Tag: Sermons

Podcasts now available on all formats and devices

Podcasts of my sermons are now available across all platforms (Apple, PC, iPhone, Android, etc), and on all devices.  You can access my sermon podcasts in three ways:

  1. Go to the iTunes Store, search for “Chuck Warnock,” then click “Subscribe.”  (If two podcast choices appear on iTunes, click the one with my photo, not the one with the WordPress logo, which is an inactive account.)
  2. Go to my blog, chuckwarnock.com, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, and I’ll post the podcast episode each Monday.  To access all the podcasts in one place, go to the right widget column and click on the Podcast RSS feed for the specific episode you want to hear.
  3. Go to my libsyn blog, which will contain all the podcast episodes at http://chuckwarnock.libsyn.com/webpage.  The podcast RSS feed is also live at http://chuckwarnock.libsyn.com/rss and you can subscribe directly through your feed reader.

However you get there, I hope the sermon podcasts will be helpful. Peace. -Chuck

New Sermon Series, “The Wisdom of ….”

I’m starting a new sermon series this Sunday using texts taken from the Revised Common Lectionary readings for July and August.  As I read through each of these scripture selections, I picked up a theme of “wise living” from them.  Each text seemed to me to be pointing out the wisdom of one or more virtues or practices of God’s people.  Here are the titles I’ve given each week’s sermon:

  • July 4 – The Wisdom of Humility, 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • July 11 – The Wisdom of Obedience, Deut 30:9-14
  • July 18 – The Wisdom of Compassion, Amos 8:1-12
  • July 25 – The Wisdom of Justice, Genesis 18:20-32
  • Aug 1 – The Wisdom of Mercy, Hosea 11:1-11
  • Aug 8 – The Wisdom of Repentance, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
  • Aug 15 – The Wisdom of Faith, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Aug 22 – The Wisdom of Reverence, Hebrews 12:18-29

I may be on vacation on August 1, but I included the August 1 title and text to complete the series.  Are any of you doing a summer series, and if so, what are you preaching on?

Entertaining Angels: Who are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

Entertaining Angels:  Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”? 6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Why Angels?

Today I am beginning an eight-week series titled Entertaining Angels.  That might seem to suggest that we’re going to look at the most entertaining angels in the Bible, but that’s not quite it.  Frankly angels have been called a lot of things, but entertaining is probably not one of them.

But I’m taking the title from the passage in Hebrews 13:2 KJV, which says —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2 KJV

My interest in the topic of angels was piqued over the Christmas holiday by the news that Anne Rice has come out with a new book titled, Angel Time.  You may remember Anne Rice as the wildly popular author who gave vampires a very hip and sexy remake in her Vampire Chronicles series.  Tom Cruise played Lestat, the very attractive yet deadly vampire, in the 1994 movie, Interview with the Vampire. Rice is generally credited with reviving, if you’ll forgive the pun, the entire vampire myth and making vampires a part of popular culture in the last decade of the 20th century.

But something happened to Anne Rice, avowed atheist, along the way:  Anne Rice returned to the faith of her childhood, the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll let you explore the details of her recommitment to Christ, but shortly after her change of heart, she began writing about Jesus.  Her first book about Jesus published in 2005 was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, was followed by a second in her announced four book series, called Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana.

Her latest book, Angel Time, is the first in her new Songs of the Seraphim series.  Rice being the successful author that she is, knows a good thing when she sees it.

I recently posed the question in my blog, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor — “Are angels the new vampires?”  By that I meant, Will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires in the last decade?  I posted the article that asked that question last Sunday.  In less than one week over 1,000 people read that article.  And, to make things even more interesting, Anne Rice (I’m sure it was someone who works for Anne, and not Anne herself) linked my article to her website under reviews of the book, Angel Time.

The response to my article got me to thinking about the interest in angels, and about what we typically know about angels.  When Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, the American Christian community was up in arms over that book which told an intriguing tale of secret societies, and the heretofore untold story of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene.  All of which, was totally made up stuff, but Dan Brown didn’t care because he sold millions of copies, and created a flurry of publicity that made even those who disagreed with Brown want to read his book.

My point in resurrecting The DaVinci Code controversy is to tell you why I’m preaching this series on angels.  Wouldn’t we be better off to know more about what the Bible and the historic church fathers say about angels than not?  So, before Anne Rice does for angels what she did for vampires, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about angels for ourselves.

But, there’s another, more important reason than Anne Rice or Dan Brown or popular culture for entertaining the idea of angels:  No other topic in scripture is so widely misunderstood, or ignored than the topic of angels.  So, we’ll be entertaining angels in this series for the next eight weeks.

According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 68% of Americans believe in angels, 15% are unsure, and only 17% do not believe in angels.  These were not church members necessarily, but a cross section of American adults.  If you add those who believe in angels and those who don’t know, that’s a total of 83% of Americans who believe, or don’t know, if angels exist.  Only slightly more than that believe in God, so angels are pretty popular with the general public.

Who Are Angels?

In the Christian Year, angels crop up on two primary occasions — the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ.  Christmas and Easter, in other words.  But, as I said earlier, there is probably no topic, no other doctrine, that is so widely featured in Scripture both Old and New that is so widely ignored.  It’s as though we see the word angel, and simply skip over it, or relegate the idea of angels to another day and time.

Of course, that is exactly correct.  Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, the world was thought to be inhabited by spirits, both evil and good.  Gargoyles perched on the sides of the great cathedrals of Europe to serve as downspouts, but also to remind worshippers that evil lurked outside the walls of the church.  Some also believe that gargoyles also were placed on church buildings to frighten away evil spirits.  Either way, most people, including Christians, believed that unseen spirits existed and affected personal and community events.

But with the Enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method, religion was relegated to the world of superstitions and improbabilities.  There was no scientific proof of angels, demons, or even God Himself, and so while it was okay to continue to believe personally and privately in the scientifically unverifiable, religion was not a suitable subject for rational people to go on about.

While the Enlightenment did give the world great advances in the sciences, religion and the belief in the unseen world became merely a source of speculation, opinion, and superstition.  That included angels and demons, of course.

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

Paul Hiebert, the late Fuller Seminary missiologist, wrote a classic paper titled, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”  In that paper, Hiebert painted the picture of the typical Western missionary beliefs, or for that matter the typical Western Christian beliefs.

Hiebert, who served as a missionary to India himself, tells this story:  One day while teaching at the Bible school Shamshabad, a local Indian pastor named Yellayya appeared at the classroom door.  He was obviously tired from the long walk from his village.  Hiebert finished the class and greeted his friend.  As they talked, Yellayya explained that many in his village had contracted smallpox.

As was the village custom, the elders, who were not Christians, had consulted the local diviner who told them that the goddess Maisamma was angry with the village.  The village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice to appease this goddess.

To conduct the sacrifice, each village family was asked to give something toward the purchase of the buffalo.  This shared offering was not just to raise enough money, but to show that all the villagers recognized Maisamma’s anger and were making this sacrifice together.

Of course, you can imagine the reaction of the Christians in the village.  Although a minority, the Christian families refused initially to participate in the offering or the sacrifice because Maisamma was a pagan goddess.  Under extreme pressure, some Christian families wanted to participate because merchants were refusing to sell to them, and they had been forbidden to draw from the village well until they gave.  But their pastor, Yellayya, would not give them permission.

To make matters worse, Yellayya said that one of the Christian girls had also contracted smallpox.  Yellayya wanted Paul Hiebert to come to the village to pray for the girl’s healing.  Hiebert went, but as he knelt in prayer in the village, he said the thoughts of total inadequacy raced through his mind.  He believed in God, he had attended seminary, and yet here he was praying a prayer for healing in a spiritual showdown between Hinduism and Christianity.

It was at the moment that Hiebert realized that his faith had answers for the future including heaven and God’s eternal reign.  He also realized that his faith had answers about the past including how sin had come into the world, and how Christ had come to provide forgiveness to humankind.  But Hiebert realized, he had very few answers for the present, like what do you do when a child is sick, or others explain life events by the presence of unseen spirits.

Hiebert returned to his teaching, and the next week Yellayya showed up again.  The girl had died.  But Yellayya was excited because the non-Christian villagers had seen the hope of resurrection and the belief that her family would see her again in heaven.  All of them realized that even if the girl had been healed, she would have died eventually as all do.  But the Christian hope for a life beyond this life had captured the imagination of those who were not Christian, and they wanted to know more.  — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, pgs. 189-201.

Even though that story turned out well, Hiebert still wrestled with the gap in Western Christianity and our ignorance of the unseen world.

And that is why we are talking about angels for the next eight weeks.  What would you have done if Yellayya had asked you to come to his village and pray for the healing of the Christian girl?  Would you have faced the same internal conflict Paul Hiebert did?  Would you have had the same uneasiness about the unseen world, and about the ability of God to heal?

The Basics About Angels

Who, then, are angels?  Although almost 7-out-of-10 Americans believe in angels, we believe mostly in the cartoon or greeting card version of angels.  Or we love the cute and cuddly cherubs that adorn our Christmas cards each year.  But who are angels, if they are not as we commonly see them portrayed?

First, angels are created beings.  In Colossians 1:16, Paul says that —

16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

The terms Paul uses — “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” — are believed by most theologians to be an incomplete list of the orders of angels.  Even Billy Graham, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, acknowledges these words as titles for part of the hierarchy of angels.

An early heresy that surfaced in the first century stated that angels “emanated” from God, as though they were part of God Himself, now separate from God, and therefore divine and worthy of worship.  Paul also refutes this idea in Colossians 2:18 —

18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

Secondly, angels were created before the world.  In Job 38:4-7, God says to Job —

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-

7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

So, the angels were present at creation, but are themselves created beings.  In addition, here are some other characteristics of angels that Christians have believed during the 2,000 years of church history —

  • All the angels were created at once, and there are no more angels now than there were at their creation.
  • The angels who rebelled against God did so prior to the creation of earth and mankind.
  • There are more good angels than there are those who rebelled.
  • Angels are individuals, yet they have no bodies unless they take an appearance to communicate with humankind.  — Pascal Parente, The Angels
Why Do We Need Angels?

We’ll explore more of the characteristics and mission of angels in the next seven weeks, but we need to answer one other question first — Why do we need angels?

After all, aren’t angels sort of Christian folklore — nice to read about, but more like fairies, leprechauns, and other fantastic creatures? Why do we need them in the 21st century?

Here is where our Baptist statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — is strangely silent. Nowhere is the word “angel” mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message. But dozens of scripture passages are cited to support the statements of belief and many of these refer to angels. Do we really need angels now, and why?

First, it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we need angels. Angels are God’s creation, and as such are good, as all of creation was pronounced by God.

But angels are in a class by themselves. In the coming weeks, we’re going to see that there are at least 9 varieties of celestial beings, but for now we’ll just call all of them angels. But even at that angels are unique in several ways.
Angels were created before mankind, and mankind is said to have been created in the image of God.
Angels are higher than mankind in the created order. In Psalms 8:6, the psalmist is praising God’s creation of man, but he does so by saying — 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Angels are God’s messengers. Angels appear in both the Old Testament and New, delivering the message of God to God’s people. Consider the life of Jesus —
angels announce his coming birth to both Joseph and Mary;
an angel announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias;
angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds;
angels minister to Jesus in the desert after his temptation by Satan;
angels announce his resurrection at the empty tomb;
angels accompany Jesus as he ascends into heaven;
angels appear to the apostles on several occasions;
and John writes of Jesus coming with all his holy angels when he returns to earth.
And those are only a few of the references to angels as God’s messengers.
Angels are more numerous than we can imagine. In scripture, as they are beheld by the writers of the Bible, the angel hosts are described as so numerous “no man can number;” in the book of Daniel, they are described in this manner — A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

Secondly, angels are God’s messengers, God’s army, God’s protectors, and God’s servants. They perform their work for the holy Trinity of God, most of which is unseen or unknown by us. Angels exist, not for our entertainment or contact, but for God’s purposes.

Third, Jesus spoke of angels, angels attended him, and he will return with the entire host of heaven under his command. It would probably do us some good to know a little about “the angel armies” before that time comes.

Finally, angels are at work in the world today. Imagine sitting next to you on the pew, right beside you, is your guardian angel. Or, imagine that as we sing each Sunday, angels “join the mighty chorus” of our praise to God. Imagine this building ringed with part of the angel army of God, swords drawn, allowing us to worship without interference of either man or demon.

The writer of Hebrews, in the passage we read today, reminds us —

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

So, the question today is not, Do angels exist, or do we have angels? The question today is what are we doing to cooperate with the messengers of God who daily do God’s bidding? If we have no idea what our answer is, then that is all the more reason we need to be aware of this part of God’s creation we call angels.

A Story of Angels

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001, Tobi Gabriel and her young son, Gage, left her mother’s home to rent a movie and see some friends. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the weather was rainy and the temperature was dropping. When Tobi and Gage had not returned home by 11 PM, her parents phoned the police and reported her missing. Most folks usually turn up okay, they were assured, and the police told them that no accidents had been reported, so everything must be okay. But it wasn’t.

Early on Christmas morning Linda Belliveau, who lived in the nearby town of Lower Cove, went out to watch for her parents who were coming for Christmas breakfast. Despite the roar of the ocean waves behind her, Linda heard what she thought was the sound of a child crying. Of course, that was impossible at that hour of the morning and in the frigid weather.

But the cry continued and Linda made her way to the beach. There she saw a car lying upside down on the beach. She thought it had probably plunged off the roadway during the night because the ocean spray often turned to ice on the seaside road.

But there was something else that caught her eye. A small figure crawling toward her on the sand. A little child, drenched and frightened. Linda ran to the boy, picked him up and took off her own coat to wrap him in.

In the waves she saw the body of his mother, floating face down in the surf.

Little Gage was taken to the hospital. An investigation determined that Tobi’s car had skidded off the road sometime between 6 and 10 PM that night. No one heard the crash, however. Tobi was killed on impact because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Little Gage somehow survived.

Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited little Gage in the hospital, asking him very gently some questions about the accident.

Little Gage looked up at Sergeant Bogle during a quiet moment.

“I saw two girls,” Gage said.

Office Bogle was amazed. “You did? Where?”

“Standing in the water, next to Mommy. Their dresses were white.”

Sergeant Bogle asked, “Did they talk to you?”

“No,” Gage replied, “They just smiled at me all night until the other lady came.”

Gage’s grandfather calls him a “gift from God.” He’s older now, of course, and hardly speaks of the accident at all. –( Joan Wester Anderson, In The Arms of Angels, pgs. 1-6.)

Were the “girls” he saw angels? No one knows, except of course, God. Angels are, after all, His messengers.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Largest Section of the Apostles’ Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter’s Confession of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

What Do People Say About Jesus Today?

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

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

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

Who Do You Say I Am?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Believe in Jesus Christ

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

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

John as he begins his first letter says,

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

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

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

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

His Only Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Telling The Good News

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!

Telling the Good News
Luke 24:44-53

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

The Descension

Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge?  A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project.  He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump.  Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.

On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand.  At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen.  The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.

Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge.  Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow.  He is recovering in the hospital.

Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.

CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”

I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.

Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder.  She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.

Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly.  She sustained only minor injuries.  Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.

So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable.  But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.

Ascension Sunday

This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year.  We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again.  We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.

We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.

Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along.  Then, Lent.  Then Easter.  And we have been in Eastertide since then.

But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost.  Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.

Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture?  This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.

But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples.  They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection.  So now, they must be a little confused.

“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another.  Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.

It’s In The Book

The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Of course, at this point there is no New Testament.  The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament.  So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —

Scripture tells the story of God’s Messiah.

Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

Which tells us two things:

  1. The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
  2. It all came true in Jesus.

Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus?  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain.  There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah.  Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God.  Elijah represents the prophets.  Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else.  Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day.  Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.

But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about.  Jesus’ impending death.  I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death.  That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.

So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.

Jesus Opens Their Minds

Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.

You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today.  The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.

Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus?  they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them.  As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying.  Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner.  It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.

They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.

Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us

So, what does that have to do with us today?  I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman.  Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  He teaches religious studies.  And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus.  He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.

So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry.  But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.

Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.”  Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.

Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.

When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian.  He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.  Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen.  That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.

In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:

  • Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
  • Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
  • The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
  • The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.

And, that’s only part of what he says.  You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.

“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask.  Well, I wanted to see what he had to say.  I wanted to see what the competition was all about.  I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago.  Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.

Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be.  He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.

Let me just address one point:  Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were.  We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John.  And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark.  Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.

What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence.   We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated.  But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.

But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost.  Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll.  All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar.  That’s it.  Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.

So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete.  So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —

The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after.  The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.

Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way.  He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon.  This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.”  Which it still is.  The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either.  The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.

While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story.  If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.

Let me state this simply:  We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.

It’s Our Story to Tell, Too

But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight.  He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”

Now it’s their turn to tell the story.  They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it.  They are witnesses.  But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.

While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith.  Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things.  Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking.  He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading.  In my white, American perspective,  those were two points I had missed.  But, he also said some interesting things about the church.

One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”

In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”

So, this is our story to tell.  We are witnesses.  Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had.  The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture.  To understand that when Jesus said,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.

When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,
that means us.

It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven.  Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story.  Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.

And, how did they tell it?  The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives.  That’s what we are to do now.  We are witnesses, too.  We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.

Sermon: A Lesson from the Vineyard

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 10, 2009, on Mother’s Day.  I hope your day is a wonderful one as you gather with your church family.

A Lesson from the Vineyard

John 15:1-8
1″I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes* so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean (pruned)* because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5″I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

*John 15:2: The Greek for “to prune” also means “to clean.”

Pruning for New Growth

We’re in that season of the year when some plants in the garden get pruned back so that they will produce new growth and blossoms. Crepe myrtles come to mind. We have several in our yard, and not long ago Debbie went about with her red loppers, whacking off branches. She reminded me that crepe myrtles bloom on new growth, and new growth comes when you prune the branches some.

Butterfly bushes get the same treatment, only more so. Debbie cut those almost to the ground, leaving only about 4-5 inches of the old plant. But, sure enough, new growth is coming up from the base of the plant. We’ve had most of these butterfly bushes long enough to know that they will get to be pretty large, and the bees and butterflies really do like the blooms they will produce.

We don’t have a grape vine yet. I have some grape plants that Carson gave me, and they’re doing fine, but we don’t have them situated yet. The blackberries are doing well, but that’s another story.

The Gardener and The True Vine

But, back to the grape vine. I imagine Jesus and his disciples were walking by a vineyard one day and he pointed over the wall of the vineyard at the rows and rows of grape vines with their branches snaking along wooden fences. Perhaps the grapes were already forming in clusters on the branches, and Jesus could point to the fruit that the vines were producing.

As he did so, he said, “I’m the true vine and the Father is the gardener.”

Now, this illustration had special significance because a giant gold grape vine with clusters of grapes adorned the front of the Holy Place on the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, famous historian of the Jews, the grape clusters were as tall as a man, which probably came from the Old Testament account of the bounty of the Promised Land. When the 12 spies, which included Joshua and Caleb, went to check out the promised land before the Israelites were to enter it, they brought back stories of a land flowing with milk and honey. As an example of the bounty of that land, they brought back a grape vine with a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended between two men to be carried back.

So, when Jesus says, “I’m the true vine” he is conjuring up images of the Temple, the promised land, and of the nation itself. Some scholars believe that Jesus was saying, “I’m the true Israel.” That’s too deep for us to explore today, but my point is his statement was loaded with meaning that his disciples instantly understood.

And, he said, “My Father is the gardener.” They understood that as well, for even though they were not farmers, they lived in an agrarian society. Olive groves, fig trees, fields of grain, and vineyards were mainstays of the agricultural system in Jesus’ day. The disciples understood well that vineyards required tending, and that tending included cultivating and pruning.

But Jesus goes further, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Those that bear fruit get pruned expertly so they will bear more. The point Jesus is making, and will make again in the following verses is — branches are supposed to bear fruit. That’s what a grape vine does.

If there is no fruit, the problem is not with the vine, for Jesus is the vine. And, the problem is not with the gardener because God is the gardener. If the branch is not bearing fruit, it’s because the branch is not properly connected to the vine. Healthy branches produce fruit; unhealthy branches don’t, and get cut off.

So, Jesus says, “Remain in me” — meaning “stay connected to me.” That staying connected to Jesus, abiding in Jesus as the King James puts it, is so that the lifegiving love of Christ can flow through him to us. And when it does, we produce fruit.

The problem is that the Gospel of John is such a mystical book, such a spiritual gospel, that we tend to spiritualize everything John says. Rather than give us an account of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a reimagined opening with shadows of the book of Genesis —

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Pretty mystical stuff. Much more so than shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, John writes of the life of Jesus like this throughout his gospel account. So, when we come to this business of the vine and the branches, we get all mystical.

“What does it mean to abide in Christ?” we ask. “What is the fruit we are to produce?” “How do we know when we’re abiding properly?”

These are all good questions, and our answer comes just a few verses down.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

In seminary, one of the ways we were taught to interpret scripture, especially difficult or puzzling passages, was to let scripture interpret itself. So, let’s look around and see if we can find any clues that might help us with all this vine and branches stuff.

Sure enough, we do. Just a few verses down from this passage, Jesus seems to re-state what he has just said. Perhaps the disciples had really funny looks on their faces, like “we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” They often did that, it seems. And, so Jesus restates in very plain language what he has just told them in the illustration drawn from the vineyard. Look at verses 9-17:

9″As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

So, here the language is plain and straightforward:

* Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love.
* How do we remain in Jesus love? By obeying his commands.
* What is his command? Love one another as Jesus loved the disciples.
* What does that love look like? It looks like Jesus willing to die for his friends.
* Who are Jesus’ friends? They were and we are.
* What has he chosen us to do? Bear fruit.

So, we’re right back to the vine, branches, and fruit, only this time in plain language.

What Does This Mean To Us?

Okay, so far, so good. But the big question is “How do we do this?” As you can imagine, lots of folks have taken a turn at explaining what all this abiding, loving, and bearing fruit that lasts means.

Some have suggested that “remaining in Jesus” means to believe the right doctrine. Of course, those are usually the folks who think they have the only right doctrine, and there is no shortage of those people. Which then brings us to the question, “Which doctrine is the right doctrine?” and here’s where things get really complicated.

I finished reading two interesting books this week. The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins; and, The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer. In The Lost History of Christianity Phillip Jenkins expounds on the very colorful history of the Christian church of the East, meaning Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Africa, and even Japan and China.

To make a long story very short, apparently as the church in Rome with the help of the Roman empire, took charge of Christianity, many eastern Christians churches decided to go their own way. Rome declared most of them heretics at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and so the Eastern churches, who traced their lineages back to Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Thomas who travelled to India decided to operate on their own.

The amazing thing was that these Eastern churches were larger, had more bishops and priests, more churches, and more adherents than the Western Church.

In The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of these same Eastern churches sending a formal delegation led by Bishop Aleben of Syria who was accompanied by 24 priests. This delegation traveled the ancient Silk Road, the eastern trading route connecting China to the Middle East. I grew up hearing the story of Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission in the mid-1800s. But Bishop Aleben and his monks reached what was then the capital of China in 635 AD, 1200 years before Hudson Taylor set sail for China.

Amazingly, the emperor of China, Taizong, embraced Christianity, which he called the “Religion of Light” and decreed that churches should be built. He also decreed that the Chinese should also turn to the One Spirit, their name for God, and leave behind the pantheon of lesser gods of Chinese culture. Christianity thrived in China for almost 200 years, and a stone monument was erected in 781 AD commemorating the coming of Aleben and the Religion of Light to China. Martin Palmer also discovered the first Christian monastery built by Aleben and his monks, and work continues at that site near Xian, China.

My point in all of this is that there are lots of doctrines that have divided the Christian church over the centuries. Some of the adherents were actually named heretics by the Western Church — Bishop Aleben was one of them, from the Nestorian church of Syria. But, they worshipped God, believed in Jesus, celebrated communion, gathered for worship, and baptized converts to the faith just like we do. And, some of these “heretical” groups were actually more faithful, more evangelistic, and larger than the so-called orthodox groups of their day.

So, it’s not in following one doctrine or another that we abide in Jesus. It’s by loving others as Jesus loves us.

What Did Jesus Do?

You would think that loving others would also be a simple concept to grasp, but here too we have problems. In its checkered history, the church has more than once been guilty of expressing its love at the point of a sword or gun. “We love you so much we’re going to kill you if you don’t convert.” Happened much more frequently than you might think. So to understand what “loving others” really looks like, we have to ask, “What did Jesus do?”

Fortunately, Jesus gave us lots of examples of loving others. He announced his ministry by saying —

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ ministry was to be focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and his intention was to declare a year of Jubilee — that’s what the Lord’s favor means. In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all property went back to the original tribe or family which owned it, all debts were cancelled, and everyone started off with a clean slate. Unfortunately, the nation of Israel quickly figured how to get around the year of Jubilee and it’s intent, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from declaring his intention to reinstate it.

Then Jesus goes about to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and all the other marginalized people of society in that day. He eats with them, goes to their homes, heals their diseases, feeds them, cleanses them, forgives them, restores them, and saves them.

Then, when someone asks him which commands are the greatest, he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Looking for a way out of that requirement, they ask, “Who is my neighbor?” At which point Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan was the lowest form of life there was, according to the Jewish social norm of the first century. Samaritans didn’t worship in the right place, didn’t believe the right doctrine, and didn’t observe Jewish dietary laws. But Jesus says that the Good Samaritan acted like a neighbor.

It’s pretty clear from both what Jesus did and what he said that loving others means helping them, caring for them, being a neighbor to them. Oh, Jesus also had a little bit to say about helping people.

It’s interesting that there a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell us to go to church. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to commemorate his resurrection and to worship God, but not because Jesus told us to. Jesus doesn’t tell us to study the Bible, either. As a matter of fact, his followers couldn’t have studied the Bible if they wanted to because the scrolls were kept in the synagogue and not owned by individuals. But, we do study the Bible because it’s a good thing to do. So, you would think if we do good things that Jesus didn’t even tell us to do, we’d sure do the things he did tell us to do.

So, in Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “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. 35For 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, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And then concludes by saying, “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? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Jesus concludes by saying —

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

That’s pretty clear — Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. By implication, Jesus is saying, “Help those who need help.”

That is how we love others. That is how we abide in Christ. That is how we obey Jesus. It is very simple, very straightforward, but we miss it everyday, just like the Pharisee, and the priest, and the Levite who passed by the man who had fallen among thieves.

An Opportunity to Help Here in Chatham

Let me make this more real. Last week, Debbie and I met Mr. Melvin Hodnett. Mr. Hodnett came to our house to ask Debbie for some flowers, but I think that was not the real reason for his coming. During the conversation they had, Mr. Hodnett told Debbie that his house had burned, and he was trying to find some help to fix it. The next day, he came to the church and I met him and heard the same story. I told him I would come look at his house, but I asked if he had been to Community Action, and other social services agencies. He had, he said, but they couldn’t help him.

I made a few phone calls to inquire if he had sought help and the response. Sure enough, there are no programs to help people whose houses burn. Everybody is supposed to have insurance.

On Monday, Mr. Hodnett came to the church and I went with him to see his house. I had mentioned it to Sterling, and as Mr. Hodnett and I were pulling into his driveway, Sterling and Tommy Craddock, and Eugene Hodnett, Melvin’s cousin, were about to pull out.

The house was pretty badly damaged, almost everything inside is ruined. Furniture, clothes, books, decorations. All ruined. Most of it is lying in wet, soggy piles on the floor, right below where the ceiling and roof caught fire and burned.

But the worst part is that Mr. Hodnett is now living in the shed behind his house. He has no water, no electricity, no house, and no one will help him. But in the midst of all that he has planted two gardens.

Our deacons voted last Monday night to figure out how we can help Mr. Hodnett. It will cost less than $2,000 to repair the damage and get him back in his home. There are some details to work out, volunteers to line up, and lots of work ahead.

When I told Mr. Hodnett this week that we were going to try to help him, he said, “I’m raising some greens and if they do well, I’ll bring you some and maybe you can find someone who needs them.”

If we want to abide in Jesus, bear a lot of fruit, love others, and do what Jesus told us to do, then we can start with helpin Mr. Hodnett. He is certainly one of the least of these. Jesus said that when we helped others, it’s like we are helping him. So pretty soon, we get to put a roof on Jesus’ house located right here in Chatham.  Sometimes abiding in Christ means we don’t have to leave home.

Sermon: The Power of His Name

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, April 26, 2009. I hope your Sunday is wonderful wherever you gather with God’s people.

The Power of His Name
Acts 3:12-19

12When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

17″Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,”

The Back Story

I really like preaching from the revised common lectionary. In three years of scripture passages you cover all the Bible, and you do so in concert with the Christian year, from Advent to Pentecost to Ordinary Time, and back again. I like the rhythm of readings, I like preaching from texts I would have never chosen, and I like reading the same texts publicly that millions of other Christians are reading on the same Sunday in their churches around the world.

But, sometimes the lectionary reading just takes off or ends up right in the middle of something. You need the rest of the story, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, to understand what that particular reading is about.

And that brings us to our text today, from Acts 3:12-19. We jump right into the middle of a scene, just like we parachuted in, without knowing what went before it unless we back up to the beginning of Chapter 3, which we are going to do.

Here’s the story: Acts 3 is the first chapter after the account of Pentecost, and the effects of Pentecost on the followers of Jesus. Pentecost is, of course, 50-days after Passover, so Jews are still in Jerusalem until Pentecost. Jesus has been crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended back into heave only 10-days before Pentecost. Still, a week-and-a-half is a long time for nothing to happen — no miracles, no more appearances of Jesus, no heavenly messengers, no angels, nothing. So, we find the disciples hunkered down in a secret location, for fear that the Jewish leaders will do to them what they did to Jesus.

Then, Pentecost comes, and the Holy Spirit descends upon the house where the apostles and others are together. The sound of a rushing wind, the visible tongues of fire, the boldness of the Holy Spirit in their speech, and their ability to speak in foreign languages they had not learned drew quite a crowd. Peter used that moment to tie the events of the past month or so together with Old Testament prophecies.

Peter said, “This is what the prophet Joel prophesied — your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit in those days and they will prophesy.”

With that explanation Peter then talks about Jesus — his life, his death, his resurrection. Peter says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Lord — Adonai. A name for God, the most commonly used name for God because the tetragrammaton — the four-lettered name — was unpronounceable and unpronounced. We filled in the consonants with vowels, and it came out Jehovah. But others now think it might be more likely that it was Yahweh. In either event, no one said it. But, Adonai was the name for God, and now Jesus is Adonai.

Christ — Mistakenly we have spoken the two words “Jesus Christ” so often that we treat the word “Christ” as if it were Jesus last name; or at best, his other name. But, Christ in Greek — christos — would have been translated into Hebrew as “messiah.”

So, Peter was saying that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. The Jews worshipped God and longed for the coming of the Messiah to save Israel. Salvation meant to return Israel to health, freedom, and self-rule.

In other words, Peter was telling the Jews on Pentecost that they had missed the biggest event of their own history — God revealing himself in the man called Jesus; and, Jesus as the Promised One, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

When Peter gives the invitation, 3,000 repent (turn around in their thinking) and are baptized, becoming followers of Christ.

Then, they meet together, these new followers of Jesus, in each others homes, in the Temple, and miraculous signs and wonders are done by the apostles.

Now, we get to Chapter 3 finally

But, we’re not quite there yet. Peter and John are on their way to the temple one day at one of the three hours of prayer, this one in the afternoon about 3 PM. To get into the Temple, they pass through one of the gates called Beautiful, and there encounter a lame beggar. Luke, who writes Acts and is a physician, gives us the medical detail that this man has been lame since birth.

Perhaps in his 20s or 30s, this man is brought to the Temple gate daily so he can beg. He himself cannot enter the Temple because he, not being whole, is not ceremonially clean. So, here’s a man who for his entire life, certainly since he was old enough to talk, has been brought by someone to the Temple entrance to beg. No doubt he was brought by his parents early in his life, and now perhaps by those who take a portion of his earnings and who might provide the lame man a place to stay and food in return.

As far as this beggar is concerned, there is absolutely nothing special about this day — his is doing what he always does with no expectation that life will be any different today than it has been for all the years he’s been alive. He is resigned to his fate, the fate of a lame man in the first century where his condition is seen by many as God’s punishment for either his sins or the sins of his parents. Remember, Jesus had that conversation about a blind man one day.

So, the lame man, and we do not know his name from the Acts account, holds his beggar’s bowl out toward Peter and John, who look him square in the eye. Again, Luke gives us a detail that might have been overlooked by anyone else.

Why is that important? Have you ever passed a beggar or homeless person panhandling? What do you do? Well, if you’re like most people — me included — you do not make eye contact because you do not want to give them anything. Same thing is true for those folks at the street intersections with their signs — “Will work for food.” You don’t want to make eye contact. That’s another sermon for another day, but that’s they way most of us are. There’s nothing we can do or want to do for most in that situation.

But, Peter and John look this guy squarely in the eye and say to him, “Look at us!” They are obviously not hiding from this guy. Now remember that the Temple is a huge complex, with thousands of people pushing their way through all of its entrances, especially to get in for daily prayer. So, if the beggar doesn’t really see them, then Peter and John want to be sure they have his attention.

You know the next line. Peter says, “We don’t have any silver and gold” which I am sure came as a big disappointment to the beggar. “But what we have we give you, ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, walk!”

With that, Peter reaches down, takes the man by his hand and lifts him to his feet.

Have you ever known anyone lame from birth? I have met one or two. Their legs are useless appendages without muscle tone or movement. Usually curled to oneside, or hanging limply as they sit in their wheelchairs. These are not legs that can move, much less support weight, or move even if the person was somehow stood upright.

But, that’s the miracle. “Instantly” Luke says, “his feet and ankles became strong.” Another doctor’s note. The man himself “jumps” to his feet and begins to walk.

But then he does something he has never done — he walks with Peter and John into the Temple courts. And he doesn’t do it quietly — he jumps, walks, praises God, and generally causes a scene. Those who know the beggar recognize him as the same man, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Here’s the Deal

So, finally, with all that background, we arrive at our passage today — Acts 3:12-19.

The formerly lame beggar is clinging to Peter and John. His life is totally transformed, and everybody who sees it is amazed. Word spreads and others come running to see what all the fuss is about, and Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon. And he does.

The sermon is a good one. It starts where the people are, explains that this is not the work of Peter and John but of God. But, then Peter really gets going. He says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has glorified his servant Jesus.

The word servant is a description used by Isaiah to speak of the one coming to do God’s will:

13 See, my servant will act wisely [b] ;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him [c]—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so will he sprinkle many nations, [d]
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Isaiah 52:13-15

So the Servant was expected, just as was the Messiah. Peter then lays out his case.

* “You” handed him over to be killed, even though Rome’s representative was willing to let him go;
* “You” disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer instead;
* “You” killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead;

Peter says, “We are witnesses.” One supposes Peter means that the followers of Jesus witnessed it all, including the crowd turning on Jesus.

The Peter says, “It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.”

Then, after a few more words of explanation, Peter says, “Repent, then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” There’s more, but we have to stop there.

What Does It All Mean?

This is a great story, but what does it all mean?

* Well it could mean that given the choice, we prefer the past to the future. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the God of our fathers” is a reference to the past. This is the God who in the past did great things for us. This is the God who in the past chose great leaders for us. This is the God who in the past had great plans for us. The whole story of Pentecost, the whole story of Jesus’ life and ministry is “behold I am making all things new.” The new has roots in the past, but that which God is doing now has a different shape to it than anything before. And that is why we have a Savior.

* It could mean that we still make the wrong choices. They disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for Barabbas. Where have we heard this story before? How about the Garden of Eden? Or Noah and the flood? Or the Tower of Babel? Or Israel’s rebellion against God any number of times. We still make the wrong choices out of fear, anger, selfishness, stubbornness, and willfulness. Not much has changed. That’s why we need a Savior.

* It could mean that we thought we were in charge, but God really is. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him up.” Even our most willful act, the killing of Jesus, is undone by God who loves us. There is no sin, even the sin of “theocide” if I can make up a word, that is too great for God to make right.

* It could mean  the invitation to change is still open. We are given the chance to “turn around” or change our mind or repent — whichever way you want to say it the outcome is still the same. We choose God’s future, not our past; we make the right choice for once, not the wrong one; we see God at work and acknowledge his Sovereignty and Love; and we act in faith, given to us by this same Jesus, and turn to God in new and life-giving ways. And that is why we have a Savior.