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Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter 2011 in the Media

From CNN

From BBC

From the Detroit Free Press

From Al Jazeera English

Raleigh News & Observer

From the Roanoke Times

From the Washington Post

to see more in this Washington Post conversation on "Christians Celebrating Passover" go to

Easter Sunday Sermon

“Resurrection is …” (1 Corinthians 15:3-10, 20-26, 54-57), Rob Tennant, Sunday, April 24, 2011, Easter Sunday

On April Fool’s Day 1975, in his home on West 7 Mile Road in Detroit, James Milford Biscomb had an aneurism. He died before the ambulance even reached the hospital. I grew up going to that house for Christmas, special events, vacations back to Michigan, after we moved to Virginia. My Grandma Biscomb’s home is a part of me, and Pum is part of me too, but in a less familiar way. I was five when he died, and my brother not yet two. My mom was 8½ pregnant with my sister when she buried her father.

I believe one day, I will again get to spend time with the grandmother I loved so much and knew so well. And, I believe I’ll get to know Pum, the grandfather I don’t even really remember. Why do I believe this? I believe it because I believe Jesus rose from the grave and because He lives, I believe I too will rise.

Paul, an apostle, wrote much of the New Testament, but he did not write a gospel, not in the form of the four gospels, anyway. He wrote letters to specific churches usually to address specific problems in those churches. Though he did not write a narrative as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did, his letters enhance our understanding of the stories in the gospels.

This is especially true when we think of Easter morning. In Matthew, the risen Christ gives the great commission. In Mark, he does not appear; rather, a mysterious young man meets the grieving women at Jesus’ grave and tells them he is alive. In Luke, the resurrected Jesus eats fish, walks to Emmaus with a couple of disciples who are not part of the 12, and then with the 12 (minus Judas) looking on, ascends to Heaven. In John, he tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe, and he reinstates Peter who denied knowing him.

Jesus was quite busy after he was resurrected; but he did more than the Gospels report. Thanks to Paul, we know that Jesus appeared to 500 who were gathered, and also individually to James. James was Jesus’ half brother, the son of Mary and Joseph. He rejected Jesus until the resurrection. After the resurrection, he became one of the primary leaders of the very first church. Paul also reports that Jesus visited several people he calls apostles but are different the 12.

In writing of these post-resurrection accounts of Jesus, Paul declares that he is stating the essence of faith for people who follow Jesus.

“I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (v.1-4).

Paul Beasely-Murray, a British Baptist pastor found a most unlikely source of validation for the resurrection as he was researching for his book on the topic. He studies the work of Pinchas Lapide an Orthodox Jew from Germany and a New Testament scholar. Lapide does not accept Jesus as the Messiah or as Son of God. However, looking at the story as a scholar, Lapide sees evidence for a literal, bodily resurrection. Some Christian scholars surrender knowledge to a humanistic worldview and thus spiritualize the resurrection. It could not happen. The laws of reason and science don’t make space for a dead man to come to life in a transformed body. So, a literal resurrection isn’t possible no matter what the Bible says.

Jesus didn’t really rise, they say. He is resurrected when His church lives out the values he modeled. Lapide, who is not a believer, is appalled as such talk. As an expert on the New Testament, he sees the resurrection as the very core of Christianity.

Beasely-Murray and Anglican Priest N.T. Wright are both very much believer and pastors and scholars with expertise in New Testament and first century Judaism. Both assess the story and the evidence and affirm along with Lapide that this is central to our faith: a literal, bodily resurrection that includes an empty tomb and Jesus appearing to his followers in a transformed body. No other scenario makes any sense. Many have tried to explain the story away because it does in deed exceed our grasp of knowledge. Dead is dead. But no explanation makes sense either in assessing the evidence available or in understanding the faith of the first Christians. Only a resurrected Jesus fits the testimony of the witnesses as well as the testimony of our experience.

We are today’s witnesses who testify to the truth. Jesus died for the sins of the world and then rose from the grave. He is alive and all who put their trust in Him will also be resurrected. I heard a sermon from an extremely popular local pastor. He said essentially all he ever preaches is Christ crucified. I understand that he was trying to accent the need people have for Jesus. He was crucified because we sin and our sins separate from God. Christ crucified is everything, but that cannot be all we preach or share or believe. Christ crucified is only half the story and without the rest, it isn’t good news. Today’s sermon and every day’s testimony is Christ crucified, Christ Resurrected. Everything I have read puts resurrection at the heart of our story as Jesus people.

Furthermore, in saying we are today’s witnesses we recognize the present vitality of this story. The risen Christ appeared to his followers 2000 years ago, but resurrection continues to be news as fresh as this morning’s sunrise because each time someone comes to faith in Jesus, that person is filled with resurrection hope. Each time we who are in Christ experience pain of any sort, we are sustained by resurrection hope.

Jesus is the “first fruits.” God did not resurrect him for the sake of showing how powerful he is. God wasn’t trying to impress anyone. The resurrection has real and immediate implications for anyone who calls Jesus Lord and follows him as a disciple. Paul writes “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (v.22). Because he rose, we will rise.

As I worked on this, and read page after page of theological reflection on resurrection and commentary on 1st Corinthians, my mind began to run. I wanted to experience the reality I was studying. I wanted to die so I could know first-hand what resurrection is like.

It reminds of my days as an infantryman. Our platoon would do maneuvers in the woods against another platoon. We shot at each other with blanks and threw smoke grenades, not real ones. And we did those drills over and over and over. At some point, I wanted to put real bullets in the gun, go find an enemy who would shoot real bullets at me, and see how I would do. Reflecting back, the thought seems absurd because I’m talking about war, where people die. But, after the grueling rehearsals intended to develop combat skill, I wanted to be tested. Looking back with a more sober perspective, I am glad I never was.

But, looking back to this past week and all the reading on resurrection, a part of me wants it right now. I want to die so I can see what it is we’re talking about. Whereas my desire for combat solely for the reason of testing my soldier-skills was foolhardy, a disciple’s desire for resurrection makes perfect sense to Paul. He writes in Philippians, “22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1).

Because Jesus was resurrected, we will be. We will be in bodies that cannot die. I want that. But not yet. The reality of resurrection gives us something to say in the world today. Paul made that point in 1 Corinthians 15 and in his comments in Philippians. He continues, to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” The story of salvation begun 2000 years ago in the death and resurrection of Jesus expands each time someone, for the first time, trusts in Him and is saved.

Resurrection is the center of our faith.

Resurrection is a story that continues to be told.

Finally, resurrection is eternal victory. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” Paul says (15:26). Resurrection assumes that death cuts a person off from God. No fate could be more terrible. God is life; God is beauty; God is peace. Without God, one plunges into violent, painful chaos. Imagine being consumed by a dark, oppressive, hideous nothingness. That’s the last great enemy, death. That’s where sin leads.

Christ followers, are pulled out of that nightmare by the loving hand of God who raised Jesus. Yes, our bodies die, but then our bodies rise. More accurately, God resurrects us. We are not souls floating some afterlife bliss, freed from the confines of physical bodies. The bodies we have right now are resurrected and transformed.

What if someone is eaten by a shark? What if someone throws his body on an exploding grenade? What if someone is consumed by flames? Paul would say to this macabre thinking, “Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (v.35). Apart from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel, we cannot take a dead body and restore life to it. It is equally impossible if the body is shredded or in tact and perfect, except for being dead. Only God can do that, and, says Paul, God can do it regardless of the shape of the dead body.

We will we recognize one another? I think, yes, because it will be me, resurrected. Our bodies will be transformed so that we will not feel physical pain and will not die. One resurrected cannot die. How old will we be in the resurrection? What will my relationship with my grandfather be? With my son? Will I still be bald? The answer to every question is we will be transformed. We will be, as Paul says, imperishable, and death’s day will be over.

From the final verses of 1st Corinthians 15,

51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The resurrection is what changes everything in the life of one who follows him. A couple of years ago, the 17-year-old son of singer Steven Curtis Chapman was driving home. The young man did not see his 6-year-old sister, playing. She darted into his car’s path as he came up the driveway. He hit and killed his sister.

What do you do?

After the tears and pain and horror, this family, Christ followers, entered a season of healing. How could they heal? Healing came because Jesus rose from the grave. The sting of death is a little girl’s life, cut short. But, the young man lives today and tours with father performing Gospel-based music because he knows he will see his sister again and he lives with the hope of resurrection. It doesn’t eliminate the pain. But Jesus provides a hope that outshines the darkness of loss. Steven Curtis Chapman put out a CD of songs filled with the ripping emotions he went through in the experience. His loss and sorrow are memorialized on that CD. But, grief, though present, is not the defining emotion. The CD is entitled Beauty will Rise. Why? Because Jesus is alive.

We have our sorrows – either we’ve already lived through them, or we’re in the middle of pain right now, or dark days will come in the future. Paul knew that. But no enemy of death, sin, loss, or grief that stand our path can match up with the hope we have. Because He lives, we can face today and tomorrow. The resurrection of Jesus is our hope, our testimony, and the power that keeps us going and puts music in our song.

There is joy-filled unending love in the eternal life we have because he rose.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Easter Sunrise Sermon

“Approaching the Resurrected Jesus” (Matthew 28:1-10) Rob Tennant, April 24, 2011Easter Sunrise Service

How do we approach Easter Sunday? One’s answer to this question has a big say in whether or not Easter makes a difference in a person’s life. So, pay close attention to your own answer. Be completely honest. And be willing to change. Be willing to lay your life out before God that God may enter and begin rearranging your life. We allow God to work change in us because as we hear the story with ears opened by the Holy Spirit, we hear it as we haven’t heard it before. Through the story of resurrection and the Spirit alive in us, God makes us new creations. How do we come to Easter Sunday?

Maybe we come dispassionately, bored, yawning. [Mocking tone] O wow! Women came to a tomb before sunrise on a Sunday. And surprise of all surprises. It’s empty. Jesus is alive. Woo hoo! Like I haven’t heard this every single year for the last 40 years. Nothing new; been there, done that.

Maybe we come knowingly. We aren’t bored, but neither are we suspecting to learn anything new. We’re all ready to shout “AMEN!” because we know the story so well. We’re ready to carry the story into the world and present it to unbelievers to convince them. We conjure up excitement in ourselves because we know this is the story of God’s victory over death. But, we feel we own this story. We know it; it is ours. And our posture toward Easter morning is planned celebration. Our handling of resurrection lacks a sense of wonder. We can to help someone else be amazed, but we’ve already felt it. We know what it’s all about.

Maybe we come the way we come to every text, every Sunday morning. We hope to have an experience in which we meet God, but we aren’t sure we will. We come with an unconvinced optimism. We’re not arrogant. We’re not bored. We’re not indifferent. But, we our faith is colored by seasons of spiritual dryness or disappointment or by pain. We want to meet God in the gathering of His church; but deep inside, we doubt we will.

Many of among us are seekers. We don’t spend much time in church and don’t read the Bible often, but it is Easter. Here we are. We approach curiously. Is there something for me? Is there anything in the Bible or church that’s worth my time; that could make my life better?

The entry point to the resurrection, to Easter is related to how we approach, our mental posture, our demeanor, our expectations, our sense of self and our sense of God. In the Gospel of Matthew we see two approaches on the morning the tomb was discovered empty. We are invited to enter this story. Which of the two approaches here will our entrypoint?

First, we meet the women. It was dawn on Sunday, which was the start of the work week after the Sabbath. Mary Magdalene and another Mary – there were so many women by the name of ‘Mary’ in this story it is hard to track them – came to the tomb. Who were Jesus’ women disciples?

First century women did not have rights as 21st century women do. The Mary’s and the other women were second class citizens. Some had money. In Luke’s we see that they gave of their resources to financially support Jesus in his mission of itinerant teaching (8:3). These women were not completely powerless. But even the affluent among the women were dependent for their well-being in life on the men in their lives. Others among the women were extremely peasants.

We know these women loved Jesus deeply. Also from Luke, we remember that when Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross out to the place of crucifixion, women walked behind him weeping openly (23:27-28). They did not care what anyone might do to them. They openly poured our their emotion at seeing their rabbis suffer.

Finally, the women recognized that Jesus was special. Martha, another of Jesus’ followers declared him to be the Messiah (John 11). And, at the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman violated social conventions and came to the table where the men reclined in order to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. Hers was certainly an act of appreciation and even has the appearance of worship.

The women Matthew introduces, who came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, were a part of a group of female disciples who supported Jesus, followed Jesus, and worshiped him. In them, we can enter the story, but before we do, we read on a little further to see the other characters.

As they approached the tomb, the earth shook violently and an angel from heaven descended rolled back the stone that had sealed it, and sat on the stone. Matthew reports that guards were stationed at the tomb, and when the earth shook, they fell to the ground trembling.

Here is our second entry point, and I don’t mean the angel. Not a one of us can say we would enter the story in the clothes of a divinely appointed being. We are created beings, made by God, and from the earth. The second entry point or point of identification is these guards.

Matthew tells us that chief priests and Pharisees requested that the tomb be guarded so that Jesus’ followers would not steal the body and then claim resurrection. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate granted this request, and here we have the very moment the temple leaders anticipated. It is a couple of days after the crucifixion, and Jesus’ followers show up at the tomb. The battle-hardened soldiers, assigned by Pilate, stand between these Christ-followers, these women, and grave.

Who were these men guarding the tomb? Might they have been among those who flogged and mocked Jesus? Or were they part of the unit assigned to the crucifixion? They stand in stark contrast to the women. If women, especially Jewish peasant women, were a picture of powerlessness, mighty soldiers stood for violence, power, and war. They were indifferent to Jesus’ identity and completely opposed to his ideals.

Turn the other cheek? They would smash it. Love your enemies? They were the enemy, and they weren’t going to love you. They were going to step on you. The soldiers didn’t ask permission. They took what was theirs and often they would take what was yours, and go ahead, try complaining. To what authority could one complain about abuse from soldiers, which was very common? They were the authorities!

So then, where are we in the story? Honesty here is crucial! Do we perceive ourselves to be powerless in our world, dependent on others? We are the women. Do we make our own way through hard work? Do we possess strength we have acquired through our training and through learning tough lessons? Do we perceive ourselves to be among the powerful in the world? We are the soldiers.

Most people who can be defined as middle class, who own their own home and car, and who have education and can vote, are people who have some level of power. Middle class, property owning, educated, citizen of the most powerful nation on earth – is that me? Yes. Is that us? Where do we enter the story?

See what happens. The earth quakes, the angel descends, and the stone is rolled back. And 4 times, Matthew uses a form of the Greek word Fobos. It is the Greek root of Phobia and it means fear. Who is afraid in this story? Everyone. (Well, not the angel). But, both women and all the soldiers, however many there are, are afraid. In fact, Matthew says, “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men” (v.4).

The mighty soldiers “shook” – it’s the same word used to describe the earth quake. First, the earth rumbled, and then the mighty guards trembled. And they became like dead men. They who were entrusted to guard the tomb of the dead themselves became like the dead. And from that point on, they were ignored.

In the first century, soldiers were feared. When they walked down the street, you moved out of their way. When turned down the lane in your village, you locked up the cottage and prayed for them to pass by. Now, here they are on the ground, trembling, probably losing control of bodily functions at the site of the angel, real power, and Matthew promptly loses interest in them. In the first century, women, even wealthy ones, lived at the pleasure of men. Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies were dominated by men in the first century. But in Matthew, these powerless Jewish women move to the center of the story.

The angel, indifferent to the petrified guards, says to the women, “Fear not! Jesus has been raised. Go quickly and tell his disciples. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”

What does one do, when one is visiting a cemetery, and one sees an angel? That angel says, the dead we came to visit is alive and we need to go report the news and go to Galilee because not only is he alive, he’s there waiting for us and we will see him? How do we handle that? It depends how we come to the story.

Recall the song of Mary when an angel told her she was going to be the mother of the son of God. She sang God’s praise. Specifically, she said, “[God] has scattered the proud. … He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). There are the proud, mighty soldiers, cowering, brought low.

There are the lowly, women followers of Jesus. They came on a mission of grief, but now, the angel has given them a mission from God. ‘Angel’ in Greek, aggelos literally means ‘messenger.’ The divine messenger has chosen of all people these women to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew tells us “with fear and great joy, [they] ran to tell the disciples” (28:7).

Both the women and the guard were filled with fear. The illusion of power the guards lived under was shattered when the angel descended and rolled back the stone. The reality of their smallness and their powerlessness before God crushed them. They weren’t ready to tremble before God. The women knew they needed God, so when God showed up, they didn’t collapse. They trembled. They were afraid. But, they were also ready to listen. It was to them that the message and the mission were given. They were the first preachers of resurrection and I believe this is so because of how they came.

Now, we said that Matthew uses forms of fobos four times. The guards were afraid. The angel said to the women, “Fear not.” And the women ran off in fear and in joy. Suddenly on the path, Jesus greeted them. The angel said they would see him, but still it was a surprise. And they were terribly afraid. Fear of God is appropriate. God is holy. We are sinful. God is divine. We are of earth, profane. God is eternal. We are temporary. It is right to fear the Lord. But, there’s just one thing to do in the face of such fear. It’s tempting to hide or try to run away. The women didn’t do that. They did the only thing one does when one comes before God powerless, in humility and dependence.

“[The women] took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10).

If we come to Easter Sunday as people who have heard the story before and as people who own it and as people who can no longer be amazed by the power of God expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, then we cannot ever have the moment these women had. If we come in our power, we will experience what the guard experienced. We will be knocked down and scared senseless. It might not happen at the Easter sunrise worship service. It might not hit and sink in until Judgment Day. But rest assured, if we come to God from a standpoint of power – like God needs us – we will be made aware of just how powerless and how small we are.

If we come to Easter in humility, and if we come to God in repentant, humble confession, acknowledging our absolute need for Jesus, we will be raised up as they were. We will hear the words, “Fear not.” We will worship in wondrous, awe-struck joy. And we will be sent out as those women were on mission to proclaim to a lost and hurting world that Jesus is alive and salvation is available to all who put their trust in Him.

Hiking through a thick forest up the side of a tall mountain, we come to the clearing at the top. When you come out of the shadow of the trees, with a view of the entire valley below and other mountain ranges in the distance, it takes your breath away. You could walk along complaining about the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down your back, and the ache in your legs from walking four miles up hill. All that complaining could poison you so much, you can’t appreciate the spectacular view once you get there. Or, you can enjoy the walk, the beauty of the green forest, the feeling of strength one gets from accomplishing such hike, and the appreciation of nature. The bugs and sweat and fatigue are just part of the journey and the view makes it all worthwhile. The quality of the experience really does hinge on the approach.

On resurrection morning, we meet God when we start out in fear and we start out knowing God doesn’t need us but we desperately need God. No matter how come in awe, seeking, bored, or in arrogance, Jesus is raised. Nothing we do affects the story. Furthermore, at the final judgment, nothing we do affects what God’s judgment will be how. How we approach it impacts how we experience the story. When we come in humility, seeking God, the resurrection begins shaping our lives and we live everyday in awe-struck, fearful joy. Everyday, the risen Lord says to us, “Fear not. Go and tell.”

That’s the final word this morning. Jesus conquered death. Jesus is alive. He was crucified for the sins of the world and the grave could not hold Him. People need to know. So, come in humility. Rejoice in faith. Then in love, go and tell.


Friday, April 22, 2011

From the Upper Room to Gethsemane

“I will Go Ahead of You” (Matthew 26:30-36)

Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC

Thursday, April 21, 2011 – Maundy Thursday Worship

We have together taken the bread – the broken body of Christ, and cup – the shed blood of our Lord. This year on Maundy Thursday, I am profoundly conscious of how important this is for me. My sins are on my mind; not so much specifics sins as my failure to improve. I still commit sins I committed years ago. Too often, it feels like I am not getting better.

If you asked me, “Rob, are you a failure?” I would say, “No.” I don’t feel like a failure in general. But, thinking about the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s passion, his suffering and death, I am beset with how much I fall short of God’s glory. Toward my wife and my children, I feel a failure and that means I am a failure before God because God has entrusted their care to me. I do many good things in my roles as husband and father. I am not blind to the areas where I do well. But, I know I come down hard. I fail to show mercy. I fail to show patience. And I can be manipulative. As I think of the bread and cup, all this comes to mind.

I am not a perfect pastor, not by any means. And I am not referring to things I just don’t do well. I have weaknesses – everyone does. I don’t beat myself up over my weaknesses. But what I am thinking of here is the areas where I have some ability. I come up short there because I don’t work hard enough all the time. Sometimes I do. But sometimes, my effort is not what it could be. God has entrusted the leadership of this church to me. Does that mean there’s a ceiling on how great this church can be? In my moments of laziness, do I lower that ceiling, lessen what we can accomplish in our worship of God and our service and love of one another?

I think of the bread and the cup, the body and blood. Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jesus died for the sins of Rob. I don’t feel myself crushed every time we take communion as I have described tonight. I don’t always crumble under the burden of my own insufficiency. But this year, as we worship on Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus’ suffering, I think of my mistakes, the thoughts coalesce and here I am: a failure, dining at the table of Jesus. I am here by his invitation, and oh what a price he has paid because of what I have done.

To come to the table in the mindset I have had and have just described is to miss the heart of Jesus’ words when he sat down with his disciples the night before he was crucified. He did not look at them and say, “I am doing this because you guys and every other human being are messed up.” He did not say that. He said, “Take, eat. This is my body.” In the Last Supper, Jesus did not blame, he gave. He did not pound the disciples with their sins, their faults. He invited them to be near to him.

What motivated Jesus as he gathered his friends in that intimate setting for the more personal of meals? What drove him as he willingly, knowingly, went into the hands of people who would beat him and then turn him over to Rome to be flogged, mocked, spit upon, and crucified? Why did Jesus go through this? Many here could answer this easily, but I need to press the question so that I can receive from God freedom from my own guilt. And I think many who have participated tonight also need that freedom. What I shared at the outcome – my own pressing sense of unworthiness – I think many feel that way at the communion table and not just there but every time the church gathers for worship. I think many stay away from church to avoid dealing with the oppressive sense of unworthiness.

Jesus did not drown his disciples in their failures. He said, “Here I am. Take. Eat.” He invited them into a new covenant. “Drink all of you,” He said. “I will drink it with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” Why?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

17(V) And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and(W) knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to(X) inherit eternal life?" 18And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments:(Y) 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" 20And he said to him, "Teacher,(Z) all these I have kept from my youth." 21And Jesus,(AA) looking at him,(AB) loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go,(AC) sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have(AD) treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Mark 10:17-21).

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

Jesus hosted his friends at the table, and he invites us to His table out of love. Jesus went through the pain of the cross out of love. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves you. Confession has its place and confession involves painful honesty and true recognition of the sin that is in us. Confession is a part of our practice of the Lord’s Supper. But, Jesus loves us far too much to accept our debasement of ourselves. Jesus will not have us hate on ourselves the way I did at the outset. I spoke my honest feelings. Now, I need to fall into the love of Jesus, receive his forgiveness, rest in his embrace, and stand in his grace. We all need to do that.

What happens after the supper with the disciples, as we read it in Matthew, drives home the point. In our Holy Week worship and in our practice of faith throughout life, there is one driver that tells the story and it is not sin. Sin is in the story. My sins darken the pages of the story. Your sins and mine are black marks, insults to God, lashes on Christ’s bloodied back. But our sins do not write this story. The driver of the story is the love of Jesus. The love of Jesus determines who we are; who I am; who you are.

It says after they sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. As they walk in the cool of the evening, Jesus says, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31). Two characters stand out in this portion of the Gospel. Peter denied Jesus. Judas betrayed him. But he describes all 12 as deserters. He tells them anyone of them might be the betrayer. And they are all so confident of their faithfulness, they immediately begin to “be distressed and to say to him and to one another, ‘Surely not I’” (Mark 14:19)?

We do well to mark the shaky faith of the disciples. We do well to enter the story at that point because we have our moments of weakness. “You will all be deserters.” Jesus speaks to our heart, but not to drive us into dungeons of guilt. Jesus speaks truth to us. Only in knowing the truth about ourselves and in knowing Jesus who is the truth (and the way and the life) can we be free. Moments come when we fail him; but, that’s not all Jesus says. He speaks to the disciples as the walk from the house, up the mountain pass, to the Garden of Gethsemane.

From places of safety, into the night of uncertainty, into the fog of the unknown future, into the threatening shadows of anxiety and fear, Jesus walks with us. As we go, he speaks with us. He tells us we will have moments of failure. He says more.

“It is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31c-d). These words from the prophet Zechariah originally spoke the dispersion of God’s people from the Promised Land. Jesus applied the prophet’s words to the fear-filled retreat and subsequent hiding of his followers upon his arrest. It looks like the high priest Caiaphas initiates the suffering of Jesus, and the merciless Roman soldiers ratchet the violence up a notch. But God acts in the midst of this human evil. “I will strike the shepherd.” I don’t think God moved those who hurt Jesus as if they were puppets on strings. They sinned with their hatred, the disciples sinned in their cowardice and we sin in the 1000 ways we sin. God acted within the context of sin – scattering and then gathering.

As they walked from the house where they took the supper, through the heavy night, to the Garden of Jesus’ agonizing prayer – as they walked – Jesus spoke with them. “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31b). “It is written, ‘[God] will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (26:31c-d). As we walk through the highs and lows of life, he speaks to us. We will desert Him. We will be scattered. He says more.

“After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (26:32). Just as the supper was not about our sinful failings, but rather it was about Jesus’ faithfulness and love, so too his words on this walk up the Olivet Path are not about the sins we will commit. As bad as I might feel about what I have done, I will sin again. Tonight isn’t about that and indeed, my life is not about the sins I have committed or will commit.

The author of the story is Jesus and the subject of the story is His love at work in me, at work in you. Though we cannot see around the next bend, we can trust the one who sees all. We can trust that He makes good on his promises. He knows we will fail Him, yet he promises that he will go before us. Jesus is well aware of how awful the cross will be; even worse will be his sense that God, his Father, has given Him over to death.

Let there be no minimizing of how terrible that time was for Jesus. He was a man and went something worse than any man or woman had before or has since. He suffered physically. He suffered unjustly – he was innocent of all accusations. He suffered relationally – his closest friends betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. And he suffered separation from God. But, he had vision to see beyond it. And He has vision to see beyond our lowest moments. This is His story, and His story involves His great promise to go before us and wait for us.

Following the text in Matthew, the screen narrows in on Peter who, lacking the benefit of knowledge of the resurrection, refuses to accept the script Jesus is writing. He pledges his faithfulness even on pain of death. Jesus tells Peter his denial among all the others will be the one remembered. The other disciples some how don’t hear Jesus prophesy Peter’s moment of shame. Instead, they follow their bombastic companion’s lead and also pledge their fidelity.

We have the blessing of History. We know the cross leads to an empty tomb. But, even with that knowledge, even knowing the Holy Spirit of the resurrected Lord lives in us, we still deny and flee into the night at moments of weakness just as the 12 did. Which is why the final word – not something Jesus said but something He did – is so important for us.

As they walked Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31b). “It is written, ‘[God] will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (26:31c-d). “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (26:32).

“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane” (36:36a).

He did not simply promise to be waiting for them on the other side, after the horrors of the arrest and the trial and the cross. He went with them.

I do not know the state of your heart this evening, this Holy Week. Some might be in an unwinnable battle with sin. Others may already be basking in the brilliant light of resurrection. Wherever you are, wherever we are, the words of Jesus to us on the path are true, timely, and timeless. He is going before us, and He is with, and the reason is he loves us.

The Easter story is a love story – a story of Jesus loving us. If there is one thing to hold on to when life is coming apart at the seams it is the unshakable truth that when we are in Christ, we are in the steady hands of God. Even that night, though he appeared as a leader of a pathetically small band of powerless men, Jesus had control of the story and all earthly powers around him ultimately served God’s purposes even as they tried to destroy God’s son. The words of Jesus on the path that night are the words he sends us off with this night. We can sum up what he says with his words that end Matthew’s Gospel. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b).


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Igor's Home Run

For me, Holy Week started on Wednesday, with a little baseball game. My 8-year-old son plays in a coach-pitch pee wee league. I was leading a small group at church, and arrived a little late to the game. Keep in mind as I describe this that last summer, Igor played in a coach-pitch YMCA league and they didn't really do much teaching. In one game, he just couldn't hit the ball. After about a dozen pitches, they made him hit from the tee. I was coaching third base, and the third baseman from the other team said, "Ah, the tee of shame!!" And I thought, "Do I want to put my son through this?"

I decided he needed another shot, so we put him in the spring Carrboro league, which is excellent. Here, they do teach skills. With that backdrop, here's my recounting last night's adventure.

I arrived late to Igor's game. When I arrived, he was up to bat. There were runners on 2nd & 3rd. He ripped the first pitch to the right side of the infield, a real, solid, hard hit grounder. The second baseman had no chance. It would be a clean hit in any league. Both runners scored. I thought "Wow, a 2-run single! Great!"

Then, in his next at-bat, he came up. He missed or fouled the first four pitches. In this coach-pitch league, there are no walks. If you don't hit it fair in five pitches, you get a strike-out. On the fifth pitch, he hit a grounder that sort of went between the pitcher and second baseman. I think there was a runner on first. In futile attempt to get the force at second, the kid who fielded the ball threw to second base and he threw it really hard. It got past the second baseman, went into the outfield, and went quickly rolling past the outfielders. The coaches started screaming to run, and Igor never stopped. Second, Third, and a (unnecessary) slide into home plate. Someone on the bench yelled, "It's a home run." Someone else said, "Who hit that?" "Igor!!"

Of course there's a denouement.

Igor played catcher most of the game, but in the last inning, he was moved to left field. We were up 19-18 and they were up to bat. We had to get them out 1-2-3 to win. They had a couple of guys on base. Igor was in left field, throwing dirt in the air to entertain himself, wholly unaware of what was going on. The kid up to bat ripped a line drive that whizzed past the third baseman. Igor was surprised that a baseball rolled past him, interrupting his thoughts. He couldn't figure ouot why his father, back behind the bench, was madly yelling his name. The runners easily scored and we lost 20-19. We called our team into the bench area. As Igor blissfully skipped off the field, he said, "Who won?"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Palm Sunday Message

Jesus, the Humble King (Matthew 21:1-11)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday 5th Sunday of Church-wide Study - Culture Making

Why does the story begin this way?

“Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me."

There’s nothing spectacular, nothing of note. Why is this important?

Think … symbolism.

A young man drops to one knee before a young woman and holds out diamond ring. Do we need to hear him say, “Will you marry me?” We appreciate this special, memorable moment for those two people. The man’s gesture of kneeling doesn’t require explanation.

Every four years in January in Washington DC, the newly elected president places a hand on the Bible as he is sworn in to the highest office in the land. The day is rife with symbols. Does the scripture lend power and credibility and mystical wonder to the president, or is the Bible more important because the president touched it? Some of our leaders have been highly spiritual people. Others not so much. But no one elected president would miss the symbolic force of the moment. Each places his hand on that Bible.

Symbols matter.

The most liberated, independent woman in the world will have her dad walk her down the aisle in that white dress because symbols matter.

Jesus walked every where he went. Our feet couldn’t imagine the miles he and the disciples and most everyone else in the first century pounded. The walk into Jerusalem was routine. There would be no reason to ride, but Jesus rode. He was specific. He rode a donkey that was still tied to the maternal duty of caring for colt. Not exactly the best ride, but it is what Jesus chose. Why? Why ride a donkey? Why ride at all? Why a donkey that had a colt? Because symbols matter.

Here, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, without speaking a word. He speaks to the disciples, but just to give simple instructions. Who cares that he sent them to fetch these animals. Matthew cared enough to include this little detail in a Gospel where plenty of the little details of daily life are overlooked. Matthew included this. On a donkey that is concerned for her colt who walks close beside, Jesus rides into Jerusalem.

As he does, his entrance evokes thoughts of scripture, specifically the prophet Zechariah. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!” Zechariah says. “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).

What an odd, mix-matched picture. A triumphant king riding a donkey? The people of Jerusalem remembered the stories of Alexander the Great. He conquered their ancestors, a Greek ruling in Jerusalem, the city of God. Alexander entered as a warrior, riding a black war horse. The generals who succeeded ruled with cruel violence as they desecrated the temple. Alexander was their memory, a memory colored by pain and shame.

Rome was the present reality, and Roman generals did not ride donkeys into town. Romans rode majestic white stallions. That horse, ridden by an armored soldier in resplendent finery let all who saw him know a conqueror had come. The picture expresses more than the greatest of speeches. The defeated people hoped he would rule them with benevolence.

And deep in the hearts of the people of God in Jerusalem was the hope of a Messiah, a savior who would be exactly what Zechariah said he would be – triumphant and victorious. Many took the prophet’s message very seriously and hoped in the deepest parts of their hearts, against the overwhelming evidence of history, that God would deliver them and restore the Land to them. In spite of the repeated defeats, many in Israel maintained their faith in God. They put all their hopes in God.

They just weren’t expecting Jesus, so it was hard to see the message he delivered, even though the symbols were clear. Jesus acted out the vision Zechariah had cast: a king riding into town. Why was it hard to recognize? We come after the fact. We know how it turns out. We aren’t more spiritual than the people of 1st century Jerusalem. We don’t love God more than they did. We don’t know God better than they did. But, we live after the resurrection. We have Matthew’s Gospel. We know who Jesus was. Don’t we?

Jesus knew the prophecy of Zechariah and he brought it to life – a king on a donkey and not just a donkey. He was a king on a donkey with a foal along side. Only Matthew of the four gospel writers picks up that specific detail, two animals; the ultimate picture of vulnerability. As the white dress perfectly marks the bride, Jesus’ choice of animal declared not only his kingdom but that his kingdom would be one of peace, not war.

We know who Jesus was, don’t we?

He came not as a sword-wielding warrior, but as one who loved children and touched lepers and welcomed rejects. Jesus had power. The raging storm that he calmed and the l000’s of demons he destroyed would both agree Jesus had access to divine power. Satan himself knew that. Jesus went 40 rounds with Satan as he fasted in the wilderness. Weakened by hunger and tempted by ambition, Jesus and came out pure, unstained, and victorious. No army in history approached the might of Jesus, the power in his faith. Yet, he came, as Zechariah says, humbly, on a donkey. His choice of animals showed his intention to establish a kingdom of peace.

Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in Matthew. The next verse from the prophet, says, “He [the king] will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10).

This was different from what first century people expected from a mighty king for two reasons. First, as we mentioned, the king would end war instead of ruling through victory in war. Second, the Zechariah vision extended beyond the Land of Israel. It was dominion from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. We hear Jesus in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” End of the earth. End of the age. Of course we aren’t there yet. It’s only Palm Sunday. We haven’t yet arrived at the cross. But that’s where Jesus is headed – to the most unexpected place of all. He will claim authority over all by dying on a cross.

The humility of Jesus’ approach in no way minimizes his claim. Michael Wilkins of Fuller Theological Seminary says, “There is no mistaking that Jesus proceeded into Jerusalem as the anticipated king, the messianic Son of David” (NIV Application Commentary, p.687). N.T. Wright, the great Anglican scholar writes, “That the symbols of Jesus’ work were deeply provocative, implying at every point that Israel was being redefined in and around him and his [deeds]” (The Challenge of Jesus, p.55). Wright feels the two great symbolic works of Jesus were to cast judgment on the temple by causing a ruckus as he overturned money changing tables and drove the animals out, and second to inaugurate his meal, which we call Communion or the Lord’s Supper, at the Passover. However, before those symbols could be established, Jesus rode into town in humility, but also as the only true king.

That is where the rubber meets the road for us. We know the story: Palm Sunday, the clearing of the temple, Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper with the 12, Good Friday, the cross – it all leads to Easter, Resurrection, and churches like ours raucously singing hymns of joy, praise, and victory. But does it take hold beyond Holy Week, or is all of this just an annual dance we do to get ourselves into spring time. Does the reality that Jesus is king mean that his followers in this world are living under his rule?

I think of British parliamentarian William Wilberforce. He went through a dramatic conversion to faith in Jesus Christ in the 1780’s, and then committed himself to work within government abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. His ideas went against the tide of his nation, the cultural trends of his time. But he wasn’t locked in the early 19th century. He was a man in Christ. His true loyalty was to the King of Kings, the bringer of peace. So, he stayed at it not because he was successful but because it was the right thing to do. Finally, in 1806, the slave trade was ended and in the year of his death, 1833, slavery was outlawed in throughout lands governed by Britain.

Jesus came as a humble, peaceful king. Does it make any difference?

I think of Rachel who has served as a missionary in a Muslim country. She put on the veil and head covering because that’s how women dress where she lived. She endured loneliness and the oppressive life women are subjected to under fundamentalist Islam. Why would a woman in her 20’s with talent, education, and the many opportunities America offers undergo such personal sacrifice just to share the Gospel? Because her King told her to. The opportunities and tastes and consumerism of contemporary life don’t rule her. Jesus does and he told her to go, so she went.

Jesus rode into town, received the accolades of the singing, crying, shouting crowd. Does it make any difference in our lives when we say he is king?

I think of my dad and of Tim.[i] Tim went to high school with my sister. He is from a poor family and he is wheelchair bound. He also drools and his speech is greatly impaired. My sister was kind to Tim while they were classmates. On some occasions she brought him to church. Then she moved away, and Tim’s family became burdened with life. So, Tim, relegated to his bedroom, had no life. Then my dad started driving Tim to church. Tim’s a full grown man, so getting him into the vehicle can be a challenge. But, Dad does it often, and Tim is blessed. Why? Why do Dad and so many other Christians like him in Roanoke and Chapel Hill and towns all across America go out of their way to bless the Tims of the world? They do it because Jesus is King and in His Kingdom, no one is overlooked, all are included, and the rule is love.

“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘behold your king is coming.’” My friends, in singing our worship songs of Palm Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus, our King, has come. I see the difference it makes

The Kingdom of God is here and it doesn’t matter who is in the White House. It doesn’t matter what country we are in. I see the Kingdom when love is the rule we live by. I see the Kingdom when our King’s words and teachings govern our actions toward one another. I see the Kingdom when students go without food to raise money to fight against the present evil of hunger. I see the Kingdom when people give one another rides to church because the community has to be together. I see the Kingdom when a student tells her boyfriend “no.” She’s waiting for marriage because that’s what her king wants her to do. I see the Kingdom when a man sacrifices career advancement and higher paychecks for the sake of time with his family because he knows His King doesn’t call Him to wealth; his King calls him to love.

I know all these examples aren’t directly related to the text of Matthew 21, but they are symbols, signs that people are living under the true King whose Kingdom knows no end. On the back of that donkey, Jesus announced that the King and the Kingdom had arrived. With that arrival, everything changed.

If you have not entered it His Kingdom, you are invited to today. You’re invited to ask Jesus into your life and to give your life and your complete loyalty to Him. Your life will be changed because you’ll be filled with perfect love and you’ll live under the rule of love. All other ways living fail to satisfy. But the Salvation He offers is complete and in Him, we are complete. There’s no other way, really, to go. Come, the Kingdom is here and the King invites you in.


[i] Name changed.