Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This Is Not The End - An Easter Sermon


Several years ago, I went to the Holy Land Experience amusement park in Orlando.  It's a strange place, to be honest.  I'm not sure just how much of the amusement park itself is representative of the Holy Land... but it's an experience, so there's that.

At the Holy Land Experience amusement park there is a replica of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.  This is a photo of the inside of the tomb:


Yes. That is a door in the back of the Empty Tomb.  I have used this before in a sermon, but it's just too good to not use again.  I can't tell you how many deep theological problems this back door to the Empty Tomb creates.  But there it is.

I've had the opportunity to go on two different pilgrimages to the actual Holy Land in Israel, and am preparing for a third trip a year from now.

As part of the trips I lead, we visit an area just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem that is believed by many to be the site of the garden where Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb.  It is definitely a first century garden, with a first century tomb in it.

This is a photo of the inside of the tomb in the actual Holy Land:

Just in case you were wondering... there was no back door to this tomb.  If you were wondering...

So we have these two tombs...

One is made out of stuff you can buy at Lowes, and has a back door so that the actor playing Jesus during the Passion Play at the Holy Land Experience can be buried, and then reappear in risen glory on top of the hill just behind it.  It's awesome.  I waited to sit it in 100 degree heat with no shade.

Then there is the other tomb, which could very well be the actual tomb that Jesus was buried in after he was taken down off of the cross...  This one was carved out of the solid rock in the hillside bordering the garden.

And both of these tombs have something in common--believe it or not.
Want to guess what it is?

They're both empty.

Because, as we Christian-types are fond of saying:   the tomb... is... empty.

And those of us in the Christian tradition also have this thing that we do on Easter that sort of celebrates this fact---because as I mentioned... it is a fact that the tomb... is... empty.

In some churches--like ours--the pastor will say "Jesus is risen," and then the rest of the people in the congregation will say, "He is risen indeed!"  It's what we do.

Because the tomb... is... empty.

Some people wonder about the certainty of that statement.  And they wonder if it really happened.  Maybe you're one of those people.  You can here today because someone asked you, or bribed you, or you want to see what kind of pastor actually wagers a tattoo to get his people to invite their friends to church. Or maybe you sort of enjoy church, you like the atmosphere, and all--but you don't know whether you buy the whole thing or not. Or maybe you do believe or at least you think you do...but you're having a hard time convincing yourself that everything the Bible says happened...actually happened. I get it.  It's hard to accept miraculous stories--even ones that are passed down from generation to generation and upon which an entire belief system is based.

So do you believe in miracles?

Seriously.  How do you explain what it feels like to see your child born?  Or the love of your life on your wedding day?  Or an evening with friends that is so perfect that it just defies explanation?  Or that moment when you should have died... should have taken that other job...  Only you didn't.  And everything changed because of that moment.

Do you try to find reasons... Or do you whisper, "That--was--miraculous." and find yourself okay with believing it as you say it?

Okay, let's say that miracles happen---and we can all agree that someone being raised from the dead is kind of on the high end of the miraculous spectrum.  But that leads us to another question: Why does it matter that Jesus is risen?  Why does it matter that the tomb... is... empty.

Well, it mattered so much to the Christians in those early years after Jesus that they were willing to give their lives rather than relinquish that belief.  And here's something that makes me tingle.  I get how generations later people would be willing to die for their beliefs---beliefs that were passed down from family and friends that the love and trust.  But those early Christians--they believed because they saw Jesus risen.  They wouldn't have died for something that wasn't true--especially since they were there when he was executed.

The Resurrection of Jesus was so important to those early Christians because of what it meant for their future.  They faced persecution and death without fear--because they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that because Jesus was raised from the dead, they did not have to be afraid of anything... ever again.  If the worst that someone could do to you is kill you, they reasoned, and death has already been defeated through Jesus resurrection... then bring it on.

You may still not be convinced.  That's cool.  Even if you are, there's more for us to do.  We're going to be studying the version of the Resurrection story that is found in Matthew's Gospel.  There are four different version of the Resurrection in the Gospels--each with it's own vantage point, and details.

As we read through this text and do some study together, I want us to hold on to this one very big idea that will carry us through our exploration:

Because of the Resurrection, You Are Free to Be Fearless...  

Let's do some work.
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
One of the most important words in this passage occurs in just a moment: "Suddenly."  Everything that happens in this story happens "suddenly."  The first Easter literally explodes with life---all heaven is breaking loose isn't it?  And this is because God is entering into the world in a new way.  The ground shakes, just as it did on the day that Jesus died on the cross.  Just as the author of Matthew describes what happens when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem the previous Sunday when the entire city "shook."  

And I love what happens when the angel rolls back the stone.  He posts up on it and uses it as a seat.  It's like he's saying, "Whut?  That's what I'm talkin' 'bout! God is in the hizzouse!!!"  And if that's too "street" for you, then he was saying something like, "Hashtag BOOM!"  This is an awesome moment when God seems to be talking smack through this angel--who uses the stone that was supposed to hold the Son of God inside as a chair.  Come on now!  
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
I love this, too.  "Come and see the place where he lay."  That's past tense.  He didn't say "Come see where he is lying.... Come see his body where you left it..." Instead he invites the women to peer into the darkness of that tomb and realize the truth about everything Jesus had been trying to tell them all along.   
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
There's so much awesomeness in this story.  The women go away afraid "for joy."  You know this kind of joyful fear.  The kind of fear that grips you when you fall in love, see your newborn child for the first time, get that job that you longed for... you can't believe how awesome you feel, and you are afraid--afraid it will go away, fade, or not be true...  

They are literally running to tell the disciples the good news when "suddenly" Jesus appears to them and says, "Greetings."  Don't you just love that so much? "Greetings."  It's the first century equivalent of "Howdy."  "Hey." "'Sup?"  And then the women prosekynesan at his feet.  They fall down.  Like the wise men who brought gifts at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, these women worship Jesus for who he is---the very Son of God, the Living Word, the Risen Christ.  

Matthew allows the reader to watch the resurrection happen.  I am so glad we have this version.  It highlights the miraculous nature of this event.  There's no guards stealing the body---no disciples spiriting him away---nothing but God entering into history, shaking the very earth and posting an angel on top of the rolled away stone that couldn't hold the Son of God.

The landscape of the world--of history itself has been rearranged.  No one else did this.  Only God.  And joyful fear is the most appropriate response to this kind of rearrangement because its the only proper recognition of the absolute necessity of the glory of God to transform the world from brokenness to wholeness.  Only God can ultimately defeat sin and death.  It takes divine intervention to stop the bleeding in this world because no matter how hard us human beings try, God knows we haven't been able to do it on our own.

What this miraculous moment makes us realize if we are willing to see is that if goodness and mercy are to withstand the onslaught of evil, it's not going to be because good people kept trying.

Come on.  You know this is true.  We all do.  We just don't like to admit that we aren't enough.

But you get it, don't you?  You've may have had dreams that have died.  You may be in a dead end career.  Maybe you've had relationships lose their life and come to an end.  Perhaps you've seen the demise of your finances through a bad economy or bad decisions.  Or maybe you see your future as buried in darkness--with a stone rolled in front of it.

Then there's the things that are beyond us---powerful evil things that fill us with more dread than we can handle.  Things like loneliness and pain and even death itself.  Or hunger and violence, hatred and racism... and of course war.

Here's the thing.  The reason why those first Christians thought the resurrection was so important is because of this important fact:  the resurrection of Jesus declares that there is hope beyond death and the death-dealing powers of this world do not have the final say over our lives...  

Author Brian McLaren puts it like this: 

For death is not the last word.

Violence is not the last word.

Hate is not the last word.

Money is not the last word.

Intimidation is not the last word.

Political power is not the last word.

Condemnation is not the last word.

Betrayal and failure are not the last word.

No, each of them are left like rags in a tomb,

And from that tomb,

Arises Christ,

Alive.


If you take away the resurrection there is no gospel---no reason to even show up here today.  If you try to explain the resurrection of Jesus away, to cast it into doubt it might very well create a safer belief system.

But if your religion is too safe--it isn't good news.   We don't need safe right now.  We need miraculous.  We need to know that there is more---that this is not the end.

Jesus is risen.  And because Jesus is risen we know that this is not the end.

Those first Christians, the ones who listened to Jesus teach both before and after his resurrection---they believed that one day they would be raised from the dead just like Jesus.  They knew this, they believed it, they died for this belief... because he told them it was true---the one who was raised from the dead told them this.  It was, "just as he said."

Beloved, because of the Resurrection, you are free to be fearless.  This is not the end.  This is not the end of your dreams... of your relationship... of your career... evil doesn't get the last word.  This is not the end of hope that we will see a world free from hate, violence, hunger and death.

And this is not the end of us...

This is not the end.

This is not the end.

You and I will rise.

Come alive like third day morning first breaths of Christ…

Sing like the birds in the leaves do…

Hum like the souls of the old do…

You and I will rise.

This is not the end…

This is not the end…
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Sealed Gate - A Sermon for Palm Sunday


This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  At our church we'll be celebrating this special day by singing hymns and praise songs at the top of our lungs while children run around our church waving palm branches.

Christians know how to party.

The story that we essentially reenact every Palm Sunday is found in each of the Gospel accounts.  This week we'll be studying Matthew's version, which is found in Matthew 21:1-11.

Before we open up the text and start reading this story--a story that is often called "The Triumphal Entry" of Jesus into Jerusalem--I need to tell you about a "triumphal procession" that took place before this one. It was initiated by none other than Pontius Pilate himself--the Roman governor of the region.  At each of the major feast days in Jerusalem, Pilate would process with his soldiers from his headquarters at Caesarea Maritima on the coast, across the Judean wilderness and into Jerusalem.

Pilate's stated purpose was to keep the peace but there was more to it than peacekeeping.  Pilate wanted the Jewish people to see the pomp, power, ceremony, shock and awe of Rome--to remind them of their place.  He rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse, clothed in armor with his cloak fluttering behind him like a cape.

It was impressive.

Then there was a second procession--one that was much different as we shall soon see...  Jesus processed into Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but a donkey.  There were no soldiers in his retinue, just a bunch of fisherman and common people from Galilee.

It's a sharp contrast--one that caused a stir, as a matter of fact.  There was cheering, revolutionary symbolism and lots of hopeful words being sung and shouted.  The people who were present thought they knew who Jesus was, they had ideas about what he was all about, and what he had come to accomplish.

And then not even a week later, many of the people who witnessed Jesus' procession were screaming for him to be crucified.

As we study this text today, I want us to hold on to this one thought that will guide us along the way:  Knowing about Jesus isn't the same as opening your heart to him.  

Let's read...
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
Jesus and his disciples are coming to Jerusalem for the Passover feast.  Jesus carefully plans what comes next.  All of the elements of what he is about to do are full of symbolism and guaranteed to make an impression.  The direction he approaches the city is symbolic--coming from the Mount of Olives toward the East Gate.  Riding on a donkey is also highly symbolic as we soon discover... 
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:5 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you,gentle and riding on a donkey,    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.
In Zechariah 9:9 we find the passage of Scripture that is referenced by the author of Matthew's Gospel:  

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This was the symbol of a conquering king coming in peace--not intent on destruction and violent revolution, but in winning hearts and minds.  This is the symbol of a servant-leader.  
8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,“Hosanna to the Son of David!”“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The people that are coming with Jesus--the "crowd"--are the common people, followers of Jesus from Galilee.  There are the Twelve, of course, but then there are other disciples and a wider group of people--some of whom may have eaten at the miraculous feeding of the multitude, or had experienced healing.  

The "crowd" is contrasted with the "city" which is made up of people who are not familiar with Jesus.  This tidbit of information would have been very symbolic to the early Christians who lived in the region after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  

The word for "stirred" is seis or "tremble" which is where we get the word "seismic" and it infers exactly what you would expect.  This was an earth shaking moment.  The people in the city are struggling to make sense of everything.  

People are shouting, singing and proclaiming the Hallel, a series of songs and prayers drawn from Psalms 113-118 which were sung at Passover.  The choice of language, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"  "the Son of David!"  these all indicated that the crowd believed Jesus was the Messiah that had been longed for--the one who would deliver them from oppression.  

And then there was the symbolism of cloaks being thrown on the ground and palms being waved.  The laying down of cloaks was a blast from Israel's past when the wicked king Ahab's soldiers laid their cloaks down in front of the conquering would-be king Jehu's chariot when he rode into the capital city of the Northern kingdom.  

And then there are the palms... Palms were nationalistic symbols for the Jews, like the waving of the Stars and Stripes is for us Americans.  They reminded them of the great revolutionary hero Judas Maccabeus who freed his people from oppression from a wicked Syrian/Greek king.  

So there are these two groups... the "crowd" and the "city."  As I pondered these two groups I had to wonder... which group ended up gathered in front Pontius Pilate as Jesus stood there beaten and bloodied... which group shouted over and over again, "Crucify him!"?

Which group ultimately closed their hearts to him--wishing he were someone else?  Was it the "city?"  They seem a likely choice.  But could it have been... both?

Hold on to that thought...

The photo at the top of this blog post is of the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem, the site of the one that Jesus went through on that incredible day.  The gate in the photo was erected by Justinian, a Latin ruler of Jerusalem during the several centuries when Europeans held the Holy Land, but the original stood where it stands today.

The mere act of Jesus going through that particular gate was incredibly symbolic.  In the prophet Ezekiel we read this about the gate and the Messiah who is destined to use it...
1 Then the man brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, the one facing east, and it was shut. 2 The Lord said to me, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it. 3 The prince himself is the only one who may sit inside the gateway to eat in the presence of the Lord. He is to enter by way of the portico of the gateway and go out the same way.”
This gate was known by the Jews as "The Golden Gate" or "Gate Beautiful" due to it's ornate design, and prophetic import.  They believed it was where the Shekinah, the glory of God, would appear, and of course they believed that the Messiah would one day come through it to liberate God's chosen.

Early Christians believed that when Jesus returned in glory, he would once again pass through the Eastern Gate, and on that day, in the words of the Apostle Paul, "every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

If we flash forward several centuries, we discover that this gate was also extremely important in the Muslim tradition.  In Arabic it was called "The Gate of Eternal Life," and the Koran indicates that only the just will pass through this gate on the Day of Judgement.

The great Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent sealed Justinian's gate to demonstrate his power and the power of Islam over both Jewish and Christian tradition.  A Muslim cemetary was built right in front of it in order to thwart Jewish prophecies about the Day of the Lord when Elijah the prophet would return as a herald to the Messiah and pass through the gate to the city.  Since Jewish rabbis were forbidden to touch anything dead, it was believed Elijah would not fulfill prophecy as a result.

All three of these religions have their own parade planned for that gate...  for their Messiah.  It's sealed shut until that time arrives.  Then and only then will it be opened.

And we are so much like the people who shouted, sang, danced and wondered on that incredible day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.  We get so caught up in planning the parade for the Messiah we want--we never open the gate to the Messiah we need. 

Jesus disciples abandoned him in the end.  The crowd dissipated.  The city turned ugly.  And all because he was not at all what they expected.  And nothing like what they wanted.  I happen to think there were members of both the "crowd" and the "city" shouting at Pilate to crucify Jesus.

Their hearts were sealed shut against any Messiah except the one they desired. And they didn't open them to the One they needed.

Years ago I met with a woman in the hospital who had been given the terrible news that the cancer invading her body was inoperable.  She had weeks to live. As I talked to her, she revealed that she had gone to church "her whole life," and considered herself a Christian, but had lately been wondering if she had done something wrong, and God was punishing her.

She then went on to tell me about her incredibly hard life--how she had been abandoned at an orphanage as a child, and then abandoned by her former husband, who was in the Navy when they were young and would leave her for months at a time.  Her current husband and daughter had grown exhausted caring for her and had begun talking to her about moving her to an assisted living facility.

It occurred to me that all of these stories connected to her feelings about God, and her expectations about what it meant to be a Christian.  I asked her, "Do you feel like God has abandoned you?"  Tears filled her eyes and she nodded.  I told her that she and Jesus had something in common---that on the Cross he had felt the same way.  I told her that God had always wanted her, always chosen her, and had always loved her more than she could ever know.  "There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from the love of God," I told her.  Jesus took care of that.  Jesus, the Messiah--her Messiah.

"Do you believe this?" I asked her gently.  She told me that she did with tears streaming down her face.  "Listen to me," I said to her. "God hasn't abandoned you. He is waiting for you with open arms and is more than ready to let you know--"Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord.'"

This woman had spent her entire life knowing about Jesu, but had never really opened her heart to him---never really experienced the peace that comes from knowing that because of Jesus we don't ever have to be afraid again.

Is the gate of your heart sealed today?  Maybe you've been waiting to open it for the Messiah that you think you want... Beloved, unseal your heart.  Open the gate.  Don't miss the Messiah you need because you are waiting on the one you want.  Learn the lesson that is so beautifully taught in this great story...

Knowing about Jesus isn't the same as opening your heart to Him.  






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Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Review Of The Movie "Noah" or "I Wish I Had Those 2 Hours Back"


Last night I finally went and saw the movie Noah.  I wanted to go see "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," but since I'm a pastor... and since people ask me about biblically-based movies, I felt I should go.  Listen, if I thought there was a chance that anyone had asked me what I thought theologically about Captain America--I would have so gone to see it.

I wish I had.

I've read the negative reviews on Noah from Christian leaders, pastors, reviewers, bloggers, etc. They far outweigh the positive ones, to be honest. But you know something is up when even neutral reviewers without a "dog in the fight," so to speak, don't have very good things to say about it.

The director of Noah, Darren Aronofsky, is not a Christian.  He is, in fact, Jewish, and more secular than religious, by his own admission.  This isn't "The Bible" mini-series, and it's not "The Son of God," in other words.  Those recent projects were created by Christians with Christians in mind.

Noah, not so much.

Here's the thing, if you are looking for a Sunday school remake of the classic story you remember from when you were a little kid...  This movie will not be what you are looking for.  Trust me on this.

Many Christian critics have attacked Noah as unbiblical.  They note that God seems to be notably absent--at least the God of the Old Testament that "speaks" to Noah.  They note that there are characters in the movie that are not part of the biblical narrative.  They also note that the underlying message of the movie is more about the virtues of environmentalism and vegetarianism than it is about sin, judgement, obedience and redemption.

And then of course there are the Watchers--fallen angels who are encased in earth, cursed by "The Creator" because they tried to help Adam and Eve after they were driven from the Garden of Eden.  These creatures are loosely based on the Nephilim from the Old Testament and also some ancient Jewish writings about fallen angels.

They look and sound like Ents from The Lord of The Rings, by the way.

But I have to say that all the way through the first half to three quarters of the film, I was hanging in there.  I understood that the details and even much of the plot of Noah wasn't drawn solely from the Bible.  As I mentioned earlier, Aronofsky used extra-biblical texts, ancient Christian and Jewish mystical writings, and portions of the Midrash or Jewish teachings, many of which date well before the time of Christ.

Because of this, I was willing to give Noah the benefit of the doubt.  I, too, see the underlying sin of humanity in the story as the neglect of God's creation, rejection of God's supremacy and a desire for power, dominance, greed and violence.  Despoiling Creation is a sin. So is war.  So is greed.  I think that all of us can agree to these simple things.  We have to also understand that those of us who are Christians don't own the Genesis account---we share it with our Jewish counterparts, although we see different lessons within it.

I also realize that in order to make a big budget movie there needs to be conflict, drama, action and the like.  It's Hollywood, after all.

But here's where things went wrong for me.  Aronofsky's story goes so far beyond what is reasonably found in any of the texts he used as sources that it does violence to the plot, his characters and ultimately the movie itself.  There's so much darkness in the film that even when the light comes it seems unsatisfying. Noah's struggle to understand God's plans becomes a melodramatic farce that is hardly believable.  I think this has more to do with Aronofsky and his own demons than with the story or the character.  Just watch his movie Black Swan if you don't believe me.

I would hardly classify myself as completely theologically conservative. I've had my fair share of knocks from people on the religious "right," and I know that I don't really want to party with them all that much.  But I have to say that I was pretty troubled with the treatment of the biblical witness in Noah. Particularly as it related to the character of Noah himself.

To be fair, Russell Crowe is a fine actor---and he plays brooding, troubled, conflicted anti-heros very well.  Jennifer Connely who plays Noah's wife shows some amazing range and has some powerful scenes.  The supporting actors are solid as well.  And the scenes where the animals come to the ark are pretty cool, I have to admit.

Confession:  I do have a hard time watching Emma Watson on the big screen without thinking "Why is Hermione from Harry Potter in this move?"  I'm not proud of this.

Overall, however, I can't give this movie any sort of positive recommendation. Biblical issues aside, Noah is just not a very good movie.  I think it could have been, but Aronofsky refused to let it have a soul that wasn't murky.

I think the moment in the movie when things turned completely, and started heading toward destruction is perhaps its most powerful.  Noah gathers with his family around a fire in the middle of the ark.  Outside the sounds of dying people, screaming for deliverance can be heard along with the driving rain and tossing seas.

"Let me tell you the first story my father ever told me." He says to his family.  "It was the first story his father ever told him."  And then he goes on to relate the story of Creation, accompained by stunning visuals, and poetic language that help the viewer "see" what he is saying.  In this moment Noah is his most human, his most vulnerable.

This was the moment in the film when Aronofsky could have chosen to make a different movie---one that moved toward light and redemption without being overly dramatic and needlessly dark.  A movie that may have lasted.  But instead he chose something else.  He took the beauty of the story--God's covenant relationship with Noah, God's justice mixed with intense love... Humankind's second chance to reject the temptation of Eden and simply live once again in the Garden---and he made it ugly and forgettable.

Maybe it's just me... but that seems sort of fitting.
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Thursday, April 3, 2014

One Way? Week Six: "The Lazarus Effect"


This week I am continuing the sermon series that I've been working on with my church for the past several weeks--a sermon series entitled "One Way?"  Throughout this sermon series we've been discussing how followers of Jesus can demonstrate with their lives all the ways that Jesus is the way to God.

We're doing something a bit differently this week.  I'm starting off by diving straight into the text.  As I teach, however, I want everyone to hold on this one big idea, which is going to loom large for us as we dig into the story:

Jesus is the One Way to God that shows us what God is really like.  

Let's get moving--we've got a lot of ground to cover. This is the story of how Jesus raised a man named Lazarus from the dead.  The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead only appears in the Gospel of John.

In Luke's Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, who die and go to opposite places, if you know what I mean.  The rich man goes to Hades and Lazarus goes to Paradise where he hangs with Abraham.  The rich man begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to return from the dead and warn his brothers to change their lives so as not to share his fate.  

At the end of the parable, Jesus says, "...even if someone came back from the dead, they still would not believe."

Here we go...
1. Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.
Does anyone but me find verses 5 & 6 a little odd.  "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus... so when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was..."  If this doesn't act as a clue that something is up, I don't know what will... Jesus is on a different timetable.  He chooses the time for his return here, just as he chooses the time when he goes to Jerusalem where he is arrested and executed. 
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas gives voice to what all of the other disciples are feeling.  "This is messed up.  The guy is already dead, and we have no idea why the heck we are heading back into the hands of our enemies... but if it means that we go now and start the revolution---or whatever---let's go.  The disciples don't really "get" Jesus--they are always a step behind. 

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 

The mourning process in ancient Judaism was dramatic and extended.  Family, friends and neighbors would "sit shivah" with the family, a seven day process that included a small window of hope for the first three days.  Ancient Jews believed that the soul of a departed person would remain near the body for three days, but when the spirit could see the color of the face of the body changing on the fourth day--it would depart.  Essentially, all hope is lost at this point.  
20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It's hard not to read some accusation and complaint into what Mary and Martha say to Jesus here.  What I love about this is that their complaints are hinged on their belief.  In fact, it's their belief that fuels their complaint.  They know that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if he had been there, if he had desired it.  It had been what they expected, honestly.  They'd seen him heal perfect strangers, and fully expected him to come to heal their brother, whom Jesus loved.  Martha goes back and forth with Jesus trying to struggle with this knowledge---and finally just taking whatever faith she had left and putting in his hands.  
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
And here is the focal point of our entire study today.  This simple verse--the shortest in the Bible...  
35 Jesus wept.
Let that little verse just sit with you for a moment...  
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Some of the people gathered at the funeral exclaim "See how he loved him!" but do they do it admiringly or accusingly.  I think it might be the latter--more than the former.  
  
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

I love this... for the first time in the entire Gospel of John Jesus addressed God as "Father."  
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
The words used here for "called out" are the same words that are used to describe the action of the crowds gathered to accuse Jesus later on the Gospel.  They call out "Crucify him!" Jesus cries out life, they cry out death.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

This is awesome---Lazarus comes out of the grave still wrapped in his graveclothes, a sign that he will one day have to die again.  When Jesus rises from the dead, he leaves those graveclothes behind, baby! 
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Great story right?  But every time I read it, I get hung up on that little verse right in the middle:  "Jesus wept."  What does it mean?  Why did the writer include it?  What does it reveal about Jesus that he wept? And further, what kind of hope does it give for those of us who grieve, worry or who are afraid...?

Before we answer those questions... let me pose another one:  Why do we cry?
What is it inside of us that triggers tears?

I get teared up over strange things.  It's unpredictable.  I watched the entirety of the movie The Notebook and did not shed a single tear---until I looked over and saw my wife bawling her eyes out, and then I got choked up.  She cries when she watches The Way We Were, too--a movie that did not affect me one whit, until she started boo hooing when it was over.

But I did cry when I saw Old Yeller... and the scene at the end of The Natural when Robert Redford is playing catch with the son he didn't know he had... yeah that messes me up.  I often get choked up at the end of the American Adventure attraction at EPCOT during the stirring final song.

Oh and I cried like a baby when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl.  And no... I didn't cry when they lost last year... much.

So what it is that triggers our emotions?  What does it tell us when we cry?  I looked up this topic on some pretty serious medical journals online.  I discovered that crying is a way of "letting go of our guard, defenses and tapping into a place deep inside."  This is medical terminology people, I kid you not. I also found that crying is "A release--a build of energy with feelings..." and that this release actually results in "releasing stress hormones."  In addition, crying shows vulnerability and affects everyone around us because it shifts the level of intimacy of the environment.

But here's where it gets real...

I read that not crying "deadens" us.  It "suppressed what is human."  Get this:  "the sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep...."

Let me ask you something... what did Jesus see when he entered into that moment at Lazarus funeral?  He saw the effects of loss.  The time of hope had passed---the eleventh hour had come and gone.  There was only despair at this point.  There was desperate faith--the kind of faith that both accused and hoped in the same breath.  There was resignation that there was not really going to be any positive resolution, no healing, no miracle.

These sisters who mourned their brother--Jesus friend--had most likely been the ones who wrapped his dead body.  As unmarried women, he had been their protector, their livelihood, their future.... As they wrapped his dead body, weeping as they pulled those graveclothes around him---I am sure they wondered what would happen to them when all of the mourners had gone.

Jesus saw this---all of it.

And he saw people full of unbelief, anger and suspicion.  He saw them in all of their brokenness and frailty... in their humanity.

And he wept with them.

Jesus knew that Lazarus would be raised from the dead---and he also knew that this was just a foretaste of the kind of resurrection that would change everything for everyone.

He knew all of this and yet he let himself feel... he wept and in so doing showed his followers---showed us what God is really like.

Maybe you came here today feeling like the eleventh hour has come and gone.  You just finished wrapped the graveclothes around your dreams... You feel as though your life is never going to get any better... You have lost more than you could ever imagine---maybe even someone you love, to death or leaving....

Maybe you came here angry at Jesus for not showing up.

You hear the words he speaks and they are so familiar to you aren't they?  "I am the resurrection and the life...."  Perhaps your head is telling you that you should believe it.  But your heart, your gut---the part of you that is so very, very human isn't sure.

And it's that part of you that Jesus knows better than you can imagine.  He weeps with you in the middle of your mourning.  He knows what it's like to feel your loss, your pain, your loneliness, your despair.

And this should give you hope... and joy... and peace that can't be described...

Jesus is the One Way to God that shows us what God is really like.  

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Leviticus, Tattoos & Red Letters


I made a crazy challenge to my church a little while ago.  

I challenged them to break the attendance record for Easter Sunday this year--to exceed 850 in attendance online and in person at all three of our services.  And if we did this... I vowed to get a tattoo of our church's logo on my leg, and get a haircut.  



I realized before I issued it, that my challenge might be considered by some people as a "stunt."  I get that.  Overly church-y people, as a rule, are rather joyless about such things.  They think that people should just come to church because they ought to come to church.  

Their outreach strategies are working so very well, by the way.  

I also realized that the "pitchfork and torches," wing of the overly church-y crowd might have something to say about my particular approach to outreach. They've made their presence known, to be sure---particularly by noting that tattoos are "sinful," and "forbidden" in the Bible.  

Here's the problem, when you actually read the Bible you discover lots of things that are "forbidden" that most overly church-y people completely ignore.  

Here are a few of them: 

1.  Round haircuts & Neatly Trimmed Beards (Leviticus 19:27) "...you shall not round off the side growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beards."  You could also infer that a beardless man might also be "forbidden" 

2.  Bacon (Leviticus 11:8) "...you shall not eat of [pigs] flesh or touch their carcasses." Bummer. 

3. Polyester or Any Other Fabric Blends (Leviticus 19:19) "...nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together." Try finding clothes that fit this category... 

4. Women Wearing Gold and Getting Their Hair Did (I Timothy 2:9) "Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments." This would have blown up the Southern Baptist Churches I've attended in the past... just sayin. 

5. Your Wife Defending Your Life By Hitting An Attacker In The "Man" Section (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) "If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity." Nice. 

This is literally the tip of the iceberg on weird things that the Bible bans--most of which are found in Leviticus and are part of ancient purity laws that were meant for a certain context and intended for a certain group of people.  

And of course in Leviticus 19:28 there is a ban on cutting your body "for the dead" and putting tattoos on yourself.  

What I love about overly church-y people is that they treat some verses in the Old Testament as if they were written in red letters, and ignore others.  

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about: In many versions of the Bible the words of Jesus are printed in red letters, signifying their importance.  

Funny.  I've noticed in my journeys that many of the overly church-y people who treat certain passages in Leviticus as though they were written in red letters, often ignore the actual red letters themselves.  I know this because I've been one of those overly church-y people, and have to struggle mightily not to continue being one.  

I would humbly suggest that if you are offended by the idea of a pastor getting a tattoo and a haircut to energize his church members to invite people to church who don't ordinarily attend church it might have more to do with your preferences and world view than your beliefs about the Bible. 

Using Scripture out of context to prop up our preferences and worldview is a pointless and cyclical exercise. Trust me.  I've been "hoisted on my own petard" more than once in that regard. 

In the Book of Acts there is this great moment when James, the brother of Jesus, stands up to address a church meeting where the apostles were debating whether to make Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian believers convert to Judaism and keep the laws from Leviticus.  "Brothers," he says to them, "we should not make it harder for these people to accept the Gospel.  Let them abstain from immorality and refrain from eating food offered to idols, and let that be enough." 

Listen, if ONE PERSON encounters Jesus and has their life transformed because of some stupid thing I did to introduce them to Him... 

It will be worth it. 
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