This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and even though our focus for this church year will be in Mark’s gospel, the second Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us to John. We’re still in the first chapter, and our reading today will bring us to “what happens next” after Jesus is baptized.Continue reading
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.
June 30, 2019
When I was a little girl, my hometown replaced the old municipal swimming pool. It was about time. The filtration system in the old pool didn’t work very well, and the water was murky. The pool was too small for our growing community, and the diving board was … not safe.
So after an entire summer with no swimming pool, we suddenly had a new, up to date facility with twice as much area as the previous pool and not one, but three diving boards. The diving area was deep enough now to accommodate a true ‘high dive’ board, as well as two smaller ones. Kids lined up in a constantly moving stream to jump off the lower boards, but the high dive was reserved for serious divers only. Continue reading
October 28, 2018
The story of Blind Bartimaeus acts as a bookend in Mark’s gospel. It closes out a long section that began back in chapter eight, when Jesus healed another blind man – only that time, Jesus had to spit twice before the man could see. This whole section has come to its climax here in chapter ten, where we’ve been walking with Jesus this month. The itinerary Jesus and his disciples have been following, as they travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, has been pretty … eventful. Continue reading
September 3, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Last week, we heard the Apostle Paul encourage us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. We learned that we do this, not by being conformed to the world, but by being transformed through the renewing of our minds, so we can discern God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for us.
Paul went on to describe how we are each part of the Body of Christ, with many diverse gifts that help us equip ourselves, and each other, as members joined together in Christ. We discovered that living sacred lives in a secular world is really a call to discipleship. But what does that word, ‘discipleship,’ mean? What do I have to do in order to be a disciple? Continue reading
February 5, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany A
View a video of this sermon here.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:13-20
Last week, we heard Jesus offer a radical view of blessing to his listeners. To them, wealth and power were strong indications of God’s blessing, while poverty and suffering were signs of being cursed. These people believed that you got what you deserved, so anyone who held wealth and power must have done something really good to deserve them. Likewise, anyone who suffered in poverty must have done something really bad.
But Jesus turned this around, and said, “You are blessed when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. You are blessed when your spirit is poor, when you hunger and thirst after righteousness, when you mourn. Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus packs a lot of new ideas into his Sermon on the Mount. We will only look at part of this sermon during the season after Epiphany, but I urge you, sometime before next Sunday, to go ahead and read the whole thing, Matthew 5-7, at one sitting. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the way Jesus tells us who we are, who he is, and how we can be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s start with who we are. Continue reading
January 15, 2017
Today’s gospel lesson picks up the story right where we left off last week, after the baptism of Jesus by his cousin, John the Baptist. John and a few of his disciples are together as Jesus approaches.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified,
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42
Do you ever get discouraged at your own thick-headedness? I sure do. I’m pretty sure there is a groove in my skull where a 2×4 fits just perfectly, because I seem to constantly need that kind of a wake up call. So I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that John the Baptist’s disciples were just as thick in the head as I often am.
After all, John has to tell them two days in a row, “ Look, there goes the Lamb of God!” They have to hear it at least twice before they get it, and start following Jesus instead of John.
But they follow him at a distance. Maybe they are just curious. Maybe they are uncertain what John’s story about baptizing Jesus really means. Whatever their reasons, these two disciples stay far enough behind Jesus that I’m sure they were surprised when he turned and faced them.
“What are you looking for?” he asks.
These are the first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. We heard the opening verse of John on Christmas Eve: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” But that Word doesn’t actually utter a word until 38 verses later, and when he speaks,
it’s a simple but profound question.
When Jesus asks Andrew and the other disciple, “What are you looking for?” it means a lot more than just, “Can I help you find something? Is there some object you’ve lost?” Jesus is really asking, “What are you searching for in life? What is your soul’s deepest desire? What are you seeking with all of your being?” What are you looking for?
Jesus asks us the same question. What do you seek? What are you hunting for, to satisfy your soul’s deep longing? He’s still asking. He still wants to know, because we are really good at looking for all the wrong things, in all the wrong places.
We can devote ourselves to all kinds of self-help programs, diets, and workout routines, in an effort to improve our physical and emotional lives. We can also devote ourselves to destructive habits that eat up our time and financial resources, and tear down our bodies and our minds. We can waste our lives looking for the next big thrill, expecting to be entertained at ever-increasing levels of stimulation. We are really good at consuming, as if buying material goods will somehow make us feel important, accepted, and loved.
What are you looking for? What will satisfy your deepest need? What will bring you joy?
When Jesus asks them, “what are you looking for?” the disciples of John don’t give him an elevator speech or a thoughtfully prepared mission statement. But they know what they are looking for. They know that the thing they’ve been seeking is this man standing in front of them. They respond with a question of their own. They only want to know, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
Again, this means more than, “what’s your current address?” They are really asking, “Teacher, what is it like to abide with you? Is there room for us in your life? Can we come live where you live? Will you teach us? Because, what we are looking for something to devote our lives to. We are looking for someone who will teach us the things of God. If you are who John says you are, we want to spend every possible moment in your presence. Where are you abiding, so we can come abide with you?”
And Jesus invites them to “come and see.” He doesn’t give them a business card with an address they can find later. He invites them immediately into his life. He does this with the understanding that they may choose not to follow. Once they’ve seen his accommodations and had a taste of his teaching, they may not want to stay. But his invitation is open anyway. Come, and see.
When Jesus says, “what are you looking for?” he’s asking if we are ready to be disciples. If we are looking for comfort, or security, or some assurance that we are right, we might not be ready to follow Jesus, to abide with him and become his devoted students. If we are looking for acceptance into the “Cool Kids Club” or recognition for belonging to the most popular leader’s inner circle, we might not be ready to ask where Jesus lives.
But if we want to be with him day in and day out from this moment and for all eternity, if we recognize that following Jesus is the only way to know the fullness of God’s love, then it just makes sense for us to want to spend every moment in Christ’s presence.
Asking, “Where are you abiding? Can I stay with you?” puts a different twist on our usual thinking about becoming a Christian. We often talk about making Jesus part of our lives, inviting him into our hearts to live with us. But what if we turn that around, and realize that Jesus is welcoming us into his life? Jesus invites us to come and see where he lives. He offers us the opportunity to become part of what he is doing. Jesus invites us to join him in his life.
His invitation is open, but it’s up to us to follow, up to us to “come and see.” We must decide if we can make that kind of deep commitment, if we can devote ourselves to that kind of close relationship. It means letting go of our own desires and expectations, and surrendering our whole being to God’s desire and plan for us.
What are you seeking with all your being? What is your soul’s deep longing? Are you ready to go be part of Jesus’ life, so you can find what you seek? Once you’ve found Christ, what happens next?
Andrew shows us. Notice that it doesn’t take long for Andrew to go find his brother Simon. And the instant Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a new name: Peter, or “Rock.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus waits until later in his ministry to rename Peter, and he goes on to say, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18) But here, Jesus gives him a new name the moment he meets him.
Jesus gives each of us a new name the moment we meet him, too. Last week, we talked about the name given to us at our baptism. We are called “Beloved” and “Child of God.” In 1 John 3:1 we are reminded of this new identity. John writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
But Christ gives us another name, a specific one, just as he renamed Simon to indicate what his new mission in life would be. Maybe your name is “servant” or “healer” or prayer warrior” or “teacher.” Maybe you have been named “reconciler” or “leader” or “joy-bringer.” Whatever your new name is, it is an invitation to live into your new identity as a follower of Jesus in a particular way.
It may take a couple of times hearing someone else say, “Look! There goes the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” before you realize that following Jesus wherever he goes, living with him more than allowing him to live with you, is the only way you are ever going to find what you are seeking. Entering into a life-long commitment to live with Jesus, and to be part of his saving work in the world, is the only way you will ever fulfill that deep longing inside you. It’s a longing that you might not even be able to name. But it’s there. And only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, can fill the God-sized hole in your heart. It isn’t so much a matter of inviting him into your life. It’s a matter of accepting the invitation to become part of Christ’s life.
This season of Epiphany follows a theme called “The Great Invitation.” Over the next few weeks, Jesus will invite each of us to follow him, to sit at his feet and learn from him, to come and see what life in Christ has to offer.
Jesus isn’t sitting around waiting for us to invite him into our lives. Instead, Jesus invites us into his life. With his “come and see” Jesus includes us in his Lamb of God work. It isn’t really about looking for something to fill the God-sized hole in our lives, after all. It’s about filling the us-sized place we can claim in God’s family by accepting Christ’s invitation to grace.
Pastor Mike Lyle writes, “When will we stop being challenged? Never. When does God stop asking difficult questions and expecting extraordinary feats of faith? Never. When do we get to rest on our laurels? Never. When can we become self-satisfied, self-congratulatory and complacent? Never. When will God stop loving us, stop feeding us, stop protecting us, stop nurturing us? Never. When will God give up on us, leave us to our fate, sell us out to that which would destroy us? Never. What are we looking for? Nothing that we thought [was important], but everything that we most want and need. Where do we find it? Where Andrew and Simon, James, John and the others found it, in Christ our Lord.” (Mike Lyle, http://wsumc.com/wp-content/uploads/1.19.14.pdf)
The Great Invitation has been extended to you. Come, and see.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Lamb of God,
you invite us into your life, to be with you, to learn from you,
to abide in your love.
Help us to accept your invitation to grace,
knowing that it requires more of us than we are equipped to offer.
There is nothing we can do to save ourselves;
it is your grace alone that saves us.
Forgive us for trying to rule over our own lives.
Help us completely surrender to your love.
Grant that we may desire you more than anything.
Show us the way to the Father,
that we may claim our place in your Kingdom as beloved children of God.
All glory and praise belong to you, Almighty God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, now and forever. Amen.
September 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
One of the first phrases I learned to speak when I lived in Germany was, “Wie viel kostet es?” “How much does it cost?” I had to know how much things were worth, to stay within the budget dictated by the cash in my hand whenever I went to the market. What we ate depended on its cost. If the cost was too high, we didn’t eat it!
I am not a “shopper.” I don’t enjoy looking at rows and rows of merchandise with an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude. It may be because whenever I see something I really like, it’s way outside my budget. I know I’m in trouble if the price tag isn’t visible, because: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”
In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. He knows that this will be his last journey, that the price tag on this trip is high, and it isn’t negotiable.
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)
Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him! Have you ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch. Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. So he turns to the crowd and tells them, “Unless you’re serious about following me, you might as well go home!”
But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers. He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple. We need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus, because the cost is high.
Specifically, Jesus says we must hate our families if we want to follow him. This was pretty strong stuff in a culture where family was everything, and loyalty to one’s family was the highest loyalty expected. So let’s take a look at that word, “hate,” to see what Jesus means.
First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. So, the Greek word misew can be translated as “hate” but it also means disregard, be indifferent to, or to love one thing less than something else. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you. Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”
Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion.
To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.
Jesus must have seen the faces around him turn somber as his words started to sink in. Whenever Jesus found that his words were too hard for people to hear, he turned to one of his favorite teaching strategies – telling parables.
“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if you could afford it? You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well! And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if your army was strong enough to defeat the enemy?”
But there are three things about these little parables we may miss if we read them too quickly. First, Jesus tells us that the process of building or going to battle starts with sitting down. Counting the cost requires some thoughtful pondering before any action can take place. In the same way, we can’t follow Jesus any old way it suits us. We have to carefully consider the commitment we are making.
Second, Jesus focuses on outcomes. Counting the cost indicates that there is some end in mind, some goal to be reached. You don’t start building a tower unless you plan to finish it. You don’t head into battle unless you think you can overcome the enemy. You don’t follow Jesus unless you want your life to be changed forever.
Finally, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient. There is no price tag visible, so you can’t afford it.
But Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Not only do we need to count the cost, that cost is everything we hold valuable. We have to bid farewell to everything we call our own. We have to leave behind everything that matters most to us.
And when Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind. This isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done thing. It’s an ongoing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment surrender to God’s grace and mercy.
To be a disciple of Jesus you must know that the cost will be putting Jesus first, and everything else last. That starts the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus, and it does not stop. Ever. There is no 401K plan for being a Christian. You don’t retire from following Jesus, to live off the investment of your past discipleship. Every day starts anew. Every moment requires your full commitment. And if you aren’t willing to give your all, Jesus says, you cannot call yourself one of his followers.
All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home. We can’t hold anything back, if we want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Because there is no way to “sort of” take up your cross. There is no way to follow Jesus on your own terms, when it is convenient to you. You can’t follow Jesus for the way it makes you feel about yourself or the way others admire your piety. You must surrender everything to Christ, or you aren’t really a follower.
The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? In his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard lists the things we lose if we don’t follow Jesus with our whole being. He writes:
“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.”
The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth giving up abiding peace to live life on your own terms? Is it worth sacrificing a life penetrated by love to settle for having things the way you like them? Is it worth cutting yourself off from faith that trusts in God’s overarching plan for your good, in order to run your life the way you want to? Is it worth giving up hope, and the power to stand in the face of evil? Is it worth it to you to say “No” to God’s abundance, so you can skimp by on your own meager resources? Because that’s what it costs to not take up your cross.
Notice that I am not talking about salvation here. I am talking about discipleship. I grew up in a church that focused all its attention on getting people saved, but it failed to teach those new believers how to follow Jesus and make him Lord of their lives once they’d experienced that salvation. Jesus wants to do more for us than save us from our sins, as important as that is. Jesus wants to give us abundant life, to deepen our relationship with him as we grow in faith. Jesus wants us to be his true disciples.
When we say “yes” to following Jesus, when we surrender our will to his will, something amazing happens. Bit by bit, we are changed. Each time we keep saying “yes, Lord, I leave behind everything to follow you,” we are re-formed. We are transformed, becoming more and more like Christ. We experience abundant life, by God’s grace. And we discover that the cost of following Jesus, that we thought we couldn’t possibly afford, is worth it all. Because the price has already been paid out of God’s deep love for us, and when we give our all to Christ, we receive so much more!
As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him. Amen.
August 14, 2016
I have had a crazy week – how about you? There have been meetings, and we started a new worship service at Ridgeway on 23rd, plus the County Fair, with our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station, and Thursday night’s concert with 7th Time Down and Bob Lenz… it’s been busy, busy, busy around here! The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.
And then Jesus shows up and wads up the list and calls us nasty names. Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us and calls us hypocrites – just about the worst thing he could possibly call us. You think I’m making this up?
Jesus said to his disciples (that’s us, by the way):
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56
Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed. They were not expecting that kind of king.
It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?
Earlier, Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them (Luke 9:51-56), and now he declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?”
There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.
And that time is very near. Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified. There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.
Against this image of cleansing fire, Jesus throws another image, one we normally associate with water. He speaks of his own baptism, not as water to extinguish the flames, but as an example of what purification by fire prepares us to endure. He knows he will be put to the ultimate test.
The Jesus we see in this passage doesn’t seem much like the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.
This Jesus is fed up with the way people keep insisting that their rules are more important than God’s love. He didn’t come to endorse the status quo. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites? We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity. But here Jesus turns the dial another notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without unity.
Yet he knows that his own mission and ministry will cause division, even between family members. Jesus describes how following him with undivided hearts can set children against their parent or parents against their children, if those we love do not follow Jesus, too. It isn’t that Christ intends to cause ruptures just for the sake of disruption, but he knows that being his disciple carries with it the cost of forsaking everything else, and not everyone will make that kind of commitment.
Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is telling us that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, loyalty, or status. Instead, what marks us is whether we accept or deny Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not our ancestry, but Christ. Jesus overturns the world’s priorities, causing division and clearing the way for God’s divine plan for peace to come to its fullness in the Kingdom of God.
God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome. Those who benefit from the status quo, who hold positions of power at the expense of the powerless, will oppose any who come alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to others. It is a sign of our times that political and military power struggles are escalating throughout the world, not just here in the United States. That sign, Jesus says, is something we need to pay attention to.
Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly. This week, as the temperature and humidity levels rose, I was watching the radar pretty carefully on my phone’s weather app. I was grateful when concert organizers used the same tools to determine we should move Thursday evening’s concert indoors, instead of risking a violent thunderstorm hitting the grandstand during the performance, or someone being overtaken with the heat.
Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near. In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah. Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.
The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root word of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refers to an actor, or interpreter. Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs. This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup. It is hypocrisy.
So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm? What time is it getting to be? What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion? How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be? On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine. But are we really paying attention to what time it is?
As I listened to Bob Lenz speak at the 7th Time Down Concert on Thursday night, something was troubling me about his message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until later. I realized that, for all his talk about claiming resurrection power in our lives, he never once said anything about repenting of our sin or how that resurrection power transforms us into people who love more.
Earlier in the day, I had talked with Cathy Townley, who is consulting with our “Boost Sunday Morning” team to help us look at ways we can make worship more meaningful and rich. During our conversation, Cathy said, “You need to look at what makes your church unique in your community, and live into that identity. Don’t try to be the Cool Church or the Hip Church, if that is not in your DNA. But figure out what it is your church is offering that no other church in town offers, and live into it.”
Well, I thought, we have identified that. We are forming our identity around hospitality, because that’s what we’re good at. In a moment, Jerry is going to share with you some of the ways we are already beginning to make changes to help us focus on that identity.
But as I struggled to identify what it was about Bob Lenz’s presentation that didn’t sit right with me, I realized this was also the very thing we need to be sure our identity as a church makes clear to the whole community around us. Bob talked about claiming resurrection power, but it isn’t just any resurrection we are talking about. It is the power of Christ’s resurrection, offered to all who believe in him.
I’m also not just talking about life in heaven after we die. I’m talking about being resurrected from our current state of sinful death into a new life that begins immediately when we decide to turn away from living in ways that are killing us, and begin to follow Jesus into life that is rich and full and filled with joy and peace.
This church isn’t just about hospitality, because you can find that at any of the local restaurants or bed and breakfasts around town. We are about extending Christ’s hospitality to people no one else wants to welcome. We are about showing love to people no one else wants to love, in the name of Jesus. We are about helping people no one else thinks they can help, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.
Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up. Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living. It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and recognize that Jesus calls us to be more – not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2)” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
July 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.
Did you ever play “Dress Up” when you were little? Maybe you dressed up as a superhero, or you put on your parents’ clothes to play a game of make-believe, pretending you were all grown up. Maybe you put on a costume for Halloween, or to act out your part in the Christmas pageant. Whatever you put on, it gave you permission to be someone different for a short time, to pretend you had more power or grace or holiness than you actually possessed. You could be someone new.
A couple of years ago, I listened to an interview with one of the actors from Downton Abbey. She described how putting on those amazing period costumes affected her. Her posture changed, even the way she spoke suddenly became more refined. Wearing the costume automatically put her into the character she was portraying. Putting on the dress made her into someone new.
Maybe this is why Paul chooses to use clothing as a metaphor in his letter to the Colossians. Paul writes about taking off the old self and clothing ourselves in the new life in Christ. Colossians 3:1-11 tells us to strip away everything from our lives that is not of God, so that we can put on the new self, the self that is constantly being restored to bear the image of God. In that process, Paul tells us, there is no longer any identity that matters, except for Christ, who is all and in all.
But, even though the assigned reading for today ends there, Paul does not! He goes on to describe what we are to put on, once we have stripped away all the sinfulness and self-centeredness, and have given ourselves over completely to become followers of Jesus Christ.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17
This taking off the old and putting on the new that Paul describes is the essence of following Jesus. We renounce sin in all its forms and repent of our old, broken way of living for ourselves. Then we turn away from that life and toward the new life in Christ that is filled with grace and peace. We begin living for God, and in the process, we become more and more like Christ.
Clothe yourself with Christ’s attributes of humility and gentleness, forgiveness and love, Paul tells us. As we consciously begin to wear these attributes, we may find that they don’t fit very well at first. They won’t fit at all if we try to put them on without first taking off the pride and anger, the lying and the fear that marked our old life.
For Christ’s goodness to live in us and fit us well, we must strip off everything that connects us to sin. Then, and only then, will the characteristics of Christ-likeness begin to fit. As they become more and more a part of our thinking and speaking and doing, we find that something else happens. Putting on these external behaviors does something to our internal spirit.
“Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts,” Paul writes. What began as an outward change of behavior now becomes and inward change of heart. The peace of Christ begins to take over the way we think and behave, ruling not only our hearts, but also our actions.
It is important to remember that all of the Christ-like characteristics we are to put on are social ones. We are connected to one another, and as Christ’s body, we are sent into the world to connect with others, as well.
Kenneth Sehested writes, “There is more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another, forgiving each other, binding us to each other – such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict-avoidance advice. … This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.”
Because they will. People whose lives are connected by a common purpose, as we are in the church, are bound to come into conflict with each other from time to time. The question isn’t whether, but how will we respond to that conflict when it arises.
When you avoid me because you are angry or disagree with me, it does damage, not only to the Body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to your witness to the world that is watching. When I confront you with anger or abusive language, it does damage, not only to the body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to my witness to a world that is always looking to see what makes us different because we follow Christ Jesus.
That’s why Paul puts one Christ-like virtue ahead of all the others. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” he writes. Even when we disagree, as we sometimes will, speaking the truth in love will keep us in harmony with one another, and keep our witness to the rest of the world intact.
Paul goes on to say, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This change of heart, this movement from clothing ourselves in Christ to finding inward peace, happens when we immerse ourselves in the Word of God.
John W. Coakley writes, “The texts of the Bible … are not to be treated as objects to be understood, containers of ideas to be questioned or debated, rather, they are to be taken into oneself through the whole shape of daily life.” The author of Hebrews puts it another way: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When Christ’s word dwells in us richly, our lives bubble up in worship and praise, and we are filled to the brim with thanksgiving.
Giving God thanks and praise is the one thing you can do that will set you apart from the rest of the world. Because the rest of the world is busy trying to be self-sufficient, instead of God-dependent. The rest of the world is busy paying attention to its physical desires instead of seeking the Kingdom of God. The rest of the world is obsessed with hatred and fear, with anger and lies, instead of the love, peace, and truth that Christ offers to all who will call on his name and turn their lives over to him.
Three times in two verses, Paul reminds us to be thankful, to have gratitude in our hearts, to give God our thanks and praise in everything we do. The word for thanksgiving is Eucharist, a word we closely associate with worship. We don’t know if the early church was already using this word to mean Communion, as we use it now, but it’s helpful to remember that we call it Eucharist because the solemn rite we follow in this sacrament always begins with something called the Great Thanksgiving.
Paul tells us that, having put off the old sinful self, and having put on Christ, our hearts are transformed by Christ’s peace as we take God’s Word into ourselves. The only response we can offer to such a great gift is our continual thanks and praise. Our lives become lives of worship, so that everything we do or think or say is done in the name of Jesus, even as we give thanks to God through Christ.
A church was looking for a new pastor, and the District Superintendent (DS) sat down with church leaders to talk about what they wanted to see in this new person. “Someone who can attract young families,” they said. This made sense, because the church had been in decline for many years, and the congregation was aging. So the DS asked them, “what is it about your church that young families would find attractive now?”
They looked at each other, then at the floor.
“Well, what attracted you to this church when you first started to come here?” the DS asked encouragingly.
“It’s the fellowship. This is where I can see my friends every week, and we can catch up with each other’s lives,” one woman replied. “It’s where I get a sense of belonging, where my friendships were formed.”
The DS thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and these days, people who are under the age of 35 with children can get that same sense of belonging and friendship building at their kids’ soccer games, or other sports activities. They build friendships with other parents whose kids are involved in the same things their kids are involved in. They don’t need church for ‘fellowship,’” the DS said. “What else?”
“Well, church is where I get involved in helping other people. We work at the food pantry or take a meal to the homeless shelter, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said one man.
“Yes, and people who are under the age of 35 do those things, too. They just don’t need a church to help them do it. They are very involved in social justice issues, but they work through secular organizations to get that same satisfaction,” the DS told them. “What else?”
The room was silent. Someone coughed.
Finally, the DS said, “What’s the one thing that church has to offer that soccer teams and social agencies often don’t? … Anyone?”
Still no answer.
“Okay, look at it this way. What difference has being part of this church made to your faith? How has following Jesus Christ, as a member of this congregation, changed your life?”
“Oh pastor,” one man grumbled, “You don’t want to go there. That’s getting too personal!”
“Well,” the DS answered, “it’s the one thing you have going for you that other social groups and service groups don’t. The one thing the church can claim as its own is Jesus, and if you can’t identify how Jesus has changed your life, what makes you think anyone else would be attracted to your church?”
Sometimes it’s the people in the pews who need Jesus the most.
When we put on Christ, we look different, we act differently, we speak differently, because we not only wear Christ on the outside, we are filled with Christ from the inside. And it shows. People notice. They become curious, and want to know why our lives are different from theirs, why we have peace and joy in abundance, whatever the circumstances are, why we aren’t greedy like everyone else, why we aren’t consumed with lust, why we aren’t angry all the time, why we don’t resort to slander and gossip and foul language.
If no one is noticing how your life is different from theirs, why is that? If no one is asking you how you have such peace, why is that? If no one is remarking about the joy you always show, why aren’t they? If no one can see Christ in you, ask yourself why.
Could it be that you haven’t really been changed, that you have not ever experienced the transformation Christ offers to all who will call him Lord? Is it possible that the person who needs Jesus most is you?
If you are like the person who comes to church to see your friends, but Christ hasn’t changed your life and made you new, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.
If you come to church for the satisfaction of serving others, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.
If you talk one way at church, but your language at home and at work is laced with criticism and slander and abusive talk, maybe it’s time for you to cast off the old you and clothe yourself “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Maybe it’s time for you to start bearing with your sisters and brothers in Christ, and if you have a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
 Kenneth Sehested, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 160.
 John W. Coakley, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, 162.