Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!
44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge? A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project. He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump. Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.
On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand. At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen. The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.
Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge. Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow. He is recovering in the hospital.
Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.
CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”
I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.
Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder. She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.
Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly. She sustained only minor injuries. Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.
So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable. But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.
This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again. We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.
We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.
Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along. Then, Lent. Then Easter. And we have been in Eastertide since then.
But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost. Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.
Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture? This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.
But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples. They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection. So now, they must be a little confused.
“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another. Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.
It’s In The Book
The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —
“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Of course, at this point there is no New Testament. The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament. So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —
Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”
Which tells us two things:
- The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
- It all came true in Jesus.
Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus? Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain. There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God. Elijah represents the prophets. Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else. Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day. Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.
But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about. Jesus’ impending death. I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death. That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.
So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.
Jesus Opens Their Minds
Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.
You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today. The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.
Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus? they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them. As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying. Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner. It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.
They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.
Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us
So, what does that have to do with us today? I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman. Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He teaches religious studies. And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus. He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.
So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry. But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.
Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.” Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.
Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.
When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian. He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not. Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen. That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.
In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:
- Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
- Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
- The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
- The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.
And, that’s only part of what he says. You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.
“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask. Well, I wanted to see what he had to say. I wanted to see what the competition was all about. I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago. Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.
Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman. He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be. He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.
Let me just address one point: Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were. We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John. And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark. Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.
What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence. We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated. But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.
But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost. Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll. All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar. That’s it. Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.
So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete. So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —
The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after. The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.
Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way. He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon. This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.” Which it still is. The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either. The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.
While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story. If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.
Let me state this simply: We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.
It’s Our Story to Tell, Too
But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight. He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”
Now it’s their turn to tell the story. They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it. They are witnesses. But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.
While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith. Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things. Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking. He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading. In my white, American perspective, those were two points I had missed. But, he also said some interesting things about the church.
One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit. He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”
In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”
So, this is our story to tell. We are witnesses. Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had. The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture. To understand that when Jesus said,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.
When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life, that means us.
It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven. Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story. Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.
And, how did they tell it? The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives. That’s what we are to do now. We are witnesses, too. We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.