Tag: apostles creed

Crucifixion: Everything you wanted to know and more

If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again.  I’m preaching a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, and this past Sunday we arrived at the phrase about Jesus —

“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion, and I used the text of I Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Which is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifxion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Which is an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages.  But Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.  Hengel was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric.  Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities, and little was preserved in the more refined works of Graeco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown.  Did you know, for instance, that….

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified?
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire.  The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals.  Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was over 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21 — anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified, and roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals, and slaves who had attempted escape.  The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here.  But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  Add this book to your reference library.  Disclaimer: You can get yours the way I got mine — buy it for yourself.

Sermon: I Believe in God With Us

This is the fourth in a 13-week series using the Apostles’ Creed as the outline for examining the great teaching, or doctrines, of the Christian faith.

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed – Part 4

I Believe in God With Us
Matthew 1:18-23
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”  -Matthew 1:18-23 NIV

The Heart of the Apostles’ Creed

We looked last week at the affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed that states —

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

We explored the ideas that Jesus is God’s Christ — God’s messiah — and also God’s only Son.  And, that as messiah and the unique Son of God, Jesus is Lord, and our Lord in particular.  So we have looked at the confession of our belief in God; and our belief in His Son, Jesus Christ.

In the next five weeks we look at the life of Jesus.  We begin today with the Christmas story, then followed by Holy Week,  Easter, the Ascension, and the second-coming of Christ.  In other words, we look at those elements which the early church considered the essentials in the story of Jesus.

These passages in the Creed about Jesus are like when we tell stories about our families.  You’ve had that experience: gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, or around the tree at Christmas, a family member begins a “remember when” story.  And as the story moves along, someone will interject, “Don’t forget to tell about the year the Christmas tree caught on fire” or some similar anecdote.  What we’re saying when we say that is, “The family story isn’t complete if you leave this part out.”

That’s exactly what the Apostles’ Creed does — it says to us, “If you’re going to tell the story of Jesus, here are the essentials.  You must include all of these events for the story of Jesus to be complete.”

Today we are at the first of those essential events when we say —

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

Today is only September 13, so we’re early for Christmas, but that’s where this story begins.  That is also where the Christian Year begins — with Advent, or looking for the coming of the Christ.

Because this story is familiar, we might think we know it.  But what about the Christmas story without all the trimmings?  Without the carols, and decorations, and Christmas trees, and gifts, and shopping, and all that goes with our version of the Christmas story.  Because when we look at this part of Jesus’ story without all of our cultural and seasonal embellishments, it becomes something different altogether.  Well, maybe not altogether, but certainly different from the way we usually imagine it.

Because today, and in this passage in the Apostles’ Creed, we’re not focused on the babe in a manger.  No wisemen or shepherds or angels show up in the Apostles’ Creed either.  We’re talking about Jesus, and to do that, we walk back to how the Messiah became Jesus, because that’s what happened.  God became flesh and dwelt among us, as the scripture says.  Immanuel, God with us.

This Is Not A Science Lesson

I have 7 books about the Apostles’ Creed.  Seven.  I bought them as resources for preparation for this series of messages, and they are all written by outstanding Christian writers and scholars.  William Barclay, Wolfhart Pannenberg,Alister McGrath, Justo Gonzalez, Luke Timothy Johnson, J. I. Packer, and Roger Van Harn.

But in four out of seven books, the authors go to great lengths to explain why this business of the virgin birth of Jesus is not really necessary.  The bottom line seems to be that this is a metaphor for what God has done before — providing a child to a previously childless woman.

Those who take this position cite the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and the extraodinary birth of Isaac in their old age.  Sarah was 90, and Abraham was 100.  But God had promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, and all the while they had no children.  But then Isaac is born in their old age, just as God promised.

Or the story of Hannah, who prayed earnestly for a son until finally she promised that if God would just give her a son, she would given him back to God.  That’s the story of how Samuel came to this world, and came to the service of God as the one who would anoint King David king over Israel.

Or the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist.  Advanced in years, and yet the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that Elizabeth will have a son, and they are to call his name John.  Their John becomes John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet even though he makes his appearance on the pages of the New Testament.  The forerunner of Jesus, the herald of the Messiah born to an old couple who had given up hope.

The only problem with the birth of Jesus being another example of God giving a baby to a woman who has not been able to have children is this — Mary was probably about 15.  She wasn’t married, she had not been trying to have a baby, or even hoping for one.  Certainly not at this time in her life.

So the idea that the “virgin birth” is a metaphor for God giving a child to a childless woman doesn’t fit.

I will agree that neither Matthew, nor Luke — the only Gospels where the story of Jesus’ birth are recorded — are trying to tell us “how” God did this.  They’re just reporting facts, and Luke hints that Mary may have told him these things directly herself.

So, while Matthew and Luke’s accounts are not concerned with the “how” of the virgin birth of Jesus, they are concerned to tell the story.  And it is clear that Mary has not been with a man, because in Luke’s version that is exactly what she says.  Her response to the announcement of the angel that she will conceive and bear a son is — “How can this be, since I have not been with a man?”  Even Mary is mystified at how this event can be possible.

Mary Is Not The Center of Attention Either

Not only is this not a scientific account of biological birth, it’s not a story about Mary, either.  You know this part of the story — the angel appears to Mary, telling her that she will bear a son.  The angel also appears to Joseph, her fiance, but we’ll get to Joseph later.

But it is at this point that sometimes we miss the point.  In contemplating the mystery of God choosing Mary, our tendency is to think “Mary must have been a wonderful, devout girl for God to choose her.”

Our Roman Catholic friends take this approach.  The teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that Mary was so special that not only was Jesus’ birth a virgin birth, but that Mary was also conceived and born supernaturally.  The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church is not a doctrine about the birth of Jesus, but about the conception and virgin birth of Mary, making Mary a special person whom God chooses.

But, Mary was not chosen because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

It is the choosing by God that makes Mary unique and special.  Mary undoubtedly was a wonderful, conscientious girl.  She expresses concern about the angel’s message because she knows those things do not happen — “How can this be?”  she asks.

But with all her piety, and all her humility, and all her concern, Mary is not the center of the story.  Our Catholic friends think she is.  They believe that she is the Mother of God, a Co-Redemptrix with Jesus, and they believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and her bodily assumption into heaven at her death.

I can understand how that doctrine developed.  Early believers were looking for some way to explain why Mary was so special.  But Mary is special because God chose her.

God has a long history of choosing very ordinary and unlikely people.  God chose Moses, who had killed a man in anger, and who had difficulty speaking to stand before Pharaoh and demand that the nation of Israel be freed.  Moses knew he was not special, and so he asked God, “When Pharaoh asks ‘Who sent you?’ what shall I say?”  And God answered, “Tell him I AM has sent you.”  God is the main player, the I AM behind Moses’ “I can’t.”

When God selects David, he’s the smallest of Jesse’s sons, not built like a warrior, but David becomes a giant killer in the service of God.

When God chooses a spokesman for the day of Pentecost, we’re really not surprised that God chooses outspoken Peter.  Except that Peter had denied Christ 3-times, had run away from the crucifixion, had not believed the women who said Jesus was risen, and who was hiding in an secret location for fear of the Jews after Jesus ascension into heaven.  But when the Holy Spirit filled him, Peter spoke boldly and 3,000 were saved.

God has a history of choosing the unlikely, the unwilling, the unskilled to do His work.  Perhaps it is because God wants no doubt that in these divine-human partnerships, He is the senior partner.

Do you remember what it’s like to be chosen?

William Willimon is the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  Willimon now serves as bishop of the North Alabama conference of the United Methodist Church, and as you can imagine gets invited to speak at a lot of churches.  Years ago, Willimon said he was invited to speak at an African-American congregation.

He said he got there a few minutes before 11 am, but the service really didn’t start until about a quarter past.  They began with four choir anthems, several praise songs joined by the congregation, took two offerings, and sang some more.  A little after noon, Willimon got up to preach.  He delivered his sermon, and the pastor said, “Let me add just a few thoughts.”  Those few thoughts lasted until one o’clock.

When the service finally ended, and they were standing in the parking lot, Willimon asked his friend, “Why do your people take so long to worship?”

His friend replied, “Why does worship take our folk so long?  Well, I’ll explain it this way.  Male unemployment is running about 20 percent in this neighborhood; young adult unemployment is higher.  That means that when my people get on the street, everything they hear is, ‘You are nothing.  You don’t have a big car or a great job.  You are nobody.’

So I get them in here on a Sunday and, through the words of the hymns, the prayers, the sermon, the Scripture, I try to say, ‘That’s a lie.  You are royalty.  You are God’s own people.  You were bought with a price.’ It takes me about two hours to get their heads straight.”  — Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, by William Willimon, pgs. 72-73.

We’re special because God chose us, chose to be with us in the person of Jesus, chose to be “God with us.”

Being Chosen Demands Courage

But, being chosen by God demands courage.  It sounds great when we tell the story — the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and when the time came, she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jesus — “God is our salvation.”

But in reality, Mary must have been terrified.  She was unmarried, she was young, she was in all probability poor.  Her fiance was a carpenter, they were from Nazareth, a wretched place by the best of descriptions.

For her apparent infidelity, she could have been killed — stoned to death in public by her own family to avenge their honor.  We get a glimpse of this later in Jesus’ ministry with the woman caught in adultery.

At the least, Joseph could have “divorced” her, which meant he could have broken the engagement, and sent her into hiding, away from prying eyes.  For the rest of her life she would live a solitary life, an outcast, the subject of ridicule and gossip.  We get a picture of that life from the woman at the well that Jesus talks with.

But instead, Mary embraces God’s call.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  – Luke 1:38 NRSV

Joseph also faces ridicule.  His fiance will seem to all on-lookers as unfaithful to Joseph.  The angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

God-with-us sounds like a wonderful idea, until we realize that God with us flies in the face of convention, and puts our own reputations at risk.

But isn’t that the point of God with us?  God here on this earth he created.  God present in our lives, walking the same streets we walk, eating the same food, drinking the same water, enduring the same hardships.

God-with-us means that nothing is the same, ever again.

As we said at the beginning of this series, the only thing we know about God is in His presence with us.  And so God’s Holy Spirit hovers over the young, unmarried girl Mary.  She is found with child, and is told to name the baby, Jesus.  Matthew says all of this was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said some 700 years before —

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us.”

This Jesus, both God and man, both divine and human, is God with us.  God with us to suffer and die for us.  God with us to break the hold that death has on us. God with us to fight for His creation, to restore it to the glory intended.  God with us to save us.  God with us to heal us. God with us to teach us.  God with us to plant in our hearts the ability to love, and the desire to do so as well.

We tell this story at Christmas, but it is the story for all time, all seasons, all people.  For God came down to us, mysteriously, miraculously, incomprehensibly, to be with us, and to save us.

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:  I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15″But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.  21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” — Matthew 16:13-28

The Largest Section of the Apostles’ Creed

We’re continuing our look at the Apostles’ Creed, using this ancient confession of faith as our outline for the great teachings, or doctrines, of the Christian faith. Last week we looked at the opening statement of The Creed — “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” That brief line put us in good company.

First, for those who confess faith in God, we identify ourselves as theists, those who believe in a god; as opposed to atheists, those who do not believe in a god. But, that line also affirms that we believe not just in a god, but in the God who is Almighty, unequalled, unparalleled by any other so-called gods. We believe in God, who is Almighty, and who is the one Creator of all that exists.

But at this point we have merely joined the ranks of other theists who acknowledge a personal, powerful God. And so Christianity joins Islam, and Judaism as representatives of the world’s great monotheistic religions.

But with our declaration that we also believe “…in Jesus Christ, His only son our Lord…” we have now parted company with both Judaism and Islam. We as Christians now stand alone, unique in all the world’s religions. We believe that God has a son whose name is Jesus.

This line of the Apostles’ Creed is attributed to Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. As we have noted before, this legend is more fable than fact, but perhaps Andrew gets the credit for this line because he was among the first to recognize who Jesus was, and then Andrew brought his own brother, Peter, to meet the Lord.

Most likely the Apostles’ Creed has three major sections — I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe in the Holy Spirit — because the creed was usually said at the baptism of a new convert. Matthew records the instruction of Jesus that we are to “make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The creed was probably part of the baptismal ceremony, recited one line at a time by the baptismal candidate when asked the three questions —

— Do you believe in God? I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

— Do you believe in Jesus Christ? I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord.

— Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit.

With that the candidate was baptized into the faith, and his or her confession of faith was called the “faith delivered” or “the symbol” of the faith.

Peter’s Confession of Faith

All of that brings us to our text today, found in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew presents the scene of Jesus and the disciples traveling through the countryside. They reach Caesarea Philippi, the home of the shrine to the pagan god, Pan.

In this pagan setting, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” By “people” we presume that Jesus means his fellows Jews because he has just had a confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees who asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. It is obvious that religious leaders do not think Jesus is any one special because they ask him to prove his divine connection with some type of indication from God.

After warning the disciples about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” Jesus asks them, not for their own opinion of him, but the opinion of others. The answers seem to come effortlessly because these 12 men have undoubtedly heard people talking about their Teacher, their rabbi.

The disciples respond — “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” We can gather a couple of things about these answers. The good news is that most people seem to think that Jesus is special. They liken him to John the Baptist, now dead. Perhaps he is John come back from the dead. Others say Jesus is Elijah. This is even more special because Elijah is the expected guest at every passover meal. An empty place at the table is reserved for Elijah, just as the widow made a place in her home for the prophet. Elijah, they thought, would come before the Messiah of God, so his coming was an important sign for the Jews. If Jesus was Elijah, then God had not forgotten his people in the midst of Roman occupation and persecution.

Others said that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Probably they thought this because Jeremiah railed against the corrupt religious figures of his day, just as Jesus had pronounced condemnation on the Pharisees and Sadducees in his day.

What Do People Say About Jesus Today?

All of these answers remind us of what many people say about Jesus today. Many will say that Jesus was a great teacher. Or that Jesus was a great ethicist who gave us new ways of relating to one another with his admonition to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, repay evil with good, and forgive one another. Even some Christian scholars have described Jesus as a mystic, a seer, and a spiritual pioneer.

None of the apostles ever described Jesus in those terms. While Jesus certainly was a great teacher, a moral ethicist who broke new ground in human relations, and one who had a mysterious relationship with God, none of the apostles ever described Jesus in those terms. The Jesus Seminar is the latest attempt by serious theologians to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus they believe has become hidden by time and myth. The Jesus Seminar, and the other attempts to find the historical Jesus, do not come to Jesus in the manner of the apostles, however.

Our attempts to “explain” Jesus to the rational western mind betray our own limitations, rather than discover who Jesus really is and was.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Jesus follows up his first question — Who do people say I am? — with a logical next question: “But who do you say that I am?” This question puts us on the spot, and that was Jesus’ intent. It is not enough to repeat what others have said about Jesus, we must come to our own belief about who this carpenter from Nazareth is.

Simon Peter speaks first, which is neither unusual nor a surprise. Saying more than he knows in his head, Peter’s mouth responds —

“You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Jesus quickly tells Peter he is blessed because he has not made that confession because of others, or because of his own intellect, but because God has revealed it to him.

But what did Peter actually say? First, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. In our reading of this text and others where the name Jesus Christ appears, we might mistakenly get the impression that Christ is Jesus second name, like Chuck Warnock, or John Smith.

But Christ is the Greek word that means Messiah, or the Anointed One. The big deal about that is the Messiah, or God’s Anointed, is the one the Jews were looking for. They were  looking for the Messiah to come and save them. And, their idea of being saved is less spiritual and more political.

The Roman army occupies the land of the Jews in the first century. Antonio’s Fortress, the Roman garrison, shares a common wall with the most sacred site in Jerusalem for Jews, the Temple. The Jews consider themselves exiles in their own land, captives to an empire which allows them to practice their religion as long as it does not interfere with the goals or peace of the empire.

Their civil and religious leaders are puppets of the Roman regime, and the Roman eagle parades with impunity in the streets of the city of David. This is an outrage for the Jews, and they look to God to deliver them. The Jews believe their current bondage is no different from the 400 years they spent in slavery in Egypt; and no different than the 70 years of the Babylonian captivity.

Already many self-proclaimed messiahs have come and gone. Most gathered small bands of insurrectionists, and all were defeated before their plots could hatch.

Now Peter has identified Jesus as God’s Messiah. The Anointed of God, the One who will save God’s people from their sins, not to mention the Roman empire.

I Believe in Jesus Christ

So, when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” we are pronouncing our faith in both the historical figure, the carpenter from Nazareth, and in the fact that Jesus is God’s Anointed. Paul would say later that God has made him “both Lord and Christ.”

To believe in Jesus the man, the carpenter from Nazareth, means that we believe in a real person, who lived a real life, in a real first century world. But we’re making that confession 2,000 years later. The amazing thing is that the followers of Jesus, the apostles, believed in this Jesus during and after his death and resurrection. They were eye witnesses to the historical events of his teaching, his miracles, his compassion, his praying, his companionship, and his friendship. They lived with this man, ate with him, walked dusty roads together with him for three years. For them, he was real.

John as he begins his first letter says,

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make our[a] joy complete.

So, this Jesus was not a figment of their imaginations, nor a figure so lost in the recesses of time that he no longer bore any resemblance to a man. He was real, they had seen him, and now they were telling the story. But they also recognized him as the Messiah. Certainly in the day of his confession, Peter said more than he knew. But on the day of Pentecost, Peter stands and boldly declares —

22″Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[a] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. — Acts 2:22-24 NIV

The book of Acts tells us that they were “cut to the heart” and 3,000 of those who heard Peter acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah, too.

His Only Son

But, the creed, and the story, don’t stop there. John will proclaim that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whosoever believes in him might be saved. Jesus is not just “a” son of God, he is the only son of God. Now we don’t even have time to begin today to unpack all the meaning in that phrase. Peter said Jesus was not only the Messiah, but “the son of the living God.”

Now there is a sense in which all of us are sons and daughters of God. At creation, God breathed into mankind the breath of life, made us in God’s own image, and stood us up in fellowship with Him.

But Jesus is different. Jesus is God’s only son. God has lots of children, but only one son, and his name is Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there.

The Bible says that this only son of God is also God himself. Paul in that great hymn to Jesus in Philippians 2 wrote:

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness.

The phrase the NIV translates “being in very nature God” is more directly translated, “Who being in the very form of God,” In other words, this Jesus, whose name means “God is our salvation” is God Himself.

He is God’s only Son, co-equal with God the Father and God the Spirit. Now, if that hurts your head, don’t worry. You join a long line of folks who have been puzzled by the Trinity — the Three-in-One. We’re going to talk more about that later in this series, so hold those thoughts for another Sunday.

The point is — Jesus Christ is God’s unique revelation of himself to all humanity.

Jesus is unique in his beginning — he doesn’t have one.

Jesus is unique in his end — he doesn’t have one of those either.

Jesus is unique in his sovereignty — he is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Jesus is unique in his sacrifice — he died so that you and I might live.

Jesus is unique in his resurrection from the dead — God raised him first, so that we might follow.

Jesus is unique in his place in history — we mark time from before and after his birth. And even scholastic attempts to take Jesus out of history by substituting BCE and CE for BC and AD, even those markers revolve around his place in history.

We could go on to talk about the uniqueness of his love, and of his coming again, but we’ll deal with those later in this series. But now we move on the the part of the confession that makes all the rest of it real — “our Lord.”

I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

The confession of Peter that day was that Jesus was God’s Messiah, that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. But read the rest of this passage, for it betrays Peter’s heart. Listen to the words from Matthew’s gospel:

21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Peter was quite willing to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, for that meant God was going to save his people. And, Peter was quite willing to recognize that Jesus was the unique, one and only Son of God. After all, Peter has seen Jesus heal people, feed people, and even raise some from the dead.

But, Peter struggled with acknowledging Jesus as Lord. Peter could not bear the thoughts of Jesus’ suffering and death. And he had little understanding at all of what Jesus meant when he said he would be raised to life on the third day. Peter was determined that none of those things would happen to his friend, his teacher, and so he objected to Jesus. “Never, Lord,” Peter said.

And right there is the problem. Those two words — never and Lord — cannot go in the same sentence. The only response we can make to Jesus is “Yes, Lord.”

So, Jesus went on to explain that anyone who followed him must take up his cross, give up his life, and deny himself and follow Jesus. That’s what Lord means.  A life devoted to serving the Master in whatever ways we can serve him.  Sometimes we make the Lordship of Christ about us — our obedience, our choices, our lives.  But Jesus is Lord, our only choice is to make him our Lord.

When my brother died on Monday, July 27, I was at home sitting in our den. Our granddaughters had just gone to bed, and the phone rang. The person on the other end identified herself as an investigator with the Fulton County Coroner’s Office. She told me that my brother had been found deceased that evening. I asked as many questions as I could think of, then hung up and called my father. I told him that Dana had died, and shared the few details I knew.

It was a call I knew would come some time, we just didn’t know when. As we made preparations for his funeral, we wondered what had taken his life. The autopsy results were “inconclusive” they said, and toxicology and histology tests had been ordered. My first thoughts were that he died of an overdose of something because he had come close to death several other times from overdoses.

I talked with Dana’s roommate by phone, and he promised to be at Dana’s funeral on Sunday afternoon, August 3. My father’s Sunday School class had prepared lunch for the family, just like we do here. Relatives from both my mother’s family and my father’s gathered in the fellowship hall for lunch. Dana’s roommate, Kip had made the drive from Atlanta, arriving just in time for lunch.

During the hour we had for lunch, Kip told us about Dana’s life in those last days. He and Dana enjoyed each other’s company, but Dana continued to go out on the streets of Atlanta at night. We all knew he was looking for some type of drugs, and Kip said he would ask Dana, “What are you looking for our there, Dana?”

But then Kip shared another story that confirmed our hope in Dana’s faith. Kip said that he had grown up in the church, had sung in the youth choir, and later the adult choir. But he said, he had never made a profession of faith in Christ in all those years. Kip talked about how he and Dana discussed history and the Bible on many occasions. Dana graduated from Mercer University with a BA in history, and from Southwestern Seminary, with a Masters in Religious Education.

But Kip also said that Dana talked to him about his faith, about his love for God. Kip said that it was after those long discussions with Dana, that he himself became a follower of Jesus, professing his faith in Christ for the first time.

Kip’s story was a great comfort to us because it confirmed for us that in the midst of his own struggles and despair, Dana still believed in God, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord. His inability to conquer his own personal demons did not prevent his faith in God.

At the funeral, Dana’s daughters had several verses of scripture printed and handed out. They were translations from a child’s edition of the Bible, which belongs to my great niece, Dana’s granddaughter. The first verse said — “You don’t have to be good at being good for God to love you.”

That is the God we believe in, the God who loves us, the God who in Jesus saves us, the God who reaches out to us when we are not capable of reaching back. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Amen.

Sermon: I Believe in God the Father Almighty

Here’s the second sermon in my 13-part series on the Apostles’ Creed.  This week we think about the God we believe in, and have committed ourselves to.  I hope your Sunday is filled with the glory of God!

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In God The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth

Exodus 3:1-12 NIV

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”

5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you  will worship God on this mountain.”

It All Begins With God

The first chapter in Rick Warren’s mega bestselling book, The Purpose-driven Life, is titled “It All Starts With God.”  And, the first sentence of the first chapter says, “It’s not about you.”  Obviously, Rick Warren was trying to make a point, and so were the authors of the first line in the Apostles’ Creed —

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

That’s it — 12 brief words that sum up what we as Christians, following in the steps of the original apostles of Jesus Christ, believe about God.  The legend of the Apostles’ Creed says that Peter penned this line, but as we mentioned last week, that legend is more story than fact.  But the words used here are real and were really used by early believers to describe their relationship with God.

Everything we say about Jesus, everything we say about the Holy Spirit, everything we profess about the church, salvation, judgment and eternity all depend upon the God we say we believe in.  We cannot relegate God to the backroom of our theology like the grumpy old uncle who we only allow in the living room from time to time.  No, it all does begin with God and that beginning will determine where we end up eventually.  So, let’s take a look at this God in whom we say we believe.

Moses Meets God

The text from the book of Exodus that we just read is a wonderful way for us to talk about God.  When we talk about our friends or family, very often we do it by telling a series of stories that we usually preface by saying, “Remember when….”

When we were in Douglas with my Dad for my brother’s funeral, my father began talking about his father,  which led us to bring up one funny story after another about my grandfather.  My grandfather, Charles Herman Warnock, Sr. was a small man.  He probably stood about 5′ 6″ tall, was bald from the day I knew him, and was a slim, small fellow.  My grandmother, Marguerite Warnock, was an ample woman, and so they made an interesting pair.  The nursery rhyme “Jack Sprat could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean” always comes to mind when I think of them together.

My grandfather probably had an 8th grade education, and had made a living as a truck driver, a feed-and-seed salesman, and a part-time cattle farmer.  My dad told me a few weeks ago that Daddy Warnock, which is what the grandchildren called him, went several years without filing an income tax return or paying income taxes.  He told my grandmother, “They don’t know I exist.”

Well, one day two IRS agents showed up on their doorstep, and my grandfather spent the next few years paying his back taxes.  But one of the funniest things I ever heard him say was when I was a teenager.  We had gathered in their large kitchen, which had a huge fireplace and a table that would seat at least 12.  It was probably Thanksgiving or Christmas because Daddy Warnock was in his rocking chair, which sits in our living room today.  He was seated beside the fireplace, smoking a cigarette while the ladies were talking about what to have for supper.  Somehow the talk turned to spaghetti.  My grandfather turned to my grandmother and said, “What kind of tree does spaghetti grow on anyway?”  My grandmother, not a person to brook any foolishness, turned to him and said, “Herman, that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.”  Or something like that.

We all fell in the floor laughing, but it wasn’t until I was with my dad a couple of weeks ago that he supplied the reason for Daddy Warnock’s question.  He said that they had been watching television the night before, and some documentary showed Italian women hanging their pasta on trees for it to dry.  Daddy Warnock obviously was not paying close attention, probably because he was trying to tell a story himself, and just caught the image of these trees with pasta hanging from their branches.

All of that to say, we usually talk about our relatives by telling stories about them.

Now, if you read theology books about God, you don’t get stories, you get concepts.  Well-meaning authors give lengthy descriptions of concepts about God, which go something like this:

God is omnipotent. He can do anything He wants to do, except He doesn’t do silly or pointless stuff like try to make a rock so big that God himself can’t pick it up.
God is omniscient. Which simply means, God knows everything.  He knows it without thinking about it, He just knows it.  He knows the deep thoughts of our hearts, and everything else.
God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere at once.  Which is how we can be worshipping here, and God is present with us, and other folks can be worshipping half-way around the world, and He’s there too.  Nice trick, if you can do it, and God can.

So, those are the big three things about God, but that doesn’t really tell us much about him does it.  It would be like my only saying, “My grandfather was 5′ 6″ and weighed about 125 pounds, and was bald.”  You’d get some kind of mental picture, but you wouldn’t really know much about my grandfather.

That’s why I chose this story today.  It tells us a lot about God.  It’s the story of God meeting Moses for the first time, at least as far as Moses knows.  It’s the story we call “Moses and the burning bush” and I’m sure when Moses spoke of God to his relatives, he said, “Remember that time God appeared to me in the burning bush? Have I told you that story?”  And like my grandfather, Moses would tell the same story again to the same people who had heard it so many times before.  So, let’s see what the story of the burning bush tells us about God.

God is a God Who Calls Us

The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father…”  We don’t have time to unpack all the fatherhood of God means, but one thing I know it means is that God as Father calls us, just like my father called me in from playing to eat supper each evening.

God calls us.  Those three words themselves have great implications for our relationship with God.  First, for God to call us, he has to know our names.  And with Moses, God does.

“Moses, Moses” God calls from scene of the bush that is burning but not consumed.  Of course, God had to get Moses within earshot, had to get Moses in a place where Moses could hear God.  So, God had an angel appear as flames of fire in a bush to get Moses’ attention.  And it worked.  God got his attention, and then called out to him by name, “Moses.”

We get this again several times in Scripture.  My favorite story of God calling someone is the story of young Samuel.  Samuel, a young boy growing up in the Temple with Eli the kind, elderly priest.  One night Samuel hears a voice calling him, “Samuel, Samuel.”  Thinking it’s Eli, young Samuel gets out of bed, and goes to Eli.  Eli says he hasn’t called Samuel and sends Samuel back to bed.  Two more times Samuel hears a voice calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel” and two more times Eli says it isn’t him.  But on the third time, Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel, and so he tells young Samuel, “The next time you hear the voice, say, ‘Speak Lord, for thy servant hears You.'”  Samuel did, and God was calling Samuel to serve God, too.

God calls us.  He calls us by name, he calls us to serve Him, he calls us to be in fellowship with Him.  William Willimon in his book, Who Will Be Saved, says in his chapter titled, The God Who Refuses To Be Alone, “God is determined — through Creation, the sagas of the Patriarchs, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, and the birth and death of the Christ — to get close, very close, too close for comfort in fact.”

God calls us because God wants to be near us, to love us, to save us — which we’ll get to in a minute.

God is a God Who Comes Down To Us

But, if we just say God calls us, we might miss the fact that for God to do that, He has to be present with us.  God, says the writer of Exodus, comes down to us.  Of course, when God comes down to us in the person of Jesus, we call that the Incarnation — God with us, Immanuel.  That’s the Christmas story.  And, so every Christmas we gather here at church, or at home, and we say, “Remember the time when God came down to us?”  And we tell that story.

But here God comes down to his people, the nation of Israel.  God comes down to Israel because God has heard their cries, sees their predicament, and is acting to save his people.

God comes down to us because he loves us.  God comes down to us because he hears us.  God comes down to us to save us.  That’s the story of God that we need to tell over and over.  For God is not just a God who calls us to serve him, he is a God who comes down to us to speak to us face to face, to call us personally, and in-person.

In Western thought, our concepts of God tend to be of the removed God — the transcendent Being — who rules and reigns forever, world without end, amen.  We ascribe lofty attributes to God, attribute great power and majesty to God, and well we should.  But we must never forget that those are concepts, too.  That all we really know about God we know from the times that God has revealed Himself to us — in the burning bush, the voice in the night, and in the birth of a baby named Jesus.

In the Old Testament, and in this book of Exodus especially, we see God not as just the God of Mount Sinai, surrounded by smoke, fire, and thunder.  But we also see God who comes down to us in a rather small burning bush.  Who speaks to Moses in an understandable voice, who calls Moses by name, who knows his weaknesses and strengths, and who has come down to save his people.

When I was about 8, I got a bicycle for my birthday.  Lots of kids get bicycles, and mine was a red Schwinn bike.  My dad worked with me in the front yard, holding the rear fender of the bike while I tried to pedal and steer all at the same time.  After several wobbly attempts, I began to get the hang of it, and my dad went inside.  Thinking like only an 8-year old can, I thought it would be really funny to play a trick on my dad.

So, I laid my bike on its side, and then positioned myself under it, with my legs all tangled up like I had crashed in spectacular fashion.  I then started yelling for my dad, “Help, help, help me!”  Or something like that.

It must have worked because the front door opened, and my dad bounded down the steps with a look of horror on his face.  He bent down to comfort me, and about that time, I said, “Gotcha!  I was just kidding.”

Well, he wasn’t amused, but he wasn’t really mad either.  He told me something about the boy who cried wolf, and then went back in the house.  But I never forgot the look on his face.  He was concerned, worried, he had heard my cries, and he was coming down to help me.  I felt kind of bad that I had tricked him, but I also felt kind of good that I saw he really was concerned.

God is a God Who Saves Us

In the New Testament, Jesus poses the question in the gospel of Luke, that is interesting.  I like this in the New Revised Standard Version because it shows the difference between us and God dramatically:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  — Luke 15:4

Which one of us?  None of us would do that.  We would say “at least I’ve got 99 sheep here, not bad.  You know you’re going to lose a few here and there.”

But not God, the good shepherd.  He goes after the one that is lost until he finds it. Not until it’s dark, or until it’s cold, or until he’s tired.  No, God searches for the lost sheep until he finds it.  And, he leaves the other 99 while he’s looking.  That’s not the way we would do it at all.

But Jesus goes on in that same chapter to tell about a woman who lost a one coin out of the ten she had.  She opens the curtains, lights the lamps, moves the furniture, sweeps the floor, and searches carefully until she finds it.

But, Jesus still isn’t finished.  Then he tells the story about a lost son.  The prodigal son.  A young man so selfish and self-centered that he took his inheritance, left home, and lived it up until all his money ran out.  He makes his way home, contrite and ashamed.  And Jesus says, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him.”

How is that possible?  The father is looking for him.  Everyday, watching the horizon, looking down the dusty road where the last time he had seen the back of his son leaving home.

But this time, he sees the younger son headed home.  The father runs to greet him, hugs and kisses him, throws a party, calls the neighbors, and celebrates the return of the son who was dead, but who now is alive again.

And we would have not done any of those things, except maybe look for the lost coin, because after all that’s real money.

God saves us.  He saves us from ourselves, from sin, from the devil, from our mistakes, from missing the mark.  God saves us, because that’s what God does.  God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

God heard not only the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, he heard the cries of the nation 1500 years after Moses.  Occupied by a foreign army, victimized by their own corrupt clergy, God heard his people and came down and saved them through Jesus.

And God still saves us today.  He saves us from sin, and for glory.  He saves us because he loves us.  He saves from a bitter place, to bring us to a better place.  God saves us.  Who of us would do that?  None, but God would.  Who could save us?  None, but God could.  Who did save us?  No one but God did.

And so we say with the apostles’ today,

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  Amen and amen.

13-Week Series on The Apostles’ Creed

I’m working on a new 13-week sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed, starting this Sunday.  Here’s the schedule:

Why Christians Need The Apostles’ Creed —

Aug 23, 2009:      1.  I Believe: An Introduction to The Apostles’ Creed

Aug 30, 2009:      2.  In God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
Sep 6, 2009:        3.  I Believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Sep 13, 2009:      4.  Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary,
Sep 20, 2009:      5.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell;
Sep 27, 2009:      6.  On the third day he rose again from the dead;
Oct 4, 2009:        7.  He ascended into heaven, And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
Oct 11, 2009:      8.  From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Oct 18, 2009:      9.  I believe in the Holy Spirit;
Oct 25, 2009:    10. The holy catholic church; The communion of saints;
Nov 1, 2009:     11. The forgiveness of sins;
Nov 8, 2009:     12. The resurrection of the body,
Nov 15, 2009:   13. The life everlasting.
Has anybody ever done this before?  I’ve got some good books on The Apostles’ Creed and all the creeds in general, but what have you found helpful about the Creed, if anything?  Does your church use it?  Do you say it weekly? Have you used the Creed (or the Nicene Creed) as a basis for a doctrinal study?
Interestingly, Beeson Divinity School is hosting “The Will To Believe and the Need for Creed: Evangelicals and The Nicene Creed.” Seems like Baptists are waking up all at once to this creed-thing.  Who knew?

Why we Baptists need a creed

I am about to break an unwritten rule in Baptist life.  Granted, it won’t be my first transgression, and probably not my last, but this one is becoming more important to me the longer I’m in ministry.  We need a creed.  There, I said it!  We Baptists need a creed.

Now, for those who don’t know much about Baptists (and why would you if you aren’t one?), Baptists don’t believe in creeds.  We give no cred to the creed.  When it comes to the Apostles’ or the Nicene or any other creed, we just say No.  Baptists base this aversion to creeds on the idea of the priesthood of the believer.  We define that as meaning that any individual believer has the right to interpret scripture for him or herself, and to follow the dictates of his or her own Christian conscience.

Of course, we really don’t want people doing that, so we write and rewrite documents we call “confessions.”  Confessions in Baptist life go back hundreds of years, and are very, very long creeds that no one could ever memorize or say in unison in public, so they’re okay for us.  Right now in Southern Baptist life we have churches that follow the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, and we have churches that have adopted the more recent 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.  For folks who place a lot of stock on the priesthood of the believer, we sure get mighty precise when we write our confessions.

One of our seminary presidents is calling for a “Great Commission Resurgence.” I want to throw in my two-cents and call for an “Apostles’ Creed Resurgence.”  I am serious.  (Some of you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?).  Well, I am quite serious.  We need a creed, and here’s why.

Let’s take the Apostles’ Creed, for instance.  First, I like the legend, which I am sure has little basis is fact, but it makes a nice story.  The legend is that each of the 12 apostles contributed one phrase each to the statement that came to be known as, well, the Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, that’s legend, not reality, but I still like it.

But more importantly, I think we need some basics to agree on.  We’re supposed to agree on The Baptist Faith and Message, but now it’s become a matter of which one, 1963 or 2000?  Plus, some Baptist institutions have added more theological criteria for employment than either BF&M covers, so that’s become an issue. I think a return to the Apostles’ Creed could solve that problem.

The Apostles’ Creed is a basic, general statement of the beliefs (the Latin credo means I believe) held in common by all Christians.  Here is a version I like:

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit;
The holy catholic church;
The communion of saints;
The forgiveness of sins;
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

There are other versions of the Apostles’ Creed which change “he descended into hell” to “he descended to the dead” or leave it out altogether.  Theology comes and goes, I suppose.  And, of course, to say “I believe in the holy catholic church” is blasphemy in a Baptist congregation, where we don’t want anything to do with anything Catholic.  Except in the Creed, “holy catholic church” means the universal church, the church in all its constituent parts, not the Roman Catholic Church.  Still, we Baptists often choke slightly on the “catholic” part.

But, back to my point — we need a creed.  I am so convinced we need a creed that I’m going to take 12-weeks and preach on each point of the creed this summer and fall.  Think of this as a doctrinal series, using the Apostles’ Creed as my outline.

So, that’s it.  What do you think?  Of course, some of you creedal folks nodded off to sleep several paragraphs back.  To you, this is not a big deal.  Believe me, for Baptists this is a big deal.  I do take some comfort in the fact that in 1905, when the Baptist World Alliance convened for its inaugural meeting, all of the attendees joined in one mightly voice to say together The Apostles’ Creed.  Maybe we should do that, again.