Proper 22 (B)
October 2, 1994
God’s Strange Arithmetic
(Mark 10:1-16)

An interesting article appeared a while back in the Clinton (South Carolina) Chronicle titled “When the Editor Left Town.” It said: “Mr. Jim Galeway and Miss Georgianne Bentlow were married Monday at the home of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alex Bentlow, the Rev. A. A. Deckett officiating.
“The groom is a popular young bum who hasn’t done a lick of work since he got expelled his junior year in college. He manages to dress well and keeps a supply of spending money because his dad is a soft-hearted old fool who takes up his bad checks instead of letting him go to jail where he belongs.
“The bride is a skinny, fast little idiot who has been promiscuous with every boy in town since she was twelve years old. She sucks cigarettes and drinks mean corn liquor when she is out joy-riding in her dad’s car at night. The house was newly plastered for the wedding and the exterior newly painted, thus appropriately carrying out the decorative scheme, for the groom was newly plastered and the bride freshly painted. The groom wore a rented dinner suit over athletic underwear of imitation silk, and his pants were held up by pale green suspenders. His #9 patent leather shoes matched his state in tightness and harmonized nicely with the axle-grease polish of his hair.
“P.S. This is probably the last issue of this paper, but my life ambition has been to write up one wedding and tell the truth. Now that it’s done, death can have no sting.”
That silly article sets the stage for some very serious words in Mark’s gospel on the subject of marriage and divorce. Maybe people would not get divorced for such silly reasons if they did not get married for such silly reasons. How odd it is that folks spend much more time and effort and money getting prepared for a fifteen-minute ceremony than they do for a marriage which is supposed to last forty, fifty, or sixty years! Which brings us to the difficult words of Jesus in Mark 10.
I.
What Jesus has to say is uttered against the background of an ongoing rabbinical debate about divorce. The debate centered on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. It was the law of Christ’s people that a man who found “some indecency” in his wife was permitted to divorce her if he would provide her with a legal document indicating that she was free to marry someone else. Note the “man.” Divorce for the woman was practically impossible. Now, there were two schools of thought about what constituted a sufficient “indecency.” One school, that of Rabbi Shammai, said that only adultery was cause for divorce. Another school, that of Rabbi Hillel, said it could include being a nag, being unattractive, or not being able to cook!
What most folks miss when they read this passage is that, in His reply, Jesus was showing Himself to be a champion of women’s rights! He looked on them not as chattels owned by their husbands, but as human beings made in the image of God. This ran counter to the customs of His time, against the prevalence of the idea of male domination which runs through Hebrew thought and practice, and which is still all too prevalent in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, even today. But Jesus gave the world a new conception of women as persons equal with men in the sight of God.
The Pharisees were taking divorce seriously, but Jesus asks them to take marriage seriously. The Pharisees are focusing on technical parts of the law; Jesus wants them to focus on God’s original intent in the marriage relationship.
Jesus knew that people suffer in divorce: men suffer, women suffer, children suffer. It may be no accident that Mark, immediately after he records Jesus’ sayings about divorce, has Him calling the little children to Him, and putting His arms around them. I see Jesus as reaching out to put His arms around the whole human race and condition. I do not see Jesus as joining the mob who were so eager to throw stones. Do you? Jesus regarded divorce as brought about by humanity’s fallen condition. It is not an unpardonable sin, for there is but one “unpardonable sin” and that is the refusal to seek pardon.
II.
We make a mistake in making what Jesus said a demand, when it is a promise. We ask: “What does the Bible say about divorce?” Or, “What does Jesus say?”
It has always seemed strange to me that churches have made Jesus’ words on this one issue absolute, but not others. Why, for instance, are people not kicked out of churches, or denied the sacraments, for unloving attitudes, for gossiping, for not feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, loving their enemies? How come all of the “absolutes” have to do with sex, and none of them have to do with war? Jesus had as much to say about these things and, as far as I know, no church has ever kicked anybody out who disobeyed Jesus’ teachings on these matters.
If you know anything at all about the New Testament, you know that the pattern of Jesus is not to punish, condemn, or rebuke people who are already hurting; that’s simply not His way. To the hurting He offers insight, help, healing, and forgiveness. So why should He change and automatically cast away anyone who commits the supposedly unpardonable sin of divorce? No, instead of doing that, I think Jesus would say something like what He said in Matthew 11:28-30.
III.
“The two shall become one,” said Jesus. Note the future tense. It refers to an incompleted act for the future — something yet to be done. In the marriage ceremony, the minister does not ask the couple, “Do you love one another?” We assume that they’ve got something going or they wouldn’t be there. No, the question is “Will you love?” Marriage is the glue that holds you together on the days when you don’t like each other much. We become one; we are not automatically one. Oneness is something toward which we strive. It takes work. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to drop into your lap. You must work at it.
Television personality Willard Scott said, “A good marriage is like an incredible retirement fund. You put everything you have into it during your productive life, and over the years it turns from silver to gold to platinum.” That’s why a long marriage has always seemed to be such a good idea to the church. Divorce is like putting your money into an investment fund and then withdrawing it just before it begins to gain interest.
Note Scott’s words: “you put everything you have into it.” Not everybody does. For instance: a classified ad appeared in a newspaper: “For sale: One 52-year-old husband. Never remembers anniversaries, birthdays, or special days. Seldom holds hands, hugs, kisses, or says ‘I love you.’ Rarely is kind and tender. Will sell cheap — two cents. Will dicker. Call 555-0366.” Not much of self put into that marriage. No wonder the wife wants to get rid of the husband, cheap. But marriage is a 60-60 proposition; each must go more than half-way.
Paul Popenoe, a famous marriage counselor, was talking to a young husband who had been openly critical of his wife. Popenoe was explaining how two become one in marriage; in a smart reply the husband said, “Yes, but which one?” The counselor said, “A little of each.” Then Popenoe went on to explain that in marriage you have to develop “we-psychology” and to think in terms of a pair rather than of individuals. What happens when two become one in a real marriage? Some think that it reduces individuality. Too often one party or the other seems to be saying: “Alright, we two shall become one — and 1 am the one!” Obviously, such a marriage is headed for trouble.
When “two become one” it means that each one is doubled, but not duplicated. You still retain your individual identity, but you add to yourself the identity of the other, and the sum of the whole becomes greater than its parts. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:7). A wise person once said, “A marriage consists of one master, one mistress, and two slaves; making, in total, one.” That may be strange arithmetic, but it is good theology.
Jesus went to the wedding at Cana in Galilee and changed water into wine. We invite Him to our weddings to perform a greater miracle: to transform two lives into one! You see, marriage is a triangular affair with God at the apex. During the ceremony we speak of a “covenant.” A covenant is something into which one enters with God. It is more than a contract. It acknowledges that God is the source of our human love, and that it is only as our human love is rooted and grounded in God’s love for us that it is continually renewed and replenished day by day, week by week, year after year.
A columnist in a western newspaper compared a marriage with the building of a New England town-meeting house. This particular town voted to build a new town hall. They decided to build it out of the materials of the old town hall — but they also decided to go right on meeting in the old town hall while the new one was being built! (Carl Michalson, Faith For Personal Crises, New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1958, p. 136). A nice trick if you can do it! Michalson says that is emphatically not what happens in a good marriage. In a good marriage, something new is added: the grace and presence of God. That grace is not something thrown up from the outside, like a buttress holding together walls unable to stand by themselves. It is more like glue from within, providing the conditions of personal responsibility by which two persons adhere to each other in willing faithfulness and loyal love.
And the two do become one, by the grace of God. That’s the only way it can be done: by the grace of God. (Donald B. Strobe)
Proper 23 (B)
October 9, 1994
Just Say ‘No!’
(Mark 10:17-22)

Tolstoy told of a man who was promised he could have as much land as he could run run around in a single day. The man set off to encircle his plot of land. As the day wore on, the circle got larger and larger. Compelled by the thought of all the and he could own, he kept widening the circumference of the circle. Stride by stride, mile by mile, he dreamed of his great wealth — until at last he staggered and dropped dead of a heart attack.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Pardoner tells a morality play about greed. Three men find a chest of gold. One of them goes to bring back wine and bread for supper. While he is away the other two plot to kill him. When he returns, they do him in. But the deceased has already poisoned the wine. The other two drink it and die. All three lie dead at the foot of their treasure, killed by their greed. Then, after telling the story, the Pardoner offers to forgive anyone of their sins — including, of course, greed — if they will only pay the appropriate fee!
I. We Can Be Controlled By Greed
Greed almost always kills — if not physically, then certainly emotionally, relationally, or spiritually. Oscar Wilde wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” No matter how hard we work at being successful, success will not satisfy us. By the time we get there, having sacrificed so much on the altar of being successful, we will realize that success is not what we wanted after all.
People who have money and power know something that you and I do not know and might not believe even when we are told: money and power do not satisfy that unnameable hunger in the soul. Even the rich and powerful find themselves yearning for something more.
Mark tells about a man who had all anyone could ever want; yet, it wasn’t enough. He had fame, comfort, wealth, and power. Still his soul was hungry for meaning, for the sense that he had figured out how to live so that his life really mattered.
Essentially, Jesus told him that he had to learn how to do without the things to which he had become addicted. He had to learn how to say “No!” to himself! The man walked away sorrowful for, as Mark wrote, “he had great possessions” (10:22).
Several years ago, Fortune magazine made a study of Yuppies — the name given to the generation of young adults who took their places in the business world of the 1980’s. Yuppies is an acrostic for Young Urban Professionals. The study revealed some disturbing things about this group of contemporary Americans.
These young adults are intensely committed to living what they consider to be “the good life.” They define “the good life” as a lifestyle in which a person can enjoy good things. Their goals include making enough money to buy gourmet foods, own expensive foreign cars, live in pleasant surroundings, and vacation in exotic places.
Yuppies feel no loyalties or obligations except to themselves. They see their employers as a means to an end, their jobs as stepping stones to better positions, and the families into which they were born as persons who “act like something is owed to them.” For these young adults, self-serving is the total way of life. Saying “No!” to self is the one absolutely forbidden rule.
II. We Can Be Controlled By Need
Not all of us are motivated by greed, however. Many of us subscribe to what has been called “the New Morality of Need.” It seems that the language of need is taking over contemporary life.
For example, rarely do you hear anyone say, “I wanted a new set of golf clubs so I bought a new set.” Instead, you will hear an avid golfer say — rather defensively — “I really needed a new set of golf clubs.” You are not apt to hear a middle-aged man confess that he bought the new sports car for “the fun of it.” More likely he will explain his need for a change of self-image in order to stay competitive in business. Even in saying it, he feels good about his purchase. The need justified the purchase. The need made everything all right.
If we are such a fun-loving, pleasure-seeking nation, why do we feel so guilty talking about pleasure and fun? Instead, we are always appealing to necessity.
Unfortunately, “I need” often means no more than “I want.” In other words, sometimes it’s just a way of talking to camouflage selfishness and self-serving. It sounds so much better to talk about need than greed, or need than desire. Need justifies most of our actions and practically all of our purchases. Need is a good reason — a very good reason — for doing the things we do!
Allow me to make just one more point about need. Those of us who talk about needing a new car or a new coat are usually those who already have a car or a coat. Those who have no car or coat may talk about wanting one, but rarely do they talk about needing one.
Those who talk about the mountains and the beaches — as places they need to get away to — are usually those who get to experience the great outdoors quite regularly. The mother of six who raises her family in the squalor of a fifty-dollar-a-month shack rarely talks about needing to get away to the beaches or the mountains.
This suggests that needs often arise after the car or the coat has been obtained. The notion that we start off with needs which then get satisfied simply does not fit the facts. The truth is that we live in a world rich with possibilities which, once we realize them, become needs. We like them so much, we integrate them so well into our everyday life, that we conclude we cannot get by without them.
III. We Can Be Controlled By Christ
There is at least one other way to live in relationship to things and wealth. It is defined in the call of Jesus to a simpler, sacrificial lifestyle.
Typically, when the affluent lifestyle of Americans is held up for comparison to the light of the New Testament, there is an immediate defensive reaction. Even Christians interpret the challenge to a simpler lifestyle as a call for people to live in impoverishment.
However, Jesus challenged only one man to total divestiture of personal wealth. Even the closest disciples apparently maintained their ownership of fishing boats. Zaccheus was commended for restoring, with generous interest, that which he had defrauded from others (Luke 19:1-10). There is no suggestion that he gave away everything he owned. In the early church, Barnabas gave away much of his wealth, but there is no indication that he lived in poverty after his donations (Acts 4:36-37).
The New Testament principle is not poverty. Nor is the Christian solution to greed to simply give. There are temptations even in our giving, especially if we use our money and resources as ways to meet our own needs. Even in the service of Christ and His church, we sometimes use money to satisfy our need to control, to manage, to influence.
As disciples of Christ, we must reject money’s manipulative capacity. We must refuse to use money to jockey for position and to maneuver ourselves into favor and power. As His followers, we must determine that we will not pull strings or put anyone into our debt with our money.
The Christian lifestyle is one of self-denial. It is the life which responds to the call to say “No!” to your self and your personal desires and needs. It is life dedicated to voluntarily doing without, to voluntarily going without, to voluntarily depending upon God for your total welfare and well-being.
A politician sacrifices his values and personal integrity in order to win an endorsement. A career opportunist sacrifices his family in order to move one step higher up the ladder of success. A medical student sacrifices the fun and games which are a part of every college education in order to master organic chemistry.
Every one of us makes trade-offs of one kind or another. In order to have one thing, we forego something else. In order to follow the career of our choosing, we may have to sacrifice a parent’s expectations. In order to have security, we may even sacrifice the love of our life. In order to be near aging family members, we may sacrifice the career opportunity for which we have prayed and worked so hard. Don’t be misled: contemporary Christians know the high price of sacrifice.
Sacrifice always costs something. Frequently you will hear a fundraiser challenge a group to “give until it hurts.” The rationale behind such an appeal is simply that the cause is worthy of such generosity.
The language of the New Testament, however, differs radically from that. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians:
… whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ (3:7-8).
There’s the Christian’s trade-off. It means giving beyond the point where it hurts. Sacrifice means loss. It means that I intentionally deny myself something I want – something I may be convinced that I need – in order to be of service to my Lord. How many of us know something about that?
Just Say No! Say “No!” to the pressure to assess your value as a person on the basis of what you have. Say “No!” to the temptation to shower everyone in your life with material possessions. Teach them instead that a person’s life cannot be truly measured by the abundance of things he or she might have. Say “No!” to the urge to quit giving at the point where it begins to hurt!
Say “No!” to yourself for a change. Make a deliberate decision to go without, to do without, to actually experience loss for the sake of serving your Lord! That is really living! (Gary C. Redding)
Proper 24 (B)
October 16, 1994
Are We Able?
(Mark 10:35-45)
There is an old saying that “To the victor belongs the spoils.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the period following a presidential election. That is the time when the new president-elect begins to divvy up the various cabinet positions and political plums — to reward those who helped him get to that exalted position.
I. Something like that forms the background for today’s Scripture lesson.
Jesus had just told the twelve disciples that the road they are traveling will ultimately end in His trial, torture, and death. He told them that He is going to have to drink the cup of suffering. “They will mock him, and scourge him, and spit upon him,” He said (70:34). Then it was that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (10:35). Jesus asks them what it is that they want, and they reply: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). How inappropriate! How out of place!
Matthew’s Gospel says that James and John themselves did not have the nerve to ask such an awkward favor; they got their mother, Mrs. Zebedee, to do it for them! (Cf. Matt. 2:20-28). Our first reaction is shock and dismay. Jesus, too, seems to have been shocked by the request, so He said to them: “You don’t know what you are asking … Are you able to drink the cup I will drink?” And they answered, confidently, “We are able.”
Our first reaction is to be shocked at the arrogance and insensitivity of these two clowns. They seem to have ignored everything that Jesus had just said about His own suffering and death, and to have jumped forward in time to focus on His coming glory. Then, they imagine, they will be rewarded by Him for having stuck by Him through the tough times. They talk to Jesus like politicians expecting rewards of patronage. They want cabinet positions in the new administration; “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in glory.” On the king’s right-hand was the prime minister, who today we might call “Secretary of State.” On the left hand was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who today we might call “Secretary of the Treasury.” James and John’s request seems completely out of order. Mark says that “When the (other) ten heard of it, they began to be indignant at James and John” (v. 41), but I wouldn’t take that at face value. Perhaps they were indignant because they had their eyes on those same seats, for themselves.
II. How could the disciples be so dense?
David H. C. Read is amazed that Jesus did not turn on these two pushy disciples with anger and scorn, and say to them as any other leader might say at such a time, “Here I am facing the final crisis of my life, expecting to be torn in pieces by my enemies, and all you can think of is booking the front seats in some future reversal of our fortunes” (National Radio Pulpit, October, 1980). Instead, Jesus says, gently, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (70:38).
To drink of Jesus’ cup does not mean sipping a bit of grape juice from those little Methodist shot-glasses, or even dipping the bread into the chalice. It was a metaphorical way of speaking of His own suffering, crucifixion, and death. Jesus had just explained all that. That is why it seems so strange that James and John could make such a request. Had they not been listening as Jesus spoke to them along the way and over the months? It seems even stranger to hear them say, “Lord, we are able!” Talk about confidence and self-assurance!
Were they wrong? Of course they were. Mark makes that abundantly clear. He tells us in graphic detail just what happened when the Roman soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “They all forsook Him and fled” (14:50). They said, “Lord, We Are Able” – but when the chips were down, and the cross went up, they were not able. And so, just a few verses later, we read that Jesus used this occasion to teach the disciples a much-needed lesson in humility. It was a lesson they had a hard time learning. Even on their way to the Last Supper, the disciples argued among themselves as to who was the greatest. Jesus told them that the greatest among them would be the servant of all. Jesus turned everything upside-down (or rightside-up).
The main problem with James and John request was that they wanted the rewards without the suffering. They wanted Easter without Good Friday. They wanted the crown without the cross. They did not realize that the two places, at Jesus’ right and left hands, would soon be occupied by persons hanging on a cross! And so Jesus had to teach them. He said, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you” (10:43).
Yet down through the ages it has been so. The world’s standards have been absorbed by the church, almost by osmosis. Think of the contradiction in terms in such a phrase as “princes of the church” (as Cardinals are called). I confess that I have some difficulty with the phrase “Senior Minister.” If minister is taken in its literal meaning “servant,” the words mean “Senior Servant.” That sounds like an oxymoron if ever there was one! Sort of like “Boss Slave.” I recall the story of the Dominican monk who said, “The Jesuits are known for their learning, and the Franciscans for their piety and good works, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!”
We all find it hard to accept Jesus’ complete reversal of values. The question has been posed: “Suppose our lives were to be measured only by the amount of real service we have rendered to people — how great would they then be?” Jesus is telling us here that that is precisely the way in which they will be measured. Now one can understand why most preachers across the years have singled out James and John as Horrible Examples Number 1 and 2 of how not to be a follower of Jesus.
III. Their crass request reflected a deep faith, didn’t it?
I am indebted to David H. C. Read for this insight. Yes, James and John did desert Jesus just a few days after they made their brash promise, “we are able.” Peter did the same thing: “Lord, even though they fall away, I will not!” (14:29). We know how that came out, don’t we? But that isn’t the end of the story; something happened at Easter, and again fifty days later at Pentecost. Peter, James, and John were gathered up into that Spirit-filled community known as the Church which went out to turn the world upside-down for Jesus. Tradition tells us that all of them eventually died a martyr’s death for their faith in Jesus. Let us, then – we who are so weak and wobbly and wavering in our faith — not point the finger at these two who dared to aim so high, but whose aim fell so short. Let us not point the finger unless and until we are willing to take the road they eventually took — that of costly discipleship.
Give these two guys credit for one thing: they believed that there would be a “glory.” That’s more than most of us believe. We are pessimists, most of us. We say in church that we believe in God, that we trust God, but once we are outside the sanctuary our lives reflect something else. And even inside, we hedge our bets. It’s O.K. to put a token gift in the offering plate but God forbid that we should do something daring — like making a really sacrificial commitment. Remember the story of the pig and the chicken. A pig and a chicken were walking down the road when they saw a sign advertising ham and eggs for breakfast. “Let’s go and have some breakfast,” said the chicken. “Oh, no,” replied the pig, “for you that is only a token offering, but for me it would mean total commitment!” We, too, shy away from total commitment.
With Jesus’ help perhaps we can dare to say “Yes! We are able! We are not perfect, but we’re going to give it our best shot. With Your help we can become able. If You could use those two who hid behind their mother’s apron strings to ask You for a favor, You might even be able to use us! And who knows what might happen then?” The amazing thing is that, in the Gospels, it is just to such as these two misunderstanding, pathetic, confused, self-centered disciples that Jesus promises the Kingdom. They didn’t deserve it — but Jesus gave it to them anyway.
I read of a Texas family which had the custom of putting large plywood letters, bordered with Christmas tree lights, on their roof each year. The letters spelled the word “NOEL.” One year the father, who usually did the job, had been especially busy. It was almost mid-December and he had not put up the word “NOEL.” The family had been after him to get it done, for the letters were big and clumsy and only he could manage them. One Saturday the father decided he would do it that day, regardless. Well, that day was a windy day and his struggle was great. He fought the west Texas wind and muttered some rather unChristmasy comments under his breath as he wrestled the gigantic plywood letters onto the roof. It was nearly dark when he finished and clambered down the ladder to triumphantly tell the kids to plug in the lights. They did. And against the darkening sky the letters blazoned forth: “LEON”!
Leave it to us, like James and John, to get things backwards. “… but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave to all” (10:43-44). If the Gospel teaches us anything, it should teach us that. (Donald B. Strobe)
Proper 25 (B)
October 23, 1994
Does God Call for You?
(Mark 10:46-52)
The story in Mark is the last healing before Christ went to Jerusalem and died. Bartimaeus is the last person we have record of who Christ healed. It is a tiny little story. There were thousands of people on the road to Jerusalem for Pentecost, or for Passover. It was the time of remembering God’s deliverance, the time of hope, a time when one blind man was given sight.
This story could be your story. One of the reasons the Bible has so many stories in it is that sometimes as we learn those stories we begin to think about our stories. There is a possibility that if you find your story here you could make decisions that would change the way your story ends. There are some of you here this morning who, if your life continues in the direction it is going, the end is not going to be good.
The story starts with a person we would hardly notice if we passed him. He was a blind beggar, sitting in a high-traffic area with his cloak spread out for people to toss coins onto. One reason we don’t notice people is that sometimes we are not able to understand their problems. I’ll admit I don’t understand blindness. What do you think would happen to you if this morning during the service some wild, crazy virus hit your optic nerve and you couldn’t see? Think of all the changes in your life that would take place. That’s what was there sitting on that coat — blind beggary. Most of us have jobs with some incomes, whether it’s a lot or a little, and we have enough security that we don’t identify with people who don’t have anything, and who beg.
I’ve gotten in the habit on Sunday morning of stopping at a restaurant to get a cup of decaf coffee while I go over my notes. I get there around 7:15 a.m., because I need time to get myself ready. I have never been in that place on Sunday morning but that there were people in there who had brought with them everything they owned: the blanket they own, the sheet they own, the wash cloth they own, the bar of soap they own, the toothbrush, the little book with an address or two that is still important to them. That, I can’t even imagine. Most of us have more clutter on the top of our dressers that those people own. I can’t understand that. I think this is one of the reasons it is hard for us to get into this story. We’ve never been blind, and we are not beggars.
But did you hear what Bartimaeus said? On the blind beggar’s lips is a cry of hope and a cry of need: “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me.” “Jesus, Son of David” is a messianic term. “Have mercy on me” was a cry for help that issued from the very center of his being. There are some of you who are sitting there, as I describe blindness and need, who are thinking, “I’m not blind, and I’m not a beggar, but my heart cries out to God because of the needs I do have.” Now we can identify with Bartimaeus.
Even after being told to shut up by Jesus’ own lieutenants, Bartimaeus was still shouting. That suggests that he had a strong conviction about this Son of David, and he had deep real needs. He had a larger hunger than sight. Sometimes, when we look at someone who has lost some capacity, we think it is the only thing they need; but the truth is that even though we can see, we have other needs. Remember the lame man who was brought to Jesus? His friends thought his need was to walk. Jesus looked into his heart and sensed there a larger need. He saw a man crying out for forgiveness. Before He even looked at his crippled legs, He said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.”
As I read the story of Bartimaeus, I have the feeling it was more than blindness that drove him. There was a sense that this was his best opportunity, and this was probably his only chance to make his request of Jesus, Son of David. I wonder how many people there are whose hearts cry out, out of the needs of their lives, “Son of David, have pity on me.”
In the story, there is an interesting group which is not identified. I think I know who they are. They tried to shut him up, and what you read about them is so contemporary it is frightening. I think some of the group were just in a hurry. You know them — the fast pace of life keeps you from smelling the roses. It also keeps you from hearing the cries of people. They didn’t want their party to be delayed. They were hurrying up to Jerusalem to attend Passover, the festival when they would gather with families to celebrate how God heard the cries of the Israelites down in Egypt. And as they hurried through Jericho they didn’t have time to hear the cries of this blind beggar.
Some of the group were probably tightened at the implications of what he was saying: “Son of David” was a kind of political statement. They didn’t want the Jewish leaders to be mad. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus of Nazareth was an impostor and to talk about Him as Messiah was blasphemy. Remember the family they kicked out of the synagogue just because they admitted Jesus healed their son who was blind? They didn’t want the Romans to be mad. This could be thought of as treason.
This group is that crowd of people in society which doesn’t want to believe, say, or do anything that upsets anybody. They ought to put these people in coffins and bury them; they are dead already. You can’t do anything worth doing, you can’t believe anything worth believing, you can’t say anything worth listening to, but that somebody’s going to be irritated by it. And the group felt required to keep a kind of false calm, a superficial peace. These are the kind of people who live in our society who care nothing about the truth or integrity or righteousness – only about calm. “Let’s stay calm.”
Some of the people who said “Shut up” were the leaders of the church. One of them may have been Simon Peter. The disciples had come to the conclusion that Jesus was so busy and this was such a big time in His life. They had such an important engagement up in Jerusalem that surely He wouldn’t have time or wouldn’t be interested in this pitiful man’s confession or in his need. They were wrong. Organized religion, after it gets out of God’s hands, always has a tendency to make a decision about who God loves, who God is interested in, who God thinks is alright — without checking with God. Earlier in this chapter some women brought babies to Jesus and the disciples rebuked the women, and then Jesus rebuked the disciples. I think the reason we have such details of this story is that Simon Peter never forgot what a mistake he made when he told the blind man to shut up, and he passed it on to Mark who wrote it down.
Whoever you are, whatever kind of mess your life is in, whatever you may have done wrong, you need to remember that in Jesus Christ you have the best picture about how God feels about you. In the New Testament the love of Christ was always greater than His disciples’ love, and in today’s world God’s love is always greater than the church’s love.
Christ’s call changed the center of focus for this story. Mark preserved the words. Jesus said, “‘Call him.’; so they called the blind man and said, Take heart; stand up; he is calling you’.” Bartimaeus fairly exploded to his feet and over to where Christ was. I thought a lot about, why Bartimaeus? Christ knew and cared — that can be assumed — but it is interesting that just on the eve of dying for the sins of the whole world, He stops and talks to one person. Sometimes we think because Christ died for everyone that He may not have included us.
It may have been because the shepherds of Israel, who were supposed to be religious guides, were interested instead in plotting to kill Him when He got into Jerusalem. Jesus looked and there was a blind man who saw more with his blinded eyes than the religious leaders of Israel saw.
More interesting than why He called him is why He asked him, “What do you want?” Maybe it’s because people often ask for less than they need. Remember the lame man at the gate of the temple when Peter and John came in? He wanted coins. Bartimaeus could have been a man wanting to be the richest and most celebrated blind beggar in Jericho. Often we bury our greatest needs: forgiveness, love, meaning, and purpose and hope, and ask instead for money, power, status, privilege. I think Christ wanted to hear Bartimaeus say out loud what was in his mind and what was in his heart: “Give me my sight back.” Even so He wants you and me to confess publicly, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” and, “Please forgive me for my sins.”
I heard His call; not on the Jericho road in the midst of pilgrims going to Passover, but in a little shop town in northern Illinois where a handful of Christians met to worship. I responded, and He gave me spiritual eyes, and I have seen everything differently ever since.
Does He call you? Listen to His call: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone will open up, I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” Listen to His call: “Come and follow me.” (Ken Chafin)
Proper 26 (B)
October 30, 1994
Sine Qua Non
(Mark 12:28-34)
I read somewhere that a Guinness World Record had been set for the world’s shortest sermon. An Episcopal priest stood up one Sunday morning, walked to his pulpit, stood there for a moment, and said one word: “LOVE.” Then he sat down.
I know some of you would like for me to attempt a sermon like that one day. But it is not that easy. The word “love” is capable of many different meanings.
Love is what a mother gives to her children. Love is what a thrice-divorced Hollywood actress is supposed to have for a five-times divorced actor. Love is what two high school students, parked in an automobile on a lonely road on a dark night, are supposed to have. Love is what a heroic soldier who gives his life for another’s in wartime is supposed to have. Love is what God is supposed to have for us: “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Obviously, in each of these cases “Love” has a different meaning. In the context of today’s Scripture text, “Love” means total commitment.
I. “Which commandment is first of all?” (v. 28)
Later rabbis insisted there were no greater or lesser commandments, but Rabbi Hillel, who lived about twenty years before Christ, is reported to have summed up the Law for a Gentile inquirer by saying, “What you would not have done to yourself, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary” (Mishnah, B. Sabbath 31A). That is the negative form of what Jesus expressed more positively, but it forms the basis for all of the commandments.
The main business of the scribes was the teaching and interpretation of the Law of Moses, the Torah. Therefore it is no wonder that this particular scribe was most interested in what this new Rabbi in town had to say, what Jesus believed to be the sine qua non of religion, the fundamental essence of faith. Sine qua non means “without which, nothing.” In other words, if you haven’t got this, you haven’t got anything.
This scribe was singled out for Jesus’ commendations. This surprises us, because the scribes and the Pharisees are usually the “bad guys” in the Gospels. They were the wiseguys who were always trying to trip Jesus up. Here we have an honest scribe who asks an honest question, and gets an honest and straightforward answer. The man asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus replied:
II. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (vv. 29-30)
Jesus began by quoting the call to worship used in the Temple in His day (Deut. 6:4-5) and the confession of faith used by every Jew in every synagogue down to our own day: Shema y’ isroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai ehod, which means “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” But Jesus went further to expound on the implications of that confession of faith. If God is one, then God’s people ought also to be one. It was probably Jesus who first brought together the two great commandments of Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18b into one. There is no trace of any earlier teacher having done so.
“You shall love God with all your heart.” The Greek word is kardia, from which we get “cardiology.” While, literally speaking, the heart is the chief organ of physical life, in ancient times it came to stand for a person’s entire moral, spiritual, and mental activity. In the Bible it is used to refer to the hidden springs of the personal life. Thus Jesus refers to human depravity as springing “from the heart” {Matt. 15:19, 20). The heart is the inner being of every human being; it is the well-spring of all human actions.
“You shall love God with all your soul.” The Greek word is psyche, from which we get “psychology.” In the first part of the Bible, it refers to the “breath of life” which God breathed into humankind. “Soul” is the animating principle of life, that which gives life to the body. To understand what the Bible means by “soul,” we might compare it with what Black culture means by “soul” — it is something you either have or you have it not.
“You shall love God with all your mind.” Love God with our minds? A lot of Christians don’t think it can be done. One preacher was asked what he’d preach the following Sunday. He replied, “I never prepare ahead of time. When I stand up and preach, God Himself doesn’t know what I’m going to say!”
Refusing to use one’s mind is not a reason for bragging; according to the Bible, it is nothing less than a sin. When a devout Muslim enters the mosque to pray, he takes off his shoes and leaves them outside. There are a lot of Christians who think they have to leave their minds outside when they come in to worship. There is a place for loving God with our minds. To both ancient and modern Jews, to study is to pray. Perhaps some of us are afraid to think about our faith for fear that it might not withstand scrutiny. Let me ell you: It can!
One day a student came to see the great Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks and said to him, “Dr. Brooks, I would like to share my doubts with you, but I am afraid it might destroy your faith.” Brooks could only lean back in his chair and roar with laughter. Any minister who has done any thinking at all has faced doubts greater than any other student ever imagined!
“You shall love God with all your strength.” The Greek word here is dunamis, from which we get our word “dynamite.” It means concentrated and consecrated ability. It means having our whole being focused. The Orthodox Jews who bob and weave as they pray at the Western Wall of Jerusalem may look odd to us but psychology teaches us that by putting their bodily strength into the action they are forced to concentrate on their prayers.
In these words Jesus is emphasizing that one’s ultimate loyalty cannot be divided. We are not really atheists or unbelievers; most of us are polytheists. We may say in church on Sunday mornings that we believe in one God but most of us are practicing polytheists whose gods change to suit our whims. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, the emperors in Rome changed so often that the people out in the provinces resorted to a simple method of keeping their emperor’s statue up-to-date: they merely hacked off the head of the old emperor and replaced it with a new one.
Just who or what is our God? Jesus said that only One has the right to that position. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” That is the first and greatest commendment. The second is:
III. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Love your neighbor” here does not mean personal liking, or sentimental affection. Christian love is a position, not an emotion. It means active goodwill. We believe that if you like someone enough you may, eventually, come to love them. Jesus taught that if you loved them enough, you might eventually come to like them. But whether you like them or not, you are called to have active goodwill toward them.
Intelligent love of one’s neighbor in a highly complex society is a high moral, intellectual, and spiritual achievement. It takes “smarts” to love your neighbor, as well as your God. In loving our neighbors we are to use our minds. Christians ought not to be “sitting ducks” for every con artist who comes down the pike. In every situation, we must use our minds to ask: “What is the most loving thing I can do for this person? When a person asks for money or a meal, perhaps the most loving thing one can do is help him find a job.
“Love your neighbor … as yourself.” This is part of Jesus’ great commandment which many of us miss. But the truth of the matter is, if we don’t love ourselves, then our neighbors are in big trouble. A lot of us don’t. At least we don’t love ourselves properly.
There are right and wrong kinds of self-love. Most of us have had it up to here with the self-centered person who always seems to suffer from “I” trouble. The whole universe revolves around that person and his needs. That is not what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about a healthy respect for one’s self, a love for one’s self, a belief that we are worth something simply because God has loved us.
G. K. Chesterton said that the really great lesson in the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. Well, a person must be loved before that person can be loveable. Some of the most unlovely people got that way because they thought that nobody loved them. Loved persons are able to love; unloved persons are not. Christianity says something startling. It says that God loves and accepts us “just as we are.” Therefore we can love and accept ourselves and, in so doing, love and accept others.
The only adequate basis for such an effort to lift one’s self to a higher level is the faith that that is where God intends us to be. Our forebears in the faith used to sing an old Gospel hymn: “Oh, to be nothing, nothing at all.” Some of them made it! But that’s not the Gospel. The Gospel is that “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Because God loves us you and I are somebody.
Jesus said to this scribe: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (12:34). He was not far, but he wasn’t there yet. He knew it with his mind, but he had not yet experienced it in his heart or reflected it in his actions. But Christ accepted him and commended him anyway. I wonder what it would take to push him over; what kind of a nudge would it take to push him over into the Kingdom of God? What kind of a nudge would it take for us?
In the 1985 Madrid marathon, four thousand runners began the great race. At the end, two 36-year-old runners — who were very close friends — were leading the pack. Near the finish line, one of them was seized with terrible cramps and could not finish the race on his own. Whereupon the other stopped, picked up his buddy, and carried him across the finish line. It’s a parable for us, isn’t it? None of us can make it on our own. But we have a Friend who wants to carry us into the Kingdom in His arms. For heaven’s sake, let’s not wait until we die to be “carried away” by Jesus. Let’s let it happen now! Here! Today! (Donald B. Strobe)
Proper 2 7 (B)
November 6, 1994
Are You a Taker or a Giver?
(Mark 12:38-44)
Richard Lee, in his book Windows of Hope, describes the life of George Mueller of Bristol, England, as that of a genuine giver. During the 1800’s, Mueller had a great concern for the children of his community. Many of them were orphans who literally ran in the streets with nowhere to go. Additionally there were no schools to teach them the basic fundamentals of life. These poor children were growing up illiterate burdens on society. Mueller felt God leading him to establish a day school and an orphanage to meet their needs — and God supplied abundantly!
As a result of prayer alone, nearly 40 million English pounds were donated over his sixty-three years of ministry. That totals to more than one billion dollars in today’s currencies! But the truly amazing facts of the story reveal Mueller’s art of self-sacrifice in giving. He cared for over 2,000 orphans in his five homes; he provided day-schooling for 121,000 students; he distributed 300,000 Bibles, 1.5 million New Testaments, 111 million new tracts, and he supported several hundred missionaries around the world. His personal stewardship amounted to giving over two million pounds in his lifetime. At his death his personal estate valued at only the equivalent of $850, and half of that amount was in household effects and personal items.
It would have been easy for him to have developed into a “taker” instead of a “giver,” but Mueller overcame the temptation.
Jesus dealt with people who demonstrated the art of “taker” and was pleasantly refreshed by a true “giver” in today’s text. What makes an individual a “taker” and another a “giver”?
I. A “Taker” is Filled with Carnal Pride (v. 38-40a)
A taker is filled with carnality and cares nothing about God or others. A bloated ego is a tell-tale sign of this kind of an individual. The Pharisees in the text used “attention getters” like long flowing robes and lengthy, meaningless prayers.
The characteristics of “attention getters” in the 1990’s include a poor altitude.
I read about one ill-tempered husband who was quiet at breakfast one day. His wife asked, “How do you want your eggs this morning?”
“One fried and one scrambled,” he snapped back. When she sat the eggs in front of him, he grumbled and growled.
“What’s wrong?” asked his wife.
“You fried the wrong egg!” he yelled.
A second characteristic of a “taker” is a desire for prominence. The Pharisees desired the “important” seats in the church. They also made a show of “giving” to God. Their pretensions made Jesus ill. The truth is they wanted to be somebody, but in reality they were nobodies. Ambrose Bierce said, “The hardest tumble a man can make is to fall over his own bluff.”
Another characteristic of a “taker” is greed. The carnal Pharisees wanted more for themselves continually and cared nothing about who they hurt or destroyed to get there. According to Jesus they even “devoured widow’s houses” by taking advantage of the widow’s plight. Know anyone that fits that description?
II. A “Giver” is Filled with Honest Humility (vv. 41-44)
The key concept of an honest humble person is sacrifice! This individual exhibits and practices wholehearted devotion to God. Why? Because he or she loves God with all of their heart, soul, mind and body.
Oswald Chambers reminds us that biblical sacrifice means giving to God what we have with joy.
An honest humble person learns to trust in God. Andrew Murray commented that one should never attempt to arouse faith emotionally from within. He states, “Leave your heart and look into the face of Christ, and listen to what He tells you about how He will keep you.”
An honest humble person loves to give anonymously. The widow made no pomp or circumstance about her giving. She simply gave what she had quietly.
Today, give something anonymously to someone. Give a $5 bill to a stranger in need. Leave some groceries on the doorstep of a family who is on welfare. Share good clothing with a family that has been “burned out.”
A heart full of honest humility will be noticed by God — and, after all, He is the One we serve! (Derl G. Keefer)
Proper 28 (B)
November 13, 1994
The Eternity That God Brings
(Mark 12:38-44)
F. W. Boreham writes that Rabbi Duncan, at the end of the year’s work, would dismiss his students with this statement: “Gentlemen, many will be wishing you a happy New Year. Your old tutor wishes you a happy eternity!”
Eternity fascinates us, and yet we know so little about it. We do not know what it holds, where it is, how it develops, or when it begins. It would be extremely hard to believe that once human life stops it is the end! It is also very non-biblical. Scriptures often relate the fact that life is never over; death is only the beginning. Eternity is jumping into the lifetime of the Almighty. How prepared are we for eternity?
An old college professor asked one of the graduating seniors at his school, “After graduation today, what are your plans?”
The student replied, “Oh, I shall take up my profession, marry a wonderful woman, make a living and succeed in the world.”
“And then?”
Then I shall retire, travel, see the world, and take life easy.”
“And then?”
“Well, old age will come, but I hope to enjoy that, too.”
“And then?”
“Well, then I shall die I suppose; all people do.”
“And then?”
But the young college student had no answer for that question.
Above the triple doorways of the Cathedral of Milan there are three inscriptions. Over one is carved a wreath of roses and underneath are the words, “All that pleases are for a moment.” Over the other is sculpted a cross with the words, “All that troubles is but for a moment.” The central entrance to the main aisle reads, “That only is important which is eternal.”
The disciples on one occasion commented on a material building and received a lesson on the end of the age and the beginning of eternity.
I. God Brings an End to the Old Traditions of Religion
Centuries of tradition, ceremonies and sacrifice composed the religious life of the average Jew. The centerpiece of religious traditionalism was the Temple at Jerusalem. Scriptures bear out that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Jesus, and how He dramatically purged the evil practices and defilement from within its walls. Norval Geldenhuys writes in the New International Commentary, “His [Jesus’] opponents, however, proved that they were persistently determined to reject Him, thereby sealing their own fate and that of the city and the temple. So when some of the disciples spoke about the elegance of the temple, Jesus expressly announced that ere long the beautiful building would be completely destroyed. Through His personal advent to the people and to the temple, the old dispensation in which God had to be worshipped by outward ceremonies and sacrifice in the temple had come to an end.”
The frightening thought charges us like a bull elephant. These people were not rejecting tradition; rather, they were rejecting the Messiah. Others did not believe in Him, but were merely interested in Him as long as He fed them, performed miracles in their midst, and healed their bodies.
But before we cast stones at them, maybe today’s Christians ought to contemplate where they are in the issue of tradition versus Messiahship. Have they lost sight of eternal matters? Has the “form” of ritual become the Messiah rather than the person of Jesus? Have they become so spiritually blind to their own traditions, forms, and rituals that Jesus is left standing in the outer court?
II. God Brings a New Era of Redemption Through Faith in Christ!
One greater than tradition or ritual has come — and His name is Jesus!
Christ bursts upon the scene of the 1990s just as He did in His day. He must become the focus of worship, adoration, praise and exultation. The walls of the temple of traditionalism and stagnation are destroyed.
Does that mean that we throw out doctrine, dogma, and belief? No, certainly not — if they point to Jesus. What it does mean is that the church must examine why it does what it does and makes sure that Jesus is Lord. It does mean that some old methodologies are abolished. Eternity is too close for the church to miss its opportunities to change life by offering Christ to a dying, hurting world in the 1990s.
III. God Brings the End on His Timetable.
Eternity is not ours to command; it is God’s. We can study the Bible for signs and clues but God is in charge of the timing. One great thought for the Christian: the end is just the beginning of eternity!
Come Lord Jesus! (Derl G. Keefer)
Christ the King (B)
November 20, 1994
King or Commoner?
(John 18:33-37)
The conversation between Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean Rabbi, is not mere idle chitchat. We discover some remarkable things about both captor and captive.
There seems to be a casual indifference in the voice of Pilate as he banters with God’s Son. It is clear he cares little for the Jews and their ways. He has little enthusiasm for his duties as an examiner of alleged criminals. He appears to be more the schoolmaster regretfully reprimanding an errant student than Roman master of an occupied land, or to be the philosophy professor who is willing to debate the ingredients of “truth,” while compromising with it.
On the other hand, Jesus seems little distressed by His plight. He stands in chains in the Antonia Fortress before Rome’s ranking official. Jesus answers coolly and calmly, but with information that was never heard in His encounters with Jewish authorities. He responds to Pilate’s questions with a regal, albeit unassuming, air. If one should analyze the conversation bit-by-bit in the manner of a detective, would we find an admission which could cause Pontius Pilate, as well as Caesar some twelve hundred miles away in the security of Rome’s marble splendor, to have wakeful nights?
Caiaphas and Annas, too, the high priests who were derelict in their spiritual duties to their faith and their people, would also have tossed and turned had they heard Jesus’ confession — and understood it. Many would have been troubled by the Lord’s words for He claimed a sovereignty that skyrocketed past the worldly empire of the caesars and Roman legions into the reaches of Heaven itself. He was not some earth-bound king, but One possessing the majesty that surpasses the celestial stars.
You see, Jesus unequivocally claimed to be a King. He asserted a kingship that was not simply that of a constitutional monarch or of a misguided pretender to some questionable throne. He was not some royal puppet willing to be dangled while more powerful men pulled His restrictive strings, as was the case of Herod the Great’s princely sons. No! Jesus asserteed His role as Absolute Sovereign; a Monarch with a massive, angelic army; a King with more than diplomacy and political chicanery in His arsenal; a King with truth, absolute and pure, pristine and powerful. Jesus made it known to Pilate and those present that He was no ordinary prisoner; no commoner; no powerless, pitiful, petty would-be prince. He was fully what John saw in the Apocalypse: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).
Poor dull-witted Pilate missed all that; so do we oftentimes! Pilate might be excused. He was familiar with a number of Rome’s puppet kings: Herod Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus — the sons of Israel’s former ruler, Herod the Great. Pilate knew such puppet kings, for the most part, to be conniving pragmatists, mean, easily corruptible men. He asked Jesus about His kingship: “Are you the King of the jews?” One can imagine the sarcasm in his question.
Pilate was not the only one to consign God’s Son to a less-than-imperial role. Don’t we do the same? He wants to be the Absolute Ruler of our hearts, yet we are more apt to give Him rule over only an hour or two on an occasional, convenient Sunday morning rather than the whole of the week or the expanse of a lifetime. We permit Him to determine our morality — to a degree — as long as it doesn’t become excessive. He may rule our loftiest thoughts, but not our basest fantasies. He may govern our neighbors, but not our neighborliness. You see, this King of kings is seen by many a frightened, fearful soul as being little more than another potential tyrant, as notorious as the worst of Russia’s czars and as militant as the most militaristic Prussian emperor. That is because they don’t know Him. They don’t know Him at all.
Jesus came “to testify to the truth,” and the truth is wrapped up in love. The truth is: God loves us!
That’s something Pilate could not understand. He theorized about it, asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Caiaphas, at whose palace Jesus had been just hours before the governor questioned Him, could not fathom divine truth either. The high priest knew nothing of love or forgiveness. He knew the Law. And it was the Law that drove him to expediency, saying that it was needful that one Man should die for the people (John 18:14). Caiaphas was all rules and restrictions, regulations and ordinances.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice,” said Jesus, but neither the Roman governor nor the Jewish authorities were listening. They were corrupted by deceit and delusions; their hearing was defective and their motives self-serving.
Jesus has come to be your King, to love you with a king-size love. He has come to conquer deceit by being the truth in all the majesty such an honorable thing requires. Thus He comes with arms outstretched to carry your burdens and bear your sin. He stretched those arms for you upon Calvary’s cross. He stretches them now to receive you in repentance and renewal. He reaches out to you and me and those beyond these doors to make of us brothers and sisters in His royal family, princes and princesses who love as He loves.
This is the King of kings. He is no commoner, though it is the common folk for whom He died. It is the common people for whom He conquered death and won new life. Is He your King, your Sovereign? Will you allow Him authority over your heart? He rules only at your invitation, not by forced subjugation. He is not an occupying power, but He is power. It is the power of truth, truth wedded to love, and love meant for you and me. He wants to be King of your hearts and rule with a love that pulsates with life, that vibrates with authenticity — a love that forgives.
Jesus teaches us that “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to [His] voice.” Are you listening? Then who is seated on the throne of your heart? Let ego abdicate. Push the slave driver’s ambition and materialism off your heart’s royal throne. Then you can crown Christ the Lord of life — your life — right now. Every day, welcome Him to be the Sovereign who rules in love, and you will know an endless joy. As you renew your baptismal covenant daily, so Christ ascends the throne of your heart to reign in forgiving love. He’s King; not commoner. (Richard Andersen)
1st Sunday of Advent
November 27, 1994
Heads Up!
(Luke 21:25-36)
Several years ago a woman presented me with a little book with a catchy title. It was a book on prophecy entitled 7 989 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1989. The book listed one reason after another why Jesus was coming back in 1989.
In the Gospels, Jesus says that we will not know the time of His return (Luke 12:40; Mark 13:32). I pointed these texts out to the woman but she countered with “you can’t know the hour or the day, but you can know the year.” Of course 1989 came and went and proved the book wrong. We really can’t know the day or hour — not even the year — of Christ’s return. The only thing we can know is that we don’t know. Jesus said repeatedly that His return will come unexpectedly.
In Luke 21:25-36, Jesus speaks of His return. Jesus says when the things that have been prophesied begin to take place, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near.” He offers two clear instructions in preparing for His return.
I. Keep Your Heads Up
I play in a church softball league. Last season I was experiencing a hitting slump. The only thing I could hit was pop-ups. The final game of the season, two outs, ninth inning and guess who’s up to bat? Outfielder loses my ball in the sun and somehow I made it to first base. So I’m standing on first thinking: two outs, run on the crack of the bat. Next batter hits a long high ball to right, I take off for second base. Right fielder catches the ball, throws it immediately to first, and umpire calls me out. You see there was really only one out. I should have tagged up before running to second. The coach met me coming into the dugout and said, “Scott, you have got to play ‘heads up’ ball. Keep your head into the game to understand what’s going on.”
Jesus says keep your heads up. I think Jesus is saying we need to keep our lives in perspective. As Christians we believe that there is more to life than just the few years we live on this earth. All of us will one day die, no matter how healthy we eat and how much exercise we get. Yet even though our physical bodies will die, we will live on; we have eternal life. That is what we believe; that is our perspective. The brief span of years we have on this earth is but a drop of water in the oceans of eternity. We see terrible things going on in the world today — earthquakes, hurricanes, wars and rumors of wars — and it’s easy to get depressed. Jesus says live life heads up. Keep life in perspective.
Then Jesus tells a parable; He says when you see a fig tree or any tree sprout leaves, know that summer is near. In Israel, the fig tree is one of the first trees to bloom in spring. In the South we have magnolia festivals because people get excited when they start to bloom; people know that spring is coming. Jesus says when you see these things happening, keep your heads up, don’t be sad or frightened because you know something good is coming.
Then comes a tough verse: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Luke wrote his Gospel sometime between 70 and 90 A.D., about fifty years after the death of Jesus. The people who first read Luke’s Gospel knew that the contemporaries of Jesus had almost all died and Jesus had not returned. What does Luke mean by “this generation”? Eduard Schweitzer explains that when Jesus says “this generation,” He is referring to the church. Before Christ, people lived under the generation of the law; this was the works generation. After Christ’s resurrection there is a new generation under grace, of which we are a part. We live in the generation before the end of our generation — the generation based on grace through faith.
II. Keep on the Look-Out
Jesus says be always on the watch, looking for His return.
If you walk by a ball park and someone hits a foul ball you will hear people yell “Heads Up!” You know that you better look or the ball might drop on you. Today we need to hear someone call to us once in a while, “Heads Up!” We may have struggles, we may have trials, we may not be as healthy as we used to be, but “Heads Up!” We may lose someone we love, have some things happen that we didn’t expect, but “Heads Up!”
Jesus will return. That’s the Gospel; that’s the good news. Jesus is still coming back and we will spend eternity with Him. “Heads Up!” (Scott Salsman)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Donald B. Strobe, Professor of New Testament and Homiletics at Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies: Gary C. Redding, Pastor of First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC: Richard Andersen, Pastor, St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San lose, CA: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene: and Scott Salsman, doctoral candidate in preaching Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY.

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