Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Just Remembering

Reminding myself not to complain that winter hasn't left yet by remembering this day last summer.

It was the final day in Grand Rapids for our youth group's mission week. It got close to 100-degrees and Ron, the guy who supervised our work at the elder care facility at which we worked, knew that I had a pacemaker and defibrillator. So, he assigned me to drive the Gator while poor Isaac and another young man in our group shoveled and spread mulch.

The next day, shortly after we'd returned to Logan, that ferocious storm that knocked out so much power in Ohio and other states hit and we had no air conditioning during the hottest, most humid week of the year.

A little bit of the lingering winter we're experiencing now would have felt really good about then.

Take the seasons as they come and keep on leaning on Jesus!

The Time for Cute is Over: The World Needs Jesus!

The time for cute is over.

That's the thought that crossed my mind and came out of my mouth during a recent breakout session with Lutheran colleagues from southern Ohio.

One member of our group shared the impact on him of some polling he'd read about done among people leaving Easter Sunday worship services. A high number of them, people who had presumably just heard the good news of Easter--that God the Son, Who had taken on human flesh and died on a cross, taking humanity's rightful punishment for sin, and then, on Easter, rose from the dead in order to give all who turn from sin and believe in Him everlasting life with God--had been proclaimed, sung about, and shouted, could not articulate what Easter was about.

Truth is, what my colleague shared did not surprise me, not because I think that the average worshiper on Easter Sunday is stupid.

The problem is that we who are called by God through the Church to preach and teach about Jesus routinely make the wrong assumption. We forget that the ground has shifted beneath us.

In North America and Europe, we live in a post-Christian culture. But we assume that most people who pass through the doors of our church buildings know the content of the Gospel--the good news--about Jesus and the new life He offers freely to those who believe in Him. Our job, we assume is to simply remind people of this gospel in compelling, entertaining, painless (cute) ways, being careful not to take up so much time that people are late for the Sunday brunches at local restaurants.

But cute isn't working any more.

Churches are losing membership, my denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) more rapidly than any other denomination in the United States. And, according to an article in last week's TIME magazine by Jon Meacham, Americans claiming no religious affiliation at all has risen from 15% to 20% in the past five years.

While mainline churches have sought to present a message indistinguishable from a corrupt and failing culture and while many evangelical churches have watered down the Gospel to be culture-current and both strains of Christian faith in America have often followed the siren song of political engagement rather than Gospel proclamation, Americans have tuned the Church out.

And who can blame them? If we sound like everybody else, just the praying wings of this or that philosophy or political party, who needs us or the message we offer?

After hearing about the polling of Easter worshipers who didn't know what Easter was about, my colleague decided that his preaching had to change, starting on Easter Sunday, 2012. "You know what I preached about last Easter?" he asked us. "Easter!"

That stood in contrast to reports I'd heard about the sermon of another mainline Christian pastor (not Lutheran) on that same Easter. She had shown pictures of Easter bunnies and talked about not how Christ can make the life of those who surrender their lives and wills to Him brand new, but about how Christians needed to be good people and make the world new by their good works. That isn't the Gospel! The Gospel is God-centered, Christ-dependent. 

It turns out my colleague wasn't alone in sensing God's call to get back to the basics and to forget about being entertaining, culture-current, or cute. That became clear as the rest of us began sharing.

"I just finished a sermon series looking at the basics of Christian faith through Luther's Small Catechism," said another one of our group.

"We've been doing a Bible study based on The Augsburg Confession," said another.

Two had done adult Sunday School class on basic Bible teachings.

I offered that our adult Sunday School class was looking at the Biblical underpinnings of The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of Lutherans' understanding of Christ and the Christian faith, and that I would soon be doing a sermon series on the same theme.

No bishop or church council had told any of us to take this back to basics approach. It seemed to me that this strange convergence in our thinking, born of prayer and study, had the same source: God the Holy Spirit was telling us to forget about cute and simply proclaim the Good News about Jesus, to assume nothing, to take nothing for granted.

To tell you the truth, this moment of desperation and of wrestling with why the Church is needed and how Christ is essential for every human being, is exhilarating and liberating. In the past few years, my preaching has changed. For most of my twenty-eight years as a pastor, my sermon preparation has, to some extent, been weighed down by two questions, the very asking of which, was limiting: How can I get their attention? How can I make it palatable?

Now though, the Holy Spirit seems to be guiding me and others who want to share the Gospel to ask a different question: What do people need to hear?

That very question liberates the pastor from being a marketer to become a preacher and teacher.

It also drives me to God's Word for direction and to God's Spirit for wisdom more than ever before.

And the feedback I get tells me that, on the whole, people hunger for this kind of back to basics approach. People need to hear the truth about God the Father, God the Son Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit. They need to hear the truth about the Bible, the sacraments, repentance, faith, salvation, discipleship, loving God, loving neighbor, the Ten Commandments, sin, evil, the devil, original sin, and being set free from sin and death by God's grace given through faith in Jesus Christ. A back to basics approach fills these needs for God's truth.

According to that article by Meacham, it isn't just we Lutheran Christians in southern Ohio being led by God's Spirit in this way. He says that this back to basics approach is one of the ten big ideas reshaping American life right now:
In a classic attempt to turn adversity to advantage, Christian leaders who once assumed a cultural dominance...are now arguing for a double-down strategy. Rather than softening the Gospel message to make it more marketable to America skeptical of institutions...what draws real energy among the faithful is a renewed commitment to what Christians call the Great Commission, the words the resurrected Jesus spoke to his apostles at the end of Matthew: 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.'" [See this translation of the passage, Matthew 28:19-20.]
In His famous conversation with the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, Jesus says:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18) 
The compassion that God has for those who don't yet know Christ or the Good News about Him is undoubtedly behind the back to basics push many of us are feeling as we pray and read God's Word these days.

It appears that Pope Francis I, newly elected head of the Roman Catholic Church, is getting the same message from the Holy Spirit. In his informal homily before the College of Cardinals on the day after his election to the papacy, Francis said:
We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.

The time for cute is over. 

[UPDATE: As I was writing this piece, thinking of all the people who need Jesus in their lives and how each minute that passes without our plainly proclaiming the Gospel about Jesus puts those people's eternal lives in jeopardy, lines from Bob Dylan's song, All Along the Watchtower kept coming back to me: "...let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late." Jesus is what people need from the Church and from Christians. No one else will give Him to them.]

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday: Welcome Jesus, Welcome Others to Know Jesus

Luke 19:28-40
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;
And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
(Spoken) And he said, ‘Zacchaeus you come down
For I'm going to your house today.
For I'm going to your house today.’”

That's a simple little Bible song about an incident in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus was passing through the city of Jericho, which sets at the lowest point on earth, heading for Jerusalem. A short man named Zacchaeus, climbs into a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as Jesus walks by. Zacchaeus had gained his riches by extorting more taxes from people than they owed. He wasn’t popular in Jericho. But Jesus invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house.

I bring this up because we it helps us to understand Luke's account of Palm Sunday if we first understand what happened between Jesus and Zacchaeus just before Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

Let’s take a look at Luke 19, starting at verse 5. It says that Jesus saw Zacchaeus and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” There's a lot of irony here. A sinner looks down on God in the flesh, Who has come into the world as a servant to all humankind. Yet the scene doesn't play out like that at all. You might think that Zacchaeus’ first impulse would be to tell Jesus to find somewhere else to stay. After all, he had only climbed the tree to see what all the fuss was about. He could see by Jesus’ attire that Jesus was just more Galileean riff-raff. Yet Zacchaeus doesn't react as you'd expect!

All of us have the same choice in this life that Zacchaeus had to make at that moment. We can choose to receive the gift of faith in Jesus or not.

“Listen!” the risen and ascended Jesus is recorded as saying in Revelation 3, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear My voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.”

Jesus Christ wants to come into your life, be your Savior, be your best friend.

Jesus, Who died and rose to set you free from sin, death, and a pointless life, is knocking at the door of your will, life, and heart each day? Will you let him in?

Zacchaeus' answer was, “Yes!”

Luke 19:6 says that Zacchaeus hurried down and received Jesus “joyfully.”

When, after a decade of atheism, I received Jesus into my life, I knew a joy I had never experienced. I still had no clear idea of what God wanted to do with my life. Jesus didn’t offer me a life free of adversity or difficulty or death. But I didn’t care because Jesus was in my life and I knew that He was all I needed! I knew that Jesus Christ had saved me, a sinner who had once despised Him!

Sometimes, amid the routines and challenges of life, I forget that. But I have learned the truth of the Christmas hymn by Phillips Brooks: "Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in." That's true no matter how many times we fall, no matter how far we've fallen!

In Luke 19:9, Jesus, considering how Zacchaeus had received Jesus by faith, declares: “Today [now, this moment] salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus] also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man [Jesus refers to Himself in this way] has come to seek and to save that which is lost.”

Whenever you and I get lost, wandering far from God by engaging in unrepentant sin--be it thievery, gossip, fornication, adultery, worshiping other gods, dishonoring our parents, or some other way--God can find us again!

Not everyone was happy about the change that had come to Zacchaeus’ life. Listen: The moment you feel that you’ve been made clean by the forgiveness and grace God gives through Jesus, that's when the devil, the world, and your sinful self will begin grumbling. Bet on it!

"Who are you to receive God’s forgiveness?" the grumblers inside and outside of you will demand. "Who are you to be called one of God’s righteous saints?"

The grumbling that day in Jericho came from some of the crowd who had been shouting for Jesus. Look at Luke 19:7. “But when they saw [Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house], they all complained [or grumbled], saying, ‘He [Jesus] has gone to be a guest with a man who is sinner.’”

I wonder how we would react if today, we saw Jesus enter the home of a drug dealer? Or an adulterer? Or an extortionist? Or any other sinner, like you or me?

But Jesus will enter any home and any heart that welcomes Him.

The grumblers that tell you that someone doesn’t deserve the forgiveness of God Jesus brings, the grumblers that tell you that you don't deserve the forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ, completely miss the point.

Here's why: None of us deserves God’s forgiveness. We are all sinners who deserve condemnation and hell. But Jesus died and rose so that we can be with and enjoy God for all eternity! These gifts come to those who gladly receive Jesus.

It’s interesting that Jesus was walking from Jericho to the Mount of Olives as our Gospel lesson begins.

About 1200 years before the birth of Jesus, God’s people entered the Promised Land from the east, crossing the Jordan to face the walled city of Jericho. Jericho had to be conquered so that God’s people could take the land.

The leader of the Hebrews was Moses’ successor, Joshua. His name in the Hebrew language was Yeshua, meaning God saves. It is the same name as that of Jesus. In the Hebrew language, Jesus’ name was also Yeshua. But because the New Testament is written in Greek, where Yeshua becomes Yesus, we call him Jesus.

When the Joshua of the Old Testament prepared to enter the promised land, you’ll remember that he sent two spies into Jericho. Twelve-hundred years later, Jesus needed no spies. He knew everything that was going to happen. He knew where His enemies were.

But Jesus did send two disciples ahead of him. Jesus instructs the two disciples to find a colt in a nearby village, presumably Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. It would, Jesus tells them, be tied, and would be an animal on which nobody had previously ridden.

That last bit of information is far more important than it may seem: God in the flesh would be the colt's first rider.

This is part of a pattern in Jesus’ life and ministry.
  • When Jesus was born, He came from a womb that had never known sexual intimacy. Jesus was the first born of a virgin’s womb. [See Luke 1:26-35; Matthew 1:18-25.]
  • When Jesus died, His body was “laid...in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”  [See Luke 23:53.]
The things of God must always be first, holy, and set apart. Jesus is, as the New Testament book of Hebrews calls Him, our pioneer. He always writes new histories for those who repent and believe in Him on clean sheet of paper. He starts creation over again!

The two disciples find everything as Jesus has told them. They bring the animal back, throw their clothes on it, and set Jesus on it. Jesus begins to ride into Jerusalem. From the depths of Jericho, Jesus and the disciples ascend to the Mount of Olives. One New Testament scholar has written that even today, when you go by car, the culmination of the ascent from earth's lowest depth, Jericho, to the Mount of Olives, brings a sense of relief, the drive up is so steep. And the view, when one arrives, he says, is breathtaking: From the Mount of Olives, you look down into the Kidron Valley, and look across to see Jerusalem.

Jesus no doubt took in this sight, thinking of all that lay ahead of Him. Who can imagine what pangs Jesus felt as He kept His face set toward Jerusalem and the suffering and dying He would undergo for you and me? How alone He must have felt at that moment!

“Then,” verse 37 says, “as He was drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”

It’s important to point out a couple of things that are unique about Luke’s account of Palm Sunday.
  • First, there’s no mention of palms. Those are in John’s gospel. Branches are mentioned in Matthew's and Mark's accounts of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on this day. But no palms in Luke.
  • Second, he doesn’t mention the crowds shouting, “Hosanna,” an Aramaic prayer meaning, “Save us, pray.” 
  • And third, in Luke’s telling, only the disciples welcome Jesus, not the crowds. 
Now, does that mean that there weren’t palms, hosannas, or welcoming crowds? Of course not! It simply means that Luke has some things he wants you and I to notice about the first Palm Sunday, things that he foreshadowed in the events in Jericho surrounding Zacchaeus.

Using the words of Psalm 118, which some New Testament scholars say, was a hymn sung by worshippers as they headed for Jerusalem for festivals like the Passover, the disciples welcomed Jesus to the holy city.

Did the disciples fully understand what was going on? No.

Did some of them think that Jesus was going to start a revolution and set up an earthly kingdom to replace their Roman overlords? Probably.

Did any of them believe that Good Friday and Easter were going to happen? At that moment, I’m sure they didn’t know.

But they knew enough to welcome Jesus. We don’t know what lies in our immediate futures either. We don't know what God has in mind for us. We don't know what valleys or Good Fridays this fallen, sinful world may mete out to us.

Yet if we will welcome Jesus as our God and King, we do know that we have an eternity of Easter Sundays to look forward to!

And we do know that Jesus, Who was tempted, tested, suffered, died, and then rose, will be with us every step of the way!

But don’t expect the devil, the world, or even our inner sinful rebels to take our welcoming of Jesus lying down! Look at Luke 19:39, please. “...some of the Phairsees called to [Jesus] from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’” “Tell those people to be quiet! They need to can their faith in You!” they were telling Jesus.

There will always be people who grumble about the joy Christians know in Christ.

“Tell my daughter to quit reading the Bible so much, pastor” a mom once said to me. “Why?” I asked. “Religion has its place,” the mom asserted, “but we have to be practical.” Like Mary, the sister of Martha, that woman’s daughter had chosen the better part that could never be taken away from her. That's the part we must choose, too, if we are to have life with God!

The things of this world will die, damned to hell for eternity. As a design engineer who built great buildings and bridges once told his colleagues over dinner, “One day, all of this will burn.” But those who trust in Jesus Christ have life with God, now and forever! They welcome Jesus into their lives. The grumblers, even those who go to church on Sundays but forget about Jesus on Mondays, block Jesus from their lives by refusing to welcome him into every portion of their lives.

Fact is, we all can be grumblers, at least some of the time. The reason for that is simple: If you dare as a Christian to live in daily repentance and renewal, you can count on God to confront you for your sins, even as He embraces you in His grace and love. God loves sinners, but God still hates sin and always will. By His grace, through Jesus Christ, God is committed to removing sin from our lives. But it's a painful truth that none of us likes being separated from our sins. We get comfortable with them. They start to define us. We feel a natural resistance to God's intention to make us new by removing our dependence on our sins from us!

We’ll never be completely free of sin this side of heaven. But the Christian tells Jesus, “Let the old self be crucified, so that the new self can rise today and every day.”

Jesus, of course, refused the Pharisees request. He wouldn’t let His disciples stop welcoming and praising Him. In verse 40, Jesus tells them, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”

I've shared with some of you before that when our son was about eight years old, he said, "Hey, dad, you know how Jesus said that if people stopped worshiping Him, the stones would start worshiping Him instead?" "Yeah," I said. "Well, I know it would be bad if nobody was worshiping Jesus. But it would be kind of cool to hear how stones worshiped."

Listen: Don’t let inanimate stones take your job!

It’s the job and the joy of every Christians to shout and sing and live the praises of the God Who died and rose to set us and all of creation free from sin and death and futility.

It’s our job and our joy to welcome Jesus into our lives and, like Zacchaeus to tell others of our thankfulness that Jesus--God in human flesh--went to Jerusalem, to suffering, to a cross, to hell itself, and than rose from death to set us eternally free.

Welcome Jesus into your life!

Then welcome others to know Jesus!

That’s what Palm Sunday is all about.