Luke 10:25-37: Who is my Samaritan?

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

This is not the first time I’ve spoken on the Samaritans. When we went through John, I spoke about where the Samaritans came from and their rivalry with the people of Judah.  I don’t think it is necessary to go into so much detail as we have in the past but, I will say that the people of Judah had an irrational hatred for Samaritans. Hate was somehow built into the culture and it had been building since they returned from the Babylonian captivity.

You might remember, my sympathy is with the Samaritans. Basically, what they did to earn the hatred was survive the Assyrian conquest, and then miss the Babylonian captivity. The grievances between Judah and Samaria come from religious arguments. Both sides accused the other of too much foreign influence, each claiming to have the better and purer understanding of God and the more correct way of worshiping God. Doubtlessly, when somebody was willing to admit Samaritans are from the stock of Israel, that would add the resentment of the kingdom splitting in two rather than reminding the children of Judah that the children of Joseph are sons of Israel, just as they are.

Of course, I don’t think the exact historical details are as important as the biases of the culture, and the person who Jesus was speaking to. Jesus said this to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor.” The question was important, because it is necessary to know who your neighbor is when interpreting the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man asked, because he wanted to know who was not his neighbor.

Jesus gave an answer that surprised everybody. He told a story of a man who was robbed and left for dead, and who was ignored by the best of society; though they saw his suffering they ignored him and left him for dead. The story made clear that those who were considered authorities in the law did not always follow it, or if they did, they saw the man bleeding on the road, and they left him still bleeding. If they believed themselves to love their neighbor, they somehow did not see this man in need as a neighbor.

Then a Samaritan came, somebody who shouldn’t have even been on this road because he was not welcome. He saw the man, tended his wounds, and took him to an inn where he could recover and payed for his stay. The Samaritan was the hero of the story who not only made sure that the man was taken to a safe place, but went above and beyond what could be expected.

When Jesus asked: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers”, the response was “the one who showed him mercy.” The expert in the Law who asked “who is my neighbor” could not bear to say the word Samaritan when he said that the man who showed mercy behaved the way one should behave as a neighbor. It must have stung a little when Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.” It is a hard lesson to learn that we should be more like somebody we hate without any cause.

When the Lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor,” he sought to justify himself.  Jesus answered quite cleverly, so that the lawyer couldn’t exclude anybody. The people of Judah hated the Samaritan to the point that a respectable person like this man was unwilling to answer “Samaritan” when a story was told that painted one in a positive light. The Samaritans were, like the people of Judah, an occupied people. As much hate as there was, there was no rational reason for it. Samaria was no less occupied by Rome than Judah. The Samaritans had no real power; no real power to harm the people of Judah; they were a people who it cost nothing to hate. There was reason to hate Romans, but the Romans had power and the will to punish their enemies. Samaria had none of that.

The Samaritan showed that he loved his neighbor — the person in need, even though he was out of his country, and in a country that hated him simply because he breathed. Who is your neighbor? Clearly, the neighbor isn’t defined by feelings, nor by our bias, nor by an understanding of friends and enemies. Our neighbors are those around us, especially those who are in need. The priest and the Levite saw their neighbor, and they passed by. The Samaritan saw a person who, on any other day would most likely be hostile — but a person who was bleeding on the road, and he acted with compassion to his neighbor. Jesus told the Lawyer to act like the Samaritan, which means, be a good neighbor when there is need, even if there is hostility.

I know that I live in a nation that from the day it declared independence declared that “All men are created equal.” I’d like to say that we are much better than the people in the Bible; we are fair to everybody. We do not hate anybody without cause, but we are generous and welcoming. As much as I’d like to say that, I can’t say it without lying. I know we have always had people who have no power who we look down on and treat as enemies even though they have done nothing to us.

When I think of who our Samaritans are, one group that comes to mind are the African Americans. Many of us are old enough to remember the days before Jim Crow ended, desegregation became law, and voting rights was enforced. There were the 13th and 14th amendments that stated the black man had rights, but these words were ignored and circumvented as much as possible. I know that at least one person in this congregation knows what a sunset town is, and that there were a number of sunset towns in Indiana.

Today, I see many people complain if a black person suggests that the systems of oppression are still in place, or if he suggests that our society and our law do not value black people’s lives. I’ve seen people suggest that saying “Black lives matter” is morally equivalent, and equally hateful to belonging to the KKK. Now, I am not in a place to judge when systemic racism is a thing of the past but, I think that even when it appears to be past, it is best to listen to those who suffered under it.

Black Slavery existed in what is now the United States since the end of the 16th century, it remained legal from the time it was started until it was ended by the 13th amendment in 1665, or about 250 years of slavery. This 250 years of slavery were followed by voter suppression, segregation, and other systemic laws to make sure that the Black population was kept down until the federal government intervened in 1965; this is 350 years of slavery, silencing and oppression which only ended within the lifetime of most of the people in this room.

Considering how recently our laws have changed, even if I could see no evidence of systemic racism, I would want to give the African American community a lot of patience when they want to air their grievances. I certainly would not suggest that they were no different than the Klu-Klux Klan because they are afraid they will be treated the same way they had been treated for over three centuries.

Unfortunately, I can’t say everything is better. I see people claiming that Jim Crow never happened, that there was no voter suppression, and that congressman John Lewis does not know history when he talks about the passage of the voting rights act of 1965 because Voting rights came in the 14th amendment in 1868. John Lewis of course was at the Selma march. Lewis was clubbed in the head and his skull was fractured over voting rights; this historical event is unforgettable for him. Even worse, I see people trying to pretend slavery never happened, or that slavery was no different than when working class Europeans payed for passage to the New World by signing up for a term of labor with a scheduled end date. I see people denying the truth.

At the start of this month, which is celebrated as Black history month, the state legislature had a vote on whether or not to have a “Hate crime law;” We still don’t have one, the vote was no. Another thing that marked the start of this month was a branch of the KKK distributed recruitment fliers just a couple blocks from the state capitol at Memorial circle. We can’t pretend that racism is a thing of the past when it is right in front of our faces.

Another group that comes to mind as potential Samaritans is the indigenous people of the Americas. Our government has consistently violated treaties and broke promises. Our policy to the Native Americans was one of `removal’. A more modern word for this would be genocide. “Indians” were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1957. Even today, Native Americans suffer violence at a disproportionate rate; half of Native American women have been raped, and 80% of them have suffered some sort of violent attack. A federal court decision in 1978 decided that Native courts have no jurisdiction over non-natives. Unfortunately, this means when somebody goes on a reservation and commits a hate crime, the tribe has to rely on federal courts. Too often, it means that crimes against natives are ignored. I’ve even heard of the Navajo congressman Eric Descheenie in the Arizona State legislature hearing slurs yelled against him, and people calling him `illegal’ right at the capitol earlier this year.

I’ve observed in depictions of immigrants as dangerous and politicians saying `illegal’ while working to take away the methods of legal immigration that all of the people in anti-immigrant advertisements look a lot like my wife or my father-in-law. Their significant Native American ancestry is quite visible. This rhetoric seems to me like we want to make sure that we keep out those who look to much like those that our ancestors `removed’.

I look at White Americans, which is a group that clearly includes myself, and I realize that we have Samaritans, people who did us no harm that we hate for no good reason, and I speculate that so many of us hate because we are ashamed to admit that not everything in history is pleasant. We don’t want to admit a shameful history — and we definitely don’t want to examine ourselves and see if we are still doing the same evil things that we did in the past. I think there might be a fear that we will not be forgiven, and we will be treated the way our ancestors treated others.

Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is our fellow human being, a person created in God’s image. Where our culture teaches us hate, we must remember that if we hate those created in God’s image, we cannot honestly claim to love God. Jesus told the Lawyer to go and do the good that the Samaritan did; hopefully we can hear these words as well.

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Luke 9:28-36 — Transfiguration

Reading: Luke 9:28-36

Today’s reading begins with “8 days after he said these things”. “These things” are what we spoke about last week — this passage follows directly after when Peter confessed that Jesus was the messiah, and Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about it and that if they were to follow him they would need to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him.

Reading the gospels, we find that we get used to some pretty strange things. One moment, the disciples are listening to Jesus tell them that they will be going to their deaths, and the disciples seem to hear this without blinking — certainly, they didn’t run away at this point. Last week somebody in our Sunday School class observed that because they expected Jesus to be a freedom fighter who would re-establish Israel, clearly when they decided to follow Him, they were willing to die if they failed to beat Rome.

A little over a week after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, we see Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain to see Jesus start glowing and sitting and talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter is ready to build a set of structures, likely because he imagined a shrine where people could come to the place where Jesus, Moses and Elijah met and talked together — then a voice comes out of the heavens telling Peter to that Jesus is His Son, to listen to Him.

We hear this story, and we say that it is the transfiguration, as if giving it a name explains what happened. It is one of these stories that all of us know from Sunday School — but, we really don’t discuss why it is significant, nor why Jesus decided to show His glory to Peter, James and John. What I do know, the lesson first lesson that I have from this is that this event, along with the Baptism, the Resurrection, and Christ’s ascension into Heaven tell us that Jesus is something more than just a man — it is, one might say, the Gospels reminding us that Jesus is, just as the Voice in the sky tells us, the Son of God.

Jesus is Divine. This is one of the Christian beliefs I find it most difficult to talk about, because I really don’t have any idea what it is like to be God. Traditionally Christians believe, and scripture teaches us, that we know God through knowing Jesus. We are not nearly big enough to correctly imagine what it is like to be God, so, saying that Jesus is Divine does not, by itself teach us much about Jesus; because what people imagine God to be like is often quite unlike what we see in Jesus. Jesus is divine — by knowing Jesus, we know God. If we see a conflict between God and between Jesus, we know that we are mistaken. God’s character is revealed to us through Jesus.

How does Jesus correct our view of God? When we look at the universe, it is beautiful, it gives us many resources, but it is also harsh and unforgiving. If we imagine a God simply from the universe that we observe, we can easily imagine a god that lacks compassion, a god that favors the powerful and ignore the cries of the oppressed.

Jesus is different. When Jesus came, he was born in a barn, not in a palace. When Jesus sent a message to John the Baptist, he the message included that he was preaching good news to the poor. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and was gentle with the powerless. Jesus could speak harshly, but his harshness was reserved for those who had positions of wealth and power. Jesus wasn’t fair, He was merciful and compassionate. Jesus gave grace to those who needed it.

More than that, we imagine God as transcendent. It is easy to picture God as being so far removed from our suffering that God does not even notice. Just as the universe is unforgiving, the universe is also uncaring and aloof. Jesus isn’t aloof. The first bed Jesus slept in was a feeding trough. Jesus was a refugee from a government that didn’t want him from his birth. When Jesus was grown, and people felt that what he said had value to the point he was called Rabbi — he chose to spend his time with the peasants rather than the scholars; and when there were children who would come to him, he didn’t send them away because the adults were talking — he blessed them, and called for them to be included. Jesus consistently showed compassion and gave his efforts to those seen as the least. This ethic was strong enough that Jesus even made exceptions to Divinely given law to heal on the Sabbath.

If the lesson that we get from the transfiguration is that Jesus is more than just the Anointed one, but God, then we learn an important lesson — one that influences everything that we believe. What we learn from the Voice from the sky is quite important — and, that lesson has long been enough for me.

Michael Kibbe, professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, wrote about the Transfiguration for Christianity Today’s July/August 2017 issue, and he brought out something I never thought of before; Dr. Kibbe tells us that the Transfiguration is a little hint of our future — it is not just about Jesus being God, and showing us what we don’t know about God, but it is also about giving us a glimpse of what it means to be human.

Elijah and Moses are not Divine, but they were substantially there, no less than the living Jesus — and they also glowed with glory. The disciples were not seeing ghosts, they were seeing three glorified people talking. If there were no Voice from the sky, this event would not have showed that Jesus was any more than these ancients who God called and anointed to fulfill a purpose. The voice tells us that Jesus is greater than Moses or Elijah — but, the voice does not change the fact that these men were physically there, in glorified bodies.

Paul writes about this in I Corinthians 15; reminding us that the bodies that we have now are not suited for eternity. When we imagine our coming resurrection, we’d be very wrong to imagine that it looks like a Zombie movie. The bodies that we look forward to will be those that are suited for eternity — something that we have no experience with, and we cannot describe. Dr. Kibbe’s suggestion that the transfiguration shows us what it means to be human is a suggestion that Peter, James, and John got a little peek at those resurrection bodies.

The gospel is something that is to be received as good news. In some ways, this good news is hard to see — because the gospel dashes one false hope after another. Jesus rejects the role of earthly king, and dashes the hope that Rome will be overthrown. Jesus tears down the idea that people can find safety in wealth or position; which is something that would be seen as bad news to those who feel safe with money or power. The Gospel gives all of us hope — but it also reminds us that we too often put our hope in the wrong things, things that do not last.

One hope that we do have is that if we follow Jesus, we end up where Jesus is. When Moses and Elijah were standing, in glorified bodies, talking to Jesus — the three disciples with Jesus got a glimpse of what the future is for us humans. Enough time had passed that even Moses’ bones must have been broken down into dust — but, there is he is standing around and talking with Jesus and Elijah. Peter, James, John, and you and me look forward to a similar body. Dr. Michael Kibbe taught me that the transfiguration isn’t just a message about who Jesus is — it is a reminder of the Good News that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead.

 

Luke 9:18-26: Following Jesus to the cross

Reading: Luke 9:18-26

What stands out to me is that when Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus let the disciples know right away that this meant something very different than he was expecting. He gave them a warning about the cost of discipleship that would have likely made me go back to my fishing boat and continue in the work that I learned from my father. “Follow me and die” just does not seem very encouraging.

This passage, however is quite literal. Jesus underwent great suffering and rejection; we believe that though the authorities put him to death, he rose from the dead on the third day; and of the 12 disciples, tradition tells us that only John died on old age. For some examples of how Jesus’ disciples died: Peter and Andrew were crucified, Matthew was stabbed, Thomas was impaled, Matthias (Judas’ replacement) burned alive.

Peter’s confession is remarkable — but even more remarkable is that Peter and the others continued to follow and teach Jesus even after it was clear that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they were hoping for. Somehow Peter and the others realized that the gospel was much bigger than the concerns of Israel, and followed the gospel as it took him all the way to his death in Rome. They truly did take up their cross and follow Jesus, all the way to their deaths.

Of course, when Jesus first said this to the disciples, it went right over their heads. None of the disciples were willing to take up their crosses when Jesus took up his — instead they all scattered. When Jesus was raised from the dead, one of the disciples asked if it was time for Jesus to take on Rome, and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Even though Jesus was their teacher, it took them a long time to unlearn those things that they were certain about before meeting Jesus. We can learn new ideas — but learning can be slow.

One thing that I’ve learned about the phrase “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” is that this is not exactly literal advice. Andrew and Peter might have taken up their cross, literally, once. Taking up a literal cross is something that you can’t do twice, let alone daily. Clearly, there is a metaphorical meaning as the literal is impossible.

William Penn spent a great deal of time meditating on this passage during an involuntary stay in the tower of London back in 1668. While he was locked up in the tower, he wrote a work that was published with the title No Cross No Crown. I read this book while I was a student at Barclay, and my initial evaluation of the book was that he could have made the same points with far fewer words. I liked the book, but I would have liked better to have read an abridged version.

I mention this book, because I’ve read it and cannot unread it. I cannot think of what the cross of Christ means to Christians without thinking about William Penn’s extensive commentary. Now, I’m not going to give a chapter outline, or get into the details, but I will admit that anything I say on this topic is bound to dialogue with Penn’s work; so, I’ll tell you what I learned from this book.

A large portion of Penn’s book is about how we must fight against the sin nature — how we are prideful lazy gluttons, and we need to crucify our sin nature so that we can follow Christ. As about a third of the book deals with how much sin fills the lives of people, even in a nation filled with Church growing Christians; and I really don’t want to talk about every example of sinful behavior, and talk come to the same conclusion every time.

The big thing is that many professing Christians don’t really want saved from their sin. They don’t wish, in the words of Paul, to die to their sin nature so they can be raised in Christ. Again, if we do want saved from our sin — we’d rather that the whole tendency be taken away, so we no longer struggle with temptation. The idea that the Christian life isn’t just dying to sin once so we can be raised up — but instead to take up the cross daily is a challenging gospel. It is not the good news that we are looking for. We want it to be easy; but this daily denial of self is hard work. Crosses are heavy, and they are not comfortable. We follow a master who was tempted without falling into sin, and that is a tough road to walk.

By number of words, this was the biggest point of the book, and I nearly didn’t finish the book because 9 chapters that I can summarize in a single paragraph is a bit much. It was not exactly groundbreaking, but it did invite me to question two of the messages that I heard (or misheard) in my youth. The first version was one which treated salvation as Christ taking away the consequences of our sin at the final judgment, but doing precious little about our present lives. The second version was one where some are miraculously made perfect, so they no longer need to struggle with temptation because they are entirely sanctified.

The idea that I have to keep taking up the cross, that this living sacrifice keeps struggling to get off the altar is somewhat encouraging on those days when it is obvious that going to the altar and praying for sanctification just didn’t seem to take. Sometimes I am proud, sometimes I am envious. Sometimes I am wrathful and forgiveness seems the furthest thing from my mind. I’m not always a good Christian — sometimes, it seems that sin nature needs put to death again, so I can be raised again in Christ. I do need to take up my cross daily — because, so often I find I need salvation not only for eternity, but also for today.

The most surprising thing in Penn’s book is found in Chapter 4 where he tells us that we don’t only need to deny our unlawful self, but our lawful self as well. Penn talks about how Jesus called the disciples away from their good and necessary trades so they could devote their life to something bigger. The disciples had to give up something that was good, so they could become something that was bigger than themselves. If Peter and Andrew would have stayed in the boat and let Jesus walk by, they would have continued to do something good, but would have missed out on something great.

It is easy to see how we have to put our sinful flesh to death, and deny ourselves when our first impulse is to say or do something that is harmful to others; it is far more difficult for us to put aside something that is beneficial because we feel called to something higher. It is more surprising to see the disciples giving up their fishing boats and following Jesus than it is to see sinners repenting of their sins and changing their lives.

It is a hard teaching, because it goes against what we know. How stupid were the disciples to leave their trades! When people try to make something better, they are often told “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even Shakespeare said the things we say in his 103rd sonnet: “Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, To mar the subject that before was well.” You see, when things are good enough, we are afraid of anything that is unknown. If God calls us to something different, we are afraid that we will be worse off for it. If we want Jesus to be Lord, and the Lord is calling us to something different than the good we are now experiencing; then we have to sacrifice something much harder than sacrificing the sin in our life — we have to sacrifice what is good while hoping for what is better.

Friend William Penn gave me a lot to think about. Scripture tells us that God desires obedience, not sacrifice — but, for those of us who are living sacrifices, sometimes obedience is sacrifice. I wish I could tell you that walking with Jesus is the easier path, but I cannot. My 17th century teacher wrote these lessons while imprisoned by his Christian government. The path Jesus walked included a stop at the cross and some time in the grave. The path Peter and Andrew walked as they followed Jesus brought each to death on the Cross just like their master — their life would have been far more comfortable if they had just stayed on the boat and kept fishing.

What Jesus teaches isn’t always easy. It is not easy for us to deny ourselves, It is not easy to take up a cross once, let alone daily — but Jesus promises that those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will be saved. Sometimes the gospel does not give easy news; it is not easy to hear that the path to salvation can be difficult. It is not easy to hear that we might very well follow Jesus to our deaths, just as many have before us; but the promise of salvation is there. Jesus didn’t stay on the cross, Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. The good news isn’t that we get out of the hard parts, the promise is that if we follow Jesus all the way from the cross, then we also share in the Resurrection. The good news is that if we follow Jesus to the end, then where we end up will be where Jesus is.

Luke 4:1-13 — Temptation in the wilderness

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

The temptation of Christ must be one of the hardest stories for me to connect with in the gospels. I don’t really understand the three temptations. I don’t understand why they were temptations, and in the case of the temptation to create some food and eat, I don’t understand what would be wrong with Jesus meeting the needs of his own body in the same way He met the needs of many other bodies. I don’t understand why Christians and prophets went into the wilderness to meet God, but Jesus went into the wilderness to meet the devil. I don’t understand what the story adds to the gospel, nor why it is so important that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story.

There are three temptations: First, the devil tells the hungry Jesus to turn a stone into bread so that he has something to eat. Second, is to worship the devil and the devil will give him the kingdoms of this world. The third temptation is for Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, so that people will see the angels protect Jesus.

First, the devil sees that Jesus is hungry, and he tells him to turn the stones into bread and eat them. Jesus replies that “man does not live by bread alone”. This temptation is difficult for me to get because the miracle stories that I know best are ones where Jesus fed the multitudes with a single boy’s snack, or brought a miraculous catch to the disciples who had fished all night and caught nothing, or miraculously turned water into wine. If Jesus would create food from nothing so that those who listened to him preach would not go home hungry; or create wine so that the couple who were just married would not be embarrassed because they ran out of refreshments, why would it be wrong for him to create food so that he could break a forty day fast?

The second temptation makes little sense to me because if I believe that Jesus is God, then I have to believe that the devil has nothing to offer; it makes no sense for the Son of God to bow down to the devil and worship him in hope of gaining something that already does not belong to the devil. Why would Jesus bow to rule the kingdoms of the world when He is the God of the universe? Why bow down to receive what is already his?

The third temptation, again, makes little sense to me. I’m not exactly afraid of heights, but if I’m up high, I really like to have solid footing. I cannot imagine throwing myself off a perfectly good building, and definitely cannot imagine jumping off a roof to prove a point. While I’ve never fallen far enough to seriously injure myself, I’ve fallen far enough that I know that the landing is painful. The idea of jumping wouldn’t even be a temptation.

One traditional interpretation is that these three temptations show that Jesus has the virtues of fortitude, prudence, and temperance. You know that I have a traditional bias, but I really don’t like this interpretation. I have trouble seeing how the refusal to turn a stone into a loaf of bread shows fortitude. While it would be imprudent to jump off a high building, not jumping requires so little prudence that it can hardly be used as evidence of one’s character. The only one of these that makes sense is the idea that Jesus practiced temperance when he had no desire to worship the devil and rule the world.

A more modern interpretation, suggested by Mennonite theologian John Yoder, is that this is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry, and of the crowds who continually wanted to make Jesus king and wanted him to be the kind of Messiah who drove out the Romans. For Yoder, there is really only one temptation — to create a kingdom of Earth, but the bread and the temptation to jump off the temple are a reference to the feeding of the multitude, and the times that Jesus appeared at the temple. I like this interpretation: Luke tells us that the devil departed until a more opportune time — suggesting that perhaps temptations continued, but it it does sort of gloss over 2 of the three interpretations.

I’m not personally sure what the right interpretation is, but I’d like to suggest that Jesus was tempted with the same sorts of things that Christians, or the church is tempted with. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread so that he would have something to eat; this is a temptation to do the miracle Jesus later did for the benefit of thousands in secret, in a way that only benefited him. The church likewise is tempted to feed itself in secret; hold onto the gospel in secret. To quote a parable Jesus told, there is a real temptation for the church to hide its light under a bushel basket.

One thing we know about the early church is that they didn’t grab onto the great commission right away, and proceed to send out missionaries; instead Jesus’ disciples largely were content to remain in Jerusalem until persecution scattered them. Instead of obeying the call to spread the gospel throughout the world, they would have been content to wait for Jesus to come back. One might say that the church fell into the first temptation, eating the bread of the gospel in secret without sharing it.

While I don’t think of the temptation to jump off the temple as much of a temptation — it was a temptation to be spectacular and make a name for oneself. I don’t know about the ancient world, but I live in a place that makes a big deal out of its celebrities. Christian culture is a lot like secular culture in this; we have Christian celebrities who are placed in such high regard that their words seem to be held in higher esteem than those of Jesus Himself. It sometimes appears that people seek to become famous — we fall to the temptation to be publicly spectacular missing that this is not the mission of the church.

The biggest temptation I think the church falls to is the temptation of falling to worship Satan in order to rule kingdoms of the Earth. I know that we don’t come to that extreme, but I have noticed a strong tendency for some Christians to act as if there is a political savior, and that their faith requires loyalty to this savior. Sometimes it is a party, some times it is a person. In recent days, I’ve seen people compromise in order to maintain this loyalty to the point where they will argue against scripture. It seems that the promise of political influence is enough to compromise just about everything a person claims to believe in. Sometimes it feels like people are bowing to Satan to sit on a temporary throne.

The thing is, Jesus teaches that His kingdom isn’t of this Earth. There are things that are done here that are unthinkable in the Kingdom of Heaven. Every time people tried to put Jesus on an Earthly throne, he refused. Christianity is not about beating the secular government — it is about living in obedience to God no matter who is in power. Christianity recognizes that people are not very successful at building a Godly government. In the roughly 1,000 years that Israel and Judah ruled themselves as God’s people, with few exceptions their leaders managed to ignore God’s law and rule unjustly. Pagan Rome, having no interest in God’s law, of course was not going to do any better. Christianity has never intended to rule a nation — it’s always been about changing hearts and minds of individuals so that they can live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven — no matter what country they live on in this Earth.

If Christ was tempted in the place where people go to meet God, we can expect the same for ourselves. It is easy to fall into these temptations; often we don’t think twice about them. I know we have not lived out the gospel perfectly. I know that many do not receive what they see from Christians as good news. I know that whenever I see the word ‘evangelical’ on the news, they are talking about a political voting block and nothing to do with Christ or the gospel. We are now living in the consequences of falling into temptation. I pray that we truly repent and return to Christ.

Why does the gospel start with John the Baptist?

Reading: Luke 3:1-18

When the gospels tell us about Jesus as an adult, they introduce us to John the Baptist first. If you recall, Mark’s introduction is a quote from Isaiah, and the narrative begins with a description of John in the wilderness. In the gospel of John, the introduction includes in John 1:6 “There was a man sent from God, his name was John”, and when the story begins it again begins with John. Matthew and Luke are different, both Matthew and Luke begin with a birth narrative and some items about the early childhood of Jesus — but, when it comes time to see Jesus as an adult, John appears first. We don’t meet Jesus by ourselves — John introduces Jesus to us.

This seems somewhat strange to me; John isn’t exactly a major character; he holds little purpose in the story beyond introducing Jesus to the crowds. John is sort of an extra that is part of the introduction, and then is either never mentioned again, or there is a little scene that ends his rather brief side story. My editorial hand almost wants to suggest that the writer let John diminish, and begin the story with Jesus.

Of course, even if I were able to sit and talk with the original Evangelists, I would not dare offer my opinion on how to make the story flow better. I am confident that they knew what they were doing — and that anything we notice when we hear the story of the gospel is something that we were supposed to notice; so I’m sure that I’m supposed to notice that John is introduced, and then John introduces Jesus — what I don’t know is why — all I can offer is guesses.

One guess that I have is that we are being told the Gospel the way that we hear the gospel. I don’t know about you, but my introduction to Jesus didn’t start by meeting Jesus randomly in a crowd. I was born into a Christian home, and my parents told me about Jesus — so my path to the Christian faith started by somebody pointing me in the right direction. John serves as the Evangelist in the story — telling the crowds, and by extension those hearing the Gospel story, who Jesus is, and then introducing them to Jesus at the time of the Baptism. John might be there so that we all see that we need an evangelist to point us to Jesus, because we really don’t know what we are looking for.

Another guess is that John is one of a line of people who received a messianic prophecy. The Christmas story is full of people who heard some sort of message from God about the Baby Jesus, and responded to it. Luke’s gospel has Gabriel’s message to Mary, and Mary’s response. Matthew’s gospel has the angel’s message to Joseph, and Joseph’s response. Shepherds and Magi somehow heard the message about Christ, and responded by coming to worship him. Luke’s Gospel also tells us about the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognized the 8 day old Jesus as the Messiah. The Gospels quote long dead prophets to tell us that they expected Jesus, though they did not see what they were waiting for. It is quite possible that the gospel writers are connecting with the prophetic tradition by telling the stories of the contemporary prophets who actually lived to see what they were waiting for, and as Luke tells us of multiple contemporary prophetic visions, I feel pretty good about this guess.

Another possibility is the one that I suggested in my introduction to our study of Mark; I suggested that the small things that were said about John were there to give hints to the listeners about what would happen to Jesus — Mark tells us that John was arrested because what he said offended the leaders, and that later he was killed; so John gives the listeners a hint. I like this theory for Mark much better than I like it for Luke; it is reasonable to listen to Mark recited, in full, by a storyteller; Luke is much longer and needs to be broken into several chunks — but Luke really assembled his Gospel from sources more than wrote it. 42% of Luke is recognizably Mark’s gospel, and Luke quotes (or paraphrases) 79% of the content of Mark. If Mark used John to foreshadow what happened to Jesus, then Luke would have followed Mark because Mark was Luke’s most used source.

Another possibility was suggested to me by my friend, and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom was than nobody announces themselves. She said:

I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.

We all need credentials; whether that is a degree, or a letter of recommendation, or just a trusted person offering an introduction — wise people don’t listen to random nobodies. There is a saying about those who listen to people who believe people based only on how confident they seem: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” When we see somebody appear out of nowhere, with no verifiable credentials or references claiming to be some expert, I know it’s time to lock up my wallet and hide the key. A person who speaks for himself, and has nothing to back it up is almost certainly a con-man — and I know enough people who have been taken in by con-men. There is a reason that Jesus was introduced by prophets who had nothing to gain by the introduction. John’s prophecy, along with the others are Jesus’ credentials.

As I said, I’m really not sure why the gospel writers always seem to start with John when they tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. I do know that the evangelists had their reasons, and it is one of those things that I sometimes think about when I read the gospels. What I do know is that every possibility that I mentioned rings true for me. Jesus didn’t just appear to me, somebody introduced me to Jesus, just as John introduced Jesus to the crowds. Not only did the people consider John to be a prophet, but John was a prophet. John not only told people that Jesus was coming, but he also spoke to them about their sins, and how they should live their lives in a Roman world while being faithful to God’s law; and, Jesus did that too. John was, in many ways, a foreshadowing of Jesus.

I assume most of you have heard of Lewis’s trilemma, which is an argument for the divinity of Christ given by C.S. Lewis in a Radio lecture which later became part of Mere Christianity — I will read it as C.S. Lewis states it.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.  (C.S. Lewis — Book 2 Chapter 3, Mere Christianity) 

C.S. Lewis makes the point quite well — the claims of Jesus and the claims of Christianity are rather hard to believe. If just Jesus were speaking with nobody and nothing to back up what he said, one would consider it to be insane, dangerous, and likely blasphemous. If we went into the story cold, we might very well think we were being told the story of a madman; and then when the story hits Easter, be filled with confusion. We desperately need to be told at the start that Jesus is God with us, because if we expect him to be a normal, like us, we won’t understand the story. Because John introduces Jesus we know from the start the answer of the question: “liar, lunatic or Lord” — and knowing, we can start to hear the story of Jesus.

James 5:7-20

Reading: James 5:7-20

As hard as it is to imagine what it was like to wait for Christ’s first coming — we are, in many ways in the same boat as we wait for Christ’s second coming. Christians are, at the same time, a community of Christ’s continuing presence, and a community waiting because Christ has left and will come again. Like so many things, this isn’t something where we choose which one is true, because both pictures are true in our lives and our beliefs.

You know that I love James — I love James because it is so simply written, and the advice that it gives needs little if any commentary. When I read James next to the sermon on the Mount, I see that James and Jesus sound very much alike; of course, nobody should be surprised that the earliest Christian writing was filled with saying that sound a lot like the recorded things that Jesus says — the community flows from the One that began it.

What does James tell us? James tells us that we need to be patient until Christ returns — just as the farmer is patient. He tells us that we must be careful not to grumble against each other, not to swear, but instead to always be honest, and to respond to illness and suffering with prayer, to respond to joy with song, to respond to sinfulness with confession, and to bring back those who fall away. James tells us a list of things that are clear, and the application seems obvious. I like James very much — but, I am always left asking myself if there is anything left to say after reading him. Every sentence of this passage is something that we can act on, and something that would make the world better if we acted on it.

As we wait for Jesus to come back — let us reflect on the advice that we are given. I know we pray for the sick; I know we are a community that loves music and singing together, and I don’t think I’ve heard any lies told here. I really think this is the best Christian community I’ve been part of; you all really do care for each other and pray for each other.

Now, I don’t know about you — but my greatest difficulty is combining not grumbling against one another with the need to bring back those who have wandered away from the truth. Most of my friends are Christian, and a good number of them can be found in Church on Sunday morning. Those who wander away from the truth are, by definition Church people — people who have been in the Truth so that they can wander away from it.

When I think about the advice to bring people back into Truth, I have to reflect a little bit on what it might mean to wander out of Truth. I could make it pretty simple for myself, and work very hard on what church growth consultants call ‘closing the back door’ — that is, recognize that if I can prevent people from leaving my congregation, it would be larger. The advice to bring back those who wanders from the Truth then could be a strategy for maintaining the institution.

I have to admit, I don’t think that this is what James was talking about. Our souls are not saved through building and preserving institutions. I’m also perfectly aware that institutions are perfectly able to wander away from Truth. The history of the church shows us how entire communities can wander away from Truth, and how after splits happen, both sides argue that the other side was the one that walked away.

And, therein lies the problem — how do I bring people back to the Truth? When I know somebody who has wandered away from the Truth, they are convinced that they know the Truth and are solidly there; if I try to bring somebody back into the Truth, they are convinced that I am the one who had wandered away from it. Leading people back to the Truth is hard when they don’t realize that I’m right and they are not.

I’m of course being silly — but, having been in this position I’ve learned that it is rather challenging not to grumble against other people in the wider church. There are times that, being convinced that somebody is outside of the Truth, and leading others into error, that I do grumble — not only my heart grumbles, but my mouth grumbles as well. There are even times when I say of another preacher: “He knows — he has to know this isn’t what Jesus taught,” and when I say that I can assure you that my thoughts are far from kind. The thing is, if I try to bring people back to the Truth — especially preachers, they have no idea they left it, and make the same attempt to me.

When I see all of these advices together, I realize that I really do need to accept the challenge of trying to accomplish both of these at the same time. I grumble against others because I know that I’m right and they are stubborn — doubtless, if they give me a second thought at all, they grumble against me for exactly the same reason. One thing that I can say with some confidence; people think they are right about those things that they believe in. When something or somebody challenges our beliefs, we are quite slow to examine what we believe. I need a lot of humility to ask if I might be the one who is mistaken. Those times when I grumble are times when it might be good for me to ask if I might be a little off base; I think I’m right — but, God is far bigger and greater than I can know or understand. Perhaps if I admit I don’t know it all, I can be taken a little closer to the Truth myself.

I guess that the thing that stands true for all these bits of advice is the very first one — that we need to be patient. Bringing somebody back to the Truth isn’t about who wins an argument, the metaphor that is used here is of cultivating a crop. We grow in the Truth. As long as I’m and the other person are grumbling against each other, and our study is intended to win an argument, neither one of us will accomplish much of anything. Bringing somebody who wanders back isn’t easy, because when we wander away from Truth, we rarely know we are lost — so, lets be patient, keep praying, and try to avoid grumbling.

 

Jesus is a different kind of Messiah

Reading: John 10:22-30, Matthew 5:38-48

In my youth, I had no clue how difficult Jesus’ words on the sermon on the mount were. I had no clue how difficult it was love an enemy, or do good to one, or bless one who curses me. It is hard to get how difficult it is to love an enemy when you live in a world where there really are no enemies.

This past week, we remembered the attack on Perl Harbor; but as we remembered, we also knew that the nation of Japan is now an ally with the United States. I am old enough to remember us exchanging insults with the Soviets, but the cold war was definitely winding down; nobody had duck and cover drills anymore. Gorbachev is the only Soviet leader I can remember. In the time I lived in, Germany and Japan have always been allies, China is a trade partner, and when I think of the Russians, I hope that someday the Russian people will someday have a government that looks out for ordinary Russians. In my life, enemies have been far away. The closest things I had to enemies would be competitive playmates.

The world I live in has changed. I now know the vocabulary of enemies. Those who were born in 2001 are now 16 years old, we have a generation who do not remember a world without the threat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. When people talk about political opponents, they talk about them as if they were traitors — not as if they were well meaning, but wrong. In a personal sense, I am married into a non-white family, and recently I’ve seen the KKK’s hoods come off. The nice place I was born into has changed quite a bit.

Now, I know it is possible that I was sheltered from the chaos in the world around me. I would have had a very different experience if I were born in central America. When I read recent history, I see that I really was not aware of what the world was like in the 1980’s. I grew up unaware of a violent crime rate much worse than we have now; I grew up unaware of the scandals of the day. It would be fair to say that I didn’t live in the adult’s world. I remember a time that only existed for me because I was a child.

These days, I see some serious anger and grievances; some that I understand, others that seem petty. People are angry with the justice system because punishment is too slow, too fast, too harsh, or too lenient. People are angry about tax laws, regulations, immigration policy — it seems like no matter what anybody does people will be angry. Now, I admit, I have interests in these things; I want a functioning and fair justice system. I have an interest in taxes and what the money is used for, I want sane regulations that protect us yet allow us to work live and profit. What I want most is to be able to believe that my government is made up of people who have good intentions for our nation and communities. Most of the time I believe this, if I can’t believe my leaders have good intentions I get a bit angry too.

Today, I have a hint of what enemies are. Today, I know that there are people who curse others, and wish them harm even if it is unclear why. I know the language of the culture war, I know about scapegoating, I know that is much more than the jealousy of schoolboys who honestly wish harm on nobody. I have lost enough innocence to realize that Jesus is telling me something that is difficult.

If I pay attention, I realize that I was very lucky, and that the people Jesus was talking to would not have the experience I had. Doubtlessly, even the children knew about the struggles of living in an occupied land. When I read John’s gospel, I see that Jesus went to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. You likely know that Hanukkah starts on Tuesday night and is a celebration of the re-dedication of the temple. After the Jews came back from Babylon and rebuilt the temple, the Greeks conquered Judea, tried to force the Jews to eat pork and they turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple of Zeus. The story of Hanukkah was the story of a revolt that drove the Greeks out and created a new kingdom. It is a celebration of taking back the nation and the temple, and rededicating the temple to God.

This must have had a special meaning for the people who lived in Roman Judea. Jesus was there when the Romans were in power, and they were again under foreign rule. In the time of Jesus, we remember that the Jewish leaders were afraid that the Romans would take away the limited self rule that the occupying Romans allowed them.

As you might know, Hanukkah starts this Wednesday, or by our calendar when the sun sets on Tuesday. When Jesus was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, he was approached and asked when he would reveal himself as the anointed one. John’s gospel tells us that it was when he was asked if he were the messiah, he answered that “I and my Father are one”, and that the response to this was to start throwing rocks at Jesus for claiming to be God.

They were looking for something different than God walking with them in human flesh. On a feast where they celebrated Judas Maccabees putting together an army and driving the Greeks out of Judea, and then creating a new kingdom, they asked Jesus to reveal himself as King — to set up a second revolt that drove out the Romans. I don’t know what it is to have enemies like this.

Jesus was more than what they were looking for; they were looking for a king to restore sovereignty to their kingdom, to kick out the Romans until the next time they were conquered. What came was a traveling preacher who told them to love their enemies, pay their taxes, and to work when pressed into service. They were looking for a king who would conquer — not God coming and suffering as they suffered.

The thing is, it is so easy for us to make the same mistake. We should know perfectly well that Jesus taught us that his Kingdom is not of this world. We should know that Christ calls us to love one another. We should know that Christ tears down the barriers that the world sets up — and that Christ gives life where the world gives death. We should know this, but I can see that have people calling for an Earthly kingdom, who feel Christianity depends on winning political battles. I see people who are confused as they treat the illusion of political power as more important than following Christ’s teaching; I see people who fear that the future of Christianity is dependent upon political influence.

We forget that Christ came for something bigger. Jesus didn’t come to take over the government, Jesus came to reform hearts and to change minds. Jesus didn’t come to make better laws — Jesus came to write the very center of justice on people’s hearts so that they would have a better law within them. Jesus came to teach us to speak the language of love to every person.