Tag: jesus

5 Questions We All Ask About Healing

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I preached from Mark 1:29-39, last Sunday, and chose to address the issue of healing. The 5 questions that I think we all ask about healing are:

  1. Why does illness and suffering exist?
  2. Why did Jesus heal?
  3. Does God still heal today?
  4. Why isn’t everyone healed?
  5. What can we do in the face of illness and suffering?

Here’s the podcast of that sermon where I attempt to answer these 5 questions —

Lenten Sermon: An Incurable Blindness

On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:

The Ethics of Outreach

‘No Muslim Parking’ Sign Angers US MuslimsI have read lots of articles on church outreach in my thirty years of ministry. I’ve even written a few myself. However, I have never read an article on the ethics of outreach. Maybe it’s time for a look at the ethics of outreach. Here’s why.

In Hibbing, Minnesota, according to the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. Previously the women’s conference advertising had stated, “All women are invited,” according to the station.

Ironically, the event organizers were People of the Book Ministries, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.

As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.

“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “It is truly hurtful to be treated like you are lesser than somebody or that you don’t qualify to be talked to and treated equally as others,” according to the station’s website.

While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, there is something ironic about a Christian ministry ejecting a member of the very group they claim to be trying to reach.

While I do not question the intentions of People of the Book, I do take issue with the ethics, or lack of ethics, involved here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes, and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do have an ethical problem with some forms of outreach.

All of this brings up the question, “Is there an ethical standard for Christian outreach programs and ministries?” Let me suggest five ethical standards that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:

1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident reasons, did not want Muslims present. However, Christians must ask themselves if our attitudes, strategies, and materials aimed toward those we are trying to reach are hostile, demeaning, or degrading, should we use them at all. Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied to have the label “heathen” dropped when referring to the Chinese people she ministered to.

2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other” — a Samaritan — as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.

3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.

4. Outreach ends do not justify unscrupulous means. Evangelism methodologies continue to struggle with the idea that Christians must do “whatever it takes” to reach the world for Christ. However, the means we use to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers, or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.

5. Finally, although this is the first ethical principle, outreach must be modeled on the Trinitarian action of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theology of the Triune God must inform our purpose, our practice, and our presence to those who do not know the good news of God. Trinitarian outreach is characterized by love, self-giving, incarnation, sacrifice, humility, patience, winsomeness, and hospitality.

Pastors and church leaders are assailed weekly with the news that church attendance is declining, baptisms are at all-time lows, and young adults are leaving the church in droves. That news, distressing as it may be, cannot become the pretext for desperate and unethical outreach strategies that discredit the Gospel and further damage the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Mark Driscoll, Let’s Talk!

Pastor_Mark_DriscollI try not to react to everything I read on the internet, but sometimes something so egregious comes along that I have to respond. Recently Mark Driscoll, megachurch pastor, posted on his blog an article titled, Is God a Pacifist?

Driscoll is preaching through the 10 Commandments, and he has arrived at “Thou shall not kill.” I’m okay with his saying that this passage addresses murder–intentional and malicious killing. I’m okay with Driscoll pointing out various Old Testament texts that prescribe the death penalty for certain offenses within Old Testament Israel. And, I’m even okay with whatever his apocalyptic theology is, even though I don’t think the Book of Revelation is to be read literally. That, after all, is the nature of apocalyptic literature, but respected scholars and pastors hold different interpretions of Revelation.

None of that bothers me. He’s entitled to his opinion. However, Driscoll isn’t content with his interpretation of these passages. He has to go one step too far. He states that among the enemies Christ will destroy are those who believe that Jesus was a pacifist. Here’s the end of his article:

“Today is a season of patience as Jesus Christ waits for people to come to repentance. Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning.

Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.

Then there will be peace forever as the Prince of Peace takes his rightful throne. Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist.

Jesus is no one to mess with.”

Wow.

So, the early Church Fathers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (oh yes, and forget the Hitler thing), Thomas Merton, and so on, are all enemies of Christ who will be slaughtered on the day of judgment? Just because they believed and lived a life of Christian pacifism?

Boggles the mind. Mark, come on, let’s talk.

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Probably Not

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.42.34 PMIn their newly-released book, Bonhoeffer The Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, the authors Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel provide compelling evidence that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not participate in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

I had anticipated this book’s publication since reading an article in which one of the author’s, Mark Thiessen Nation, revealed the thesis of their research. Excited as I was by that article, this book is even more exciting as a new look at an old myth.

As to their thesis that Bonhoeffer maintained his pacifist stance in both word and deed, the authors assert confidently, “If by ‘activities’ we mean actions that contributed directly to attempts to kill Hitler, there is no evidence of any such actions on Bonhoeffer’s part.” (p. 87). By reviewing writings about Bonhoeffer, the writings and sermons of Bonhoeffer, and the testimonies of those who knew Bonhoeffer, Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel not only dispel the myth of Bonhoeffer’s alleged participation in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, they blow it up altogether.

Interestingly, Mark Thiessen nation offers his own understanding for decades of fascination with the story of the young pacifist theologian who turned to violence in the hot-light of Nazi atrocities. Nation writes, “Repeatedly I see writings about Bonhoeffer that imply that what truly sets him apart is that he was a theologian–a former pacifist and trainer of pastors–who then became involved in plots to kill Hitler.”(p. 229). This story fits our national psyche, our need to affirm that no one, not even a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, can adhere to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount in the real world in which we live. However, to believe this unchallenged theory, Nation argues, seriously distorts the legacy of Bonhoeffer.

This is an important book, a book that rewrites the story of Bonhoeffer — a book which asserts that the real transition Bonhoeffer made was not from naive idealist to mature realist, but from rationalizing nationalist to completely committed disciple of Jesus Christ. No biographer of Bonhoeffer’s will again be able to get away with the unfounded assumption of Bonhoeffer’s turn toward violence. Even critics of the authors’ conclusions and convictions will be unable to accept without question the heretofore unquestioned wisdom about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read other books on Bonhoeffer, including his own work, but read this one as a credible corrective to a myth that was all too easy to believe.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book from Amazon and did not receive any inducement for this review.  -cw

Why Samuel, David, and a Bunch of Others Need Us

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The book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians of the first century to remain faithful despite persecution. Examples of great heroes of the faith like Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah and Elisha; and, events like crossing the Red Sea, the battle of Jericho, the survival of the lions’ den and fiery furnace inspired Christians then and now. But, there is a downside to faithfulness. Sometimes faithfulness to God doesn’t end triumphantly, but instead with the faithful being beaten, persecuted, displaced, and killed.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus knows what suffering is about. He endured the shame of the Roman cross in anticipation of the glory of the presence of God. The popular song, “Even in the Valley God is Good,” summarizes our response to suffering. For the first century Christians and for us, the most important thing we can remember is that God is present with us regardless of whether we triumph or whether we struggle.

Our lives contribute to the story of God begun by those in the hall of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11 through 12. Just as we need them, they need our faithfulness to finish the final chapters in the story that God began in their day. Faith in the face of adversity is still needed today, and our faith builds on the witness of those who have gone before.

For the podcast of this message, click here:

[audio https://chuckwarnockblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/02-why-samuel-david-and-others-need-us.mp3]

Continuing to Live in Christ

The challenge for Christians, both new and old, is to continue to follow Christ long after our initial profession of faith in Him. This must be hard because thousands of books have been written about how to faithfully follow Jesus as a disciple.

The apostle Paul gives us a big clue about how we follow Christ in his letter to the first-century church in Colossae. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him…” (Colossians 2:6a NIV).

In other words, Paul says, we follow Jesus in the same way we came to him. The question then is, “How did we receive Christ?” Here’s my take on what it means to continue to live in Christ just like we began with him:

1. Like the Colossians, we don’t trust the popular gods of our culture.

Roman culture in the first century embraced a pantheon of gods headed up by Jupiter and his wife, Juno. A host of lesser deities hung out on Mount Olympus. Romans called first-century Christians atheists because they didn’t believe in these rather fractious divinities. The Christians at Colossae rejected the gods of popular culture, affirming that Jesus Christ was the son of the One True God.

Today our cultural gods are power, money, and technology. Interestingly, like the gods on Olympus, our new gods often hang out together, too. Even though we all use power, money and technology, twenty-first century Christians are challenged not to place ultimate trust in these gods as the solution to our social and spiritual problems. Following Jesus like we received him means we continue to trust in him, and him alone, as the creator, sustainer, and savior of the world.

2. Like the Colossians, our politics is Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

In the Roman empire, citizens were required to affirm their loyalty to the emperor by stating, “Caesar is lord.” Paul radically altered the politics of his day by asserting “Jesus is Lord.”

We have difficulty appreciating what a bold confession “Jesus is Lord” becomes. To replace Caesar, who was believed to be the son of god and ruler of the universe, with a crucified itinerant Jew placed first century Christians outside the social norms of the day. Under emperors like Nero and Domitian, Christians suffered persecution as a radical, subversive sect who refused to acknowledge the emperor cult of their day.

Our political statement as 21st century Christians is still Jesus is Lord. That statement strips us of our primary allegiance to political parties, or even political ideologies as the ultimate guide in our lives. Our political leaders are neither the creators of the universe, nor are they the center around which all things revolve, despite the self-importance of those who live and work in Washington, DC.

3. Like the Colossians, we came to Christ and we continue to live in Christ because our relationship with God is personal.

In the Christian faith, we believe that God loves us, sent his son Jesus to die and rise again for us, and that we continue to know God personally. Unlike the gods on Olympus, who weren’t loving or personal, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus has always related directly and personally to His people.

Baptists, of course, have made a big deal of a personal relationship with God. Our Baptist forebears called this possibility the “priesthood of the believer” or “soul-competency.” Both of those phrases mean that individuals are capable of relating to God, and of receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord. Maintaining an awareness of our personal relationship with Christ models the same way we received Him as our personal Lord and Savior.

4. Finally, we continue to live in Christ because He is present with us.

For the first-century Colossian Christians the decision to follow Christ was a costly one. By rejecting by the popular gods of their culture, they cut themselves off from their families and friends who continued to seek the capricious favor of the gods of Rome. By refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord, and by embracing Jesus as Lord, the Colossian Christians isolated themselves socially, politically, and economically.

However, the Colossian Christians were sustained by the presence of Christ in their midst. Stripped of social and political community, Colossian Christians experienced the presence of God each time they gathered together. The gods of Olympus never pretended to be present daily with their subjects. But the God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, the God who brought Israel back from exile, and the God who sent Jesus was ever-present with the first-century church, too.

Elie Wiesel writes of the presence of God with his people in his book, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

“Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him “Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?” And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?” “Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”

Wiesel continues:

“God accompanies his children into exile. This is a central theme of Midrashic and mystical thought in Jewish tradition. Just as the people of Israel‘s solitude mirrors the Lord’s, so the suffering of men finds its extension in that of their Creator. Though imposed by God, the punishment goes beyond those upon whom it falls, encompassing the Judge himself. And it is God who wills it so. The Father may reveal Himself through His wrath; He may even sharpen His severity, but He will never be absent. Present at the Creation, God forms part of it. Let atar panui mineiis the key phrase of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar: No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering…” — Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Paul reminds us that we follow Christ in the same way in which we came to him. By rejecting the popular gods of culture; by our political confession that Jesus is Lord; by our personal relationship with God through Christ; and, by the presence of God, we continue to live in Christ in the same manner in which we received Him.

Who Do You Trust?

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The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Sermon: Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

If you have ever been captivated by the stories of those who heard the voice of God, then today’s lectionary reading will appeal to you. This is the sermon I’m preaching on how those of us who aren’t mystics can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today. I hope your congregation will hear the voice of Jesus as they gather for worship.

Hearing The Shepherd’s Voice

John 10:22-30 NIV

22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

Farm Life As I Remember It

I think I’ve told you about the two weeks my mother sent me to south Georgia where her family lived so I could experience life on the farm. At least I think that’s why she and my dad sent me there, but I was about 10 at the time, so it could be they needed a break from my frequent misadventures.

In any event, I spent two weeks with my cousins, and of course my aunts and uncles, at about the time the tobacco was harvested. I’ve told you that story, but in addition to the tobacco harvest, life on the farm went on as usual. Part of farm life was calling the various animals primarily at feeding time.

Each animal grouping — pigs, cows, chickens, and horses — all had distinctive calls they responded to. Chickens were the easiest because all you had to do was show up in the chicken yard with the pale of feed and the chickens flocked around your feet. Which was a little scary for a boy from the city, primarily because I had been warned about the rooster who had a nasty disposition.

The cows responded to the pickup truck in the pasture, which usually had bales of hay on the back which we pitched out as the cows gathered around. My cousins also put out salt licks, but I stayed pretty much on the back of the pick up because cows were a lot bigger than chickens, and the bull apparently also had a bad attitude.

But I remember the pigs most. Now they didn’t have a lot of pigs, maybe six or seven, and they were all in the pig pen out back. The pig pen was not huge, but big enough for a half dozen really big pigs, and of course it was a muddy mess and the pigs were muddy, and the whole thing kind of reeked of, well, pigs. So, after each meal, we went out to slop the hogs. Now that term pretty much describes the whole event. Slop is not a word you use for anything that’s anywhere close to appealing, but that’s what we did.

One of my aunts had a lot of kids — two girls and four boys — plus I was there, and then there were some other cousins who came along to help with the tobacco harvest, so at mealtime there was a pretty big crowd.

After the meal, all the plates were scraped into the slop bucket. This produced a kind of slurry of mashed potatoes, lima beans, half eaten biscuits (although there weren’t many of those), soppin’ gravy, tomato peels, and so on. You get the picture. It was not a pretty sight.

Once the plates were scraped, and the kitchen scraps all dumped into the slop bucket, off my cousin and I set to slop the hogs.

For some reason, you had to call hogs to come get the slop. The hogs were usually lying on the sides, in the mud, up near the back part of the hog pen. So my cousin would have to holler, “Sooo-eee, sooo-eee.” Which seemed like a ridiculous way to call pigs, but since the pigs were going to become bacon sometime in the future, they didn’t have names, so I guess they had to be summoned to dinner with some call.

Sure enough, the hogs, because they were really to big to be called pigs, would rouse themselves, get up, and head toward the direction of the sooo-ee call to dinner.

The amazing thing was, I discovered during my two weeks on the farm, that each type of animal knew what the feed bucket, or the pickup truck, or the call of  “sooo-ee” meant. And they responded to whatever it was that got their attention.

My cousins didn’t have any sheep, so I don’t know what calls sheep respond to, but Gene Logsdon, one of my favorite writers about rural farm life recalls this story from his childhood:

“I grew up— woke up many mornings— to the wail of my cousin, Ade, calling his sheep. His farm was next to ours and he took to practicing this primitive ritual at about four o’clock in the morning. Mom said he wanted us to know he was already up and about and anyone still in bed was a sinner. But his sheep call was music to my ears. Up the little creek valley that connected our farms would roll this long drawn-out wail of “shoooooooooooooopeeeeeee” that began on about high A over C on the musical scale and fell, quaveringly, a couple of notes on the second syllable. The call lasted as long as he could keep expelling air with enough force for the sound to carry a mile or two.” (Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, “Calling Home The Sheep”).

Logsdon continues by saying that he practiced his cousin’s sheep call until he got it down pretty well himself. He said later when he had sheep of his own on his own farm, all he had to do was start the call “shoooo…” and before he could get it all out, the sheep came trotting down the path to the new pasture he wanted them in.

But How Do The Sheep Know The Shepherd’s Voice?

Okay, that was a long introduction to the scripture for today, but if you haven’t figured it out by now, the verse I want us to focus on is verse 27 —

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Jesus made this statement in response to the rather impatient insistence from some in Jerusalem, in the Temple during the Festival of Dedication, that he tell them plainly if he was the messiah or not.

Jesus reply was that he had already told them, but they did not believe him. Jesus told them that the works he did in his Father’s name was testimony that he was the messiah, but they didn’t get it because they aren’t his sheep.

It’s then that Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

So, the one question we have to answer today is, How do we hear the voice of Jesus today?

There Are More Sheep Than There Are Mystics

Of course, we might point to examples of extraordinary people who heard the voice of God in extraordinary ways. God calls Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees and makes him the father of a great nation. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and speaks audibly to him about the assignment to lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. God speaks to a discouraged Elijah with a still, quiet voice. And then there are the priests, and kings, and prophets of the Old Testament, many of whom God speaks to directly and unmistakably.

The history of Christianity is also filled with stories of people who had a special ability to hear the voice of God. From Paul’s Damascus road experience, to the revelation God gave to John on the Isle of Patmos that has become our Book of Revelation, we know that God speaks directly to certain people at certain times.

Amazingly, God’s voice does not go silent with the passing of the Apostles. The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too apparently — were mystics who lived lives of asceticism separated from the urban centers in order to seek to hear God more clearly and fully.

These monastics lived solitary lives at first, then later formed communities of monks and nuns who lived separated from the everyday distractions to spiritual devotion. Prayer, scripture, work, deprivation, vows of silence, poverty, and celibacy, and other acts of devotion marked their existence. And down through the centuries there were those who heard the voice of God and lef their mark on Christian spirituality.

But there are others who have heard the voice of God, too. Joan of Arc claimed to hear God’s voice calling her to save her people. Some thought her mad, others thought her a mystic. In any event, she died a martyr’s death for her witness.

We could spend more time than we have this morning naming the outstanding mystics of the Christian faith who heard the voice of God. But for most of us, their experiences, while interesting, are the stuff of inspiration, not our experience. Most of us are not mystics. So how do we hear the voice of Jesus calling us today?

Sheep Congregate in Flocks Just Like We Gather For Worship

When Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he gave us some clues as to what this means for us today.

First, for sheep to listen to the shepherd, he or she has to say something. The first thing we need ot realize is that Jesus still speaks to us today. Of course he speaks through Scripture, which is how most of us know anything that Jesus has said.

But Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice…” For sheep to listen, the shepherd has to be speaking. Now this may seem obvious, but we often gather for worship, go through the order of worship, sing our songs, give our offerings, listen for more or less 20 minutes to people like me, and then go home. And we can do all of that without being aware of the Shepherd’s voice at all.

The first expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us.

The second expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us all — as a group, or flock, if you will. Because Jesus imagery was not accidentally chosen. Jesus knew that sheep congregated in flocks, and he referred to himself as the Good Shepherd.

So when he says, “My sheep hear my voice…” he means the flock, the whole bunch of them, as a group — or in Israel’s case, as a nation.

Most of us aren’t mystics, but we are members of this congregation. And it is gathered here that we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us. It is the congregation gathered for worship that should have the expectation that Jesus is going to speak to us, and speak clearly. About who we should be. About what we should do. About the mission to which he has called us.

Each week when we gather here, we should ask ourselves, “What will Jesus say to us today?” and then we should listen for the way in which he might say it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the time, the voice of Jesus is not going to be my voice. Of course, I hope I speak the words of Jesus faithfully, but most of the time I think Jesus is going to speak to us in some other way that we have to pay attention to.

Like when our children touch our hearts with their sweet sincerity and honesty. Like when a concern moves us to pray, as I understand you prayed for me when I was so sick. Like when we rejoice at a new birth, either physical or spiritual, and are reminded that the kingdom of God continues in the lives of those just coming into it. Like when a song resonates with us all and together we sing or listen in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

So, the question for us in not, Does Jesus still speak to people today? But the question for us is, “What is Jesus saying to us this morning?”

What is Jesus saying to us about the violence in our nation? About the bombing in Boston? About the violent crimes tried in the courthouse across the street from this sanctuary? Does Jesus have anything for us to do to be his peace, his shalom, in this world? in our community?

What is Jesus saying to us today about the poverty in our county? About those who live in substandard housing, or who go to bed hungry, or who are victims of domestic abuse? What is he saying to us about how we can be salt and light in this community?

What is Jesus saying to us today about those who have no church family? Who, when sickness or difficulty come into their lives, have no one to gather and pray for them, as we gather each week and pray for one another.

Of course, I may be wrong today. Jesus may not be saying anything to us about any of those issues. But he is saying something. What are we listening for today?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

 

Sermon: Three Tests in Forty Days

I’m preaching from Luke 4:1-13 on this first Sunday of Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness packs lots of significance and symbol for us to reflect upon during these next weeks leading to Easter. I trust that you will have a wonderful Sunday worship experience today as we begin our journey toward the cross and the empty tomb. 

Three Tests In Forty Days
Luke 4:1-13 NIV

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you

   to guard you carefully;

11 they will lift you up in their hands,

   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

The Beginning of Lent

Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As you know, the Lenten season comes in the forty days preceding Easter, not counting Sundays, so Lent actually lasts about 46 or so days. Usually, when we think of Lent we think of a time for reflection, a time to consider the life and ministry of Jesus that led him to the cross and to the victory of the empty tomb.

Typically, when we think of Lent, the event in the life of Christ that is representative of this season is the passage we read today — Jesus in the wilderness. In this passage we have all the classic signs and symbols of focusing on God.

Forty Days: A New Way of Reckoning Time

First, there is the period of time — forty days. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.

For example, Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out. The prophet Elijah retreats for 40 days after his encounter with the prophets of Baal and threats by queen Jezebel.

In the past few years, a spate of books have been published which emphasize a 40-day period of study. But, 40 days or years isn’t a magic number, or even a number that is somehow more adequate for study and reflection. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfill his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.

Luke sets the stage quickly for the significance of Jesus’ time in the desert this way —

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

We know God is at work here in Jesus’ life because Luke places the Spirit of God front and center in this particular event. Jesus is full of the Spirit, and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. God is at work here, and the time for God’s work is measured in a different kind of time, a time that Luke says takes 40 days.

The Wilderness: A New Place To Encounter God

The second sign and symbol is that this work of God takes place, not in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolizes a new place to encounter God for Jews in the 1st century.

We have a hard time truly understanding the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This massive structure that dominated the skyline and physical boundaries of the city of Jerusalem was thought to be the place where heaven met earth, where God dwelled among humankind. God was resident in the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was assumed and revered by righteous worshippers. Only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, did anyone enter the Holy of Holies to encounter the presence of God.

But the wilderness has a long and marvelous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the backside of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world.

The wilderness is where the Law of God is given, where prophets retreat to find God again, where God sends the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist to preach and baptize. When John the Baptist establishes his preaching and ministry of baptism in the wilderness near the Jordan River, John is speaking a rebuke to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the sacrificial system, and to the corruption of the religious leaders and sects who control access to God, and who set the acceptable ways in which God can be obeyed. John the Baptist wasn’t in the wilderness because he wore animal skin and ate a strange diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist was in the wilderness as sign and symbol that God was doing something new, stripping away the old systems of religious habit, and calling his people to a new life of obedience.

So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father.

N. T. Wright believes that Luke is offering a parallel between the life of David, the most revered king in Israel’s history, and the life of Jesus. After David is anointed by Samuel, while Saul is still king, David goes to fight the giant Goliath. After Jesus is baptized by John, and receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit descends upon him and God’s voice declares “this is my Son in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus goes immediately into the wilderness to face the adversary, satan or the devil. Wright sees other parallels as well, but if that is the case, Jesus’ wilderness experience places him in the legacy of King David, not only biologically, but also spiritually.

The Temptations Reveal The Conflict Between This World and The Kingdom of God

Often when we read this passage, or the account in Matthew’s Gospel, we tend to zoom in on the temptations of Jesus, and then seek to apply them to ourselves. But, I’m going to suggest today that we zoom out, and look at the temptations of Jesus in a new light. While it is true that these temptations are given for our benefit, or else they would not be in Scripture, if we stand too close to them, and reduce them to moral do’s and don’ts, we miss the greater message.

There are three temptations or tests that we are told Jesus encounters toward the end of his 40 days in the wilderness. We can only assume that the bulk of the 40 days is spent in prayer and fasting, but we also know that Satan is working on Jesus all during that time.

I think its interesting that the only way we know this story is because Jesus must have told it to the disciples himself. And while 40 days is a long time, and fasting for that long is a spiritual feat in itself, the part that Jesus chooses to tell the disciples focuses on the end of the experience, and the choice Jesus makes.

In my estimation, the temptations of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in.

The first temptation is the same type of temptation that Adam and Eve faced. The choice to eat or not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is posed as a choice that can make Adam and Eve like God. But in Jesus case, Satan knows Jesus is God, and so couches his temptation in challenging language by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”

Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and of course he does possess the power to turn stones into bread — after all he turns water into wine, and multiplies bread and fish. But the contrast between this world system and the Kingdom of God is this — who do you trust for your daily provision?

When Jesus quotes Scripture back to Satan, he recalls the Exodus experience, and the fear of the Israelites that they would starve in the desert. They want to go back to Egypt because at least they had food to eat. Israel would have traded freedom for food, affirming that the power of Pharaoh was greater than the power of God.

But Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses is reminding the people of their history, their mistakes, and how they are to live in the future when they get to the Promised Land.

“He (God) humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deut 8:3 NIV

And, what was the point of that? The point wasn’t that you don’t need food, or that reading the Bible is a good substitute for a meal. The point is who do you trust? Do you trust the lying, deceptive words of Pharaoh, or do you trust God to feed you? Do you trust what you know — food that you age in Egypt — or do you trust God to do something new if he needs to — provide manna — to feed you? This world, or God’s kingdom? That’s the point of the first temptation.

Jesus echoes this in the Sermon on the Mount when he describes what life is like in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6 NIV).

But, Jesus reiterates this point of trusting God’s ways for material provision later in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” And, he then encourages us not to worry about having enough to eat or wear, not because its not important, but because in God’s Kingdom, God provides for everything, even the flowers and the birds.

The second temptation raises the level of conflict, and gets right to the point.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

So, no more subtleties from Satan. In this temptation, Satan cuts right to the heart of the matter. If you have ever traveled in the southeastern United States, you have no doubt seen signs painted on barns and billboards that say, “See Rock City.” Rock City, located near Lookout Mountain close to Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a roadside tourist stop that capitalized on the natural rock formations typical of that part of the state.

In addition to the rock formations, and the additions of not-so-natural-features like miniature golf, Rock City touted its magnificent views. “See Seven States From Rock City” was the message plastered all over the southeastern US. And, on a clear day, you can.

Well, I always think of seeing seven states from Rock City when I read this passage in Luke. Satan takes Jesus up on a high place — we don’t know where — and Luke says, “shows him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” Pretty good view, but I think something else is at work here, too.

Then Satan offers all he sees to Jesus, if Jesus will worship him. And, that brings us back to our conflict between this world and the kingdom of God.

Now a lot has been written about whether or not Satan really could have delivered the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. Of course, Satan is a liar and a deceiver, so there is the real possibility here that he’s blowing smoke. And considering where he came from, he may literally have been blowing smoke.

But the point isn’t the power of Satan. The point is the contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. I think it’s interesting that Satan promises Jesus “all their authority and splendor.”

But the authority of the kingdoms of this world is a fleeting, temporary, and false authority. Mao Zedong is quoted as saying, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That was Mao’s authority. Jesus authority came from a different ethic when he said, “Love your enemies.” And, I think it’s interesting that at the end of his earthly ministry, right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and in earth, Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…”

The promise Satan makes, whether he could deliver or not, is an empty promise based on temporal authority. Of course, read any newspaper or watch any network news program and you will see daily the scramble for power and authority. From politicians to bloggers, everyone wants to be noticed, to be powerful within their own sphere of influence, and to be able to exert that influence for personal benefit. But the Kingdom of God talks about things like the “last shall be first” and the “peacemakers will be called the children of God.” Jesus knows there is no shortcut to glory, no easy way to claim his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords. The only way is the way of the cross, and Jesus chooses that instead of the power and glory of this world.

Finally, the last temptation is one last futile attempt to call into question the character of God. Satan dares Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, because God will send his angels to save him.

Jesus’ reply is “Don’t put God to the test.” You either trust God or you don’t, you either believe what God says or you don’t, you either give you life and all you are to God or you don’t. And if you don’t cheap displays of pointless power will not sway one individual. After all, Jesus, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, said that even if someone comes back from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him. Which is of course, what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead.

Our Time in the Wilderness

During these next 40 days, our time in the wilderness is a time to reflect on our own choices. Are we choosing the kingdom of God, or the kingdoms of this world. Do we trust the provision of God, or the frantic consumer culture in which we live? Do we live by Kingdom values, which are not the values of power and might projected by governments and politicians?

Jesus was tempted for two reasons, I think. First, so that he could become the representation of righteous Israel. In every temptation Jesus faced, Israel had already faced them and failed. In the manna in the desert, the quest for kingdom power, and the failure to trust God, Israel had failed almost every test she had been given. When Jesus resists Satan and affirms his faithfulness to the Kingdom of God, Jesus becomes the representative of all of God’s people. This will give him the right to die for the sins of all God’s people on the cross.

But, Jesus was also tempted to demonstrate that we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. In order to proclaim God’s Kingdom, Jesus had to choose it. If we are to proclaim God’s kingdom, we too must choose it. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system.

That’s what our time in the wilderness is about. The only question is, what choice will we make?

Dr. Sun* of Yunnan province in China made his choice. The son of a doctor and hospital administrator, Dr. Sun survived the Cultural Revolution in China, and in 1977 was admitted to Beijing Medical University. He obtained his MD degree in 1982, and joined the staff of a hospital in Suzhou. Dr. Sun’s skill as a surgeon, and is concern for helping patients quickly elevated him to the role of hospital administrator.

The Communist Party bosses in Suzhou saw Dr. Sun as a promising young physician. They awarded him a car for his own use, and all the perks that went with his position. However, Dr. Sun was more interested in helping patients than in enriching himself. He told the local political leaders to sell the Volkswagen Santana he had been given, and to give the money to help the hospital. Dr. Sun rode his bike to work each day afterward.

Dr. Sun also disrupted the cozy relationship between Chinese hospitals and Chinese pharmaceutical firms. Cheap medicines are available in China, but even in the 1980s, doctors and hospitals would prescribe the more expensive medicines, and charge exorbitant fees for their services. Dr. Sun drew the unwanted attention of local political leaders who also benefited from the arrangement.

In 1990, disenchanted with the China’s communist government and its failures to actually help medical patients, and seeking direction for his own life, Dr. Sun attended a prayer service with several of his medical school students. A year later, at a Christmas service in a Chinese Christian’s home, Dr. Sun said he “felt his heart touche in a way it had never been touched before.” He was soon baptized.

In 1997, Dr. Sun’s boss presented him with an application to join the Communist Party. A membership in the Chinese Communist Party was the first step in becoming one of China’s elite leaders in his field. However, Dr. Sun told his boss he could not fill out the application.

“I believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “I have already made my choice, and this is my only choice.”

His boss was visibly upset. “You are a communist official. You enjoy the salary and the benefits of a Communist official, yet you believe in Jesus Christ? Can he provide you with food and clothing?”

Dr. Sun looked into the man’s face and said, “I am quitting now. I need to save my soul.”

Banned from working in government hospitals, Dr. Sun worked in Thailand for a while. But on a return trip to China in 1999, Dr. Sun met a former student of his. The student told him of a very sick woman in a remote village from the student’s own province. The next day he showed up to take Dr. Sun there.

For the next 10 years, until 2009, Dr. Sun served quietly and without pay, providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Yunnan province. Often, villagers would not be able to pay anything for their treatment, but fed Dr. Sun, and gave him a place to stay in their homes. Donated clothes, and the financial support of other doctors and Christians allowed Dr. Sun to continue his work until 2009. Finally, Chinese authorities accused Dr. Sun of having subversive motives, and banned his medical practice from Yunnan province. Dr. Sun was invited to the United States by a Chinese Church to tell about his medical ministry, but the government of China refused him re-entry. Dr. Sun lives in California today, where he is planning to replicate his medical ministry in Africa. Dr. Sun made his choice. What choices do we make?

*Dr. Sun’s story from God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Published by HarperOne, 2011.