Sunday, March 18, 2018

Jesus, the Son of God- The Story

The Son of God          March 17 and 18
Matthew 16: 13-20 

Today we continue The Story as we make our way to God’s final act in getting us back to the Garden. You know, we were always meant to enjoy an intimate life with God, but due to our sin, the story God was writing took an unexpected turn. And today we begin to put all the pieces together. We’ve listened and talked about a whole narrative of stories, some we’ve understood, and some we haven’t. And sometimes it’s felt as if we’ve been lost in unnecessary details. But today, this entire story begins to come into focus as we wrestle with a common question, “Just exactly, who is Jesus? “ If you have your Bibles…

Have you ever tried to figure someone out? Like, have you ever wondered if someone really is who she or he says they are? We do this all the time, whether we know it or not. We do it when we date; when we meet our child’s teacher for parent-teacher conferences; or even when we’re sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot. We like to try to get a handle on people. I used to play this guessing game in college when I’d prepare for my first exam in a new class. I would spend the first couple of weeks trying to “read” the professor and guess how or she would quiz us. You ever do that? I’d try to discern what was important to them in their lessons and hope they would test us in a similar fashion. Sometimes I was spot on, and other times, well, let’s just say I had to play catch-up on my next assignment. We spend time trying to figure out people because we want to know if we can trust them. And whether we know it or not, we do this with Jesus, too.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood, but it seems as if he was fairly normal. He probably helped out with chores around the house, played outside with friends and joined his family for prayer time. Nothing seems to have stuck out about his young life. But boy did that begin to change when he began his public ministry. From the moment he began to teach and preach, Jesus seemed to raise either eyebrows or suspicion, and most everyone had the same question: Who IS this guy? Is this the same guy who grew up just down the road from us? Isn’t that the boy from Nazareth? And over time, opinions began to form. And everyone had them. The powerful had them- and their opinions weren’t flattering. The government had them- and big brother was always watching. Even those closest to him tried to figure him out. I can picture the disciples huddled together after spending a long day with Jesus, asking aloud, “So what do you think?” Is he the one? Is he gonna save the day? Is he the king we’ve been waiting for? But one day, Jesus does something completely unexpected. He turns the tides. And with one question, he moves their conversation from speculation to declaration. In other words, Jesus says, “The time has come for YOU to decide.” Who do you say that I am? You’ve heard enough about me from history, from others, from what you’ve seen…but now I want to know who you say that I am. And that becomes one of the most important questions you and I will ever answer. Exactly who is Jesus?

      Throughout history, there has been no shortage of opinions about Jesus (and there’s still no shortage). Some of these opinions paint Jesus in a positive light, while others question the man’s sanity. Even in our Bibles, we see Jesus playing different roles and taking on different characteristics that shape our beliefs. So, who is this man? Well, that’s a question worth considering. And every thoughtful person must wrestle with an answer. So let’s take a look at some of the ways people have talked about Jesus through the years.

Some have answered Jesus’ question in this way: Jesus was a tremendous human being. He’s a good guy. Now, not many people would argue this one. I certainly wouldn’t argue it. Jesus was most definitely a good person who created and lived by “the golden rule.” Other than a few emotionally driven moments when he sort of lost his cool, Jesus was a great model for “do to others you would have them do unto you.” And Jesus didn’t just talk about this idea; he actually lived it. He did the things that everybody should probably be doing anyways. He was a friend of the poor, a dependable advocate for the downtrodden, and he was everybody’s best friend. He’d be the neighbor you’d never have to call the cops on. Jesus was an all-around good guy, a champion of humanitarian causes, who made others around him even better. He’d be a great friend!

Others have said that in addition to being an all-around great person, Jesus was also a great teacher and philosopher. And truly, we really can’t argue this point either. If we were to follow Jesus’ teachings, if we were to truly put them into practice in daily life, I think our world would have less suffering, less poverty, and less war. Love God. Love neighbor. Be humble. Consider others better than yourselves. Those are some great words. But Jesus wasn’t the first teacher to offer this type of counsel. Moses offered it; Solomon wrote an entire book called “Proverbs,” and most of the great prophets voiced similar thoughts. And what’s more? Jesus’ teachings are not all that different from the great teachers and values of other religions. Gandhi speaks similar words. Buddhists lift up similar values. So is Jesus any different than them? Some say yes, some say no. But it’s clear that Jesus was a powerful teacher who inspired others.

Others have basically concluded that Jesus was a great leader and public servant who occasionally did some profound, even miraculous, things. Somehow, in spite of all the outside pressures and voices, Jesus was able to maintain a devotion and conviction to those things that really matter- like people instead of tasks. And on top of that, Jesus seemed to have the type of power that only comes around once in a lifetime. He wasn’t easily distracted from his mission, and he was able to start a revolution with only 12 people. That’s the making of a great leader!

So, those are just some of the ways people think about Jesus. But one thing stands out about all of these conclusions: they all point to the things Jesus does, not who he is! I mean, have you really taken time to consider who Jesus is, because that’s what Jesus asks! And let me tell you, this has the potential to change your life! Throughout his life, Jesus kept dropping hints that he was more than the stuff he does, and more than a good guy, or a great teacher and or a good role model. One of the favorite titles Jesus uses for himself is “Son of Man.” You might recall from our time in the Book of Daniel that the “Son of Man” is a reference to a divine being. Jesus is trying to show us something about himself, something divine. In the Gospel of John, Jesus takes this assertion even further! At least seven different times, Jesus used the words “I AM” to describe himself. I am the Bread of Life. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. I am the Good Shepherd. Now, that might not mean much to us, but to those who walked with Jesus, this was unthinkable, maybe even blasphemous. Remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God has just told Moses that he’s supposed to go to Egypt and demand the release of the Israelites. And when Moses asks, “Who should I tell them has sent me?” God replies, “Tell them ‘Yahweh’ has sent you,” which means “I Am.” Jesus wants us to know that he’s more than just a good guy. Jesus wants us to know that He is God. And finally, the light bulb goes off, and a man named Peter, gets it.

I’m sure Peter felt lot of pressure that day. I mean, he was just like any of us, trying to figure out how he was fishing one day and then following Jesus the next. But on this day, something clicked in Peter’s heart. And after his friends give a few typical answers, Peter boldly says, “I’ll tell you who you are, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” You are the One we’ve been waiting for. What a watershed moment. To be honest, I don’t know the steps Peter went through to get to that conclusion. I don’t know how he wrestled internally with all of his questions. But as far as I can tell, something was coming alive in Peter’s heart, something he had never felt before. He was beginning to trust Jesus and he just knew Jesus was somehow changing his life and purpose. And Peter would spend the rest of his life trying to tell others about him.

When I was a junior in college, something was coming alive inside of me. I can’t fully explain it to you. All I call say is that Jesus was becoming real to me in a way I hadn’t known before. I had read about, studied him and tried to obey him, but that year God’s Spirit was prodding me, poking me, wooing me. It was as if Jesus was asking me what I thought about him. Not my parents. Not my pastor. Not my friends. But me. And one night, I got out of bed, got on my knees and said, “You are more than a teacher; more than a good man; more than miracle worker; You are who you say you are. You are the Son of God, and I give my life to you.” And that moment changed the course of the rest of my life.

Today you’re going back into a world that doesn’t know what to do with Jesus. If you’ve paid attention to the news, especially up north at IUP, you’ll know that there are some wild opinions out there. But that’s the world we live in, one with many gods- materialism, atheism, secularism, Mormonism, Buddhism. We might even say that “opinionism” has become a new god. But Jesus doesn’t ask you what they think of him. He asks you what you think of him. Who do you say that I am? The great scholar C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or he was a madman or something worse.” The choice, Lewis says, is yours to make.

Maybe you think all this Jesus talk is kind of crazy. Maybe you find yourself wanting to know more. Maybe you’re not sure what to think about the man. I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you what Jesus thinks of you. With everything in my being, I believe Jesus thinks the world of you. And if you think you’ve left him down or failed him, you need to know that he loves you. And he loves you so much that he willingly left behind heaven to get you back to where you were always meant to be. And he did this by offering his life on a cross, facing the fear of death and abandonment and rising again three days later. What does God think about you? Just listen to these beautiful, old words: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son, that whosoever might believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Story- No Ordinary Man

No Ordinary Man       March 10 and 11, 2016
Scripture: Mark 5: 1-20

            There’s a phenomenal story about Jesus in the Gospels that leaves his followers quite speechless. It would probably leave us speechless as well, maybe even a bit scared, but it’s an important story to know. Jesus and his disciples are on a boat when a storm whips up. With the wind howling and the waves crashing, the disciples run around trying to preserve their ship and save their lives, but astonishingly, Jesus is fast asleep. He must be the type of guy who can sleep through anything, even disturbing, life-threatening storms. Except this storm doesn’t seem to phase him. It phases every other person, but it does not phase him. When they finally get him awake, Jesus calmly walks to the upper level of the boat and tells the storm to calm down…and it does. The waves grow smaller, the wind dies down and peace takes over…and the disciples are left with one overarching question: Who is this man?  Because this guy is not ordinary.  Today as we continue The Story, we’ll be looking at Jesus and his wonderfully different ways..  If you have your Bibles…

            This might be one of the oddest stories in the Bible. When I was young, I never quite understood why Jesus would send a herd of pigs hurtling down a hill to their certain death- and admittedly, I still don’t understand. The pigs did nothing wrong. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that the story isn’t about pigs, but about a man who saw the world differently, a man who could look into the eye of a social misfit and still see something beautiful. And for me, that always sticks out because that’s not an ordinary way to see the world. And Jesus is anything but ordinary. I had originally planned to use another passage for today’s sermon, but I think this odd story with demons and pigs and confused community members paints a wonderful picture of something Jesus often talked and preached about: the kingdom of God.

            We don’t know much about kingdoms in our world, but our minds have been shaped by what we’ve seen and read. Thanks to Walt Disney and JRR Tolkein and others, we’ve grown up in a culture of fairy tales and far-away kingdoms and Prince Charmings. On any given day, my youngest daughter strives to be Queen Elsa, with her powers to turn objects into ice, or Rapunzel, with her long, beautiful flowing hair. But that’s not quite what Jesus had in mind. In fact, when Jesus talks about a kingdom, doesn’t seem to be talking about a place at all, but rather a certain way of life, a life consumed and directed by the presence of God. When he comes preaching and teaching about the kingdom, he says that it’s close and near and within. And he does it all by using words instead of swords and love and humility instead of force. And he says it’s something we can be a part of. Whatever God is up to, there’s a place for us. But he also says it’s not automatic.

In one of his parables, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to seed that is scattered in a field. Some of the seed falls on good soil and grows, but most of it falls and is either scattered or not cared for. To read it another way, we might suggest that only 1 out of every 4 people will ever truly receive the Kingdom of God, because it’s something that must be planted and watered and carefully cultivated in our souls. We see that in the story for today. When the Kingdom of God is on full display, disturbing and uprooting life as we know it, there are some who follow and give their lives to it and others who see the exact same miracle and still tell the King to get out of town. That’s always the choice before us: to embrace God’s kingdom or to embrace our own.

That was the choice the first disciples had when Jesus walked up to them and said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Essentially, this was an invitation to a different way of life, a kingdom way. It was an invitation out of the ordinary rhythms of life, which in many ways are fine and good, in favor of a life with God that is filled with meaning, purpose and life-giving joy. And so that’s what Jesus lays before us: the opportunity to embrace a new life, an extraordinary life, a life wrapped up in his good kingdom. So if that’s something you seek, here’s what you need to know about the Kingdom of God.

First, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a great treasure. There’s nothing more valuable or beautiful in all eternity. Jesus likens it to a man who found a hidden treasure in a field, then went and sold all of his possessions to buy that field. He gave up everything to have that one treasure! That’s the precious nature of life with Christ. It’s beautiful and meaningful, but it needs to be treasured and cherished as if it’s the most important thing to which you could give your life. It’s not enough to make God a part of your life. He desires to be treasured in your heart. And when that happens, you will see the world so very differently. When Jesus stepped ashore in the region of the Gerasenes and bumped into the demon-possessed man, he saw the person within. He saw a man, buried deeply in pain and shame, which made others keep their distance. But as man who operates out of the Kingdom of God, Jesus kept drawing near, peeling back layer after layer of evil, betrayal, hurt and anguish, until the man was free and once again who he was always meant to be. And that man, free from whatever it was the consumed his life, was ready to offer his life for this treasure he had found. That’s how much this kingdom is worth. It’s worth everything. The Kingdom of God is like a great treasure. Seek after it with all your heart.

Secondly, the Kingdom of God operates outside of our understanding and control. Here’s the thing about the kingdom: we don’t make it happen. It’s not something we can take by force; it’s not a reality we can legislate into existence; it’s not something we can achieve by conquering enemies. The Kingdom of God is something God ushers in God’s good time, but he does invite us to play a role. (Use midwife metaphor). We can’t speak to the storms and tell them to calm down…but we can pray to the One who can and believe that God is bigger than the storms. We can’t control whether people grow spiritually, but we can patiently and lovingly plant seed after seed and ask God to move in ways that are humanly impossible. And we can’t heal people from diseases and addictions, but we can come alongside them and intercede on behalf of them and place them in the hands of One who makes all things new. We do this because we believe in something we cannot see. And we trust that what we cannot see is far better than the reality we see day after day. Jesus saw a new possibility for this demon-possessed man, a possibility that became reality because of God’s miracle-working power. The Kingdom of God operates outside of our understanding and control…but we are called to pay attention and live into this reality when God gives us the green light.

The third principle I want to share with you today is this: The Kingdom of God is a worry-free, anxiety-free realm. And who doesn’t want that? The image of the man sitting in his right mind is a portrait of the grace-filled Kingdom of God. Free from the voices, free from the proverbial chains, free from all that consumed and controlled him. For the first time in a long time, he could breathe, he could hold a normal conversation without the stress of what he might blurt out, he could smile again. He could live his life that way God had always intended for him to live. He was free. A few years ago I took our confirmation class to a ministry in Homestead, an urban area filled with all sorts of problems. And over a game of Uno, the reality of the God’s Kingdom unfolded before our very eyes. Sitting across the table was a man named Mason. He was a joy to be around, laughing and cracking jokes and enjoying our company. And then he told us his story. Years before he had gotten involved in the wrong crowd. Drugs became a way of life, as did violence. And before he knew it, Mason was in prison, serving a sentence for murder. But here he was, sitting at our table, playing Uno and talking to us about Jesus. He was free, in more ways than one, and there was a beautiful peace in this man that could only have been given by Jesus. When the Kingdom of God takes root in our lives, there is peace.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that Jesus is no ordinary man who rules over no ordinary Kingdom and who invites us into no ordinary way of life. We can be the 1 in 4 who live in and experience the Kingdom of God if we want. We can live life without fear. Think about the freedom we would have if we didn’t fear what or who we can’t control. We can live without fret. If God could calm the raging sea, then he certainly calm the storms inside of us. And if God cares for the smallest of creatures and their wellbeing, we can be assured that he cares deeply for us. And we can live with hope. If God can redeem a convicted killer, and if God can look into the eyes of a man living among the tombs and see something beautiful, then we have every reason in the world to have hope. All that can be yours today. All you have to do is stop putting up a fight and let this unordinary yet beautiful Jesus plant God’s Kingdom reality deep inside of you. The question we asked at the beginning remains: Will you follow? Or will you tell this Savior to take a hike? Amen.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Story- Rebuilding the Walls

Rebuilding the Walls                        Feb. 17 and 18
Nehemiah 2: 1-6, 11-19

Today we hit a milestone on our journey through The Story. This is the last message in the Old Testament. Go ahead and cheer! I know what some of you are probably saying and praying under you’re breath and celebrating, because it’s been a long 21 weeks. The Old Testament isn’t easy. It’s filled with names and histories and details that don’t seem to be important to God’s upper story. So I hope along the way you’ve learned something, and I hope you haven’t given up on this journey, because the end of the story is approaching, and it’s good!

Nehemiah, where we’ll spend our time today, isn’t the last book of the Old Testament, but it is an appropriate book that helps us understand a big shift happening in the Upper Story. God is preparing to do a new thing! God is going to take the mess that we’ve made and rebuild His kingdom in a new way, a way that will lead to renewed spiritual life and a renewed world. In Nehemiah’s story, things are looking up. People are returning home, the temple has been rebuilt, and all is well! Not so fast! As Nehemiah soon finds out, there is still work to be done. The temple has been rebuilt, but the surrounding community remains a mess. Let’s turn together to our reading for this day:

Nehemiah is heartbroken. The city he loves, the place he longs to call home, is a wreck. When the foreign armies laid siege to the city, they did a number on the place. They tore down the walls, set the whole place on fire and gloated as a once proud city lay in ruins. It was a mess. But even more troubling were the memories. Nehemiah knew well that Israel’s unfaithfulness was truly the source of the city’s downfall. It wasn’t just Babylon. It wasn’t just foreign opposition. It was years of God’s people neglecting God’s ways. It was years of trying to skate by without fully committing to God’s plans. And it all led to this big, old mess, and Nehemiah had to wonder if anything could be done about it.

I probably already know the answer, but I wonder if you’ve had that same nauseous feeling that sickened Nehemiah. You look around and wonder, “How did this happen?” “How did I let myself get this way?” “How did we end up here?” “How did things become so messy?” And then you wonder if anything can be done about it? Well I have some great news for you. The answer is yes, because No mess is bigger than God’s heart! Maybe you look at your marriage and wonder if it can be salvaged…Or maybe you scan the obituaries and read about another overdose death and wonder if our current opioid epidemic can be reversed…Or maybe you want to have a closer walk with God but wonder if you’ve wasted too many opportunities…No mess is bigger than God’s heart.

Nehemiah is deeply troubled by the mess he sees, but he comes to find out that he’s not the only one. God is also troubled by it, and God wants to do something about it. And so in the middle of that broken mess, God gives Nehemiah a vision. Now a vision is picture of how things could be. Pastor and author Andy Stanley puts it this way: A vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be. (p. 18). Deep in Nehemiah’s soul, he sees in his mind’s eye what could be. He envisions that ancient city standing tall, with sturdy wall rebuilt. But even more so, he envisions the rebuilding of lives. He pictures God’s people gathering for worship. He sees children running around and playing, safely protected from the enemy. He sees new life rising from the ashes. This vision consumes him; it keeps him awake at night; his heart burns to make this vision a reality. And he knows what he has to do.

Let me ask you a question. What vision is God giving to you right now? What does your heart burn for? Maybe you haven’t thought about that question in a long time. Maybe you’ve been so occupied with simply living that you haven’t had time to think about the way things could be. And I understand that. But if you did, what do you think you’d see? Do you see a strong marriage where you and your spouse pray together? Do you see a church filled with little ones singing praises to God? Do you see hundreds of people finding victory over their addictions? Do you see a burdened community bustling with hope once again? This is the power of vision. I’m getting excited just thinking about the new life God could resurrect through each of us when we ask God to give us vision, to help us see with fresh eyes. And here’s the thing about vision. Vision doesn’t discriminate. Just ask Abraham, who was old and Mary, who was young, and Moses, who said he couldn’t talk that well, and Paul, who had some type annoying thorn in his flesh. You’re not too far-gone, messed up, old, or inadequate to experience God’s vision for you right now. You just have to ask for it. And once you have vision, once you have that burning desire, it’s time to take a step of faith and start rebuilding!

Now, a lot of people who have a vision for the way things could be are so excited to get started that they just start doing things. That’s a recipe for failure. All vision, all rebuilding, begins with prayer! I know it might sound counterintuitive and it might sound like a stall tactic, but prayer is the only surefire way to see a vision transform into reality. I’ve seen so many great ideas falter and peter out because there was a flurry of well-intentioned activity in the beginning, but very little prayer. Nehemiah’s vision of rebuilding the city walls was built on intense times of seeking God in prayer. Before he did anything, Nehemiah prayerfully walked from wall to wall, inspecting and examining every nook and cranny to know what he getting himself in to. That’s what prayer does. Prayer helps us uncover the “root” and see what lies behind the surface, because we’re bound to miss something important if we only look at the surface. But there’s a even more important role for prayer. Prayer reminds us that the vision is God’s first, who has graciously shared that vision with us. And ultimately, if the vision succeeds, it will be by the grace and strength of God. Remember, the city walls were destroyed because people forgot God’s initial vision. And the only way Nehemiah will see this new vision bear fruit is to keep his heart firmly rooted in God’s presence and God’s ways. Whatever vision God has given you, the work of rebuilding begins with prayer.

A second fatal flaw to every vision is the attempt to accomplish it all alone. That’s not going to work. All rebuilding requires help. You aren’t enough to get the job done, no matter how skilled or intelligent you think you are. You aren’t enough to see this vision unfold, but God is. And God will always be your first source of help. When you set out to strengthen your marriage, God will be there to lift you up. When you set out to help others in their struggles, God will give you knowledge you don’t have on your own. And what’s more? God will bring others into your life to share this journey with you. Remember, together, and only together, are we the body of Christ. As Paul says in his famous teaching on the body of Christ, we all have different gifts and roles and functions. Some are like hands, some are like feet, while others are like ears. And when we use them together, the result is like a beautiful symphony. But just imagine the trumpet player ignoring the tempo set by the conductor. Or the soprano who thinks the song would sound better if she was in a completely different key. The vision, the music, would come crashing down. That’s because all rebuilding requires help. Whatever vision God has given you, pray for help. And when help comes, receive that help with open arms. He, she or they are gifts from God to get the job done.

The third flaw that can cause any vision to fall is having the wrong goal. As much as Nehemiah wanted to see the walls rebuilt, his vision wasn’t primarily about rebuilding a city; it was about rebuilding faith. That’s because Nehemiah understood that all rebuilding should lead to worship. The vision should never replace the One who’s given it, but sometimes it can. Sometimes we’re satisfied with simply accomplishing the goal- saving the marriage, getting a friend some much-needed help, starting a new initiative-but that only reveals that our goal was spiritually shortsighted. Once Nehemiah’s vision became reality, he gathered the people for worship. He did what he could to help others remember that rebuilding the walls was about rebuilding the people’s faith. Listen to these words: Ezra the scribe opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” They they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. A troubled people, finding new life and reconnecting with a God who promised to never leave them. The glory of God filling hearts and lives. That’s the vision Nehemiah saw when God first moved his heart.

Every vision God gives us is part of a larger story God is telling. Every marriage rebuilt points to this Story. So does every life saved from hurts, habits and hang-ups. Even those crumbling walls rebuilt by Nehemiah and his friends are telling God’s story. Soon those same rebuilt Jerusalem walls will hear the echoing cries of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him” as Jesus makes his way through the city streets and on to a cross. And one day, the grand finale of that Story will unfold before our very eyes, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I believe every vision God gives us for the here and now is meant to point that moment. So whatever your vision, whatever burns in your heart, whatever keeps you up at night, Let’s start rebuilding.” Amen.