Sermon for June 24, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Sam. 17:32-49; Ps. 9:9-20;
2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Sermon by Linda Rex 
from Mark 4:35-41

Trusting God in the Storms

Introduction

Fear is a powerful force. At a basic level we respond by fighting or fleeing. When we encounter someone we view as unsafe, we typically respond in fear, resisting being in relationship with them. Unfortunately, that’s how some people respond to God.

We humans often see ourselves as all alone in the world. Perhaps in times of trouble in the past we depended on others, only to be let down, even betrayed. Based on that experience, we view ourselves as our only savior. But that’s a big problem, for many of the things we face in life are beyond our capacity to handle. We cannot save ourselves. In his Gospel, Mark tells a story about Jesus and his disciples that speaks to this issue:

When evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him…

There the disciples were —with Jesus in the boat crossing the sea of Galilee. They likely felt safe and secure in the Master’s presence. But then it happened:

…A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41)

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As we journey through life with Jesus, storms come—dangerous, frightening events occur. Bad things do happen to good people. That’s just the way things are.

Back to Mark—Jesus was exhausted from a day of ministering to the crowds that had gathered to hear him. He is fully human, after all, and so he laid his head down and slept. Meanwhile, a storm arose, and it looked like the boat would be swamped. Their lives were clearly in danger.

These types of sudden furious squalls were common on the lake due to the configuration of the surrounding land with its high hills and narrow valleys that acted as wind tunnels (see topographic map below). Such storms were very dangerous for fishermen, especially in the evening when it was hard to see what the weather was doing doing.

(used with permission, Google Maps)

Typical of humans in the face of great danger, the disciples reacted with fear. They were greatly distressed. Such fear comes naturally—it’s how we’re wired. But what we learn from this event is that the disciples needed to have their eyes opened to a reality other than they were looking at out on the stormy sea. They needed to see, through eyes of faith, the incarnate Son of God who was with them in the boat.

The disciples, greatly alarmed by the threat they faced, went to Jesus, woke him up, and said to him (likely shouting to be heard above the wind and waves): “Rabbi!! Don’t you care that we are about to die here?” How like us humans! Bad things happen, and our immediate thought is that God must not care. There are two things wrong with that way of thinking about events and about God.

First, just because something bad or dangerous is happening to us is not an indication that God has abandoned us. God doesn’t go anywhere when our life gets tough. He is just as involved in the bad times as he is in the good. That something bad is happening to us does not mean God caused it, though he is still present with us in the midst of it.

Secondly, bad things happening to us doesn’t mean God has stopped caring about us. God’s love never ends—it is boundless, endless, always present, always faithful. God’s love for us is not determined by what happens to us in our lives. It is determined solely by God’s own being, which is love—the tri-personal communion of the Father, Son and Spirit.

When bad things or painful things, even death, occur in our lives, it is tempting, even easy to say to God: “Don’t you care about what is happening to me?” If that is what we are feeling, it’s OK to be honest with God. But we should also consider that we might be listening to the voice of the Tempter who, from the beginning, has told humans to not believe that God is good. Ever since the serpent told Eve, “Did God really say?” we have listened to his lies about the God who loves us and cares for us always.

Jesus’ response to his disciples there in the boat in the storm is interesting. He says, “Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?” The Living Word cut straight to the heart of the matter. The disciples did not yet trust in the loving care of their heavenly Father, nor did they understand who was with them in the boat. They did not recognize what was actually going on. They were blinded by fear and anxious care.

Their only concern at that moment was survival—how not to drown in that storm. But Jesus loved them so much, that he wanted them to see what was much more important than mere survival—he wanted them to understand that they were drowning in their fear and lack of faith. They were drowning in their lack of understanding concerning Jesus and their heavenly Father. Fear was blinding them to that spiritual reality.

Jesus got up and rebuked the storm: “Hush, be still,” he said. The Living Word of God merely spoke, and the forces of nature obeyed. There was complete calm on the lake—all was at peace.

This is when the disciples finally asked the right question: “Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” Who, indeed! Their eyes were now beginning to open a little and they caught a glimpse of the truth. In our lives, we begin to see the true spiritual realities when we learn to ask the all-important question: “Who is Jesus?”

The Jews believed that only God had the power to control nature in this manner. This meant that the disciples needed to come to terms with the possibility that Jesus was someone other than who they believed him to be. In his humanity, he became exhausted enough to fall asleep in the boat. And yet he commanded the storm to be calm and it obeyed. Clearly, Jesus was much more than who they thought he was.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know his heavenly Father and theirs—he came to show them the Father’s love. In the storms of life, our loving God does not abandon us, but is always present with us. Sometimes we must weather  storms—but God never abandons us. He goes through the storm with us. Other times, when we cry out in our fear and need, God calms the storm. Either way, God calls us to trust him—to know that he is the God who is love, who cares deeply for each of us. He is the God who is with us in every situation, and who will not abandon us or leave us to perish.

God came to us in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he joined with us in our storm of brokenness, evil and death. He was willing to go to and through the cross, to die in our stead, so that we would rise with him to new life. Jesus, as God in human flesh, has shown us in a significant and unalterable way that God really does care, that he really does want to save us from the storm of sin, evil and death, and indeed, he has done so, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and through the gift of his Holy Spirit.

As Jesus asked his disciples, sometimes he asks us, “How is it that you have no faith?” What we believe about Jesus is critical. What we believe about God and about his love for us is vital. Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, has stepped into our storm of sin, evil and death, and has declared God’s peace. The Living Word has spoken the love of God over all he has made by joining us in our humanity, living, dying and rising from the grave. He has sent his Spirit so we can share in the love and life of God both now and forever.

The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has come to assure us that we are indeed included—held safe and secure in God’s love and grace. We are not alone in our boat of life—our deliverance, our salvation, despite the storms, is sure. When life gets difficult and scary, we have no reason to fear, for God is with us—he lives in us—strengthening us, encouraging us, and empowering us in all the trials of life. In every moment, God, who is present with us, calls us to trust him. We are to trust in his perfect and faithful love, grateful for our deliverance through Jesus Christ.

We may face difficulties in this life, but we have nothing to fear. Our walk is by faith, not by sight—keeping our eyes on Jesus, not on the storms. Our Abba loves us and watches over us, and in his Son Jesus, he will see to it that we safely reach the shore where we will be with him in glory, forever. By his Spirit, we grow in our understanding and faith in the love and grace of God, as we trust in the perfect love of God expressed to us in his Living Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. With Jesus, we walk by faith through all of life’s storms.

Closing prayer:

Abba, thank you for your faithful love and grace expressed to us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you for never leaving us or forsaking us, but faithfully traveling with us through all of life’s circumstances, including its storms. Grant us the grace to trust you—to believe and know to the core of our being that you love us, that you hold us safe in your arms. Open our eyes and hearts dear God, to see and to know the truth about who you are as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And grant us faith—the perfect faith of Jesus, who trusted you all the way to the cross, to death, and beyond. We gratefully receive your deliverance, forgiveness and salvation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for June 17, 2018 (Father’s Day)

Scripture Readings: 1 Sam.15:34-6:13; Ps. 92:1-4, 12-15; 
2 Cor. 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from Mark 4:26-34; 1 Sam. 16:6-13; 2 Cor. 5:14-17; Ps. 92:12-15

That’s How Our Father Thinks

Introduction

Today is Father’s Day—a day to honor our fathers and those who have acted as fathers in our lives. Fathers are important, not only to the stability of the family and as an example to their sons and daughters, but to our view of God as our heavenly Father.

When we think of God, many of us tend to think of him as we do our human father. If we had an easy-going, rather laid-back father, we may think of God as sort of our anything-goes good buddy. If our father virtually or actually abandoned us, we may have a difficult time trusting God. If our father was harsh or abusive, we may find it hard to have a close relationship with God. But God is not like any of our fathers. God is love! Not just loving, he is love. He is so amazing! —glorious, perfect, all-powerful, has everything, needs nothing, yet is focused on a tiny rocky planet and those sinners (that’s us) who inhabit it.

When you stop to think about how much God loves us, it’s overwhelming.

Understanding how God thinks

We are human beings, weak, sinful and vulnerable. But, when it comes to us and our world, the Scriptures show how passionate our heavenly Father is in his concern for his children. Let’s look today at several examples of how this most powerful being who is God thinks when it comes to us humans.

First, he includes us in his work establishing his kingdom on this earth. When Jesus described how the kingdom of God would come, he said it would be from a tiny start, like the smallest of seeds, to eventually cover the entire earth. God’s plan is that we would have a part in the establishing of his kingdom—working with him to share the gospel with the whole world. Notice how Jesus describes the kingdom of God:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29

Jesus also said this:

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

That’s how God thinks.

Here’s another example: Though God has all power, he chooses to work through those we might consider the least important. Remember the story of the prophet Samuel’s anointing of David as the new king of Israel? Samuel thought for sure that Jesse’s oldest son was the chosen one:

 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:6-7)

As Jesse paraded his seven handsome sons one at a time before Samuel, God said no to each of them. Samuel was confused. He knew he was there to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king. Have you no more sons? he asked Jesse.

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. (1 Sam. 16:11-13)

The Anointing of David (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

God looks on the heart, not on the outward appearance. To Jesse’s, Samuel’s, Eliab’s and the other brothers’ surprise, David, the youngest, was chosen as the next king of Israel. (No doubt to David’s surprise too.) He’s the youngest son, sent out to care for the family’s sheep, one of the least esteemed of occupations. David’s greatest concern up to this point was facing down bears and lions threatening his father’s flocks. Suddenly, his life changes forever. He is going to be king! That surely gave him something to ponder on those lonely days and nights watching the sheep.

God so loved this shepherd boy that many generations later the Messiah would be born of his family lineage. And like David, his choice was a surprise to the people then. The Scriptures point out that Jesus wasn’t a movie star lookalike. God didn’t give Jesus any especially outstanding physical features. He looked like any other Jewish man. He had to be pointed out in a crowd.

Even his birth had a rough start. Jesus was born of an unwed teenage girl in an animal shelter, perhaps a cave used to house livestock. Then, his family had to leave the country to save him from Herod’s killers. God could have created totally different conditions for the birth of his Son, but God humbled himself even more in allowing Jesus to be born in such circumstances. That’s how God thinks.

Though God might choose an insignificant and humble shepherd boy to rule over Israel, and a carpenter’s child to be his Son on earth, he didn’t leave David or Jesus to their own devices. As David looked to God, he reigned successfully over Israel. And, Jesus? He was fully human but also fully God. He was human, born of the virgin Mary, yet he possessed all the attributes and powers of God as the second person of the Trinity.

Jesus: the true Superhero

Speaking of such power, have any of you seen the movie, Justice League? It’s one of those superhero movies inspired by comic books. You know, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and others. It was high on the most-watched movie list last year. Unlike God, we humans look down on the poor, weak and powerless and look up to those with special abilities and strengths. We seem to enjoy the idea of having some super powerful hero dropping out of the sky to rescue us.

(source)

Though all these Justice League superheroes are powerful with their special strengths, if you’ve seen the movie, you know they all have weaknesses. Even Captain America with his high ethical standards seems a bit self-righteous to me. They learn that if they are going to overcome the powers of evil, they must work together.

We may enjoy watching them on screen, but we don’t need made-up superheroes. Jesus is all powerful and absolutely perfect. Excuse the analogy, but he’s already come down to earth to rescue us. He is our Superhero for real!

What about us?

Now, I’m going to get personal. What about us—you and me? What does God think of us? (Hmmm, well, I know God loves me and he forgives me a lot. I’m thankful for that, but I’m sure no superhero.)

Is that how we think of yourself?  Do you think you’re too young to serve God? If so, remember the child Samuel and the teenager David. Or maybe you feel you’re too old? Think Noah, Abraham and Sarah and a host of prophets. Female? Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla and Anna, among others.

God can work through anyone or anything, even a donkey. Balaam can attest to that! Recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when his followers were praising and worshiping him. The Pharisees were offended and told Jesus to stop them. But Jesus said if they were to stop, the stones themselves would cry out (Luke 19:39-40). You’ve heard the phrases “stubborn as a donkey” and “dumb as a rock”—if God can use donkeys and rocks to do his will, he certainly can use us!

Our Father has given all of us gifts. Some have the gift of hospitality, some have compassionate hearts. There are those who are good at teaching and those powerful in prayer. Others just love to serve, wherever they’re needed.

In our reading today in 2 Corinthians, Paul says to think of ourselves not as we once were, in our sinful nature, but as new creations who no longer live for ourselves but for Christ. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten by God, past, present and future. Why? So we can focus on others and not on ourselves all the time.

Yes, we have our faults and bad habits. Try as we might to avoid it, we do sin. But don’t let that hinder you from serving wherever God has placed you. Christ’s sacrifice is greater than anything we can do to offend our Father. Note what Paul says:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:14-17)

Christ held nothing back, even his own life, in bringing about this new creation. Paul says that this kind of self-sacrificing love should motivate us to share his love with others. Like the superheroes in the comic books, we all have our weaknesses. Yet, God has given each of us certain strengths, certain gifts that we can use in a team effort for good.

Conclusion

Let’s end today with what God told Samuel when he was checking out the sons-of-Jesse fashion parade. Samuel thought for sure Jesse’s tall, handsome, oldest son, Eliab, was the chosen one. But God said, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” With that in mind, note how God sees us, those, who by grace, have been made righteous in Christ:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Ps. 92:12-15)

In Christ, we are the righteous! Just as with David, God looks on the heart, not on any physical appearance or attribute. Our hearts have been transformed by Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Through our adoption in Christ our brother, we have been made our Father’s beloved children. And, just as with David, as we step out in faith with Christ, despite our limitations, to serve our heavenly Father, he will never leave us to face our battles alone. He is always there to support, comfort and encourage us.
That’s how our Father thinks. He is the perfect Father. Happy Father’s Day.

Sermon for June 10, 2018

Scripture Readings: Gen. 3:8-15; Ps. 130;
2 Cor. 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Sermon by Michelle Fleming 
from Gen. 3:8-15 and 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1

Know Your Limits

Introduction

No Boundaries, Limitless, Breaking Through—these could easily be titles of three New York Times bestselling books. All three titles reflect our insatiable desire for inexhaustible strength and the unfettered ability to fulfill our wildest dreams.

Our culture inundates us with lies, constantly hawking products and lifestyles that promise to make us better, faster, stronger, happier, healthier, wealthier. But the reality  is that we humans are extremely limited, and we are dependent upon a gracious God for our very breath. Without the air he provides, we won’t survive more than about three minutes; without water, more than about three days; without food, more than about three weeks. And if we go a few miles above or below sea level, we’ll die within a few minutes. No boundaries? No limits? Hardly.

But the limits we experience are gifts from a benevolent God who created a perfect environment for us within those limits—not only that we might survive, but that we would thrive. The boundaries God has given are for our good and his glory. Like a parent protecting a toddler from a hot stove, or from the edge of a cliff, the boundaries God gives us are for our protection—given to keep us out of danger.

The tendency we have to want to live without limits is the human story. Believing the lie that we don’t need limits is what caused Adam and Eve to fall prey to Satan’s schemes. God gave them every plant in the Garden of Eden for food except one. In eating the forbidden fruit, they shifted the human story. Breaking through the limits God gave brought shame and suffering, not only to them, but to the whole of humanity.

Depiction of Adam and Eve found in the catacombs in Rome (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid in shame, but our loving God, who relentlessly pursues us all, went looking for them:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Gen. 3:8-10)

God explained that because Adam and Eve had gone beyond the boundary he had set for them, suffering would come upon all humanity. But then God showed his unfailing love for humankind by covering their nakedness to reduce the shame they were feeling. Whereas they had made coverings for themselves of plants, God provided coverings made of animal hides—a way of pointing forward to the ultimate covering of their sin through the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

(source)

To cover our sins—our going beyond the limits God set for our good—God sent his incarnate Son Jesus to earth as the second Adam to live the perfect life we could not. Taking upon himself our sin and shame, he suffered our death on the cross. In doing so, he submitted to the Father’s perfect will on our behalf. And now, as we await Jesus’ return in glory, we participate, through the Spirit, in the work Jesus is doing to spread the Father’s kingdom in the world. As Paul notes in today’s reading in 2 Corinthians, as we participate, we often face hardships that involve suffering. Yet, we are not ashamed, we are not downcast, we are not destroyed. Why? Paul gives the answer out of his own experience:

…Because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (2 Cor. 4:14-5:1)

Paul emphasizes that the trials we encounter in this life are temporary, but the glory God is sharing with us is forever! Beyond our time of trial is not just a season of goodness, but an eternity of good. Paul is thus encouraging us to look at our lives with an eternal mindset—focused on the joy we have with Jesus, knowing that God redeems all things and gives us the grace that we need to get through the most difficult of times.

The Apostle Paul by El Greco (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth at a time that was particularly trying for him. He was being unfavorably compared to other preachers who were more charismatic and gifted. These preachers were spreading false claims about Paul and preaching false gospels. Rather than being destroyed by these troubles, Paul humbly continued to do what God had called him to do—present the true gospel. Rather than throwing his weight around as an apostle, Paul operated within the limits God had defined for him, patiently continuing to serve Christ by caring for God’s people in Corinth and elsewhere.

Like a caring father, Paul warns the believers in Corinth to not get caught up in playing favorites—to not classify and compare, but to understand that all of us are recipients of the same grace in Christ. None can or should boast about anything other than Christ! Later in this letter, Paul notes the limitations God had given him, including what he calls a “thorn in the flesh.” Though he asked God to remove it, when God answered no, he came to see the limitation as a gift rather than a burden:

Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. (2 Cor. 12:9-10, The Message Bible)

As with Paul, when we are unable, Christ shows up, fully able to give us the grace we need. What limitations are you struggling with? Perhaps a lack of energy, time, capacity? Perhaps distractions, grieving, burnout? May I encourage you to see these limitations as opportunities to turn to God—to commune with him, to rest in Christ, to receive God’s supernatural strength as a gift from the Spirit.

Note to preacher: Here is a good place to share your personal story about limits and struggles you've faced that have led you to turn to God for help. This does not always mean that God performed what you had been trying to do. Sometimes it means that it didn’t get done at all, and you learned that it didn’t have to be done.

Let us, like Paul, see our troubles as motivation to turn to God, to commune with him, accepting with joy the boundaries, the limitations, that God has placed on our lives. Rather than chafing against and grieving these limiting circumstances, let us, like Paul, focus on Christ and on what he is doing, by the Spirit, in and through us.

A common reason for us to live beyond the limits God has set for us is that we focus on what we are doing rather than on what God is doing. It is important that we spend time with God, discerning what he is doing and how he is calling us to participate. God is not calling us to be all things to all people. He sets limits for us, ones always centered on Christ and always for our good and the good of others. Saying yes to God involves joyfully receiving what he gives us, within the limits he sets, then sharing those gifts with others.

I encourage you to take some time this week to reflect on these questions:

  • What limits am I currently wrestling with?
  • In what areas am I being called to say yes to God within those limits?
  • In what areas am I being called to more fully surrender to God?

[Close with prayer.]

Sermon for June 3, 2018

Scripture Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Ps. 139:1-6, 13-18; 
2 Cor. 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
from Mark 2:23-3:6

Jesus is our Sabbath

Introduction

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” was the Lord’s command to Israel as part of the covenant he ratified with them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, Moses repeated this command in Deut. 5:12-15 (our Old Testament reading today), explaining that God’s intent in giving the Sabbath to Israel was to provide rest for everyone, including Israel’s servants and work animals.

Though Gen. 2:2 says God “rested” from creating on the seventh day, it is not until Israel is at Mt. Sinai that the Torah uses the word “Sabbath.” It was in conjunction with the giving of the Law that God commanded Israel to rest on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week. Apparently, those who lived before that time, including Noah, Abraham and the other patriarchs, did not observe the Sabbath. But why did God rest on the seventh day of creation week? Was he tired? And why did he wait until he made the covenant with Israel to command a weekly day of rest for his people? What did Jesus say about the Sabbath, and what do his words mean for us today? In this sermon, we’ll see.

Sabbath controversy

We begin by noting the Sabbath-related controversies swirling around Jesus in Mark 2 and 3. Early in his ministry, while selecting disciples and preaching in Galilee, often in synagogues, Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders. They questioned Jesus’ way of doing ministry—even accusing him of blasphemy. They questioned the way he hung out with “sinners” (even tax-collectors, no less!). They also questioned why Jesus’ disciples did not fast like the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees. Jesus explained that they were failing to understand who he was, and therefore the practices of the disciples who were following him.

The religious leaders were quite dissatisfied with Jesus’ explanations. Being envious of Jesus and the large crowds he was drawing, they began to follow him around, looking for ways to discredit him and his ministry. One thing they looked for was any failure on Jesus’ part to keep the Sabbath in the way specified in the Jewish traditions that added to the Law of Moses.

According to the instructions Moses gave the Israelites at Sinai, they were forbidden to gather manna on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:26). The terms of the covenant given at Sinai then broadened this command to prohibit any sort of work on the Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, Jewish rules and regulations went beyond what the Law of Moses said about the Sabbath, making any sort of “work” on the seventh day illegal. The New Bible Dictionary says this:

During the period between the Testaments… a change gradually crept in with respect to the understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. In the synagogues, the law was studied on the Sabbath. Gradually oral tradition made its growth among the Jews, and attention was paid to the minutiae of observance.

The minutiae of observance included dozens of Sabbath prohibitions, including restrictions on travel and even restrictions on what could or could not be eaten. For example, eating fruit was permitted, but squeezing juice from the fruit was considered “work” and thus prohibited.

As seen in our reading in Mark today, Jesus did not feel that he or his disciples were obligated to obey these added Sabbath restrictions. On one particular Sabbath, as Jesus and his disciples were walking through the grain fields, they began picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees, observing this, said, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus and his disciples walking in the grain fields
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The backstory here is that the Law of Moses permitted people to pluck and eat grain in fields they did not own, and it also permitted people to walk on the Sabbath. Thus Jesus and his disciples were not violating any Mosaic laws. However, they were ignoring certain Sabbath laws that the Jews had added to the Sabbath laws set out in the Torah.

Instead of arguing technicalities of Sabbath law, Jesus responded to their accusation by citing a Scriptural example of meeting a human need at the expense of a religious requirement:

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions. (Mark 2:25-26)

David understood that the loving and kind God did not expect people to go hungry due to observing technical religious restrictions. The day-old bread consecrated for worship in the Tabernacle, having served its purpose, would  have been thrown out. How much better to give it to hungry people?

Jesus’ statement raised the eyebrows of his critics—how dare he compare his actions to those of King David! Even worse, Jesus went on to say this:

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27-28)

Here, Jesus was pointing out two things. First, that the rules concerning Sabbath observance added by the Jews to the Torah had turned God’s gift of Sabbath rest into a heavy burden. Such added rules made conscientious people nervously careful so as not to provoke what they saw as an angry God. How sad, for God’s intent in giving the Sabbath to Israel was that his people would enjoy rest from the rigors of their strenuous daily labor and have free time to reflect on all the good God graciously gave them.

With these words, Jesus was reminding his accusers of what should have been obvious: God created humanity first, and Sabbath rest came afterward. It should have been obvious that the Sabbath command given to Israel was intended for a blessing, not a burden. God knew that the burdens of daily life would distract his people from considering who he is and their purpose in being his people. God gave them the Sabbath to refresh them and to provide for them time to consider their purpose, and thus adjust their priorities.

Second, in speaking these words, Jesus was claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath—a stunning claim that pointed to Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah—their Lord! His accusers rejected this claim—to them, it was blasphemy. Moreover, it threatened their position.

Other New Testament teachings elaborate on what Jesus was claiming. John 1:3 says that Jesus was the incarnate Word of God—the Word who created all things and, having created, rested on the seventh day. Thus Jesus could speak about God’s intent in giving Israel the Sabbath command with great authority. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus had authority to explain the purpose of the Sabbath and the rules of its observance. He did so in these words with brilliant simplicity, unlike the unwieldy complexity of the dozens of Sabbath rules set down by the Jewish religious authorities.

Hearing Jesus’ outrageous claims, these authorities set out to use his Sabbath practices against him:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-2)

Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This man was not merely sick—his deformity would have limited his ability to earn a living. Thus his healing not only made him whole; it enabled him to support himself and his family. How could anyone reject such a gracious, miraculous gift, focusing instead on the day on which the healing took place? Well, the religious leaders did. They cited a Sabbath ruling later written in the Mishnah, that the only time a healing was permitted on the Sabbath was when it was a matter of life or death. Jesus was not constrained by this restriction:

Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. (Mark 3:3-4)

With this healing and his words, Jesus exposed the religious leaders’ sinful plot. He also gave the onlookers in the synagogue opportunity to view this needy man though God’s compassionate eyes, and in doing so to rethink their wrong-headed, legalistic view of the Sabbath.

Though Jesus understood that what these religious leaders were up to would eventually lead to his death, his desire was to save them, not condemn them, though their stubborn resistance stirred his divine wrath and he was deeply distressed by their stubbornness (Mark 3:5a). But instead of retaliating, Jesus in his beautiful humility and awesome authority turned to the man with the shriveled and said, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and the man’s hand was “completely restored” (Mark 3:5b).

The religious leaders refused to understand what had just happened. Instead of submitting to the Lord of the Sabbath, they “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).

The ultimate Sabbath

Let’s now consider the big lesson of this passage in Mark’s Gospel. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Here Jesus was indicating that who he was and what he did fulfilled what was required of him as an obedient son of Israel in accordance with the Law of Moses (the “Law”).  He also was indicating that who he was and what he did fulfilled all that was prophesied of Israel’s Messiah in “the Prophets.” Thus we understand that Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets—and that includes the instructions (law) and prophecies (teachings) concerning the Sabbath.

Jesus, who is God’s ultimate Sabbath rest for humanity, brings us rest and refreshment from all our toil. Jesus put it this way: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  These words precede the same stories concerning Jesus and the Sabbath we’ve been looking at in Mark 2 and 3. Matthew was wanting his Jewish readers to see Jesus, and salvation in him, as the ultimate Sabbath-rest.

Though as a Jew, it was fitting that Jesus would observe the Law of Moses, he did not expect all his followers down through the centuries to do the same. For example, though Jesus was circumcised, he did not lead his apostles to require Christian males to be circumcised—this is made clear in the account in Acts 15. And though Jesus would have killed a lamb each year as prescribed by the Torah, the apostles understood that they did not have to. The Spirit led the apostles to understand that to be a Christian, one need not be an observant Jew who, like Jesus, adhered to all the stipulations of the Law of Moses.

This understanding did not happen instantaneously. For several years, Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem continued to follow the customs specified by the Law of Moses, Jesus’ apostles were led by the Spirit to understand that Torah-observance was not required for Christians. They thus did not require Christians to observe the Sabbath.

Though Jesus and his first disciples met in the temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues elsewhere on the Sabbath, we should not conclude that in doing so they were indicating that Sabbath observance is required of Christians. Gentile followers of Jesus did not need to observe the Sabbath because Jesus was their rest. Jewish Christians also were not required to continue customs and practices that Jesus had fulfilled.

Rest in Jesus

But what exactly is the rest that Jesus gives us? First, it is relief, through forgiveness, from the heavy burden of sin. Second, it is hope of a secure and everlasting future. Third, it is a lightening now of the weight of life’s burdens, including the burdens of religious legalism. The rest Jesus is and gives, is way beyond the physical, psychological and spiritual rest of one day out of seven. Thus, in Matt. 11:29, Jesus calls it “rest for your souls.”

This rest is not limited to one day a week—it is permanent and always! Those who find rest for their souls in Jesus are relieved from all burdens, including those of religious requirements intended only for Israel under the old covenant. Those who misunderstand and think they can achieve spiritual rest through observance of days or other Torah practices risk falling short of finding the true rest that is in Jesus alone.

It is not uncommon in our day for some to place their preachers in the role only Jesus can fill. Paul had to remind the Christians in Corinth that humanity’s rest does not come through its religious leaders. As we saw in our reading in 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, ministers are servants of Christ, not replacements for Christ. Jesus, alone, is at the center of everything.

Some Christians mistake the rest they have in Jesus for the entertaining quality of a church that offers a virtual shopping mall of programs, activities and emotional stimulation. But Jesus is not confined to large groups nor small ones. Moreover, Jesus is not confined to a particular culture, nor is he confined to a certain style of music. The rest that we have in Jesus is spiritual—it is a relationship of love, not merely a religious experience. All that is required to experience this rest is to “come to Jesus”—to place your trust in Jesus. If you have never done so, I invite you to do so today—right now.

Conclusion

In resting on the seventh day of creation week, God was not indicating that he was weary. Instead, he was pointing to the ultimate rest that humanity would be given in God’s Living Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament clearly teaches that from the foundation of creation, Christ was destined to be humanity’s salvation—our true, complete and final rest. The Sabbath command God gave Israel through Moses pointed to Jesus, God’s ultimate source of rest. Under the new covenant, the Sabbath is no longer a day of the week; it is a person—Jesus Christ!

Some Christians try to keep the Sabbath in the way God commanded Israel. Despite what might be good intentions, they are unable to find true rest until they turn away from Sabbatarianism to Jesus—trusting in him fully and only to be their rest; looking to nothing else but him for their salvation. My prayer is that any who hold on to the belief that Sabbath-keeping is required for salvation will see the truth about Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. Amen.

Sermon for May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday)

Scripture readings: Isa. 6:1-8; Ps. 29; Rom. 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from Ps. 29:4-8; Isa. 6:1-5; John 3:11-17; Rom. 8:14-17)

The Triune God of Love & Power

Introduction

A friend of mine decided to read the entire Bible. As she started through the Old Testament, her first impression was that the God of the Old Testament was scary and harsh. It seemed to her that he would make promises and then change his mind. She was referring to the Israelites, including Moses, who were denied entrance into the Promised Land after all those miserable years wandering in the desert. She also noted that God got angry at times and would kill off a lot of people. She felt Jesus was the loving God, but that the God of the Old Testament was scary.

C.S. Lewis gives a more nuanced portrayal of Jesus in several of his books, presenting him as a great lion named Aslan who is both scary and loving:

“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Aslan the Lion (source)

Can the triune God—the God who is Father, Son and the Holy Spirit—be both scary and a God of love? Can we trust a God like that? Well, God assures us throughout his Word that he is love, and we also find there that God is powerful—note Psalm 29:

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. (Ps. 29:4-8)

God is powerful and almighty—a mover and a shaker. All he has to do is speak and things happen. The psalmist didn’t see God as wimpy. Let’s see another example in the book of Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:1-3)

Here, in Isaiah’s vision, God is attended and worshiped by splendid heavenly, spiritual creatures (some might say weird looking ones). It is obvious that God is worthy of great honor, even from spiritual beings. What was Isaiah’s reaction to what he saw?

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:4-5)

Isaiah was scared at what he saw—so scared he thought he might die on the spot. We can argue that God doesn’t really sit on a throne wearing an overflowing robe. No one has actually seen God—what Isaiah saw was a vision. But this vision was how God revealed himself to Isaiah at that time and in that cultural setting. God deals with people where they are.

When questions about God come up, we don’t need to try to apologize for God. He doesn’t need our help. We certainly can’t explain everything God did or still does. He is God, after all, and we’re not. But one thing we do know, because God tells us—God is love. That’s who he is and who he has always been.

When we read the Bible, we need to look at the historical and cultural context it was written in. It’s obvious in the Old Testament that God dealt with people in the culture they lived in at the time. The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures were people of that culture as well. They viewed the world through the lens of that time and place.

Throughout the Old Testament, we learn some basic truths about who God is. God is not only the almighty powerful Creator of all that is, he is a God of love—a God of redemption and salvation who is extremely patient. How many times did he save Israel, for example, before they finally were scattered among the other nations? He was even patient with Egypt, waiting 400 years before he lowered the boom, so to speak.

Rublev’s icon of the Trinity
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, when my friend gets to the New Testament, she will learn something surprising: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is that same God we’ve just been describing! Jesus said he came to reveal the Father and to send the Spirit. Along with redeeming and saving us, restoring our relationship with the Father was a primary purpose of his ministry. He wasn’t a vision; Jesus was a real human being. And, not only that, as he told Nicodemus, he had been in heaven with God.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee who sought out Jesus because he saw Jesus’ miracles and believed Jesus was from God. In Jesus’ explanation of spiritual rebirth, he referred back to the incident in the Old Testament when God saved the Israelites from poisonous serpents. This was something Nicodemus could understand from his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Using this analogy, Jesus taught Nicodemus about God’s plan to redeem and save the entire world:

Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:11-17)

Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, show us that our triune God whom we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday, is a God of redemption and salvation. He is an extremely patient God, and we can be happy and relieved that he is.

Aren’t there times in all our lives when we’re glad God didn’t give us what we deserved, right on the spot? If God were like that, our earth would be desolate, for we have all sinned.

Yes, our God is powerful and almighty—Jesus could get angry. Jesus is God and some things really set him off: hypocrisy, false teaching and defilement of his Father’s house. Yes, God is love, but, the Bible declares that God judges sin. Why? Because sin is the barrier between God and humanity, and Jesus dies to remove that barrier. God resists sin—he is adamantly and eternally opposed to evil and the resulting painful consequences for humanity. Why? Because God loves humanity.

God, in Christ, has judged all sin, and a day of judgment is coming when all sin and evil will be eradicated. But thanks be to God, the righteous and merciful God-man Jesus Christ is humanity’s judge, our advocate and our redeemer. Jesus came to restore a relationship between God and humanity that had gone very wrong.

In the Old Testament we see very few people who had any kind of a relationship with God. Noah, Abraham, Moses, the prophets and a few of Israel’s kings, are some examples. Christ came to rectify that. He came so all could have a loving relationship with the Father, in and through him, by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

As we conclude, let’s ask again, can this very powerful, perfect, sinless God be trusted? We look at ourselves and all our imperfections and sometimes we wonder—how can God love us? Well, he can, and he does. Note what the apostle Paul wrote:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:14-17)

Yes, the almighty, powerful God is a God of love, and he can be trusted. We don’t have to live in fear of God, for our Savior Jesus has come to our rescue and by the Spirit has freed us from our burdens of sin, shame and guilt so that we, as his children, can call God our Father—our Abba.

God, who is Father, Son and Spirit—the Holy Trinity—is a God of love; a God of salvation. Think about it! We are in a family relationship with the all-powerful Creator God of the universe! That’s what Jesus’ sacrifice is all about; that’s what the Spirit’s ministry is all about. That’s what the heart of the Father is all about. Thank God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit for their love and mercy! Amen!

Sermon for May 20, 2018 (Pentecost)

Scripture readings: Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:24-35;
Rom. 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Sermon by Ted Johnston 
(from John 15:18-16:15)
(Drawing on Wiersbe Bible Commentary, New Bible Commentary, Parable of Joy by Michael Card, and The Gospel of John by F.F. Bruce)

The Holy Spirit’s Three-Fold Ministry

Introduction

Today is Pentecost and we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In today’s sermon today, we’ll look back to what Jesus said to his disciples about the Holy Spirit on the night before our Lord went to the cross. Jesus told his followers about the Spirit’s three-fold ministry as their Counselor, Witness and Teacher. What he said was vital then, and it’s still important today for our encouragement and instruction. Let’s listen and learn.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)

(source)

1. The Spirit as Counselor

On the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said this to his disciples:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: “They hated me without reason.”

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you…. John 15:18-16:4)

Jesus pulls no punches in telling his followers that their situation in “the world” (mankind’s system, cut off from God) will be dangerous. Opposition will increase—moving from hatred (John 15:18–19), to persecution (John 15:20), to excommunication, and even to death (John 16:2). These stages are seen in the early church’s history described in Acts. But why does the world, including the religious world, hate Jesus’ followers? Our Lord gives four reasons:

  1. That we are identified with him (John 15:18, 20).
  2. That we do not belong to the world (John 15:19).
  3. That the world is spiritually ignorant and blind (John 15:21).
  4. That the world is not honest about its own sin (John 15:22–24; 16:1–4).

How does the Holy Spirit, the Counselor (Comforter in the KJV) encourage believers when they experience such hatred and opposition? It’s primarily through the Spirit’s testimony in Scripture. He ministered to Jesus that way. In John 15:25, Jesus quotes Psalms 35:19 and 69:4 where he found assurance that he was not hated for anything he had done. Today the Spirit “counsels” us through Scripture, giving us words of encouragement and instruction.

The Holy Spirit also witnesses to and through us during times of persecution (John 15:26–27). He reminds us that what we are experiencing is “the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ’s] sufferings,” as Paul says in Phil. 3:10, and that it is a privilege to bear reproach for his name, as Peter says in 1 Pet. 4:12–19. The Holy Spirit witnesses to us so that we can witness to the world. Jesus told his disciples that persecution need not cause them to stumble (“fall away,” John 16:1). Indeed, as followers of Jesus we can expect some degree of persecution. In particular, Jesus warned of persecution from “religious” people who think they are serving God. The word translated “service” in John 16:2 means “priestly service.” This statement is applicable to Saul of Tarsus, who thought he was serving God by persecuting, even killing Christians.

As we face hardship (even persecution) in following Jesus, we can be assured that the Spirit, our Counselor, will minister to us just as it ministered to these first disciples.

2. The Spirit as Witness

…but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, “Where are you going?” Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:5–11)

For three years, Jesus had been with his disciples and had protected them from attack—but now he was leaving. He had told them this news earlier that evening, and Peter had asked where he was going. However, Peter’s question revealed more concern about himself than about Jesus. Also, his question centered on the immediate, not the ultimate. It was necessary for Jesus to explain why it was important for them that he return to the Father. The major reason is that the Spirit would come to empower the church for life and witness. Also, the ascended Lord Jesus would be active as High Priest, interceding for his people.

It’s important to note that the Spirit comes in this particular way to Jesus’ disciples, who are Jesus’ co-workers, his temple—and the Spirit works with and through Christians to glorify Jesus by witnessing to a lost world. The key word here in John 16:8 is prove —a legal word meaning “bring to light, expose, refute, convict and convince.” The Spirit convicts the world and does so through the testimony of Christ-followers. In accord with this legal metaphor, believers are the witnesses, the Spirit is the prosecuting attorney and the unsaved are the guilty. If that sounds harsh, we quickly note that the purpose of this conviction of the world is not to condemn it but to save it. Note that through the testimony of the church, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of three things:

a. Unbelief (John 16:9)
The law of God and the human conscience convict the sinner of their sins (plural); but it is the specific work of the Spirit, through the testimony of believers, to expose a lost world’s unbelief. This is the big sin of the world, and the sin that condemns lost sinners. A person could “clean up his life” and remain in unbelief and thus continue to be lost.

b. Righteousness (John 16:10)
Note that what the Holy Spirit convicts the world of is not unrighteousness but righteousness. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God. The world would not receive the Son of God, so he has returned to the Father. When he was here on earth, he was accused of being a blasphemer, a lawbreaker, a deceiver, and even a demoniac. The Spirit of God reveals the Savior in the word and in this way glorifies him (John 16:13–14). The Spirit also reveals Christ in the lives of believers. The world cannot receive or see the Spirit of God, but they can see what he does as they watch the lives of his followers.

c. Judgment (John 16:11)
Jesus is here referring to his judgment of Satan that was affected by his death on the cross. Satan is the prince of this world, but he is a defeated prince. Satan has already been judged and the verdict announced. All that must take place is the executing of that sentence, and that will occur when Jesus returns in glory.

When lost sinners are convicted in these ways, they see the folly and evil of their unbelief; they confess that what they do does not measure up to the righteousness of Christ; and they realize that they are under condemnation because they belong to the world and the devil. The only person who can rescue them from this situation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Conversion involves this conviction, which comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who uses the word of God, including the testimony of the children of God. Offering our testimony to Christ in the world is thus a great privilege and serious responsibility. We can depend on and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he creatively (and often unexpectedly) guides us to the right persons, gives us the right words, and enables us to patiently testify to Jesus Christ by our actions and words, thus glorifying him.

3. The Spirit as Teacher

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:12-15)

Jesus always gave his disciples just the right amount of truth at the best time. This is a mark of a great teacher. The Holy Spirit is our teacher today, and he follows the same principle, teaching us the truths we need to know, when we need to know them, and when we are ready to receive them.

Comparing John 14:26 with John 16:13, we see the wonderful process used by the Holy Spirit to teach these first disciples—a process reflected in the New Testament: The Spirit reminded them of what Jesus had taught them, reflected in the four Gospels. The Spirit guided them into all truth, reflected in the epistles. And he showed them “things to come”—leading them into what was, humanly, an uncertain and threatening future, as reflected in the book of Revelation.

The work of the Holy Spirit is never divorced from Jesus, the Living Word, or from Scripture, the written word. “He will testify about me” (John 15:26); “He will bring glory to me” (John 16:14). People who claim that the Spirit of God led them to do things contrary to the example of Jesus or the teaching of Holy Scripture are mistaken and are being led astray by Satan. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), and God’s word (personified in Jesus and conveyed through Scripture) is truth (John 17:17), and the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth.” Where the Holy Spirit is truly at work, truth prevails.

The phrase “He [the Spirit] will not speak on his own” (John 16:13) means that he does not speak apart from the Father and the Son; he does not have a different message. The entire Godhead is mentioned in John 16:13 because the Spirit of God does not ignore either the Father or the Son. They are one in doing, just as they are one in being.

The teaching of the Spirit through the apostles was not different from the teaching of the Spirit through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit communicated the truths found in the four Gospels, the epistles, Revelation, and Acts (where we see how he led the church into new territory and circumstances). Today the Spirit uses Holy Scripture (which he inspired) to enlighten us with God’s truth and to enrich us with God’s treasures.

One final note: the truth that the Holy Spirit guides us into is the truth that is Jesus. Some people study Scripture to argue religion or discover “new truth.” But such approaches are contrary to the intent of the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture—his ministry is to reveal God to us in the person of Jesus—the one who is the way, the life and the truth. Then he sends us out with that truth to bear witness to it to a disbelieving world. The Spirit then uses our testimony to Jesus to do what we cannot do—convict the world of unbelief and open their hearts to believe.

Conclusion

How blessed we are as followers of Jesus to be indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit of God! As our Counselor, he guides and encourages us (and how greatly we need that at all times, but particularly in times when we face persecution); as Witness to Jesus he leads us to testify concerning our Lord; and as our Teacher he leads us ever deeper in participating in the life of the triune God: from the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit.

May our hearts and minds—indeed our whole beings—be ever open and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Amen.

Sermon for May 13, 2018 (Ascension Sunday)

Scripture readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps. 47; Eph. 1:15-23;
Luke 24:44-53

Sermon by Lance McKinnon 
(from Acts 1:11)

When Jesus Goes Over Our Head

Introduction

[Note to preacher: in some nations, including the USA, today is Mother’s Day. If you are in one of those nations, you will want to add material, perhaps in the introduction, that pays tribute to mothers.]

In the Christian calendar, last Thursday (May 10) was Ascension Day. That means that today (May 13) is Ascension Sunday on which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension. This celebration then leads nicely into the last day of the Easter celebration known as Pentecost, which occurs next Sunday, May 20.

Ascension of Christ (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The story of the Ascension begins the Book of Acts and serves as our passage for this sermon. It’s curious that Acts, written as a history of the early church, chooses to begin with the story of Jesus’ Ascension, but most churches today give the Ascension little attention. Maybe it’s an attempt to avoid what we think is a goodbye story. Or maybe our pride is insulted by its implications, namely that Jesus is King and we are not. But the Ascension is not a goodbye story. When Jesus ascends to the Father he is not leaving us here as orphans but rather takes us with him as adopted children.

Jesus, as the God-man, has ascended back to the Father, seating us with him at the Father’s right-hand side. Jesus the superhero has accomplished our salvation for us. Thus there is not need for us to put on a superhero cape of our own and try to fly to heaven on our own power.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I typically don’t like it when someone “goes over my head” to accomplish something behind my back, even if it’s for my own good. But then, pride is a cape we wear that says we can fly on our own power, but in the end, it just chokes the life out of us.

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were both written by Luke as one connected story. When we look at them together, we see the story of the temptations of Christ and the Ascension as bookends to his whole ministry. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he spends 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan to live his life on the devil’s terms and timetable. Satan wants Jesus to use some divine power, turning stones to bread, cheating death and taking a shortcut to authority over all nations. Satan is tempting Jesus to put on a superhero cape. Jesus says no, and continues his life and ministry in his humanity, following the Spirit and obeying the Father’s will. After his resurrection and before the Ascension, Jesus spends another 40 days appearing to his disciples and followers and teaching about the kingdom of God. Right before he ascends, he is once again asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection we see the people wanting Jesus to continue his ministry on their terms and on their timetable. Jesus dismisses their question and tells them to wait to receive power from the Holy Spirit. After this, he just ups and disappears.

This abrupt departure may be too anticlimactic for us. Maybe we want to have a say in how Jesus wraps up his ministry. The Ascension is the final climax and ultimate completion of what Jesus came to do. There is nothing left for us to do to that end. We don’t get to flex our muscles or use any power to accomplish our terms on our timetable. Like the witnesses to the Ascension, we may be looking into the clouds, scratching our heads wondering what just happened. Jesus not only literally went over our heads but from start to finish, his ministry just doesn’t make any sense to us. We think in terms of power as a force to control others and circumstances to get what we want when we want it. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit, where we can receive the same power that fueled his ministry. This power is the power of grace. It’s the power to lay down our lives in obedience to the Father. It’s the power to forgive, sacrifice and love others with the same love Jesus has for us. It’s the power to lay down our capes and follow Jesus in the Spirit in the same trust he has in his Father.

Two angels dressed in white appear and tell the disciples to get their heads out of the clouds. They tell them that Jesus is going to come to them in the same way that he left. We see in our lives that Jesus comes to us “right before our eyes.” He is present in every task we take up and every relationship we engage in. But he also works in hidden ways. He works in mystery and we are to live in faith. He may be right before our eyes, yet hidden in clouds working out a far greater end than we could ever imagine. The Lord is ascended and has all authority given to him. He continues his ministry through us, as we live in the Spirit trusting the Father.

I pray that we recapture the story of Ascension Day and be filled with the renewing and empowering hope that comes from the message that Jesus is our ascended King, reigning in the Spirit with the authority of his loving Father.

Sermon for May 6, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 10:44-48; Ps. 98; 1 John 5:1-6; 
John 15:9-17

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
(from John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; Ps. 98)

The Circle of Love

Introduction

Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter, and Ascension Day is this Thursday. Today’s readings remind us of two truths related to Jesus’ ascension: first, that, in love, he remains present with us, and second, that as his followers, we are to live together, in love.

The Gospel reading today in John 15 is from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his 12 disciples. He had washed their feet as a symbol of self-sacrificing love, then explained his new command to love each other as he loved them. Their distress upon hearing of his imminent departure led him to console them by promising to send them another Comforter from the Father to be with them. In that context, he repeated his command that they love each other.

After leaving the Last Supper, Jesus continued the discussion by comparing himself to a vine with his disciples being the branches. Jesus used this metaphor to portray the intimacy of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus and their complete dependence on him. He urged them to remain in that relationship.

Jesus then described not only his ongoing presence with them, but how that presence would affect their relationships with each other. Branches attached to a vine don’t adequately portray that picture, so Jesus spoke of a circle of love—love emanating from the Father, then extending through him to his followers, who then return that love to God by loving each other. Today we’ll reflect on that circle of love, noting how it applies to us.

Jesus addressing his disciples in the Upper Room
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What is love?

Before going to our Gospel reading in John 15, we need to clarify what John means by the word love. Note this from The New Bible Dictionary:

The commonest Greek word in the New Testament for all forms of love is agape [noun], agapao [verb]. This is one of the least frequent words in classical Greek, where it expresses on the few occasions it occurs, that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object. Its use in the New Testament derives not directly from classical Greek so much as from the [Septuagint], where it occurs in 95% of all cases where [English versions] translate the Hebrew by ‘love’, and in every case of love from God to man, man to God and man to his neighbor.

The New Testament writers chose a Greek word not commonly used in Greek literature of the time—a word translated “love” in English Bibles. Although it was not used much in Greek literature, agape was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word was not about male-female attraction, family-friend affection, things people strongly like such as tasty food, or various ways people express their desire or preferences such as “I love football.” It applies, as the article states, to the “highest and noblest form of love.” This sort of love “sees something infinitely precious” in the object of that love. This is not religious commandment keeping, nor is it merely a mental expression of concern for others. Every sound-minded person who has a precious loved one knows by experience what this love means. Naturally, we limit such love to a small number of people.

The circle of love

John could have chosen other words for love, but in translating what Jesus said that night concerning love into Greek, he chose the words agape and agapao. Thus, in John 15:9a we find Jesus saying, “As the Father has loved [agapao] me, so have I loved [agapao] you” (John 15:9a).

Agape/agapao appears nine times in this short passage in John 15. Crediting the Father as the source of that love, Jesus made it clear that he extended the same love to his followers. What did he expect of them? “Now remain in my love [agape]” (John 15:9b). Jesus point was that the love in them did not originate with them—it came to them through Jesus, and he insisted that they continue (remain) in it. How were they to do so?

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:10)

Keeping Jesus’ commands is not the love itself; it is our response to his love in us. This diagram of an electrical circuit illustrates the point:

[Preacher: you can demonstrate this with a battery, wire and bulb. Or you can show the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS2uto2TCSg.]

As the light bulb is connected to a terminal of the battery, the light doesn’t glow until the bulb is connected to the other side of the battery – its return terminal. An electrical circuit starts at its source, and from its current flows out to everything connected, and then returns to its source. In a similar way, love flows from God to us and must be returned. Our obedience is a response to God’s love. The bulb glows and remains in the electrical flow as long as it remains fully connected to the source.

Though not perfect, this analogy illustrates the point. Actually, it is Jesus’ perfect love, not something originating in us, that returns to the Father. Jesus gives us that love and then re-presents our imperfect response of love to complete the circuit (the circle of love). Nonetheless, we are in that circle and our response of love, by loving each other, is essential.

Why was this matter of loving each other so important that Jesus kept on repeating it? Jesus answers: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Augustine of Hippo said that “the desire for happiness is essential to humans and is the motive of all our actions.” After our bodies are nutritionally satisfied, comfortable, and secure, our minds want to be at peace and in a state of happiness— a state of joy. Jesus lived in that state of mind and wanted his followers to experience it too. He knew they could do so only if they were in the circle of love with him, for the kind of joy Jesus experienced is the outcome of love. Like a reward, it is experienced by all who are in the circle of love. It penetrates into each one on that circle then radiates out to the others. Jesus modeled this love and joy and explained to his disciples the secret of its expression, intending that they share in it with him.

Though Jesus command to “love each other as I have loved you” is simple, it is beyond human capacity to obey. Why? Because Jesus never sinned. But we are sinners who are incapable of expressing the pure, selfless love that comes only from God. Consequently, loving each other in the way Jesus commands is impossible for us. In our human weakness we tend to mistake romantic attraction, affection and even lust for love—all these are more about self-love than the truly selfless love that comes from the triune God.

To clarify what Jesus meant by that sort of love, he added this statement:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

We often hear stories about battlefield heroism where a group of soldiers is spared from the shrapnel of an enemy hand-grenade by a soldier who falls upon the weapon to absorb its explosion. Heroes that live through such experiences repeatedly say that they acted in order to protect their friends. That is laying down one’s life for others. Jesus said that such selflessness is the ultimate expression of the kind of love he was talking about.

Jesus’ circle of friendship

Jesus showed selfless love in way far greater than a spontaneous act of loving sacrifice on the battlefield. He deliberately laid down his life through the Incarnation, through 30-plus years of living without sin, culminating in his self-sacrificing, willing submission to the horrible suffering of the cross. That is true agape love. And in that context, Jesus said this to his inner circle of disciples:

You are my friends if you do what I command. I 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. (John 15:14-15)

In the song Friend of God, Israel Houghton picked up on those words from Jesus:

Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me, when I call?
Is it true that you are thinking of me?
How You love me.
It’s amazing.
[Chorus:]
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
He calls me friend.

Yes, it truly is amazing! Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, calls his human followers his friends! As the entire New Testament makes clear, the Father, Son and Spirit love all of humanity. That is why the Father sent his Son and why Jesus laid down his life for all humanity on the cross. Everyone is loved—everyone, through Christ, has been reconciled to the Father, and so included in God’s love and life—but not everyone is called Jesus’ friend. That designation is reserved for those who, trusting in Jesus, pick up their cross and follow him, keeping his command to share in his love for others.

Jesus’ first disciples rightfully considered themselves servants of Christ, going forth to do what their Lord bid them to do. But Jesus explained to them that there is more to the relationship with him than mere servanthood. The relationship he has with his followers is far more intimate than that of boss to employee. Jesus said that he shares with his followers what he experienced in his relationship with the Father—his followers are his friends! But lest his disciples would misunderstand the point he was making, Jesus immediately explained that this love, this friendship, is not initiated by them:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16)

As electricity flows from the battery to the bulb and back, the battery is the source. So it is with the love of God. As a battery can also light other bulbs, so Jesus can extend his love wherever he chooses. This was an important point for these followers to understand because the Lord’s intent was that they share his love, extending it to others—many others. That is what he meant by fruit. These other followers would become Jesus’ friends, just like the first disciples.

The disciples who heard Jesus speak these words had no idea of how far the Lord expected that fruit to extend. As Psalm 98 joyously declares, a new thing would be done by the Lord—salvation would be extended to all people groups. The original apostles were all Jewish men, educated in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. They did not yet understand that the salvation Jesus brought would include all people groups. As we saw in our reading in Acts 10, the Lord later showed Peter this magnificent plan by granting the Spirit to Gentile believers, showing that Jesus’ command to love crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Thus the circle of friendship is enlarged to include all who follow Jesus. Our reading today in 1 John 5:1-6 shows how people, by believing in Jesus, become children of God who, by sharing the love of God with each other, participate with Jesus in overcoming the world.

The circle of love today

After saying all this, Jesus repeated, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). Do we, his modern-day followers hear our Lord loud and clear? How do his words look in our world, nations, communities, congregations, families? Are they being practiced faithfully by his followers—by us?

Sadly, something is missing between Christians worldwide in our relationships with each other. How did Christians in 1939 and early 1940s Germany rationalize their attacks on Christians in Poland and other countries? After WWII, during the Cold War, how did Christians in the East—mostly Orthodox—rationalize the possibility of nuclear war against Christians in the West—mostly Catholic and Protestant; and vice versa? How is it the United States today, racial division continues to haunt us, despite the fact that a large percentage of our population is Christian?

Jesus did not limit his command to love one another to small groups of his followers—the ones we happen to be close to. He commands that his agape love in us extend out to a much larger circle. But how do we do that, realizing that loving others as Jesus prescribed is humanly impossible?

Like his early followers, we must recall that Jesus is present, and that it is essential that we remain in him. We cannot extend the love of God without Christ living in us through the Spirit. Neither can we express the grace given us without our mental consent to do so. This was the challenge faced by the first-century Church that today’s readings address. Let’s consider those lessons.

The apostles were familiar with Psalm 98 and many related passages that reveal God’s salvation among all people groups. They heard Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in all the earth and make disciples of all nations, but somehow a barrier or blindness restricted them from applying these words to any group other than Jews. They seemed to be incapable of seeing the matter of eternal salvation through the eyes of people who were not Jewish. We can call this ignorance or blindness; either word seems to apply. Regardless, it took the wisdom, grace and uncompromising truth of God to prevail against it.

Acts 10 tells the story. A vision granted to Peter by the Lord impressed upon him the need to change his Jewish perspective and see the matter through the eyes of the Lord. Speaking to Gentiles, Peter said:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

Peter’s eyes were opened to see the truth! However, his newfound understanding did not impress all those who were supposed to look to him for spiritual leadership. Acts 10:44-48 tells of the Holy Spirit’s position on the matter, helping others accept this truth. Still, the first-century Church continued to wrestle with the issue of division between Jews and Gentiles. Even Peter, after this revelation, struggled with the idea of Gentiles being included in the circle of love.

Galatians 2:11-14 tells about Peter’s reluctance to eat with Gentiles, giving in to cultural peer pressure. Paul challenged Peter’s hypocritical actions, helping him and the church progress steadily toward becoming a community of love that crossed all barriers. Within a generation, the world could see the unity through faith in Jesus Christ of races, cultures and languages.

Now let’s consider the church today in countries with multiracial and multicultural groups. Does the circle of love extend to all? In the U.S., the most diverse of major Western countries, it has been 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ministry exposed the ignorance and blindness behind racial segregation and discrimination. Our nation observes a holiday in his remembrance, but are we making progress or are we retrogressing in embracing the truth he brought? Where is today’s Paul, the high-profile church leader who steps forward to confront our hypocrisy?

Like Jesus, the apostle John spoke so much about love in his Epistle that anyone squeamish about the subject might feel uncomfortable. In 1 John 5:1-5, he was direct: Everyone who… loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. When our behavior toward one another reflects this ideal, the outcome, according to John, is victory over the world’s darkness! No individuals or groups are better positioned to help resolve national and even global divisions than are the followers of Jesus!

Do we, despite our weaknesses, trust in and rely on the love of Jesus? Are we willing to seek to obey Jesus’ command to love one another—asking him for help us do so through the Holy Spirit in us? What about embracing each other’s cultural uniqueness: music, dance and other ways of expressing ourselves? No one’s cultural preferences are superior to others. What about sharing meals? Are we willing to cross cultural lines and eat together in each other’s homes? Are we willing to make changes in our congregational meetings to encourage others outside our races and cultures to feel welcomed?

Beware of the cultural dictates that come from the world, which tends to emphasize distinctives, personal preferences and differences—whether racial, cultural, generational or gender. Instead, let us listen to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who calls on us to remain in the circle of love from the Father, Son and Spirit. Loving each other is essential to that circle.

Conclusion

Abiding in Christ, emphasized in the first part of John 15, includes participation in the circle of love from the Father, the Son and the Spirit. To include others in that circle of love, requires that we realign our thinking to align with Christ’s—doing so is even better than seeing through another person’s eyes. This realignment is necessary to remove from our thinking the overshadowing effects of ignorance and blindness that get in the way of truly loving relationships. I pray that this message opens our eyes a bit, encouraging us to hear and heed the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to remain in him, obeying his command to love as he loves and, therefore, to return the love of the Father by loving each other. Amen.

Sermon for April 29, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 8:26-40; Ps. 22:25-31;
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Sermon by Cathy Deddo 
(from John 15:1-11)

On Being Branches

Introduction

What is the heart of the Christian life? That important question is answered in our Gospel reading today in John chapter 15, where Jesus is teaching his disciples concerning the vine and branches.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Having left the Last Supper in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. As they walk and talk, Jesus is preparing his followers for his death, which will occur tomorrow, Good Friday. The disciples had come to know and love Jesus as they lived with him, listened to him and watched him work. But what would happen when Jesus was no longer with them bodily?

Earlier that evening in the Upper Room, Jesus had talked about leaving his disciples, reassuring them that his departure would result in them having a deeper, more intimate relationship with him through the Holy Spirit. Now Jesus tells them more about that relationship using the image of branches attached to a vine. Understanding that image was important for those disciples. It’s also important for us today.

Abiding: the essence of the Christian life

The image of the vine and branches points to the reality that the relationship that Jesus (the vine) has with his followers (the branches), and thus with the church, is of a particular kind. First, it’s not symmetrical. Jesus is its Source—he gives the relationship to us. Second, it’s not static—we don’t share in the relationship passively. It is a real, reciprocal giving and receiving. Third, the relationship is not automatic, which is why Jesus commands his disciples—he commands the church—to abide in him. As they do, they will grow in that relationship, coming to enjoy, trust and love Jesus at progressively deeper levels.

When I consider how strongly Jesus emphasizes the need for his disciples to abide in him, I realize that he is revealing the essence of the Christian life, which is our active, deliberate and continual participation in our union and communion with Jesus, by the Spirit. All that we think, say and do—all our programs, relationships and plans are to be rooted in and come out of that relationship. Our abiding in Jesus means living as the branches that he has made us. It means participating in Jesus’ life and love as we are addressed and transformed by the Spirit as he works actively within us, Jesus’ friends.

“Friends” by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

But what does abiding in Jesus look like on a day-to-day basis? How do we as members of the church, the body of Christ, live as branches in the true vine? Let’s look at three aspects of that abiding: 1) knowing, 2) trusting, and 3) obeying. Though we’ll look at each separately, remember they are interconnected aspects of one relationship.

1. We abide by knowing

To abide in Jesus means to continually seek to know him personally. It’s not the same as merely knowing things about him. Think of your spouse or another very close friend. Knowing them involves real, ongoing interaction: doing things together, being together in different situations, conversing, giving and receiving. It’s far more than merely knowing facts about them. It means spending time with them, which leads to even deeper knowing.

Many years ago, I was talking with a young man who found the Christian life rather boring. As I was thinking about how to proceed in our conversation, I felt inspired to ask, “What do you love about Jesus?” After a moment’s thought, he replied, “Well, he died for my sins…” I said, “Yes, but what about his person do you love? What about the way he deals with others, what he is passionate about, the words he says to you?”  He had nothing else to say and I realized that it’s hard to love someone you really don’t know. It’s in a real, growing relationship of knowing that we come to love another person.

Knowing Jesus involves coming to see and perceive who he is and what he is up to—seeking to hear clearly what he is saying to us by his Spirit. Doing so takes effort, just as it takes effort to hear our friends clearly, instead of failing to listen, thinking we already know what they are about to say. Have you ever had that happen in an interaction with someone? You suddenly realize that you’re not getting their point because you haven’t been really listening? And when you finally do listen, you’re surprised at their actual point. Coming to really know someone tends to involve a certain type of repentance—setting aside our preconceived notions so we can listen more carefully to what is actually being said.

So how do we come to know Jesus? By learning about him, learning of his character and purposes, seeing who he is in relationship to his Father and the Spirit. We come to know him by meeting him and hearing from him in his written word and in prayer. It’s wonderful to know that God is a speaking God who blesses us with sustaining, life-giving, joy-filled relationship with him, and that we can actually grow in that relationship—knowing and loving him more deeply.

2. We abide by trusting

To be the branch is to have confidence in the vine—to trust that the vine really can nourish and sustain us so that we don’t need to be looking for other vines to plug into, or to try to be our own vine. Abiding in Jesus means actively trusting that he is good and for us all the way down. It means, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12, trusting that his grace is sufficient, and his power is made perfect in our weakness. It means actively trusting that Jesus made me, knows me, and knows who I am becoming in him. It means trusting that he is my true Source of life, joy, love and identity and no one else is. There is no other place to put my trust for life.

The reality is that we are always living and acting on the basis of either trust or distrust. When we are not living from a place of confidence in Jesus’ presence and work in our lives, it’s likely we are trusting in something or someone else. We might be trusting our own skill or expertise, or our own programs or plans. Or we might be acting from a place of conviction that Jesus is not here, not paying attention, not remaining faithful to his work in us. In such times of distrust, we are living as if we are not the branches in the vine that Jesus has made us to be.

How can we live in greater trust in Jesus? By coming to know him better. Trust in Jesus is a response to who we find him to be. This dynamic is true in our other relationships as well. My trust in my husband is shaped by who I am coming to know he is. As I know him better, I respond in greater trust that he will be and act according to who he is. I trust my husband Gary (who is a theologian) to help me work through understanding God better, but I don’t ask him to be my surgeon! I know what he is able to do, and what he is not able to do. Though he is able, Jesus does not do all things. We can trust him to help us grow spiritually, but we don’t expect him to wash the dishes for us!

One more thing about abiding by trusting. In uniting himself to us, Jesus shares with us his trust in God the Father—a trust grounded in his intimate knowing of the Father. Jesus shares with us his trust in his Father so that we may grow in the joyous conviction of his good Lordship over all—his faithfulness to bring to completion his good purposes for our lives.

3. We abide by obeying

As we grow in trusting Jesus, we want to act on that trust—to live as if he is the Lord of our lives that he truly is. Note in John 15 how Jesus connects loving him with obeying him:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11)

Jesus is saying that he has loved his disciples with the very love and in the very way he is loved of the Father. This is a further description of what he means by his being the vine and his followers being branches. As the branches, we are drawn into the triune God’s own loving, living communion. We are to abide (meaning to remain or to continue) in that loving relationship. But how do we do that?

Jesus tells us we do so by actively living in and receiving his love by keeping his commandments. In John 14 he spoke of loving him by keeping his word. Jesus’ commandments are his words to us—they are the shape of his loving purposes for our lives. These commands aren’t arbitrary tests of our loyalty, and they aren’t obligations we must meet to get Jesus to love us. They are the very shape of his love. We obey Jesus’ words to us because he is so wonderful, so good—why would we choose to live contrary to them?

We remain in communion with Jesus by obeying his commands to us, just as he remains in communion with his Father by obeying the Father’s commands to him. Unfortunately, however, we tend to view obedience as dull, even joy-denying. But look at Jesus’ next statement—he tells his disciples that he is giving them this instruction to keep his commands, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Jesus has great joy in obeying the commands of his Father, who he knows, loves and trusts. And he wants us to share in this intense and intimate joy with him—to the full!

Abiding involves repentance

Obeying Jesus isn’t always easy. We may see obedience as getting in the way of our desires, hopes and plans. Also, we may see our past experiences and current expectations and struggles as reasons not to be obedient. This takes us back to the point already made that obeying Jesus is connected to our knowing and trusting him. The Holy Spirit is at work to help us see more and more clearly how much better Jesus is than all our own ways of giving ourselves life and value. He is at work to enable us to more deeply live in the freedom of trusting Jesus with all that we have and are.

This process of growth involves repentance—active turning away from whatever is in the way of obeying Jesus out of trust in him and his work. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity,

[To trust Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.

Obedience flows from trusting Jesus and that obedience then feeds our trust in him. As challenging as it often is, obeying Jesus’ commands helps us see even more that he is the object of our deepest longings—the source of true joy. In an article entitled “God’s message on ‘Ash Valentine’s Day’: True Love Dies,” Tish Harrison Warren speaks of this fruit of obedience in the lives of her Christian friends who are single:

I have a number of very close friends who are [single and] celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.

Conclusion

Though we might be tempted to think that the center of the Christian life involves our efforts to preach the gospel, to have an ideal church, family, marriage, or life, Jesus’ words here in John 15 about the vine and branches help us realize that the center of the Christian life—the center of our life as a follower of Jesus—is our relationship with our Lord, which involves obeying his command to abide in him.

Note that Jesus’ command to us is not to bear fruit. Jesus says that when we obey his command to abide in him, fruit will result. The fruit that will come will be his fruit borne in us as we abide in him. By trusting in, staying in living communion with Jesus, remaining in his word, following his lead, and obeying out of that relationship in trust and love, fruit will result.

What wonderful news—Jesus has made us his own! We are and are becoming his beloved, holy children of our Father. He has made it so we can respond and receive—so that we can have communion with him, which is our sharing in the communion he has with the Father in the Spirit. Through that sharing we enjoy, again and again, the growing freedom of being the children of God that we are. Amen.

Sermon for April 22, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 4:5-12; Ps. 23;
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from John 10:11-15; Ps. 23; 1 John 3:16-24; Acts 4:5-12)

It’s About Sheep

Introduction

Rock, vine, lamb of God, bread of life, light of the world, many are the metaphors used for our Savior, but one of my favorites is that of good shepherd. The reference to sheep was used frequently in the Scriptures because the people of that time were familiar with sheep and shepherds.

Sheep are social animals. They get a little stressed out if they are separated very far from the flock. If a sheep does isolate itself from the rest of the flock the shepherd needs to be concerned because it might be lost or ill. Sheep are easily led, which can be good or not so good. If one sheep makes a move, the rest will follow. Back in 2006, in eastern Turkey, a sheep tried to cross a 50-foot-deep ravine and plunged to its death. Four hundred of its fellow sheep followed.

Domesticated sheep have a lot of needs. They need plenty of pasture for food. Two acres of good pasture, not rocky soil, can sustain six sheep. Sheep spend up to seven hours a day grazing. They need access to clean water and they need salt. They need to have that heavy coat of wool maintained as well as their hooves. They need some kind of shade in hot weather. If they injure themselves, they need medical help.

But one of the most important needs sheep have is protection from predators. If sheep are threatened they hover together. That’s the only protection they can provide for themselves against wolves, coyotes or sheep-killing dogs. They need the extra protection that comes from their shepherd.

“Jesus, the Good Shepherd” by Greg Olsen
(used with permission)

Jesus, the good shepherd

So when Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd who cared about his sheep, people knew what he was talking about. Let’s notice what Jesus says in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15, NRSV)

A good shepherd not only has concern for the sheep, but also is ready to face any danger to protect them. Jesus is the divine Shepherd who cared for us so much he gave his life for us.

Another scripture that comes to mind about good shepherds is Psalm 23, the beautiful psalm many of you have probably memorized at one time or another. Let’s look at it again, keeping in mind those needy sheep, and who those sheep represent. There are many spiritual analogies in this psalm. Let’s look at a few.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Ps. 23:1-3, NRSV)

We see the analogies right away. First, our Good Shepherd provides for our needs and second, we can know that wherever he leads is the right way for us to go. We can have absolute trust in him.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Ps. 23:4, NRSV)

We do not have to fear whatever we may have to face in our lives, even death, because our Good Shepherd is always right there to protect and comfort us through our trials. We have no doubts about his love. He’s already given his life for us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Ps. 23:5, NRSV)

Our Shepherd is very generous in his love and concern for us. Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed with all the blessings God gives? In this country, it’s not only spiritual blessings, it’s physical blessings as well. Most of us don’t have to worry about where we’re going to sleep tonight or where our next meal is coming from. And, we’re free to come here together to worship our God. Most of the people in the world don’t have those luxuries.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Ps. 23:6, NRSV)

Those blessings aren’t just for this life—they go on forever. What a promise from our Good Shepherd!

Our response

What should be our response to such unconditional overwhelming love? The apostle John tells us:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:16-17 NRSV)

It always comes back to this, doesn’t it—love, God’s love. That’s who he is. And God’s love is not just a sweet sentiment—love is expressed in action. The Good Shepherd doesn’t lie under a shade tree talking about how much he loves his sheep. He’s up and about watching over them, seeing what they need, searching for the strays, taking care of them. John continues:

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:18-22, NRSV)

There is so much in these scriptures to mull over, to think about, to pray about, for God’s love is so deep and so wide and so high it’s impossible to contain it. Yet love is what he’s asking us to do, even expecting us to do, to love as he loves, unconditionally and actively. Like the Good Shepherd, not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.

Peter’s mission and ours

As we read in John 21:15-17, after his resurrection, Christ asked Peter three times if he loved him. Peter answered yes three times. Jesus then gave Peter a command related to his mission: feed my lambs and tend my sheep. We read about the basis of that command in 1 John:

This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. (1 John 3:23-24, NRSV)

“Feed My Lambs” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

How could Peter do what Jesus commanded? What did Jesus mean? He had told him three times he loved him. Why did Jesus respond to him in the way he did? Maybe Peter was wondering what Jesus meant when he told him to feed and tend his sheep. The disciples weren’t always good at figuring Jesus out. Nevertheless, it didn’t take Peter long to work it out, as we see in our reading today in the book of Acts:

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:5-12, NRSV)

Did you notice that the rulers, elders and scribes of Israel asked the same questions of Peter: How are you doing what you are doing? How are you doing these miraculous works? Peter told them how: through one name and one name only. It’s through and by the same name, which means the same authority and power, that we are able to do what Jesus wants us to do—to take the gospel to the world. We do so through our close relationship with him, by his Spirit.

Conclusion

Do you ever think of the people in the world as lost sheep? That’s how Jesus views them—belonging to him, yet lost, vulnerable, in danger, needing to be saved. Those lost sheep might be in your own family, or some of your coworkers, or your next-door neighbors. Jesus loves them and wants them to be brought into his flock where there is hope, comfort, peace, salvation, eternal life with him.

Jesus sees these people as his lost sheep, his personal lost sheep. He has given his life for them. He wants them found. Jesus says to us: feed my lambs and tend my sheep.