Sunday, February 24, 2013

Living as People of the Cross ~ Luke 13:31-36 ~ Second Sunday of Lent

People of the Cross

Luke 13:31-36

Second Sunday of Lent



During my years in the bookstore, there were two kinds of people who always succeeded in putting everyone in a bad mood: mean people, and especially, people who stole.  People would steal just about every day—and most got away with it.  We’d find out about their crimes AFTER they’d left the building…

I once had an employee tell me of a customer who was tearing recipes out of cookbooks and stuffing them in her purse.  That same day, a customer told me of a man stealing our soap from the restroom. 

We all see this same kind of behavior in people every day, from loony lawsuits and scam artists to corporate greed and white collar crimes.  It’s absolutely sickening how greedy some people are—and how low they’ll go to satisfy their appetites.  And yet, this same greed exists inside of all of us.  If this were not true, none of us would be sinners.  We all make gods of our bellies, in that we make our needs and wants the authority in how we live and what we do.  Most of the time, we act out our greed without even giving it a second thought—because it is in our nature.

Greed is the disease of our civilization.  We’re all guilty of it—and we’re all victims of it. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in the crosshairs of human greed.  Some Pharisees warn him that King Herod wants to kill him.  And Jesus has good cause to be afraid—because Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.  Yet Jesus knows that Herod won’t be the one to orders his death.   Jesus will die in Jerusalem—and the man in charge there goes by the name Pontius Pilate.

So today we find Jesus in a moment of extreme grief—yet he is not grieving his fate.  Jesus is grieving the fact that the people he came to save couldn’t care less that he’s among them.  Soon, his very own will be shouting, “crucify him!”

Even his closest disciples will deny him.  His precious and innocent blood will be spilled in the mud—and nobody cares.

Fast forward two thousand years—and little has changed. 

Still, we reject him.  We dismiss his promises; we ignore his commands.  We won’t even give him the time of day—so that he can love us.

Because we have more important things to do…  We have to keep up our schedules; stick to our plans.  God forbid that we’d miss out on “more important things” for Jesus…  God forbid, we would inconvenience ourselves, disrupt our plans, or be even the slightest bit uncomfortable for his sake.

The scandal of the cross is that Jesus still bears it for us in spite of our rejection of him.  Still, he desires to gather us together as a hen gathers her brood beneath her wings.   Still, we are not forsaken.

The time has come for us to stop trying to feed our bellies with the fat of the land, and gather around the cross.  The time has come for us to just let Jesus love us.

So how are we doing this second Sunday of Lent?  How faithful have you been in your prayer life?  Reading your bibles and devotionals?  How many times have you just said to God, “thank you?”  Has your gratitude translated itself into acts of caring and generosity?  Have you been telling others about your faithful Savior?

Are you willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus in love and obedience?

The cross is more than just a symbol to decorate our walls and wear upon a chain.  The cross is the power of God that breaks us from our insatiable greed.  It redeems us from the powers of evil and delivers us from the jaws of our destruction.  The cross is the sure sign from God that death and evil will not have the last word in God’s world.

By grace we are made citizens of heaven, because Jesus has acted to give clean hands, pure hearts, and new lives.  By grace we are delivered from certain destruction, so that Jesus may indeed gather us together as a hen gathers her brood beneath her wings.

Such a love demands more than just our attention.  Such a love demands our all.

So let us come to the cross to stand up and be counted as beloved children of God in Jesus Christ.  Let us come to the cross to commit ourselves to live as people of the cross.

Let us come and listen as Jesus speaks to us through the Word.  Let us hear him speak his words of unconditional love.  Let us listen as his Word exposes the sins in our lives, to receive his forgiveness.  Let us listen as Jesus calls us to the better we can live by obeying his Word.

Let us be a thankful people.  Jesus as the greatest treasure in our lives, worth more than anything we can have, achieve, or enjoy from the world.  And Jesus is a presence in our lives.  So let us thank him for giving his life for our sake.  Let us thank him for every gift we receive that sustains us in life.  Let us thank him for all the ways he helps us in our time of need.

Finally, let us stop constantly thinking about ourselves, and set our minds upon practicing Christ’s self-giving love in our own lives.  The people in our lives aren’t there by accident.  So let us love them as graciously as we are loved.  Let us be the opened arms of Jesus Christ to each other.  This is the better way to live.

Living by the cross is the surest way to witnessing the awesome power of Christ’s resurrection every day.  This Lent, let us gather at the cross of Jesus—in the presence of Jesus.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Resisting the Irresistible ~ Luke 4:1-13 ~ First Sunday of Lent

Like many mothers, mine kept a memory book of “baby’s firsts” for my sister and me.  She’d recorded all the dates of my first steps, my first words, my first haircut, and so on.  She also recorded the date of my “first swear.”  I had to ask what that was all about.

Apparently, when I was a baby, I loved to babble.  Some things never change...

One day, she was at the grocery store—and I was seated in the child seat of the cart, and I’m babbling as usual.  She reaches down to retrieve an item off of a lower shelf, and at the top of my voice, I shout out what sounded like a four-letter word (not appropriate for church).

Mom stands up, and all she can see is a crowd of stunned shoppers, staring her down for what her baby had just said.  Thankfully, my parents never tolerated bad words—lest I’d spent the bulk of my preschool years in the naughty chair...  A child doesn’t know the difference between naughty and nice—and that is why discipline is so important...

Maturity is all about knowing the difference between right and wrong—and acting accordingly.  But resisting temptation is not as easy as choosing good over bad—just ask Jesus.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus has been led by the Spirit out into the wilderness for forty days—with nothing to eat or drink during that time.  Unsurprisingly, at the end of those forty days, he is famished—and this is when the devil strikes—when he’s tired, hungry, and vulnerable. 

Notice how the devil does not tempt Jesus to do bad things, like hurting someone for no reason.  The devil tempts Jesus with good things, starting with that which he needs most of all: food.  Satan goes on to tempt Jesus two more times—offering all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him, and then (for Jesus) to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, forcing God to rescue him from certain death. 

All of these temptations would have been beneficial to Jesus—and even to others.  Jesus could’ve had the food his body desperately needed.  Jesus could’ve ruled over the world in peace and justice.  Jesus could’ve had his faith in God strengthened when God kept him from falling.  All three times, the devil tempted Jesus to take matters into his own hands and put himself in the place of God. 

That is what temptation always is: the opportunity to put ourselves and our needs and wants at the center of the universe.

How often do you hear phrases like:

·         “If it feels good, do it...”

·         “You only live once...”

·         “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right...”

·         “I look out for number one...”

Almost all temptations are disguised as that which is desperately needed, right and fair, appealing, easily attainable, and downright irresistible. 

Meanwhile, we’re tempted to see the path of obedience as boring, stupid, and with no guarantees that things will turn our as we hope.

Sin’s allure is always in making ourselves our own needs and wants the authority in our lives—instead of God.  And that is what the devil wants most of all: to unseat God as your ruler and your Lord.

You can have it all, the devil says.  But that’s a lie.  Satan doesn’t have the power to keep promises.  And we all know the havoc we wreak upon ourselves and others when we do give in to temptation.  We may get or do something good for a time—but there are always negative consequences.  The devil promises the world—but all we’ll ultimately get is heartache and misery.

Only God keeps promises.  Only God and God alone can give us the life our hearts desire most.  And the way of obedience is not an easy path to walk—just ask Jesus.  But we are not left to fight against the devil and his lies all helpless and defenseless.

Jesus joins us in the fight against temptation.  Today we see Jesus in a gauntlet of temptation—so Jesus knows exactly what we’re going through.  He knows what it feels like to be assaulted with opportunities to quickly satisfy our heart’s desires at the expense of our souls.  So he gives us strength and courage to stand our ground and do what’s right.  The battle belongs to the Lord—and Jesus will have the victory.

Like Jesus, we have the word of God, the ultimate truth—at our disposal.  God gives us the Scriptures so that our hearts may be formed in faith, to love God above all else, love our neighbors as ourselves, and understand God’s will for our lives and the world.  How terribly often we dismiss God’s Word is just a bunch of well-meaning ideas that don’t work out in real life.  God’s Word IS life—it is the way that leads to a life made abundant by all the gifts of God’s grace.  Our challenge, therefore, is to trust this Word; trust God’s promises—believing that God has our best interests at heart.

Finally, to win the fight against the devil, we must band together as One Body—because we’re all in this fight together.  Our church is not an elite social club for the holiest and righteous; we’re a hospital for sinners, a place where real people can gather in the reality of God’s forgiveness to be renewed in the daily battle against sin.  We’re here to teach our children—and teach one another—how we can faithfully live in the love of God in everyday life.  We’re here to pray for each other and forgive each other and hold each other accountable.  We’re here to be drawn into Christ’s victory against evil—and take that victory out of this building into a hurting world.

The fight against temptation is not easily fought, nor easily won.  We are all beggars of God’s grace to resisting temptation, just as much as we are beggars of God’s forgiveness in our sin.  But if it’s righteousness your heart desires; if you believe Jesus to be your Savior and the giver of truly abundant life, the victory will be yours.  It will not come without trust, without obedience, without a solid knowledge of the Word—and without the help of others.  But this is a battle worth fighting—because the victory is sure.  Don’t try to gain the world at the expense of your soul.  Let Jesus be the one who satisfies the desires of your heart.  Let Jesus give you as a gift the Kingdom of God and all its righteousness. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Who Will Be Your Voice of Truth? ~ Luke 9:28-43 ~ Transfiguration of Our Lord

Twenty years ago—my parents spoke to my sister and I the happiest words to a child’s ears:

We’re going to Disney World!”

We’d never been there before, but we’d heard from our friends—and learned from TV—that Disney World was the happiest and most magical place on earth.  And we believed it to be the gospel truth.

For the next four months, my sister and I counted down the days to what we expected to be the most magnificent week of our lives.  And when we finally arrived, we were overwhelmed at the beauty and magnificence of the place.  It truly was a magic kingdom.

And then, my mother trips over a step, and goes straight to the ground.  In an instant, our magical vacation disappears into thin air, like magic.

We left the park and spent the rest of the day in a place you don’t see advertised on TV—the Disney clinic.  After what felt like an eternity of waiting, Mom emerges from the exam room, limping along on a pair of Disney Crutches—with doctor’s orders that she stay off her sprained ankle—for a month.

Luckily for us, Mom was determined to enjoy her vacation just as much as she’d hoped—even if it meant being confined to a wheelchair; and we learned that Disney has a wonderful practice of admitting persons with limited mobility onto all the rides and attractions without waiting in line.  Paradise was regained; and it truly was best week ever.  But like all good things, it came to an end, and we had to go home—to a summer vacation spent helping mom with the household chores during her recovery.

It didn’t matter how badly we wanted that week to last forever.  It simply was not to be.

All of us can remember times in our lives that we wish would last forever.  Times when life was not so complicated; times when the challenges we’re dealing with today weren’t even a thought.  Times when life was just good—and faith in God was easy.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Peter, James, and John find themselves in such a moment. 

Jesus invited them to go with him on a mountaintop to pray—and they go, probably not expecting anything extraordinary to happen.  But then, when Jesus begins to pray, his appearance changes; his clothes become dazzling white.  Two men appear and begin talking to Jesus. 

What a moment this must have been—even more spectacular than all of the healings and miraculous deeds they had witnessed.  In this moment, heaven meets earth—and they are there! 

What a moment, to see Jesus in all his undeniable glory.  What a moment, to feel so safe from the world below.  What a moment to be overwhelmed by the love and power of God.

Understandably, Peter wants the moment to last forever.  He’s ready to build dwelling-places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—so ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­they could stay there forever, just the six of them...  But then a voice from heaven interrupts him, saying, “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

At that instant, it’s all over—and it’s just the three of them and Jesus.  Jesus takes them back down the mountain; back down to reality and real life.  Instead of seeing Jesus in power and glory, soon they will see Jesus despised and rejected, and ultimately—dying on the cross.

We all know how these disciples felt—as we remember better times—and know there’s no possibility of us getting those days back.  So how do we face tomorrow when we have no guarantee that tomorrow will be good?  How do we go on when we’re overwhelmed with fear and sorrow?

The voice from the cloud is the answer to that question, and to the uncertainties we face in these times: we must listen to Jesus.

One of the greatest dangers in the life of a believer is that our hurts and our worries come to rule over us, so that they define our existence.  This exactly what we see with Jesus’ disciples later on in the story...  Jesus gave them power and authority over unclean spirits—and yet they could not cast the demon out of a small boy.  How quickly they’d forgotten the power and glory of God they were so blessed to have seen.  Now, they’re scared stiff, overwhelmed by the situation, unable to act on the promise Jesus had spoken to them.

We face the very same danger to our faith—when trouble comes along so terrible and so overwhelming that we feel as though we are being devoured by it.  It is at these times when we’re in danger of becoming practical atheists, such that we know Jesus in name only.  Otherwise, we dismiss Jesus as powerless over the situation and unconcerned in delivering us through it.  What an outright lie this is in defiance of all the Gospel promises.

In those moments, when we’re overwhelmed, we must stop whatever we’re doing and listen to Jesus.  This is why prayer and worship and a knowledge of the Bible are so indispensible in our lives. 

The devil’s always going to be there, feeding us lies that there is no hope and that our faith is in vain.  And isn’t it always then, when we’re feeling so overwhelmed, that we’re most tempted NOT to do what Jesus tells us we should?  This is usually when we believe the lies that “we don’t have time” to listen to Jesus; or that nothing good will come out of doing what Jesus says.  So whose voice will we believe—the devil and his lies?  Or the voice of truth—Jesus and his words of unconditional love and his promises of deliverance?

At no point does Jesus ever say that following him will be easy.  In fact, he says that if any wish to be his disciples, you must take up your cross and follow him.  Such a thing doesn’t sound appealing in the least bit.  But God brought resurrection out of Jesus’ cross—which means that we can carry our crosses fully assured that God will do the very same for us.  Death and evil didn’t have the victory for Jesus, nor will they have the victory for you.  Today we have peace to rest in the promise of Jesus: that we will see the glory of God and not in avoiding our troubles or ignoring them, but in facing them head on—because Jesus faces them with us.  If we walk with Jesus as he walks with us, if we trust in his promises and abide in his command to love one another every step of the way, we shall see the glory of God.  We shall be overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace, within our weakness and even in spite of our weakness.  Jesus will meet us in the dark places, to carry our crosses with us on the way of his resurrection.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Believe? ~ Luke 4:21-30 ~ Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

One Saturday afternoon, the big-box bookstore where I worked EXPLODED in outrage...

Some anonymous person (or persons) blanketed our store with yellow pamphlets, which explained what a person must do to go to heaven.  You could call it “hell, fire, and brimstone” evangelism.

Even more outrageous was the fact that they hid them—inside the books whose readers they believed to be in the eyes of God’s wrath.  For days, we endured angry complaints from customers, and my co-workers were even more outraged.

When I walked into the lunch room, one of my co-workers looked at me and said, “we should burn all the churches and make religion illegal.” 

Even though I was a Christian, I wasn’t happy about what these people did.  My faith is built on grace and forgiveness, not fear and judgment and threats of hell.  So I can understand why so many people were angry.  The hypocrisy and self-righteousness of some Christians is a big turn-off to non-believers.

But what is it about Christianity in general—and faith in Jesus Christ—that brings out downright hostility in some people?

Today’s Gospel lesson may give us some insights into that question.  In it, Jesus’ townspeople—people he’d known for most of his life—dragged him out of town to throw him off a cliff.  And yet, the story begins with everyone speaking well of him.  So what made them turn so sharply against him?

The answer to that question can be found in Jesus’ own words.  He tells them very plainly that he’s been sent “to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed”—in other towns, no less; not at home.”

This doesn’t sit too well with the townsfolk—because they’re not thinking about what “the Lord has anointed him” to do.  They’re thinking only about what they can get from him; what he owes them as their “hometown boy.”

Their little town of Nazareth was not exactly the best place to live as a faithful follower of God.  In fact, their town was very much a cesspool of sin and pagan idolatry.  On top of that, they were surrounded by hostile nations that constantly threatened their safety.  So, they expected Jesus to stay in town, drive out the sinners, raise up an army, and maybe even make Nazareth into “another Jerusalem,” the holiest city of God.  Yet Jesus makes it very clear that this is none of his concern.  His concern was for the least and the lost.  So they had no love for Jesus.  Jesus was unacceptable.

And there are times for all of us we can find Jesus just as hard to accept—and that will always be when Jesus fails to meet our expectations. 

It’s easy to treat our faith as a kind of bargain-deal with God.  We’ll believe and trust God if God meets our expectations.  If we pray, our prayers should be answered.  If we obey, we should be blessed.  God should never allow good people to suffer.  God should protect the innocent and punish the guilty.  God should be fair.  Yet we all know from bitter experience that this is not the way it goes.

So what happens to our relationship with Jesus—when he disappoints us?  When he’s not fair?

What do we do with our questions, our disappointments, or even our outrage? 

You take the unbeliever, and ask them why they do not believe, and these will be their reasons.  Simply put, if God were real, the world would not be in the state that it is in.  A loving God would never permit war and poverty and injustice. 

They take all of these as proof undeniable that belief in God is a lie—and something to be treated as devious and dangerous. 

But what about us, who do believe, and yet struggle with these same questions?  These same doubts?

We cannot sit in judgment of the unbeliever for their questions and doubts—because we struggle with them just the same.  Yet we cannot sit in judgment of God either... 

Today’s Gospel shows us that when we set the terms of our believing in Jesus Christ, we will be disappointed.  Jesus doesn’t exist to do our bidding.  We can’t treat our love for Jesus as a reward we give to him for giving to us what we want and what we deserve. 

We must love Jesus for who he is—and this is what the townspeople in Nazareth failed to do.  They didn’t hear grace in Jesus’ words when he said that he was sent to serve the least, the last, and the lost.  Yet he would have shown them this very same grace had they just given him the chance. 

He would have shown them the love he shows us—that is not based in our deserving, or upon our meeting his expectations.  Jesus loves us simply because we are his—which means that we cannot make our earthly blessings and prosperity the yardstick to measure his love.  The cross is sign of his love—the love that saves us from death and the devil.  This same love he shows us within suffering and even in spite of suffering, as he delivers us through life’s absolute worst. 

We’ll never understand the mysteries of God, as to why bad things happen to good people, and why some of our prayers get answered and others don’t.  But we cannot allow our disappointments to blind us to the reality of God’s gracious love for us in Jesus Christ. 

So if you’re struggling to hold onto your faith; if you’re wondering if you’re being here is of any use at all; if doubts about God’s love and care have you at the edge of unbelief, don’t walk away from Christ.  Don’t let the despair win.  Bring to Jesus every question, every doubt, every disappointment you feel, knowing that he will never reject you for not being able to accept what is unacceptable in your life and in this world.  Remember the cross that he carried for you; and the life he gave for you.  You belong to him.  Your life is his treasure—and he has a plan to show you this love, and not on your terms, but on his.  And his plan is the best—because his is the plan that will deliver you from death and darkness into everlasting life.