Third Sunday in Lent (B)
Sunday, March 2, 1997
The Real Cross
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Crosses are back in style. This notice appeared in Vogue: “Both as streetwise pendants and as couture pieces, crosses have had a popular revival… With medieval-inspired fashion making its mark, a cross worn at the neck or pinned to a jacket will continue to be the definitive accessory of the moment” (Noted in First Things, February 1994, p. 57) The cross was, in the first century, an instrument of capital punishment, equivalent to the gas chamber, electric chair, or lethal injection. The cross meant death. Now it is a fashion accessory.
The real cross isn’t any more popular than it has ever been. The real cross is, and always has been a scandal. What power is there in a message about a man executed two millen-nia ago? What wisdom is there in an event that made little sense when it occurred and seems even more senseless now?
We’re not, as our text shows us, the first people to wonder about the weakness and waste of the cross. The cross has always been a stumbling block. No one wants to hear that person on whom they have pinned all their hopes and dreams has died, and no one wants a god who can be, even for a moment defeated. Some people in the first century who looked for a Messiah looked for a compelling hero, someone like King David whose power would be undeniable and whose identity would be unmistakable. We would like that kind of power, too. As a minister once said to me, “If Jesus is who we say he is, then why doesn’t he do something about my people’s problems?” Instead of the signs and wonders we’d like, we have the sigh which makes us wonder. We have the cross. It is abject weakness.
The message of the cross has always sounded like utter foolishness. Some people in the first century looked for a philosophy of life that would make sense of everything, a philosophy that would be both rational and beautiful. We would like that kind of wisdom. Instead we have a sign of contradiction. The cross is unreasonable and brutal. It is sheer folly. Gods do not suffer. Dead men stay dead. Carlyle Marney once lamented the fact that God “will be forever associated vaguely with the funny papers because God and the comic section come on the same day” (Structures of Prejudice. New York: Abingdon Press, 1961, p. 170). Many in our time take the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection about as seriously as they take Wile E. Coyote’s peeling himself off the pavement after having been flattened by a rock rolled over him by the Road Runner.
We declare a gospel that is both weak and foolish to the world. We announce that our power isn’t power and that our wisdom isn’t wisdom. We preach a scandal: we can’t save ourselves by being strong and smart. We cannot defeat the death that stalks us, or free ourselves of the guilt that shackles us, or lift ourselves from the shame that engulfs us. Salvation doesn’t come in a “do-it-yourself” kit. Salvation comes in an encounter with the crucified Christ.
So we preach, acknowledging that we have no tricks up our sleeves that will “wow” our hearers into faith, and we have no compelling logic that will make doubtunthinkable and faith unavoidable. We simply have the story of the cross; but we also have this confidence: the One who is God’s power and wisdom uses “the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe.” (Guy G. Sayles, Jr.)
Fourth Sunday in Lent (B)
March 9, 1997
Lift High the Cross!
The cross is an interesting symbol for our faith. The cross was a means of execution. What we use to adorn sanctuaries and sometimes wear as jewelry was once a means of killing. In one sense, it is like wearing a tiny gold guillotine or electric chair around your neck! Why is such a morbid symbol so precious? The answer to that question comes out of a conversation Jesus had with a priest one night.
In John 3:14, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
I. The sin of the people–the need for a symbol.
During their wandering in the desert, the people of Israel complained. They were not satisfied with God’s provisions, and they blamed God’s leader, Moses. God sent fiery serpents to punish them.
We sin in a multitude of fashions, including complaining and being dissatisfied with God’s provisions. God still punishes sin, though fiery snakes are not his choice of means.
II. The forgiveness–the meaning of the symbol.
When the people admitted their sin and called out to Moses and to God, God provided the means by which they would be forgiven. Moses was to have a bronze image of one of the snakes lifted up on a pole where all could see it. Anyone who looked at the snake would be healed. The snake was a symbol of their punishment. Looking to the snake was a humble admission, they deserved punishment. Once aware of the fact they deserved punishment, it was no longer necessary for God to punish them. He could heal and forgive them.
The means of punishment became the symbol of forgiveness.
When I am driving down the road, not paying too much attention to the speedometer, I panic when I suddenly see a police officer. If I am speeding, I don’t want to see a cop; I feel threatened by them. But when my neighbor was a state patrol officer, I was thrilled to have his police car parked in his drive. When he retired, I told him I would rather see the state keep the retirement pay and just let him have use of the patrol car! The very thing that is a threat to me when I am breaking the law is a comfort to me when I am not. The snakes were a threat to the complainers, but to those who turned to God, the snakes became a symbol of comfort.
III. The Fulfillment of a Promise–the Power for the Symbol.
When Jesus Christ was crucified, he became the fiery serpent on a pole. He was the symbol of punishment, high and lifted up.
As we confess our sin and admit we deserve punishment by looking to the cross, then the symbol of Christ’s punishment becomes the symbol of our having been crucified with Christ. What was a threat, judgment, now becomes a comfort.
As unsaved people come look to the cross, confessing their sin and seeing Christ’s death as theirs, God forgives their sin and grants them eternal life. But notice the people in the story who complained were already God’s chosen people whom he had delivered from bondage in Egypt. Christians still sin. We complain about God sometimes more than the unchurched! We need to turn our eyes back to Jesus, meditate on the cross, and be forgiven.
To those who have not admitted their sin, the cross stands as a reminder. But to those who have confessed their sin and turned to God, it stands as a symbol of forgiveness and hope. Only God could take something as ugly as a means of mass execution and make it something beautiful, the means of mass forgiveness. (Bill Groover)
Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)
Sunday, March 16, 1997
New and Improved
Have you ever noticed how retailers know how to get our attention? They might make only a minor change in their washing powder or steak sauce and call it “new and improved.”
Jeremiah, standing at the grave side of the old covenant, offers “the supreme achievement of Israel’s religion” (Green, Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 154) in one of the most profound passages in the Old Testament. What he presents is no slightly changed old formula. He speaks of a new covenant.
The old covenant God forged with his people had been broken countless times and now the people are removed from the land of the covenant. The old covenant is dead. And yet, it’s precisely at this time of utter despair that Jeremiah’s words of hope are uttered.
God pulls close to his people and, in intimate, authoritative style He whispers (“says the Lord” is, literally, “the whisper of Yahweh”) of a time to come. With the ultimate words of eschatological hope (“the days are coming”), God promises a new covenant that will be different from the old.
1. The new covenant will be different in that its success is guaranteed by God. The old covenant was filled with language like “Thou shalt.” The new covenant rests on God’s “I will” (v. 32). The old covenant rested on Israel’s ability to fulfill its demands. But in no way could she keep it. Its design was to lead her to the necessity of a new covenant based on grace. Yet even in our day, almost 2,600 years later, Jeremiah’s descendants are still trying to restore and keep the old covenant.
2. The new covenant will be different in that God will put his law (torah) within His people. The law hasn’t changed. But no longer will the law be on cold stone. This time it will be written on our hearts. It must be. Since sin is already scrawled in that place (17:1), God’s law must now be indelibly written there. God himself will teach his people from within. (John 16:13).
Helen Keller, born blind, deaf, and mute, bears witness to our God who says, “they shall all know me…” (v. 34). She had no traditional way of knowing or hearing about God. Using only her sense of touch, Helen’s companion and teacher developed a method of communication that involved tapping in her hand. When she first learned about God, Helen has been quoted as responding, “I knew him! I knew him! I didn’t know His name, but I knew Him!”
3. The new covenant will be different in that it is an individual matter “They shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one shall die for his own sin…” (vv. 29,30 RSV). With those words Jeremiah introduces this passage as well as the individual responsibility inherent in the new covenant. He closes this passage (v. 34) by noting that, under the new covenant, we will all know God personally. God must be experienced individually and personally.
Martin Luther once said, “The heart of the Christian faith is in its personal pronouns.” Jeremiah foresees a time when a person’s relationship with God rests not on ancestry but on that individual’s experience with God. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” echo Jeremiah’s emphasis of individual responsibility and remind us that our faith must be personal before it can be anything else.
When that new covenant is engraved on the heart, when a person is “born again,” she is not merely restored. She is made completely new. God not only forgives our sins. He promises to forget them (v. 34). The old is completely gone. Although the language is the same, the retailers’ claims and God’s promise are dissimilar. If anyone is in Christ, he is no slightly modified version of the original. Instead, he is truly new and improved. (H. Blake Harwell)
Palm Sunday (B)
March 23, 1997
The Way to Greatness
A desire for greatness seems to be a part of our natural human make up. What balding, overweight, church league basketball player hasn’t fantasized about himself as Michael Jordan driving the lane? What little girl at her first ballet recital doesn’t think of herself as the graceful prima ballerina as she rehearses for her recital? There is a longing in every person to be great.
What is interesting is that Jesus doesn’t condemn our desire for greatness. Rather, he tells us what to do if we want to attain true greatness. One of the manifold beauties of Jesus is that he not only tells what to do; he provides us an example of how to do it.
I. The Humiliation of Christ
Donald Grey Barnhouse said, “The way up is down! And, the way down is up!” Jesus’ life and exaltation lie behind those famous words of the preacher of a generation ago. Barnhouse’ statement describes Jesus’ life. The apostle Paul penned these words nearly 2000 years ago to correct one of the few problems in his favorite church. There was a potential rift developing between two of the members. He encourages them to try to get along by placing the interests of the other person above their own. I have never offended anyone by trying to place their interests above my own. I have never had a relationship strained by someone looking out for my best interests, even at the price of shelving their own ambitions.
Jesus had every right to demand our allegiance and obedience. He had every right to press His superiority over his creatures. Instead, he adopted the attitude of service. He was equal with God. In his humiliation during this time on Earth, he never ceased to be God. He was Humble Divinity in the service of humankind. He could have been justifiably arrogant but He knew who He was. It seems the most arrogant-acting people are those who are insecure in who they are. Those who are confident in their expertise, athletic ability, or intelligence generally don’t have to make a big deal of it. Jesus’ confidence in being God’s Son set Him free to be a servant.
Jesus wasn’t just any garden variety servant. He became the lowest kind of servant. He washed His disciples’ feet — something no household slave could be compelled to do. He even became accursed for us — the Scriptures say that anyone who hangs on a tree is accursed. The parallel lectionary text reminds us, “[Jesus] offered his back to those who beat Him, His cheeks to those who pulled out His beard; He did not hide His face from mocking and spitting.” Jesus’ humiliation was as low as one could go — a lowly servant dying the death of an accursed criminal.
II. The Exaltation of Christ
Because of His humiliation, Jesus’ name is now the Name above every Name. We love His Name, we sing praise to His Name, We worship at His Name. In so doing, we are not worshipping the letters or the sounds that are made in pronouncing His appellation. We worship the Spirit and Character of the One who holds all power in His hands. His name is sweeter and His place is higher than any other place. Is there any place of honor any more significant than to be seated at the right hand of God the Father? One day, there will be a great gettin’ up mornin’ and all of the peoples of the earth will be summoned to stand before their Maker. Their knees will bow and their tongue will confess that this Jesus — Humble Divinity in the service of Humankind — is indeed the Lord of All.
That day will be a day of sweet victory for those who have loved Him and served Him. It will be the day of vindication that will cause the woes experienced while walking through this vale of tears to fade into glory.
For those who haven’t responded to Jesus or those who have rejected Jesus, that day will be a day of defeat. It will mean their life pursuits have been in vain. What will that day bring for you? What will you do to make that day a day of victory for others? Whatever you do, it will be worthless unless it’s done in the Spirit of the One who humbled Himself to the point of death. (Mark A. Johnson)
Good Friday (B)
Friday, March 28, 1997
A New Family
In the prologue to John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus “came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11-13, NRSV, alternate reading). From the beginning, we are told that Jesus experienced tension between his flesh-and-blood kin and the “spiritual” family of obedience to God. So, we’re not startled when we read in chapter 7, “Not even his brothers believed in him” (7:5). What’s more, early and late in the Gospel, Jesus has to face his mother — early, to put distance between himself and her claims; late, to include her in the community of his followers.
We only hear from Jesus’ mother twice in this Gospel. She appears in this account of the exchange that took place at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and in what John calls the “first of Jesus’ signs”; his turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11). It is striking that in both stories Jesus calls Mary “woman,” not “mother.”
At Cana, Mary came to Jesus insisting that he do something about a sudden shortage of wine at the party. Probably, Mary came to Jesus because she felt it was his and his disciples’ fault that “they had no wine.” Jesus and his friends were on the road, living off the generosity of others, so they did not follow one of the accepted rules of hospitality; guests were to bring wine to the wedding reception as a gift. Even though they brought no wine, they did not hesitate to drink it, and Mary, it seems, was horrified at this breach of etiquette. She insisted that Jesus make things right. In response to her demand, Jesus answered strangely: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” He put distance between Himself and her claims on Him. Only when she had walked off in exasperation did Jesus turn the water into wine.
On the last day of His life, when Jesus spoke with Mary, His hour had come. As he was dying, Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son.” Jesus was not referring to himself, although he was the center of her attention. A mother does not expect to see her children die. She had hoped that Jesus would care for her into her old age, but instead she was being required to do the hardest thing a mother could be asked to do — to watch helplessly as her child dies.
When Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son,” though, He meant His friend, called in this Gospel, “the beloved Disciple.” Jesus said to that friend, “Here is your mother.” Jesus did what He could to see that His mother’s needs were met. On one level, this story is a testimony to the importance of honoring, to the end, one’s parents.
On a deeper level, this story is about Mary’s being included in the community of Jesus’ followers — a family “not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” Here is a new understanding of the relationship between family and faith. Jesus calls us to a new family. The cross is our family tree. The community gathered around the crucified Son includes the girls and boys, women and men, who are our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. (Guy G. Sayles, Jr.)
March 30, 1997
The Witness of Resurrection
(I Corinthians 15:1-11)
How do you tell thirsty people about your product? Ask the Pepsi Cola Corporation. Pepsi selected an ad campaign; Come Alive! The advertising blitz succeeded in America, but not elsewhere.
The soft drink company prepared an advertisement in the Taiwanese version of the Reader’s Digest. Marketers translated the words Come Alive! into the common language, Chinese characters in print. Before publication a Chinese editor caught the mistake. The Chinese version read Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!
A German translation of the Come Alive theme ran in publications for weeks. Germans were mystified at Pepsi’s dramatic claim: Come Alive Out of the Grave. Do dead men drink Pepsi? Might Pepsi bring their forefathers back? Needless to say, the translation did not send the correct message. Sales were up, though!
The foolishness of a claim of come alive out of the grave seems absurd. In business, it does not translate well. In things spiritual, it’s difficult to translate for hearers. In Paul’s day, a claim of resurrection appeared ridiculous. Paul’s claim to Corinth is that resurrection forms the foundation of faith. He addresses a presupposed question: What doctrine is important to the church in the practice of faith? His answer? The resurrection of Christ. Others simply refused to believe in any kind of resurrection. “Why should I believe the resurrection?” they would say. Paul again answers. He does so with a discourse on the resurrection.
I. Facts of the Resurrection
The first fact of the resurrection is Christ died for our sins. We do not become sinners by sinning. We sin because we are sinners. We miss the mark, like a dart-thrower missing the target, and sin against God (Psalm 51:4). Our sin needed a solution. Christ died on the cross. His death for our sins creates the basis of any need for Jesus’ resurrection.
The second fact of resurrection? Christ was buried in a tomb. “I could show you the place. It actually happened!” Paul alludes. There was no grave marker, no memorial service, no ceremony of pomp and splendor to honor Jesus. No one even sent flowers. Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in a borrowed tomb. Think, what a lonely, pauper’s death Christ died!
The third fact of resurrection? Christ rose from the tomb. Facts one and two indicate historical accounts. Fact three indicates abiding power: Christ resurrected; he is still resurrected; he will forever be resurrected. Christ’s resurrection powerfully bursts into our lives to effect change.
II. Witness of the Resurrection
You can almost hear someone saying, “Resurrection? Yeah, right. That’s as believable as a soft drink which brings ancestors back from the dead.”
So Paul calls in his witnesses, 515 of them, to respond to the disbelief. One imagines a court of law, witnesses taking the stand, the questions fielded and tossed back like a baseball player scooping up ground balls during practice. You can hear the questions: What did you see? Where were you standing? Who was with you? What did Jesus do? Say? Do you have a history of mental illness? Would you be willing to take a lie-detector test?
The witnesses? Peter, the twelve, over 500, James, all of the apostles, and Paul himself. In Paul’s own testimony of salvation, he likens himself to a premature baby who could not survive without Divine intervention. Aren’t 500-plus witnesses enough to believe in the resurrection? Amazingly, we believe anything, say, news of a car wreck in front of the local Wal-Mart, on the basis of two or three witnesses. Why not Christ’s resurrection?
III. Power of Resurrection
Paul knows the resurrection is believed by faith. Ultimately, witnesses do not prove Christ’s resurrection. They persuade you to believe. They invite you to faith in Christ. His resurrection power comes to empower you!
This resurrection power saves. Christians by faith welcome this power as one would eagerly receives a friend. This power allows you to hold your ground in times of worldly unrest. This power anticipates resurrection for those who know him.
Thomas Long, in The Senses Of Preaching tells how Paul uses a “if this, then that” argument to persuade his hearers. Long imagines the Corinthians, amid church squabbles, worldly pressures, and constant opposition, hearing the discourse on Jesus’ resurrection and shouting, “Our faith is not futile.” That’s what the resurrection shouts: Our faith is not in vain! (John D. Duncan)
2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
April 6, 1997
Light In the Darkness
I John 1:1-2:2
Scientists seek to explore the Titanic, while others aim to raise it from the depths of the ocean floor.
The Titanic, a huge ship, sailed the North Atlantic in 1912, a hunk of steel designed to float the waters and cut through mammoth icebergs — all while tourists watched from the deck! The luxurious ocean-liner, described as ‘unsinkable,’ hit an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912. Crew members were so confident of the ship’s strong hull that it took them 30 minutes before lowering the lifeboats. 1,500 people lost their lives. Darkness!
Since 1991 researchers and scientists have explored the ocean depths to hear, see, and touch the relics of a rusty Titanic. Stephen Low, an explorer of the Titanic, says, “To see the wreck for the first time. It’s quite an eerie, bizarre experience. It has a science fiction quality about it.”
What did Mr. Low see? Floating tentacles of rust; boiler pipes dotted with sea urchins; floating suitcases. How did he see them? With high-tech movie and quartz halogen lights which, when transported by submarines 2 1/2 miles to the ship’s grave, light up the darkness. It is light piercing the darkness.
I John 1 opens a window of light. In the sea of life, the darkness draws us to its depths, that downward pull hoping to suffocate us in the darkness of death. But John opens the window and shows us the Word of Life. This Word points us to the light who is Christ. He is one who died for our sins. He summons us to find help in him, our Advocate of light in the sea of darkness. God, the Light, pierces the darkness. John, along with others, has heard, seen, and touched this Light. Now he writes, inviting us to explore Christ the light, so our joy might be full.
I. Darkness Aims to Overpower the Light.
John fights a Corinthian Gnostic heresy which denied the incarnation of Christ. This blatant denial protested Christ’s appearance in flesh. John also challenged false beliefs such as one which said Christians have no sin nature. John fought this theological darkness by holding Christ up to the light. People saw Christ. He came clear, if you will (‘manifested,’). He is the light and in him is no darkness at all.
But isn’t the darkness real? Isn’t John detailing darkness? Don’t we live with it every day? What does it look like?
John unveils darkness, declaring that light and darkness do not mix. A person who says he or she has fellowship with God, but walks in darkness is a liar. When a person lives in darkness, his life bears the fruit of darkness. A progression naturally follows: heart dictates speech and speech dictates action (Matthew 12:34-35). The phrasing of verse 6 makes sense: If you say once and for all you fellowship with God, but you continually walk in darkness, you continually lie and do not practically apply or do the truth. A dark heart produces dark words and actions.
Those in darkness grope, feeling their way but finding no exit. Their groping and lying often causes them to defend their own words and actions. So they say things like, “I don’t sin”. Such persons deceive or trick themselves, even lead themselves astray and into error. Darkness drives them to its black depths. They seek escape, but lead themselves into a darker cave with no outlet. Truth is not in them, but darkness is. Can such a person find the light they need for life?
II. Light Overpowers the Darkness.
John answers, “Of course they can …in the Light of Jesus Christ!” God’s Light ushers us into his presence. There is relationship with him. Relationship joins hands with fellowship. God’s light carries us into the company of other believers. One of the great joys of Christianity is the fellowship it affords, anywhere and at all times.
Light also exposes the darkness. Here we confess Christ. Confessing him, we confess our sins. I John 2:2 tells us that Jesus came to rescue us, that is Christ placated the wrath of God and soothed us by his light. He saves us, much akin to deep sea rescue where one is thrown a cable and brought to the surface of the sea in the light of day.
What do we discover once we gasp for breath at the surface? We discover our need of God, agreeing with him in the confession of sin. We discover God’s faithfulness and justice to forgive sin. We discover that God cleanses us, the catharsis of the heart. We discover friendship, an Advocate or “one called alongside to help.” Don’t you need that? Don’t you want that in your life?
Marble, a rock mined in mountain ranges around the world, cut and polished, has a beautiful luster. It has the look of being alive. As a gem stone it is placed in jewelry, on bathroom counters, used for floors, and the skylights of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. But why?
Because light penetrates the marble, as much as an inch and a half, only to be reflected back by the crystals inside. Marble reflects the light. Where God is there is no darkness. Where God is, Light penetrates. It even radiates through God’s people; Christians like marble reflect His light. Light over-powers the darkness! (John D. Duncan)
3rd Sunday of Easter (B)
April 13, 1997
Good News is for Sharing
“I don’t believe it!” is the oft-heard response to incredible news. In the shock of the unexpected loss of a loved one, a grieving family member will repeat to herself, in stunned disbelief, “I don’t believe it!” If the prize patrol from Publisher’s Clearing House pulls into your driveway during the Super Bowl, you will likely say, “I don’t believe it!”
Suppose someone you love is dead — you watched the crucifixion yourself — and has been buried. In spite of it all, some of your friends have heard reports that your friend has come back from the dead. A few even claim to have seen Him. Of course, this is the story of the disciples and the resurrection. This is the third scene in the resurrection drama presented in Luke. The disciples reacted to the news with “I don’t believe it.”
I. Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection is Good News.
It must have made Jesus want to beat His head against the wall sometimes when his disciples seemed to miss the point. He told them he would rise from the dead. Scriptures said he would rise from the dead. The disciples just didn’t get it though. After Jesus has appeared to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, the disciples are talking about all the events of recent days and Jesus appears to them. Instead of believing, the disciples thought they were looking at a ghost. Jesus said, “Touch me! I’m flesh and bones. Give me something to eat! Ghosts don’t eat!” Now, instead of disbelieving because of facts which prove intellectually difficult to accept, the disciples are in disbelief because of the joy of seeing the resurrected Christ.
Luke says in 1:1, he has begun to tell of the things that have been fulfilled in recent days. Now, near the end of the book, Jesus affirms that all that the law and the prophets said about him has been fulfilled. It’s good news that what the Bible says about Jesus is true. It’s even better news to know that his resurrection foreshadows our own resurrection.
II. Forgiveness of Sins is Good News.
It must have been an incredible experience to listen to Jesus of Nazareth teach on the hillsides of Galilee. Crank that up a notch and imagine having Jesus, the Risen Christ, open your mind so you could understand the Scriptures. All of the foreshadowing and allusions that Jesus had made to his death and resurrection prior to their happening must now have come bombarding into the consciousness of the disciples. All of this had to happen to fulfill Scripture. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins is possible. You can be made right with God by having your sins forgiven. That’s good news to experience and it’s good news to share. Jesus tells them that it will be preached to all the nations but that seems down-played a bit in this passage. Jesus isn’t telling them to go to the ends of the earth right away. Instead, he says, “Begin where you are.” Right here, right now in your Jerusalem, you are my witnesses. Begin by being my witness here in Jerusalem and the rest will take care of itself. He doesn’t say much about technique or strategies for witnessing. Instead, Jesus simply affirms that the disciples are witnesses.
It’s interesting that the lectionary seems to eliminate the most essential element in witnessing. That is Jesus’ exhortation to wait until they are clothed with power from on high. Witnesses yielded to the Spirit seems to be the Holy Spirit’s strategy for sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins.
There may be some people who have difficulty believing that they could ever receive any good news. Others may scoff at such good news on what seem to them to be intellectual grounds. But those whose heart has been changed from “I don’t believe it!” to “Wow! That’s incredible!” have wonderful good news to share. (Mark A. Johnson)
4th Sunday of Easter (B)
April 20, 1997
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I John 3:16-24
The ardent young suitor wrote his latest flame a love-note: “My love for you knows no bounds. I would scale the highest mountain, ford the deepest stream and fight the meanest foe to prove my love for you.” After the signature, there’s a P.S. – “I’ll be over to see you Friday evening if it’s not raining.”
Such is the real-life world of love sometimes. Unfortunately the loftiest rhetoric and the best intentions seem to fizzle when the rubber meets the road. It’s easy to preach that we need to love the unlovely until a pushy, ungrateful, smelly street person comes to the church expecting, yea, demanding a hand-out.
It’s easy to talk about how much we love teen-agers in abstract until we meet that Junior High School lad who would strain the patience of even Mother Teresa.
It’s easy to talk about how much we love the ministry and love our church until we run across a contrary Chairman of Deacons whose mission in life is to “keep the preacher in line.” Yet love is never done in the abstract. It always has a name and a face.
I. Love is Tangible
John is telling us the simplest, yet most complex message of all Christianity. The essence of Christianity is love. The first verse most of us learn in Sunday School is “God is love.” The ultimate demonstration of God’s love is in Jesus Christ. If we are “little Christs,” to quote C. S. Lewis, shouldn’t we then be a loving people. Love is beautiful and easy in the abstract. But the Bible doesn’t teach a love disembodied and faceless. No, biblical love has a face and it’s often the face that we would rather avoid. Jesus laid down his life for sinners. If Jesus can do that for us, shouldn’t we return the favor out of our love for him? John says that rather than showing love with words or tongue but in actions. It is the very practical demonstration of meeting the needs of that person who is right in front of you.
James Denney has some interesting observations about the demonstration of love:
If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned “to prove his love for me,” I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and some one sprang into the water, and at the cost of making my peril, or what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, “Greater love hath no man than this.” I should say it intelligibly, because there would be an intelligent relation between the sacrifice which love made and the necessity from which it redeemed.
The demonstration of love is in tangible acts of ministry.
II. Love Comes from God’s Spirit
John includes the intriguing comment “If our hearts do not condemn us.” Isn’t it fair to say that most psychological and spiritual problems stem from a heart that condemns? Is there anything any more valuable than to be able to lay your head on the pillow at night with a clear conscience? John promises that when we have a clear conscience, we will receive what we ask for in prayer. This understanding of prayer is not for self-aggrandizement. Rather it comes from a heart of love. A heart that is loving and pure before God prays the kind of prayers God is pleased to answer.
The essence of the Gospel is stated so simply and eloquently in these verses. What God expects of His children is that we believe in Jesus Christ and that we love one another.
Can I do this by myself? No way!
Can I do it through His Spirit? How can I not? (Mark A. Johnson)
5th Sunday of Easter(B)
April 27, 1997
Take the Challenge
1 John 4:7-21
I was intrigued as I watched the effervescent Mrs. Pat giving the children’s sermon at my church. Using the parable of the talents, she gave each of the children a dollar and urged them to use that dollar in the following week to earn more money to give toward building the church’s new worship center. “It is biblical concept,” I thought, on the one hand. On the other hand, I thought, “These are children, though. Will they follow through?”
I was blessed the following Sunday a the different children told what they did with their dollar and how much more they were able to make of it. One child sold cookies and made $15.00. Another made lemonade and earned $7.00. Still other children had more long-term projects to earn money to give to our growing church’s new sanctuary. It’s ironic that we preachers become nervous when someone takes a biblical challenge seriously. My own pastor even humorously alluded to that fact.
I. Love proves one’s faith
I wonder what would happen if all of the members of the church took seriously the challenge from I John 4. John writes eloquently about love. He even makes the audacious claim that the acid test of one’s Christianity is the love that he or she has for his brothers and sisters. What if the preacher said something like, “Next week we’re going to have testimonies and I’m going to put people on the spot and ask them to prove their Christianity by telling what act of agape love they’ve done in the past week?”
Such boasting may not be in keeping with the spirit of genuine love, but what if you were called to “prove you are in the faith” by loving? When we show love, we are manifesting the family resemblance to our Heavenly Father. God’s very nature is love. We know we have been born of God if we love. The supreme expression of God’s love is in sending Jesus to die for our sins. Out of love for God, we are to love one another. While John is giving a command to love, it’s interesting that the force of the text is more of a description of the nature of one who knows God. I you are loving you know God. If you know God you will be loving. Seen in this light, the exhortation to ‘love the unlovely’ is an expression of our new nature rather than something to get stressed out about.
II. The Spirit proves God’s love
God gives us a new nature but that nature is not yet complete. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit living in us and empowering before we can love as we ought to love. The Spirit is God’s gift of love to us. This Spirit enables us to acknowledge Jesus as God’s Messiah. The one who does that has God’s love flowing through him.
III. God’s Nature is to Love
God’s nature is love. The simplest, yet most complex truth of the Scripture is to say, “God is Love.” The love that John is talking about here casts out fear. I’ve always had a hard time understanding that verse. A clue to understanding may be to realize that John is speaking about judgment. Once we have accepted God’s offer of love through Jesus Christ, there is no longer the prospect of judgment. It’s possible to fear a lot of things — the displeasure of one’s employer, the sickness of a loved one, financial ruin. If all of these anxieties can be set in the context of God’s perfect love, what is there to fear?
IV. Love is a Verb
God loves us when we are unworthy. Our ability to love comes from having experienced God’s love. But love has horizontal and a vertical dimensions that cannot be separated. Love of God is not a theory or merely an emotion. Love of God is demonstrated by love of one’s brother or sister.
I finish close to where I began. What will you do this week to demonstrate that you are living in love? (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon briefs for this issue are written by: John Duncan, Pastor, Lakeside Baptist Church, Granbury, TX; Bill Groover, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; Blake Harwell, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Adel, GA; Mark Johnson, Managing Editor Preaching, Jackson, TN; and Guy Sayles, Pastor, Kirkwood Baptist Church, Kirkwood, MO.
Third Sunday in Lent (B)