Monday, March 30, 2009

Sermon: "Dying to Live"

John 12:20-33
March 29, 2009
(Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

When you’re a kid, it seems like all the best things in the world have signs on them that say, “Not yet.” You want to get off your little-kid bike with training wheels and ride a big-kid bike, but you’re told, “Not yet.”

You’re in Cub Scouts and you see the older Boy Scouts going on great weekend camping trips to all kinds of fun places and you want to go too, but they say, “Not yet.”

You go to the swimming pool and everybody’s having a great time in the deep end, jumping off the diving board, while you’re stuck in the kiddie pool and you want to join them but the grown-ups tell you, “Not yet.”

We can all probably remember being young and wanting to do something that the older people were doing and being told, “not yet” – ride a motorcycle, drive a car, shave, stay in church instead of going to the nursery.

When you’re a kid, “not yet” is the same as “never” and you think you’ll never be old enough to do those mysterious things that only teenagers and grown-ups get to do.

And then when you finally grow up, and you can actually do all those things that you thought you were never going to get to do, you think, “What was the big deal about that? Why was I so anxious to start shaving? It’s kind of a hassle. Why did I want be old enough to go to work? It’d be great to be able to stay home all day and play with my friends like I did when I was a kid.”

Early in his ministry, Jesus was a “not yet” kind of person. People were anxious for him to do what he had come to earth to do, but he kept saying, “Not yet.”

There was the time when he was invited to a wedding at Cana of Galilee. His mother was there, too. In the middle of the festivities, the host of the wedding suddenly ran out of wine. Mary told Jesus about it, expecting him to do something. Do you remember what Jesus said? It doesn’t sound like something we’d expect Jesus to say to his mother: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:4). Of course, Jesus did go ahead and do something about it – he turned water into wine.

Then there was the time his brothers urged him to leave Galilee and travel to Judea during the Feast of the Tabernacles. They wanted Jesus to reveal himself openly and leave no doubt about who he really was. Even his own brothers had doubts about him. But Jesus answered them, “My time has not yet come” (Jn. 7:6). And he stayed in Galilee, at least for the time being.

When he finally went to Jerusalem, his teaching there made some people angry (Jesus had a way of doing that). They were so mad that they wanted to have Jesus arrested. “But no one laid hands on him,” John says, “because his time had not yet come” (Jn. 7:30)

One other time, Jesus spoke words that upset some of the Pharisees. He said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” But once again, “No one arrested him because his hour had not yet come” (Jn. 8:12-20).

On four separate occasions we are told that Jesus’ hour had not yet come. His hour for what? This morning’s reading from John 12 makes that clear.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem for what would be the final time, to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. Passover attracted all kinds of people to the holy city. Devout Jews came because they were required to celebrate at least one Passover in Jerusalem during their lifetime.

But also a number of Gentiles came – these were Greeks who had a world-wide reputation for curiosity.

Some of these Greeks had heard about Jesus and approached one of his disciples, Philip, to introduce them to Jesus. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they requested.

Philip went and told Andrew, another of the Twelve, and the two of them together approached Jesus. That was when Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

All those other times – at the wedding in Cana, with his brothers, when he made the people mad enough to want to arrest him – the hour had not yet come. But now it was here. The “glorification” that Jesus was talking about was his death. It had come time for him to die.

How could Jesus be so calm when crucifixion was in his immediate future? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus wrestles with God’s will for his life so intently and so agonizingly in the Garden of Gethsemane that Luke says drops of sweat fell from Jesus’ brow like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

But John’s Gospel reveals none of that agony and anguish. Only briefly does Jesus even raise the question of struggling with God’s will, as we read in verse 27:

Now is my soul troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.

There are no dark clouds of uncertainty in John’s sky for Jesus. It is as if Jesus has already passed out of life into death, even before the crucifixion.

Any of us would be scared out of our minds if we knew that we would be executed in a matter of days. But the prospect of the cross was not frightening for Jesus. Why?

First of all, Jesus isn’t scared because he’s in complete control of the situation. No one has told him that the hour is now come for him to be glorified. It’s completely his own decision.

Those other times, when events conspired to force his hand and corner him into making a decision – his mother, his brothers, and the Pharisees – Jesus simply held his cards because the hour had not yet come.

But now that the hour of decision has arrived, Jesus gives up his life willingly. No one takes it from him. He lays it down.

So often we feel like victims: of circumstances, of other people’s decisions, of events over which we have no control.

Sometimes we feel like we’re at the mercy of other people’s whims.
“My company just sold out and I lost my job.”
“The stock market went down and all of a sudden my 401K is a 201K.”
“My husband/wife left me and now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“The doctor found a suspicious lump and it looks like I’m going to have surgery.”

We feel powerless, helpless, and sometimes hopeless.

Jesus refused to be a victim. He decided when the hour had come. He laid down his life willingly. No one took it from him. He laid it down.

There are times when we just have to say, “No matter what happens to me, I refuse to be a victim. I may not be able to control events and situations that happen to me, but I can control my reactions to what happens and I have the power to determine my response.”

We can’t always control what happens to us. But we are in control of what happens in us. If we respond in anger, violence, revenge, hate – then that leads us down one path.

But if we respond in faith, love, hope, compassion, understanding, forgiveness – then that leads us down another path, the path of Jesus Christ.

Another reason why Jesus could face death with such strength, courage, and peace was because he understood the law of nature that says that death is necessary for the increase of life:

…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

A person who never believes strongly enough in a cause or loves another person enough to lay down his or her life for that cause or person, is not really alive. They exist, but they don’t live.

As a missionary once wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”

We can’t keep life by clinging to it. Jesus knew the truth that the only life worth living is the life that is spent for the sake of others. “Those who love their life lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus also fully understood the law of discipleship: that only in service to God and others is found full, rich, and abundant life. Following Christ means serving him, and in serving him we are following him:

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

In Jesus’ day, following Christ meant being willing to follow him even to death. In our own day, it means standing up against all those powers of this world that try to rob people of life: poverty, hunger, injustice, the denial of their right to worship God.

Jesus understood that the law of nature – only out of death comes life – and the law of discipleship – that true life is only found through service – applied fully as much to him as to anyone else, even though he was the Lord of nature and the Master of discipleship. So he knew that his calling was to die for our sins so that out of his death would come life for the whole world.

And he called his followers, people back then and us now, to follow his humble path of service and sacrifice. Jesus was not exempt from suffering and death and service, and neither are we.

But we can face life and death with the confidence of Jesus if we just understand and trust the truth he taught us: when we lay down our lives, when we die to our old selves and take up new life in Christ, then from that moment on we truly begin to live.

And we’re not alone. Each step along the way the Lord Jesus Christ is walking right beside us, because this road of life and death we walk, he walked it before us. Christ was not a victim, and neither are we, when our faith and trust are in him.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sermon: "Alive with Christ"

Ephesians 2:1-10
March 22, 2009
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

No one gives advice quite like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip when the “psychiatrist is in” and her booth is open for business. Charlie Brown, of course, is her best customer, and he came to her for help one day.

She advised him, “Well, let me put it this way … life, Charlie brown, is a lot like driving on the freeway … some people love the fast lane … some people can’t resist the passing lanes … others are content to stay in the slow lane … On the freeway of life, Charlie Brown, where are you driving?”

Charlie Brown answers, “I think I missed the exit about ten miles back.”

Can you identify with Charlie Brown? Have you ever felt like you’ve missed out on what life’s all about? Joy and peace and happiness are passing you by while you’re still looking for the exit ramp?

If you’ve ever felt that way, then this passage from Ephesians 2 is for you. Paul tells us that we’ve been made “alive together with Christ.” And we’ve been seated in the “heavenly places” and created for “good works.” Does any of that sound dull or boring? Not to me. To me it sounds like a tremendous promise made to people of faith. Let’s explore that promise together: What does it mean to be “alive with Christ?”

First, we need to be clear about what we mean by “life.” We usually think about life as what happens from the day we’re born until the day we die. Or we mean “life after death.” When we’re talking about being alive with Christ, those aspects of life are involved, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Life with Christ isn’t something that begins automatically when we’re born, that ends when we die, or that waits only after this physical life is over. Life with Christ might best be described as a dimension of life that penetrates life on the temporal level and raises it to a new level of existence.

It’s the kind of life Jesus was talking about when he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Life with Christ is full, rich, abundant life – not life in black and white, but life in Technicolor.

To be alive with Christ is to see life in a whole new way – not as a monotonous succession of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years, but as a joyous, glorious, hope-filled journey with Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, companion, and friend. With Christ, each day is an adventure too exciting to miss.

If that’s not how you’re experiencing life right now, then this promise of God spoken through Paul is for you:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

If you listen carefully, you notice that Paul doesn’t talk about this life with Christ as something that will happen way off in the future. It’s something that has already happened. God has already made us alive with Christ, saved us by his grace, and raised us up to heavenly places.

Life with Christ has already begun! This is the great good news we’ve received: not, you will be alive with Christ, but you are alive with Christ. It’s a done deal. It’s already happened. So start living like it’s true!

To know how good life with Christ is, we have to know how bad life apart from him is. Paul describes that life apart from Christ in the first few verses of today’s reading. In fact, it isn’t really life at all, but a kind of death. This could be our obituary if we don’t know Jesus Christ:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

It sounds bad, doesn’t it. No highlights; only lowlights. Kind of like an obituary for a woman named Dolores that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper not long ago:

"Dolores," it said, "had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing. There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart."

We may know what deadness of life is all about. It’s life with no real meaning or purpose. It’s just going through the motions. It’s looking deep within, at the mirror of your soul, and seeing only your own tired, worried face staring back.

If that were the whole story then we’d be in big trouble. However, two little words at the beginning of verse 4 make all the difference in the world. Did you notice them? “But God …”

We were dead through our sins and trespasses, but God, who is rich in mercy and overflowing with love, saved us and made us alive with Christ.

No matter how bad things may get, regardless of how hopeless or impossible the situation may seem, we just have to remember those two little that turn everything around: But God …

We were lost, but God found us.
We were alone, but God befriended us.
We were sick, but God healed us.
We were on the verge of divorce, but God brought us back together.
We were dead, but God made us alive with Christ.

What happens when we’re made alive with Christ? How do we know if it’s happened? Each one of us will experience life in Christ a little differently, but there are certain identifying characteristics. Maxie Dunnam, in one of his books, identifies these as:

An affirming presence
A forgiving and healing presence, and
An empowering presence.

First, when we are alive with Christ, we’ll experience him as an affirming presence in our lives. That just means that we’ll begin to know ourselves as persons of worth and value.

Low self-esteem is a big problem for a lot of people. A church ran this announcement in their bulletin:

“Low self-esteem support group, 7-8:30 p.m. Room 203. Use back door.”

Sometimes we feel that we never quite measure up. We dwell on our mistakes and failures, our shortcomings. We’re always comparing ourselves to other people who are better-looking, smarter, more talented, etc.

I know this was a problem for me when I was a teenager, and continues to be even today to some extent. When I was a teenager I had acne, goofy-looking hair, and not a lot of athletic ability.

But when I received my call to the ministry when I was seventeen, I began to feel better about myself. If God could know all about me and still want to use me as a minister, then, I thought, I couldn’t be all bad.

Christ lives in us as an affirming presence, reminding us that our worth as persons isn’t determined by what other people think of us, but by what God thinks of us. And God loves us so much that he gave his only Son for us.

Being alive with Christ also means we experience Jesus as a forgiving and healing presence in our lives. Oftentimes the biggest obstacle in the way of our truly experiencing life with Christ is a hurt that we keep locked away in the deepest part of our spirit that we just won’t let go.

Maybe we were hurt by our spouse or a friend or someone we work with or even a fellow church member. We’ve all been there. Someone I thought was a friend hurt me deeply a few years ago. I felt betrayed and I carried that grudge for a few years.

But finally I read in the newspaper about an honor they were receiving, and I decided to let go of the hurt. So I wrote them a letter congratulating them on the honor and I wished them all the best. We must be willing to forgive as God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ, or we will never truly experience what it’s like to be alive in Christ and to know his forgiving and healing presence.

Finally, when we’re alive in Christ, we experience him as an empowering presence who enables us to do good works. Listen again to what Paul says in verse 10:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Good works can’t save us. Only God’s grace can do that. Someone has made an acronym of the word “grace:” God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.

Christ has already paid the debt for our sin. All we have to do is receive that free gift of forgiveness and new life, and then get busy with the reason why we have been saved: to do good works of love and mercy for other people.

Our lives are meant to be a testimony to the presence and power of Jesus Christ living in us. It should almost be like we died and they had our funeral and buried us and then we came back to life. People who knew us before would say, “What happened? You were dead and now you’re alive again.”

Paul says we were dead through our sins and trespasses, but now we’re alive together with Christ. There should be that kind of before and after difference in us: we were dead and now we’re alive, we were lost and now we’re found. And it’s all because of Jesus Christ. All the credit goes to him.

Once we lived only for ourselves and our own pleasures and satisfaction. We didn’t think of anyone else. But that wasn’t really life – it was death. But then God made us alive together with Christ when we received him as our Lord and Savior. And that really is life – life in all its glorious Technicolor abundance.

Now our job is to do all the good we can to all the people we can in all the ways we can for as long as we can, until we go to be with Christ in heaven. We have been made alive in Christ so that we can do amazing and wonderful things for God: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, making friends with the lonely, and telling the lost about God’s love in Jesus Christ. That’s how we get off the exit ramp and onto the freeway of life!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sermon: "God's Foolishness"

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
March 15, 2009
(Third Sunday in Lent)

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

They say it’s impossible. Absolutely can’t be done. The scientific data are conclusive and irrefutable. The facts may be painful, but we have an obligation to face the truth, no matter how unpleasant.

Prepare yourselves for a shock: the bumblebee can’t fly. Aeronautical engineers have carefully measured the bumblebee’s weight and shape, and studied the strength and surface area of its wings. Their conclusion is that the bumblebee is built all wrong and there’s no possible way it can fly.

Now imagine how that makes the poor bumblebee feel. On one side, you’ve got the flight experts telling it, “You’d better get used to walking.” On the other side is God, the designer of the bumblebee, who says, “Of course you can fly! Why do you think I gave you wings? Now get out there and pollinate!”

Who is the bumblebee going to believe? The scientists or God? When he decides, someone is going to end up looking pretty foolish.

The apostle Paul faced the prospect of proclaiming “Christ crucified” (1:23) to the finest religious and philosophical minds of the age in Corinth. They listened to Paul and studied the cross and came up with the same conclusion as the engineers who studied the bumblebee: it’s impossible; it just won’t fly. There’s no way God would send his Son into the world to die on a cross. As Paul says, for the Jew the cross was a stumbling block and for the Greeks it was utter foolishness.

Why was it a stumbling block for many Jews? Because they were looking for a Messiah who would come at the head of a great army to defeat the Romans and set up God’s Kingdom on earth. For them, the cross was a symbol of defeat and rejection, not victory. Messiah would not die on a cross.

The Greeks, on the other hand, weren’t really looking for a Messiah at all. They didn’t have the religious history of a covenant with a personal God like Israel did. They were looking more for a wise teacher, a philosopher, a “lover of wisdom” who would show them the way to God.

So when Paul preached to them that Jesus had died on a cross, and that he was the real wisdom and power of God, they would have dismissed him as a fool. You can almost hear them say, “If this Jesus was such a great teacher, where are the books he wrote? Where is his academy? How many students did he have? What, no books, no academy, only twelve students? Then we don’t want to hear any more about him. Any man so reckless as to die on a cross when he could have avoided it is of no interest to us. God would never suffer like that, especially not for the sake of people. Paul, what you’re preaching is utter foolishness.”

Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. We who are inside the Christian faith, who take the Christian story for granted, may not really grasp the scandal of the cross. It may be too familiar.

But imagine you’re hearing it for the first time. A peasant couple gave birth to a son in a stable in an out-of-the-way village in a remote corner of the Roman Empire.

The son grew to manhood, never traveling more than about a hundred miles from home. He preached for about three years, sometimes attracting big crowds with miracles of healing, but he established no lasting institution during his lifetime.

His unorthodox ideas made certain enemies in high places of the religious establishment, who succeeded in convincing the Roman authorities that he was a traitor and a threat to the peace and that he should be crucified.

His closest followers deserted him at his hour of greatest need, and he died a cruel death on a Roman cross. Certain people became convinced that he had been raised from the dead, and that he ascended into heaven. They proclaimed him to be the Messiah and the Son of God, saying his death had healed the separation between humanity and God and his resurrection meant that people could live forever after they died.

What does that sound like to you? Wisdom or foolishness? Power or weakness? In the eyes of the world the cross does appear to be folly and weakness. We face a decision. Will we trust in human wisdom or God’s “foolishness?”

Remember, that same human wisdom tells us that the bumblebee can’t fly. It’s a very radical thing to say the power and wisdom of God are not in shows of force, but in a man who died, broken and bleeding, on a cross.

And yet, deep within the recesses of our being we have experienced that to be true. We maybe can’t explain why it’s true any more than we can explain how the bumblebee flies.

But we know it’s true because the man on the cross has broken through our elaborate defenses and rationalizations and touched us with the love of God.

There’s a song that moves me very deeply every time I hear it. It describes the tears in Jesus’ eyes, the nailprints in his hands and feet, and asks, “Is there any way you can say no to this man?”

We can say no to force. We can say no to coercion. We can say no to miracles. We can say no to elaborate intellectual proofs of the existence of God.

But there’s no way we can say no to love crucified on a cross; to love that doesn’t admit defeat, even in the face of suffering and death; to love that suffers to the utmost limits of human pain – love that’s battered, bruised, spat upon, crucified – and yet remains love. In the end, God saw that no human heart could refuse a love like that.

Human wisdom looks at the cross and sees foolishness and weakness. The heart of faith looks at the cross and sees a love so strong that in the end nothing else matters. In the end, whom will we believe? Perhaps the bumblebee has the answer.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sermon: "Exchanging Crosses"

Mark 8:31-38
March 8, 2009
(Second Sunday in Lent)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Did you notice all those big wooden crosses outside in the parking lot when you came in this morning? When you leave you’re asked to please take one with you to carry all week. I understand that you may have some trouble explaining to your boss or the kids at school or the people in the supermarket why you’re carrying a cross around with you, but I’m sure you’ll come up with a good explanation.

The cross will feel a little awkward at first, a little clumsy – you may even feel embarrassed to be seen going around town with one. The weight of it may begin to get heavy by the end of the week – oh, along about Friday – but just think of all the opportunities you’ll have to witness to your faith. All kinds of people will stop you and ask you why you’re carrying around a cross and you’ll have a chance to tell them about your faith in Jesus Christ.

Some people may even be kind enough to offer to help you carry it if they see you’re struggling. So be sure to take a cross with you when you leave today.

I’m kidding, of course. There aren’t really any crosses outside. But I do want to talk about “taking up our crosses” today. In our Gospel reading Jesus says,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

If Jesus didn’t mean that we are literally supposed to pick up big wooden crosses and carry them around with us, then what was he getting at? After all, his words don’t sound all that inviting, do they? Denying yourself’ taking up a cross; losing your life, even if it is for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. We need to think about these words for a while. Are we willing to pay that kind of price to be followers of Jesus?

Did you ever have the idea that being a Christian meant laying down crosses rather than taking them up? That sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? Well, in a way, it’s true. Being a Christian does mean laying down some kinds of crosses. There are some crosses that we were never meant to bear. Those are the ones we need to lay down so we can exchange them for the cross we were truly meant to bear. The crosses we need to lay down are the ones of our own making.

What are some of the crosses that we carry around with us every day that burden our souls, that take the joy out of life? Maybe we brought some of them with us to church today. Jesus invites us to lay them at his feet.

Are you laboring under a cross of guilt? Guilt can be a crippling burden that robs us of the abundant life Jesus promises.

One day Jesus was teaching in a house in Capernaum and there were so many people there that all the doors and windows were blocked. The friends of a man who was paralyzed were so eager to have Jesus see him that they became very inventive. They carried their friend up on the roof and then made a hole in the roof and let the man down through the hole.

When Jesus saw the man who was paralyzed, the first thing he said was, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Somehow Jesus knew that this man’s greatest burden wasn’t being crippled, but guilt. Once he removed that heavy cross from his shoulders, it was no big deal to say, “Stand up, take up your mat and go home.”

There’s no reason for any of us to be carrying around a cross of guilt for things we’ve done in the past. Jesus offers us forgiveness and freedom.

Or the cross we carry may not be guilt but our own refusal to forgive someone who’d hurt us, and that can be just as crippling. We may be nursing an old hatred or a desire for revenge for a hurt that we received from someone else. The refusal to forgive can ruin marriages, families, friendships, and it can even make us sick.

Numerous studies show that carrying a serious grudge can have bad effects on our health. For example, not forgiving can have a negative effect on your heart and your immune system. On the other hand, people who forgive have better health, longer marriages, less depression, and better “social support.”

Jesus said that if we have bad feelings toward another person, we need to go to that person and be reconciled with them before we go to worship. I’m afraid the church might be empty if we took those words literally! But what Jesus said is true. Have you ever come to church right after having a fight with your spouse or your kids or a friend? It’s hard to worship, isn’t it? The cross of unforgiveness needs to be laid at Jesus’ feet before we can take up the cross of discipleship.

Some people carry a cross of self-pity that becomes such a burden that they can’t even think about taking up the cross of Christ. “Oh Lord, look at me, I’ve suffered so much in this life. I never did get a fair chance when I was growing up … someone else got all the breaks … I’ve never had a real shot at happiness … my health has always suffered … my boss never liked me … my children never call …”

Sometimes these bearers of the cross of self-pity will say bravely, “Oh well, I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” They’re wrong. That’s not their cross to bear. That’s their cross to lay down at the feet of Jesus. Jesus has a much more important cross in mind for us to bear.

We have to be careful not to mistake these crosses of our own making for the cross of discipleship – the cross Jesus invites us to shoulder when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It’s hard to take up the cross of Christ when we’re already carrying a cross of guilt or unforgiveness or self-pity. Sometimes we’ll let Jesus take them for a while, but then we’ll take them back. It’s hard to let go of the guilt and the grudges and the garbage we carry around with us.

But don’t let these crosses of our own making keep you from the great adventure of taking up the cross of Christ in a life of authentic discipleship – the cross that beckons us to deny ourselves and follow him.

Jesus’ invitation consists of three distinct yet related parts:
Deny yourself
Take up your cross
Follow me

Those three instructions go against almost everything the world teaches us is true. Yet Jesus promises us that in this path we will find life. This Gospel is strange stuff. If you want to save your life you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for Jesus and the Gospel, you’ll save it. It sounds kind of like one of those Zen riddles: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Deny yourself. That doesn’t sound very life-affirming, does it? It seems like we’d find life in indulging ourselves in every kind of pleasure we enjoy. We’ve tried self-denial and it’s not much fun. Some of you may have given up something for Lent. That’s a little form of self-denial. But doesn’t it just make you want the thing you’ve given up that much more?

But that’s not what Jesus means by self-denial. He’s not talking about denying yourself things. He’s talking about denying yourself. It’s pushing ourselves off of center stage and letting Christ and our neighbor move to the center.

Some of you may be basketball fans. “March Madness” will be gearing up soon. Everyone appreciates a dramatic slam dunk or a buzzer beater from half-court. But there’s an under-appreciated category called “assists.” That’s where one player unselfishly passes the ball to another player so they can score. Denying yourself is sort of like not taking the shot but dishing off to Jesus so he can take the glory and praise.

Then Christ invites us to take up our cross. To the early Christians that must have sounded like an invitation to follow Christ to their own crucifixions. In the ancient world, prisoners were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution. Some Christians today still pay the price of their faith with their very lives.

But what about the majority of us who will never be forced to choose between our faith and our lives (we hope!)? I think it means we must be willing to take up the cause of suffering people, even if that means we ourselves will suffer. It means that there are still causes worth dying for.

When I was in college I took a course on “Great Religious Leaders.” We studied people like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. One of the most fascinating for me was Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Schweitzer was a famous theologian and world-renowned musician. But since childhood he had always been troubled by suffering – especially human suffering but also animal suffering. At the age of thirty he returned to school to study for a medical degree so he could become a missionary doctor. He went to live and work among the people of Lambarene, Africa, believing he was following the teaching of Jesus. In his first nine months there he treated over 2,000 cases. He took up his cross.

When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he means we are to deliberately take upon ourselves a burden – a burden we wouldn’t take up at all except out of our love for Christ. It is volunteering ourselves to help heal the wounds of the world. It is the extra suffering we take upon ourselves so that suffering of others might be lessened and the lives of others redeemed.

Whenever we put ourselves aside willingly to serve the needs of the least of these our sisters and brothers, we experience what it means to take up our cross.

The invitation to discipleship finally is to follow Jesus. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” When we take up the cross that Jesus offers us, and allow him to be at the center of our lives, then we just naturally want to follow where he leads. We will want to be where Jesus is. And he already told us where he would be: with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. If we’re following Jesus, that’s where we’ll be.

Charing Cross is one of the reference points in London. It’s near the geographical center of the city and serves as a navigational tool for those confused by the streets. A little girl was lost in the great city. A policeman found her. Between sobs and tears she explained that she didn’t know her way home. He asked her if she knew her address. She didn’t. He asked her phone number. She didn’t know that either. Frustrated, the policeman asked, “What do you know?” “I know the Cross,” she said, “show me the Cross and I can find my way home from there.” The cross points us home.

There are no crosses outside the door for us to carry with us this morning. But there are crosses out there waiting for us to pick them up:

There are people who are hurting, lonely, and afraid.
There are people who don’t know the love of God in Jesus Christ.
There are victims of war, disease, neglect, and bad choices.
There are people who’ve lost their jobs, their dignity, their self-respect.

We know that Jesus is already there with them. And to us comes the invitation: “Leave behind the crosses that weigh you down, the crosses of your own making, and take up the cross that gives you life. Forget yourself and follow me.” Amen.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sermon: "What Does It Take to See a Rainbow?"

Genesis 9:8-17
March 1, 2009
First Sunday in Lent

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

It was a sight I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was about a dozen years ago and we were on our way west for a vacation in Wyoming. We had driven to Wichita Falls on Saturday night and gotten up early on Sunday morning so we could make it to Denver before too late in the evening.

We should have known that God had something special in store for us that Sunday because we woke up to a thunderstorm – an all too rare occurrence in Wichita Falls in the middle of July. As we drove west on highway 287, through my hometown of Iowa Park and on through Electra and the thriving metropolis of Harrold, Texas, with the rising sun at our backs, the rain began to let up and finally stopped.

Out in the flat west Texas landscape near Vernon, we suddenly beheld a magnificent sight: there was a rainbow that stretched from one side of the highway to the other. We could see both ends where they came to the ground. There wasn’t a tree or a building or a mountain to block our view. It looked like a luminous arch that we were going to drive right through.

Suzanne and I both stared at the rainbow in awe and wonder. We could hardly take our eyes off of it until it finally disappeared in the morning sun. We agreed that it was the most beautiful rainbow we’d ever seen. What a way to begin a vacation!

Most of us have had the experience of seeing a rainbow. Maybe you have your own memory of a rainbow that was especially meaningful to you or that came at a significant moment in your life.

Rainbows aren’t something that most of us take for granted or scarcely notice. They’re rare enough that when we see one we stop to take it in and we point it out to others.

When we were in school we probably learned the scientific explanation for a rainbow. The scientist would tell us that two things are necessary for a rainbow: sunlight and drops of moisture in the air.

When sunlight hits the surface of drops of water in the air, the curved inner surface of the water droplet acts somewhat like a mirror, so the sunlight is broken up in the various colors of the spectrum. If we’re at the right place at the right time, we’ll see a rainbow.

Rainbows are even more special to the people of God because of the story of Noah and the flood, where a rainbow becomes a message from God. This story makes me wonder: What are the rainbows in your life and my life? What makes them rainbows and what do they mean? Why do some people see the rainbow and other people only see clouds? What does it take to see a rainbow?

We remember that the rainbow was the sign of God’s promise that the earth would never again be destroyed by a flood. Even through the storm clouds and the rain, God has given us a sign of hope and life.

The scientists tell us that two things are necessary in order for us to see a rainbow: sunlight and water droplets in the air. I’d like to suggest that it takes at least two other ingredients for us to see a rainbow as a sign from God: it takes a storm and it takes looking in the right direction.

Except for the rainbows caused by a water sprinkler or a waterfall, before there’s a rainbow there’s almost always a storm. The turbulence filling the air with moisture creates the conditions for the rainbow.

Before God gave Noah the promise of the rainbow, there had been a storm that lasted forty days and nights. Without that promise, don’t you imagine Noah would have freaked out every time he saw a storm cloud on the horizon? He would have wondered if there was going to be another flood.

Similar scenarios are played out in our lives and our relationships. A marriage, a friendship, a work relationship seems to be running along smoothly when suddenly one partner announces that he or she wants out of the relationship. The other partner is surprised by the realization that there has been no communication, respect, or emotional support. It sometimes takes the storm to see the reality.

Or a person’s life has been going along fine when all of a sudden they’re called into the boss’ office and told that they’re being let go; or they receive a call from the doctor’s office that the test results aren’t what was hoped for; or the police ring the doorbell and we’re sorry but we have some bad news, there’s been an accident.

And all at once all those things that we had thought were so important pale in significance next to this storm and we must look for the rainbow of God’s love and God’s hope or otherwise we don’t know how we’re going to make it.

I can’t say exactly why it is, but for some reason most of us don’t appreciate the rainbow without first going through the storm. There’s something about the great storm of emotion that comes from a sudden revelation that opens the door to rebuilding or putting our lives and priorities back in order. The light of insight shining through the emotionally charged atmosphere and reflecting through the teardrops running down our cheeks makes a rainbow of hope.

Of course, not everyone who goes through a storm sees a rainbow on the other side. That’s where the other necessary element comes in: we must be looking in the right direction.

The morning we saw that spectacular rainbow we were heading west. The people who were driving east, on the other side of the highway, may have missed it completely simply because they weren’t looking in the right direction. All they could see were the storm clouds that we had just driven through in the east.

When we’re confronted by the storms of life it may seem that everything is coming apart. When we look into the center of the storm, all we see is darkness. But when we look beyond the storm, it’s there that we can see the rainbow.

Bernard Haldane is a management consultant who spent several decades studying successful people. He said that in America we are experts on failure. Whenever we do something, our first question is, “What have we done wrong?” Mr. Haldane concluded that successful people concentrate on what they’ve done right.

Instead of looking at the storms of life and asking what we’ve done wrong, our hope – our rainbow – lies in the direction of the light that comes from asking what we’ve done right. What has God given us? What is God’s purpose for us? To see a rainbow, we must look toward God.

There are some indications that there’s even a rainbow in the current economic situation. Attendance in many churches has gone up as the Dow Jones has gone down. Father Jim Lewis, a Jesuit priest, was interviewed last week on the “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. He made the point that in times like this people’s defenses may be down so God has a better chance of breaking through.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent confronts us with the biggest storm in history – bigger even than the great flood – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But if we look beyond the cross to see the resurrection, we see a rainbow.

The rainbow can be a reminder of God’s new promise to us: a promise of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The rainbow behind the cross is God’s reminder that he never gives up on us. Let us live in the power of the rainbow.