Monday, March 23, 2015

Who Do you Say I am: SON OF GOD

Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 22, 2015

Having fought his way into power against the likes of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire.  The power of his victorious army, though, was not enough. 

After gaining power by force in a bitterly fought civil war, Augustus was aware that he could easily lose it again. He was prepared to use any tool at his disposal to strengthen his claim to the imperial throne and thereby make it harder for his enemies to overthrow him.

He chose the power of religion. The Emperor of Rome was already the most powerful man on earth, but this wasn’t enough. Augustus wanted a piece of heaven too: he was determined that his people would see him as their supreme spiritual leader.

This is a Roman coin, minted by Caesar Augustus, the title that Octavian took when he finally defeated the assassins of Caesar and became the emperor of Rome.  You see him pictured on the left, and on the back side of that coin is the star of his father Julius.  And it says in Latin "DIVUS JULIUN", which means "The God Julius".
Roman religion had many gods and spirits and Augustus wanted to join their number as a god himself. Early in his reign, Halley’s Comet passed over Rome. Augustus claimed it was the spirit of Julius Caesar, the first Roman Empower entering heaven. If Caesar was a god then, as his heir, Augustus was the son of a god and he made sure that everybody knew it.

As son of god, Augustus re-established traditional social rules and religious rituals, sacrificing animals to Rome’s gods. In 12 AD he made himself Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome and head of the Collegium Pontificum, the highest priests in the land.  Today – this same Latin name is used by the Pope as the Chief priest of Rome. 
At his death, Augustus, the ‘son of a god’, was himself declared a god. His strategy had worked.

When Jesus was born in 4 BC it was the census of Caesar Augustus, the son of god, ruling over the Roman who beaconed Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.  For most of Jesus’ life Caesar Augustus ruled in Rome as the son of god – all the while, in a simple, forgettable village in Galilee far from Rome - the true, the authentic, the only begotten Son of God lived humbly and simply as a carpenter waiting for the moment to arrive to begin God’s mission in the world.   

The day arrived when Jesus was about 30 years old.  We don’t know how he knew the starting date – but all 4 Gospels mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with his arrival at the bottom of the world – in the Judean wilderness, just north of the dead sea – for his baptism by John. 

In this delta region where the Jordan River flows through this deep cut in the earth, John the baptism welcomes his cousin, Jesus with humility and awareness.  ““I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me,” John tells Jesus.   
Humbly, the man who knew no sin, Jesus submits himself to baptism.  As Jesus comes out of the water, we get a glimpse of his true identity.  Jesus is more than Jesus of Nazareth and more than a carpenter and even more than Mary’s Son.    “Suddenly,” Matthew records, ”the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”

The Gospel of John records this reaction from John the Baptist:  “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 

We have seen many ways that individuals have answered the question Jesus lays out before his disciples:  Who do you say I am.
•         The crowds called Jesus:  Jesus of Nazareth
•         The disciples called Jesus:  Rabbi
•         A few risked their lives to call Jesus:  Messiah
•         Jesus called himself:  Son of Man
•         God calls Jesus:  Son

It is becoming clear that the titles of Jesus as such are not the decisive factor in understanding him. We should not cling to the titles.  Rather, in faith and action we must cling to Jesus himself as the definitive criterion.  Jesus is the one who defines the titles rather than the titles define Jesus. 

This is especially important when it comes to translating these titles and ideas from biblical times into the outlook and language of our own 21st Century world.
Christians around the world do not to pay with our sufferings, still less with our lives, for Christological titles and predictive, formulas and propositions about Jesus.  NO – we do so for Jesus Christ himself and for what he authoritatively represents, the cause of God and humanity. 

This is especially true of the title Son of God.  This title was not only used by the Caesars of the day like Augustus – it was also used in the Old Testament.  At their installation ceremonies, all Israelite kings were installed as the son of Yahweh.  The King is adopted as a son. The successor of David was expected to be the son of God.

Now, in the New Testament the title Son of God is applied to Jesus.  originally, the title had nothing to do with Jesus’ origin but with his legal and authoritative status. 

When I was growing up – I understood the title Son of God as establishing God’s paternity.  The Son of God was born to Mary in the manager in Bethlehem.  Frankly, this made it very difficult for me to understand Jesus as part of the Trinity.  How could Jesus be both God and the Son of God?  Maybe, you have wondered this too?

The paternity of Jesus as the Son of God is not how those who originally heard or used the title understood Jesus.  The title Son of God was a question of function, not nature.  Jesus as the son of God was not about genetics – but about divine election and authorization.  Jesus as the Son of God means Jesus now rules in place of God over his people. 

When Jesus comes to the River from Galilee he doesn't arrive with title or office – he’s a simple carpenter from Galilee – not much different from all of the others coming to be baptized.  After his baptism – as the Holy Spirit descends upon him and the Father gives his authority – Jesus in all of his actions and speech becomes the personal messenger, trustee, advocate, confidant, and friend of God.  God’s authority rests on him. 

Hans Kung the great 20th century German theologian says this in his massive volume called On Being a Christian:  “Jesus lived, suffered, and struggled in the light of an ultimate inexplicable experience of God, presence of God, certainty of God, and indeed of a singular unity with God which permitted him to address God as Father.  The fact that he was first called “Son” in the community might simply be the reflection which fell on his countenance from the Father-God whom he proclaimed.”

The man Jesus of Nazareth belongs to God.  He stands on God’s side.  He is subject only to God.  And he is once and for all God’s representative.  Jesus is God’s Son. 
This is the Good News:  The Son of God was sent to save the World. 

This Good News requires us to make a decision about Jesus.  CS Lewis in his book Miracles makes this point forcefully. Lewis says the discrepancy between the depth, sanity and shrewdness of the moral teachings of Jesus and the rampant megalomania which must live behind the authority of the theological teaching of Jesus is great.   Unless Jesus is indeed God – then the only other conclusion is he must be mad.  

In Mere Christianity Lewis continues this thought.  Today - If a man who was merely a man said the sort of things Jesus said he would not be considered a great moral teacher. Instead, he would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell or he is who he says he is. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is the son of God or else a madman or something else.  We must make the choice.

Jesus was either the son of God sent to save the world or an imposter deserving of crucifixion. The people of his day understood the binary choice precisely.  We like to have it both ways.

Phillip Yancey makes the distinction of our decision this way - Unless Jesus was in some way God, we must view the cross as an act of divine cruelty rather than sacrificial love. 
This leaves you and me with a choice.  We must decide:

Who is Jesus?  Do you believe Jesus is God?  Do you believe he lived, taught and died on earth with the authority of God?  If this is what we believe – hold on to, cling to – then why do we treat the person of Jesus with such little respect and authority in our lives? 

I know I do.  Too often I treat Jesus as someone I can do without.  I forget him and go on my business – taking care of my family, doing my work, playing.  If Jesus is God on earth – alive in my life – how can I not make him my most important priority?  How can I not give him my life?  How can I not submit my life completely to him? 

What is his mission?  Not only does Jesus require us to decide his identity – his life also requires us to decide his mission in the world?  Jesus describes this mission powerfully in John 3:16.  Here it again.
“For God so Loved the world, God gave his one and only son, so that (his mission) who ever believes in – holds onto, clings to – will not die but will instead experience true, everlasting, abundant life.” 

Jesus – God’s Representative, the Son of God – came into the world to bring you and me and the rest of the world – true, everlasting life.  This is his mission.   Jesus is more than rabbi, even more than messiah – He is God’s Son. 

Will we follow him?  Ultimately, everyone on earth must decide what we will do with Jesus.  Don’t let that get too far away from us, though.  Each one of us here must decide if we will follow Jesus as a disciple of the Son of God.  This requires more than lip service to a religion we grew up in. 

If Jesus is who he says it his – then following him requires more than religious acts on religious days – it requires our entire lives.  It requires us to say “YES” to Jesus in every area of our life. 

Jesus requires a decision from us.  The consequences of this decision are found in a challenging poem by Sydney Carter called Point.  If Jesus is not the Son of God – we would be forced to make the same indictment on God

But God is up in heaven, 
And he doesn't do a thing,
With a million angels watching, 
And they never move a wing.
It's God they ought to crucify, 
Instead of you and me,
I said this to this Carpenter, 
A hanging on the tree

The cross is not in vain.  When Jesus – the Son of God, God’s chosen representative – died on that cross, God died on that cross so that you and I might live. 

This leaves us with one final question What will we do?  What will you do with Jesus?

Jesus – the Son of God – not only requires a decision, Jesus the Son of God also offers an invitation.  An invitation to a life well lived.  An eternal life full of purpose and meaning as God’s hands and feet on earth as it is in heaven. 

Here are the facts that lead to God’s invitation for our lives:

1.       The Son of God loves you.
At the heart of Jesus – the Son of God – is love.  God’s love for you.  This the mystery that holds the world together. 

All that we see Jesus do as God’s Son in the world – extends out of God’s love for each of us.  Out of love Jesus teaches us how to live the way of God in the world.  Out of Love Jesus heals the sick, frees the oppressed, and welcomes the sinner.  Out of love, Jesus sends his disciples into the world.  Out of Love, Jesus enters into Jerusalem.  Out of Love, Jesus hangs on the cross.  Out of love, Jesus comes back to life.  Out of love, Jesus – the Son of God – rules over the world. 

2.       The Son of God wants you.
You matter to Jesus!  You matter to Jesus – the Son of God  Jesus doesn't just want you to make a decision about him – Jesus wants you as his.  Jesus wants you to love him.  Jesus wants your life submitted to him.  Jesus wants you to follow his ways in the world.  Jesus wants you to say – yes to his life.  Jesus wants you to stop playing games with your life.  Jesus wants you to give him everything – your pride, your fear, your apathy.  Jesus wants you and your family.  Jesus wants you to accept him – to receive him – to allow him to be your rescuer.  This life is not about propositions or theologies – life is ultimately about Jesus and his desires for you and your life. 
For some of us – this might mean it’s time for baptism.  For some of us – this might mean it’s time to stop some habits.  For some of it this might it’s time to start some new spiritual practices.  For some of us, it’s time to join this church’s mission.  For some of us – this might mean it’s time to commit your life to a life time of service for Jesus. 

3.       The Son of God died for you.
All of these invitations are possible because of what Jesus did on the cross.  The son of God died for you.  Let us never forget the price Jesus paid so that you and I might experience this true and everlasting life.  Let us never forget the price paid for our sin.  Let us never forget the cost to overcome death. 

Jesus loves you.  Jesus wants you.   Jesus died so that you and I could live.  What do you say?  How will you respond?  How will your life be different?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Who Do you Say I am? MESSIAH

Third Sunday of Lent
March 8, 2015

      When couples come to me preparing for marriage – the first thing I ask them to consider are their expectations.  What do you expect from your husband? What do you expect from your wife? 

Our experiences in our homes growing up have created in us expectations for marriage.  Our experiences of watching other married couples have created expectations of what married people do.  TV Shows.  Movies.  Books.  Bridal magazines create expectations for romance, our wedding and marriage itself. 

Expectations create high conflict when our expectations do not hold water to our reality. 
         Historian Daniel Boorstin suggests that Americans suffer from all-too-extravagant expectations for our lives. In his much-quoted book The Image, Boorstin makes this observation of Americans:

“We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive …. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a "church of our choice" and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.”

           When we come to today’s title of Jesus – Messiah – we are confronted with expectations. Our expectations of Jesus get exposed along with the many expectations for the Messiah during Jesus time.
       Far too often, I am afraid – we also carry extravagant of expectations for Jesus.  We expect Jesus to be everything that we want him to be – to fit within our mold and model of who the MESSSIAH should be. 
    A funny story has famously be told of the young preacher telling one of his first children’s sermons.  On this Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, "I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is." The children nodded eagerly.

"This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)..." No hands went up. "And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)..." The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. "And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited (pause)..."

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. "Well," said the boy, "I *know* the answer must be Jesus ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

What do we expect from Jesus?
•          Do we expect Jesus to be a social conservative, a moral bastion like us fighting against the sinful ways of the world?  What happens when we find him eating meals and laughing with prostitutes, thieves, and heretics like these people matter? 
•          Do we expect him to be a liberal, open minded accepter of anyone willing to following him? What happens when we find him highly demanding, equating lust in our heart with actual adultery? 
•          Do we expect him to answer all of our questions?  What happens when he leaves us with more questions than answers?
•          Do we expect him to reflect our ideas of faith?  What happens when he demands our lives reflect his?
•          Do we expect the Christian life to be a simple proposition in which we receive Jesus into our hearts and go to heaven when we die?  What happens when Jesus invites us into a life of discipleship – of following him here on earth?
•          Do we expect the Christian life to be difficult and confusing in the face of so many other religions and challenges?  What happens when Jesus simplifies it and welcomes a young child by his side and asks us to model our lives after theirs?

If you find this tendency of the biblical Jesus blowing up our human expectations about him to be frustrating – let me invite you into the today’s scripture. 

The title Messiah carried extravagant, over the top expectations for everyone in the time and place of Jesus.  Everyone carried an opinion and a hope for this person.  

            After hearing Jesus teach and reveal intimate details of her life, the Samaritan woman here in John 4 responds by mentioning the Messiah:  “I know the Messiah is coming,” the Woman proclaims to Jesus at the well.  “He is the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 

Jesus responds to her boldly - “I AM the Messiah!” I AM – the title God uses with Moses at the burning bush.  Jesus now puts himself squarely into the expectations the entire community had for the coming Messiah. 

1.         The woman is still not sure about Jesus, though, so she hedges her bets.  She knows something is special about Jesus.  She leaves the well to tell everyone in her village in v. 24:  ““Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” 

Using the actual title of Messiah had political and social ramifications.  The woman could have been thrown into prison if she had announced to everyone that Jesus was the Messiah.  Proclaiming Jesus as Messiah challenged the political and social orders – it was revolutionary. 

The English Title Messiah comes from Hebrew/Aramaic words which literally mean Anointed one.   This Hebrew word in Greek is Christ.  Contrary to  what I thought growing up - Christ is not Jesus’ last name!  It is title that has been added to his proper - Jesus of Nazareth - name.  When we call him Jesus Christ – we proclaim Jesus the Messiah. 

The concept of Messiah was born during King David’s reign.  Remember how Samuel sought David at his father’s home and anointed his head with oil.  This was kingly act. David was the Anointed One.  Savior.  Each king after David carried the same title – they were God’s anointed king/leader of his people. 

After the fall of Judah and exile into Babylon – there were no more anointed leaders or kings.  Israel lived within the occupation of other major powers.  The title Messiah evolved to be the expected person who would be the visible inbreaking of God’s power into history in the same way God had done during the exodus.  Talk about expectations!

The People of Jesus’ time had some very specific Messianic Expectations:

•          Descends from King David.  This is why the genealogies in Matthew and Luke both connect Jesus through Mary and Joseph to King David. 
•          Restores Nation of Israel – For over 400 years the nation of Israel had only enjoyed a few years of self-rule through the priest kings called the Maccabees.  The Messiah would restore the nation – physically and literally as a nation.  .  
•          Frees Jews from occupation – The Roman Empire occupied Palestine with cruel power – forcing families into poverty and creating uncertainty of life.  The Messiah would throw off the oppressors and free the people in the same way Moses brought the people out of Egypt. 
•          Establishes God’s rule in Jerusalem – Jerusalem and its temple were and remain the holiest sites in all of Judaism.  The Messiah would retake the city David that established. 

The Samaritan woman, the disciples, Peter, Nicodemus, religious leaders, and the crowds from Galilee and Jerusalem all carried these kinds of expectation for the Title of Messiah. 

Jesus destroys these expectations.  By destroying these expectations Jesus offers his original followers and those of us today a new way of understanding the Messiah.

2.         In v. 42 we begin to see a glimpse of this new life.  For 2 days Jesus stays in the Samaritan village teaching.  For 2 days he teaches about the Kingdom of God and his role as Messiah.  When he prepares the leave, the villagers no longer hesitate about Jesus.  They make this confession of faith:  “Now we believe, not just because of what you [the woman at the well] told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.” 

When Jesus destroys the expectations for the first century Messiah, his followers are forced to rethink his life, their experience, the Hebrew Scriptures and their understanding of Messiah. 

Raymond Brown, a 20th century NT scholar in An Introduction to New Testament Christology, says it like this:  “It took time after Jesus’ death for the Jewish presuppositions (expectations) about the Messiah to be modified and tailored to suit Jesus’s career, so that believers could recognize him without reservation as the Messiah in all the phases of his life.” 

The largest dissonance about the Messiah these early followers had to overcome was the death of Jesus.  There were many things they expected from the Messiah – but his death on a cross as a revolutionary was never one of them.  All the dreams and expectations for Jesus as the Messiah die with him. 

How do we make sense of an inbreaking of the presence of God who dies on a common cross?

NT. Wright, Simply Jesus:  A New Vision of Who He was, What He did, and Why it Matters says it this way:  “Jesus’s vocation to be Israel’s Messiah and this vocation to suffer and die belong intimately together.” 

Jesus takes those Messianic expectations that preceded him and launches a new kingdom on earth as well as in heaven. 
Jesus takes our expectations of a Messiah and his kingdom onto the cross and destroys them.  The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross.  Today - Some of us who claim to be orthodox or Conservative Christians want a cross without kingdom.  This abstract atonement which escapes earth makes us heavenly minded, but no earthly good.  Others today want a divine Jesus, a kind of superhero figure, who comes to rescue them, but not to act as Israel’s Messiah, establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus as Messiah on the cross shockingly combines these scriptural models of the Messiah into a single vocation and title. 

When Jesus dies on the cross, he meets death in the same way that King David met Goliath on the field.  In one sweeping great act of Love, Jesus destroys death once and for by taking death upon his shoulders. 

There are many ways Christian have understood the death of Jesus on the cross.  In some ways his death is beautiful model of love for the world.  In another Jesus serves our representative on the cross.  He dies so that we do not have to.  In another, Jesus deaths is seen as punishment – receiving the great judgment of God.

Jesus as the Messiah who dies brings all of these theologies of the cross together.  We realize that when Jesus Christ – the anointed One – the Messiah dies on the cross – his followers and those who wrote his story down saw this act as the ultimate means by which his Kingdom was established.  It was the ultimate exodus so that the ultimate tyrant – death itself – could be defeated. 
Through his death we are set free to live our lives in new way.  Our expectations of what we deserve or who we are destroyed and replaced by the grace and love of Jesus who died for us.  We are free to live – not through the law – but through grace.  God is now in charge. 

           The Gospel Story is the extraordinary story of Israel’s Messiah taking upon himself the Accusers sharpest arrow and dying under its force, robbing the Accuser of any real power in our lives – all through his love.  There is no greater love than this. 

Jesus the Messiah destroys our expectations and establishes a new kingdom – not one made of our expectations and our wants – but with his. 

After Jesus spends two days with the Samaritan villagers, he transforms their expectations of the Messiah.  This transformation calls for a commitment.  They no longer depend on the words of others – they know for themselves that Jesus is more than just a Jewish Messiah or a Samaritan Messiah – Jesus is the Savior of the World! 

Jesus as the Messiah invites each of us to make the same confession and commitment.  We cannot depend on what others tell us about the Messiah.  We have to encounter Jesus for ourselves.  We cannot depend on our parent’s faith.  Or our youth ministers faith.  Or our spouses faith.  We have to look past what the world says about Jesus Christ and get to know Jesus ourselves. 

When we do – we realize that Jesus offers us the gift of new life through his death and resurrection.  Jesus the Messiah died so that you may have new life – everlasting life.  Abundant life.  He died so that you may participate in his kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven.  He died so that your sins would be forgiven. 

Some of us here have never fully commitment to Jesus our lives.  You have been holding back.  You want just the parts of Jesus that meet your expectations.  That don’t cost you too much.  That make you happy.  That fit your lifestyle.  You get afraid of Jesus as Messiah.   Of what he may ask of you!

Today – I invite you to commit your life to Jesus fully and completely.  Receive the gift of Jesus.  Release your life and receive his.  Take his hand and let him heal you, challenge you, and save you. 

Jesus is the savior of the world!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent 2 Devotion

Over the past weeks winter weather has disrupted our Wednesday schedule at First Baptist Cornelia.  Below is my second Lenten Video Devotion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Who Do you Say I am: Jesus of Nazareth

First Sunday of Lent
February 22, 2015

Who do you say I am?

This radical question will guide and challenge us during our Lenten Season.  
During Lent, I want to invite you to invest your energies in getting to know Jesus better.  I am challenging the whole church to join me in reading the Gospels of Matthew and John between now and Easter.   As you do so – make a list of all of the titles and names used for Jesus. 

Each week I will also preach a sermon on one of these titles.

Today, we examine the most basic and common of the titles for Jesus in scripture:  Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before followers wrote and sang hymns about Jesus – he was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before anyone ever prayed in his name, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before anyone was baptized in the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit, he was called Jesus of Nazareth.   

Jesus of Nazareth.  This was how Jesus was first known. 
The proper name - Jesus – is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “to rescue or deliver.”  Nazareth is simply his hometown, a small, inconsequential village in Northern Galilee, a backwater province of the Great Roman Empire. 

To help us gain a broader mental picture of Jesus – each week, I will show a short movie clip about the life of Jesus.  To help us get a sense of Jesus of Nazareth, I’ve chosen a clip from the TV miniseries called “Jesus of Nazareth.”  I love this movie that was produced in 1977 by Franco Zeffirell.  This scene opens in Nazareth immediately after the death of King Herod as Joseph and Mary bring toddler Jesus home from Egypt. 

In our scripture passage today, we see the power and authority the simple title Jesus of Nazareth has gained throughout the region from the moment that little boy arrived in Nazareth to just before Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem 30 years later.  Jesus is traveling from Galilee up to the holy temple city of Jerusalem.  He walks south through the Jordan River Valley and comes to the ancient town of Jericho where he must pay a toll tax for entering into a new Roman province. 

The time for the Jewish festival of Passover has arrived and Jesus and thousands of others are traveling to the temple to participate.  For Jesus and his disciples – this trip has more meaning and purpose.  Jesus knows something important is about to happen.  He’s been focused on Jerusalem and now he’s almost there. 

As Jesus approaches Jericho, he is surrounded by an entourage of people – his many disciples from Galilee, interested, yet uncommitted followers, and spectators.  He no longer passes by unnoticed.  Like a presidential auto processional driving through downtown Atlanta – everyone notices, gets out of the way, and pays attention. 

Pushed to the side by this passing tide is a blind beggar who has come to this spot outside of Jericho to beg for money from the hordes of festival goers as they make their way up to Jerusalem.  Perceptively, he notices something unique happening when Jesus passes his station.  Primarily, he gets pushed to farther to the side by the sighted and more important entourage of people.

He asks those standing by what is happening.  Everyone around states clearly, ““Jesus of Nazareth[a] is passing by.” 
The title tells the beggar all he needs to know.  Like celebrities during our time, the title Jesus of Nazareth conveys power and importance.  We might have the same experience if we were sitting in food court at the Mall of Georgia in Buford when we notice a large group of passing through, moving chairs, creating a momentary bit of chaos and we were to ask – what is happening? – and someone said, “Justin.”  Or Dolly.  Or Bono. 

These are just simple names.  Yet, their reputation and fame gives the title power and meaning. 

The same is true of Jesus.  The title Jesus of Nazareth is just a name and a simple village designation.  Yet, in this story, we see the fame and curiosity and power the simple name has garnered. 

So much so, that when the blind man hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, he immediately begins to shout above the din of the crowd.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him.  Surely, this powerful man, Jesus of Nazareth, has more to do than listen to a blind man. 

Yet, ever attentive to the truly faithful around him – even when everyone else sees chaos – Jesus hears the blind beggar’s confession and stops.  The crowd stops too. 
The blind beggar has seen past the celebrity title that others used for Jesus and spoken his confession of faith.  When he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David” he is telling all of those around him – that Jesus of Nazareth is more than a great rabbi and more than a great healer – he is God’s chosen, anointed one, sent to rebuild the Kingdom of David, and save the world. 
When Jesus stops, he asks the man, ““What do you want me to do for you?”” I love that Jesus doesn’t take this question for granted. The man wants to see again.  V. 43 says:  “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God.”

When it comes to understanding who Jesus is and wants to be in our lives and in the world – this story demonstrates the challenge and the opportunity. 

Before Jesus is anything else, he is Jesus of Nazareth.  Unless we understand the dynamics of his place in the world, we miss who Jesus is today and what God’s Word tells us about him. 

The fact is this:  Of all of the historical moments the world has see – from the Egyptian empire to the British Empire – God choose this particular moment to enter into human history as a child.  And on top of that God choose the town of Nazareth – a backwater village of no significance in which to enter.  He didn’t choose Rome or Jerusalem or Paris or New York or Beijing or Johannesburg – God chose Nazareth.  
If all God does is intentional – this means the time and location of Jesus birth and ministry are key to understanding Jesus.

N.T. Wright in his book Simply Jesus:  A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why it matters describes this moment in time and the location of Jesus arrival as “The perfect storm.”   Like the great confluences of high and low pressure systems that created the story of 1993 that led to the book and movie of the same name – when Jesus arrives on earth – three large confluences of pressure merge that change the world forever. 

Caesar Augustus
1.  The Roman Storm

The first system to emerge is the Roman Storm.  For over 200 years before Jesus is born the low pressure system of Roman Empire had been building as Rome steadily increased in power and prominence throughout the Mediterranean world.  30 years before Jesus was born, Julius Caesar grasped power of the emerging empire, declared his divinity and created a civil war.    Eventually, Augustus Octavian Caesar – who we know from scripture as Caesar Augustus, defeated the warring factions, unified the empire and created the world in which Jesus was born.  

One of the keys needs in managing this great empire Caesar Augustus built was food.  The Roman Empire needed Palestine and the Middle East to provide grain for the overpopulated empire – like we need oil for an expanding economy.  It was the job of all Roman leaders in the Middle East – from King Herod to Pontus Pilate to keep peace, administer justice, collect taxes suppress all unrest and most of all keep the grain moving into the rest of the Empire.   

In our passage from Luke – we see the overtones of this Roman storm.  The beggar sits outside the town of Jericho – a collection point for Roman toll Taxes - hoping to receive small coins as travelers pass his way.  Without this political structure – the scenario would be much different. 

2.  The second element in the perfect story of Jesus of Nazareth is the overheated, high pressure system of the Jewish Storm

From as far back as their ancient scriptures, the Jewish people believed the story of their people was a story going somewhere. Despite many setbacks, they always maintained God would make sure they reached their goal.  This is the story in which Jesus lived.  The Jews of Jesus day believed passionately that finally they were living in the day God would act.  For them, this was not an ancient story – instead, they were the actors in an ongoing story.  All of their hopes and dreams for a new theocracy – a combined political and religious Jewish world would be realized soon!

This realization can be seen in the many different political and military movements happening the first half of the 1st Century.  While the Romans are trying to keep peace and provide grain for the empire, the oppressed people of Israel are planning and fighting for a new Kingdom to emerge.
Religious fighters called Zealots mobilize to overthrow the Roman Government.  After King Herod died, a revolutionary named Judas the Galilean rose up to claim the title Messiah.  He pulled together other zealots warriors who wanted to establish the country in strict adherence to the Torah and the Law.  Judas and his fighters would be caught and crucified outside of Jerusalem 20 years before Jesus. 30 years after Jesus died, another group of zealots would do the same time – leading the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  

We see the power of the Jewish world in the story of the blind beggar.  In the high law world of Judaism, the blind man had no religious role or life.  He was considered unclean for religious life so he existed outside the life of the community and was left to beg by the side of the road to survive.     

3.  Into these two storms comes the making of the perfect story:  The Wind of God arrives in the person of Jesus. 
The people of Israel had been telling their own narrative of God’s story – full of national ambitions.  Yet, God remained free and independent of these ambitions.  The people hoped for one thing – God had another story to tell.  Jesus was this story. 

This is God’s moment, Jesus declares.  With his birth, the strange, unpredictable, and highly dangerous wind of God arrives to create the perfect storm.  Jesus arrives to show us the true Son of God, the true high priest, and indeed the King of the world. 

This is why title Jesus of Nazareth carried so much power and authority as Jesus walks into Jericho.  Jesus confronts the Roman and Jewish storms which have created a blind man begging outside of town – and blows fresh wind.  When Jesus walks away – this man no long begs, he walks as a follower of Jesus. 

There are many things yet for us to learn about Jesus – but today we make this one key lesson.  With the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth into the world – the world as we know it will never be the same.  A hurricane has arrived.  It was for the blind beggar – and it is for us. 

There are storms blowing in all of our lives – the storms of illness, the storms of busyness, the storm of failure, the storm of success, the storm of children and family, the storm of work and school, the storms of national and local crisis – into each storm – the wind of God blows bringing Jesus to confront, save and love each of us. 

Will you today – allow Jesus of Nazareth to speak and bring Good News to you?  The choice is yours!  Amen.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


The English word believe fascinates me.
In the book Faith and Belief: The Difference between Them, Wilfred Smith outlines how the definition of the word believe like many other words has changed over time.   
          Literally, and originally, the word believe means “to hold dear, to cherish, to love.”  The word extends out of the Latin into the old English root word leve which means “love.”  To believe was to belove. 
We have lost the verb form of this usage.  The last vestige of it remains in the noun – BelovedBeloved and believe are intricately connected. 
          This original meaning of believe made an impact on the earliest English translations of the Bible.  In the English New Testament – the word faith is used 246 times for the Greek noun pistis.  When the first English translators came to the verb form of pistis – they had no English verb for faith.  Instead of creating a new English word – the translators used the word believeBelieve as belove, hold dear, to trust – fits perfectly as the verb for faith
          When the original readers of the 1611 King James Bible read the word believe they understood it to mean:  “to belove, to hold dear, to cherish; to orient ones oneself toward a person with affection and trust; to cling to, to commit oneself to.”    
          The definition of the word believe changed dramatically during the 1700’s during a period in history called the Enlightenment.  Many great things came out of the Enlightenment – modern science, our American Revolution and our constitution.  Yet, this period also changed how we view religion and God.  Religion moved from believing in Jesus to a belief that Jesus was who he said was. We wanted certainty in religion the same way we wanted certainty in science.  
After the Enlightenment to believe meant: “to hold a particular opinion or conviction; agreeing with ideas intellectually.”   Before the Enlightenment we were called to believe in a person; afterward, we were called to believe in a proposition of ideas.
This shift from “belove” to “conviction” creates a spiritual disparity.  When we make “believing” a certain set of facts about Jesus as our only criteria of faith, we miss a critical biblical teaching.  Scriptures calls us to believe in Jesus with our whole lives – to hold him dear, to cling to him, to trust in him.
Believing in Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship.  Believing in Jesus transforms our lives, our families and our communities.  Today, Jesus invites you to believe – to cling to, to love, to trust – in him. Your life will never be the same. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Walk Ahead of Jesus: Horizontal Discipleship

Sermon 5 in Walking With Jesus:  Maturing as Disciples Series
February 8, 2015

            I want to teach you two hand motions.  Before I tell you what they are – let me demonstrate them for you.
[Motion 1:  Hands folded at chest – move upward – vertical]
[Motion 2:  Hands folded to chest – move outward – horizontal]
            I want us to use these hand motion to reflect on why Jesus calls us to follow.  What is the purpose of Discipleship?
            First – there is a vertical purpose.  Jesus says it like this in Matthew 22:” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  [Motion 1].  We are called to a life of discipleship to love the Lord Our God.  We follow Jesus so that God’s way of living will become our way of living.
            There’s another purpose though – this is a horizontal purpose.  Jesus says it like this immediately after he give us the first commandment:  “A second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  [Motion 2].  We are also called to a life to a service to others – this is our mission in the world. 
            Unfortunately – too often, Christians like us – fail to remember these two purposes of discipleship.  When we do – we make one purpose greater than the other.  For example, let’s say Vertical discipleship [motion 1] feels comfortable to us.  Then, We spend our time in prayer.  We read and study the scriptures.  We listen to preachers on the internet and Christian music on the radio.  We love sitting around small groups of friends talking about God and theology and the Bible.  We embrace worship and never want it to end.  The vertical nature of discipleship gives us strength – and makes us feel like we are doing just what Jesus wants us to.  And we forget about the horizontal purpose of discipleship [motion 2]
            For others of us – we are just the opposite.  We live our lives in horizontal discipleship in service to others or the church [motion 2].  We invest our lives in people and in service.  We work at the soup kitchen and camp agape.  We love to tell others about Jesus.  We go on mission trips and volunteer on committees at church.  We love a good mission story in worship.  The horizontal nature of discipleship feels just right – we don’t really see the need of Bible study or days of extended prayer or worship services.  We too forget about the vertical nature of discipleship [motion 1]
            We have made vertical discipleship [motion 1] and horizontal discipleship [motion 2] either/or and convinced ourselves that if one doesn’t come naturally – we don’t need it. 
            Losing the dual purposes of discipleship is not just for those of us in the pews.  In 1985, Robert Mulholland wrote a beautiful book where he defined discipleship as “the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus.”  A clearly vertical purpose.  8 years later he wrote his next book on discipleship and added one key extra phrase.  Discipleship is “the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world.” 
            Jesus didn’t make this mistake.  Jesus interwove these two purposes into his life with his disciples.  In Luke 6 we him teaching his disciples on the sermon on the plain lessons in living in his kingdom.  In Luke 11, he trains them in how to pray.  When we think about discipleship – this is usually what we focus on – the vertical nature of our relationship with God.
            Yet – Jesus also spent time training his disciples in their mission in the world.  First in Luke 9 and then in Luke 10, Jesus sends his disciples on mission in the world.  Long before we ever educated through action and reflection – Jesus taught his disciples how to love the world by sending them out into the world.  This horizontal purpose of discipleship often gets misunderstood as not being about discipleship.  We assume mission trips and mission service are what we are supposed to do without realizing this is how God is forming us into the image of Jesus. 
            Discipleship is both a journey upward and a journey outward.  [Motion 1 leads to motion 2.  Motion 2 leads to motion 1].  We can’t miss the horizontal nature of mission.  In our passage from Luke 10, Jesus trains his followers in horizontal discipleship by sending them ahead of him to prepare the way of the Kingdom.

Scripture Passage
            Look at Luke 10:1:  “the Lord appointed seventy[a] other [disciples] and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
            In the middle of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, Jesus stops what he is doing and sends his disciples out into the world. 
            He chooses 70 of his followers for this mission.  He appoints them in order to send them out on a task – a mission

Task:  Go in front of Jesus to prepare the Way.

This mission requires his disciples to out from where they are to the places where Jesus will go.  Their work is to prepare the way for Jesus in each of the villages.  In this role they are very similar to John the Baptist who came as an evangelist to prepare the way as a forerunner to Jesus.

In today’s political world, all of national political leaders have what they call “advance teams.”  Advance teams stay one city or town or state ahead of the principal politician.  They spend their time with local political leaders scouting sites for rallies, encouraging the local volunteers, and setting up arrangements.  They do their work by preparing for the principal politician’s arrival.
Jesus sends his disciples out as an advance team – but with much greater responsibilities and power with this promise – Jesus intends to go behind them. 

As disciples, Jesus has a mission and task for us as well.  Listen to how Jesus commissions his disciples as he sends them on their way in v. 2-3:  “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

As we consider our mission as disciples of Jesus – living out the horizontal purposes of our life with Jesus – Jesus says, stop overthinking this and just move.  The world greatly needs the love Jesus offers – the harvest is plentiful.  This creates an urgency to the Christian mission. 
It’s time to go!  It’s time to get moving.  It’s time to put action in our discipleship. 

This mission is not for the faint of heart, though.  As Jesus sends us, he reminds us of the risks we will encounter.  We are sent as lambs in the midst of wolves.  No one needs to remind our church – after our experience with our cold weather shelter – about the risks of doing ministry in our world today.  This risk cannot stop us – the urgency of Christ’s mission propels – the harvest is plentiful and the servants are few. 

As Jesus sends his disciples on their mission – he also gives them instructions about how to accomplish their mission.  These instructions provide a framework for each of us – and our church – as we set out to accomplish our mission:  to love the world as God loves us. 

The Instructions:
Our first instruction in being a disciple on mission for Jesus is this:  Accept your mission field.

In Luke 10:8 – Jesus instructs:  “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; Eat what is set before you.”

In a Jewish world where what we eat determines our purity and religious devotion – this is a rather challenging instruction.  There were strict dietary laws that governed Jesus’ disciples.  God will confront Peter specifically about not allowing these dietary laws to hinder the mission of God’s Spirit later in Acts when he has a powerful dream on the roof of Simon the Tanner.  Here we see – Jesus already is setting his disciples up for a broader mission than even they know.

The instruction to eat what is in front of you – also has implications in how we live out God’s mission in the world in the 21st Century.  Jesus is telling his disciples to go into the world – not as hosts – paternalistically with all of the answers.  Instead, Jesus invites us as disciples to go into the world as guests.  When we are sent into the world as guests, we do not set the menu or dictate our own cultural background on others.  Instead, we accept the mission field in which we have been placed and receive that culture as a gift.

We have not always done missions this way.  Instead, we have sought to impose our culture – along with the Gospel – on the people into which we have been sent.  My favorite story about imposing our culture on the mission field is the story of the first congregational missionaries to Hawaii.  These very brave, young Christian missionaries sailed from the cold, harsh winter of New England, around South America and finally arrived in Hawaii.  There, on this beautiful, hot, humid tropical islands – the missionaries directed their first churches to be just like the ones in New England where were designed for those cold winters.  Needless to say in 19th century – pre air-conditioning – these houses of worship became hot houses of the Spirit. 
Eat what is placed before you, Jesus says – be a guest among those you have come to serve. 

The second instruction Jesus gives is “Meet the needs around you.”
After we come as guests into a community, our mission field – let us seek to meet the needs around us.  For Jesus – this means “Cure the sick who are there …”  Jesus gives his disciples this kind of authority.  When they find illness and sickness and need – on the authority of Jesus, they heal.  Meet these needs. 

In the same way, as Jesus sends us on mission into the world – as we come as guests into a community, he invites us to look for needs that need to be met.  What needs do we have authority to meet?

Are people hungry?  Are people thirty?  Are they homeless?  Do they need someone to listen to them?  Do they need someone to watch their children for a night?

Over the last year our church has offered two Parents Nights out for our community.  We hosted one the first week of December.  We had several community members come up to our staff and thank them.  One set of grandparents said, “We are the guardians of our grandchildren.  We want to thank you for providing this service.  We never get a night to ourselves.” A single mother said the same thing.

When we come as guest and serve the needs of our community – our community, our neighbors, our friends – notice Christ at work in their lives. 

This leads to the final instruction Jesus offers:  Preach the Gospel.

After his disciples have received the hospitality of the host and meet their needs, Jesus commands - “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Preach the Good News!
We go in front of Jesus to be his witnesses, his apostles, his preachers, his instruments.  We can’t forget our mission – we are here to prepare the way for Jesus.  This means letting others know why we do what we do.
There are many wonderful community and national service organizations that do many incredible things to meet the needs of the communities around the world.  We work with these groups as we serve.  Yet we are NOT an NGO – a nongovernmental agency.  We are the church.  We are on a mission from Christ to prepare the way for his arrival.  In all we do – we must never forget this.  We must always ask how does what we do point people to Jesus.

Any arts organization can have an art camp in the summer.  We must ask – how does our Camp Mosaic point budding artists to Jesus.  Many organizations have summer camps for at risk kids.  We must ask – how does camp AGAPE point kids and families to Jesus.  Many organization serve the homeless – we must ask – how does our shelter ministry point people to Jesus. 

Jesus does not say – we must beat others over the head with the Gospel – but he does say – we can’t leave preaching the Good News out of our ministry in the world. 

As we live out this mission in the world, Jesus reminds us that the Results are The Work of Jesus

“Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”  We do not control the results of our mission – we simply prepare the way.  We are called to walk in front of Jesus.  This takes so much of the burden off of us.  Our job is not to save the world.  Our job is not to win others for Jesus.  Our job is transform a village in Nicaruagua.  Our job is not to end poverty.    Our job is to walk in front of Jesus and prepare the way.

This is a powerful reimaging of mission for me – to see mission as walking in front of Jesus.  It takes so much of the burden and guilt I often carry about my role in the world.  Jesus who comes behind us is the one who does the work – we are simply to prepare the way.  Jesus saves.  We point.  Jesus transforms.  We invite. 

As we think about our purposes as disciples of Jesus – let us remember our two fold purpose.  Yes, we are to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn his way – this is the vertical nature of following.  Yes, we are also sent out into the world as disciples on mission to prepare the way of Jesus – this is the horizontal nature of following 

As we live out the vertical and horizontal purposes of discipleship – we are formed more completely into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God.