Tag: kingdom of god

Sermon: Who Can Be Saved?

My sermon for October 11, 2015, from the Gospel reading. This is a familiar story of a very rich young man who finds out that he has to turn from his life of privilege to following Jesus if he wants to experience the kingdom of God.

Who Can Be Saved?

Mark 10:17-31 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

An Important Question

We know this story — the story about the “rich, young ruler” — because we have heard it since we were  children. It’s the story about a young man who seemed to have it all, and yet this young man also had wisdom beyond his years.

So despite his wealth and social standing, which were without dispute, this young man comes to Jesus and asks a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That is a very important question. And we have to applaud this rich, young, and powerful man for being concerned with spiritual things, and not just his material wealth and social standing. So far, so good.

But, Jesus treats him rather badly. First, Jesus upbraids the young man for his courteous address. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” So much for courtesy. Can you imagine how this rich and powerful young man must have felt to be corrected like that publicly by this itinerant teacher named Jesus?

But whatever his feelings, Jesus doesn’t give him the chance to start over. Rather, Jesus then begins to answer his question. “You know the commandments,” Jesus replies. And Jesus, just to make sure the young man does know them, begins to name them: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

Okay, right here we need to stop and really listen to what Jesus has just said. Jesus points the young man to the commandments, but curiously when Jesus begins to name the commandments that are necessary to have eternal life, he starts halfway down the list. Jesus totally skips the commandments that have to do with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath.

Instead, Jesus lists the commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow human beings: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud (which actually should be don’t covet, but that’s a discussion for another time), and honor you father and mother. So, Jesus covers all 6 of the Ten Commandments related to how we deal with others, but none of them about how we deal with God. Isn’t that curious?

Maybe Jesus knows that this young man is scrupulous, as are all Pharisees if he is one, about attending to his own personal, spiritual life. He prays, he goes to Temple, he offers sacrifices, he dares not utter the four letter, unpronounceable name of God, he certainly doesn’t make or worship idols or attempt to render God’s image in physical terms. His personal, spiritual life may be so in order that it bears no perfecting. I doubt it, but there is a reason Jesus says what he says.

I think Jesus is probing to see what the young man’s self-assessment is going to be? So, he lists the six things that govern how we deal with each other. Of course, Jesus redefines the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Using this formula, Jesus reinterprets the commands about murder, adultery, truth-telling, and love for enemies. Maybe Jesus wants the rich young ruler to do a bit of self-examination on the spot.

Whatever the test is, the rich young man fails. He reveals his own blindness to his spiritual condition by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Wow. Sounds pretty arrogant now, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus. For with his self-justifying statement, the rich young man just told Jesus everything he needed to know. This man is unaware of his faults, his failings, his weaknesses, his shortcomings, and thinks he has already done all he needs to do.

So, maybe the rich young ruler’s question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was really a veiled, passive-aggressive attempt to get Jesus to compliment him. I imagine he had already set the scene in his head: He asks Jesus a question. Jesus replies with what he needs to do. He assures Jesus he’s already done it. Jesus pats him on the back and tells him, Well then, you’re just fine!

Only, that is not what happens because then Jesus drops a bombshell on him. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”

And with those words, the young man’s world comes crashing down. All his piety, all his ritual, all his social standing, all his own self-perception, all of it was wrong! Jesus kicks the props out from under his pseudo-spirituality.

Of course, this sounds harsh to us, too. But, what Jesus was addressing was the long-standing idea that if you were rich, that in itself was a de facto indication of God’s blessing.

Which is why Jesus’ disciples are astounded that Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “If the rich can’t get in,” the disciples are thinking,”then, who can be saved?” If there’s no hope for the rich — the people God is obviously blessing — then there’s no hope for anybody!

Another Wrong Answer

Jesus replies to the disciples’ concern about who can be saved (if a rich man can’t), with a strange answer — “With man this is impossible, but now with God; all things are possible with God.”

Peter, ever the one to pretend he gets it first, thinks he gets it. And, characteristically he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Of course, Peter skips over the part about selling everything they had and giving it to the poor, but he wants to get Jesus’ approval, so he gives his version. And, he and Andrew, and James and John, and all the Twelve had left their families (although they still saw them frequently), had left their business of fishing (although they would return to it from time to time), and had left their homes (although they still own them). But, of course, Peter hopes Jesus overlooks the technical details and praises him for his sacrifice.

But, Peter doesn’t get the reply he wants, any more than the rich young ruler got the reply he sought. Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

So, the disciples who have given up some things, will receive those things back 100-times in this present age — brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields!

Wow. So, even if you give up something, you get much more in return. In this life. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, this is real stuff here and now.

Oh, with one addition — persecutions! Ouch and wow. Couldn’t Jesus have left that out?

Oh, and in the age to come, eternal life. Finally, we get to the answer to the question the rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

So, Peter’s attempt to justify himself backfires.

Who Can Be Saved?

All of this brings us back to the rich young ruler’s question and the question of the disciples — Who can be saved?

Here’s the answer: many who are first (here and now, in religious practice, in social standing, in Forbes’ list of billionaires), will be last; and, many who are last (in wealth, in social standing, in outward religious practice) will be first.

This first-will-be-last, last-will-be-first stuff has been called “the upside-down kingdom.”

So, let’s answer the question, Who can be saved?

When I was a kid, my mother read to me the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen. Remember that story? It goes like this: The little red hen planted some grains of wheat. When the wheat germinated and grew, it came time for harvest.

“Who will help me harvest the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen. “I won’t” said the dog. “I won’t” said the pig. “I won’t” said the cow.

“Very well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I’ll do it myself.”

And, the story goes on like that for the grinding, and then the baking. Nobody wanted to help the Little Red Hen.

But when the bread was baked, the Little Red Hen asked, “Who will help me eat this loaf of bread?” Suddenly, the dog, the pig, and the cow had different answers. “I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the pig. “I will,” said the cow.

But the Little Red Hen had a surprise. “No one wanted to help me plant the seed, or harvest the grain, or grind the flour, or bake the bread. So, now you don’t get to help me eat the bread.” And the Little Red Hen ate the whole loaf all by herself.

Now, this is a Russian folktale, which might explain the harshness of the Little Red Hen, but here’s the point:

Jesus wanted the rich young ruler and his disciples to know that 1) whatever you give up to get to God is nothing compared to God; and, 2) whatever stands in your way of wanting to get to God will keep you from God.

Or think of it like this: If eternal life is existence in the presence of God, maybe we ought to get ready for it now. So, if we value (and cling to) anything other than the presence of God, then we’ll miss it.

No matter how much we do other stuff, no matter how much we think of ourselves, no matter what our standing in life, no matter what others think of us — none of that matters.

What matters is how much we want to know God. And our willingness to give up everything that keeps us from God.

What are those things? Well, for the rich young ruler, it was money, status, power, and prestige. We still struggle with those things today.

For the disciples, it was their own self-righteous because they thought, “We’re not like the rich young ruler because we gave up everything to follow Jesus” — except their egos, and their pride, and their arrogance.

Conversion Means Turning From One Thing and Turning To Something Else

So, again, who can be saved?

Well, the answer lies in the idea of conversion, which is at the heart of our Christian faith.

Jesus’ call to any who would be disciples was always a call to leave one way of life and turn to another way, the kingdom way. The Greek word is “metanoia” which means to “change one’s mind.” For those interested in knowing God, we have to change our mind about ourselves, our lives, the lifestyle we are participating in — we have to decide to leave all of that and turn to Jesus.

The rich young ruler’s problem was that he just wanted to add something to what he was already doing. His opinion of himself and of his own life indicated that he thought he was self-sufficient spiritually. It wasn’t about the money. It was about his unwillingness to give up one thing for something even better.

But, that’s too hard, you might object. It is hard, and that’s the point. What God calls us to is not the easy way of no sacrifice.

God called Abraham to turn from his homeland and the possibility of family, but God promised him so many descendants he wouldn’t be able to count them.

God called Moses to give up a life of obscurity in the back country to lead his people out of bondage into freedom, and promised to be with him.

God called David to be king over Israel, leaving the pastoral life of the shepherd which he obviously cherished.

Whatever we leave, give up, abandon, turn our backs on, in order to follow Jesus is nothing in return for what we gain — with persecution!

Don’t we wish that Jesus had just said, “You’ll get 100-times more in this life and in the life to come.” And that he had stopped there, without throwing the idea of persecution into the mix?

Why does persecution go with this life of turning from our old life and turning to Jesus? Because then we’re not like other people. We live a different life for different reasons devoted to a different purpose than the world around us.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the sick chicken that gets pecked to death by the flock because it’s different.

Who Can Be Saved?

Back to our original question: Who can be saved? Let me tell you first who can’t be saved.

Those who depend on themselves without recognizing their own shortcomings can’t be saved.

Those who do not want to be transformed, can’t be saved.

Those who believe their life is god enough for them, can’t be saved.

Who can be saved?

Those who turn from self-sufficiency to God.

Those who recognize that God is God, and we are not.

Those who understand that the Creator of the universe has a better plan than ours.

Those who know that they need to change, to be changed, in order to know God.

The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He loved him for his piety, his interest in the kingdom of God, his desire to live a righteous life. But the rich young ruler himself went away sad because he knew, too, that simply adding something to his life was not the way to enter the kingdom of God.

Who can be saved? All who turn from life without God, to life in the kingdom of God.

Sermon: The Paradox of Following Jesus

On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:

Easter Sermon: Thinking About The Resurrection

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.

Thinking About The Resurrection

John 20:1-18 NIV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18 NIV)

An Unexpected Lenten Journey

To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.

Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.

By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.

During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.

By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.

I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.

Thinking About The Resurrection

During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.

But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.

I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.

I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.

Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.

Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.

Let me explain.

Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God

Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.

First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)

Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —

17 “See, I will create

   new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

   nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever

   in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

   and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem

   and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

   will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it

   an infant who lives but a few days,

   or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

   will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred

   will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;

   they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

   or plant and others eat.

For as the days of a tree,

   so will be the days of my people;

my chosen ones will long enjoy

   the work of their hands.

23 They will not labor in vain,

   nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

   they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;

   while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

   and the lion will eat straw like the ox,

   and dust will be the serpent’s food.

They will neither harm nor destroy

   on all my holy mountain,”

says the Lord.

This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.

Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)

It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.

Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?

Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.

Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)

So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.

The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.

But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.

The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible

Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.

In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.

The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.

So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.

Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)

On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.

The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.

So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.

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.

Podcast: Worshipping and Doubting

In Matthew 28:16-20, we usually miss verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” What did the 11 disciples doubt during this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? Did they doubt that he had been resurrected? Or that he was the Messiah, the Son of God? Or did they doubt themselves and their ability to carry on after Jesus left them? The interesting point in this is that some of the same disciples who worshipped him, also doubted. What can we learn from the disciples’ struggle in the aftermath of the resurrection? Here’s the link — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Worshipping_and_Doubting.mp3

Podcast: Living in Light of Easter

Now that Easter Sunday is behind us, what do we do next? How do we as followers of Jesus live in light of Easter’s message of hope and joy? In John 20:19-31 we read the story of Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples after his resurrection. This account is unique to John’s gospel and gives us insight into what Jesus intended for his disciples to do in light of his resurrection. The words of Jesus to his followers have implications for those of us who live in light of Easter, too. Here’s the link:  http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Living_in_Light_of_Easter.mp3

Podcast: A Proclamation and an Invitation

In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is near.  He then invites those who hear his proclamation to change their way of thinking and living, and believe the good news of the Kingdom’s presence.  Jesus then invites Peter and Andrew, and James and John to follow him, with the promise that he will make them fishers of people.  The invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to Kingdom living, and means more than just believing facts or doctrine. Here’s the link to this week’s podcast — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/A_Proclamation_and_an_Invitation.mp3