Category: The Story

Sermon: Pluralism – Why Doesn’t Everybody Believe Like We Do?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 2nd in an 8-part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  This week we’re dealing with the challenge of pluralism — a culture of many faiths. I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
#2. Pluralism — Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?

Acts 17:16-34

The old joke was told like this:  “A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist preacher were together in a boat fishing…”

The joke was pretty funny, but that’s not my point today.  Today if you were to tell that joke, you’d have to add to the priest, rabbi, and preacher, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim imam, an Indian guru, a New Age spiritualist, a Wiccan witch, a Native American elder, a Mongolian shaman, an African witch doctor, a Haitian voodoo practitioner, and an aggressive atheist.  And maybe a partridge in a pear tree.

Then, not only would the joke be too long, the boat wouldn’t be big enough either.  My point, of course, is that we live in an age when we are aware of and exposed to many faith traditions, but it hasn’t always been that way in America.  When I was growing up, my buddy Charles Norris lived in the house behind ours.  We went to the same school, climbed over our backyard fence so often that we broke it down, and got into trouble several times together.  Once we set the backyard on fire, which was quite a show.  Another time we shot out the neighbor’s storm door with our BB guns.  But mostly we did 11-year old boy things together.  We built model cars, camped out in the backyard (which is how we set it on fire), rode our bikes all over Columbus, Georgia, and generally hung out 6-days a week.

We hung out 6-days a week, but not on Sunday, because Charles and his family were Catholics; we, of course, were Baptists.  Charles ate fish on Friday, I didn’t — mostly because I didn’t like the fish sticks the school cafeteria tried to pass off as fish.  Charles had to do some weird stuff like go to confession occasionally.  He’d tell me what he told the priest, and what the priest said to him.  Mostly, Charles had to say a lot of “Hail, Marys” — and I had no idea what that meant.

I asked my parents what the difference was in Baptists and Catholics, and got more information than I needed. Among other things they told me that Catholics prayed to saints and to Mary.  The Pope was the head of the Catholic church.  While we were living in Columbus, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency.  Of course, we were voting for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic.  One day when I got home from school, my mother said, “Want to hear a joke?”  My mother seldom told jokes, mostly because she was too busy keeping up with my brother and me, so I said, “Sure.”

She said, “Do you know what phone number Kennedy will call for instructions everyday if he’s elected president?”  I had no idea, and really didn’t think this joke was going to be very funny at this point, so I said, “No, who?”

“Whom,” my mother corrected me, which she did a lot.  Then she said, “3909.”  She wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, and then turned the paper over and held it up to the light shining through the kitchen window.  The reversed numbers now looked like letters which spelled, “P-O-P-E.”

“Pretty funny, Mom,” I said.  It actually wasn’t that funny, but I was trying to be nice to mom.

Catholics were my introduction to folks who don’t believe like we do.  Of course, as I got older, I learned even more things about Catholics, mostly from Baptists, and most of it not complimentary to the Roman Catholic Church.  I grew up in the era when Southern Baptists believed, if we didn’t out-right say so, that we were the ones with the real truth about being Christians.  And, of course, when we talked about who was going to heaven, Catholics weren’t because they worshipped Mary, and hadn’t been baptized properly.  I am thankful to say that both my parents and I became much more tolerant and open-minded about Catholics and other faiths as the years moved on.

The Challenge of a Pluralistic Culture

Of course, now we have to deal with not just one, but many different faith traditions.  The events of 9/11 shocked us into a new awareness that the ugly face of religious fundamentalism is not just a Western face, but is also a Middle Eastern face.  Before 9/11 most of us, myself included, knew little of the Muslim faith, and thought it had little to do with our daily lives.  On that morning of September 11, 2001, we realized how much the strongly held religious views of one group can impact another group.  We as Americans became very much aware of the pluralistic culture in which we lived that tragic September day.

Twenty-five years ago, unless you lived in one of America’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few others — you had to travel internationally to encounter a significant number of people of another faith tradition.

I think I have told you about our first trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong together in 1989.  When we landed in Taiwan, I made the mistake of telling our host that I would like to see some temples.  For the next three days we looked at temple after temple.  I did discover that there were Buddhist temples, Confucian temples, and temples devoted to local ancestors and local gods.  We saw lots of temples, and it was a fascinating experience.

Temple worship was not like worship in a Baptist church back home.  The temples were mostly open-air, with people coming and going.  The monks sold josh sticks, and the josh sticks were burned as prayers for their departed loved ones, and also as prayers for prosperity, health, and other requests.  The temples were noisy, they smelled of burning incense, the monks were more like gift shop attendants than religious figures, and I was intrigued by the whole thing.

One of last year’s best-selling books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, chronicled her travels to Italy where she ate; India where she stayed at an ashram and prayed; and Bali where she fell in love.  Her book has sold millions of copies because it is the story of one woman’s search for meaning.  But she found meaning in a multi-cultural, international, exotic cultural experience where the Christian faith played no part.

The challenge for those of us who are Christian, is how do we live in a pluralistic world as followers of Christ?  Paul’s encounter with the men of Athens holds some lessons for us.

Three Typical Approaches to Pluralism

Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled with how to address the world that did not embrace its beliefs.  Christianity, after all, was born in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society.  Even though the Roman Empire held the civilized world together with is Pax Romana, the world was filled with Jews who worshipped the One True God; with worshippers of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods; with oracles and those who spoke ecstatically; with the demon-possessed; philosophers; and, those who simply wanted to debate intellectually the idea of gods and their role in the world of men.  These are the men whom Paul addressed in Athens, men who were religious, and interested in debating about religious ideas.

So, Christianity is not new to a pluralistic world, but we are.  How do we as 21st century Christians relate to other religious traditions, and how does that shape our own faith.

Typically, there have been three approaches by Christians to other faiths.

The first approach is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach. That was the approach I grew up with.  Baptists were right, Catholics were wrong.  As a matter of fact, everybody else was wrong.  Which presented a problem when we went to see my mother’s side of the family, most of whom were Methodists.  My mother explained to me that Methodists and Baptists were really pretty much alike, except Methodists sprinkled when they baptized people, but you could be immersed as a Methodist if you wanted to.  Having that option made Methodists not quite so suspect in my opinion.  At least some of them could get it right, I thought.

The “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach is known in theological circles as exclusivism.  In other words, everybody but us is excluded from salvation.  That doesn’t sound too kind or appealing today, but in the 1950s Baptists were pretty much exclusivists.  Some still are.  I remember reading a newspaper published by John R. Rice, Tennessee’s fundamentalist twin to Bob Jones down in South Carolina.  John R. Rice wrote in his paper, The Sword of the Lord, that Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian because when Billy Graham held a crusade, and people got saved, the Graham organization told them to find a local church, any church.   And, if they were Catholics, the Billy Graham team did not tell them to leave the Catholic Church.  John R. Rice thought that was blasphemy, and apostacy, if I remember his words correctly.  Personally, I thought John R. Rice was a bit intolerant, and I threw my free copy of The Sword of the Lord in the trash.

But there is an aspect of Christianity that is exclusive.  In John 14:6 — “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So, there is the sense in which we as followers of Jesus are followers because we believe Jesus is what he said he is — the way to God.  There is a exclusivism to that statement and to our belief, because by saying Jesus is the only way, we are also saying Buddha is not the way, Mohamed is not the way, and without Jesus there is no way.

Paul, however, preaches the gospel message without saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  Rather, he lays out the “good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul doesn’t have to dismantle their faith to speak of his.

The second approach is the “as long as you’re sincere” approach. That approach was the polar opposite of exclusivism, and is called universalism.  In other words, everybody is going to be saved.  And, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  That line of thought emerged as America became a more educated and sophisticated society. Religious intolerance seemed so out of fashion, so why shouldn’t everyone who believed anything go to heaven, too.  Of course, the old Baptist line for this was, ‘if you sincerely drink poison thinking it’s medicine, you’re not going to get well, you’re going to die.’  I heard that illustration more than once, and it has some truth to it.

The other problem with the “as long as you’re sincere” approach is that no other religion believes that to be true.  Each religious tradition presents its own truth claims as definitive.  So, this approach, while it sounds like a very tolerant embrace of all faiths, really leads us nowhere. And, while Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” he does not let them off the hook because of their sincerity.

A third approach is the “we think we’re right, but there may be other possibilities.” This is the inclusivist approach.  We’re all included regardless of our religion, as long as we’re seeking God.  The inclusivist approach humbly admits that we may not have it right, and there may be other possibilities for salvation, but we leave all that to God.  It’s a kind of uncertain certainty, if you will.

Granted, I am painting each one of these positions with a broad brush and not doing justice to the nuances of difference between them.  But, the problem with each of these approaches is that WE are the center of conversation.  Each one of these approaches is about what we think, about what we believe to be true or rational or tolerant or palatable.  And that is the problem.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.

A More Faithful and Humble Approach To Life In a Pluralistic Society

At the center of the Christian faith we find Jesus Christ, not ourselves.  Christ is the expression of God in human form, and his followers were called “Christians” — “the little Christs” — because they lived like Jesus.  So, how do we deal with the challenge of a pluralistic society, a society in which many religions present their claims to absolute truth, in which many cultures have found new pride for their traditions in the world community, and in which Christianity itself is often seen as a less tolerant, less open, less gracious Western religion.

First, we as followers of Christ should not give up our faith practices just because we live in a pluralistic culture.

Christians follow Christ, there is no way around that.  Without Christ, there is no Christianity.  And, without Christ as the centerpiece of our faith, we are not Christians.  So, we can’t roll over when the culture asks us to pray in God’s name, but leave off the name of Jesus as we have seen in recent controversies.  We can’t dumb-down our faith so that Jesus is not offensive to others.  Of course, we don’t have to act obnoxiously either, which is what we Christians have often done.

Here’s a personal story — For many years, I was ambivalent about offering prayer for a meal in a public restaurant.  Does it look too pious to others?  Is it necessary?  Will others think I’m “holier than thou?”  But, then I saw Muslim men on TV one day, kneeling on prayer mats outside their place of business, not once but three times a day.  I thought, “If they have that much conviction and are faithful to the practice of their faith, then I should be also.” So, Debbie and I pray before each meal whether at home, which we always did, or in public.  It is a way I express my faith publicly.  Of course, I will ask others dining with us if I might offer thanks for our meal before we eat.  I am courteous to others, but not apologetic about my practice.

Paul is completely unapologetic as he talks about Jesus, and his place in God’s plan.  Luke says in Acts 17:18 — “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul did not change his message because some disagreed with him.

Secondly, we should be humble about our faith.

The exclusivistic approach — “we’re right, you’re wrong” — has led to family fights, hurt feelings, the Crusades of the 11th century, and the Spanish Inquisition, among others.  Explorers to the New World often decided that if the local natives would not become Christians, then they would have to be killed in order to save them — a religious version of the 1950s “better dead than Red” motto.  Exclusivism is arrogant, unloving, and presumes we know as much as God does about the soul of the person or persons who are the object of our wrath.

Humility in living our faith does not mean apologizing for our faith.  Rather, humility acknowledges that God knows things we don’t, like who’s going to be saved and who isn’t.  Humility about our faith acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is, as Leonardo Boff says, the first evangelist.  In other words, God is at work in the hearts and lives of people that we don’t know anything about.  The Bible contains stories like that of Lydia who was a God-fearer, and to whom Paul brought the gospel message.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message, because God had already prepared her heart.  The Ethiopian eunuch is another example — an African official who was reading a sacred scroll, possibly the scroll of Isaiah, and already had the desire in his heart to know God.

We must be humble, because arrogance and triumphalism is unbecoming to the gospel message and the love of God.

Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice, and does not seek to discredit the gods they serve, or even the monument to the Unknown God the Athenians have erected.  Rather, Paul reinterprets the history of the universe with God as creator, sustainer, and eventually judge.  Paul is both humble, and candid, courageously presenting a new way of looking at the history of the world.

Finally, we just have to tell the story.

We do not have to make the story debate-proof.  We do not have to have an answer for every objection.  We do not have to discover Noah’s ark, an original copy of the Gospel of John, or any other archaeological artifacts to prove our faith.  We do not have to apologize for the story of God sending his son Jesus, to live, die, and rise from the grave.  We do not have to be embarrassed at this 2,000 year old story because it is the same story the apostles told on the day of Pentecost.  It is the same story Stephen told before he was stoned.  It is the same story that Paul told as he carried the message of Christ from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the uttermost part of the world.  The writer of Acts tells us that some believed Paul, and some didn’t.  Others said they would like to hear some more about Paul’s story.  And then Paul moved on to another place to tell his story, again.

Like the stories of our childhood, the story of Jesus is our story.  It is our story because we have found ourselves in it when God saved us.  It does not matter if it contradicts the story of Islam, or the story of Buddhism, or the story of Judaism.  We do not have to apologize, or change our story, we simply have to tell it.

Our reluctance to tell our faith story is more in our own heads than in the responses of others.  I have visited hundreds, if not thousands of people in hospitals in my 30-years in ministry.  Only once was I turned down when I offered to pray with a concerned family member.  I have travelled to China, governed by a system that is opposed to both American capitalism and Christianity.  But I have also had Chinese men ask me about being a “priest” (they don’t know the difference in priest and pastor), and about church, and about Christianity.  I did not have to apologize, or change my story, I just had to tell it.

Since moving here, I have heard from the Chinese man who works for the company in Nantong, China with which I did business for several years.  About three years ago, after we moved here, I got an email from Mr. Wang, stating that Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu were coming to the U. S. and would like to see us, again.  They wanted to come to our church where I was a “priest,” so that (these are his words) “they could hear me pray.”  Mr. Wang closed his email by saying, “We are all lost sheep.”

Their plans changed and they did not come to Virginia, but I thought that was an interesting admission from a Chinese man who knows little of the Christian faith.  God is at work in his heart, too.  And he is right, we are all lost sheep.  The difference in our lives is that we know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

A new commitment to the old story

photo5I led a couple of seminars at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism this week, but we’re the ones who received a blessing by being there.  Everything about the week was encouraging to the participants, including Debbie and me.

The School of Evangelism staff was wonderful.  This was Tom Bledsoe’s last SOE, and he’s been directing these schools for 39 years.  Tom’s gracious hospitality and gentle spirit set the tone for the staff team.  From the housekeepers to the restaurant hostesses to the program personalities, gracious hospitality was the hallmark of the event.

The Cove setting is magnificent — perched on the side of a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina — with postcard views of Blue Ridge Mountain vistas.  The design of each building blends appropriately into the natural scenery.  Wood, stone, glass, and ironwork give you the sense of rustic luxuriousness providing the perfect backdrop for relaxation and reflection.

The soaring chapel steeple punctures the blue Carolina sky, drawing your attention to the glory of God’s natural creation.  But under all this beauty, The Cove is equipped with the latest in video, audio, and internet technology which facilitates teaching and learning.

We learned that the SOE staff and other BGEA staff members pray for each presenter and each participant by name, before and during the School.  The setting, the surroundings, the facilities, and the staff all blend to produce a content-filled, encouraging and inspiring three days.

I was challenged again to give new energy to telling the Old Story.  Our church has done a good job of engaging with our community in several large projects.  But, we also need to bring alongside our social engagement, a renewed commitment to the good news that Jesus brings.  Heaven knows our community needs some good news, and we have it.  We just need to tell it in ways and on occasions so others can hear it and receive it well.  I’ll be sharing more about how we’ll go about that in the next several weeks.  Stay tuned.

Easter Sunrise Sermon: You’re Not Alone

I realize that Easter is over, but here’s the Easter sunrise sermon I preached at 6:30 AM last Sunday.  The setting for our community sunrise service is spectacular — the Owen’s Farm.  The high hill where we stand faces east, and looks out over a magnificent valley where horses run across the pasture, the view stretches for miles.  Of course, this message is good anytime of year, and I hope it encourages you, too!

You Are Not Alone!
Matthew 28:1-10

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
On this Easter Sunday morning, we stand amazed with the women who see the angel at the empty tomb. The angel announces to them, “He is risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”

Often we think of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a past event.  “He was crucified, dead, and buried” is how the Creed says it.  And it goes on,

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

But between Jesus rising and his ascension, some wonderful things happen.  He goes before them, just as he has always done, showing the way.  He goes before them to lead them, to guide them, to encourage them.  Just as God’s presence in the Exodus went before Israel in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, Jesus goes before his disciples, too.

And on this Easter morning, Jesus still goes before us.  If Easter is about new life, God’s new kingdom, a new beginning for all of creation, then Jesus still goes before those of us who celebrate his rising 2000 years later.

  • Jesus goes before us in good times. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, his first public miracle, Jesus rejoiced with a bride and groom, and showed that God saves the best for last.
  • Jesus goes before us in lean times. When thousands gathered to hear him preach, staying long past the dinner hour, Jesus fed them.  Jesus feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 tells us that in God’s economy there is always enough and to spare.
  • Jesus goes before us in sickness. He knew what it was to touch those thought to be broken and outcast by disease and illness.  He made lepers whole, opened blind eyes, healed with only a word. Jesus goes before us in our sickness and pain, offering the touch of his hand, the encouragement of his presence in the midst of our physical limitation.
  • Jesus goes before us in conflict. He knew what it was like to be rejected by his own townspeople, but religious leaders.  He did not come for the purpose of creating conflict, but his presence was a threat to the systems of greed, corruption, and dead religiosity.
  • Jesus goes before us in doubt. He welcomed Thomas with his doubts, and assured him of his place in God’s kingdom.  He was patient with disciples who did not understand, fled in fear, and acted as though three years with Jesus had never happened.
  • Jesus goes before us when friends fail us. He knew what it was like, not only to be attacked by enemies, but to be abandoned by friends.  All the disciples fled, except Peter, and he denied he knew Jesus.
  • Jesus goes before us in sorrow and death. He wept for Lazarus at his grave, then raised him to life.  He mourned for a city that would not listen, wept tears of grief at his impending death, cried out in agony from the cross, and suffered in silence before his accusers.
  • Jesus goes before us to heaven. His death and resurrection breaks the hold of physical death on this world and ushers in the age of the inbreaking kingdom of God.  He goes to prepare a place for us, and if he goes, he will come again and receive us unto himself, that where he is we may be also.
  • Jesus goes before us into hell. The Apostles Creed says, He descended into hell. Jurgen Moltmann, renown theologian from Germany, says that because we have a Savior who descends into hell, there is hope.

But Jesus does not just go before us, he invites us to meet him in Galilee.  Galilee, where it all started.  Where Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors, where he taught beside the sea, and where he would meet his disciples again for breakfast on the beach.

Galilee is a place of memories, but also a place of ministry.  Galilee is where the world was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a new kingdom established by love, empowered by the Spirit, and including all who follow the King.

Galilee, where Jesus lives a life of love before those who come to love him; where he puts before the world God’s great plan to make all things new.

Bennett Cerf, writer and social commentator, told this story one year at Easter:

A little girl was orphaned when her family was tragically lost.  She was placed in a foster home, where unfortunately the couple who was charged with her care was more interested in the check they got, than in the little girl.  While they provided for her basic needs, the atmosphere in that house was cold and impersonal, and the little girl was left for hours on end alone in her attic room.

With little to do and no friends, the little girl soon spotted a squirrel in the tree that rose up by the window in her room.  Each day she would greet her new friend, and managed to sneak small pieces of bread and fruit from the table to him.

One day, the woman of the house heard the little girl talking.  Thinking someone must be in her room, she burst through the door, only to find the little girl at the open window, talking to the squirrel who was perched on a nearby tree limb.

Furious, the woman slammed down the window, and ordered the little girl never to do that again.  She left the room and waited on the stair for what she knew would be an angry outburst from the child.  Instead, nothing happened.

Peeping through the crack in the door, the woman saw the little girl bent over her desk, writing carefully in large block letters.  She watched as the little girl finished her writing, folded the note tightly several times, and them pulled on her coat.

The woman hid in the hall as the little girl made her way from her room, down the stairs, and out the backdoor of the house.  Quickly she pulled herself up on a low-hanging limb, and pushed the folded note into a fork on the tree.  Then, she came back inside, and went to her room.

The woman had watched the little girl carefully.  When her husband got home, she told him the story, and badgered him until he got the step ladder and retrieved the note from the tree branch.

The woman opened the note and to her amazement, read what the little girl had written:

“Whoever finds this, I love you.”

And that’s what God has done.  Sent Jesus, filled with God’s love, sent him ahead of every difficulty we might have in life, sent him into a world that did not receive him, turned on him, and killed him.  Sent him to say, “Whoever finds this, I love you.”

Easter sermon: He Is The One

 

Empty Tomb
Empty Tomb

I’m preaching from Acts 10:34-43 for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that the story of Jesus is told in new and powerful ways in every church on Easter Sunday morning.  He is risen. He is risen indeed!

He Is The One
Acts 10:34-43 NIV

34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

36“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

A Christmas Story at Easter

Paul Hiebert, the late missiologist and teacher, told this story of an experience he had when he served as a missionary in India:

It was Christmas time, and in the little village in South India where he had gathered with Indian Christians in the modest church there, the villagers had put on a Christmas play, the Christmas story.

The boys dressed as shepherds had come stumbling out onto the the stage, acting drunk.  Apparently shepherds in that part of India were notorious for their drinking, and so the villagers howled with laughter at the boys’ comical portrayal of the Biblical story with a local twist.

But then the angels appeared and shepherds and villagers sat in rapt attention at the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Wise men soon appeared, making their way to Herod’s court where they enquired as to the exact location of the birth of the new King of the Jews.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan as the play went along.

As the Biblical story came to its conclusion, Hiebert thought the play was ending.  But just at that moment, the stage curtain was pulled back to reveal Santa Claus with gifts for everyone!  Hiebert was shocked.  At first he thought that these new Indian Christians were guilty of syncretism — blending in Christianity with their own myths and ancient beliefs.

But then he realized that the missionaries themselves had brought two stories of Christmas.  The first, the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem.  In that story, the setting was not far from India itself, and the climate was subtropical.  Palm trees and deserts formed the landscape, and sheep, goats, shepherds, and wisemen were the characters.

The second story was the story of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, the giver of gifts with Mrs. Santa Claus, the elves, and reindeer as the supporting cast.  Santa was the giver of gifts, and lived in a climate of snow and ice, where it was always cold and wintry.

Hiebert realized that while the missionaries had brought two stories of Christmas, the villagers in South India had combined them into one great Christmas story of Jesus and shepherds and sheep, along with Santa and reindeer and elves.  Both wonderful stories, but each with a very different point.

You might wonder why I’m telling a Christmas story here at Easter.  Here’s my point:  we have to be careful about how we tell the stories of God.  And the Easter story is no exception.

The Story of Spring Is Not The Story of Easter

Of course, Easter has some of the same wonderful folk stories that Christmas has.  At Easter time, we look for the Easter bunny with baskets of candy and eggs.  We dye eggs multiple colors, hide them from each other, and then make a great game of hunting for these prize eggs outdoors among the rest of nature.

We no longer believe the ancient mythic tales of strange gods and goddesses, and of the rites of spring, or other such nonsense.  The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have been given a whole new story — a story of fun, of springtime, of a harmless and exuberant children’s activity.  And, that’s exactly as it should be.

But, here today, we know there is a difference in the Easter bunny and in Jesus, just as we know there is a difference in Santa and Jesus.  It does not hurt us at all to believe in jolly old men who bring gifts, or to believe that as a sign of spring the Easter bunny distributes eggs just for our amusement and enjoyment.  But, we know that one story is not the other, that there is a difference in the Easter story in the Bible and the Easter sale at the mall.

Okay, so we aren’t like the villagers in South India who confused two very different stories.  But we still must be careful when we tell the story of Easter, because even if we know the story of Easter is not the story of the Easter bunny, we still tell the wrong story sometime.

The Story of Church is not the Story of Easter

One of the stories we tell at Easter is the story of church.  And, many people put on their Easter best and come to church on Easter Sunday.  That’s a good thing to do.  But it’s not the Easter story.

Like many of you, I grew up in the South.  And in the South, we have a way of making language mean what we want it to.  We say things like, “Ya’ll come to see us,” when we don’t really mean it.  And we use phrases to qualify our gossip, like when we say “bless his heart.”  That conversation usually goes something like this:

“Did you hear that Billy Smith was out drunk again last night?”

“Well, yes, I did.  Bless his heart, he’s not ever going to amount to anything.”

So, the “bless his heart” kind of softens the gossipy part, and makes us sound really concerned for poor old worthless Billy.

Well, we did the same thing with this business of church and faith.  I remember as a primary boy, when you walked down the aisle most of the time we called it “joining the church.”  Which is exactly what part of that decision was, but not all of it.  Somehow, we in the South just couldn’t bring ourselves to say, “He became a Christian today.”  Or, “She became a disciple of Jesus today.”  No, we talked about the part of that experience that was less difficult.  We said, “He joined the church today.”

Now, before you get too concerned, I know we meant to include the full meaning.  You joined the church because you had professed faith in Christ, because you had asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because you had repented of all the bad things you had done, even if you were only 6 years old.  I know we understood it meant all of that, but mostly all we could say was, “He joined the church.”

The story we were telling then was the story about church.  And, here’s how the rest of that story went:

  • You joined the church by walking the aisle at the end of the service.
  • Then the church (if you were Baptist) voted to receive you into its membership upon your baptism.
  • Then you were baptized.
  • Then you were expected to take your place as a good church member, which meant coming to church, serving where you could, giving to the church, and doing some other things like reading your Bible and praying.  And when you came to church, they even helped train you to do all of that.

And that was the story about church.  We really thought it was the story about being a Christian, but in our Southern culture and minds both of those stories were the same.

I’m reading a fascinating book titled, The Death of Christian Britain.  by Callum Brown, who is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee in the UK.  Brown examines the decline of the Christian church in Britain where now less that 7% of the population attends religious services, even though The Church of England is the official state church.

Brown looks at the popular theories for church decline in England.  He examines the theory of the “wicked city” which is the theory that urban centers broke ties to family and friends as the population migrated from the rural countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. But Brown actually demonstrates that during the period of manufacturing increase, more people joined churches than ever before.

He also looks at the theory of the Industrial Revolution itself as a contributing factor to the decline of churches, but again the data show that during the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the 1960s, church attendance and participation in Britain actually continued to increase, and at times increased sharply.

Brown concluded that neither the growth of urban centers, nor the rise of manufacturing were the causes of the decline of the church in England.

His conclusion was that the English simply began telling themselves a new story about church.  Let me explain.  The old story they told themselves about church, as did we in America, is that good people go to church, church is a good influence on growing children, respectable people live according to Christian principles, and that being a church member was a good thing.  You were baptized into the church as an infant, confirmed in the church as a pre-adolescent, married in the church as a young adult, and buried by the church when you died.  Your life was woven into the fabric of the church.

But some time in the 1960s, during the rise of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of social narratives were being called into question.  Women were finding a new place in society, young people were rebelling against their parents and the system, and society was in turmoil.  We experienced the same thing here in America, with similar results.

But, in England people began to tell themselves that you can be good and not go to church.  You don’t have to be baptized, or confirmed, that life isn’t much different for those who are than for others.  That you don’t have to do what the church tells you to do, and you can get along very well without all that religious fuss.  And church attendance began a steady decline that is unabated to this day.  Part of the point of Brown’s book is that there is a point at which Britain ceases to be Christian at all, and the church becomes totally irrelevant.

So, the story of Easter can’t be the story of the Church, because it’s easy to explain away the need for the institution of church itself.

The Story of Heaven Isn’t The Story of Easter

We have often told the story of Easter this way:  Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected so that we can all go to heaven when we die.  Now, there is truth in that statement, but that is not the story of Easter.  Actually, if you read all of the accounts of the Easter story, and of what the disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there is nothing about going to heaven when you die in those accounts.

There is wonder, and mystery, and sadness, and surprise, and unbelief, and incredulity, but not much talk about heaven or our own death.  Now, we have come to understand that a result of the death and resurrection of Christ is our own salvation which includes being in the presence of God eternally, but the story of heaven isn’t the story of Easter, either.

The Story of Easter is the Story of Jesus

In our passage today, Peter is speaking to Cornelius.  Cornelius is a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea.  Amazingly, Cornelius, even though he was in the unit known as the Italian Regiment, was a believer in the God of the Jews.  He was well-known and respected by the Jewish community.  One day in prayer, Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for a man named Simon, who was also called Peter.  The angel told Cornelius Peter was staying in a house in Joppa, about three days’ journey away.

Cornelius dispatched 2 servants and a soldier to bring Peter to Caesarea.  As they were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter had a vision.  A large sheet was let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles.  The voice told Peter, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”

Peter objected that he had never eaten anything unclean.  Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of certain animals, or meat prepared in certain ways.  But the vision persisted three times.

Then the Spirit told Peter, “There are some men looking for you. Go with them.”

Peter does, and arrives at the house of Cornelius, where he is well-received.  Peter then begins to address Cornelius, and he tells him the story of his vision.  Then he begins with the passage we read today.

Peter tells this story:

  • God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Cornelius is a God-fearer.)
  • God sent the good news of peace to the Jews through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Not Caesar, who thinks he is Lord of all.)
  • You know the story of Jesus, how he preached in Galilee, was baptized by John.
  • You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth (Christ means Messiah which means the anointed one).
  • You know the ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, and healing (saving) those who were under the power of the devil because God’s power was with Jesus.
  • We, the apostles, are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews, but they killed him by hanging him on a tree (OT prophecy).
  • But God raised him up from the dead on the third day (more prophecy) and caused him to be seen (this was no secret).
  • He wasn’t seen by everybody, but by the witnesses whom God chose.
  • We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
  • He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who God appointed to judge the living and the dead.
  • All the prophets testify about him, that every who believes in him has forgiveness of sins through his name.

So, Peter tells the story of Jesus.  Not the story of the church, or the apostles, or the things that have happened to him.  Peter tells this centurion who seeks God, the only story that matters, God’s story, the story of Jesus.
When we tell God’s story, Paul Hiebert says, “We must begin with the King, for it is the King who defines the kingdom.  The central message of the gospels is the coming of Jesus Christ as King and Lord over all Creation.”

Hiebert goes on, “In the end Jesus was tried for treason by the Jewish and Roman courts and executed as all insurrectionists were — on a cross.  The high court in heaven found Jesus innocent, and Satan and humans wicked.  Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to his lawful throne, and cast out the principalities and powers that had opposed him.  Ironically, his death, which looked like defeat to humans, was the means by which God wrought salvation for those who turn to him in repentance.  In the end, every knee, in heaven and on earth, [and under the earth] will bend before the King.

With the King comes the kingdom.  Within the kingdom is the body of Christ, the church.  And the mission given to the church is to tell the story of Jesus.  Not the story of an institution, not the story of a myth or legend, but of Jesus.

Peter says, “He is the one God appointed…”

  • He is the one born of a virgin, God incarnate.
  • He is the one who grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
  • He is the one who made blind eyes see, lame legs walk, deaf ears to hear.
  • He is the one who said, You have heard, but I say unto you — re-imagining the law of God in new, loving ways.
  • He is the one who forgave the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the cheating tax collector, and the thief on the cross.
  • He is the one who taught love for God and neighbor as the summary of the Law and the Prophets.
  • He is the one who wept at the grave of a friend, and then called him forth from the dead.
  • He is the one who broke bread with his disciples and said, This is my body broken for you.
  • He is the one who prayed in the garden, Not my will but Thine be done.
  • He is the one who walked into the night after that Passover meal, knowing it was a walk to his own death.
  • He is the one who was abandoned by friends, rebuked by the religious, mocked by the soldiers, taunted by the crowd.
  • He is the one whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
  • He is the one whose side was pierced and whose heart was broken.
  • He is the one who cried, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
  • He is the one who gave up his own life, and died the innocent victim of the Roman system of capital punishment.
  • He is the one whose body was laid in the grave.
  • He is the one whom God raised on that first Easter morn.
  • He is the one who comforted his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, and sent the Spirit to empower them.
  • He is the one who ascended back to the Father.
  • And He is the one who is coming again.

The story of Easter is the story of Jesus.  It is the story the world needs to hear, and we need to tell.  It is the story in which we find our place, for it is our story.  It is a story that goes on, it lives because He lives.

Good Friday

762px-8693_-_milano_-_san_marco_-_antonio_busca_crocifissione_-_foto_giovanni_dallorto_14-apr-2007_dett21Antonio Busca (1625-1684), Crucifixion (detail). Painting in the ceiling of the Pietà chapel, in the left hand transept of Saint Mark church in Milan (Italy). Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, April 14 2007.

Sermon: Seeing Greater Things

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from John 1:43-51 about Jesus calling Nathanael.  There’s a great story from David Augsburger’s book at the end. I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s day!

Seeing Greater Things

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

 44Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 46“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. 
      “Come and see,” said Philip.

 47When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

 48“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. 
      Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

 49Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

 50Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

A Skeptic Gets The Call

In today’s passage, we read the story of the second group of disciples that Jesus calls to follow him.  The first group according to John’s account, consisted of Andrew who immediately found his brother Peter saying, “We have found the Messiah.”  

The next day, Jesus finds Phillip, who like Andrew and Peter is also from the fishing village of Bethsaida.  Phillip in turn runs to find Nathanael.  The exchange goes like this:

Phillip to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael (with a scowl on his face): “Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?”

Phillip: “Come and see.”

Nathanael, who is called Bartholomew by the other gospel writers, follows Phillip reluctantly.  When they approach Jesus, Jesus himself calls out so that all around can hear:

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing to hide.”  

To Nathanael, this sounds like a sales pitch.  Like someone is trying to butter him up.  Like a very insincere greeting.  It must have because Nathanael doesn’t say, “Thank you.”  Or “Please, don’t go on so. I’m just a fisherman.” Or anything.  Instead he asks Jesus a question that is loaded with skepticism:

“How do you know me?”  Now let me translate this from the original Greek for those of you who might not get the exact meaning.  Nathanael is really saying, “You don’t know anything about me, why are you flattering me?”

For Nathanael it was kind of like meeting someone at a party whom you have never seen, who starts telling you about your house, and your kids, and your job, and what the neighbors are saying about you.  How do you know me?  Where did you get all that?

I am sure Nathanael expected Jesus to be caught off guard.  After all, who doesn’t like a compliment?  And, most people are polite, even if the person praising them is overdoing it a bit.

Not Nathanael.  He puts Jesus on the spot.  But he’s not prepared for Jesus’ answer.  Rather than stumbling around, Jesus says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”  

(“Oh.  Oh, wow!”)  Because about that time, Nathanael is remembering that he was stretched out under the shade of a gigantic fig tree, taking a nap when Phillip interrupted him.

Nathanael’s brain is now working overtime.  Quickly he calculates all the people he remembers passing him as he rested under the fig tree:  

(“Well, there was an old woman with a water jar.  A noisy kid with a stick running and hitting rocks on the path.  An old man shuffling back to his home.  That was it!  No one else could have seen me.  How in the world does this Yeshua guy know I was under the fig tree?  My own family didn’t know where I was.  Wait.  No.  Yes.  NO!  YES!  The Holy One, blessed be his name, told him.  Wait.  That makes Jesus…what?….the Messiah!”)  

And all of a sudden without thinking further, Nathanael’s skepticism falls from him like a cast off coat, and he blurts out, “Rabbi….you…you are the Son of God, you…you are the King of Israel!”  

Now the tables are turned.  Jesus is clearly in charge of this conversation now.  He speaks to Nathanael, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things that that.”  

Then, after a pause, Jesus adds, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

One Story Leads To Another

End of story.  Except what in the world does it mean?  What could Nathanael see that would be more amazing than Jesus telling him where he had been only a few hours before?  And how had Jesus done that?  It had to be God, so at least Nathanael had settled that question.  

But now Jesus is saying, “You think that was amazing? You haven’t seen anything yet.”  And then Jesus says three very interesting things.  

Jesus could have stopped at any one of these sentences —

  • “You’re going to see heaven opened.”  That would be amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “And angels ascending and descending.” Remember angels?  Every time they appear people are afraid and fall down.  That’s amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “On the Son of Man.”  Jesus here means himself, but how can angels ascend and descend on him?  

Here’s where Nathanael has us beat.  Remember when Jesus said of Nathanael, “Here’s a true Israelite in whom there is nothing to hide?”  

I don’t think Jesus ever calls anybody else an “Israelite.”  There was no Israel anymore.  That was Old Testament.  The northern tribes, gone since 721 BC.   Now they all lived in Judea.  Or Galilee. Or Samaria.  But, not in Israel.  

But, remember where the name “Israel” came from?  God gave it to Jacob after Jacob wrestled with God one night.  Okay, stay with me now because the payoff is coming.

Jacob, remember, was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s how God always identified himself.  “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But Jacob, before he wrestled with God, had a dream one night.  He had cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, and had fled from his homeland to escape Esau’s anger.  Actually, Esau wanted to kill him.  

One night as Jacob is on the run, he stops to make camp.  He takes a stone and using it for a pillow, falls asleep. Which if you used a rock for a pillow might make you have strange dreams, but the dream Jacob had was a doozy.

He dreamed that he saw a stairway, a ladder, with its feet planted on the earth and the top reaching into heaven.  The angels of God were ascending and descending on it in his dream.  Then, God appears standing at the top of the ladder or staircase saying, “I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac.”  But not of Jacob.  

Then God makes the same promise to Jacob that God made to Abraham and Isaac.  “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and I’m going to give you the land on which you are lying.”  Now, at that point, God becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because God has now made the same covenant with Jacob that he made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Jacob wisely, and fearfully, recognizes that God is in that place.  He takes the rock that was his pillow and uses it to make an altar.  He pronounces the name of the place, Bethel, which means “house of God.”  And, he worships God there.  

Jacob is so overcome he remarks, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  He had seen heaven opened.  

The New Jacob’s Ladder

When we were in the youth department at our church, we sang,

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.”  

And that’s it.  The new Jacob’s ladder, the new connection between heaven and earth is Jesus.  The angels will ascend or descend based on the word of Jesus.  The will of God will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven” because of the work of Jesus.  The connection between heaven and earth that was severed with man’s disobedience has been restored in Jesus.

No longer is heaven off-limits, or earth a struggling chaotic mass.  Now heaven and earth are again joined.  And they are joined by Jesus.  

The cross that is planted so firmly on Calvary’s hill reaches into the heavens.  God meets his people on that ladder which only Jesus can climb.  God meets his people in person.  Renewing the covenant, embracing the fallen, choosing the scoundrels, the outcasts, the tricksters, all of whom have no chance at seeing into the gates of heaven without someone to bridge the gap.  

The Ladder At Work Today

So, how does this new Jacob’s ladder, a.k.a. Jesus, work today?  Most of us haven’t seen any angels coming and going, or had any dreams of stairways to heaven.  

In his wonderful book, Dissident Discipleship, Dr. David Augsburger tells this story:

David Shank, a pastor in Belgium, followed a translator into a room filled with Greek, Spanish, and Serbian miners.  At a minute’s notice, he was to tell the Christian story. 

“Fellows, would you agree to play a game with me?” he asked. “Let me try to tell you about yourselves.  If I am wrong, you stop me.  But as long as I tell the truth, you let me go on.  Agreed?”  They nodded in skeptical consent.

“You’ve never had a real chance to get ahead in life until now, so every day you risk your lives to go down into these dirty Belgian mines to give your children a better chance, right?”

“Yes, that’s right, go on.”

“So you work like a slave, day after day, so your kids won’t have to do the same.  That’s your ideal. You get paid on Saturday. You stop at the cafe for a drink or two, a few hands of cards and a couple bets, and when you get home your wife looks at what’s left of your pay and says, ‘Not enough for the week.'”

“Yeah, go on.”

“When she criticizes you, what’s even worse, you know she’s right, you get mad at her; and you lose your head and hit her?”

“Right, but how did you know?”

“Then you feel ashamed, and you ask yourself, ‘Why did I do that?”

“True.”

“Then you can’t sleep and you lie there thinking ‘My kids are no better off than before, I’ve failed them,’ And you get mad at yourself, at the filthy job, then at your wife, your kids, the whole world.  After you fume for awhile you say, ‘Next week will be different.’ So you go back to the dirty mine.”

“Yes, that’s about right.”

“And when you’re a mile or two under the earth, you start to wonder, ‘What about all the gases down here? What if there’s an explosion? What about a cave-in? What then? What about the wife and kids? What about me?’ But there’s no one to talk to about this.  You’re alone and you feel rotten.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Do you know how I know all this?”

“No, that’s what we want to know.  You’re no miner. How did you get to know about us?”

“I got it out of this book.”

“What book?”

“It’s called the New Testament.  It tells about our hopes and God’s hopes for us.  Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“Yes, tell us the rest.”

“It says that at the very point  where we fail, where we betray our ideals and we are guilty and afraid, God wants to help.  And if we accept that help, there’s hope for our children.”  (Dissident Discipleship, p171-173.)

To see hopeless lives connected to the throne room of heaven by Jesus himself is a far greater thing to see than where some skeptic is taking a nap.

We follow Jesus sometimes because we’re amazed at the mystery of God.  We should follow him because we are amazed at the miracle of God’s love.  

Sermon: The Privilege of Seeing The Future

The Privilege of Seeing the Future

December 28, 2008 – First Sunday of Christmastide 

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 
 29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 33The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 36There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

 39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Predicting the Future

 

Here we are at the end of another year.  The news media has begun their standard “Best of 2008” articles and features.  We have reviewed the best electronic gadgets of 2008 – cell phones kind of led the way there.  We have also been treated to the most admired people of 2008 – Barack Obama won that contest going away, it seems. And, before the year is over, we’ll see more of the “Best of….” and “Worst of…” lists for 2008. 

 

Following close on the heels of the stories that look back at 2008, are those that look ahead to 2009.  Writers and producers are already picking the trends that will “change your life” is 2009.  Of course, cell phones are at the top of that list, too, so maybe 2009 is not going to be al that different from 2008.  We have a new administration that takes office in January, and pundits are already speculating on either the “success” or “failure” of the Obama administration before it even begins.  I saw a CNN article the other day asking if “America’s honeymoon” with Barack Obama was over.  And, he’s not even president yet! 

 

I’m old enough to remember the 1950s.  Now that was a decade that could predict the future.  We were told that the kitchens of tomorrow would do all the work of food preparation automatically.  And, while some devices like the microwave have speeded up the popping of popcorn, not too much has changed in the kitchen as far as I can tell. 

 

But the big promise of the 1950s was that by the next century we would all be riding in flying cars.  Remember those?  “Highways in the sky” I remember one article calling them.  Well, no flying cars. 

 

But, then some of the things that seemed amusing, but useless did come about.  Like Dick Tracy’s wrist radio.  Okay, not exactly, but cell phones (there they are again) are pretty close.  I actually saw a wrist-mounted cell phone with camera (remember Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist radio got upgraded to a TV?), and the article remarked that Dick Tracy would have been proud.

 

Some other things have happened that no one foresaw.  Like the ability to communicate instantly around the world for free.  The internet has changed lots of things, giving us a portal into worlds we would never have visited, or been able to access before.

 

And, no mention of predicting the future would be complete without reference to my favorite psychic, Jean Dixon.  Remember Jean Dixon?  1960s psychic, whose track record was spotty at best.  Yet on every late December National Inquirer, there she was offering up her 10 predictions for the coming year.  And, right or wrong, she would be back the next year for another shot at getting it right.

 

Seeing The Future

 

But, our story today is not about predicting the future as much as it is about seeing the future.  In Luke’s second chapter we find two of my favorite characters in the story of Jesus’ birth – Simeon and Anna.  Both Simeon and Anna are somewhat mysterious figures.  Luke gives us only a sketch about each one:

 

n      Simeon, a devout righteous man who lives in Jerusalem.  The Spirit of God is upon him, and moved by the Spirit Simeon goes to the Temple and encounters Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

n      Anna, described as a prophetess and widow.  Anna, whose husband died perhaps 60-years ago, and who has stayed in the Temple courts since that time. 

 

Two very old and odd characters, but they give us a glimpse into the future because God has let them see it. 

 

Simeon is quoted directly by Luke: 

 

29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 

And, then turning to Mary, Simeon says:

 

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

What’s in the pronouncements of this old man?  On the surface, Simeon seems like every other devout Jewish elder – he prays for the “consolation of Israel” which is a phrase understood in the first century to mean the coming of the Messiah of God, the Christ.  That was the prayer daily of devout Jews, particularly under the oppressive weight of the Roman occupation.

 

But there is more to Simeon than just an oft-repeated prayer.  Simeon has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he sees the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah.  And, the Holy Spirit moves Simeon to go to the Temple that day, at that hour, for the most important moment of his life.

 

Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple to follow the ritual purification law, and to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son.  The redemption of the firstborn is first seen in Exodus 13, as Moses prepares the Israelites for the exodus from Egypt.  Moses tells them that in future they are to redeem their firstborn son, by offering a sacrifice to God, and then they are to explain to the son why they are observing this ritual.  Of course, Jesus is too young to comprehend what is happening, but as Mary and Joseph prepare to “redeem” their firstborn, Simeon sees the baby and takes him in his arms.

 

Can you imagine Mary’s concern?  When your children were small, did you ever have someone pick them up, or try to take them from you?  Well-intended as people are, those actions make mothers, and fathers, very nervous. 

 

But somehow, Simeon’s face showed his faith, and his kindness calmed their fears.  But then Simeon says very strange things indeed – quoting from the prophet Isaiah, talking about how this child will be a light for the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.  That, after all, was how the prophet referred to the Messiah! 

 

But then Simeon turns to Mary.  Now the future is not so grandiose, it becomes much more personal.  Jesus, Simeon says, will cause the rise and fall of many.  He will be a sign that will be spoken against.  And, a sword will pierce your heart, too, he says to Mary.  Her heart, too?  Will Jesus side be pierced?  And so the shadow of the cross falls across this firstborn male child, this son of God, this babe who is God incarnate. 

 

Before Mary and Joseph can recover from Simeon’s words, or fully understand them, Anna, an old prophetess appears.  Called Anna in Luke’s gospel, she has the same name as Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Hannah means “the Lord was gracious.”  Anna runs around telling all who will listen that this child will bring about the redemption of Jerusalem, meaning the entire nation.

 

The Future of God Involves His People

 

Can you imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt?  A strange sense of pride because two old devout Jews, a man and a woman, have told of wondrous things that will involve their son, their Jesus. 

 

Not too many years before she died, my mother told me the story of a woman who came to our home when my dad was a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  I was about 3 or 4 at the time.  As the woman was leaving, she turned to my mother and looking at me she said, “That boy is going to be a preacher.” 

 

Now that might not have been such a hard guess to make.  After all, there we were at Southwestern Seminary where my father was preparing for ministry.  “Like father, like son” is an old saying for a reason.  But, still my mother cherished that moment, telling me about only much later in life after I had indeed become a preacher. 

 

There is something we want to believe when others tell us our children are talented, or capable, or destined for big things.  Even if we only half-way believe it, or don’t put much stock in it, we still like to hear it said about our own children.

 

And, so Mary and Joseph that day must have gone home with a glow inside their hearts. 

 

That would all quickly be replaced by their flight to Egypt to escape the terror of Herod who was killing all the boy babies.  And so Mary must have thought about the second part of Simeon’s prophecy, that Jesus would be a sign spoken against, and a sword would pierce Mary’s heart, too. 

 

But still, there it was, a glimpse of the future.  A promise that Jesus would play a role in God’s salvation story, the redemption of Israel.  And, just maybe the Gentiles, too, although I am sure Mary and Joseph had little comprehension of what that might mean.  For the Jews were no missionary people.  They were not sharing their position in God’s future with anyone.  If they had a future, for that looked very dark at the time of Jesus’ birth. 

 

Seeing The Future Again

 

Looking back on the words of Simeon and Anna, we can see that they did come true.  Simeon and Anna did know what they were talking about, their prophecying was really from God.  Jesus, we now know, would cause the fall and rise of many, would be a sign spoken against, would attract opposition, suffer, and die. 

 

But, just as Simeon and Anna also said, Jesus would be a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.  He would be the consolation of Israel, he would redeem Jerusalem spiritually. 

 

And what of today?  Can we see the future of God today as Simeon and Anna did?  Some can still see that future.  One such person was Sundar Singh. 

 

Sundar Singh was born into a wealthy and religious family in India in 1889.  As he grew, his mother especially was concerned for Sundar’s spiritual growth and enlightenment.  She not only sent Sundar to study with Christian missionaries, she also had a Hindu holyman, a sadhu, come to their home to instruct young Sundar. 

 

But, at the age of 14, after his mother’s death, Sundar Singh was an angry young man.  So angry that one day he brought a Bible home, called all the neighbors around, and one by one burned its pages in the fire.  His father was outraged at the disrespect showed for the Christian religion, even though he himself was not a Christian. 

 

That night, as a reproved Sundar lay down to sleep, he prayed that God would reveal himself to him, or if not, Sundar was prepared to take his own life by lying down on the train tracks near his home. 

 

In the night, Sundar Singh recounted, a strange glow came into his room.  Sundar searched for the source of the light, but all was still an dark outside his room.  As the light grew brighter, Sundar saw a figure in the light, a figure that in his words seemed “strange yet familiar.” 

 

Then, a voice spoke to him in Urdu, his tribal language – “Sundar, how long will you mock me?  I have come to save you because you prayed to find the way of truth.  Why then don’t you accept it?” 

 

Sundar said that it was then that he saw the marks of blood on the hands and feet of this person whom he knew to be Jesus.  He said at that moment he was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for his conduct, but also with a wonderful peace.  And though the vision was gone, the peace and joy remained.

 

A Different Future

 

Sundar was soon baptized by the local missionaries.  Renounced by his father for accepting the Christian faith, 33 days after his baptism Sundar set out on foot, wearing the robes of a “sadhu” – a Hindu holy man who traveled on foot, and depended on the kindness of others for his food and shelter.

 

Although Hindu sadhus never bathed – a sign of a true holy man – Sundar did.  And as he walked from village to village, he talked to his people in the language they understood about the Master he followed.

 

Word spread of the “apostle with the bleeding feet” as he was called.  Walking barefoot across rocky terrain inflicted cuts on Sundar’s feet, yet still he carried the message of Christ. 

 

Speaking to his people in India, and then in Tibet and other countries, Sundar Singh used common words, illustrations from everyday life, and stories familiar to those cultures to tell them of the God who created the world and sent his son to save his people. 

 

Sundar Singh was heralded as a great and original evangelist.  He spoke in Europe, England, and around the world.  His biography was written and rewritten, and he was called the greatest evangelist India had ever known. 

 

God is still in the business of showing people the future. But God shows us the future, not just for our own benefit, but for the blessing of the world.  Like Simeon, our prayer should be to see the Lord’s redemption. Like Anna, our witness should be of Jesus who is the redeemer of all creation.  Like Sundar Singh, our prayer should be a search for the truth so that we may live our lives into the future that God has prepared for his creation.