First Sunday of Lent (C)
Sunday, March 1, 1998
Dealing with Temptation
Submission isn’t a very popular word in our culture. We read Paul’s exhortation that says, “Wives submit to your husbands,” and we bristle. Feminists get up in arms and say, “How outdated!” Macho types say, “I’ll make sure she submits to me.” William Willimon agrees that we really don’t like Ephesians 5:22 but he maintains, “The reason we think we dislike it is not the real reason we dislike it.” We think we dislike the exhortation because it promotes a hierarchical model for relationships in which the men are above the women. We really dislike it because when we read the passage in its proper context, (a dangerous thing to do), we realize that Paul is teaching mutual submission one to another.
Submission is neither popular nor easy. There’s a part of us that wants to be in charge and tell others how things ought to be done. It’s not always easy to subordinate our wills to someone else’s. That’s what Jesus was struggling with in his temptations in the wilderness. He is tempted to use illegitimate means toward some ends that are not wrong in and of themselves.
I. He Is Tempted to Do Legitimate Things for the Wrong Reason.
Jesus had just heard the voice of God the Father and had seen the dove descend on Him. Now He is led into the wilderness where He will be tempted by Satan. He is seeking God’s blessing and guidance upon his life with such seriousness of purpose that He is going without food. Subject to human limitations, He is hungry. The rocks in the wilderness may even look like a loaf of pita bread. Satan tempts Jesus with something that would be perfectly legitimate — you need to eat something. If you’re the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.
The need to eat is one of our most basic physical needs. If we go without eating, we could starve or get malnutrition. Eventually, Jesus would have to eat but for this time, Jesus’ priority was fasting. He didn’t have to give into Satan’s temptation to place the physical above the spiritual — Satan’s basic temptation. “Is it really that big a deal for you to fast? Everyone’s got to eat!”
Jesus uses Scripture to put it in right perspective when He says, “One does not live on bread alone.”
II. He Is Tempted Toward the Right Goal with the Wrong Methods.
Satan takes Jesus up to a high place and is able to show Him all of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus doesn’t dispute Satan’s claim that all the kingdoms of the world are his to give. Satan says, “Bow down and worship me and I’ll let you have them without going to the cross.”
The minute Jesus gave in to that temptation, He would have forfeited His moral authority to tell us how to live and He would have ceased to be the sinless Lamb of God who could take away the sin of the world.
The goal Satan offered was good — for all of the nations of the world to belong to Jesus. The means toward that goal was diabolical — worship one other than the One to whom all worship is due. Satan offered Jesus a chance to rule without going to the cross.
III. The Right Faith to the Wrong Degree.
Satan’s final temptation involved doing something sensational and presumptuous — jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. “A dramatic angelic rescue would sure get the crowds’ attention,” reasoned Satan. “After all, the Scripture says, ‘God won’t allow anything to happen to you.'” Satan, in effect, tells Jesus to presume upon God.
It’s good to have a faith that “Attempts great things for God and expects great things from God.” It’s wrong when that faith gets carried away and crosses over the line into the kind of presumption that says, “I can get into a mess and do something foolish and God’s obligated to bail me out.”
Jesus replied, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”
In each temptation, Jesus answered with Scripture and at the end of it all, Satan left him until an opportune time. Jesus learned through discipline to submit to His Father’s will and purpose. (Mark A. Johnson)
Second Sunday of Lent (C)
Sunday March 8, 1998
The Cost of Gracious Living
I. An Urgent Wake-Up Call
In the last days of Jesus’ ministry, His preaching was urgent, His call to repentance full of warning: “… unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3, RSV) “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24, RSV)
Now as He approaches death, Jesus makes clear that the authorities have no power over Him. His course is determined by His mission and the people’s intransigence. So Jesus speaks as the Christ whose life with God places Him outside time. Seeing both the past and future, Jesus laments His people’s refusal to receive God’s messengers. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you would not!”
Jesus compares Himself to the mother hen who shelters her chicks — an image reminding us of God’s tender love and protection and of our need and vulnerability.
II. A Costly Grace
The gospel also warns that the rejected Savior will remain hidden until we bid Him welcome. We do this not once, but as often as things come between us and divine grace. Each time we turn away, a high price is paid. When we reject the spiritual food and drink God offers, we crucify Christ again.
Each refusal is a nail driven through flesh and wood. We reject the bread which is a broken body consigned to and delivered from the depths of Hell for our sake. We refuse the blood and tears shed out of agony unto death.
III. A Subtle Refusal
But how can this be? Here we are in church. We kneel at the communion rail, opening our hands and mouths. We brave the dreary nights of Lent to attend a study group. Surely we don’t belong in the company of obdurate nonbelievers? Turning away from God, however, is often a condition of indifference, of dullness if not despair. There are scales on our eyes and callouses on our hearts, and our attention is fixed on the business and busy-ness of life.
Example. A John Cheever short story about the Lawtons depicts what seems the epitome of “gracious living”; beautiful house, servants, a private school for their daughter Amy, a constant round of tennis, dinners and parties with friends. But in The Sorrows of Gin, the cost of this life is revealed. Amy is a lonely child. Her parents’ appetite for alcohol and amusement never seems satisfied. Their life is, at best, a superficial existence. At one point in a televised version of the story, Mr. Lawton tells his daughter that being an adult means starting your day making a list of things to do on a yellow pad as you ride the train into the city.
Grace-Less Living. To live this way is not gracious living, but grace-less living — oblivious to the divine grace around and within us. If my head is bent scribbling scribbles on a yellow pad, I won’t see the yellow sun. We miss God’s dinner invitations that come all mixed up with the junk mail. We ignore or deny God’s various ways of calling us to change, to welcome God and God’s truth into our well-planned days, weeks and years.
Mr. Lawton’s Wake-Up Call. When Mr. Lawton got a call from the station master, he went to pick up his runaway daughter. From the car he saw her through the station window and was touched by the sight of her. “Someone had walked over his grave! He shivered with longing, he felt his skin coarsen as when, driving home late and alone, a shower of leaves on the wind crossed the beam of his headlights, liberating him for a second at the most from the literal symbols of his life — the button-less shirts, the vouchers and bank statements, the order blanks, and the empty glasses. He seemed to listen — God knows for what. Commands drums, the crackle of signal fires, the music of the glockenspiel … singing from a tavern in the pass, the honking of wild swans; he seemed to smell the salt air in the churches of Venice. Then as it was with the leaves, the power of her figure to trouble him was ended; his gooseflesh vanished. He was himself.” (The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1978, p. 209).
But Mr. Lawton was not himself. He was no longer listening for God knows what, no longer the boy who could be enchanted by the sound of the glockenspiel, no longer the man whose heart and flesh could be quickened by the sight of his runaway daughter and a momentary glimpse of his own mortality. He had returned to the false self, who defined adulthood as making lists on a yellow pad.
We are not our lists on yellow pads. We are not our trophies, our reputations, our degrees, our IRA’s, our good taste, our good deeds, our goals and objectives, our lands and houses. We are not our illnesses, our sufferings, or our sins. We are not the nagging perfectionism that corrupts even our faith. None of these will win for us a place at the table where people gather from north, south, east and west. Nor will they close us out; for the door is open, even if on the other side down is up and first is last.
We can enter that door, or we can bid Christ welcome in whatever guise He wears. Should we presume that a reserved seat will always be waiting for us whenever we find the time — and the courage — to enter that narrow door or welcome the One we most fear and love, most desperately need? (Janna Tull Steed)
Third Sunday of Lent (C)
Sunday, March 15, 1998
A Lenten Feast
In a Danish coastal village, a great French chef named Babette lives anonymously among a dourly pious congregation. When Babette wins the French lottery, she decides to spend it all creating a magnificent meal for the villagers. In this 1987 movie “Babette’s Feast!” the French woman’s generosity and the guests’ acceptance of her invitation bring many surprises. There is a dazzling array of exotic food and drink and the ballet of Babette’s culinary art. Moreover, the feast itself becomes the occasion for a restoration of humanity within a tangled web of relationships. There is some healing of broken dreams and forgiveness of old sins. Human warmth and the abundance of rich, elegantly prepared food start to melt the cold and barren stoicism of God-fearing people who are strangers to hope and joy.
I. An Invitation to Jewish Exiles
God’s banquet invitation, proclaimed in Isaiah 55, is like Babette’s generosity, only more so. The word goes out to a defeated and despondent people: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat!”
Those who first heard these words must have been incredulous. Was this a cruel joke? They were into the second and third generations living in Babylonian exile pawns of the existing world powers. First, David’s monarchy had become two divided kingdoms, then God had given them both into the hands of their enemies. Jerusalem, the city of David, had been razed; the temple destroyed. The songs of Zion were no longer sung, except the most bitter laments: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.” (Psalm 137)
But no amount of remembering can bring back the days of glory under David and Solomon. Despite warnings from the prophets, the people had been faithless and disobedient. The covenant which God made with David, that his heirs would always reign, cannot be restored. It can only be transformed into something more!
Therefore, God offers a new covenant, an eternal covenant, in which the Hebrews are to call other nations to God, nations they do not even know. The writer of these words sees God as a God of all peoples and of eternity: a universal God whose purposes are not thwarted and whose servants suffer but are finally glorified. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah can no longer worship a God understood as a tribal or national deity who guarantees their survival or success. They must come to know a new God, or rather they must come to know the eternal God in a new way. And this transformation of faith is what a 6th-century prophet proclaims as he urges God’s people to look up and receive their deliverance. “Seek the Lord while he may be found” — here, even in these dreadful circumstances. “Call upon him while he is near” — here, even in this place where you cannot worship.
III. An Invitation to Us
The history of the Jewish people is a map for our journeys of faith. Sooner or later, we find that our understanding of God must give way to a new vision, or else we will lose our faith. How could God let this terrible thing happen to me or to someone I love? Why is it that once Jesus seemed to walk beside me and direct my thoughts, but now I feel alone and cannot find my way? How could any future joy be sufficient to heal the pain in this family, in this community, in this world?
In times like these, God still invites us to an outrageously rich feast. God’s messengers urge us to listen, to grow, to believe, to serve, and to hope.
But often we must first change what we hope for, because God rarely puts things back the way they were. Israel never was restored to its former glory. Even the Persians’ defeat of the Babylonians and the Jews’ return from exile, which the prophet announced, were not as glorious as he anticipated. Yet God continued to bless all people through the messianic role of Israel and its witness to the living God. Instead of restoring David’s kingdom, God announced a new creation, a new covenant, and a messianic role for a defeated people. This understanding became the lens through which many recognized God in the crucified and risen Christ’ the Son of David in whom all God’s promises find their “yes!”
So we, too, faced with the times of exile, of bondage of grief, of failure or injury, are invited to come in our empty-handed poverty to a great feast. Perhaps we wish that God would fix us or that the past could be reconstructed with some kind of divine Super Glue. Instead, we are urged to place our trust in God’s goodness. We are to wait expectantly for a future whose shape is not yet revealed, for new meaning and purpose we have not yet figured out, for new signs of grace to which we have been blind and for gifts we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams.
The feast is being prepared. It will be a gathering full of surprises, and you are to be an honored guest. R.S.V.P. (Janna Tull Steed)
Fourth Sunday of Lent (C)
Sunday, March 22, 1998
A Compelling Love
Luke 15:1-3a, 11-32
Every preacher who has preached for any length of time at all probably has a sermon on the Prodigal Son. It’s hard to know what new can be said about this wonderful story. In every parable there is a hook, or some outstanding feature that captures the attention of the listener and draws them into the story. There are several hooks in this story but I wonder what is the most outstanding one?
Is it in the younger son’s impudent request and the father’s willingness to grant the request? It is an audacious request. The younger son, in effect says to his father, “All I want from you is my inheritance money and I’m not willing to sit around and wait for you to die so I can have it.” Jesus didn’t recount any of the struggle of the father as he decided what to do about granting the son’s request. With a great economy of words, Jesus says, “So the Father divided the estate.
The younger son made an impudent request that would break the heart of any parent. It was not unheard of for the estate to be divided while the parent was living, however. It usually presupposed that there would continue to be a loving relationship between the child and the parent. That’s awful but I don’t think that’s the most compelling feature of this story.
Maybe it is in the depths to which the younger son sank. As long as he had plenty of money, he had plenty of “friends,” or so he thought. He didn’t learn how important it was to live within your means. He spent money faster than he earned it on things that didn’t matter and soon was broke. His so-called friends deserted him. The economy of the region took a downturn and all he could do was find a job slopping hogs. He was so hungry that even the carob pods that the pigs were eating looked good to him.
He left his family and surrounded himself with all the wrong people. That’s what happens when you cut yourself off from God’s love. There is a tremendous contrast between the love of his parents’ home and the depths to which he sank but that’s not the most compelling feature of this parable.
Maybe it is in the younger son’s attempts to return home. The King James version translates verse 17 as, “when he came to himself.” He woke up one morning looking at the south end of a north-bound pig and says, “This is not the kind of life I want to live at all. My dad’s not a bad guy. Maybe he’ll take me back as a hired servant.” In true repentance, I believe, he vows to say to his father, “I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I’m not worthy to be called your son.”
True repentance is not found in saying, “I made a mistake,” or “Mistakes were made.” It is acknowledging, “I have sinned against God. I am no longer worthy to be His child. The drama of a young man coming to his senses and the anxiety of wondering whether his father would take him back is compelling but I don’t think that’s the most compelling feature of this story.
Maybe it’s in the contrast between the two sons. The younger son was the family rebel and the older son was the family “hero”. He was the good son who stayed at home and never disobeyed his father. The problem was, he viewed his work as slaving for his father. He was grinding through doing what he thought he had to do in order to be a good son without any sense of joy whatever. When he hears the commotion surrounding the return of his brother, he seethes with anger. “I knew that worthless bum of a brother of mine has come back and that old wimp doesn’t have any more backbone than to let him come back. It’s just not right.”
The older brother represents those who are unable to rejoice when the lost are found. Some people may say he had a right to be angry. After all, his brother had hurt his parents and brought disgrace on the family name. Is there anyone you don’t want to see forgiven? Is there someone who has hurt you and you want to see them suffer? If you’re unable to rejoice in their forgiveness, you’re like the older brother.
The most compelling tension in the story is in the love of the father. He must have watched several times a day to see if he could see any sign of his younger son. When he saw the shell of what his son had once been coming down the road, he was moved with compassion and went running out to meet him. The younger son couldn’t finish his prepared speech before the father said, “Let’s celebrate. Welcome back to the family.”
Through thick and thin, God’s love welcomes repentant sinners. God is kind and gracious to sinners who know they’re sinners and need to be forgiven. Though we are perhaps too familiar with that statement for it to reach out and grab us, that’s probably the most compelling truth in all of Scripture. (Mark A. Johnson)
Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)
March 29, 1998
Getting Ready For The Funeral
What would you do if you knew the exact day and hour that you were going to die? Would you travel? Would you visit old friends? Would you try something daring that you never had the courage to try before? Would you say good-bye to your loved ones? You might do all of these but then you would get ready for the funeral.
First, you might begin by actually planning the service. You would want to pick your favorite Scripture and hymns. You would want to pick out the clothes to be buried in. You might want someone to give a brief eulogy. And you might pick the special music you want to be sung. That would be the easy part.
Then you would want to get your family and friends ready for the both your death and the funeral. You might start by having an intimate dinner or maybe even a big party. Kind of a going away party. While there, you would explain to your closest friends and family the circumstances of your upcoming death. They probably wouldn’t believe you. They would think you were making it up; that it was some sort of sick joke. Or that you had gone a little wacko. It would be hard to convince the folks around you that you knew you were going to die on such and such a day at such and such a time.
That’s exactly the same problem Jesus had. He was trying to prepare the Disciples, his friends and his family for his upcoming funeral. That is why he rejoiced in the fragrant offering and gift which Mary gave him.
I. Mary’s Gift
Unknowingly, Mary performed one of the simplest yet possibly most profound acts that any follower could in the life and ministry of Jesus. She anointed him with costly perfume. An expensive gift, but one which sets the stage for what is yet to come. And one which take the place of proper burial procedures in the midst of the turmoil and confusion surrounding Jesus’ death. What a gift!
II. Judas’ Objection
It’s amazing that such a simple thing like a gift of fragrant perfume could cause such a stink. It’s also amazing how quickly Judas poured cold water on Mary’s simple act of love and faith. Jesus barely had time to enjoy the attentions and the intentions of Mary before Judas jumped in with his objections. In feigned concern for the poor, Judas reveals his true nature and just how far from the Kingdom he has drifted even though he has been with the King every day. Jesus didn’t allow Judas’ objection to diminish Mary’s gift.
III. Mary’s Faith
If anything, Judas’ raised the importance of Mary’s gift and pointed to the depth of Mary’s faith and her love for Jesus. She didn’t know really know what she was doing but she knew why she was doing it. Mary loved Jesus deeply. She obviously believed he was more than just a friend, more than just an ordinary Rabbi. She could sense something more. And sensing that something more, she didn’t need to be told how to respond. She responded with love and faith. Mary lived out all that Jesus had been teaching.
Jesus didn’t get the Disciples ready for the funeral. It turned out to be a rushed affair with only a few in attendance. The rest ran for their lives. There was no formal service, only a few last words by Jesus and a brief eulogy by the centurion: “Surely he was the Son of God.” (Matt 27:54). But Jesus was helped to be ready through the gift and faith of Mary. (Billy D. Strayhorn)
Palm/Passion Sunday (C)
April 5, 1998
Getting Ready For The Cross: Four Short Vignettes
I. Beneath the Olive Tree:
The Garden of Gethsemane is an olive grove located just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The first thing guides tell you is that this Grove is nearly 3,000 years old. Then they show you the oldest trees. Some are 2,000 years old. There is one that is over 2,500 years old.
I can’t get that tree out of my mind. It may have been the very tree beneath which Jesus struggled. That night Jesus wrestled with a decision; a death shattering, sin shattering decision. That tree witnessed the struggle and the decision. It stands as a symbol of God’s love and grace, for beneath that olive tree, Jesus chose to die for me and you.
II. It Wasn’t the Nails
The pain must have been excruciating. For Jesus it wasn’t the nails that hurt the most or cut the deepest. It was the kiss. The kiss of betrayal. The kiss that set into motion the events leading to His crucifixion and death.
There have been times when we have all knowingly betrayed Jesus just as easily as Judas. Times when we’ve left the warmth of worship, resolved to live like Christ only to have one of God’s children cut us off in traffic and we let loose with a string of invectives that would embarrass an old sailor. Maybe after our morning devotion we catch ourselves fantasizing and secretly plotting against someone who has hurt us. It’s then that we realize that we really aren’t living like Christ, that we, too, have kissed him on the cheek.
We hang our head in shame and say, “Sorry, Lord!”
Scripture doesn’t record it, but that’s probaby what Judas said just before he kissed Jesus and they lead Him away to be crucified. “Sorry, Lord!” Remember, it wasn’t the nails that broke Jesus’ heart, it was the kiss.
III. The Smell of the Smoke Still Lingers
Peter was warming his hands over a charcoal fire when this confrontation took place. His clothing and his accent gave him away. Peter stood out like a West Texas cattle rancher asking for directions in the Bronx.
Peter was the disciple with the heart of gold and feet of clay. When confronted Peter said, “I don’t know the man,” not once but three times.
Peter looked across that charcoal fire and into the loving eyes of Christ. At that very moment the cock crowed and Peter remembered Jesus’ prediction. The smell and the smoke of the charcoal fire hung heavy in the air and he ran. He saved himself but the smell of the smoke still lingered. From that day on, every time he smelled a charcoal fire he remembered.
Have you ever smelled the smoke and looked across the fire into Jesus’ eyes? Have you ever denied you knew him and heard the rooster crow? Have you ever seen someone in need and just turned and walked away? The smell of the smoke still lingers.
IV. Hung out to Die
It wasn’t pretty or antiseptic. It was ugly, brutal and snowed humanity’s worst side that day. Thirty-nine lashes with the whip. A crown of thorns pushed down upon his brow. A massive cross drug through the crowd which jeered and taunted him every agonizing step of the way. And then … the nails. The Son of God who knew no sin. The Gentle Shepherd who invited children to sit on his lap. The Great Physician, who healed. Christ Jesus, our Savior, was stretched out upon a cross and hung out to die.
There, in the most ignoble position in the world, filled with agony, his throat dry and parched; his lips cracked, the Son of God looked to heaven and with outstretched arms whispered, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do…”
They hung Him out to die, but with a heart as big as the universe and outstretched arms that encircled all time, the Son of God cried, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do…” Then He died for me and you. (Billy D. Strayhorn)
Good Friday (C)
April 10, 1997
The Paradoxical Christ
Life is full of experiences that take our value system and stand it on its head. Children have a wonderful and disarming way of doing this for us. Simply by asking the question, “Why?” a child can force us to re-examine old and shop-worn ways of doing things. Children may unwittingly point out to us some paradoxes in our ways.
There are several paradoxes involved in the passion of our Lord. They are spelled out for us in Isaiah 53.
I. He Had an Ordinary Appearance, but an Extraordinary Mission.
It’s interesting to see how movies portray Jesus. He is always attractive and has a British accent (I never have figured that one out.)
There is a beauty to Jesus. The masses were attracted to Him and the common folk heard Him gladly but there was not a physical beauty that, in and of itself attracted people to Him. Isaiah tells us, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him.” There was nothing that would make it obvious that this Galilean carpenter, 5-foot-6, 135 pounds was God in human flesh.
In spite of His ordinary appearance, He had an extraordinary mission. This ordinary man in appearance would be grossly disfigured by the scourging which preceded His crucifixion. Although He would be ordinary in appearance, His blood would sprinkle many nations. So many, in fact, that one day a great multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation will be gathered before Him.
II. One Who Showed Us God’s Love Would be Despised and Rejected
People flocked to Jesus because of the compelling nature of His teaching and because of His power to work miracles. Yet, when His claims became explicit, the crowds turned away and followed Him no more. Peter had it right when he said, “Lord, where else are we going to go? Only You have the words of life.”
Yet, God in human flesh came to us in vulnerability, like a tender shoot out of dry ground. Humanity turned their faces from Him, despising Him and esteeming Him not and when He wouldn’t play the game the way the power brokers wanted it played, He was crucified.
III. His Wounds Brings us Healing, His Death Brings us Life
Jesus came to bear all of our sorrows and our infirmities and ultimately to bear our sin. In our blindness and hardness of heart, though, we thought God was judging Him for something He had done. While we may debate the point as to whether or not physical healing comes to us as a part of the atonement, there can be no doubt that ultimate healing — being redeemed, transformed, new creations totally at peace in fellowship with God is possible only because of what this One has done for us. He had the power to call 10,000 angels to destroy the world and set Him free.
Jesus, though chose to forego the response of a lion, choosing instead the response of a lamb. As the crowd shouts, “Crucify Him!”, as Pilate cops out on doing what he knows is right, He endured the agony of His passion for the joy that was set before Him.
This Good Friday, we remember the paradoxes of Christ so that we may know another paradox. Though guilty and deserving God’s judgment, through Christ, we can be redeemed! (Mark A. Johnson)
Sunday, April 12, 1998
The “So What” of Easter
I Corinthians 15:19-26
Sometimes a chance conversation can shed as much light on a text as several commentaries. A long-time member of a congregation I knew went out to lunch with me after we’d attended a Sunday service. “What did you think of the sermon?” she asked at one point. I made some non-committal reply, not wanting to admit I hadn’t paid close attention. She expressed frustration with the minister’s preaching. “He’s a good man, and I think he must work hard on sermon preparation, but what comes out of his mouth is a mish-mash of stories and information. I have no idea what he was trying to say. I’m never sure what point he’s trying to make.”
In the seminary where I teach, a student wanted feedback about the sermon he had just preached in chapel. He’d ambitiously attempted a first-person monologue, assuming the character of someone in exile in Babylon who now remembered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. It was a well-crafted message and he did a fine job of ‘staying in character.’ With courageous honesty, he now put the question to me, “when I was finished, did you ask yourself ‘so what’? Did the sermon make any claim on your life and circumstances? ‘Cause that’s what I think a sermon should do.'”
Two people: one a listener, the other a preacher. They were different ages, sexes, and denominations, but they shared an underlying conviction about the Gospel: that it ought to make a difference. It ought to be able to answer the question ‘so what?’ Both believed the truth of Jesus Christ makes a claim on people — and that a Christian witnessing to that claim should be as clear and distinct as possible.
On Easter Sunday, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have to admit, with Paul, that “we tell a mystery” (I Cor. 15:51). The New Testament gives testimonies about the death and resurrection of the Savior, but not step by step instructions for reconstructing or replicating the event. We bear witness, not proof, as we share the Gospel with others. No wonder it’s hard to find the words that will make a claim on those who hear us! Paul knew well how a disciple, whether minister or layperson, must seek the right words to answer the ‘so what’ question coming from inside and outside the church.
Paul was speaking to a mixed group, too. In the church at Corinth there were people who thought they already knew all about Jesus Christ. There were others who couldn’t agree about what was most important for disciples to believe and do. Still others who had mingled the Gospel with the beliefs and practices of other religions. So the apostle was trying to set the record straight in this chapter: both about what happened ‘then’ regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what difference it made for those who heard his letter. In a diverse, pagan, promiscuous culture — not so unlike our own — he sets forth the “so what” of Easter.
I. The Resurrection Is Different from the Physical World We Experience Now.
Further on in chapter 15 Paul says plainly, “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. While using metaphors from nature that would be familiar to everyone, Paul stops short of saying the resurrection is like the cycle of birth, life, and death we know in the natural world. In the same way, we should bear witness today that resurrection is not the same as reincarnation; it is not the endless cycle of the seasons. It is not merely a symbolic or poetic way of talking about tie ongoing influence of a great person, whose work or ideas are preserved from one generation to the next. Resurrection is a different life, a new life.
II. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ Is an Historical Event That Vindicates Who Jesus Is.
If Jesus were divine but not also human, his death would not have been real. If Jesus were human but not also divine, he would be just another good person in history. His physical death would be tragic, but not salvific. As Paul says in verse 17, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. But Jesus did die because of human sin, and God the Father did raise him from the dead. And that makes an enormous difference for the human race.
III. We Shall Be Resurrected Through Christ.
Our hope in this life and the next is Jesus Christ. More than a good teacher and moral example, “in Christ shall all be made alive.” His resurrection is not an exception but a beginning: the “first fruits” of the resurrection of all who belong to Christ. The nature of the resurrection cannot be comprehended fully by human intellect. As the writer of 1 John wrote, “it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
The witness of Easter is “Christ is risen!” What difference does that make? The difference between death and life for all who bear his name. Alleluia! (Carol M. Noren)
Second Sunday of Easter (C)
Sunday, April 19, 1998
A Strange Kind of Happiness
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are among the most familiar stories in Scripture to many churchgoers. After all, even for those who attend only on Christmas and Easter, these are the narratives they hear more than any others! While the accounts vary somewhat from one Gospel to another, they are alike in developmental sequence: fear and sorrow over the death of Jesus are transformed into joy by an encounter with the risen Christ. A confession of faith on the part of the witness is evidence of the transformation. Often there is a commission given by the Savior. Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the One she supposed was the gardener, the road to Emmaus narrative, the story of the women at the tomb, Jesus’ appearance by the Sea of Galilee, and the story about doubting Thomas all follow this pattern. It is not surprising if the familiarity blinds us to significant details.
For example, while the Gospel reading for today conforms to the transformation sequence of other post-resurrection appearances, the order in which John gives the details is peculiar. The disciples were in the Upper Room. They were afraid. Jesus appeared in their midst, and said, “Peace.” John doesn’t record any reaction on the part of the disciples at this point. It is only after they see our Lord’s hands and his feet that “they were glad when they saw the Lord.” Reading further on in the chapter, the same strange detail is found in the next theophany. Thomas was unbelieving (and therefore, we may assume, still sorrowing over the Master’s death) when Jesus appeared and said, “Peace.” After Jesus showed his wounds, Thomas’s doubt turned to faith and, presumably, joy. What can be the connection between the wounds of crucifixion and human gladness?
The disciples weren’t sadists. Nothing in Scripture suggests they were delighted to see the Messiah betrayed, condemned and tortured. We might expect that seeing the tokens of Jesus’ passion would fill them with shame. His hands and side would remind them of the horror of what happened. It would fill them with the memory of their denials, their abandonment, their impotence. None of these would evoke joy and faith. Did the Gospel writer accidentally get the details of the story out of sequence?
I don’t think so. You see, the wounds were not all they perceived. As they looked at the marks of crucifixion, they heard the Redeemer’s voice speak words of reconciliation, “Peace be to you.” His presence told them he was alive, not dead, and that he had come because he loved them still. Biographers of Martin Luther tell of the Reformer kneeling before a crucifix in his chapel on one occasion. Tears of rapture rolled down Luther’s face as he looked upon the suffering Christ and cried out, “For me! For me!” The wounds were for him a dramatic demonstration of how much Jesus loved him. Like a ring in a wedding ceremony, the wounds are a sign of the self-giving love that seeks expression in an undying, covenant relationship.
In a similar way, my pastor used to talk about his trip to the Holy Land, and what happened when he visited the site believed to be Calvary. Overwhelmed by a sense of Holy Presence, he looked up and prayed, “Lord, if you did this for me, you shouldn’t have. I’m not worth it.” God answered him, ‘”you’re worth it to me, Norman.” The pastor said it was the most powerful experience of God’s love he had ever known, and it changed his ministry from then on.
The One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who is aware of every betrayal and denial and failure in our lives, nevertheless comes to us in our need and offers peace and reconciliation. As Isaac Watts wrote,
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
We are blessed if, unlike Thomas, we who have not seen the actual wounds of our Lord nevertheless receive the love of Christ that relentlessly seeks us out and would reconcile us to Him. To awaken to that love is to recognize what Christ’s suffering and resurrection won for us, and to rejoice. And once we know that joy, our Lord equips us by the Holy Spirit, and sends us to share the good news of reconciliation with others. It is indeed a strange kind of happiness, by the world’s standards, but it is ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Carol M. Noren)
Third Sunday of Easter (C)
Sunday, April 26, 1997
On the old police show, Dragnet, Jack Webb, in his gravelly, stern, monotone would say that the city of Los Angeles hid a million stories. There are any number of compelling stories in the characters surrounding the passion and resurrection of Jesus.
Each of the disciples has a story to tell. They were nobodies until Jesus found them. The most remarkable story of all as far as I’m concerned would belong to Peter. It seems fitting somehow that the Big Fisherman would have the most engaging story.
Most of us can relate to Peter. If you take the name Peter, which mean “rock” and bar-Jonah, which is Johnson, a good name for Peter would be Rocky Johnson. Somehow, that name seems to fit him. Someone asked, when Jesus gave him the nickname Rocky was he talking about his faith or his head?
The thought of our sinless, loving Lord Jesus being crucified ought to break the heart of every one of us. Can you imagine though what it must have been like for Peter who loved his Lord but denied Him nonetheless.
He never wanted to deny Jesus. He swore vehemently that he would not. But, as Jesus was on trial for His life, Peter vehemently and repeatedly denied knowing anything about Jesus. Then he made eye contact with Jesus, the cock crowed three times and the awful reality of what he had done settled on him like a ton of bricks. Could there ever again be any hope for him?
When Jesus was crucified, Peter must have wondered “what’s next?” He had such high, albeit misdirected, hopes for a life with Jesus but now he had blown that. He knew Jesus was raised; He went running to the tomb with John and saw the linen strips lying there. Still, there was this lingering burden of guilt that made him wonder if Jesus really still wanted to have anything to do with him.
The disciples were in a real “in-between” mode. What else did these former fishermen have to do but to go fishing on the Sea of Tiberius? Maybe that was how they would pass their time until they received their empowering from on high. In a time of great confusion, they returned to the familiar. In an ironic way, this episode reinforced their calling to be fishers of men. Some people see this act by the disciples as an act of “complete apostasy.” I don’t think so, though.
While they were in the boat and had not caught anything after an entire night of fishing, they were about ready to pack it in when a figure appeared on the shore line.
Jesus — though they didn’t know it was Jesus — stood on the shore and said, “You’ve been fishing on the wrong side. Throw your nets out on the other side. I wonder what went through the disciples’ minds at that point.
The scripture doesn’t record that there was any hesitation at all for them to do what this stranger told them to do. When they pulled up the net, it was so full of fish that it took all of them to haul it into the boat, in fact, the text says they were unable to haul it in because there were so many fish.
In the act of obedience, they recognized Jesus. When they couldn’t bring in the net, John, the disciple with the most spiritual perception suddenly recognized, “Hey! That’s the Lord!”
As often was the case, John, the beloved disciple was the first with insight and Peter was the first with action. In typical impulsive fashion, Peter jumped into the water so he could be the first one to shore. He wanted to communicate to Jesus that he still loved him. He didn’t know that Jesus would give him the opportunity to do just that.
When the disciples got to shore, still struggling with their net, Jesus had a fire going and said, “Let me see the fish you’ve caught.”
When they counted the fish, the discovered that they had 153 fish in the net. Some speculate that detail is included because zoologists held that there were 153 different types of fish and that this denoted a complete catch.
There is some symbolism in the fact that the net was not torn. Up until this point, the kingdom had consisted of Jesus, his 12 disciples, and some other folks who had become “d”isciples. There could be some fear that if that number increases significantly, there will somehow be some changes and things just will be different. Somehow, perhaps, the nature of the mission will change. That the net didn’t rip is symbolic of the fact that God’s net is big enough and strong enough to hold “whosoever will come.”
As they get on shore, Jesus is Himself fixing breakfast for them, indicating that He is also preparing another meal at which all of the redeemed will gather.
After the breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter — Rocky Johnson — and says, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Simon, do you agapas me?” Jesus asked. Peter replied, “Yes Lord, you know that I philo you.”
Jesus didn’t haggle over the difference between agape and phileo. He simply said, “If I’m your friend, “Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?” Matthew tells us of Peter’s foolish boast, “Even if everyone else falls away, I will never fall away.” Yet we know he did not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter’s arrogance and self-confidence had been broken now. A much humbler Peter now is confronted by Jesus with this boast that he had made earlier. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus asked a second time, “Peter, Son of John, do you truly love me?”
The third time Jesus asked, Peter was hurt. Jesus simply implored him, “Follow me.”
At the end of it all, Jesus simply Says to Peter, and to you and to me, “Follow me.”
What a wonderful story of forgiveness and grace when our Lord says, “I’ll forgive your past failures if you decide anew and afresh, ‘I’ll follow you, Lord.'” (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon briefs for this issue are provided by: Mark A. Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN; Billy Strayhorn, Pastor, St. John the Apostle United Methodist Church, Arlington, TX; Janna Tull Steed, Member, California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Creston, IA; and Carol Noren, Professor of Homiletics, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL.
First Sunday of Lent (C)