Sunday, March 28, 2010

Save Us Now, Lord Jesus (Palm Sunday)

God’s Word comes to us from the gospel of John, the 12th chapter: “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

Who was watching the parade on that fateful Palm Sunday? Who were the faces in the crowd? Just like at any modern parade or mass gathering, there were people from different walks of life represented on the Palm Sunday parade route. John mentions at least three distinct groups of people who were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey’s colt. These groups and individuals each had their own ideas and expectations about the One for whom this impromptu parade was thrown. For a brief time, they seemed to be united in their excitement, shouting, “Hosanna!” a word taken from Psalm 118. It is a Messianic Psalm, and the word Hosanna means “Save us now!” But don’t you wonder what all these different people were asking to be saved from?
Who does John mention in this passage? First of all, in verse twelve we are introduced to “the large crowd that had come to the feast.” The feast mentioned here is the feast of the Passover. The population of Jerusalem would routinely swell during the big holy days, and it is this combination of residents and guests that go out, with palm branches in hand, to meet Jesus. The palm branch was more than just a handy thing to wave—it had become a symbol of the Jewish nation—a Jewish nation that deeply desired independence from Roman rule. Their enthusiasm to greet Jesus was fueled by reports that he had actually raised someone from the dead. Could this miracle worker be the one to restore Israel and be its new King? The Large Crowd That Had Come To The Feast seemed to think so.
The next group John mentions is “the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb.” A couple things are implied here. One is that this group accompanied Jesus along the parade route and were distinct from the crowd that came out of Jerusalem to greet him. Another is that this group included the twelve disciples. What is not implied but explicitly stated is that this group “continued to bear witness” about the great sign Jesus had done in raising Lazarus from the dead. This bunch we might call the “true believers.” They had seen many of Jesus’ miracles, and they themselves had said things like “we believe and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” to Jesus. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, John also reports that they “did not understand these things at first,” and it was only after Jesus was glorified that they could see the big picture.
The last group John names is the Pharisees, the obvious enemies of Jesus. Already in the fifth chapter of his gospel, John had revealed that the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus because of his allegedly blasphemous comments. Now this Palm Sunday parade only added to their desperation. “It’s useless,” they say. “The world has gone after him.” But Jesus’ surging popularity does not make them give up—on the contrary, their plan to get rid of the rabble-rousing rabbi goes into overdrive.
So that’s quite a mix of people lining the palm-strewn path. You have curiosity seekers, you have those who are willing to jump on the bandwagon if it means an independent Israel, you have the true believers who had been with Jesus from the beginning, and you have his sworn enemies. All with their own hopes and expectations about this man on the donkey’s back. And all of them—the curiosity seekers, the bandwagon jumpers, the enemies, and the true believers—will be forced to re-evaluate their hopes and expectations when the parade grinds to a halt at the Hill of the Skull. For some, the death of Jesus on a cross was disappointing, but not earth-shattering. For others, it was a terrible tragedy. For still others, it was “problem solved.” But all of them were sure that the story of Jesus had come to an end.

If you were to somehow be transported and dropped into the crowd on that Palm Sunday, where would you fit in? Would you find company among Jesus’ enemies? Are you skeptical of the claims that Jesus makes? Would you prefer not to have to listen to or deal with this Jesus at all? There are many who still seek to silence the Son of God.
Would you find kindred spirits among those who hoped that Jesus would guarantee worldly prosperity? Are you looking for Jesus to come through with a big miracle that’s going to improve things for you? If he doesn’t do what you ask, are you going to walk away? Jesus did not come into the world to give us whatever we want—yet many hold Him to this standard, and reject him when he doesn’t deliver.
Would you find a place among the true believers—ready and willing to follow Jesus wherever he might lead? Are you sure about that? Even if that means following Jesus into a suffering like His? Even if that means people look at you funny? Even if it meant that your life was on the line? Many people want the benefits of being a “true believer,” but are you willing to pay the personal and social cost of being a follower of Jesus?
No matter who you identify with in the Palm Sunday parade, the cross of Jesus gives you reason to re-evaluate the expectations you have of Him. Here’s what I mean:
Jesus did not ride that donkey into Jerusalem to improve our lives but to save them. The King of Kings did not ride into Jerusalem to replace Roman rulers but to rescue the human race. Jesus did not endure the agony of the cross to change the political landscape, but to fundamentally change you. Instead of marching immediately to a throne, Jesus stumbled up the Hill of the Skull and was executed. This was not some accident—it was the plan. It had been all along. God punished His Son, the Messiah, the Holy One of God, instead of punishing human beings for their sins—instead of punishing you for your sins. By going to the cross, Jesus answered the Hosanna request. We are saved now—saved from torment; saved from eternal separation from everything good and godly; saved, in other words, from hell--because Jesus took our death sentence. The King took the punishment His people deserved. This was not the salvation that anyone was expecting. It’s not always what we’re expecting or looking for from God. But what Jesus has done meets our deepest need. You can know you are loved and forgiven and that God is for you, not against you.
Whatever your expectations of Jesus were when you entered this building today—please hear me on this: Jesus has died your death and offers you a brand new life. You are forgiven of all your sin. You have eternal life starting this moment. Jesus is alive and He is with you in your pain, as well as your joy. When sinners pray “Hosanna! Save me now, Lord Jesus,” He says, “I have; I will.” Then He forgives sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and He adopts people through water and His Holy Name, and He feeds people His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of faith. Hosanna! This is our word now. It is what Jesus does.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Press On Toward the Goal

Each year a few thousand hopefuls run the Boston Marathon. The first place runner will typically complete the 26 miles in just under two hours and ten minutes. That’s running at a pace of a little over five minutes a mile. Those who are serious—but not world class—runners will finish in about three hours. Those running just for the fun of it will finish in six hours or less. Because of injury, cramps, heat exhaustion, or failing to follow the proper course, a significant number will not finish the race. Others who quit before the finish claim to have come to their senses before it was too late!
The Apostle Paul indicates that an athlete competing for a ribbon or medal is a good metaphor for life in Christ. And that life is not a sprint. It is very much like a marathon or cross-country race. Paul writes: “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Keep striving to exercise your faith in Jesus, no matter where you’re at in the marathon of life.
Where are you in the race today? The first ten miles of the race can be compared to our childhood, teenage, and young adult years. At the beginning, the adrenaline is pumping, the crowd is cheering, and some runners go out fast. Others find it frustrating to be stuck in the pack until it begins to move apart. Patience does not come easily when you are ready to go for it. You have the talent and the energy, but do you have a plan? Are you tempted to cheat to get an advantage? Runners can also make major mistakes when they are overconfident and refuse to listen to good coaching. In the first ten miles, we feel like we’ve got a lot to prove to everyone—including ourselves.
The second phase of the race, from eleven to twenty miles, is like our middle years. The early energy and adrenaline are gone. Boredom and fatigue are now the primary obstacles. There aren’t many spectators lining the streets at this point. It’s at this point in the race when you might begin to doubt your career; your calling; your marriage. The future doesn’t look so great, and it’s too late to go back and start over again. So what do you do? Quit? Take a shortcut? Keep plugging along? This is where the reality of the race sets in. Some find a good rhythm; some struggle to put one foot in front of the other.
The third and final phase of the race consists of the last six miles. It’s said that because of the drain on your body’s reserves after running the first twenty miles, it’s like you’ve only run halfway. It takes as much or more courage to run the last six miles as it did the first twenty. And at about twenty miles in, Boston has something called Heartbreak Hill. It is steep and long and it eliminates more runners than any other part of the course. This is the point at which many hit the proverbial wall. Some runners simply collapse, while others manage to make it to a nearby curb before their muscles give way.
It is heartbreaking to make it to the home stretch of life only to have to battle chronic pain or heart disease or cancer. It can be deeply disappointing to hit the wall after you’ve worked so hard to get to this point. You want to keep running the race of faith, but that curb over there looks awfully inviting.
Now, what if I were to tell you that, no matter where you are on the racecourse today, I could guarantee that if you keep running, you will share in the winner’s prize? Well, that’s the glory of the gospel—the glory of the good news about Jesus—because that claim can be made. If you run the race of life trusting that Jesus is already the Champion over sin and evil and death, then He will share His victory with you. In today’s Epistle, Paul is talking about the confidence that comes from being on Jesus’ team.
Listen again to what he writes, and bear in mind that he most likely was writing this while in prison: 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul was given strength, courage, and joy because he knew Jesus as His Savior and Champion. As he says here, the goal of his race was to be raised from the dead so he could live with Jesus for eternity. Knowing that he would be with Jesus in the future changed him in the present. It freed him to run his race with excellence, with urgency, and without fear. Paul knew that the prize of eternal life with God was already his because eternal life with God was never something he could earn or achieve. Jesus had won it already. Jesus stands at the finish line with trophy in hand, and beckons to us to run well and to run with grace, because the outcome is certain. It is true: what we know our future to be can actually change our present.
Think of it this way: there were two men who were both going to be doing the same job. It was a terrible, awful, Dirty Jobs-type of task that nobody wanted to do. Eighty hours a week, backbreaking, disgusting, menial work, and they wouldn’t get paid until the end of the year. One of the men knew he was going to be paid $15,000; the other knew he was going to be paid $15 million. Now, how do you think knowing that might affect the way they viewed their work? Mr. 15 Grand would probably complain, find ways to cut corners, and might eventually just quit. The fifteen million dollar worker, on the other hand, would likely whistle a happy tune while he worked. What you know your future to be actually changes you in the present.
And here’s what we know: Jesus went to the cross to pay off the high cost of our sin. Jesus disarmed death by his return to life. Jesus did these things for you so that you will one day stand in a resurrected, perfected body in full relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit in a Day of joy that will last forever. Believing in Jesus and his actions, that is what your future will be. Fifteen million dollars could not redeem one soul for heaven; but the blood of Jesus does for any who trust in Him. This is the prize you’ve already won!
Wherever you’re at on the racecourse of life, press on toward the goal to win the prize, confident that Jesus already has the victory in hand. Give your best effort to the One who gave His all for you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Be Reconciled; Be a Reconciler

“The man I ate dinner with tonight killed my brother." These words were spoken by a woman at a Prison Fellowship banquet in Seattle. She told how John H. had murdered her brother during a robbery, served 18 years in jail, then settled into life on a dairy farm, where she had met him in 1983, 20 years after his crime. Compelled by Christ’s command to forgive, Ruth Youngsman had gone to her enemy and pronounced forgiveness. Then she had taken him to her father’s deathbed, prompting reconciliation. Some would not call this a success story: John didn’t become a Christian. But at that Prison Fellowship banquet last fall, his voice cracked as he said, "Christians are the only people I know that you can kill their son, and they’ll make you a part of their family. I don’t know the Man Upstairs, but He sure is hounding me."
John’s story is unfinished. But just as Christ died for us regardless of our actions or acceptance, so Ruth Youngsman forgave him without qualification. Even more so, she became his friend.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian faith. Putting a relationship back together--with forgiveness as the glue--is how the whole thing works. We know this. And yet we can hear a story like Ruth Youngsman’s, and a part of us thinks her foolish—thinks her na├»ve—or weak—or just strange. Because she forgave. Because she did what Christ would have all of us do. Where we hold to this double standard; or worse, where we withhold forgiveness from others, we need to repent and change direction. No buts; no what ifs; no listen to what they did to me’s. Repent and change direction, or else “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are just words that we whisper from memory, with no real meaning at all.
But maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse. Reconciliation with other people really is not possible unless we are first reconciled with God. If we have real trouble reconciling with others, that suggests we may not be sure about our reconciliation with God.
Perhaps that’s why Saint Paul, writing his second letter to the Corinthians, comes on so strongly: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” The word “implore” here means to beg. In other words, the apostle says: “I’m begging you to get right with God through Jesus Christ.” Is Paul speaking to you, too, right now? If so, the very next verse explains how you can “get right with God”: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It isn’t complicated. It’s a simple exchange. Jesus gets our sin; we get his goodness. That’s the gospel. For some people, that’s just too good to be true.
A pastor recently told the true story of one of his church members, an attorney, who after meditating on several scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that had owed him money for more than 6 months.
He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its biblical basis and sent 17 debt canceling letters via certified mail.
One by one, the letters began to return, unsigned and undelivered.
Perhaps a couple people had moved away-- though not likely. 16 of the 17 letters came back to him because the clients refused to sign for and open the envelopes fearing that this attorney was suing them for their debts.
The first step in being reconciled to God is realizing that He is not out to get us! As a matter of fact, He is the one who wants reconciliation! He wants to be reconciled to you so much that he applied your debt of sin to his Son’s account, and made Him pay! Jesus paid that debt by going to what St. Paul liked to call “the tree.” That was one way he talked about the cross on which Jesus died. But there’s more to the “tree” reference than just: the cross was made of wood, and wood comes from trees. The cross is our tree of life—an image that our Hymn of the Month asks us to consider. On that tree, the exchange has been made. Jesus agrees to suffer, die, and endure hell itself for you--so that you never have to. Believe it! And if the devil tries to drag your old, previously-forgiven sins back out in front of you, shove the letter in his face and show him where it says “Tetelestai…Paid in Full…It is Finished.”
The reconciliation that God offers is not the stuff of the theological ivory tower—the forgiveness that flows to you from Christ is not hypothetical –it is meant to become a real, driving force in your life. It takes on flesh and blood in the decisions you make each day. That’s probably the best way that we catch the power of forgiveness—when we actually receive it or see it being given by a Christian person like Ruth Youngsman, or the kindly bishop in “Les Miserables.”
Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables” tells a story of a man named Jean Valjean, who served nineteen years of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread. When he was finally released, Valjean was a hardened, tough ex-convict. Soon after his release, a local bishop invited him to stay in his home for the night. After the bishop and his sister were asleep, Valjean stole the family silver and ran off into the night. The next morning, he was captured by three policemen and bought back to the bishop.
“So here you are!” the bishop cried to Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”
After the policemen had gone the bishop gave the candlesticks to Valjean, who was speechless and trembling. “Do not ever forget,” the bishop said, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself a new man."
That’s the promise we stand on the edge of today. God does not repay us as our sins deserve. Instead, He gives us the silver and the candlesticks. He gives forgiveness and life that never ends, and other blessings besides.
Do not forget how He has dealt with you. Bring it into every corner of your life. I’m begging you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God, and let the pardon you have received become the pardon that you give.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What To Do With Disaster

Lately it seems that the news has been bringing us stories of one large-scale disaster after another. First there was the devastating earthquake in Haiti; then another bigger quake in Chile, complete with tsunami warnings. Then came another in Taiwan.
A little closer to home, each new day brings word of personal disaster that people are experiencing. The unexpected death of a spouse or a parent. The implosion of a marriage or the loss of a job.
When disaster strikes, there is a predictable human reaction. We begin to ask questions. We want to know why something terrible happened. We can take that a step further and ask, “What did they do to deserve such a horrible experience?” And some people are more than willing to try to explain. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a prominent televangelist was quick to say that New Orleans deserved it because of their high degree of sinfulness. (“Where does that leave Las Vegas?” I wondered at the time.) In the case of Haiti, there have been similar conclusions drawn. “Voodoo is prominent in Haiti, therefore God zeroed in on them,” and so forth. The underlying message is “they had it coming” because “they” are way more sinful than “we” are.
That’s a nice, tidy theory. But is it true, according to Holy Scripture? Is that how we are supposed to interpret disaster when it strikes? Let’s take a look at the beginning of Luke chapter thirteen for answers.
Some people came to Jesus, reporting an ugly incident that had taken place in which Pontius Pilate apparently had some Galileans put to death. This was just an awful situation and extremely provocative. But see how Jesus gets to the heart of the matter? He discerned that this story was being reported to him so that he could affirm that ““those Galileans” had it coming” because “they” are way more sinful than “we” are, and then everyone could go on their way feeling better about themselves. Jesus meets that expectation head-on and says: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” To reinforce his point, Jesus brings up His own disaster story; a quick account of a tower falling on eighteen people and killing them. Then he asks: “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus first refutes the theory that “they had it coming,” and then turns the entire discussion around so that it’s directed at you and me. He’s not interested in getting into a discussion of “why do bad things happen.” He’s interested in where you are at spiritually. He knows that we get hung up on the wrong questions, so he cuts through all that and asks the right ones. The ones that matters most. Are you ready to have a change of mind and heart? Are you ready to turn around? Are you ready to go in God’s direction, confessing your deep need for forgiveness? What is it’s you that the tower falls on? What if it’s you that’s crushed in the earthquake? What is it’s you who has a massive heart attack and dies before they hit the ground? Are you ready for what comes next?
The person who is ready and well prepared is the person who knows that their sin ought to exclude them from heaven. The person who is ready has realized that there is only one hope; one path; one key that opens heaven’s door; and that is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, put to death for the price of our sin and raised to life to lift us into heaven. Our Lord Jesus knows that we procrastinate and put it off and would do just about anything to avoid thinking about our own mortality. Yet it is absolutely necessary. So he sidesteps the perplexing theological questions about the existence of evil and “why does God permit such things to happen” and says, straight up, what really matters is whether or not YOU truly know your need for God. What really matters is whether or not YOU believe in His Son’s sacrifice and risen life. If you reject God’s mercy, you will inevitably die, but that’s just the beginning. What comes next is a living nightmare, an existence where access to a loving God is no longer possible, and things like forgiveness and kindness are forgotten.
But that’s not what God wants for his creation. That’s why He placed the punishment for sin on His Son. It had to fall on someone, so God had it fall on Jesus instead of you and me. With that awful price paid for, God invites you leave sinful ways behind and to receive the gift of forgiveness. He invites you to change your mind about your old ways and to live in a whole new way. His Holy Spirit is at work at this very moment to guide you to Jesus, that you would trust Him and Him alone for a never-ending life with God. A person who is gifted with this faith is a person who can withstand disaster when it comes. Because of Jesus they can live with urgency, yet without fear.
There is an old Japanese movie that I love called “Ikiru.” The story is simple; a man who has a desk job in the local government goes through the same lifeless routine day after day until he learns he has stomach cancer. After absorbing the shock of this news, and after trying the “eat, drink, and be merry” approach to this news and finding it empty, he latches onto a purpose that gives the rest of his days meaning. He decides to push a project through the system—the building of a children’s playground—and he goes after this project with great urgency because time is obviously running out. He also goes after it without fear. He realizes this when the local Japanese mobsters try to prevent him from building the playground. They threaten him with death, and you see this look of awareness cross the man’s face—their greatest weapon means nothing. Threatening to kill someone’s who is terminally ill is not going to scare them very much. And yes, the playground gets built. Incidentally, the title, “Ikiru,” is a Japanese word meaning “to live.”
If you return to God and believe the good news about His Son Jesus, then you know what it really means to live. You will live with urgency, picking up the mission God has given you to complete, because no tomorrow is guaranteed. You will live without fear, because you trust that Jesus—who defeated death and came out of the grave—will be with you in this life and the next. And you will live through times of both delight and disaster with confidence that every heartbeat brings you that much closer to the endless, joyous Day of Heaven, thanks to Jesus Christ our Lord.