Tag Archives: discipleship

Identity Crisis: Turning Point – Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020  – Pentecost + 13A

Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed.  Watch this sermon on Vimeo.

We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.

Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. Continue reading

Know the Cost – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 8, 2019

First, I’m not preaching a new sermon. I’ve trimmed the one from three years ago and will use it again this year because, well, it’s still true.

But there are two things I hope to emphasize this time that I’m not sure I made clear before. One is that knowing the cost of discipleship means knowing we can’t afford it. The price is too high, it’s beyond our capacity. And the other is that following Jesus means devoting our whole selves to following Jesus, not the way we follow him. Let me explain.

It is easy to get caught in the trap of believing that our particular method of following Jesus is the only way to do it. Because it works for us, we think it’s not only best, but anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus the way we do isn’t really following Jesus. Not only does this thinking bring us perilously close to judging others, our form of discipleship becomes more important to us than our relationship with Christ itself. And that’s just wrong.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me according to a particular formula,” or even “Follow me according to your understanding of scripture.” Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple, you have to give up all your pre-conceived notions of what that means, and just stick close to me.” Discipleship means becoming a student of Christ, not a student of ‘following.”

Maybe I’m just picking at nits, but I think this is an important distinction. Christ calls us to follow Christ, not whatever form of Christianity we claim to practice. May I be faithful, may you be faithful, as we follow Jesus together.

Listen to Him – sermon on Luke 9:28-36 for Transfiguration C

March 3, 2019
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.

A lot has happened since we left Jesus preaching on a level place last week. He has traveled all over Galilee, healing, casting out demons, preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God – and it seems that everywhere he goes, the Pharisees are on his trail. They question him and challenge him. They invite him to dinner, and then criticize him to the other guests. Those Pharisees…

By the time we get from chapter six – where we left off last week – to today’s reading in chapter 9, Jesus has even raised a young girl from the dead. He has fed 5000 people and calmed a storm in the middle of the lake. He has sent out his apostles on their first mission trip, and explained that whoever wants to follow Jesus must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

And then he tells them something really amazing. Jesus says, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.” (9:27) He isn’t predicting that some of the disciples will live until the second coming. He’s telling them about an event that is just around the corner. Continue reading

From a Level Place – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26 for Epiphany 6C

February 17, 2019

Today’s gospel reading reminds me of the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have often heard this phrase applied to good preaching, and the words we are about to hear from Jesus certainly qualify. But I was surprised to learn that this phrase was first used to describe not preaching, but newspapers.

In the early 1900’s, Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”[1]

Mr. Dunne was lampooning the power of the news media to shape events by the way those events get reported. Even in the early twentieth century, someone who worked for a newspaper could make fun of the way newspapers influenced the news.

After all, newspapers are supposed to keep opinions about how things should be on the editorial page, and report objective facts in the rest of the paper. Newspapers are supposed to just bring you the news.

And that is what Jesus was doing as the people gathered around to listen to him teach. He presented the objective facts about the Kingdom of God. But those facts, like a good newspaper, can have the affect of comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. Continue reading

Walking with Jesus: Honor and Humility – sermon on Mark 10:35-45

October 21, 2018

I knew a guy once who worked really hard at appearing humble. In public, he was always putting himself down, always declining praise when he’d done something good. But in private, it was a different story. One time he told me of a particularly generous thing he’d done for someone we both knew. And then he said, “But of course, I don’t want anyone to know it was me. Jesus says to give alms in secret.” And I thought, “but you just told me.” Continue reading

FaithWorks: Hear AND Do – sermon on James 1:17-27

September 2, 2018

Last week, we talked about being the church instead of just going to church. We learned from the Psalms that we can only thrive when we are firmly planted in the house of the Lord. That kind of planting requires an all-in commitment, and it involves getting our roots connected to each other as well as to God.

But how do you do that? How do you become a disciple of Jesus Christ who thrives, whose faith grows exponentially? How do you apply the principles Jesus laid out for his disciples more than 2,000 years ago to life in our 21st century culture? How does working your faith develop a faith that works? Continue reading

Gut-wrenching Compassion – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

July 22, 2018

We’re working our way through the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel this month, taking a deep look at what it means to live like Jesus. It’s more than just doing what Jesus does, and saying what Jesus says. Living like Jesus means having the same purpose and identifying ourselves completely with Christ. This is an act of continual surrender.

So far, we’ve learned that we need to pay attention to interruptions, because that’s where God often shows up. But sometimes we have to really look for God in order to see God at work. And we have also been reminded to depend completely on God’s provision for us, if we want our lives to be fruitful. Last week, we learned that when evil seems to be winning the battle inside us and in the world around us, the only thing that can save us is finding our identity in Jesus Christ.

Mark likes to insert one story into another, and the story of John the Baptist’s execution last week was one of those insertions. Now Mark brings us back to Galilee, as the disciples return from their preaching expedition. It’s been a good trip, and they are eager to tell Jesus all about it, but they are also really tired. Continue reading

Getting our ACTS together – sermon on Acts 4:12-19 Easter 2B

April 8, 2018

The New Testament is mostly letters – letters from Paul to various churches, letters from Peter, and from James, Jude, and John. It’s mostly letters, but not entirely letters. There’s the Revelation of John at the end of the New Testament, and the four gospels at the beginning. And sandwiched in between the gospels and the letters there’s a book called The Acts of the Apostles, or simply, “Acts.” Some Bible scholars like to call it “Second Luke” because it continues the story of Luke’s gospel beyond the resurrection of Jesus. So it’s appropriate that the assigned readings for the season of Eastertide include passages from Acts, or “Second Luke.” Because, as we learned last week, the story isn’t over when Jesus rises from death to life. It’s just beginning. Continue reading

A Foolish Faith – Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 Lent 2B

February 24, 2018

We’re in our second week of Lent. Throughout this season, we are considering what it means to be fools for Christ. We live in a world that values outsmarting the competition, and being on top of the game. But Jesus teaches a way of living that shines in sharp contrast to the world’s wisdom. Instead of always trying to get ahead, Jesus teaches the way of putting others first, of making ourselves vulnerable to suffering.

Jesus encourages us to be fools for the sake of the gospel. It will all come together on Easter morning, as Jesus gets the last laugh on Death and Sin. It’s no joke that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year. And in the meantime, we will see how God’s promises may seem foolish to people who don’t know him, but they are the source of life to all who believe. Continue reading

Do You Know Your Purpose? Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

2/4/2018
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Mark’s gospel sometimes seems a bit rough around the edges. Mark wastes no time telling his story, and his urgency comes through, even when we divide his writing into short passages to examine them one by one. In the first chapter alone, we’ve already found Mark’s favorite word “immediately” twelve times.

There is so much activity packed into this first chapter, it’s hard to remember that most of these events all happened on the same day. We get the impression that the people who were following Jesus had a hard time keeping up, too. Here’s what has happened so far in Mark’s gospel – and remember, we’re still in chapter one:

  • After his baptism and 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus heads to Galilee, where he calls four fishermen to follow him; they leave their boats and nets
  • They go to Capernaum, a small fishing village, where these four apparently lived.
  • On the Sabbath, Jesus goes to the synagogue and teaches with unusual authority. A demon-possessed man stands up in the middle of the synagogue and challenges him, and names him as the Holy One of God – in other words, the Messiah – but Jesus silences the unclean spirit and tells it to leave the man. It obeys immediately.

This brings us to today’s passage. It’s still the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples have just left the synagogue. Four distinct scenes will occur over the next few hours. The story continues in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, beginning at verse 29. Scene One:

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

Maybe they went to Simon’s house because it was closest to the synagogue, or it had the most room for guests. However they came to Simon’s home, we learn something about him that we didn’t know before. He has a family to support, and his wife’s mother is sick with a fever. Simon tells Jesus this “immediately.” Maybe he’s hoping that this Jesus, who has just shown authority over an unclean spirit, might also have the authority to drive out a fever.

And that is exactly what Jesus does. He doesn’t say a word. He only puts out his hand and takes the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law. The fever is gone. Immediately. As Jesus brings her to her feet, the verb is the same one Mark will use in chapter 16 to describe Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. He lifts her up.

And the mother-in-law’s response to this miraculous healing is also immediate. She gets busy serving. In essence, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes Jesus’ first deacon, reminding us that Jesus saw himself as a servant, too.

Later in his ministry, Jesus will tell his disciples, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

And this brings us to Scene Two, beginning in verse 32:

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

You just can’t keep a secret in a small town like Capernaum. By now, everyone knows what happened in the synagogue, and many people will have already heard that Simon’s mother-in-law is no longer sick. As soon as Sabbath ends, a stream of people makes its way to Simon’s door, asking for healing, asking Jesus to do on a large scale what they’ve already seen him do on a smaller scale.

Notice that there is a clear distinction between healing and exorcism in Mark’s gospel. Mark will maintain this distinction throughout the coming chapters. The most important aspect of this difference is that Jesus never touches someone to expel an unclean spirit, but he often heals through the power of touch.

Human touch in scripture represents a particular level of intimate relationship.[1] God created us to be close to him, and that is why Jesus became human: to make God’s love real and tangible, to make God touchable. And this, as P. C. Ennis puts it, is what “makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people,
we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.[2]

God not only calls us into service through his Son, God calls us into community with those who long for that connection we all crave, that nearness to God made possible through Christ. The story continues in verse 35. Scene Three:

 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up
and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 

Jesus goes off to be alone in prayer only three times in Mark’s gospel. Luke describes several instances of Jesus seeking solitude, but in Mark, we only read about Jesus going off alone to pray, first here, then after he has fed the five thousand, and finally in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed by Judas. These are pivotal moments in Mark’s story, and they all share one common element: darkness.

Darkness and wilderness are closely linked here. Jesus goes off to some deserted location, reminding us of his time in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted by Satan. After feeding the 5000 – also called the miracle of multiplication – Jesus will send his disciples off in a boat so he can spend the night in prayer (6:46).

On another night, in a lonely garden, Jesus will pray, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (14:32–42) The darkness of Christ’s times in solitude is the very darkness where he questions God, where he faces fear, and where Jesus submits to his Father’s will.

Even Jesus struggled to find his purpose at the beginning of his ministry, but he knew how to discover it. He prayed. The one who knew God’s heart better than anyone still set aside time to be alone with his Father in the darkness, to seek God’s will in extended times of prayer.

Being alone in the dark wilderness wasn’t the safest place to be in the first century. There were no streetlamps to light the way, no motion activated floodlights to scare off the wild animals. There were no cell phones to notify others if something went wrong. There was no GPS to help you find your way back to town if you got lost.

For Jesus, though, it was the only place where he could talk one-on-one with his Father, without interruption. Well, almost without interruption. The story concludes, beginning in verse 36: Scene Four.

And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Maybe Simon and his friends hoped that Jesus would just keep on doing what he had done so far – healing, driving out demons, meeting whatever needs were presented to him. So far, the plan had seemed to work pretty well. Fishing for people wasn’t so bad, if all you had to do was control the crowds that kept coming to see Jesus perform his miracles.

But Jesus tells them something they weren’t expecting to hear. “Let’s go to the neighboring towns so I can preach there, too. That’s my purpose.” This created a moment of decision for the disciples. There would be many more like it. Each time, they would have to decide, “Do we keep following?”

And that is the choice we face each day, too. Jesus says the same thing to us that he preached in Capernaum: Repent, turn away from your old ways, and believe that the Kingdom of God is here now. Be changed. Be transformed. Find your purpose and decide to live it.

Jesus found that his purpose wasn’t becoming just a local healer, but reaching as many people as possible with the good news of God’s love for them. Jesus never went out looking for people to heal. That wasn’t his primary mission.[3] People came to him, seeking his healing touch, asking for his help, and he had compassion on them. Some of them did believe. Some did repent and follow Jesus, and their lives were changed forever.

Like Simon’s mother-in-law, they responded by serving with gratitude. The disciples learned that you can’t be a true follower of Jesus by sitting in the comfort of your own living room. You have to get up, as Simon’s mother-in-law did, and join with others in the work of the Kingdom of God. Because for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.

We may not be the only ones who will satisfy their urgent, physical needs, but we are the only ones who will welcome them into the family of God.

  • We are the only ones who will help them recognize their need for a Savior.
  • We are the only ones who can show them what it means to be transformed into Christ’s image through the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible study, service and sacrifice.
  • We are the only ones who can show them what it means to decide every day to keep following Jesus.
  • We are the only ones who can love them as Christ loved us, who can make that love tangible and touchable for them.

We are the only Jesus they will ever meet.

So, how do you find your purpose the way Jesus did?

First, Get Close to God.

We have to go into the dark wilderness to get close to God in prayer. This is where we meet God, and sometimes our fears, face to face. It is in solitude and darkness that we find our purpose and learn to trust completely in God’s will.

The disciples would probably have preferred for Jesus to stay in Capernaum, healing from his home base, and theirs. But Jesus leads them out into their own dark wilderness: the unknown territory of introducing others to the Kingdom of God and leading them to repentance. If we want to get close to God, we have to go away from the noise and bright lights of our busy culture, and head into the dark wilderness.

Second, Focus.

“Everyone is looking for you, Jesus,” the disciples said when they hunted him down. Everyone wants a piece of you. But Jesus knew he couldn’t be distracted from his primary purpose by spending all his time and energy on a secondary goal. He had to focus on what his heavenly Father was telling him to do, even if it meant disappointing the people in Capernaum.

Pastor and author Carey Nieuwhof notes that people don’t generally come knocking on your door to help you achieve your purpose. Most people aren’t too interested in helping you “complete your top priority. They will only ask you to complete theirs.”[4]

That’s what the disciples were doing. They saw all those people from Capernaum whose number one priority was getting healed or having their demons exorcised. None of them had even stopped to consider what Jesus’ number one priority might be. It would have been easy for Jesus to get caught up in the healing miracle circus, because he had compassion. But he focused on what his heavenly Father had asked him to do: proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom had broken into our world.

Third, Silence the Demons

What demons haunt you? What are the things that cause you to worry? What are the sins that keep creeping into your life, even after you think you’ve repented and turned them over to God? What are those nagging voices in the back of your mind telling you? You know the ones I mean. The voices telling you that you aren’t good enough, or you aren’t rich enough or smart enough or thin enough or … whatever your “not enough” might be. Those demons are the ones Christ came to cast out of your life forever. Those demons that shout at you, “I know who you really are!” are the demons Christ came to silence. So let him. Silence the demons, so you can get on with fulfilling your purpose as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Finally: Practice Small, Multiply to Scale

Notice how Mark frames this story. Jesus performed a single exorcism in the synagogue. Later in the day, he performs a single act of healing in his friend’s home. Then Jesus does the same thing on a much larger scale. The private home becomes a public space, as Jesus heals and casts out unclean spirits for the many who come to Simon’s door.

Whatever your purpose is, however God calls you to serve, it’s going to take some practice on a small scale before you can be effective on a large scale. The biggest mega-church in America started with a dozen people meeting in a two-car garage. When we start small, we give ourselves a chance to develop our gifts and refine our understanding of the purpose God has in mind for us, before we can grow and develop the ministry we are given.

So if you want to know your purpose, the plan God had in mind for you from before time began, now would be a perfect time to start asking God to show it to you. As we approach Christ’s Table, Jesus calls us to get close to him, to focus on what God wants more than what others are clamoring to get from us. Jesus offers to help us silence the demons that keep trying to prevent us from living out our purpose.

And Christ encourages us to start small, with the one person he puts in front of us each day who needs to know Jesus. Because for that person, you may be the only Jesus they will ever meet. Amen.

[1] P.C. Ennis, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, 334.

[2] Ennis, 336.

[3] R. T. France, NIGTC: The Gospel of Mark, 109.

[4] https://careynieuwhof.com/how-your-calendar-is-killing-you-and-what-to-do-about-it/