for coming into our world was to go to the cross and die in our place.  He was taking away our sin that separates us from God.  He restores our broken relationship with God through His death on the cross.  Through Him we have life!  

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (seed); but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Six times through John’s Gospel Jesus has used the phrase “my hour has not yet come…” Jesus was very aware of His purpose in life and the timing of His death on the cross.  When the Greek believers come wishing to see Jesus it is as if Jesus knows the stage is set.  He is Savior not for Jews only but for Greeks and all people of all nationalities.  The time is now!  The time has come! 

And this is where we get—or at least should get—uncomfortable.  

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there will My servant be also.  Whoever serves Me, the Father will honor…(vv. 25-26)

Jesus then says, “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (v. 31)

What darkness do we wrestle with? 

Selfishness, greed, pride, arrogance, bigotry, lust, hate, self-serving and power grabbing, abuse, addiction, enslavement, shame, be lost and confused…the list is almost endless.  Jesus is saying all that “stuff” no longer has the upper hand.  Satan’s power—the ruler of this world—is defeated. Jesus, through His life, death and resurrection satisfies our deepest longings and need.  He gives us freedom from despair, shame, and guilt.  He gives us a reason and purpose for life.  He gives us hope and meaning.

Jesus is the Savior of the world.  The truth is His life, death and resurrection makes all the difference in the world for us.  Truth be told, Jesus gives us hope, freedom and strength to love others the way He loves us.  

When we discover His love and power over our sin and shame He gives us freedom to live past ourselves.  He gives us strength to be different and to make a difference.  He changes us.  His love transforms us.   Then through us the world can see Jesus too.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Frightening Truth

Madeleine L’Engle

Truth is frightening. 

Pontius Pilate knew that, and washed his hands of truth when he washed his hands of Jesus. 

Truth is demanding. It won’t let us sit comfortably. It knocks out our cozy smugness and casual condemnation. 

It makes us move. It? It? For truth we can read Jesus. 

Jesus is truth. If we accept that Jesus is truth, we accept an enormous demand: Jesus is wholly God, and Jesus is wholly human. 

Dare we believe that? If we believe in Jesus we must. And immediately that takes truth out of the limited realm of literalism.

Source: The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth

Focal Point

Focal Point March 14 2021 Elim LC

text:  Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

The story is told of a young man who entered a very strict monastic order. It was so strict that members were permitted to speak only two words per year to the abbot. At the end of year one the young man appeared before the abbot and spoke his two words, “bad food.” At the end of the second year the young man appeared before the abbot and spoke two more words, “hard bed.” At the end of year three he came to the abbot and spoke his last two words, “I quit.” The abbot responded, “Well it is about time. Complain, complain, complain — that’s all you’ve done since you came here.”

Complaining.  Grumbling.  Discontentment.  What have you, what have we complained about today?  This past week?  This past month?  This past year?  COVID-19 was declared a pandemic one year ago.  We have gone through physical distancing, face masks, shut downs, job losses, isolation, loneliness, sickness, stress, and on and on.  Many of us have what I term “the COVID affect,” a low level of anxiety and depression that has masked and colored how we view ourselves, our relationships and our world.  

This past year has tried and tested us.   

This story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, learning to trust God’s leading, care and provision is good for us to review.  They struggled to trust and follow God.  All their grumbling and complaining is not just about them.  It is a human story.  Our story.  

< Count your troubles, you’ll be sad.  Count your blessings you’ll be glad.  > 

I find it fascinating that God gives Moses a cure that is emblematic of the curse.  God’s punishment of the Israelite children for their grumbling and complaining was fiery serpents.  Many died from the poisonous bites.  The cure God gave was a brass serpent on a pole that has become medical symbol of healing for us today.

I wonder, was God teaching the Israelites that they had to look at the consequence of their negative attitudes and grumbling ways—their inability to trust God love and care, always seeing the glass half empty—as destroying their relationship with Him and each other? Like poison in our souls and communities? Fear and distrust, and conspiracy theories are destructive!   We do not always see a direct connection to our choices—what we say, think and do—with the outcome, the consequences of our choices.  

Where is our focus today?  What do we see individually and collectively?  When we see only what we don’t have or are afraid of losing then our lives are miserable. We need God’s intervention and help to refocus.  God, through the Bible seems to be saying, I will give you the gift of evil consequences that bite and kill to help you seek and seethe cure.  Looking at the symbol of the consequence is what healed the people of God in our Old Testament story.   “Look and live.” Check your focal point.  Learn how to see differently.  Learn to be grateful.  Learn to give thanks.  Learn to trust and follow our God who created and sustains us in all of life.  That, in turn will shape and change your thinking and redirect your lives.  It is not naivety or empty positive thinking, but rather seeing God in the midst of all of life and knowing we are not alone.  

It is amazing the difference this can make.  It is also significant that Jesus would help us to see that wilderness experience pointing to His reason and purpose for coming into our world.  

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).

“And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32).  

Why did Jesus come into our world?  Why did He have to suffer and die a gruesome, painful death on the cross?  The brass serpent reminded the Israelites of their brokenness and constant negative attitude, their failure to trust God and God’s provision of love, care and protection.  It also helped them to see that God was the source for their healing and hope.  And all that points to the reality of the cross—Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—for us.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that who soever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Note also verse 17:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”

God created us for life.  We in so many ways chose death.  Yet, God is not willing to give up on us, nor does God force His way upon us.  Just like in Moses’ day the command is “look and live.”  Even so for us today, it is “look and live.”  Jesus came to give us life.  

Fred Craddock tells the story of his father, who spent years of his life hiding from the God who was seeking him out:

“When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, ‘You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church? Get another name, another pledge.’

My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. When we had an evangelistic campaign the pastor would bring the evangelist, introduce him to my father and then say, ‘Sic him, get him! Sic him, get him!’ My father would always say the same thing. ‘You don’t care about me! Another name, another pledge. Another name, another pledge! I know about churches.’

I guess I heard it a thousand times. One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and said, ‘Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.’

I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed. And I want to tell you, every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, were from my mother’s church—every one of them. My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . . He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

It is not until you know God is seeking you in love, not in condemnation; it is not until that moment that the gospel becomes Good News for you.  (Fred Craddock, adapted by James Fitzgerald, Serpents, Penguins, and Crosses)

One more story that comes out of the Bedouin culture. “Bedouin” is the Aramaic name for “desert dwellers.” These people live much as the characters of the Old Testament did. During a heated argument, according to this story, a young Bedouin struck and killed a friend of his. Knowing the ancient, inflexible customs of his people, the young man fled, running across the desert under the cover of darkness, seeking safety.

He went to the black tent of the tribal chief in order to seek his protection. The old chief took the young Arab in. The chief assured him that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally.

The next day, the young man’s pursuers arrived, demanding the murderer be turned over to them. They would see that justice would prevail in their own way. “But I have given my word,” protested the chief.

“But you don’t know whom he killed!” they countered.

“I have given my word,” the chief repeated.

“He killed your son!” one of them blurted out. The chief was deeply and visibly shaken with his news. He stood speechless with his head bowed for a long time. The accused and the accusers as well as curious onlookers waited breathless silence. What would happen to the young man? Finally the old man raised his head. “Then he shall become my son,” he informed them, “and everything I have will one day be his.”

The young man certainly didn’t deserve such generosity. And that, of course, is the point. Love in its purest form is beyond comprehension. No one can merit it. It is freely given. It is agape, the love of God. Look to the cross. At the cross we encounter love in its purest form.

God’s love is tangible and real.  Jesus is living proof.  We become living proof when we receive that love and live it out loud in gratitude and faith.  Shout His fame for all the world to see and hear! 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Crossed Eyed Vision — seeing the way God sees

Mark 8:31-38 & Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

There is a story about two young brothers who were caught stealing sheep. The punishment back then was to brand the thief’s forehead with the letters “ST” which stood for sheep thief. As a result of this, one brother left the village and spent his remaining years wandering from place to place indelibly marked by disgrace. The other remained in the village, made restitution for the stolen sheep, and became a caring friend and neighbor to the townspeople. He lived out his life in the village — an old man loved by all.

One day a stranger came to town and inquired about the “ST” on the old man’s forehead. “I’m not sure what it means,” another told him. “It happened so long ago, but I think the letters must stand for saint.”  Learning how to see things differently; maybe the way God sees things!  

Off the coast of the Island Mauritius, over the peninsula called Le Morne Brabant in the Indian Ocean is what has been called an underwater waterfall.  It is not an underwater waterfall, but an optical allusion that can be seen from the air.  It is trails of sand and silt deposits on the seafloor being washed by currents over the edge of an ocean shelf.  At first glance, however, it appears like a spot where the ocean is dropping off a cliff and flowing down a huge sink hole or drain.  

I mention it because sometimes what we think we see is not what actually is.  Optical allusions can fool us.  They can play games with our minds.  Sometimes our world view, in the same way can fool us into thinking we see clearly when we are actually being mislead or fooled.  Our world view is our way of looking at reality.  That is what happens in our readings for the Second Sunday in Lent. 

Jesus tells Peter, you are not aligned with God’s way of thinking!  God, through the prophet Isaiah says the same thing, Isaiah 55:8-9 (GNT) 

8 “My thoughts,” says the LORD, “are not like yours,

and My ways are different from yours.

9 As high as the heavens are above the earth,

so high are My ways and thoughts above yours.

Abraham and Sarah had to learn that God’s ways and timing do not always match our human thinking and time frame!

Peter has just confessed Jesus as being Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  And, now, Jesus, speaks plainly about what will soon be taking place in Jerusalem—He will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders there, be rejected as Messiah and then be killed.  Three days later He will rise again, alive from the grave.  

Peter reacts to the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death.  So he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Him.  We can almost fill in the words for Peter.  

“Stop talking nonsense!  You’re not going to suffer and die.  Don’t be foolish! You are the Messiah, Israel’s long promised king!”  

That is when Jesus stops Peter, turns to the disciples who are there and who agree with their spokes person Peter.  

“If anyone wants to follow Me, they will deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Me.”  

Living a life for others (and not just to protect ourselves) is more in line with God’s values.

Mark’s recording of his Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “it is necessary,” the Greek word is “dei.”  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, His being rejected and killed by the religious establishment and government authorities is the core piece of the plan of our salvation.  Jesus is going to the cross, bearing our sins on His shoulders as the “lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”  

Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in his Gulag Archipelago, where he described life in a Siberian prison. At one point he was so physically weak and discouraged that all he could hope for was death. The hard labor, terrible conditions, and inhumane treatment had taken its toll.

He knew the guards would beat him severely and probably kill him if he stopped working. So, he planned to help them by simply stopping his work and leaning on his shovel. But when he stopped, a fellow Christian reached over with his shovel and quickly drew a sign of the cross at the feet of Solzhenitsyn then erased it before a guard could see it.

Solzhenitsyn later wrote that his entire being was energized by that little reminder of the hope and courage we find in Christ through the cross. It was a turning point. Through the cross and a fellow believer, he found the strength and the hope to continue.

Seeing ourselves and our world through God’s eyes, through the perspective of the cross can give us the encouragement and strength we need to keep on keeping on, to keep going when we feel like giving up.  Through the cross God turns death into life, despair into hope, shame and guilt into forgiveness.  He gives us light in our darkness, love that is more powerful than any hate and evil this world can throw at us. 

So, my fellow believers, don’t give up.  Lift up your eyes and fix your gaze on Jesus and His cross.  Let that view from the cross give you clear vision and a strong faith in God’s redeeming love.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

At the Jordan with Jesus

Mark 1:9-15 February 21, 2021  —  Lent 1 (Genesis 9:8-17, Ps 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22)

“May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen” ( Psalm 19:14).

The heavens being torn open.  Jonah’s ark and the covenant of the rainbow.  The Apostle Peter’s connecting the ark with A prayer of King David for guidance and direction.  Our readings for this first Sunday in Lent are filled with imagery!

Let’s start with Mark.  Mark’s gospel is like a modern television series.  His writing is fast moving and to the point.  He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary detail.  The Greek words “euthus” often translated immediately is one of his favorites.  

Note, this is early in Mark’s Gospel, still the first chapter.  Mark notes that Jesus is from Nazareth.  An important point because that ties Jesus into His human story—His place in our human geography and history.  

Next Mark simply states that Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River and that as Jesus comes up out of the water everything changes!  He uses the Greek word for torn, which can also be translated “separate, or split.”  The Greek is the basis for our English word “schizo,” schizophrenic—split personality.  Mark implies that only Jesus sees this, and that only Jesus hears the voice form heaven that affirms Him as God’s beloved Son.”  But maybe the attendant crowds and others saw and heard that too.  I doubt it though.

The same Greek word “schizo” is used by Mark in chapter 15:38 where the veil in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies is torn in two.  

The voice from heaven—God the Father’s—is important for two reasons.  First, God is reaffirming Jesus’ mission and ministry at His baptism.  Jesus was not baptized for the forgiveness of sins, nor to set an example for us to follow.  He is being baptized by John, taking on our human mantle—our broken humanity with all its frailties and “stuff.”  He steps out of the water wearing the robe of human sinfulness and frailty, just as when we are baptized we are clothed with the robe of His righteousness.  Luther calls this the great exchange.  The Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that God “made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The second reason this is important is it shows us Jesus knew who He was and what He was doing on this planet of ours as one of us—that He created! He had no confusion about His identity or purpose in life.  Jesus came to save us from the unholy three—sin, death and the devil.  This is the unfolding of the mystery, the plan God had in mind from the very beginning of our human story.  

The Holy Spirit then literally drives Jesus into the wilderness for the forty days of being tested by the devil also reaffirms that understanding.  The number forty is significant in Old Testament imagery.  Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days receiving instructions and the Ten Commandments.  Elijah also experienced forty days of hunger.  Remember the children of Israel were tested in the wilderness for forty years.  Jesus is stepping into the Israel’s (and our) story and deliberately working out a different ending.  An ending with good news and hope.

Why the Jordan River?  It is one of the smallest rivers on the planet.  Its entire length from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is only about 200 miles.  Certainly not very significant.  What is significant is Joshua and the children of Israel crossed it as they entered the Promised Land.  

What rich imagery!  In this little section of Scripture we have heaven and earth colliding with earth shaking imagery.  Heaven is torn open with the beginning of Jesus’ work of salvation on our behalf!  

African slaves captured this imagery when they sang about the Jordan River and crossing the Jordan River from the misery of slavery on this side to freedom and heaven on the other side.  Old Gospel hymns connect with that same theme in a very rich way.  The phrase “crossing Jordan” still has that imagery.  Crossing the Jordan means freedom.  

Remember the words of our Declaration of Independence from 1776:  

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  

February is Black History Month.  We need to make more of that than we have in previous years because we are playing catch up in a very real sense.  Consider the following:

The most famous episode in [Frederick Douglass’s autobiography] is Douglass’s fight with Edward Covey. Covey ran a business breaking slaves who were too headstrong, and Douglass’s master sent him to Covey in 1834 when Douglass was 17. Covey beat him every week, for any reason or for no reason. He would hide in the bushes and attack Douglass out of nowhere — all to instill in Douglass a sense of helpless terror and to destroy his capacity to dream of a better life.

Then, one hot August day, Douglass decided that he would not surrender. He had fainted from heat stroke that day, and Covey had beat him for it with a wooden club. Though Douglass had begged his owner to intervene, he had refused. So Douglass resolved to fight back. The next time Covey attacked him, he grabbed the man around the throat and held on. They struggled until Covey stumbled off mumbling. He never beat Douglass again. And Douglass learned from this incident a crucial principle: he who would be free must himself strike the blow.

Striking that blow rather than surrendering — believing in himself enough to stand up — that was the crucial lesson. Douglass refused to accept the hopeless, helpless, dreamless life of a brute. “Next to the dignity of being a freeman is the dignity of striving to be free,” he said years later. “I detest the slaveholder, and almost equally detest a contented slave. They are both enemies to freedom.”

Jesus, as He is baptized into the Jordan River, takes on the cloak of our humanity in order to bring us His righteousness, and with it liberty and freedom.  We were created for life and freedom.  It is a longing imbedded deep within our hearts.  A longing that finds its fulfillment through our faith in and relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The View from the top

Mark 9:2-9—Transfiguration Sunday, February 14 2021

Climb that mountain. Reach the peak.  Take in the view from the top. It is exhilarating!  It doesn’t matter what mountain or peak.  It doesn’t have to be Mount Everest.  The experience is transformative, life changing.   Everything looks different from the view at the top. 

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday.  It is also Valentine’s Day.  Both go together quite well.  Nothing pictures true love the way Jesus’s life and mission for us as His redeemed and forgiven people.  Beloved.  That’s what we are.

Jesus has taken the inner circle of the disciples with Him, Peter, James and John.  They have hiked and climbed to the top of a mountain.  We are not told what mountain.  Knowing the exact location and peak is not important.  What is important is what takes place there.  

A week before this transfiguration event Jesus has talked with His disciples about His mission and purpose in life.  Peter has correctly identified Jesus as Messiah and then scolds Jesus regarding Jesus’ talk of His impending death on the cross.  Jesus, in turn, corrects Peter.  Jesus speaks about seeing the kingdom of heaven coming in power—demonstrated through the weakness, the foolishness—of the cross.  That was six days prior to the transfiguration. 

And, now, on the mountain of transfiguration we find Jesus with Peter, James and John.  Picture Him standing apart from them, praying, when suddenly His whole demeanor and appearance are changed.  Metamorphosis is the Greek word.  His appearance is changed, but Jesus Himself is not changed.  His true divinity is shining through His humanity.  

Moses’ face shone when he came down from the mountain where he had been given the two tables of stone containing the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments.  When Moses met with God in the “tent of meeting” in the wilderness, speaking face to face with God, Moses would come out of the tent with his face shining brightly.  He wore a veil to cover his face so the Israelites would not be afraid to look at him (Exodus 34).  Moses’ face shone because he had been in God’s presence.  

Here Jesus’ entire appearance is changed because His divinity—which has been hidden and cloaked within His humanity—now shines visibly.  Make no mistake.  Jesus is God in human flesh!  True God.  True human.  Our Savior and Lord.  

While Jesus’ appearance is transformed two clearly identifiable characters from the Old Testament suddenly are with Him.  Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets.  The Law and Prophets—the heart and soul of the Old Testament.  Luke’s Gospel tells us they are talking about Jesus’ departure—His approaching death on the cross.  The essence of the Old Testament points to the reality of Jesus’ coming and mission.  That mission is focused on the cross—picturing our redemption, our salvation through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.  

This is stunning.  It reaffirms for us that Jesus came for one reason, one purpose—our salvation through our forgiveness; our restored relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  

Peter, ever the extravert, blurts out that they should build shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  He is beside himself with confusion and should have just been quiet!  Then, just as suddenly, a think cloud enfolds them and a voice speaks to them from the cloud, “This is My Son, the Beloved One!  Listen to Him!”  Then, again, suddenly, they see only Jesus and things go back to “normal.”  

The Old Testament points to Jesus.  It points to His coming to us as one of us, human like us, yet also divine. God among us.  God, our Immanuel.  It centers on the purpose of Jesus’ coming, culminating in the His ultimate sacrifice that ends all sacrifices.  With Jesus’ death on the cross the Temple and all the Temple rituals and laws are now extinct.  They are the shadow.    Jesus is the reality.  

The disciples must be confused and numb. They are bewildered.  Jesus only tells them not to speak of these events until after He is risen from the dead.  That, too, confuses them.  But it also reaffirms our understanding of what has just taken place.  

Jesus up to this point has preached, taught and performed many miracles.  He still does so, but His face, His resolve, is focused on the cross and what it means for us.  Jesus’ reference to the resurrection helps us to see the end of the story.  The cross is not the end.  It is the opening of our new beginning.  

Jesus’ metamorphosis—His change and transformation on the mountain top pictures and predicts our metamorphosis.  Through the cross we are changed.  We are transformed.  He takes our pain, our suffering, our garbage and transforms it into a splendorous display of His life changing love.  

All the hurt, pain and abuse we have experienced, our brokenness, our regrets and shames, all that “stuff” — none of it matters.  What matters now is living in His grace and experiencing His resurrection power every day, every moment, every hour. Forgetting the past, we strive forward to claim what is ours in our majestic Savior and Lord.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Okay, I’ll Pray!

Isaiah 40:21-31 (and Mark 1:29-29)

The story is told of a little boy and his father. They were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy looked at the stone and thought about it a little. Then he asked his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move that rock?”

The father thought for a moment and said, “I think that if you use all your strength, you can do it.”

That was all the little boy needed. He ran over to the rock and began to push on it. He pushed and he pushed, so hard did he try that little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. But the rock didn’t move — not an inch, not half an inch.

After a while, the little boy sat down on the ground. His face had fallen. His whole body seemed to be just a lump there on the earth. “You were wrong,” he told his dad. “I can’t do it.”

His father walked over to him, knelt beside him, and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “You can do it,” he said. “You just didn’t use all your strength. You didn’t ask me to help.”

The world in which we live tells us that it is all up to us. It tells us that we have to be strong and independent. It tells us we can’t and shouldn’t count on anyone or anything else. And yet, what faith tells us and what Jews and Christians have known forever is that we have a ready resource in God, strength for those who ask.

Our Gospel reading from Mark 1 shows Jesus nonchalantly healing Peter’s mother-in-law, who in turn immediately begins serving those in her home.  Regardless of what we might say about roles in the home, this woman has a heart that cares about people and about serving.  Amazing!  

Also amazing is Jesus’ healing everyone who came to Him that night with a boatload of problems.  He healed every disease and cast out every demon.  Amazing!

But even more amazing is Jesus’ resolve to recenter His soul and reconnect with His source of strength.  Specifically, going to His Father in prayer in solitude.  Even Jesus, our Savior and Lord, had to make prayer a priority! What does that say about us and our prayer habits? 

That is why our reading from Isaiah 40 is so incredibly important for you and me.  The prophet Isaiah is speaking to a disheartened people who were on the verge of giving up hope and faith.  They were living as strangers in a foreign land as exliles.  They felt abandoned and neglected by God; and that God was somehow powerless against the governments and rulers of their day.  

God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah reminds them and us that our Lord has no equals…anywhere.  The Lord our God is the Creator of heaven and earth, of the expanse of universes and galaxies.  The Lord our God is the “everlasting God.”  Consider the list of attributes Isaiah lays out for our God:

  • eternal (no beginning, no end—timeless)
  • creator of all that exists—even distant universes and galaxies!
  • omnipotent (meaning all powerful)
  • omniscient (meaning all knowing)
  • merciful and gracious—giving strength and power to the weak and weary
  • loving—God never ceases to care and provide for His people—US!

We need to re-read passages like this over and over again; let them soak into the fiber of our beings, wash over our weary souls!  And then, to learn what it means to “wait on the Lord!”  

Consider these possibilities.  

  • Waiting on the Lord might mean learning to rest in and trust God despite the issues and difficulties you are currently experiencing.
  • Waiting on the Lord might mean being patient even when the world seems to be tipping the balance toward chaos and confusion. God is still in control!
  • Waiting on the Lord might mean not pushing my agenda or my hopes and desires for the way I want things to work out.  Rather, yielding myself to the invisible, yet loving hand of God working in and behind the scenes of human affairs.  
  • Waiting on the Lord might be our surrendering and saying, You are God.  I am not.  And I am okay with that and rest in that and find peace in that!  Our God is the “everlasting God!”  He doesn’t feint or grow weary!  He defends the weak and comforts those in need.  He lifts us up on wings like eagles!
  • And from that vantage point we can move forward in doing the good we can, everywhere we can, all the time we can, to all the people we can—even when we feel small and powerless.  Because we believe that God hears and uses our prayers and our obedience in the little things to make a difference in this world.  He is the Everlasting God!

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Holy Interruptions

Mark 1:21-28

We don’t know his name.  We’ve never met him.  We really do not know anything about him at all.  Was he young?  Old?  Was he short or tall?  

Maybe he was middle aged.  He might have had a scraggly beard and floppy head of hair.  He might have been single and unemployed—with a troubled employment history.  He was probably Jewish.  

What we do know is that he plays a significant role— causing a “holy interruption — in Mark’s gospel recording the first sermon Jesus preached at the beginning of His ministry!

The setting for our gospel reading is immediately after Jesus has called the first disciples.  Peter and Andrew along with James and John were called by Jesus to “come and follow Me” in Bethsaida.  Now they are in the hometown of Peter and Andrew which Jesus makes as his home base of operations.

Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus is like a fast paced television show.  He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary details.  A key often repeated word for Mark is “immediately.”  Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is to show Jesus’ power in multiple settings.  Thus he starts his record of Jesus’ first Sabbath, first sermon, and first miracle in rapid fire fashion.

So we find our Lord beginning His ministry in the Capernaum synagogue on the first Sabbath after His arrival there.  He enters the synagogue and straight away begins to teach.  But His teaching is different than what they attendees are accustomed to with the scribes and Jewish scholars.  He teaches with power and authority.  The implication is He knows what He is talking about and confident in what He says.  The people are astonished and taken back.  

And then…Jesus is interrupted.  

Just then, or “immediately”—the same Greek word Mark uses over and over again—a demon possessed man shouts out.  The Greek implies he is anything but quiet!  He screams at Jesus.

What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth!

Imagine the effect this has on the worshipping congregation—shock and dismay, with the hairs on the back of their necks standing erect.  All eyes are on Jesus and this crazy man.  

What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth!  Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God!

Get this, this demon who is screaming out at Jesus has “accurate theology.”  He correctly understand who Jesus is as a man, Jesus of Nazareth.  He also correctly identifies Jesus’ divinity.  Jesus is the Holy One of God!  

In theological terms we call that the dual nature of Christ.  He is both God and human together.  Completely human.  Completely divine.  

And, this demon has spiritual insight into Jesus’ mission and ministry.  Jesus has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).  Jesus as God’s Messiah has come to set the captive free, to break the power of evil and darkness, to bring us hope, life, salvation and a restored relationship with God the Father!

So the question, “have You come to destroy us?” is an insightful and accurate question.  The answer is YES!  Jesus has come to break the power of sin, death and the devil.  

Now, step back with me a bit.  Why do you suppose this man finds himself in church on the sabbath?  Is it ironic or out of place for a demon possessed man to be in church, in a worship setting?  

Imagine this man being tormented and torn—a battle raging inside of him.  Sometimes he is in control of himself.  Sometimes he feels as though something else has control of him.  He must hate himself and his life.  He must long for deliverance, to be rescued from his tormenter.  

Have you ever had two voices or forces at war inside of you?  Do you struggle with an addiction? To pornography? Do you struggle with substance abuse and/ or addiction?  We all have issues, 

What about anger, emotional chaos and confusion, depression and thoughts of suicide?  Or being trapped in hopelessness?  What about our struggle with aging and its ill affects on us, or cancer, or divorce, or loneliness or just plain old fashioned despair.  

Jesus’ response?  He is cool and calm as a cucumber.  

“Be muzzled” is an accurate translation of the Greek.  Put a cork in it!  Silence!Shut up!  And then Jesus simply says, “come out of him!”  No incantations.  No formula for exorcism.  No appealing to God — “the Lord rebuke you Satan!”  None of that.  Simply, “Be silent! Come out of him!” And, just like that, the demon convulses the man, screams one more time, and leaves!  

Whoah!  Wow!  Amazing power.  Jesus is Lord.  Demons have no choice but to yield and obey Him.  Jesus is God in human flesh.  And Mark makes his first point on Who this unusual man is.  God among us!  Who has come with power to save and heal us!  What a beginning!

Nothing more is said of the man who is delivered of his demon possession.  I image he is tired and weary and totally happy!  He is rescued.  He is free.  Mark’s focus is on Jesus’ mission and ministry and His power over sin and evil. 

The worshipping audience?  They are amazed.  They debate among themselves about what they have witnessed.  

“What is this?  A new teaching with authority!”  The Greek word for authority here can also be translated “power.”  And if I understand Mark’s focus in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry power might be the best translation.  “He commands even the unclean (evil) spirits and they obey Him!”

The people are amazed and word about this man Jesus begins to spread like wild fire.  Yet, there is no comment about their coming to faith and trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord.  

So, what about you and me?  Do we move past amazement and wanting to be dazzled with miracles and entertainment?  Or do we believe and give Jesus our humble faith and obedience!  

The ball is in our court.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

How’s Your Hearing?

Our hearing might be okay, but our listening skills might not be.

1 Samuel 3:1-18

Listening is a challenge.  We might…

  • be too busy with our own thoughts and agendas
  • already think we know enough or more than the speaker
  • not like the speaker
  • not be able to hear over the din—over loaded senses!

Sometimes we just don’t care.

God is always listening to us.  He knows everything about us, every minute detail of our lives from conception to our final breath (Psalm 139).

We too can learn to listen.

Consider this story of the young boy who learned to listen and follow, to discern God’s voice and follow God’s leading in obedience.  That young boy is Samuel.

The early disciples also learned how to hear Jesus’ voice, to listen and to follow Him!

1 Samuel 3 starts out by telling us the “word of God” was rare in those days and that visions were infrequent.  

Yet, amazingly, God is always speaking—through nature.  Consider that great old hymn, “How Great Thou Art” where the hymn writer reflects and responds in wonder to God’s creative voice.

God speaks through His prophets and preachers who proclaim God’s word.

God speaks through the Bible—the Spirit breathed Word!

The problem is we cannot hear because we are not listening.  If we do hear, do we put into practice what God tells us?  We need to let God’s Word inform and instruct us.  We need to let God’s Word change us!

Sometimes we do not listen and follow God’s Word because we are caught up in our own thoughts and ideas.  We do not want to let go of our errant thinking.  We protect our position, our power and our privileges.  

Like young Samuel we can pray, “Speak Lord.  Your servant is listening!”

Pray 

Pray for a receptive and open heart, mind and soul.

Be humble

Let God’s Word confront us, challenge us, change us—change our values, our thinking, our priorities, agenda; our worldview!

Be repentant

Let go of our false thinking, stop being defensive, proud, obtuse!

God can speak through a donkey if we are listening, just like Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22.  

God’s Word calls us out of ourselves, to care past ourselves.  God’s Word calls us to be vulnerable, humble and teachable.  God’s Word, over and over again calls us to care for the vulnerable and marginalized in society.  

When we hear God speaking to us we need to respond with obedience like the disciples Jesus called to “come, follow Me.”  We need to put into practice what we hear and learn.  Show God we are listening.  

Consider Psalm 119:18 “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of Your law (Word).”

Jesus opened the eyes—minds and hearts—of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  That story if recorded in Luke 24.  

When we are listening we must be willing to be surprised and interrupted, to be inconvenienced.  God changes our plans and agendas.

Consider the group of military veterans who cleaned up the litter and graffiti of the insurrection that took place in early January 2021.  They wanted our country to know they did not agree with the insurrectionists who violently stormed the capital.

God give us ears to hear and hearts to know and follow.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

A great little Jewish story…

Change Your World View

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 & Mark 1:14-20

This little book of Jonah from the Old Testament is a great Jewish story about God’s nature and God’s care for all people, and even “critters” — animals.  It is much more than a book about being called to ministry.  It is about changing our way of looking at the world, and growing in our understanding of God’s amazing grace in Jesus!  

Let’s consider this story from the book of Jonah.  Read the whole book.  It is short.  

Everyone in this story is religious.  

  • Each sailor cries out to his particular god for help in the storm.
  • The people of Nineveh quickly hear and respond with repentance.  They demonstrate their repentance through fasting and wearing scratchy, itchy sackcloth—a visible sign of saying I’m sorry.  The king even commands that no one, human or beast, can eat anything, and that all—humans and animals must wear sackcloth.  

Everyone in this story is religious!

The sailors are more humane and generous in their behavior than Jonah.

Even when they discover that Jonah is the one responsible for their predicament they try desperately hard to save him as well as themselves.  They are not willing to just throw him overboard to save themselves.  They pray to the Lord of heaven and earth—Jonah’s God—and ask not to be held accountable for the shedding of his blood—taking his life!  These are good men of noble character.  After they throw Jonah overboard and the storm subsides with the sea becoming calm, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to this new found Lord of heaven and earth!

Even the king and citizens of this wicked city fear God and respond with appropriate faith.

The purpose of this story is to enlarge our world view to match God’s all encompassing mercy, grace and love.

Jonah is a narrow minded religious bigot.  He cares about his own country and people, but no one else.  His ideology could be “make Israel great again.”  His prophetic message for the northern kingdom consists of proclaiming the northern kingdom being restored.  

Contrast Jonah’s attitude with that of the anonymous sailors.  They care about him even though they know nothing about him.  Contrast Jonah’s attitude with God’s.  Jonah is arrogant.  He is selfish and narrow minded.  He is angry and stubborn.  He knows enough about God to know God is loving and compassionate and that if the wicked people of Nineveh repent, God will grant them mercy rather than destroy them.  

Jonah, in this regard, places himself above God—as if he should teach and instruct God how to deal with evil people.  “Nuke them!”  “Destroy them!”  “Wipe them completely out!”  

God, through this amazingly little book, challenges our small minded thinking.  God, through this incredible bit of Hebrew literature, seeks to change and enlarge our world view—our way of understanding ourselves and the world we live in.  Our way of dealing with problems and issues in life.  God through the book of Jonah is trying to help us grow up spiritually.  

Jonah is angry with God.  He is angry that God would show mercy to the enemies of God’s people.  He is feeling sorrow for himself and is “angry enough to die!”

Then read the last verse of this awesome book.  

“Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

This Hebrew short story points to the cross of Christ—to the living expression of God’s love and mercy for the sake of the world in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  

Jesus is God’s answer to the brokenness of our fallen world.  You cannot answer evil for evil.  You do not overcome darkness with more darkness.  You cannot defeat violence with more violence.  Only love—the power of God’s love in and through Jesus—can overcome the evil and darkness we grapple with.  Only the light of the One who is the Light of the world can change us and our world.  

I love this little book.  I love Psalm 62 that helps us speak to God in such a way that we affirm our faith and confidence in God alone being our rock and fortress, our salvation, our deliverance.  

You and I are called to be witnesses to this world view—the understanding that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  We are called, liked those early disciples, to get to know Jesus—to follow Him and live for Him and help others to know Him.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

also check out these verses…

John 3:16

Ezekiel 33:11

2 Peter 3:9

2 Timothy 2:4