Relentless Pursuit

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father–in–law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. – Exodus 3.1-6

Last week we were with the disciples around the campfire. Kick off your shoes, folks, for today we are heading to the desert to discover another fire… a fire in a bush that wasn’t a fire at all. In fact we discover that the fire is not just a messenger from God, but God himself. Now we know that God being God could have chosen any way to catch Moses’ attention but he chooses a burning bush. Do you ever wonder sometimes how many peculiar things must happen to us before we will show up and pay attention to God. God will go to great lengths to get our attention – even a burning bush! What has been the most unusual way that God got your attention?

There are four key points in the text. First, the burning bush is God’s attention getter. God will go to great lengths to capture the attention of the one he loves. Second, stopping what we are doing is a requirement so we can hear God and be redirected. Entering into dialogue with God requires that we let go of the work we are doing and take time to come aside to hear God’s voice. Third, we have to take our shoes off. When Moses takes his shoes off, all his escape routes were cancelled. There was no more running from God. However, just because we stop running doesn’t mean we’re done negotiating with God. Fourth, if you can’t beat God, perhaps you can twist his arm! Moses wades through 7 different excuses to try to get out of his calling. Excuse #1: What about me? Who am I? Excuse #2: Who are you, God? Excuse #3: What about them? They aren’t going to believe. Excuse #4: I’m not qualified. I am unskilled. Excuse #5: Get somebody else. The last two excuses are inferred from the dialogue between Moses and Jethro and Moses and God. Excuse #6: They are probably already dead. Excuse #7: They’ll kill me. Suffice it to say none of these excuse worked with God. The funny thing is there are two more excuses that we often use but were not even considered by Moses – his old age and his family. They were not even legitimate excuses! Notice how God continued to relentlessly pursue Moses for the sake of his people. Let’s dig a little deeper into the text.

When Moses draws near to the one thing that captured his attention, God speaks. God invites Moses to stop and take off his shoes. When we enter into God’s presence we must slow down and enter with great humility. Moses even covers his face in fear. When was the last time you entered into the presence of the Lord by slowing down and surrendering your personal power. Moses has taken off his shoes and his mode of escaping God’s conversation has just been relinquished. Moses answers the voice of God by simply stating, “Here I am.” And, God responds by addressing Moses. God desires to have a little talk with Moses. And, boy oh boy! Moses had a lot of roadblocks at the ready.

One of my favorite childhood cartoons was a Warner Brother’s character named Daffy duck. Daffy played in a skit as Robin Hood and he would take his stick and defend himself, but he always ended up with a bent beak – ho, ha, guard, turn, parry, dodge, spin, ha, thrust. He always got smacked in the mouth with the very weapon he was using to defend himself. Moses was having a day like that. Every excuse he was making was met with God redesigning his plan. God made every effort to ensure Moses success, and he wouldn’t even consider letting Moses off the hook. “The Hound of Heaven” was pursuing Moses like a pack of sweet puppies ready to pounce on any young toddler and lick them silly. Moses said, “Here I am.” And, basically God said, Let’s talk because I have a problem I want you to address.

But Moses was full of excuses and the dialogue is a lot like one of my favorite Abbot and Castello routines “Who’s on first?” Moses first excuse is the old Joyce Meyer routine that we talked about last week with Peter, what about me? Moses informs God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3.11). Moses struggled with his identity. He didn’t feel qualified. He thought God had chosen the wrong leader. God reminded Moses that he was with them. God says, I am with you and it doesn’t matter who you are (3.12). Moses expresses his unworthliness to be a leader. But God provides blessed assurance. God doesn’t waiver in his determination that Moses is his chosen instrument. God displays utter patience with Moses. God wants to be in relationship. He desires to share of himself with his children. He reveals himself by divulging his name, which is his very nature. God does not coerce us but waits and remains passively peaceful in patience. Sometimes we get so full of ourselves that God can’t do a thing with us. We are more concerned with our personal needs, rather than God’s call on our lives to serve.

The second excuse is familiar to us as well, “Who are you?” We really like to question the voice of God and pretend it really wasn’t God voice at all. It makes you want to whistle and go right along with your own business. Moses inquires, when they ask me, “‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3.13). Moses was definitely looking for a loop-hole. Moses didn’t know God well enough, yet. He wasn’t yet able to articulate his belief about God because he lacked intimacy with God up to this point. God desires for Moses to know him, I am with you… I am ever present… I am everything you need… I am who I am. Moses had only a glimmer of understanding from his encounter, but by the time that his life ends Moses will know God in a way that only a few of us will ever experience. God is the revealer of himself, and provides the comfort that Moses needed to accept his strange relationship with God that was formed out of an encounter with a burning bush and a voice from heaven. God says, I will be whom I will be. God simply expresses to Moses – that He exists. God exists. He is a real person. Sometimes we think we know God better than we truly do. We think of God as old what’s his name.

The third excuse Moses offers sounds a whole lot like Peter’s response when he was called last week, But what about them? Moses inquired of God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”(Exodus 4.1). Moses was fearful of how the people would respond and react. He wasn’t sure what they would say or what they would do. Moses was intimidated not by God, but by the people whom God created in his image. Moses isn’t sure if God would have his back. But God assures Moses that before he is finished with the people, they will listen. when God speaks, he means business. There are many powerful hierarchies that we live within – family structures, church organizations, and political influence. But all must bow low before the Maker of Heaven and Earth. God is not threatening to reveal himself – he is promising to reveal himself. Moses believes himself to be incompetent for the task of convincing the people of what God wants. Yet, God remains faithful to Himself. God will provide signs and wonders for the people to see. Sometimes we mishandle power and influence. When we lead others, are we spending time listening to God’s directions first?

The fourth excuse Moses is disqualifying himself by saying to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4.10). I can just hear Moses’ proud as a peacock smile thinking to himself, I’ve got you on this one, Lord. You can just imagine Moses jaw dropping when even a stuttering tongue wasn’t going to disqualify Moses from the job. God will speak through Moses, even with his stuttering tongue. Moses fretted about his inadequacies, never considering who made him that way to begin with. God is always willing and ready to fill in our inadequacies with himself. God chooses the imperfect people of the world to show his power. God chooses the humble and the lowly to shine his glory through. God the Creator has designed us for a purpose, but have we inquired of God what his plan might be for us? So often we make our own plans and tell God what we are going to do instead of asking God what his plans are and joining him where he leads us. The opposite of incompetency is over-competency. We become arrogant and lean on our own understanding, skills, talents, education, and experience without ever asking God his point of view. So have you prayed about your decision-making lately? We can get ourselves in a tremendous mess by disregarding the pathway of humility in prayer.

And, the fifth excuse, Moses utters the words, Could you please stop hounding me and just get somebody else? But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else” (Exodus 4.13). Can you imagine Moses being so sure of himself that he would not have to answer this call that God had presented him with. But even then God would not relent in his pursuit of Moses. I know you can find somebody else more qualified. I just can’t see myself doing that. I know what you are asking me, but that’s not for me. Moses measured himself against the shadow of someone else, and he pleaded with God to take away his calling and his commission to go and rescue the perishing. Please God send somebody else… Our excuses can go on and on. I don’t have time. My family needs me. My health is failing. I have young children. But God works with us in and through our excuses, because he loves our quirky personalities. Sometimes I don’t know how he puts up with me. Maybe you feel the same way. But God works with us, and he keeps calling us. God makes room for a ministry partnership, and he is sent not as a lone ranger but with companionship. His partner will have a call of his own to wrangle with, but the bulk of the responsibility will remain on Moses. Moses has to fulfill his own call from God, and no one else can fulfill it. The call of God on your life is irrevocable. God says, I’m still calling… will you answer.

But wait that’s not the last excuse. The sixth excuse… Moses speaks to his father-in-law, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive” (Exodus 4.18). Is there a hint that Moses hopes that they are all dead so he doesn’t have to fight for their freedom? Or does he hope they would be so few in number that it wouldn’t be an issue? Sometimes people wish themselves into negativity, but that doesn’t stop God’s relentless pursuit. Moses will discover that the people he returns to will be hard-hearted and bitter from their forced labor. Moses will bring about change to a community who should desire the new freedom. But read on in the story and you will discover trouble all along the way to the Promised Land. I surely wish that the journey into the future were smooth, easy and without the mishaps of disobedience to God’s best efforts to rescue us. But in all honesty, we know that problems are part of the growth process. Conflict is an inevitable part of God’s relationship backlash. And, unfortunately it’s human nature that we are quick to self-sabotage.

The seventh excuse, God speaks to Moses, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead” (Exodus 4.19). Moses had real concerns for his life. He was a wanted man by the most powerful nation in the Ancient Near East. God anticipated yet another excuse from our superhero of salvation history, and assured Moses that his enemies were no longer an issue in the community. That’s what amazes me about God’s grace. He loves us so much that he will not relent. In our culture pushy people are a turn off, but in God’s economy it’s called a work of grace. God has Moses in the “hot seat” of relentless grace. God has been at work in Moses life all along quietly working in the background of his daily life. But here is the first series of encounters Moses talks with God. God is no longer silent, but an active participant in a relationship with Moses. God has been wooing him with his love. God’s will has been drawing him in relationship. God’s desire has pursued Moses. God’s gift of grace freed Moses to respond to the invitation to trust God and be in relationship with Yahweh. It is easy to connect our own stories to the story of Moses.

How many excuses have each of us made to God about answering our call to serve and our responsibility to the people of God? Moses is our star pupil in God’s salvation story. When we discuss Moses, we know him as the hero that deserves his own scrapbook with all the photo ops and selfies of a comic strip superhero. For Marvel fans imagine that Moses is on your left. He is the super hero of church history and shows up on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah as they chat with Jesus before the crucifixion. He is one of the most remarkable men of all time, yet, his excuses for not stepping up into his call to help God’s people is tiring to say the least. I wonder how long this conversation went on before Moses was finally worn down with all God’s loving compassion and encouragement.

To be sure when God called Moses, Moses was not equipped to do the work that needed to be accomplished! God empowered him to serve, and gave him the stamina that he needed. God doesn’t equip his servants before the task. Instead God gives us the empowerment as we walk out beyond our abilities. God doesn’t want people in the Kingdom who know how to do things for God. God desires people in his Kingdom who are humble enough to ask for help and engage others in dialogue. God chooses the broken, lost, last, and lonely people to do his best work. God chooses those who will kick their shoes off and relinquish their escape routes. God chooses the humble who will cover their face when God is in their midst. God chooses those who will respond in dialogue with Him. God chooses the underdogs who have made mistakes, but have the courage to become overcomers. God chooses the aging and retired folks who think they are past their prime like Moses, and invites them to surrender their preferences to take up God’s task. God ensures that Moses will have a companion for the work ahead, but the work will surely require faith beyond measure and courage that can only be attained by the grace of God.

In our story there is good news! We have been invited into God’s Kingdom economy where the poor in spirit are lifted up and the impoverished have the Bread of Heaven. What made Moses a person God could use? First, Moses took time to be alone with God on the back-side of the desert at the Mountain of God. Second, Moses was fully transparent with God and he remained in dialogue with God when he didn’t get the answers he wanted to hear. Third, Moses was hungry for God more so than uncomfortable with his calling. His excuses didn’t diminish his hunger.

What prevents us from being alone, transparent, and hungry for God? Moses declared some significant excuses as to why he could not and would not follow God’s request, but perhaps the churches of Revelation give us even more insights into those excuses. There are several churches described in Revelation that can open our eyes to our deep-rooted excuses. John Maxwell calls these churches: persecuted, compromised, corrupt, deceased, faithful, and lukewarm. The persecuted church was consumed with fear, failure of nerve, and unfaithfulness. The compromised church used God’s gifts for a profit. The corrupt church was accepting of sexual immorality. The deceased church worked hard for God but failed to live by the Spirit. The faithful church lacked the strength and stamina to hold fast to God. The lukewarm church was rich in resources and complacent in their on-going relationship with God.

We are given an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God, and the altar is open for those who desire to step up and answer the call to faithful discipleship. God’s grace is like the “Hound of Heaven” wooing, pursing, drawing, freeing, and empowering you and me to seek that pathway of sanctification that leads us to the holiness of heart and life. Grace is relentlessly chasing us, Church! And, that’s good news!

O God, thank you for pursuing us until we cry out to you in sweet surrender. Take away the spirit of offense that invades our thinking when we are challenged to answer the call to deepen our relationship. Pour out your love upon us until we experience the sweetest joy of your Spirit. Amen.

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Prevenient Grace

Emmaus Women’s Walk, 11:45am, June 1, 2018

Lead the Prayer: Please turn to page 48 in your Worship Booklet and join me in the prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Hear these words from Psalm 139.13-15, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth” (NIV).

My name is Sharon Bailey, and the title of this talk is Prevenient Grace. 

Today I will use these three chairs to talk about prevenient grace. The first chair is the time in your life when you were sure about who God really is. Perhaps you are still unsure. Some people don’t believe God exists. Some people believe there might be a higher power. Some people believe all religions lead us to the One True God. Some people have knowledge about Jesus, but still are uncertain about what having a relationship with Jesus really means. The second chair is when we give God the nod by saying “yes,” and the bible calls that justifying grace. The third chair is when we grow in a holy relationship with God, and the bible calls that sanctifying grace. The first chair is the “hot seat” for us in this talk. 

Grace is the foundation of our belief system. Grace upon grace upon grace is the model of God’s unfailing love toward us. The stories in the bible of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David demonstrate God’s love toward his people. The Hebrew people would find themselves in a revolving relationship with God of broken then restored relationship with God as they struggled to make good choices of faithfulness. The prophets of old demonstrated the call to return to God over and over. They were the voice of God’s prevenient grace toward his people. Jesus, the Messiah, has become the ultimate story of God’s grace poured out for all of us to witness and know of God’s great love. 

The whole bible describes an on-going relationship between God and his people. God has been pursuing people from the very beginning. Those who accepted the gift of grace became extraordinary characters of faith and obedience. We can read about some of those characters in Hebrews chapter 12 in the hall of fame list of the empowered ones whose faith has been celebrated across thousands of years of salvation history. Each one of us is invited to join the ranks of the fully faithful. We are drawn into a personal relationship with God. God woos us to experience an eternal relationship with God himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are no behaviors that we can accomplish on earth that will win God’s grace. God simply pours out his heart of love upon all of us extending his covenant relationship with all who will listen and respond. That’s grace. Prevenient grace. Can you recall a time when God was calling to you? 

Although God’s grace has been moving through history since the beginning of time, grace may be one of the most challenging concepts to understand. The root meaning of the word grace in the original Greek is “charis” or gift.  God offers us this gift by way of salvation, reconciliation and eternal life. God’s grace has many facets – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying, but it is all one grace. 

You might say there are three stages of experiencing grace in our lives. These facets describe the aspects of our spiritual journey – before we know God, saying yes to God, and living to the glory of God. Prevenient grace means that God is working in our lives from conception to conversion. Grace comes before we are ever aware of God, or understand that we are to seek a relationship with him. Prevenient grace is at work in us long before we are aware of God’s presence. God’s love woos us. God’s will draws us. God’s desire purses us. God’s gift frees us to respond to the invitation to trust God and be in relationship with Jesus Christ. God’s activity empowers us and gives us spiritual stamina. 

Prevenient Grace or preventing grace is the power of God and the presence of God in our lives before we are aware of God’s existence. It is the grace that goes before us and prepares our hearts to receive God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. John Wesley understood prevenient, preparing, or preventing grace as active in our lives before we ever respond and said “yes.” Grace opens our eyes to our need for God, and the sinful attitudes that we carry. Grace points us to the only cure for our lives is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Grace provides us with an understanding of our rebellion and sinfulness that we might say that God has proven his love for each of us while we were still caught in depths of life’s troubles. Jesus has died for even me, even you (Romans 5.8).

Even from a young age God is seeking us out, and the story of Tristan is a wonderful example of God’s amazing grace. I once cared for a child who suffered a bowel obstruction. His life hung in the balance between life and death for several weeks when he was taken to surgery for a second time. While his bowels were being repaired, the colon miraculously grew several centimeters to the doctor’s amazement. The doctor was not a believer in God, but after that surgery he began to question God’s existence. 

After one of the young child’s many operations, he died. Doctors and nurses attempted many strategies to revive him but finally gave up and walked away, while his mother began to cry out to God in prayer. As we prayed together, the young child awoke from death and began talking to the amazement of the clinical staff. By the next morning he was able to describe his experience to his mother and me. Jesus had come to visit him. Within three months the young child returned to school and was eating a regular diet. Whenever I think about this young child, I stand in awe of how God desired to have a relationship with this young one who was created in his image. 

We are all created in God’s likeness and for the “soul” purpose of being in relationship with God. In the beginning God created the world and all that is in it, and God declared that his creation was good. God created humanity, male and female, and declared that they were good. And, God formed a relationship with the first couple, but one day that relationship was broken. Sin crept into the garden. We were created in God’s own likeness, but sin has marred that original image. 

Because of the decisions in the garden, we are inherently born with the propensity, inclination, predisposition, proneness, or weakness toward sin. We have been wired for a relationship with God from the very beginning so the most deepest part of us longs for God. St. Augustine once declared this about God in his writings entitled Confessions, “Our hearts will not find rest until they find rest in thee.” 

We are indeed wired for relationship with God, and the story of Chase is the perfect example. A teenage boy was flown into the hospital where I served on the staff. He had been riding an ATV with his friend who flipped the vehicle in some gravel. The young man injured his leg severely, and there was real concern among the staff that he would most likely loss his leg, if not his life. 

I remember him saying, Tell momma I’m sorry I didn’t listen to her. Tell momma I got right with God and I’m going to be okay. Through his recovery, God was wooing him in the early stages of a deep and meaningful relationship. As he recovered from his first surgery he had a powerful encounter with Jesus where Jesus came to his bedside and laid his hand on his heart. The young man said that a great heat came over his chest, and immediately his life-threatening infection began to subside. That day became the turning point in his recovery. Several weeks later he would walk again on his own two feet, and begin to grow in his relationship with God. 

Indeed, there is good news, bad news, and good news. The good news is that we are designed in the image of God. The bad news is that sin has disfigured that imagine within us. Each of us has made poor choices – real choices – that have separated us from God. Our spiritual lives have been diminished, yet God remains faithful to his side of the relationship. God’s good grace is greater than all the poor choices we have made. The good news is that God desires a relationship with us more than we want to be in relationship with God. Grace moves in our lives like a weather front. God’s great grace creates a high pressure system moves across the lows places in our lives. Grace can sweep through those problem areas and cleanse us of sin. 

There is nothing you can do that can deter God from wanting a deeply personal relationship with you. God seeks us and initiatives a relationship even after we have wander into the miry pit of poor choices. The very nature of that relationship is covenant love like a bridegroom with his bride. God’s grace is holy, seeking, everlasting, and a real gift waiting to be received, unwrapped, and worn like a beautiful garment. God’s grace is loving, good, kind, and gentle. God’s grace is patient and peaceful. A relationship with God is a result of our accepting God’s divine grace. Prevenient grace overcomes our brokenness and alienation with God, neighbor and self. 

Grace seeks us in our brokenness and alienation, and the story of Orien’s daddy is an illustration of how God bridges the great divide. Orien’s daddy could not imagine even the possibility of there being a God until the day he lost his infant son. He had grown up with a family who were religious but struggled with addiction and imprisonment. His childhood had been broken by crime and abandonment. 

When his infant son died, he had nothing to fill the gap between his deep sorrow and his need to go on living. He questioned his faith until he finally surrendered to the possibility that their might be a God, and he might get to see his child again in heaven. He had just a glimmer of hope as he allowed the medical team to remove the life saving devices that were sustaining his son’s breathing. As he let go of his child with an uncertain prayer, God met him in his deepest need. Orien’s daddy had a vision of Jesus that day and came to believe that not only was God real, but Jesus was really God. His disbelief was met with God’s amazing grace. 

God seeks us through events in our lives, both positively and negatively just like the stories I have shared of Tristan, Chase and Orien’s daddy. However, God also speaks to us through daily events of financial struggles and employment, family relationships, personal sickness, grief and loss. God speaks to us through other people who share their lives and resources with us such as family and friends. God speaks to us through our church community in the form of worship, prayer, baptism, confirmation, and communion, as well as in small groups. 

God engages us in relationship but never forces us to respond to his expressions of grace. God’s covenant love is like that – always seeking us but never demanding that we respond. God works through us by our words and deeds to become a witness of God’s good grace to others. 

Truly God seeks to save those who have lost their way and squandered their souls on meaningless living. Perhaps the story of my Grandfather’s confession is the most meaningful experience of grace I have ever witnessed. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression and Prohibition. He learned to moonshine at a early age and became a drunk. By the time I was born he had made a name for himself and the family as the toughest guy around town. I had experienced the pain of being in his presence most of my childhood. But as he approached death, he suffered greatly with his diabetic issues until his feet were in need of amputation. 

Just weeks before his surgery and subsequent death, I happened to be visiting my family with my husband at the holidays. As we were leaving from the dinner party my grandfather called me to his bedside to offer a good confession, I am sorry I did you wrong. I don’t even know your name. Would you tell me what they call you? You married a good man, and he will take care of you. Can you forgive me? In those brief moments, I was dumbfounded by God’s prevenient grace. 

When I left that day, I knew I would never see him again. He died several weeks later. In my heart I knew that “The Hound of Heaven” had relentless chased down my grandfather until finally all his attempts to run from God failed and nothing was left but to surrender to God’s prevenient grace. I had no visual clues that God’s prevenient grace had been working upon my grandfather’s heart to bring about the change I experienced in our relationship. But God was working! God was wooing, pursing, drawing, freeing, and empowering him to make a real heart-felt change in his life. Through the years, I couldn’t see it. I wasn’t aware of the subtle and quiet move of God over the many years of his life. I came to realize that just because I was unaware, didn’t mean that God wasn’t pouring out grace!

My grandfather loved sitting on the front porch of the house. He didn’t like being inside much. And, he really didn’t like boundaries in his life. John Wesley described prevenient grace as the front porch of the way of salvation. We have the choice to walk through the doorway to discover a deeper relationship with God. But some of us like to hang out on the front porch of religion so we don’t have give God the nod. Some of us are afraid to acknowledge those gentle nudges of prevenient grace upon prevenient grace that woos us, draws us, pursues us, frees us, and empowers us to say yes to God.  

The question we have to ask ourselves is… Are we willing to open up our hearts to God’s amazing grace to work in our lives and accept an ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ? 

De Colores!

Resources for discipleship: James A. Harnish has written two excellent discipleship books and workbooks entitled A Disciples’s Heart: Growing in Love and Grace and A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Our Relationships with Christ and the Church. Steven W. Manskar has also written a wonderful study called Accountable Discipleship: Living in God’s Household.

Empowered People: Get Redirected

John 21

We’ve all been there. We’ve had a “failure of nerve” just like Peter. The dark night of failure has been my constant enemy from illness to career changes. Some may know what it’s like to deal with sickness and disease… some may know what it’s like to deal with financial struggles… some may go through addiction… some may struggle through mid-life career changes… some may struggle with a learning disability… some may struggle with a mistake that they just cannot shake… But, however, we experience it, failure can put us down so low we just can’t seem to get back up on our feet. Failure can make us feel like we are crawling on our hands and knees waiting for someone or something to come along and put us upright on our feet again. But it’s been my experience that God calls us to the place of joyful obedience in the midst of our death crawl. Let’s enter the text and see how Peter handles his next steps after a failure of nerve.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other discipleswere together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. John 21.1-3

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realizethat it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right sideof the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garmentaround him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c]When they landed, they saw a fireof burning coalsthere with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. – John 21.4-14

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressedyourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dressyou and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” – John 21.15-23

24 This is the disciple who testifiesto these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimonyis true.25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. – John 21.24-25

It’s early morning. Morning has broken! You can just experience the wetness of the morning air as the dew is heavy on the gentle breeze. I’m reminded of the hymn by Cat Stevens entitled “Morning Has Broken.” There’s just something about the tune of that hymn that makes me experience the early morning on the farm with the dew drenched spider webs in the wet grass. There’s a precious peace in the early morning when you take time to meet with Jesus. It seems like those quiet still moments as the sun begins to rise provides a sense of God’s splendor that forms a beautiful canopy over this great earth we dwell upon.  John draws our attention to the dawn of a new day with all the possibilities of the hope found in the early Sunday morning encounter with the Risen Lord. A new day is dawning! And with the daybreak, we welcome new possibilities! The dawn of a new will bring endless opportunities! The One and Only voice of God redirects us with clarity of call.

I remember being a kid and playing with dad’s fishing nets. We would sit in the little metal fishing boat on dry land and casting our nets over the sides. We would grab dad’s fishing poles and practice our casting from the bow. From time to time the guys in the family would go out all night fishing and bring home lots of fish. We would seine minnows for chub bait. We would set trot lines and make sour dough balls for bait. They were serious about their fishing skills. Then they would spend the night fishing at the Rolling Fork River.

In our story 7 friends have gone out fishing all night and caught nothing. Three are the major characters in John’s Gospel stories – Nathanael from Cana of Galilee, Simon Peter, and Thomas (Didymus). And, it seems from the text that these people weren’t just acquaintance with John. I believe they were his close friends. Nathanael is only called Nathanael in John’s Gospel. It means “Gift of God.” In the synoptic gospels he is called by his family name Bartholomew. John also notes in chapter two the wedding in Cana where Nathanael is from and where Jesus performed his first miracle. Thomas is called Didymus in John’s Gospel but not the synoptics. So it seems from the details that John is intentionally describe key characteristics to show how important these people were to his inner circle. The key disciple in this last passage of John’s Gospel is Peter. And, we will focus on his story.

John 1:49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

John 2:11 “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.”

John 6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 20:28 Thomas [Didymus] said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

John tells us that the 7 disciples have spent all night fishing and repairing nets in the early morning hours then hauling in their catch to the water’s edge. Fishing was a demanding trade compared to our work loads in the white collar industry of American culture. Fishing required a lot of grit and leadership. To be sure Peter was a tough guy, and there wasn’t anything fishy about his masculinity. And, here in the story we see him as the captain on a small fishing boat along with 6 other men who knew tough work. They have spent all night on the boat working, sweating, and catnapping between casting the nets without anything to show for their labors. They have been fishing and caught nothing! Zippo! After a night of working on the water with nothing to show for their efforts, they head to the shore where John catches a glimpse of a shadowy figure on the beach who call the disciples his friends. The fishing event will turn into something much more in God’s economy of multiplication. The disciples are about to be surprised by God’s goodness.

As they come closer to shore, a friendly voice calls out to them. And, he called them friends. This was a friendly greeting to redirect their efforts to where the school of fish were, advising the fishermen to cast their nets on the right side. With their obedient response, they count 153 large fish. It’s a wonder the net didn’t tear away. When Peter discerns that Jesus is there, he is obviously anxious not to miss his opportunity and abandons everything, grabs some clothing for modesty, and jumps in the water. He abandoned ship! Man-overboard for Jesus! He was acting outlandishly! As the disciples come in for a landing there’s fish and bread waiting for them. In John’s Gospel we see three places that refer to clothing. First, Jesus’ undergarment taken by the soldiers at his crucifixion (John 19.23). Here in this passage, Peter is getting dressed after having only an undergarment on. But there is also one other place that speaks of being dressed and that is the passage here when Jesus prophesies Peter’s martyrdom (John 21.18-19). In other passages of Scripture we read about the unshrunk cloth and how new wine should never be poured into old wineskins Matthew 9.16, Mark 2.21, Luke 5.36). And, we know that there was a young man wearing a linen garment who fled naked from the scene when Jesus was arrested, leaving behind his garment (Mark 14.51). Paul will teach us that as believers we will be clothed in righteousness for Christ-sake. If we look into the text there are hints of symbolism of baptism for a new beginning. Peter is ready to begin again this journey that has been derailed from a failure of nerve.

The friend on the shore asks the fishermen to cast their nets on the right side, which the disciples have heard before. What does it take for us to get on the right side with Jesus? I suppose the best answer here in the text is that “right side” means a simple act of obedience. We use the phrase “right side” as a way to designate the winning way or our preferred stance on an issue. When I think of the phrase “right side,” it has a lot of cultural and political connotations with it. But here in the story it is symbolized as obedience that leads us to belief in Jesus as Lord. In one cast of the nets salvation is realized for Peter and he jumps into the water with all the gusto of a love-struck believer who knows the healing power of forgiveness.

Notice in the text the response of the disciple whom we know as John. John declares the friend on the shore is Jesus, and John calls him LORD. LORD is the only title that is used in this passage, which lets us see the transition in Jesus’ authority in their lives (John 21.7, 12, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21). John’s Gospel moves from the title “Teacher” to “Lord and God” to “Lord and Jesus.”  The storyline in John’s Gospel moves from Jesus holding the title of teacher to declarations of his Lordship. And, here in this text He is Lord to the disciples. There is a real shift in the storyline from being taught to becoming a teacher. There comes a moment when Jesus invites us to grow-up in our faith. It’s not a biological growth, but a spiritual growth that includes total soul care. We move from being a student of Jesus to becoming a student for Jesus.  Peter is our proto-type. Peter knew Jesus. He had followed him for three years as his intimate companion. When he had to grow up in his faith, Jesus prepared him. But when it came time for Peter to respond without Jesus’ support when he was arrested, Peter struggled with his grown-up faith.

  • John 1.38, 1.49, 3.2, 3.26, 4.31, 6.25, 9.2, 11.8, 21.6 (Mary Magdalene)
  • Rabbi/Rabboni (means teacher)
  • John 11.21, 11.32 Lord – Martha & Mary at Lazarus death
  • John 13.6, 9, 37 – Lord – Peter at the Last Supper
  • John 20.13, 25 – Lord – Resurrection with the women
  • John 20.28 – My Lord and My God (Thomas)
  • John 21.15, 16, 17 – Lord – Peter on the Beach

Our story is yet another instance of Resurrected Jesus’ showing up to bring the disciples unexpectedly joy around just such a fire. This time the scene is a beach setting on the Sea of Galilee in the early shadows of dawn. As the sun begins to rise, I can only imagine the glimmer of daybreak casting a shadow on the beach where Jesus was building the fire. You might say it was a heap of hot embers. I love Jesus’ hospitality! He has a camp fire burning! Who was this fire for? The last time we witnessed a fire it was as Peter was warming himself in the courtyard at Jesus’ arraignment (John 18.18). Jesus uses fire to illustrate refining of character and the flames of failure when we fail to believe in God. It reminds me of the fire that has not yet been poured out at Pentecost when Peter will stand up for Christ Jesus and prophesy from Joel’s writings. It also reminds me of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah’s declaration at his calling when the angels came to visit him. Fire is a sign and a wonder of transformation in a person’s life. Transformational opportunities are always available to us, but sometimes we have a failure of nerve like Peter.

Isaiah 6.6-7 reads, “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’”

John’s story about Peter moves along the trajectory from Peter’s denial of Jesus to professions of love for Jesus. Up to this point Peter has loved Jesus, but not at a level that could sustain him from a failure of nerve. And, he certainly didn’t have the capacity to lead the sheep into the dangerous terrain that lie ahead. The qualities of love of God and love of neighbor are tied directly to caring for the sheep. Peter’s love had not grown to the depth of sustainability when hard times would come, and Peter denied Jesus. When I think about Peter, I see how easy it could have been for him to have the same outcome as Judas who took his life from his failure. But Peter’s love for Jesus doesn’t seem to have faded, only his flesh could not sustain his profession of faith. We know the story of Peter’s following and declaring Jesus as the Messiah, and then struggling with a failure of nerve. But imagine the man behind the situation. It’s easy to write Peter off as a less-than person who just couldn’t measure up. He failed to show up for the test. He turned in his test with all the wrong answers. But here in this passage, Peter is redirected in his failure. Jesus hands off the shepherd crook just like a baton.

It reminds me of a football game when the team is lined up, and that one player will become anxious and jump across the line of scrimmage prior to the ball snap! Peter needed help making the leap to becoming a mature leader, and he needed steady nerves. Jesus had lead the 12 disciples for three years. There is no doubt about Peter’s leadership skills. But his skills were not sufficient for the next stage of leadership – yet! But Jesus knows the next steps to launch Peter into ministry.

I don’t want us to miss that Jesus appeared to Peter on Resurrection Sunday – alone. They needed a heart-to-heart talk without anyone around. In fact we never hear what was said in that conversation. And, I can only imagine there being a lot of regrets and tears from his failure to launch as a confessional leader. Peter will see Jesus a total of four times that we know of in the Gospels. I have to believe that each one was an affirmation of his faith that had floundered in the crisis of belief.

There are two important parts of this passage about Peter’s reinstatement. First, he was reinstated as a good sheep. Second, he was given the role of a good under-shepherd. Peter has been a good sheep who scattered when he was spooked. A friend of mine and I were discussing sheep this week, and she helped me to see more clearly how sheep respond to danger. They are easily spooked. Peter has been spooked. Jesus is taking his shepherd’s crook and tending to Peter, wooing him back into the sheepfold.

Here in the text Jesus has already appeared to Peter with the 10, and next, he appeared to Thomas and the others the Sunday after resurrection. Jesus continued to be in relationship with Peter through the launching. Jesus didn’t give up on him, and Jesus didn’t settle for failure to launch as a good follower or a good leader. In our passage Peter is being launched into deeper waters as a leader. What was his new role – a disciple-maker! Jesus hands off his shepherd’s crook to Peter.

Peter is presented with a fresh challenge of comprehending this new lifestyle that he has agreed to be a part of… He had been spooked! And, he response was to deny Jesus three times, but now he is being reinstated to complete the task he struggled to launch into – becoming the good under-shepherd. Jesus reaffirms this young man’s abilities as an emerging leader in a world changing business of disciple-making. John concludes his Gospel with the same concepts he began with in chapter one. First, Jesus is the Son of God. He is both Lord and God. And, his invitation will always be “come and follow” and leave your old lifestyle behind to take up the lifestyle of the cross! To be sure Jesus is in the business of restoring disciples who have broken their promises to serve Jesus. Jesus is all about reinstating and recommissioning his disciples.

Peter is moved from the position of a hired hand who abandoned his post to the invitation of becoming a good under-shepherd. We know in John’s Gospel that Jesus is portrayed as the good shepherd, a title that helps us understand that Jesus protects, tends, and guides the flock.

We are dependent upon Jesus just as sheep are dependent on their shepherd. Jesus has compassion for the helpless sheep. He seeks the lost sheep. He knows his own sheep. His sheep know his voice. The shepherd provides for the sheep. He protects his sheep. He lays down his life for the sheep. He judges his sheep. And Christians are the sheep of Jesus’ flock. Jesus appoints under-shepherds like he appoints Peter in this passage, the first of many to come. The shepherd is flock centered. The alternative is described as the hired hand. The hired hand is self-centered and are apt to abandon the flock to be scattered or killed.

Peter has just been invited to turn in his sheep role to become a under-shepherd. And, the first thing he says is what about him. If we are not focused on ourselves, we are focused on our neighbors! But Jesus wants us to focus on him. Jesus is living the way he wants us to live. Jesus is still serving his disciples with menial tasks, he is doing lowly tasks of unskilled labor. What are the outward signs of a transformed heart? Being willing to be a nobody in the Kingdom of God for the sake of the One who called us to Eternal Life.

Bottomline it’s not the “what” we are following, but the “who” we are following. It’s not simply a concept that we learn about as a child or agree to as an adult. It’s not simply head knowledge with platitudes about who God is. It’s not about how well you recite the verses of the bible. It’s not about the head knowledge, it’s all about the heart knowledge. It’s about an intimate relationship that is shaped by knowledge of God. If our knowledge of God stops at just head knowledge but doesn’t go further by developing our spiritual relationship, it doesn’t have any value in the Kingdom of God. John’s Gospel will clearly illustrate and explain to us what it means to the have a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God. John begins with the profound understanding of who God is. But John can explain the reality of God not by what he has read in a book, but by spending time with Jesus in prayer.

We believe John’s Gospel was written at a time when he was old and gray, and yet his writing is as fresh as a young man still sitting at the feet of Jesus. He has had 60 or 70 years of pondering the meaning of his experiences with Jesus. As he writes his story we believe he is in exile on the island of Patmos. He is the last of the original 12 men who had been chosen as Jesus companions. And, at the end of his days surely his message to us is a love sonnet about the One and Only God whom he loves beyond any human capacity. Can you say that about Jesus? This man knew what it meant to love God.

John has written of not only this Gospel but also three letters that are rich in emotion and compassion for God’s chosen people. John is the writer who declares, “God is love.” The Spirit of God moves us declare God’s character of love. And, in this passage Peter is being challenged to move from knowing about Jesus as a human character to study and emulate into a spiritual intimacy that transcends the earthly world. We are called to come and follow Jesus. He is not a what. He is a who. And, he lives within our hearts.

Jesus moves us from the silence of pondering what Christianity is all about to testifying about who Jesus is! The details of our story are eye witness perfect. The rich particulars help us to be sure that the conversation we have read is a real dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Peter once again is the man of the hour. Jesus brings closure to this stage of Peter’s life story which becomes an example to us. Much like Thomas’ story of disbelief, Peter has his own story of denying that must be dealt with before Jesus leaves this earthly place to ascend to his throne. To be sure Peter needed more than clichés to help him make the journey ahead. Peter needed more than a formulate that lined out the steps of salvation. Peter needed another level of intimacy with God. And, here on the beach after a long empty night of fishing with six of his best friends, Peter faces the biggest challenge of his adult life. Jesus invites Peter to move beyond everything he had learned this far about Jesus and take the deep dive into the already not yet realized Kingdom of God that he had been taught. This is the moment of truth. Will he remain a man who only knows about Jesus, or will he become a under-shepherd who can let the head knowledge sink deep into his heart to become the man of God he is called to become? We know the answer to Peter’s story, but those of us here haven’t finished our story. We still have more personal growth in our walk with Jesus. We are given Peter’s story as a testimony to ponder, do I need to shift from being a sheep who knows about Jesus to being an under-shepherd who knows Jesus deeply and personally?

As many of you know I experienced a brain injury last August. I have learned many things from that experience. But the most important discovery I made was the clarity I now have about “head knowledge” about God verses the “heart knowledge” of spiritual intimacy with God. You see I lost a lot of “head knowledge” because a part of my brain died during the accident. But what remained was the “heart knowledge” of spiritual intimacy that came only by way of a long standing contemplative prayer life. My brain injury taught me that I had a lot of “head knowledge” about God that I had learned as a young Christian, but in many ways that “head knowledge” was removed from me with my brain injury. And, it helped me to understand how all those platitudes about Jesus where actually preventing me from a deeper intimacy with him. I can praise God for my injury, but it is also my testimony to encourage you. Don’t settle for what God is! Take the challenge of Peter and grow in your personal relationship – discover who God is. Move from failure of nerve to under-shepherd!

O God, open our minds to love you for who you are! We want to love you with an undivided heart and clarity of mind. Empower us with your Holy Spirit to grow-up into all that you have for us! Amen. 

Casting Vision in a New Season

Folks, we are all looking for answers to this dilemma of disinterest in Christ Jesus. We live in a dire world full of doubt and disbelief. Yet, we know that we have the evidence of the resurrection! We have the hope of tomorrow. We have the plan of salvation for a generation that is desperately in need of Eternal Life. What is our way forward?

We have to assessed our community reality, and we’ve done our research (Barna Group, Pew Research). We know that Generation Z (age 13-18) are the first post-Christian community in America and they have no foundation in biblical values. This problem is church-wide and nation-wide. We also need to assess our church reality. When our realities do not line up with God’s vision, we have a gap. Henry Blackaby would explain this gap as a “crisis of belief” that calls us to “adjust” in order for us to “experience” God. God is working all around us, will we join him?

God’s vision for the world is not gathering people in a building, but tending souls of all people no matter where they are on the journey – lost, found, and growing in the faith. I like to think that God’s vision is soul care for all the people of the world. When one person hurts, God longs to transform pain into something meaningful and hopeful. God longs for us to be in right relationship himself, ourselves and others then to live in a spirit of forgiveness. Soul care is a great way of describing the growth in Jesus through the stages of grace – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.

Our mission assigned to us who are believers in the church from Jesus himself is what we know as the Great Commission (Mt. 28.18-20). We are to go forth in our community and make disciples, baptizing them in the Trinity and teaching them everything Jesus taught the disciples. That’s every believers’ work in the Kingdom of God. Every detail of our lives should be shaped by our Kingdom job description, and it all begins with our willingness to “go” and “make” disciples.

Our vision provided in God’s word is addressing cultural issues and sin problems in our world that can easily be seen in broken lives. For instance, poverty, hunger, education, and medical ethics are hot topics in our world today that we need to offer a Christian worldview. God loves this world, and He wants his world to know that love experientially! In the places that people do not know the love of God, we are to share it in such a way that leads people to eternal life (John 3.16).

Our purpose is to show God’s love. There are a lot of doubting Thomas’ in our world who need someone to be Jesus’ hands and feet. Thomas need to experience Jesus, and we can be the ones who show Jesus to the world around us (John 20.19-23). We are commanded to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves. So when we are faced with a world of unbelieving folks, we can share the good news of God’s great love for them! Our testimony and witness of God’s love living inside us can be the encouragement that others need to open themselves to receiving God’s love.

Our biblical values are the foundation of our faith. These values are best understood as the fruit that comes from a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another which is expressed as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We know we are to live as Paul reminds us in faith in God, hope in Eternal Life, and love toward our neighbors. We are to practice justice, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Our values are not found in the worldview around us but in the context of the Word of God.

Sometimes we experience a gap in the church not only between the cultural reality and our everyday life experiences, but also between our life experiences and the biblical model. We also experience a gap between the biblical model and our work in the church. Sometimes we utilize people who are not gifted to perform tasks that they are not best suited for. Sometimes we make plans that are not reaching the world around us, but are just busy work for us. Sometimes we isolate our selves in the building and fail to reach out beyond the walls. The gap is something we have to assess with a willing heart to own where we are and be willing to make the shift.

Our spiritually gifted people become the avenue and pathway of reaching out to the world around us. God provides the gifts and talents for us to create a strategy to reach the people in our community with the Good News of Jesus Christ. These gifts are part of the blessing that comes with the deposit of the Holy Spirit who lives within each believer (Romans 12.6-8, 1 Corinthians 12.4-11, 12.28, Ephesians 4.11, 1 Peter 4.11, Acts 2.22, 3.6, 6.8, 8.6-7, 19.11-12, Matthew 24.4-5). Gifts acknowledged in God’s word include prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, mercy, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, healings, helps, governments, and diversities of tongues. God empowers us so that we are living in his strength when we reach beyond ourselves to care for others. Every believer has a role based on their gifts and talents, but not only their abilities but also their availability and commitment level. In addition every believer that steps up should be involved in a small group and intentionally living a devotional life. And, finally, every believer who is active in decision-making must also be tithing. Leadership in the church is more than showing up on Sunday morning and telling people what your personal opinions are. Leadership requires us to walk the way of the cross, dying to our selves so that others might live.

Our ministry plans are created directly from the gifts and talents of the people in our church. The foundation of our minister rests on the abilities of the believers in the church, not simply the preachers gifts and talents. The plans for ministry must come from the people who know the community and seek to serve God in the places that need God the most. The pastor’s role is to inspire and disciple, to come along side the people and cast vision for others to take ownership of a fresh expression of God’s unconditional love and mercy for the world.

The places for ministry to take root may be in the church as well as in the community. We need to learn about our neighborhoods, our commerce, and our schools in order to know how to pray and reach out in ways that connect the Good News with the needs of the people. We have to assess the gap! Surely, God has a design for our church to reach the lost, lonely, and unloved people in our community. Are we ready as a church to live into this already not yet realized Kingdom of God experience?

O God, open our eyes to see your design for our church and community. We long to do your will and your work. Help us to stand together in unity. Amen. 

Empowered People: We Believe

John 20.19-31

Folks, while you are greeting one another we will be passing out bubble gum. I have something I really want you to chew on! Today we begin a new sermon series that will take us through the Gospel of John. I wanted to begin with this passage for two reasons. First, it picks up the theme of forgiveness that we ended on in Mark’s Gospel last week. John’s Gospel message partners with Mark’s message in how we relate to one another and to God, i.e., the Great Commandment to love is lived out in the stories. Second, I wanted you to see how the two gospel messages fit together and are unique in the purpose. John will approach the stories of Jesus differently so that we can experience the life of Jesus together with him. To be sure Mark’s gospel focused on interpersonal relationships with other people, but John’s gospel will focus on intrapersonal relationship with God. Let’s enter into the passage and see what we can glean to encourage our faith.

Let’s read John 20.19-23.

The story begins on the evening of the Resurrection, the first day of the week or what we might say it was Easter Sunday. When we talk about the Resurrection, there is mystery and what you might call wiggle room when it comes to believing. But our video from Lee Strobel illustrated how the evidence is stacked for us to believe. Strobel suggests there are four evidences that are undisputable reasons to believe in the Resurrection, and theologian Thomas Oden agrees with his assessment that the resurrection is not an April Fool’s joke! According to Strobel, the death, eye witness accounts, the empty tomb, and the disciples’ response are ample evidence that Jesus is who he said he is and that we can fully believe the resurrection.

  • Death – Jesus was definitely deceased by all witness and evidence.
  • Eye Witness Reports – People were quickly named and the experiences are reported immediately following the event.
  • Empty Tomb – Even the opponents to Jesus report that the tomb was empty.
  • Disciples – 9 sources both inside and outside the bible record that the disciples had eye witness accounts to the risen Lord. 7 sources both inside and outside the bible describe the disciples as willing to suffer death for the Resurrection.

Martin Luther the eye witness suggests included Jesus’ adversaries that attested to the empty tomb and Saul who was a murderer of Christians. Eye witnesses included Jesus’ family who were living in disbelief in the gospel stories until we see that Mary his mother and his brother James are among those who believed in the book of Acts. Jesus himself attests to his own resurrection by showing his broken body and eating with the disciples. The prophets of the Old Testament give witness to the evidence before it was even lived. All this evidence leaves us not in wonderment, but in awe!

When we read the story of Thomas, we begin to understand how much our senses build our faith. It was important to Thomas that he see Jesus, hear his words of affirmation, touch his broken body, respond to him with an affirmation of faith, and eat fish on the beach with him. He absorbed all of this with his senses. When we live as the body of Christ we invest all of ourselves so that we become like Jesus to others. People can no longer experience Jesus’ resurrected body, but we can become the witness by living transformed lives that people can see, we share our testimony so that people can hear, and we share meals together so that people can eat with us. These simple ways of being together can provide an avenue for others to respond to the invitation to accept Jesus and the power of the resurrection!

Let’s read John 20.24-29.

Thomas had all this evidence but failed to be won over, and Jesus sets him as an example for the future generations. Thomas becomes someone we all can identify with when we struggle in our faith. Thomas had the evidence of Jesus’ death on the cross, the empty tomb, the disciples and followers testimonies, and the transformed lives that attested to the real experience of the Risen Lord.

Who is Thomas? We know him as Didymus in John’s Gospel, or the Twin. Thomas is listed once in Matthew 10.3, Mark 3.18, Luke 6.15, and Acts 1.13. But he is a key figure in John’s Gospel showing up in four events: Lazarus’ death in John 11.16, the Last Supper in John 14.5, the last disciple to witness the Risen Lord in John 20.24-29, and having breakfast on the beach with the Resurrected Jesus in John 21. He was courageous enough to die with Jesus, curious about eternal life, experienced a crisis of belief, and caught the fish to eat with Jesus. We know Thomas best as the last disciple to witness the Risen Christ after the resurrection because he struggled with is faith. Perhaps he is the one you most identify with because he needed something to touch, to see, to hear… he needed an experience to believe in Jesus having been raised from the dead by his Heavenly Father (1 Peter 3.18-20).

The climax of John’s gospel is to convince us as those who will not have the opportunity to be an eye witness to the Resurrected Jesus. Jesus cannot return as a resurrected person until the last trumpet call. He has ascended to heaven and now is seated at the right-hand of God the Father Almighty to resume his dominion over the heavens and the earth. John desires to increase our faith and belief in the Son of God who was the Son of Man, the Messiah. Each story we encounter in John’s Gospel is aimed at leading us to understand that we too can experience Eternal Life. John helps us to experience what it was like to walk with the Son of Man and the Son God.

Surely, the Resurrection creates a “crisis of belief” for us that we must adjust our lives to this news and the consequences. The disciples would have all suffered a crisis. The women at the cross were in a crisis of grieve watching Jesus die, then subsequently some followed his burial detail to the tomb (Mt 28.1, Mk. 16.9, Jn 20.11-18). The women were in grief when they witnessed the empty tomb, when Jesus revealed himself to Mary Magdalene in the garden (Mt. 28.8-10, Mk. 15.40-41, 15.47, 16.1). Peter had denied Jesus three times and abandoned the cause, yet Jesus would show himself (1 Cor 15.5, Lk 24.34). The disciples on the Emmaus Road were in crisis when Jesus arrived alongside them on the journey and opened the Scriptures for them to understand, then revealed himself in the breaking of the bread (Mk. 16.12-13, Lk 24.33-35). These disciples were questioning the women’s testimony! On Resurrection Sunday, in the evening Jesus revealed himself to the 10 disciples in Jerusalem in the locked upper room when he allowed them to see his wounds and commissioned them.

But one was missing and a week later Thomas would become the last disciple to see the Risen Lord. And, yet, the reports continued as 7 disciples have breakfast with Jesus on the beach (Jn. 21,1-24). Later it was reported that 500 plus brothers would witness Jesus (1 Cor. 15.6). Jesus’ brother James would come to belief (1 Cor. 15.7). At the Ascension many witnessed the Risen Lord ascending to his seat on the throne in heavenly place (Mt. 28.18-20, Mk. 16.19, Act 1.3-12). And, Paul would finalize the list of those who would see the Resurrected Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 8-9). It is said that there were 40 days of appearances before the Lord Ascended, so there may have been many more undocumented appearances. But as John says in his writing these were written down so that we might know and believe.

For those who disbelieve there are many arguments. Theologian Thomas Oden presents the evidence in his systematic theology entitled, “The Word of Life” (483-501). Thomas suggests the resurrection has significance because it is not repeatable, aimed for the lowly, and given to the faith-seekers. We cannot recreate the resurrection, only resuscitation. In other words, we can prolong life but we cannot grant eternal life. The resurrection evidence is also significant because it invaded the low stationed people. It the evidence was a hoax, it would have been aimed at the powerful people to influence others. Thomas also suggests the resurrection was for those who would believe, not for those who had no interest.

Did you know that faith is not a requirement for an encounter with God? But, certainly, faith is increased and a by-product of an experience with the Risen Lord. Thomas was in a crisis of belief but was convinced by the evidence of what he witnessed in Christ’s broken body. This too adds to the witness for those of us who might doubt the reality of the resurrected body. In fact Thomas’ story encourages us that even the most stubborn heart can be won over to Jesus. We’ve all had those moments like Thomas. We call him the doubter. We know what it’s like to be short of faith. I bet you can name a time that you struggle to believe that God cared about your situation. As Christians we all struggle with our belief in God, when has it been impossible for you to believe in Jesus? The bible becomes our resource to help us have faith when we struggle to believe.

Like Thomas our faith can struggle with meaninglessness, hopelessness, forgiveness, and relationships. Thomas was given the same evidence we have been given and Thomas said, That’s not enough I need to see the Risen Lord. And, Jesus knowing his heart, appears to encourage his failing faith. Yet, Jesus will admonish him, saying, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20.29).

Thomas surely struggled with the pain of personal grief that needed to be transformed. Fr. Richard Rohr said, “Pain which is not transformed is transmitted” (ABLD). Thomas needed his pain transformed. Thomas struggled to find meaning in the aftermath of his grief when everything seemed meaningless now. The Linn family discovered, “Meaninglessness makes us sick; meaningfulness makes us well” (ABLD). No doubt about it, Thomas would have struggled with forgiveness with God, himself and others – even Judas. His relationships were surely strained at the very least.

Thomas gives us for gifts from his struggle. We know that God can make meaning out of meaningless pain. We know that God can restore our broken relationships that have been strained by grief and misunderstandings. Even when evil is perpetuated against our closest friend, God can help us heal. We know that God can bring forgiveness when we struggle with broken fellowship. We know that God can give us hope in Eternal Life. Thomas’ disbelief is rooted in the same things that cause us to experience crisis of belief in our lives – the search for meaning that brings us love, the desire to find hope in the midst of pain, the peace that comes with forgiveness, and the community of friends and family to support us along the journey. Thomas’s story is really our story. The evidence has been stacked up for us. We can choose to believe or continue the crisis of belief, but either way God is for us and has provided all that we need to find him on the journey. And that’s very good news!

Let’s read John 20.30-31.

John’s Gospel originally ended with the story of Thomas, and the concluding paragraph that these stories have been written by John so that those who heard the message and those who now read the message would be believe. John conveys the message that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son. But not only that Jesus is who he said he is, but that in him we have life in his name. Now we know what the messages in John’s Gospel are all about: finding eternal life.

Thomas is the first disciple recorded as declaring that the Risen Jesus was Lord and God. John’s Gospel began with the intension of leading the seeker to declare Jesus as Lord and God. But many in our world do not declare him as either. The statistics by the Barna Research Group witness to evidence that the children growing up now are no longer faith-based. This is the most diverse generation in American history, and one way we are not divided is in our crisis of belief. Teenagers ages 13-18 have doubled the unbelieving adults in reporting that they do not believe in God. In one generation of children that we can Generation Z, our nation has moved from 6% of the US adult population being unbelievers to 13% of teenagers declaring they are unbelievers. What are their reasons? How can a good God allow evil? Christians are hypocritical and judgmental. God is a fairytale because there are no facts to support the evidence of God. The fact is that Christian history has injustice stamped all over it. Christians cannot hold reason and faith together; therefore, the church has rejected science.

As a result of our culture teenagers are reporting that family is no longer a priority in their lives, and in the place of family is education, hobbies, pastimes, career, financial independence, and delaying marriage. In this new generation the world is becoming faithless opting for words like agnostic, atheist, and no religious affiliation to be their guidepost in life. But in spite of these statistics we know we have a God who longs for these young people to discover the evidence for themselves. Would you stand today if you are willing to be a mentor for this next generation? The world needs people who know Jesus to reach the children who have no faith. This is the first post-Christian generation in America. Will you step up to bring faith to the faithless?

Approximately 50% of churched adults do not know what the Great Commission is and have no idea what it means for them personally. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus commissioned us to go forth and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel here Jesus gives us the authority to forgive the sins of the world. We are a people who have been empowered to make a difference in the world around us. Here is our broken world in a statistical snapshot. Our world has become faithless. Will you step into the gap to become the leaders to the next generation? I’m going to open up the altar today for folks to respond the story of Thomas and the Thomas’ in our world who need to find faith.

 

O God, help us to embrace the reality in which we live that we might be good stewards of your Kingdom gifts and graces. Empower us to be the Easter people we are for the world to see that others might find salvation in you. Amen. 

The Fourth Word

Mark 15.33-39, Matthew 27.46, Psalm 22

15.33-39 NIV At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.The curtainof the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Come on down… When I hear the words “Come On Down,” I think of the long-running TV game show The Price is Right. And, to be truthful the people made Jesus’ crucifixion not much different than a game show. The mocking and disrespectful attitudes of the people would be shocking even in today’s reality TV culture. The juxtaposition between the disrespectful, jeering crowd and the holy moment of suffering of the Christ on the cross illustrates the grave contrast between good and evil. To be sure the poor choices of those observing Jesus’s crucifixion highlights the goodness of Jesus even more prominently as he endured their calloused behavior.

The passage is framed by the testing of Jesus’ authority much like the wilderness testing of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4.1-13, Mark 1.12-13). Like Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted three times to come down from the cross – each time a little differently. He is tested personally, socially, and religiously (Mark 15.30, 31-32, 35-36). These three weakness of our carnal nature are demonstrated here – personal appetites, social desires, and religious wants. Our personal appetites are pushed to the limits like Esau and Jacob as they struggle over a bowl of beans and trade a birthright (Genesis 25.27-34). Our social desires are pressed as we fight the temptation to be like the world around us just as the Israelites struggled as Joshua engaged them in covenant in the Promised Land (Joshua 22-24).  Our religious want to be empowered and disregard God’s word as revelation is the original sin from the Garden that we will be like God knowing all things (Genesis 1-3).

If you study the whole of the Gospel of Mark, we will read time and again how Jesus is tested in his authority and his identity. And, at the end of his life these are the two key buttons that are being pushed by the religious leaders and the scoffers at the cross (Mark 15.30, 31-32, 35-36). One key ingredient in our story is that we understand Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. The doctrine of the Incarnation could be a whole sermon unto itself but we simply need to remember that Jesus laid aside his divinity to become human, and all the work of his Messianic identity was completed in his humanity. If he had taken up his Godhood, he would have failed in his work of reconciling the world unto himself.

Jesus cried out… All through Mark’s Gospel we hear how people are amazed, and now Jesus is voicing his own amazement, even astonishment, at what he is experiencing on the cross. What is important to note is that the commentaries suggest that there is no way that a dying man can verbally cry out loud as the original Greek says he does. We need to hear this cry as a superhuman act of Jesus’ will to declare his victory. This isn’t a wimpy verbal cry of defeat, but a fearless guttural declaration. Jesus’ last acts of courage become our first steps toward our new life.

One of my heroes in life is a 16-year-old who nearly lost his leg in a ATV accident. What made him remarkable was how he handled himself in the moments of life and death. His life was in the balance, and yet, he cries out to his uncle who is with him, Tell my momma that I’m sorry! I will never forget that moment.

In Mark’s story this guttural cry represents the climax of people abandoning Jesus. He was abandoned one by one – his family, his hometown, his disciples, the crowds, the whole Sanhedrin, and even Pilot. Then God Himself turned away from Jesus because he could not bear the sin he carried for the world. On the cross Jesus is sucking all the pain out of the earth and upon himself. He experienced the depth of suffering, rejection, shame, pain, and loneliness. All human emotions were experienced to the uttermost in this moment.

When we are separated from God, we experience the depths of depression. Imagine the deepest suffering of your life, and Jesus has already taken your pain and suffered on the cross on your behalf so that you no longer have to bear the weight. He has extracted the pain from our fallen creation so that you will not die but live! He has already and not yet made you whole and well. You but have to accept his sacrifice, apply the blood of the covenant, receive the forgiveness of your sin, and let the cross filter your life from the harm of this world. The cross becomes our protection like suntan lotion on your skin, sunglasses for your eyes, and a hat for your head. This is when the depths of human despair meets the love of God, in order that you and I can be restored to the image of God. Our suffering ends on the cross, and our new life begins with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Our greatest achievements in life are not the accolades of a job well done or the material things we acquire. No, the greatest achievements come in the work of forgiveness toward others. Christians are called to lead a distinctive life style as you and I practice radical acts of grace and mercy. We know our suffering has already been atoned for in the passion of the Christ. Perhaps I am a bit presumptuous, and I do not want to change the definition by any means, but I believe that Jesus calls us to a life of martyrdom. Not the physical death, but the death to the flesh and the carnal nature. Surely, we are called to die to ourselves, and at times it is gut-wrenching, agonizing and outright difficult. And, perhaps the most challenging part of our fallen nature to lay down is our “right to be right” and subsequently to forgive those who intentionally or unintentionally harm us.

I grew up as what some call a second-generation alcoholic family with both my grandfathers struggling with addictions. Because the environment of my extended family was laced with abusive behavior and the threat of violence, I understand the cost of forgiveness. It will cost you and I everything when we choose to forgive. We exchange our pain for Jesus’ healing of our will, body, mind, emotions, and memories. Here in this act of self-denial we experience the greatest love exchange of all time as we experience the supernatural release of grace and mercy that comes to us by way of the cross and the moments of Jesus’ deepest suffering. Surely, he knows our sorrows and deepest pains giving us the victory to overcome.

All hindrances have been taken by Jesus on the cross. Every problem we might face. Every issue we might have. Every memory that’s unsavory. Jesus has taken it upon himself. We no longer have to bear the burden of the fallen nature and the fallen world. Our work is denying ourselves. When our flesh wants vindication…When our flesh wants to lay down on the job and quit on life…When our flesh struggles with the temptations of our carnal nature…we are to take up the way of the cross and follow him. We are to take on the suffering and death to ourselves and hang it up on his tree of life. We no longer have to bear the weight of our fleshly character. Jesus took all of us and he wrapped his arms around us and bore our shame. He took our sin and became sin for us. And, in his cry from the cross he accepted us as his very own, notwithstanding humanity’s disregard from him.

The curtain is torn… And, when he died, he didn’t stop there. Jesus tore the veil. In that moment when the final blow of sin had besieged him and his Father had turned away, Jesus ran to the Holy of Holies and found his rest in the arms of his Heavenly Father. Since the Incarnation Jesus had lived in the earthly presence of God’s grace. He had been separated from his Godhood and by his own choice having laid aside his Divinity, he became a man with all the nature of a created being. But in the moment of utter darkness when God had laid the sin upon Jesus, sin had separated God the Father from his Son. In the grave separation Jesus calls out, gives up his spirit, and runs to the place where he knows that restoration with his Heavenly Father is possible – the Holy of Holies! His Father had turned away because he could not look upon the sin that lay upon his Son. I imagine Jesus was so desperate to be restored to his Father that Jesus ran to the one place that he knew he could find his restoration – the horns of the altar!

The restoration of God’s creation was completed as Jesus tore the veil. All humanity was restored in relationship. And, we also know he went to hell to preach to the captives there because he was restoring the present, the past, and the future in one fell swoop of his grace and mercy. In the Holy of Holies is the seat of mercy. I can only imagine Jesus seating himself on the mercy seat after having taken the sins of the whole world upon himself. O my! It is the Father who resurrected the Son. Jesus was obedient unto eternity. His obedience never fails. Jesus’ obedience is eternal. He wasn’t just obedient in this moment on the cross when things got really bad, but his obedience is for eternity. He was and is and is to come. His obedience is forever. It’s the whole package deal – he was fully obedient. His obedience will always be perfect. His values and his actions will always line up. He will always be the Son of God. That is who He is. And, that, my friend, is who we are called to worship.

We are to surrender our lives to live in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are to live in his image, as he has restored us to the image of God within himself. He is the restored image of creation. And, now we know that no matter how our fleshly, carnal nature wants to act out…No matter how difficult our circumstances, we have been restored to the uttermost in Jesus’ life and death and subsequent resurrection. All our troubles are already dealt with in him, and now our work is to receive for ourselves what he has provided for us on the cross. New life is ours to receive. Jesus died to restore us fully in that relationship with the Creator Father, and we need only to accept and live it by revelation. We cannot earn it, work for it or pay for it. We cannot be obedient enough to gain it as a prize. We receive it by grace and welcome it as mercy.

Son of God… This shout was not the breath of a dying man, but of a victorious battle cry. Jesus’ final cry is our destiny. It is the cry that went around the world and through all time and created space until it reached the ears of a poor lost soul, the centurion at the foot of the cross. “Surely” he says, “this man was the Son of God.” It is here in the final cry of destitution and dereliction that our destiny is birthed. Here all the hindrances of life’s struggles are absorbed in the blood of the love of a man named Jesus. All things have been made right, and the way is unhindered to the most holy of places – the arms of our Heavenly Father can embrace the prodigals once more (Luke 15). From cradle to grave Jesus commands our destiny.

This is for us… When we are faced with gut-wrenching temptations in our carnal nature…when our personal appetites get the better of us…when our desires for our social standing seems to sabotage our success as a person…when our wants fuel self-deception of who we are called to be in Christ…then we need to run beyond the torn veil to the Holy of Holies, lay hold of the horns of the altar and get right up in the lap of the mercy seat with God Almighty.

The groan in this passage is the gut-wrenching guttural feeling of having withstood all you could stand and you need a can of spinach like Popeye! It’s all you can take, and you can’t take any more. It’s the moment when you need Popeye’s pipe to suck up more courage that you imagined possible.

Our Heavenly Father is waiting for us with loving arms. He never wants to turn his back on any of his children, but he cannot tolerate sin. Sin and holiness cannot co-exist, they cannot reside in harmony with one another. When we long for our depression and loneliness to leave us, we know we have a God who knows what it feels like to be orphaned (2 Corinthians 5.21). Paul said it this way, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” When we hear this guttural cry from the cross, we hear not only the pain but the promise of victory upon Jesus’ lips! He is the hope, he is the love, he is the promise of our victory that lies just beyond the veil. He is the final work!

Pain and suffering can be the great uniter among people of all walks and stages of life.  When we know we have had battles, we also know we will have a testimony. Because when there has been a test, there is a testimony!

I know the battle …of the embarrassment from living in poverty when all you can afford are second hand clothes. …of life long disabilities and sickness. …from lack of indoor-plumbing and washing your clothes on a wringer-washer. …of living on government assistance. … of living on free and reduced lunches. …when somebody else has to pay your bills. …of being inspected like you have a disease because you don’t have any money.

My husband and I know the battle… of disease and infertility that leaves you longing for children. … of almost losing a child. … of food allergies and the enormous cost of dietary changes. … of repeated surgeries for our children and the ridiculous medical bills that last for years. … of infectious disease and waiting for life-threatening test results. … of chemo-therapy and the high price of medication. … of moving year after year with grief and loss.

My husband knows the battle …of losing a 20-year career because your job became obsolete. … of losing your mobility with a back injury.  … of having to pay back taxes that you didn’t know were coming.

We know the battle of facing death and overcoming the odds to live again. We know. And, when you know your pain is gone, you know the One who took it! There is no pain that will not become your gain!

I am here to tell you that in this moment of the cross… Christ groaned for even you and me! His last breath became our first breath. He knew what you would live through. He knows what you are going through. He knew what I needed before I knew what I needed, and he knows what you need. Surely, this man is the Son of God. Jesus anticipated being forsaken and in his forsaken state Jesus quoted Psalm 22. Jesus knew his victory was coming, and Jesus presses us today and asks us: Do you know your victory is coming?

Psalm 22: For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

O God, tonight it is well with my soul! Even though I have suffered troubles, I know you are the Son of God! O God, my God, you have not forsaken me! You have saved me from all my troubles and set me free from all my sin and suffering. I come boldly into the Holy of Holies and lay hold of the horns of the altar! I welcome your arms around me as you help me up into your lap of mercy and I am seated in the mercy seat of your grace. Thank you for all you have done for me, even me, Jesus!  Amen.

It’s Easter!

Becoming Easter People

Mark 16.1-9

We know what it’s like to cry all night after a loved one dies. We know what it feels like the next morning when you’re all cried out and your face is all puffy and red. We’ve been to the graveside longing for just another moment to share another story together. We know what it’s like to be all cried out. We know the grief of death, and that is where we find ourselves this morning – between death and the grave. I woke up this morning with the song “I’m overwhelmed by you” by Big Daddy Weave singing in my head. And, indeed, I feel overwhelmed. It’s Easter. We are living between the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ Jesus. We are living between the grief in the sorrows of this world and the joy of eternal life. It’s Easter.

It’s Easter morning 30 AD and the most amazing thing has happened. A band of women have attended a funeral service and are in mourning. The day after the death and burial of their beloved friend they get up early in the morning to take time at the graveside, the burial site. And, as they arrive with their gifts to care for the body of their beloved friend, the grave has been robbed! Or so they fear, but a young man – an angel – appeared to them and said the most unimaginable thing! He is risen! Go and tell! Today 2000 years later we still celebrate the gift that was handed to a band of women who were instructed to Go and Tell. Today we too receive that gift that was unwrapped for all the world to behold – the risen Christ. A gift that will astonish, amaze and transform anyone who is bold enough to unwrap it for themselves.

Let’s enter the storyline. The band of women have made their way from the cross to the graveside of Jesus, and they are “amazed” and “astonished.” They are so overwhelmed by what they experienced that the word Mark used is the same word that we would use for “vision” and “trance.” In other words, they are dumb founded. All through Mark’s Gospel we see the surprise of emotion when people encounter the radical Christ (1.27-28, 2.12, 4.41, 5.42, 6.6, 6.51, 7.37, 9.6, 9.15, 9.32, 10.42, 10.26, 10.32, 11.18, 11.28, 12.12, 15.5, 15.38, 15.44, 16, 5, 15,6, 15.8). In the “first ending” of Mark’s Gospel the story ends in amazement! The women are overwhelmed!

The Amazement. The word in the Greek is ἔκστασις means astonished, vision, trance, and amazement is used only a few times in the New Testament (Mk 5.42, 16.8, Lk. 5.26, Acts 3.10, 10.10, 11.5, 22.17). I’ve listed them below.  “Overcome with terror and dread (astonished, vision, trance, amazement), they fled from the tomb (Mk. 5.42, 16.8, Lk 5.26, Acts 3.10, 10.10, 11.5, 22.17). They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” – Mark 16.7-8 CEB

  • Mark 5:42 TNIV Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.
  • Mark 16:8 TNIV Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
  • Luke 5:26 TNIV Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
  • Acts 3:10 TNIV They recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
  • Acts 10:10 TNIV He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
  • Acts 11:5 TNIV “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was.
  • Acts 22:17 TNIV “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance.

Unwrapping the Gift. It is an amazing story! A gift of great astonishment! A story that will cause you to ponder in stunned silence – what does this mean. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed (Luke 24.34)! Death was the climax of Jesus’ lifestory, and Resurrection was the resolution to the story. Resurrection is revelation. It is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of a people who longed for the promised savior.

It was a real event in real time and space. Jesus is the first of those who would follow; the resurrection of the dead. Death has been defeated for all time. It was not resuscitation of the earthly body that would die a second time like Jairus’ daughter or Lazarus or the widow of Nain’s son, but Jesus died and was raised with an everlasting body. Resurrection confirmed Jesus’ identity as Son of God and Son of Man. He fulfills the Davidic role of prophet, priest and king with all the authority of the promise. His self-offering sacrifice was fully accepted as perfect by his Heavenly Father. Jesus was fully vindicated, and he has demonstrated his victory over sin as Messiah and Lord.

Because of the resurrection, we now have the power to live eternally with God. He has redeemed humanity and all creation. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection weren’t an analogy, but the real deal. And, now the human experience of Jesus is encapsulated in the Trinity forever. Immorality is available for those who believe for when we die we will be with the Lord. We will have an imperishable inheritance and are clothed with heaven’s righteousness. Because Christ is the first born among the dead, we know what our immortal body will become. We will be like Christ Jesus in every way changed from glory to glory. Christ’s Resurrection is our doorway to living our inheritance of the Kingdom of God in the daily existence of our lives.

Is the Resurrection more than a victory lap? Dr. Thomas Oden in his systematic theological work entitled The Word of Lifenotes, “The Gospel does not explain the Resurrection. The Resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels” (451). Without the Resurrection there would be no Gospels. The Resurrection is the certificate of completion, the graduation ceremony, if you will. The Resurrection is the finale to Mark’s Gospel. So why are we so fascinated with Resurrection (Phil. 3.10)? Thomas Oden describes the Resurrection in such a way that surely we are so impressed with the accomplishments of Christ Jesus that we must celebrate and be glad (451-501). But (I also wonder whether we celebrate the Resurrection because we idolize our own immortality instead of loving God. Loving God becomes secondary to what he can do for us at the time of death.)

The Kingdom of God has spread throughout the earth from the shoulders of the disciples whom Jesus named apostles. They were called and prepared ones who discovered that faith is more than what they thought it was. The disciples had grown up in the faith, and they grew up spiritually walking with Jesus for three years – spending day and night with him living his life before them and teaching them everything they needed to know.

Mark’s Gospel implies that the Kingdom of God is already here and it is coming upon us in this present day, and it will come fully in the future with Christ Jesus’ return for his Bride. Mark says it this way, Here comes the Kingdom, repent!Get yourself ready for it! The Kingdom of God is already within you, and it is yet to be revealed. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed. The Kingdom is like yeast. The Kingdom is priceless. It is a pearl hidden in the ground, buried beneath the soil. The Kingdom births joy within the heart and dispossesses the problems within that are hidden. The Kingdom calls us to relinquish our lives for the sake of the call. The Kingdom is ushered in by the frail and failing character of those who would believe in the Son of God, the One who saves us. We are called to announce the Good News to the poor and destitute, the outsider and the disenfranchised, the sick and the hurting, the diseased and the disabled.

Paul says it this way, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” – 2 Cor. 5.17

Paul knows that we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ and be judged for what we have done in the body (2 Cor. 5.10). Thomas Oden notes, “[Jesus’] resurrection points to what we are to become and makes possible the intended and fitting consummation of our humanity” (Oden, 453). Ancient theologians taught that Christ became human that we might become like God – redeemed to be in his image. Each Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection – not just on Easter. Within the work of the cross we find the mystery of the Easter story. The death and resurrection cannot be separated.

And, Easter and Christmas cannot be separated. For Christ’s Incarnational humanity becomes glorified in his death and resurrection. What began at Christmas is fulfilled at Easter, and now Christ’s humanity is united with the Godhead never to be separated. God will always be able to identify with humanity throughout eternity. Amen!

The Kingdom of God has come! The Kingdom opens the way to the already and not yet consummated reality of our immortality. The Kingdom gives sight to the blind, accepts the rejected, opens the ears of the deaf, releases the tongue to speak, steadies the weak knees, gives life to the dead, feeds the hungry, serves the banquet to the despised, and brings community to the isolated. The Kingdom heals the soul and spirit through tangible acts of loving kindness. The Kingdom welcomes the harassed, accepts the discriminated, encourages the bullied, and makes able the downtrodden. The Kingdom shape and reforms the character of people from the inside out (inside the walls to outside the walls).

The Kingdom treats unqualified people with eternal significance. Ellsworth Kalas in his book The Thirteen Apostles says about the first disciples, “We call them heroes now, but at times along the way – especially when they forsook Jesus – they looked more like rogues.” Disciples like us come with unpolished faith. You and I are on our way to eternal life by way of the fallen scandal of our fleshly nature being reformed and transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ. And, in our passage the Kingdom of God was opened to a small band of women who loved a man Jesus who was their Lord and Savior.

I got up this morning with astonishment because I get to preach the Gospel message to you! And, it all began here with a band of women who in their grief became the apostles to the apostles! The salvation story was left in the hands of a few good women. Mark’s message intentionally leaves out the story of women disciples until now. In the Greek the word “supported” is actually the word is διηκόνουν translated “deacon” and meant they were continually caring for Jesus. Mary was nameless until after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ work on the cross brings women out of hiding and gives them a place in the community (Gen. 1-3).

Women’s testimonies were not valid in the courts of Jesus’ day. The fact that the Gospel moves women from a position of invisibility to visibility is significant. It seems the writer is witnessing to a restored role for women (Mk. 16.7). Women are not mentioned by name in the Gospels – other than as a healing moment or as a collective gathering “the women” – until their place at the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Jesus (Mk. 15.40-42, 47, 16.1, 9, 11; Jn. 19.25, 20.1, 11, 16, 18; Lk. 8.2 (deliverance), 24.10; Mt. 27.56, 61, 28.1).  The passage in Luke’s Gospel highlights the women unlike all the other Gospels. The women apparently provided financial resources to support Jesus and his disciples.

When the women in Luke’s gospel report the empty tomb to the disciples, the disciples think it only nonsense. This was not the first time that Mary Magdalene sought to anoint Jesus’ body. We know Mary Magdalene as the notorious women of the night, scandalous. When she meets Jesus at Simon’s home in Luke’s Gospel, and anoints him with an alabaster jar of pure nard. Jesus teaches the dinner party all about what it means to be forgiven and what it means to love from a place of deep pain. “But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Lk. 7.47).

  • They are Nameless Women. “Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.” – Mark 15.40-41
  • They are Women in the Shadows. “When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.” – Mark 15.45-47
  • They are Spicy Women. “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.” – Mark 16.1
  • They are Women who See! “When they looked up(they regained their spiritual sight), they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)” – Mark 16.4
  • They are Women instructed to Go and Tell. “Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. ‘You will see him there, just as he told you.’

Did you know there were three endings to the Gospel of Mark? The first ending finishes the Gospel message at 16.8. The first ending brings the whole Gospel of Mark together under the concept that when you meet the Lord Jesus there is no doubt that you should be amazed! Amazement is the signature of an encounter with the Lord Jesus. The second and third endings clarify the story for us. In the second ending we find out that this Mary Magdalene was actually the one whom Jesus cast out seven demons who also anointed Jesus with the oil from her alabaster box (Luke 7.36-8.3). And, we know that she had seen the Resurrected Jesus early Sunday morning at the graveside. It’s amazing how the added endings help us to understand the fullness of the details in Mark’s message.

There is clarity in the Second Ending. “After Jesus rose up early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons (Luke 7.36-8.3). She went and reported to the ones who had been with him, who were mourning and weeping. But even after they heard the news they didn’t believe that Jesus was alive and that Mary had seen him.” – Mark 16.9-11

Let’s take a walk down memory lane…Remember when…refrigerators were avocado green …carpet was orange …we used wringer washing machines and clothes lines …vehicles weren’t electronic …party-line phones …you could watch TV on the black and white with rabbit ears and you thought that was awesome? I bet you can think of some new things that happened in your life that caused you to pause. Or perhaps you have had to deal with new things that made your roll eyes just like the stone was rolled away from the tomb!

When I was growing up, I remember my dad saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, I’m here to say that there are a few “old dogs” here today that are still learning new things! God is always doing something new and he wants his people to learn. He’s always doing something fresh. Fresh expressions of God’s grace are part of our daily lives. If God is always doing something new, will we recognize it when it comes?

We understand that the foundations of our faith never change, but we are always in motion moving to God and away from God. Our faith never stands still but is always moving in one direction or the other. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results. Some of us want to be like hedgehogs and roll up at the first sign of change. Did you know that when trouble comes a hedgehog will roll up into a ball to protect itself. We do that too! But we also need to know when we are not being threatened, we don’t need to protect ourselves against the changes that God wants to make in our lives and in our church.

Where in your life is God teaching you new things? a female pastor perhaps? I am privileged to speak today because of what Jesus did on the cross. My work in the Kingdom of God is because of Jesus’ work on the cross. Through his work, I get to share about my Lord Jesus to anyone who will listen to me! I have the privilege of speaking not because I am somebody, but because I knowsomebody – Jesus, the I am God. Mary Magdalene was the apostle to the apostle and was the first to bring forth the good news of the Resurrection to the disciples. Praise God that I have been restored to the image of God through Jesus Christ and that I might be able to bring you a testimony today of God’s redeeming love in my life. Now that’s something new, something fresh, that God has done in the world! And, he’s been doing these new things for thousands of years.

Did you know our culture needs something new? It’s really something quite old and foundational to the church – forgiveness. According to the various dictionaries, the word choices of “unforgivingness” or “unforgiveness” is on the decline in our culture (https://www.collinsdictionary.com).  When you explore the usage of words related to forgiveness, the statistics show a decline in the words associated with forgiving especially since the 1970s (https://www.collinsdictionary.com). Does that indicate a lack of priority around the work of forgiveness in pop cultural? Or in the church? I think both.

It’s no surprise that Mayo Clinic would be interested in the physical health of people, but not so much as the spiritual health of people. Did you know that Mayo recently published an article on the importance of forgiveness. Listen to what the article said about forgiveness, “When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge — or embrace forgiveness and move forward” (“Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness,” 1998-2018 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved). Even Mayo Clinic understands the value of forgiveness by suggesting the byproduct is lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, less anxiety, less stress and less hostility, better mental health and higher self-esteem, and, of course, healthier relationships. Who wouldn’t want those results? And, just imagine how Jesus leads the way to better health by bestowing in us the power to act upon our good intentions thus making unconditional forgiveness possible for us who believe.

Perhaps the greatest demise of the contemporary Christian community is our lack of understanding the significance of the core values of our beliefs, particularly unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness is our faith story and the foundation of Christianity. Let us strive to keep the faith alive through sharing unconditional forgiveness to everyone we meet. What would it mean for us to cherish forgiveness?

Cherish Forgiveness. The words of Jesus from the cross stand as the gateway to understanding unconditional forgiveness. The anguish and character of Jesus as he died help us to marvel at what forgiveness requires of each of us who are on the Christian journey. Unconditional forgiveness is the essential ingredient and a seed planted in every Christian heart that must be nurtured. Christian forgiveness is the act of being unconditionally forgiven by God and the act of unconditionally extending forgiveness to others. We are called to this act of gut-wrenching death to ourselves as we live our daily lives with others. Through the application of the cross, disciples are given the power to extend unconditional forgiveness in ways we think unimaginable. Unforgiveness is not a characteristic of Christianity, and all unforgiveness needs to be rooted out of our lives in the church.

Lent calls us to remember the requirement that Jesus explained to his disciples, For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6.14-15 TNIV). I recently read that we should cherishforgiveness. That phrase has stuck with me, and I can’t tell you where I read it. But as I have pondered the purpose of the cross during this season of Lent, I have asked myself, Do I cherish forgiveness? And, what in the world does that mean anyway?

So my first line of exploration involved researching what the word “cherish” meant beyond my generic understanding. I discovered that “cherish” is a word typically associate with marriage vows… to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and therefore, I pledge you my faith (UMC BOW, 130-131). Built into our marriage covenant is the anticipation for the need to be forgiven. Every close relationship must be built upon the recognition that the need for forgiveness is inevitable as well as a requirement for that relationship to grow. True love requires actions that surrender self-preservation for the sake of the beloved.

A closer look at the word cherish was in order. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, New Oxford American Dictionary, and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus defines “cherish” it this way: adore, hold dear, love, dote on, be devoted to, revere, esteem, admire, think the world of, hold in high esteem, care for, tend to, look after, protect, preserve, keep safe, treasure, prize, value highly, harbor, entertain, possess, hold (on to), cling to, keep in one’s mind, foster, and nurture. To develop the definition of “cherish” further, one could include the word forgiveness with each word above.

Imagine if we cherished forgiveness how the world would be a different place to live. Forgiveness would be adored. Forgiveness would be held dearly. The act of forgiving others would be something we love to do and those who forgive would be doted on. Forgiveness would be held in high esteem, valued highly, revered completely, and a quality that would be admired. Forgiveness would be the treasure of heaven that all would seek and the prize of every good relationship. Forgiveness would be the quality of one’s character that would always be protected, kept safe, kept at the forefront of one’s mind, and a disposition that would be fostered and nurtured at every occasion. The act of forgiveness would be entertained often, tended to regularly, and looked after diligently. What a world that would become!

Let me close with this illustration of a woman name Corrie ten Boom, a woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie discovered that unforgiveness can paralyze us. However, when we forgive the unforgettable we can experience the gift of Resurrection life through the process. Often our response to being hurt by others is to expect them to get up and walk in righteousness, but they cannot without the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. But those of us who have the power of Jesus inside of us are to lead the way in our world and act in forgiveness. Grace is the pardoning act of love within our character that sets us free from unlovely behaviors. Grace is always the pioneering force that shapes our character to love well. Let us extend grace to one another and live as we are called to live in the valley of forgiveness that leads us to the mountaintops of holiness.

It’s Easter. Let us be Easter people! As we ponder Easter and the power to forgive, I invite you to imagine with me a “whack-a-mole” game. The object of the game is to whack a mole every time it pops it’s head up. Whack! Whack! Whack! That’s what we need to do with unforgiveness in our lives. Each and every time unforgiveness wants to pop it’s head up, we just need to whack it down with unconditional love. Can you find it in your heart to live as Christ asks of us – in the power of the Resurrection? Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen!

O God, may we cherish the unconditional love and forgiveness you have given us! Amen!