Lent 3 (A)
Sunday, March 7, 1999
When There is No Water
David, the psalmist, knew what it was to trust God. He gave us those beloved words, “He leads me beside still waters, He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” As he reflected over God’s provision in his life and tended for his sheep under a lonely Mediterranean sky, he knew that as he cared for his sheep, God was a Shepherd who cared for him.
Sometimes, though, we resonate with the familiar words:
Though sometimes He lead through waters deep,
Trials fall across the way;
Though sometimes the path seems rough and steep
See His footprints all the way.
David reminds us of those times when God leads us beside still waters. The hymn writer Luther Bridges reminds us of those times when we sense God’s leadership through times of trial and difficulty. What do we do, though, when God leads us to a place where there is no water?
There is so much to be learned from the time of the wilderness wanderings. We find it easy to berate those children of Israel who seemed to have a hard time learning how to trust and obey. We say to ourselves, “If ever there were a group of people who ought to be grateful and excited about a new challenge, it would be the Israelites.” They were also fearful about what lay ahead. I remember once in college commenting to a friend about the stupidity of these people for not believing God. He reminded me that they were a picture of me and you.
The Israelites remind us of the danger of having a short memory. Only a month and a half after leaving Egypt, they begin to grumble because they don’t have any meat to eat. God graciously provided quail. It ought to be self-evident that God would not bring His people out into the wilderness only to watch them be destroyed. Now, the Israelites come to a place where there is no water to drink. Immediately, instead of trusting God, praying for His provision, and rejoicing in their confidence of His provision, they begin to grumble against Moses.
Remind you of anyone you know?
The Israelites remind us of people who represent those whom God has delivered from bondage. Yet they fail to trust Him for daily provision and strength for divine purpose. Their discontent manifested itself in quarreling with Moses, the one who represented God’s leadership with His people. In grumbling against God’s anointed leader, they, in effect, were grumbling against God Himself.
Moses finds himself at his wit’s end and cries out to God for some release from this desperate situation. He is instructed to take the same staff with which he struck the Nile River and strike the rock. When Moses struck the rock, water came gushing out and hundreds of thousands of the Israelite people had water to drink.
What do you do when God leads you to a place where there is no water? You trust Him knowing that in His purpose and will, He says, “I will not abandon you. I will provide for your every need. (Mark A. Johnson)
Lent 4 (A)
Sunday, March 14, 1999
I Know I Can See
As we move from an era which was characterized by a modern mindset into a post-modern era, the question of apologetics will become all-important. We can study different methods of asserting and defending truth claims and read up on all of the different characteristics of different generations and still fail to convince someone who is unwilling to be convinced. People can counter intellectual arguments with other intellectual arguments. It’s difficult to argue with the statement, “I once was blind, but now I see,” though. In the story of the healing of the man born blind, Jesus shows Himself as revealer and judge.
I. Jesus Came to Reveal God’s Truth.
Jesus and His disciples were walking along one day and they saw a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples took the occasion to ask Jesus that age-old question, “Who’s responsible for this man’s suffering?” Like Job’s friends they asked, “Who messed up here?”
Jesus resisted that kind of simplistic thinking and said, “Neither. This man’s suffering provides an opportunity for God’s glory to be seen in him.” Jesus then mixed some mud and saliva, instructed the man to wash in the pool of Siloam and in that act of cleansing, to receive his sight. The man did what he was told and a wonderful miracle takes place. Everyone should be happy. That is until the “wet blanket” committee finds out what has happened.
Is there a “wet blanket” committee in your church?
To the Pharisees, this wonderful miracle was problematic. They’d seen enough of Jesus to know that they didn’t much like His way of doing things. Jesus had the temerity to heal the man on the Sabbath, of all days. Not only was the healing itself a desecration of the Sabbath, the act of making the paste and kneading it was as well. There must be something divine about Jesus to enable Him to perform such a wonderful miracle, but would a divine person so blatantly desecrate the Sabbath?
To the Pharisees, the violation of the law was of far greater consequence than the healing of the man. So much so that they threatened him with dire consequences if he acknowledged himself to be a disciple of Jesus.
The man himself didn’t quite know what had happened or Who was responsible. He gives us one of the most beautiful confessions of faith in the Bible though when he says, “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see.”
It is a wonderful miracle when a blind man has his sight restored. That is a parable, so to speak, of what Jesus does every day. There are occasions when He literally restores sight to the blind. My mother was about as nearsighted as a person could get. Through the miracle of the LASIK surgical procedure, she now has nearly perfect 20/20 vision, needing half-glasses only for close-up reading purposes.
Others who have been spiritually blind have had their sight restored. People who say, “I searched for happiness in all of the wrong places until one day I came face to face with Jesus Christ. Now I wonder how I could have been so blind for so long.” Jesus opens blind eyes to the truth.
II. Jesus Came for Judgment
The Pharisees wanted to put the man out of the synagogue for acknowledging his faith in Jesus. Even with all the commotion that had taken place in the aftermath of this wonderul miracle, the man wasn’t completely sure what had happened. Jesus told the man the good news about Himself — that He was indeed the Son of Man.
The most ironic truth to come out of this whole story is the assertion that the One who makes blind eyes see, is the one who makes seeing eyes blind. There comes a point when God’s Spirit will not always strive with man and will leave that person and move on to someone else who is open to His working in his life. The irony of the Pharisees is that they were so cock-sure that they could see far better than everyone else that they rejected Jesus’ ministry out of hand. It has been said that we have as much of God as we want. If we are open to His working in our lives, He will give Himself to us; if we are indifferent to Him, He will leave us alone.
Will Jesus open your blind eyes or close your allegedly open eyes? (Mark A. Johnson)
Lent 5 (A)
Sunday, March 21, 1999
Imprints of Hope
Lent is that time every year that we remember … for forty days. We remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. By the Lenten season’s end, we may be feeling some things that Jesus felt. We’re overcome by the season’s dark, somber mood. We’re tired and wondering if we’ll ever survive forty days without caffeine, stress or whatever we’ve chosen to sacrifice. If you’re like me, you never acheive the end without having slipped a couple of times. It’s that reality that makes Jesus’ wilderness achievement a powerful reminder of love.
Though we strive to remember in our calculated sacrificial ways, we know how life brings surprise wilderness experiences. Ezekiel’s story is full of surprises!
Ezekiel and thousands of his closest friends are forced to move from their families. Uncertainty abounds! When will they return? Will they survive? What obstacles must they face? In imagining the questions, we sense the fear that must’ve overtaken them. They’re taken to a place where others have chosen to live. Maybe it’s a beautiful place where people who choose to do so, live in happiness. There’s a choice to be made but no one gets it. For them, living in this foreign land, by definition, means a sentence of complete hopelessness. Separation from their loved ones feels like death!
Death stinks! I recently returned from my great uncle’s funeral. We stood around donning our dark, somber, black clothing. Tears streamed. We stood in front of a stone with huge letters: T-A-Y-L-O-R. Beneath that marker were smaller reminders of each Taylor who’d once touched our lives. Some of them were unknown to me and I wonder, “What is their legacy? Is this stone the extent of it? Or did they leave imprints on this earthly life that I’ve yet to discover?”
God must have been determined for these exiles to leave their imprints. Maybe that’s what motivated what happened to Ezekiel. In a vision, Ezekiel finds himself amid a valley. In my mind’s eye, the valley is dusty, lacks growth and strewn with stacks of dry, brittle bones.
Ezekiel stands chilled by the moment’s darkness. God’s voice sounds the curious question, “Son of man, can these bones live? (NIV)” The title, “son of man,” later used in reference to Jesus, indicates Ezekiel’s status. God trusts him. God has empowered him to lead God’s people. The question must have left a frog in Ezekiel’s throat.
We can almost hear his reasoning. “I want to answer logically, ‘no’, but this is God asking. It always feels like God throws curve balls.” Ezekiel responds cryptically, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know (NIV.)” His response might have been an affirmation of trust.
Whatever the case, God pushes him to prophesy to the bones. Tell them “I will make breath enter you and you will come to life (NIV).” Ezekiel obeys but no breath enters the bones though they form bodies. At God’s command, Ezekiel calls on the “four winds to breathe into them (NIV),” and they gain new life. The concluding verses provide explanation. The bones symbolize the Israelites in exile whose hope was gone, whose life was seemingly over.
God says, “After these years, you think that I’ve deserted you, but I haven’t. I’m going to give you new life. I’ll breathe my Spirit into you and take you home.” The Hebrew word for spirit is the same word for breath and wind. It is a word of creative power.
These Israelites thought they experienced a living death because of their separation from God. They spent their days bemoaning their state and settling into negative attitudes that only breed more negativity and hopelessness. Such negativity does harm as we place our locus of authority in other people’s expectations and opinions.
If we could shift our locus of authority to the God who lives in us, maybe we could live life. Maybe we’d know that hope comes from the Spirit that breathes life in us. Maybe we’d live life with purpose and know when our families stand before our tombstones, they’ll say that each of us left his or her imprint. Maybe they’ll say, “It was an imprint of hope.”
This season, remember that resurrection is on the horizon and hope is here. (Blythe Taylor)
Palm Sunday (A)
Sunday, March 28, 1999
All of my life I’ve felt the need to be perfect. I strove for perfection in my dress, my academics, my extra-curricular activities, even in my spiritual life. I spent all of my time looking to others to see if I was on the right track. That striving brought only stress and confusion. It’s that sort of perfectionism that comes when we follow the path of seeking to appease earthly beings.
It’s that sort of perfectionism that sets us apart from the most perfect being to ever walk the earth. Palm Sunday powerfully represents that image of correct perfectionism. Imagine the expectations. The King of the Jews is to enter Jerusalem. The crowds line the streets looking for the king’s entourage — expecting him to symbolize glory and to lead them to victory in all things. On his face they imagine the greatest smile — full of knowing that with him all things are possible.
Imagine the reality. Jesus, the King of the Jews enters Jerusalem. Crowds are shouting, “Hosanna!” He’s riding a donkey and dons only a weak smile. It’s obvious. Something else is on his mind. He knows what’s coming next. As glorious as this walk may seem to His disciples, this is humility at its best. This walk will lead to His death.
Palm Sunday is one of those great triumphal days of our Christian calendar. It is that day when our children march into church carrying palm branches. In some fashion, they’re reenacting the scene of a Passover long ago. It is a day of great remembrance. Palm Sunday is that day when we realize our own life transformations at the hands of a carpenter’s Son.
The Church at Philippi remembered Jesus in a special way, too. They sang the jubliant notes of a hymn now recorded in Philippians 2:5-11. Paul wrote the words in his letter as a reminder, an encouragement. It may have been that this community was full of new Christians. All Christians at that time were still trying to figure out what this Christianity thing was!
In their committed efforts, there had arisen difficulties in relationships. They’d focused their energies on seeking spiritual perfection. Certainly, Paul would have applauded this noble quest but feels compelled to point out some inequities. Writing from prison, he says, in essence, “Remember Jesus? You’ve got to live like He did! Yes, He spent time studying about God and talking to God but that wasn’t all. Remember how He knew He was God?
Well, He used that position wisely. To our own astonishment, He acted like a servant! Remember the times when He washed other people’s feet? That was God! He looked like a man and in some ways acted like a man but He was God! His attitude was different from ours. You see, He acted with humility. That humility was what led Him to die on a cross. But you can be sure that God has rewarded him by giving him the greatest name God has to offer anyone. It is that name to which every creature bows. Remember that name. Jesus! Strive to live like him in every way.”
In striving to imitate Jesus, they’d forgotten how He’d washed other people’s feet — what a servant He’d been! They’d tried so hard to connect spiritually to God that they missed seeing the God who lived among them. The people around them were God’s creation. God lived in and through them, too. Jesus recognized that. That recognition moved him to live humbly. Jesus acheived spiritual perfection because of that humility. It was risky. It cost him his human life.
We are not unlike the Philippian church. Paul’s words are pertinent for us today. Remember Jesus. Strive to live like him. Realize that spiritual perfection comes when we walk the path of humility. May God grant us the strength and courage to walk humbly. (Blythe Taylor)
Good Friday (A)
Friday, April 2, 1999
Why Is Good Friday Good?
In our encounters with troubled persons, we hear the words. When we hear the words, its like the speaker is reading an old script. Deceit, dishonesty, betrayal. You can add volumes to the list. Each individual tells his or her own story as if it is as new as this morning’s sunrise. And perhaps to the individual it is. But we hear an old, old story between the lines. A story as old as Genesis. When we read Genesis 3, we see that sin disrupts relationships in three dimensions. It is inevitable. There is the broken relationship with God. There is the broken relationship with ourselves. There is the broken relationship with others.
On Good Friday, Jesus completed this ordained task with those familiar words, “It is finished.” What was he saying? It’s another way of asking, “What makes Good Friday truly good?”
It would appear that the powers of darkness have had their say. The forces of evil have arrayed themselves against the Sinless One. And they are victorious … or so it seems ….
In our text, the author of Hebrews proclaims that in the sacrifice of Christ, restoration has been completed in each dimension. The consequences of Christ’s work are threefold.
Our author says, “We have confidence to enter …” and “Let us draw near to God … in full assurance.” On our own efforts, we cannot approach the Holy One; and certainly not with confidence. Our author says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess ….” But we remain uncertain, indecisive, ambivalent; often hopeless.
Our author says, “Let us spur one another” …” Let us meet together” … “Let us encourage one another.” But we can’t restore a sense of community.
“Let us draw near …” “Let us hold to the hope …” “Let us encourage …” Just as sin destroyed intimate relationships in each of the three dimensions, in Christ, restoration has been accomplished.
Note the progression. First, the divine. Second, the personal. Third, the interpersonal. Can it be otherwise? We must begin with a new relationship with God; only then can we find our true sense of ourselves. Then, we can have restoration in our relationships with others. But our text reminds us that it is not of our own efforts.
That’s the core of the quote the author of Hebrews makes from Jeremiah 31, “A new covenant I will make … I will put in their minds … I will write on their hearts …” A new covenant authored by God through Christ.
Oh, at times we try. We want meaning and purpose for our lives. We try to live appropriately. We try to “find ourselves.” We try to live at peace with others. And continuously we fail. Why? Our own brokenness interferes. But in Christ, “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” necessary. “It is finished,” in Christ. That’s what’s good about Good Friday! (Earl Nichols)
Sunday, April 11, 1999
Living Out Forgiveness
I recently spoke with a distressed young woman in my office. In the midst of her tears, she acknowledged that she had played a major part in her life difficulties. She spoke the words, “I know I’m part of the problem. I’ve tried to, but I just can’t seem to change.” We can sense her frustration. And in her words, we hear echoes of insight.
Isn’t it true that we often play a major part in the consequences which come to us? And often we can’t change. In fact, the longer I’m in the ministry, the more I realize that the core issues of life, those issues of character, those deep flaws in personality, we don’t change. We believe that those issues of life are dictated by will and changed by an effort of will power. We will decide. We will commit. We are convinced. We give our own best efforts. And we find, a few days down the road, we are repeating that very behavior we vowed to end. Why? Because the fundamental issues of life are not issues of performance, but “transformance.” We can convince ourselves that with sufficient effort, we can change for “they are within our control.” And then we realize as this young woman said, “… I can’t change.” And that’s the gospel’s good news. Fundamental life changes can only occur as we allow God the opportunity to transform us. Life is more than performing or informing. It is also to be transforming.
In Paul’s words, we find a balance between what God does and what God desires. There is a relationship between God’s effort on our behalf and our effort in response to God. We find here the two sides of the Good News. We see what God has done for us and our expected response to God’s gracious action on our behalf.
What God has done. “… you have been raised with Christ.” Note the passive tense. We are reminded of Eph. 2:8 “… this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God.” People need to hear again and again that God initiates transforming forgiveness and in it we are raised with Christ. Paul is referring back to vs. 2:12. In that verse, Paul reminds his readers that they were dead and came to life; a spiritual resurrection symbolized by baptism.
Then only can we find what God desires. “Set your hearts …” (vs. 1) or again, “Set your minds …” (vs. 2). We are to intentional. The verbs could either be imperative or indicative. In either case, they suggest our response to God’s gracious actions. We are to choose to focus our hearts, our minds, on noble aspirations and high godly ideals. The “setting of our hearts … setting of our minds” is a decisive action in response to God’s grace.
Some years ago, I spoke with a wise elderly minister. It was early in my ministry. I needed the guidance of one seasoned through years of faithful service. So I asked him what he told the individuals who wanted to change in Christ. His words? “I tell ’em ‘God forgave you, now go act like it.'” First, a change of heart. Then a change of behavior. And that’s God’s good news. “I have raised you up. Now set your hearts and minds on higher things.” That’s the balance in the transformational process. There is God’s intervention which then leads to our intention.
And the conclusion, what God declares. “You will … appear with him in glory” (vs.4). Isn’t that the triumphant Easter message? What God did … What God desires … What God declares .. (Earl Nichols)
Second Sunday of Easter (A)
Sunday, April 11, 1999
Beyond Sight and Touch
The faith of Thomas was authentic. He saw and touched Christ’s wounded hands and side in the light of resurrection power and he believed. His faith was more than the observation of marks and signs; it was the working of the Spirit’s power which wrung from Thomas’ heart the confession: “My Lord and my God!”
During Jesus’ ministry many saw with natural sight the Lord of life, but turned and went away. When Thomas saw and felt the side of the crucified God he knew with certainty that Jesus Christ was alive. Jesus affirmed his faith: “Because you have seen, you have believed!”
The significance of Thomas’ testimony is found in his apostolic witness. Many have criticized his lack of faith, but he represents the crucial power of the confession of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus did not challenge or rebuke him. The other disciples had already seen Jesus. Now it was Thomas’ opportunity to see and hear.
When Peter and John were hailed before the Sanhedrin and threatened for their preaching, they spoke boldly: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Paul emphasized that Jesus’ appearance to the twelve and the 500 was of “first importance” (I Cor. 15:3-6). We see, then, that Thomas’ insistence is of first importance for his and defense of Jesus’ resurrection. No testimony about the risen Lord is more powerful than his.
Jesus then builds upon this foundation to declare the strength of this faith in those who would believe in the absence of sight. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It was critical that Thomas and the apostles see the risen Savior. That, however, is denied to every generation, to every person born after Jesus is ascended. We cannot trust him on the basis of touch. Either we trust him in our hearts or not at all. “With the heart man believes unto righteousness.” (Rom. 10:10)
Only a few have seen Jesus, but everyone may be blessed with a faithful heart. If Christian faith had rested on sight and touch alone, it could only have been a local, temporary phenomenon, limited to the lifetime of those who saw him.
Faith experienced from the heart makes the presence of Christ universal and perpetual, for anyone, at any time in history. Resting upon the testimony of Jesus powerful presence among the apostles, the Word goes forth across the years. Its power, the power of the Spirit gives us resurrection life.
Jesus knew that Thomas had a consecrated heart, ready to believe when confronted with truth. He was instantly prepared to trust and worship. Our Lord knows us well, too! If we will believe, he will show us his Cross and his life beyond death. Amen! (Leon Hynson)
Third Sunday After Easter (A)
Sunday, April 18, 1999
Lifting a Veil
Compare the experience of Thomas with these “two” in their separate encounters with the resurrected Lord Jesus. Thomas would believe and confess the Lord of life when he saw Him. These “two,” having the same heart of love for Jesus as Thomas, could not believe even when they saw Jesus. They saw Him, walked and talked with Him, but did not know Him. Indeed, they did not “see” Him until their eyes were opened (Luke 24:31).
Cleopas and his traveling companion experienced the same weight of grief and gloom that the apostles knew. The unbelievable news that some women and other followers had seen the empty tomb held no promise in their minds. It had to be the illusion of hope or fevered imagination, the first “myth” of Easter.
Like these two we grasp for the reality of Easter. Faith in the risen Savior is the litmus test for Christians, the stumbling stone for lonely rationality. For us, however, the Word of life, His Life, draws heart and mind and word together. Faith entails understanding (Heb. 11:3), commitment and confession. It involves the experienced reality of Jesus’ presence in the Holy Spirit, in the Word and in the sacrament. As Horatius Bonar (1808-89) wrote of Holy Communion:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
Sometimes we walk along the way to our “Emmaus,” hardly knowing where we are going and why? Harsh reality has invaded our peaceful space; grief, loneliness, numbness seem to fill our lives. Like the two, “we trusted that he would redeem” (24:21), but too much time has passed, too much hope is lost. Pain and loss have closed our eyes. We do not know the One who walks beside us!
Wait! The story isn’t finished! The day isn’t over. When they asked Jesus to stay and he broke the bread for them, it was the reprise of the feeding of thousands by Galilee. The miracle which comes to the two was the vision of God in Christ, an interpretation of the mystery of their burning hearts when they had listened to His words.
Before his self-disclosure, they could not believe. Faith requires a spiritual sight. Walking beside him did not answer their questions. His words of life lifted the veil from their eyes and hearts. Seeing, they knew and believed. Believing, we know. Like them, we go, and tell! (Leon O. Hynson)
Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)
Sunday, April 15, 1999
Being the Church
What is your best memory of church? It may be your conversion experience when you finally yielded to Christ in a revival meeting. The joy and peace you had heard others describe finally became yours as you surrendered to Christ’s lordship for the very first time.
It may be a youth camp experience when your group came together in significant and meaningful ways. As never before, there was a unity and an openness to all.
You may remember a time when the church made a bold decision to take a risk necessary to reach new people. You knew in your heart that God would honor the decision you’d made and sensed His confirmation that the church was on the right track.
At its very best, church is about relationships — our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, our relationship with fellow believers and relationships with those whom God may want to reach for His kingdom through us. Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and so on. How does this fruit of the Spirit manifest itself in the life of the church? Luke here paints a summary portrait of the church after the day of Pentecost. John Stott says they were a learning church, a loving church, a worshipping church, and an evangelizing church.
I. A Learning Church
One of the surest signs that a person’s conversion to Christ is genuine is a hunger for God’s word and a desire to learn more of God’s truth. Imagine what an awesome experience it must have been in those first few days after Pentecost to be able to sit and listen to Peter teach. Those veiled sayings of Jesus that Peter could never quite understand now come bursting upon his consciousness with fresh insight and enthusiasm in the light of the Resurrection and of Pentecost. The people gladly submitted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching because a result of the Spirit’s coming into a person’s life is a hunger for God’s word.
II. A Loving Church
The early church gave freely of itself to meet the needs of all of its members. Some people read about the people sharing all their goods and imply that they were practicing a form of socialism. There is a vital difference between what the early church was doing and what is advocated in socialism. The church was not sharing its goods under any sort of compulsion. There was no governmental authority that compelled them to share. They shared because they loved God in such a way that it manifested itself in a love for people to the extent that they were willing to give sacrificially to meet their needs. What would happen in your church if someone said, “I’ve got this piece of land. I’ve been holding on to it for a rainy day because of its investment value. I’ve heard of some of our families who were flooded out in the big storm and I want to sell this land and use the proceeds to help them rebuild.” What kind of witness would that have in the community?
III. A Worshipping Church
The people went daily to the temple courts. They still followed the practices of their Jewish faith because they still considered themselves to be a movement within Judaism. Worship wasn’t confined to merely one hour on Sunday morning. Informal worship was a part of their lifestyle and formal worship was a part of their routine.
IV. An Evangelizing Church
The church was enjoying the favor of God and of all of the people. It’s interesting that the church enjoyed the favor of all the people. Some folks seem to have the notion that if the church is really taking a stand, everyone will hate their guts. I don’t see how a church that takes that posture expects anyone to want to come and be a part of them. Because God’s Spirit was moving among them in such powerful ways, the church grew and thousands were added to their number.
At its very best, the church is a learning, loving, worshipping, evangelizing church. (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon Briefs for this issue are written by: Earl Nichols, Pastor, Garden Community Church, Bradenton, FL; Blythe Taylor, Associate Pastor, Wingate Baptist Church, Wingate, NC; Leon Hynson, Professor, Evangelical School of Theology, Myerstown, PA; Mark Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN
Lent 3 (A)