Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rejecting Jesus

God’s Word comes to us from the 13th chapter of Luke, where Jesus says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

Most of us are so familiar with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God that we don’t give it a second thought. But “Hen of God”? That’s another story. In the words you just heard, Jesus compares his love for the people of Jerusalem to the nurturing, protecting love of a mother hen, draping her wings over her chicks. It is a tender, comforting image. And yet there is tragedy in these words. There is heartbreak. Jesus has tried to gather His children together, but they have rejected him.
Chances are, you have known the pain of rejection. Whether it’s rejection in a relationship; rejection at your job; or the rejection of wanting something so much only to be passed by; we know how it feels. So just imagine, if you can, how the Son of God feels as he journeys toward Jerusalem—His holy city—the location of His Father’s house, the Temple—and the reception he receives is rejection. He has come so that people—his people—can truly know God. He has come to bring forgiveness and a new direction. He has come to offer never-ending life to his people and all people. And the response is: No thanks, Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t want you. We don’t want what you’re selling. Keep this up, Jesus, and things might get ugly.
Now, Jesus was not surprised by this rejection. He even said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Perhaps He was thinking of Jeremiah, who in today’s Old Testament lesson is threatened with death for speaking the Word of the Lord. Human beings can have strange, extreme reactions to God’s Word of repentance and mercy, as Paul writes in today’s Epistle: “For many…walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Enemies of the cross of Christ. Enemies of forgiveness and love. Enemies of all that is good. Rejection of Jesus is all around us. Pop stars try to recast Jesus in their own image in interviews. Fathers and mothers try to lead families apart from the wisdom and will of God. People crave power and control, despising those who promote the peace and forgiveness of Christ, who still desires to gather a people unto himself. He is not surprised by all this rejection. But it still breaks His heart. The worst of it is, this is not just a message about how “those people” reject Jesus—it’s also about how you reject Him, and how I reject Him, people who really ought to know better.
How, you may ask, do I reject Jesus? Well, let me ask you: Is Jesus, the Son of God, the most important person in your life? Would you drop everything that you’ve worked for to follow his calling? Do you share your faith in Him with other people? Do you care for those who are worse off than you and look for ways to serve them? Do you try to live a life of purity and obedience to the Lord on a daily basis? Do you hunger and thirst for Jesus’ words, not to mention His body and blood given in Holy Communion, or are there other places you would rather be than a boring old church service? If you wrote down all the things you do in a given week, would they reveal that Jesus is your number one priority? Would He make the top five? I am willing to admit that I fall under the condemnation of these questions and that I have rejected my Savior in ways to numerous to mention. Are you willing to admit the same?
If not, I will pray that you wake up before it’s too late, because you are choosing a road that leads to personal destruction. If you are willing to confess and own your rejection of Jesus, I want you to listen to this. It’s going to sound too good to be true, but it is the Truth. Jesus is not surprised by rejection. And even though it broke his heart, he pressed on to Jerusalem to the hill outside the city wall where criminals were put to death. Jesus does not handle rejection like we do. When we’re rejected, we either lash out in anger, or more often than not we shut down, we curl up into a ball so that we don’t get hurt again. But not Jesus. He kept putting one foot in front of the other all the way to Calvary, in the face of the most bitter rejection imaginable. Where we help only our friends or those who can reward us for our efforts, Jesus helped those who hated him and prayed for their forgiveness. Where we would turn our backs to those who reject us, Jesus offered his back to the whip, absorbing the punishment for sin. Where we shut down and put self-preservation first, Jesus thought more highly of you than his own life. Rejection did not stop Jesus from proving his love for you. His wish came true. He gathers his children with outstretched arms—on the cross. He gathers his children with the wings of forgiveness and reconciliation. Though his arms are nailed fast to the wood, His love embraces the world. That love embraces you and me—people who have resisted and rejected Him—and what He wants most is for you to turn around and return the embrace. His arms are still open wide.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Jesus Said No To Temptation

It is not a sin to be tempted to sin. Would you agree? If it were a sin simply to be tempted by the devil, then we would all be lost. Why? Because Jesus was thoroughly tempted to sin by Satan himself. If being tempted is in itself a sin, then Jesus sinned, and his sacrifice on the cross has no power to save. I hope it’s obvious that I’m not suggesting that’s the case. Jesus presented himself as a perfect offering for our sin. Jesus resisted temptation by relying on Holy Scripture. It’s no sin to be tempted. It’s what you do with temptation that counts.
Unfortunately, that usually means we fail and fall and it becomes a sin. The comic strip “Cathy” totally nails our sorry approach to handling temptation. The one I’m thinking of went like this: Cathy goes for a drive to get her mind off of the temptation of eating candy. She thinks, “I’ll go for a drive, but I won’t go past the grocery store.” Next frame, “I’ll drive past, but I won’t stop.” Next frame: “I’ll stop, but I won’t go inside.” Then, “I’ll go inside, but I won’t go down the candy aisle.” “I’ll go down the candy aisle, but I’ll just look. I won’t pick up any candy.” “I’ll pick up the candy, but I won’t buy it.” “I’ll buy it, but I won’t open it.” “I’ll open it, but I won’t smell it.” “I’ll smell it, but not taste it.” “I’ll taste it, but not eat it.” Then, “EAT EAT EAT.”
There is humor in that description because we recognize how true it is and how it mirrors our own struggles with temptation. But make no mistake: choosing to sin is no laughing matter. It may not be a sin to be tempted, but when we believe the lies of the devil and choose to sin, we are choosing evil. We are choosing death. I’m guessing you wouldn’t think that drinking a bottle of poison is a good idea, yet when you indulge yourself in sinful behavior, that’s exactly what you’re doing to your heart and soul. Worse yet, as a Christian, when you give in to temptation and deliberately choose to sin, the net effect is that you’re saying the death of Jesus on the cross was no big deal. Ever thought of it that way? Serious business, this temptation stuff. Is there any realistic way for us to deal with and overcome temptation? I believe there is, and that we see it in Jesus in Luke’s gospel here.
What we need to know, first of all, what we really need to consciously realize is that every temptation that the devil serves up is a lie. Jesus called Satan “the father of lies,” because deception is his specialty. You see that in the temptations he dangles before Jesus. He tries to cause Jesus to doubt his own identity as the Son of God. Satan acts as if he has authority over creation and the kingdoms of the world. He tries to distort and manipulate God’s Word, which was the way he caused Eve to stumble back in the Garden, asking the question, “Did God really say…”? The devil’s temptations are all lies! He did it to Jesus and he does it to you. I could spend the next ten minutes giving you example after example of how the devil’s temptations—every single one of them—are lies. Instead of doing that, here’s a little story to remind you how most temptation works. In Southern Mexico lies the Cave of the Lighted House. As you make your way to the cave you walk through a lush rain forest. The cave is fed by 20 underground springs, beautiful watercourses which teem with tiny fish. The cave itself is home to spectacular rock formations and beautiful ponds. The environment is inviting. Yet accept the invitation and you’ll soon be dead, because the Cave of the Lighted House is filled with sulfur--poisonous gas. That’s temptation. Satan presents something to you as inviting, exciting, attractive, and life-giving. But it is a lie. In reality, it’s poisonous and toxic. Once you walk into the cave, it’s too late. You’re not just “getting away with something.” You’re not just “being naughty.” You’re choosing death of body and spirit. We all need to be conscious of the fact that when you are being tempted, you are being lied to, and no one is going to laugh at you harder than Satan when he gets you to walk into the cave of sin. If he gets you to go in there, he has played you for a fool. You bought it, and now you’ve got to pay for it—with your life. Isn’t sin and temptation hilarious?
Thanks be to God that you have Someone who loves you and values you so much that He would come alongside you and say to you: “I know that you bought the devil’s lies and you’ve got to pay for it with your life. But let me. Let me pay for it with my life. My life for yours. I want you to stay with me” That’s what Jesus has done for you, for me, and for everyone. That’s why he allowed himself to be flayed open and nailed to a cross—to make the payment that would erase your sins. And that’s why we see him resisting temptation perfectly—his sacrifice on the cross had to be perfect, and it was. He had to respond to temptation perfectly, because you and I could never do that. He did, and the majesty of the gospel is that it counts for you. Your account has been credited as “paid in full” in Jesus name. In order to enjoy the benefits of this gift, all you need do is trust that Jesus has, in fact, made this payment on your behalf. Then forgiveness and new life is yours.
Part of that new life in Jesus is a new perspective on temptation and sin. The Holy Spirit will work to change the way you think and feel about walking into that Cave. In Paul’s letter to Titus, he writes, “…the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…” (2: 11—12) A self-controlled, upright and godly life is something that a Christian will want to pursue if he or she truly understands the gift of grace they have received in Jesus. The Christian will look to Jesus first for forgiveness and restoration and then for direction and guidance. And Jesus has a great lesson for you about resisting temptation when you examine the way he did it. In each case in today’s gospel—when the devil tempts Jesus, Jesus responds with words from Holy Scripture. He is able to draw on his knowledge of Holy Scripture to combat the lies of the devil and stand for what is true. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is one critical reason all of us need to get into God’s Word and study God’s Word and know what it says— for the purpose of discerning the devil’s tempting lies and saying no to them! The stronger we are in the knowledge of God’s Word, the more conscious we will be of sin’s high price. The stronger we are in the knowledge of God’s Word, the more apt we will be to live in the pattern of repentance and faith. And the stronger we are in the knowledge of God’s Word, the more plugged in we will be to the power of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to make godly choices in the heat of the moment.
There is a space between the moment something happens and how we respond. Those who are growing in spiritual maturity work to make that space larger so that they can choose their responses. Trusting in Jesus and animated by His Spirit, we can choose to not continue in a conversation that is engaged in gossip; we can choose to not pull the trigger on our temper; we can choose to not stab someone in the back; we can choose to not lie or fudge to truth. We really can say no to the devil’s lies. Holy Scripture says so.
Today’s gospel lesson ends on kind of an ominous note. It says, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” The devil would be back with more attempts to derail Jesus’ mission. He was willing to wait until the time was just right: maybe when Jesus was tired out or emotionally spent or when he was opposed by his own religious teachers or abandoned by his own followers, then the devil would try to sell one more lie. If that was true for Jesus, then you can bet it is true for you. The devil will wait for just the opportune time to tempt you; he’s patient enough to wait until you’re stressed out or vulnerable or angry—or maybe the opportune time is when everything’s going great. The point is, Satan will not give up. He knows when you’re weak and he will wait to take his shot. But never forget this fact: the devil did not succeed. He failed. His lies did not prevent Jesus from being the spotless Lamb of God. His lies could not keep the Son of God in His tomb. His lies will not stop Jesus from returning to the world He saved. And his lies cannot separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus will always share His victory and His truth with you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transfiguration and the Jesus Pattern

There is a certain brand of Christianity that says that if you only put enough trust in Jesus Christ, then you will have your best life today. You’ll own the home of your dreams. You’ll experience success in all that you do. This brand of Christianity sells. It fills stadiums. People naturally gravitate to this message. We want it to be true. We want God to give us glorious lives today—and it’s easy to assume that if things aren’t good and glorious, then something’s wrong with either me or God.
When you’re disappointed or even heartbroken about the way things are going in your life, you need to go back and look at the life of Jesus. Let God’s Word speak to you about Jesus and the pattern of His life. In the pattern of Jesus’ life you will find the pattern of your life, too. The pattern of Jesus’ life changes our expectations about life with God and what we can expect. And that’s key; because sometimes our faith in God is shaken because we have expectations of God that are rooted in our own wishful thinking, and not in His promises.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a perfect place to examine the pattern of Jesus’ life. During the teaching phase of his ministry, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray. During this prayer time, Jesus’ appearance was transfigured. He changed. He started to shine. Moses and Elijah, who ordinarily would be in heaven, come to have a conversation with Jesus about the actions he would take in Jerusalem. The voice of God the Father Himself rings out: “This is my Son my Chosen One; listen to Him.” And Peter responds to all this by wanting to prolong the experience. He wants to build tents so that the visitors from heaven can stay. Peter doesn’t want this glory to end.
But it does. It has to. Jesus was not born into the world to transform and sit on a mountaintop in a little tent. That’s not the pattern. He has work to do. That’s what He was talking about with Moses and Elijah. It says “they spoke of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In the original language, the word “departure” is literally the word “exodus.” I’m assuming that it was Moses who talked about Jesus’ work this way. Soon Jesus was going to suffer terribly and go through crucifixion. Then He would rise from the dead. By doing those things, he would free us from slavery and lead us on to the promised land of life in heaven. This “exodus conversation” is extremely important. First, it is the Word that gives life to those who believe. In other words, it is the saving Gospel. Second, it reveals the pattern of Jesus’ life. And the pattern is not “Only Glory In This Life With More Glory To Come.” Instead, the pattern of Jesus’ life is: “Glimpses of Glory Mixed With Significant Suffering In This Life With Great Glory To Come.” The pattern of Jesus’ life is: pain and heartache mixed with love now; and then an entrance into full glory. Or to really bottom-line it: The pattern of Jesus’ life is: suffering; then glory. That’s the pattern of Jesus’ life, and that’s the pattern of life for those who believe in Him.
Jesus was very up-front about this. To those who wished to follow Him He said “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” He also guaranteed: “In this life you will have trouble.” But he followed that immediately with: “But take heart. I have overcome the world.” If we walk in the way of Jesus Christ, we will still experience trouble, loss, grief, sadness, pain and suffering. Despite what some claim, Christianity is not a vaccine against such things, nor can you will them away by having “more faith” or “believing harder.” What Jesus offers you is peace in the midst of problems. When He died on that cross, He paid for all of your sins in full. That means when bad things happen to you, you never have to wonder, “Is God punishing me?” The full punishment for your sins was handled by Jesus on the cross. Because the Son of God died under the weight of that punishment, God counts no sin against you. We face turmoil in our lives because sin has infected everything and because evil is real. It’s no joke. We must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. You could argue that we do that every day. But we do not go alone. Your Good Shepherd goes with you. He knows how to use that rod and staff to protect you. Most importantly, He’s been this way before. He’s already taken this path. He knows where it comes out.
It comes out in true glory—the glory of heaven. The glory of perfect joy in the Lord who is with His people forever. The glory of endless light and love. The glory of worship alongside angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, sending perfect praise to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Obviously, we’re not there yet. But you will be, as certainly as Jesus endured his time of suffering and then entered the glory of resurrection. Jesus offers you not only peace in the midst of problems, but also a future home in heaven. Remember, as a believer, the pattern of Jesus’ life is yours. Heaven is your Promised Land. Jesus is leading your life right now. It may seem like wandering in the wilderness at times, but think about what you’ve left behind. Nothing less than slavery to sin! Two kinds of death: the living death of a self-centered, Godless life, and the second death—the death of the soul in eternal self-imposed exile from God. Jesus has brought you out of that. You need never go back. Yes, there will still be suffering and sadness, but it is temporary, and it will pass away. You will not. Your life continues with Christ, because that’s the pattern. Suffering, then glory.
And to encourage you and me, we see glimpses of that glory along the way. We glimpse our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Holy Scripture. We catch a glimpse of Him as we are given His body and blood in the sacrament. We get a glimpse of the activity of heaven when everyone is singing to the Lord from their hearts. We glimpse His compassion when someone performs even the smallest act of grace for us, and we are touched by their kindness. God lets us catch these glimpses because He loves us. He knows we need His strength, because we are so easily discouraged. He knows—and so do we—that today, we cannot stay on the mountaintop, because that’s not the pattern. There is still work to do and much to endure. But thanks to Jesus, you can endure. Thanks to Him, the pattern will hold, and one day you will enter into the full glory of God. And you will enter to stay. May the Holy Spirit give you contentment and confidence as your life traces the pattern of Jesus’ suffering and glory.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Fish Story

He was a commercial fisherman, with hardened callouses on his hands from dealing with oars, sails, and nets. He had the scars from thousands of bristling fins and errant knife strokes that cleaned the fish.
It’s hard to calculate how many hours he had spent enduring bad weather, griping about catchless nights, cursing torn nets, quarreling with other fishermen over choice fishing spots. He could’ve easily snapped at his wife when she complained about lean times. It would’ve been easy to envy others who seemed to have an easier way to make a living.
This fisherman had open sins and hidden sins of the heart. He may not have given his spiritual condition much thought, or even thought in such terms as “sin” and “spiritual condition.” Whether he did or not, one day a man came to him with a strange request. He wanted to use one of the boats as a kind of podium from which to speak to a large crowd that seemed to be following him. What could the fisherman say? No? So he put the teacher out a little bit from land, and thus began the experience that would change Simon Peter’s life forever.
You heard what happened next in today’s Gospel: Jesus taught the crowds. He preached. And then he turned to Peter with an even stranger request—a command, really; one that did not make sense; he wanted Peter and his fellow fisherman to let the nets down one more time, even though fishing had been lousy that night on the lake. For whatever reason, Peter obeyed, certainly with the expectation that nothing was going to happen. And suddenly, he had no time for reflection, because the nets were bulging and breaking with fish—more fish than he and his partners had ever seen.
There was something about the combination of listening to Jesus teach and then seeing this sign with the fish that caused Peter to arrive at the conclusion: I am in the presence of God. And this was not a pleasant conclusion. At the speed of thought, Peter concluded that He was in the presence of God, and since that was true, then his every thought, his every word, and his every action was an open book to the One who stood before him. Call it shame; embarrassment; repentance, even; it sent Peter to his knees, and he said to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” This commercial fisherman hardly had time to pursue theology as a side hobby, but he instinctively knew that holiness and sin don’t mix--and that he fell squarely on the “sin” side of the equation. The right thing to do was to ask Jesus to leave. Or so Peter thought.
Instead, Peter hears these words: “Do not be afraid.” In those words, Jesus says, “It’s all right. I know who you are and what you’re like. I know what you do when you think no one is watching. Peter, you just did what I wish everyone would do. You humbled yourself. You were open about your sin. And I forgive you.” Being allowed to stay by Jesus’ side without fear—that probably would’ve been amazing enough to Peter. But then Jesus continues “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” Just try to imagine the questions that this commercial fisherman had racing through his mind at this moment. Not only had Jesus just forgiven his sins, but it also sounded like Jesus had just enlisted him in some kind of…what? A Movement? An experiment? Something to do with the kingdom of God that Jesus had spoken about? Whatever Peter thought “catching men” meant, it captivated him so much—and Jesus had gotten to him so much—that he and his partners James and John left their old way of life behind almost instantly. Luke tells us that “when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” It doesn’t sound like the fisherman sat down and made a “pros and cons” list. There was no: “Let me prayerfully consider your offer, Jesus.” They had been changed, and that was that.
I don’t think I really need to tell you that you and I are meant to strongly identify with Peter the fisherman. When God comes around, there’s always a natural sense of fear. You see a very miniature version of this when a pastor enters a room full of people who have no Christian faith to speak of—you can literally see the discomfort in their body language and eye contact is avoided at all costs. Isn’t that because they know who the pastor represents? (Hopefully it’s not his personal grooming.) But do you know what I mean? And when we’re being honest, we will even admit that we too avoid God’s holiness. We act as if we can hide things from God. We want God to bless us, but we don’t want Him to get too close to us…to really see us…but in the end, we can either lie to ourselves, or make Peter’s confession, “I am a sinful person,” our own.
Then it’s our turn to be amazed as Jesus says: “Do not be afraid. I forgive you all your sins. That’s why I suffered. That’s why I was wounded. That’s why I bled and died on the cross. From now on you will be catching men.” You see, you were not just saved from the fear of God and the fear of punishment by Jesus, but you were saved for this same catching of men Jesus told Peter about. You have been enlisted in the high calling of fishing for people. If you are “fishing about” for a purpose in life, this is it. You are to join Jesus on a journey that will make your life an adventure—where you will be dragging people out of the pounding surf into the lifeboat. This is what you have been saved for—to join Jesus’ team…to rescue people with Him.
I love the way that author Mark Cahill describes the adventure of fishing with Jesus. He writes: “If I threw a birthday party for you where every guest would receive $100,000 in cash and a Mercedes convertible, and I gave you fifty tickets to your party, how many people would you have at your party? No doubt, you would have fifty people. Isn’t that similar to what God has done for us? He has given us a pocketful of tickets, and it is up to us to hand out ticket after ticket to a place called heaven. Do you realize how many Christians are going to die and stand in front of God with a pocket full of tickets to heaven? You had all these tickets to heaven. You could have given them away to anyone you wanted to, but you died with your pockets full of tickets.” Cahill concludes, “My goal is that I am about to die, I hand my last ticket to a police officer or an ambulance driver or an emergency room doctor. And then I’ll take my last breath, die, and stand in front of the throne of God with no tickets left in my pockets.”
Jesus has saved you from the fear of death and saved you for the catching of men. This means a Spirit-filled shift in your thinking. It means you start looking for people to give tickets to. It means…well, it means a lot of things, but maybe we should just talk about the first step, because I know the idea of handing out these tickets to people is terrifying for us in our natural hearts.
Do you remember the first step Peter, James, and John took? After Jesus had created faith in them by his preaching his Word, did the fishermen stay put in the same old routine? No. They left their old way of life behind and went on a journey with Jesus. That was their first step as disciples. Believing is easy; it’s a gift, after all. Putting your beliefs into action—that’s not so easy, but that is discipleship. Jesus doesn’t call anyone to believe in Him and do nothing. He says, “Come fish with me!” And the first step is leaving behind whatever you need to leave behind in order to do that.
What is holding you back from going fishing with Jesus? What keeps getting in the way of you handing out gospel tickets to people? What do you need to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to this journey of a lifetime? Whatever it is, it’s time to leave that boat by the lake. Tie it to the post and leave it behind. It’s not too late to walk away with Jesus by your side. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”