Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Who Do you Say I am: King of the Jews

Palm Sunday 
March 29, 2015

          Wars are fought for power over a region.
          Lives are ruined for individuals to gain power.
          Read through today’s headlines – and you will find stories of power.  Chaos in Syria, Iraq and Egypt - Power struggles.  Wars in Sudan, Nigeria and Congo – power.   Political inaction, government shutdowns – power politics.  Domestic abuse, divorce, teenage rebellion – unbalanced roles of power. 
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt, he directly challenges the world’s power structures of his day and ours.  At this moment on Palm Sunday the military, political, and imperial power of the Roman Empire and the high octane, high-pressure religious power of the Jewish national aspiration meet the powerful wind of God.  Jesus seizes the moment, the Passover moment, the Exodus moment, to give voice to the true power on earth as it is in heaven. 
          The Roman Empire and its emissaries in Jerusalem ruled the world.  From the island of Britain to the fertile Nile deltas of Egypt, Rome’s soldiers and engineers ruled.   In Judea, a mid-level Roman elite named Pilate served as the Roman governor like an annoyed child.  His main task:  keep the inhabitants subdued, stop rebellions and keep the Middle Eastern grain supply open – no matter the cost. 
          Normally, Pilate ruled from the city of Caesarea on the coast – a modern Roman city with all the amenities – theater, fresh water, and baths.  Now, Pilate sits in Jerusalem – the Holy City - for Passover because of the signs of a possible Jewish revolt.  He needed to subdue any uprising during the large, Jewish festival.
          Imagine Pilate’s response when one of his guards reported to him about the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to the festival.  The picture of country rabbi riding into Jerusalem on a donkey welcomed by the crowds chanting and waving palm leafs would have amused him.  Where is this king’s army, his power?
     Pilate knew pure power.  He had seen with his own eyes:  a Roman Triumph parade down the streets of Rome.  This is pure power.  Like a modern day ticker tape parade – the citizens of Rome welcomed their king called Caesar.  First come the spoils of war marching before him:  exotic animals, golden statues, and defeated soldiers.  Then, the victorious army parades through town – full of life, rich from conquest.    Finally, the victorious King comes into view.  He’s carried by a special chariot pulled by 4 strong, beautiful, white stallions, side by side.  The people of Rome line the streets waving branches in the air celebrating the arrival of their leader. 
Just behind the general also on the chariot stands a slave.  He holds a crown above, but not upon the head, of the King.  At this moment – as the King rides through Rome, the most powerful city in the world, wearing a purple toga – a sign of both his religious and political power – the slave whispers in his ear – “look behind you – you are just a man.” This is how a king enters his capital.  This is power – not some Galilean carpenter on the back of a donkey.  With the might of the Roman world – Pilate would mock Jesus and call him “King of the Jews.”
          The religious leaders of Jerusalem recognize the invisible power Jesus displays as he enters.  The symbols of power in Jesus’ entry can’t be missed.  The donkey.  The timing.  The words:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem challenged the power that kept the temple and the Sanhedrin standing, the balance of power between the religious leaders and their Roman overloads.  In the form of a dramatic parable –Jesus’s entrance lived out the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9:  “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
At exactly the time when Jesus was growing up, there was a movement, a political movement mixed with a religious movement that said it was time for God alone to be king. Tired of corrupt leaders, the people waited for God to become king. But did they know what this theocracy would mean or look like? No one knew who would fight the battle, overthrow the pagans, restore the temple, and establish the long-awaited role of justice and peace.  So they waited - with Hope and even longer with sorrow.
They longed for a theocracy where God would rule. However, they had to have the right God ruling – one of their own choosing.  They wanted their own ruler – and Jesus was not him.  In spite of Pilate’s question and sign on the cross – the Jewish leaders would never call Jesus – King of the Jews! He could not be controlled.
This desire for God to rule over Israel and the desire for the religious leaders to keep their power positions clashed with the arrival of Jesus on the back of a donkey.
Beginning with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth a new power emerged on earth – God’s power.  Yes, Jesus was from Nazareth.   Yes, he was a Rabbi.  But from the time the earliest of his followers began to write and sing about Jesus – there was something more about him.  He did more than teach – he forgave sins.  He did more than care – he healed.  He did more than weep at death – he brought the dead back to life.  Jesus was this combination of Davidic king and returning God
In Jesus – God was now in charge of the world.  In Jesus was now king.  Jesus was more than king of the Jews – Jesus was king of the world. 
This is the Good News:  Jesus, the King of the Jews, is king of the world.
The Romans thought their wealth and army contained power.  The religious leaders thought their positions and right theology contained power.  Jesus, though, on the back of a donkey, welcomed by the crowds demonstrated God’s power on earth.  God reigns.  God rules.  God is in charge and he rules from this humbled position.

This clash of powers – between Rome, religion and God – plays out in Mark 15 in Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  Jesus stands before Pilate in the Roman military barracks in Jerusalem.  Pilate asks, ““Are you the King of the Jews?”  Do you claim to have the power of the people, the power of the rebels, the power to rule over Israel?  Jesus answered him, “You say so.”  Pilate assumes he is in charge at this trial – when in fact, God is in charge. 
Because no one can see the real dynamics – the real power – Pilate takes the trial to the people.  He asks this powerful question that becomes our question as we confront the rule of Jesus as King of the world.  Pilate asks everyone in attendance:  “What will you have me do with the King of the Jews?”  Like the crowd of Roman soldiers and citizens of Jerusalem, this question confronts us too:  What will we do with the king of the Jews who now rules the world?

1.       Would we choose to join the crowd? 
“Of course not,” we say.  The crowd was fickle.  It was easily swayed.  “I would risk my life in the shadows with Jesus.  I would confront the evil no matter how powerful,” we say.
          Too often, though, our lives tell a different story.  Like water flowing down a mountain, we choose the line of least resistance.  We find the easy way.  Would we be in the crowd shouting with our friends and neighbors – “Give us Barabbas, Crucify Jesus?”  Think about it:  How often do we choose the easy way when it comes to Jesus?
•         It’s easier to sleep in on Sunday and enjoy an extra cup of coffee – than make it to church. 
•         It’s easier to believe in Jesus when it agrees with my politics – than when his words confront our politics.
•         It’s easier to just live our work and home lives than go to Nicaragua or serve on the church’s Love the World day.
•         It’s easier to not let my faith shape my business.
•         It’s easier to not take time for Bible reading or prayer.
•         It’s easier to not tithe.
The crowd standing outside of the Roman barracks early on Passover morning were not there by accident.  It was easier to destroy Jesus than confront the truth of God’s rule on earth.  What about you? Would you join the crowd?

2.       Some of us would not join the crowd, instead, we would join the soldiers.
After Pilate also takes the easy way out – by giving the people what they want – he instructs his soldiers to prepare Jesus for crucifixion.  The soldiers place a purple cloak on Jesus – the color of gods and kings.  Then, they twist a crown like the one the slave holds over the emperor as he parades through Rome – but this one was not made of beautiful leaves – it was twisted together with thorns.  Then, the soldiers “began saluting him, shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.”
Rather than noticing the power of God – the king of the world – in front of them – they mocked Jesus.  They treated his kingship as the greatest of farces.  Blinded by their own power – they missed God’s true power.
I would like to say that we would never treat Jesus in the same way as these soldiers did.  Yet, I wonder if the way we live our lives tells a different story.  How have our lives mocked the power and lordship of Jesus?  How have our words said one thing about Jesus – hail, king of the Jews – and yet, our lives told a completely different story.
•         Jesus rules the world – and we fight him for control of our lives.
•         Jesus rules the world – and we choose the sin that pleases.
•         Jesus rules the world – and we forget him each day.
•         Jesus rules the world – and we play games with his love.
•         Jesus rules the world – and we fail to tell anyone.
Would we join soldiers in patronizing Jesus, disqualifying his power in our lives?

3.       Or would we join the first Christians who claimed the Kingship of Jesus in the world.
The apostle Paul wrote down one of the earliest of Christian hymns in the 2nd chapter of Philippians.  In this passage, Paul outlines the power shift that happens in the person of Jesus – displayed on the back of a donkey.
“Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
The earliest Christians knew that with the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem the power of the world shifted.  God was now in charge.  And they gave their lives to Jesus – completely, fully.  What about you?

          Today - Jesus invites us to be agents of God’s kingdom in the world. 
N.T. wrights says it this way:  “Jesus rescues human beings – you and me – in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.”  In Jesus the kingdom of God is indeed now being launched. Jesus is Lord of the world. His kingdom is being implemented through human beings. This is the way God designed it. 
Modern Christians use the word witness to mean “tell someone else about our faith.”
The Gospel of Luke uses the word differently.  Witness means to “tell someone else that Jesus is the world’s true Lord.”  Jesus is King.  God is in charge. 
The story of Jesus in the world is a picture of God’s kingdom come.  When we look at the Gospels – the ministry and authority of Jesus – we are seeing a picture of how Jesus is starting to rule the world. This picture is what it will look like when God becomes king on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus rules the world today not through his people behaving ourselves, keeping a code of ethics and practicing certain spiritual practices. Rather, Jesus rules the world through people like you and me who launch new initiatives that radically challenged the acceptable ways of doing things in the world:  soup kitchens and cold weather shelters, camps for artistic kids and camps for troubled kids, networks of believers and investments in Central American villages.
We have domesticated the Christian idea of good works, so that it has simply become the keeping of ethical commands.  In the New Testament good works are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus – the king of the world - is put into place. 
What about you?  How will you respond to Jesus – the King of the Jews who is now the King of the World?  Whose power will control your life?  How will you answer Pilate’s Question?  How will your life be an agent of God’s Kingdom in the world?  The challenge and the opportunity are yours as we enter into this Holy Week experience.  Amen. 

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.