Friday, April 18, 2003

TGIF: Thank God, it's Friday. On Good Friday, God opened up the possibility for all to receive the free gift of eternal life! What an awesome thing God's love for all people is! "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," the book of Romans says. The greatest act of love the world has ever seen was done for you and me. If that doesn't make this a good Friday, I don't know what does.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Knowing Who You Are
Palm Sunday, April 13, 2003

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church]

Some of you have heard me tell the story before of a colleague’s memory from his teen age years. Several different times, when this guy had hot dates, he needed to get the car keys from his dad. Each time, as his dad flung the keys across the room to him, he told his boy, “Never forget who you are, son.”

That was my colleague’s dad’s gentle way of reminding his boy that, even if he didn’t think so, his life had significance. He was a child of God whose actions and words mattered, for good and bad. If he would always remember who he was and what his values were, this dad was saying, he wouldn’t go wrong.

Each of us wants our lives to have significance. But each of us must decide what that means. Each of us must decide what the true measure of a good life is. Is it possessions, power, influence, sexual conquest? Or is it faithfulness to God’s call of love of God and love of neighbor over the long and sometimes rocky haul of life?

As we meet Jesus in our Bible lesson for this morning, it’s clear what Jesus regarded as the true measure of a life. For months, in the face of opposition and death threats, Jesus had pursued His mission of bringing God’s kingdom to all people. Jesus was more than just a human being, of course. Jesus was also God—all-powerful, all-knowing. He knew full well how dangerous it was for Him to pursue His mission. He also knew what fate awaited Him in Jerusalem. He knew that He would be betrayed or abandoned by His closest followers, that He would be arrested, that He would be whipped and beaten brutally, that He would die a horrible death on a cross.

But Jesus also knew Who He was: the Suffering Servant Who had come to take our rightful punishment for sin. And He knew what He valued. He valued obedience to the will of God the Father. He valued our lives. So, He kept on being true to His mission. And He went to Jerusalem, the place where His values and His mission came face to face with a world bent on rejecting Him and killing Him.

This past Friday night, our exchange student Sarah, was telling me about the elaborate schemes for cheating on tests she’s seen from her classmates back in Germany. Girls who usually wear pants to school will wear skirts on days of major tests, writing information on the insides of their hems and flipping them over to find answers. Leather pencil bags are popular; students have found that they can use erasable pens to jot down answers that can only be seen when held under the light just right. The green desks in their class rooms make it easy for students to conceal crib notes they’ve put on them in pencil. Some kids conceal answers in emptied Chap-Stick containers. As I listened to all of this, I couldn’t help but thinking, “During all the time it takes for these kids to cheat—the seeming easy way, they could have actually learned the material, the way they think is too difficult.” When our measure of what makes our lives successful or happy or fulfilling are wrong, we always look for the easy way. Not so with Jesus.

Back at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, you may remember, He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The devil told Jesus repeatedly, “Look, I can do whatever I want on planet earth right now. If you’ll just follow me, you won’t have to go to a cross. You won’t have to die. You won’t have to suffer. You won’t have to take the difficult path. You can take the easy one.” After Jesus refused the devil every time, the New Testament book of Luke tells us that the devil left Jesus, waiting for a more opportune time to lure Jesus away from the difficult path—the right path—toward the easy path, the wrong one. The events of Palm Sunday brought six days of intense temptation to Jesus. Everywhere He turned, He was tempted to take the easy path, to avoid the cross, to forego suffering in our place. But Jesus always remembered Who He was and what He was about.

Jesus entered Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday so that He could enter the lives of those who will welcome Him. And over the centuries, those who, like the first Palm Sunday crowd, welcome Jesus into their lives have found that Jesus takes the difficult path of loving us and sticking by us in order to change our lives for the better forever. If we will choose the difficult path of following Jesus, He will bring blessings to us here and give us eternity with God!

Writer Vicki Schad tells about a conversation she had with a friend whom she had known for more than ten years. The conversation though, amazed Vicki:
As they were talking, their chat turned to family histories. Vicki listened as her friend told her--for the first time--the horrifying story of child abuse, suicide, and alcoholism in her family. As [Vicki] listened, she couldn't help but compare her friend's family history with her life as Vicki knew it [now]...[She thought of] her friend's strong love for her husband, the solid home environment they had provided for their children, and the faith she had in God. Vicki remembers her growing amazement at the contrast between the dreadful background into which her friend had been born and the reality of her present life. When her friend had finished, and after a moment of silent reflection, Vicki asked, "What has made the difference? How were you able to move away from that background?" Her friend set down her coffee cup and smiled. "It sounds almost too simple, but when Jesus entered my life He broke the pattern."

It isn’t easy to break old patterns of thinking and living. This morning though, I want to tell you that If we will let Jesus in, He can break those old patterns. He can help us to fulfill our life’s promise.

But don’t misunderstand. Welcoming Jesus into our lives won’t set us down an easy path. Becoming the people God made us to be is a difficult journey that will only be finally completed after Jesus has welcomed us into heaven. Often, welcoming Jesus into our lives now will only make our lives more difficult. But whenever we dare to invite Jesus in, good things happen.

This time of year always makes me think of a man that Ann and I met when I was on our seminary internship. His name was Dan [not his real name] and he was a member of the Michigan congregation where I interned. Back in those days, I was in the habit of reading the whole story of Jesus’ death on the cross—what we call the Passion of Jesus—on Palm Sunday morning. On Palm Sunday, 1983, I read the passion story and Dan sat in the front row. When I came to the part of the story where Jesus was being whipped by Roman soldiers, I caught a glimpse of Dan. Tears were filling his eyes. When I described the pounding of nails into Jesus’ flesh, I saw Dan again; tears were streaming down his face. And when I read of Jesus’ last breath, of His surrender to death, Dan had no choice but to wipe away the tears and bury his head in his hands. But I knew that Dan was crying tears of joy, not sadness.

In many ways, Dan had a tough life. After service in World War Two, Dan came home, fell in love, got married, started a family, and established himself in a career in law enforcement and private investigation. He had a series of health problems which, ultimately required surgery. After the operation, he became addicted to pain medicine. When doctors no longer prescribed that, Dan began to drink. He drank a lot. For years he drank. Although his wife and kids loved him, Dan's drinking—which originally only happened when he sat alone at night and never while he worked—gradually took over his life and was poisoning his every relationship, preventing him from making a living. His wife prayed for guidance. She went to her pastor, who prayed for guidance. Ultimately, they formed an intervention team that confronted Dan. “Dan,” they told him, “you need help. You need to admit you have a problem. You need to dry out. You need to learn to depend on God to help you get free of your addiction.” At first, he was resistant. It’s hard to break old patterns. But Dan came to realize that unless he took the difficult path his family and pastor wanted him to take, he might keep existing, but he would never live. It was Dan’s turn to pray. He surrendered his alcoholism to Jesus Christ and entered an alcohol treatment program. Dan wept on Palm Sunday because he knew that Jesus, Who had called him to walk the difficult path, had saved his life. Dan only lived a few more years after that. His body had been too damaged by years of alcoholism. I’m sure he’s in heaven today because he trusted Jesus with his life. If you talk with his widow, she will tell you that though they had been difficulty, his last years were the best years of Dan’s life and the best years of their marriage.

What is the measure of your life’s significance? It doesn’t reside in grabbing what you can to make this life easy. It’s in taking the difficult path of following Jesus and letting God lead us toward becoming our true selves! That’s the path Jesus took on Palm Sunday. It’s the path He invites us to take today and every day.

[The theme of significance for today's message was suggested by a great sermon given Pastor Michael Foss. In that sermon, he recounted the story of Vicki Schad and her friend; it was taken from Daily Guideposts, 1989, pp.167-168. It is a true story. So are the stories of my colleague's father (which my colleague shared with me) and of Dan, a man I really knew. The elaborate test-cheating schemes from Germany are also true.]