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Monday, April 27, 2020

“Praying during a Pandemic” (Psalm 116)

Psalm 116:1-2 - Bible verse of the day -

Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020

*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            A Christian I know, a true follower of Jesus and a good friend, posted this status update this past week.  (1) Logs onto Facebook; (2) reads back-to-back posts of everyone arguing over COVID-19, calling each other names, being hateful; (3) logs off of Facebook.  No thank you!”  The ugliness, amplified by the anonymity of social media is there all that time.  In this time of quarantining, when more people than ever are at home, more people than ever are on Facebook.  And, they aren’t using it as an opportunity to be nicer. 

Well, some people are.  We’re in a worldwide pandemic.  We’re all in this together.  Let’s cooperate and get along.  Some are taking this benevolent approach.  But others are as close-minded and mean-spirited as ever, and with more time on their hands, they are more liberal in expressing their malicious maledictions.  A lot of people are saying mean things.

            I also saw this, from the daily devotion: a line from a Switchfoot song.  “It’s OK to grieve; it’s OK to learn to fall.  It’s OK to believe, to admit you’re human after all.”[i]  Read devotionally, these words felt like permission to pray from a tired, raw place.  I feel tired.  I feel raw. 

            As I attempted to harness and control these feelings, I read the lectionary passages for this Sunday. While resurrection is the theme – it’s the season of Easter – I felt led away from the Gospels.  I read 1 Peter 1:17. “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”  That hits!  Staying home, wearing a mask to Walmart or the gas station, hearing daily death totals – it feels like exile.  Yeah, the 1 Peter prayer can be our prayer.  We’ve already called God the Father we hope will protect and uplift us. 

            Thus, 1 Peter tells us we are to live in “reverent fear.”  This is a specific kind of fear.  We may fear catching COVID-19, or we may fear the economic collapse happening as a result of the nation being closed down, or we may fear social isolation (the loneliness, the cabin fever, the ennui).  Each is a real fear, but 1 Peter means something else.  Reverent for recognizes these things, but sees that God is bigger.  The Holy God is more fearful (more awesome) than these other things, big though they may be.  Even during this pandemic, we who are in Christ know that with God, we’re part of a bigger story.

            Living God’s story, one of the things we do is name the situation.  The singer of Psalm 116, also a lectionary reading for the third Sunday of Easter, does this very thing.  Before reciting his woes, the singer says, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice; … he inclined his ear to me” (116:1,2).  The Facebook hate Grows, news overload of horribly sad stories never ends, politicians fight instead of leading,  and the mounting death totals continue daily, but we live in the midst of it singing our song; the Lord has inclined his ear to me.

            To God, singing 1 Peter and Psalm 116 as our prayer, we sing, the snares of death encompassed me.  The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me.  Sheol is an ancient Hebrew understanding of after-death.  The soul becomes disembodied and floats in an underworld, far from God.  Rather than flames and painful damnation, this picture depicts aimless wandering.  For the Old Testament God-worshipper, shalom (peace, prosperity, and wellbeing) is the highest attainment of life.  In Sheol, shalom cannot be had. 

Naming his plight, the singer of Psalm 116 – you and I, because we pray these words as our own – sings of death and separation from God.  Imagine late-afternoon heavy eyelids, fatigue but no rest, loss without the faintest hope of recovery.  Perhaps many in our world can readily put a COVID-19 spin on this expression of sorrow.  The Psalmist sings “I suffered distress and anguish.”

But then … “I called on the name of the Lord.”  The turning point!  In naming the story, the words death, Sheol, and anguish were not the first words and will not be the last.  The Psalmist began, “I love the Lord.”  After naming the pain, the only possible next movement is “I called.”  Many people that I meet in church life ask me to pray for them.  Prayer is a pastor’s job.  Prayer is a Christian’s job.  I get the request, “Please pray for me.”  I ask, “any specific request.”  They respond, “Pray for my life.  Just pray for my life.”  So simple.  So profound.  Call on the Lord.

The singer then names God.  God is gracious.  God is righteous. God is merciful.  God is abundance.  God is all these things.  Yes, in this life, we have troubles, but God sees us, God knows and loves us, and God acts for our wellbeing and flourishing. 

The Psalmist of Psalm 116 uses these words to name God; praying 1 Peter 1, we discover the prayer speaks to our experience in relation to God.  In a sense, as pray, we tell ourselves own story.  If you will pray this, then believe it.  First Peter 1:18, “You were ransomed.”  Snared in the bonds of death, powerless to break free, God liberates us by paying ransom “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb, without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:19).  Jesus dies our death for us.  You were ransomed!

Through Jesus, 1 Peter continues in v.21, you have come to trust in God.  God raised Jesus, Jesus makes relationship with God possible, and you now walk with God, bound for resurrection yourself.  This is a long way from the sedentary plight of stay-at-home orders, from the toxic allure of hate-filled Facebook rants, and from the magnified grief we daily feel during the pandemic.  Continuing prayer through 1 Peter, we continue talking to ourselves, telling our selves our own stories.  “You have purified your souls; … you have been born anew” (1:22, 23). 

For the final portion of prayer, we again turn to Psalm 116 for our words.  This is a pledge we make to God, a response to God’s grace.  “I [will] walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (116:9).  I won’t sequester myself and become an evil internet troll whose design is to ruin others.  I will let my light, my knowledge of the risen Jesus, shine. 

Of course, this means witness, testifying.  In our heritage as people of the book, the Bible, and of the spoken word, it means we tell what God has done for us.  Our goal in telling is that God’s story be heard, and that people, upon hearing, turn to faith in Jesus.  This is what it is to walk in the land of the living in Jesus’ name.  We tell of his goodness and we do good works to help other flourish and also to invite them to turn to him in faith.

The Psalm though goes beyond just a pledge of walking in faith as response to God’s saving grace.  The singer also pledges worship.  “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.  … I will offer a thanksgiving sacrifice.  … I will call on the name of the Lord (116:14, 17).  Worship of God is a centerpiece of my life and a centering activity in my life.  Besides testimony and working to help others, in this prayer, I declare I will worship God; worship will be a normative action of my life.

Of course, if you are watching this livestream, you have already made this decision.  You’ve decided, in your home, to mark out this time as worship.  You revere the scriptures, and so when I say, we’re going to pray Psalm 116 as a healing balm, soothing the rash of negativity and loss from the Coronavirus and the quarantine it has imposed, you say, ‘OK.’  It makes sense to you to treat the Bible as authoritative and to look to God in faith. 

Did you catch, in this Psalm 116 prayer, the note of festive celebration?  God saves.  Reading from a Christian perspective, we add, “Jesus has risen.  He is risen, indeed.”  Psalm 116:13 has the singer say, “I will lift up the cup of salvation.”  We can take this in the way that it sounds.  We can raise a glass to God!  We offer a toast!  “To Jesus!”  Everyone in church raises his or her beer or wine, or Coke or coffee, and repeats, “To Jesus!’

What?  You don’t think of toasts as something done in church?  That’s only for wedding receptions?  What party is bigger than the one where we celebrate that we are saved – saved from death, saved from hate, saved from degradation?  What is more toast-worthy than that?  Maybe we should start raising the glass to Him. 

“To Jesus!”  And the people repeat, “To Jesus!  AMEN!” 

What, at the last wedding you attended, they didn’t shout “AMEN” after the toast, a “here, here?”  AMEN literally means let this be true; this is so.  It is a verification that what has been said is accurate and true.  ‘AMEN’ is not the traditional response to a toast?  Maybe it should be.

The current crisis that forces us to stream worship and has forced society to effectively shut down is bad.  People are suffering and dying.  But God saves.  God has delivered his people from death and will continue to do so.  In Jesus, risen from the grave, God has defeated death.  Even now, we can celebrate that he gives us life.

To God!  To Jesus.  Here, here.  AMEN.        

Monday, April 20, 2020

“Resurrection Life” (Luke 24:36-43)

0362 - Luke 24:36-43 - Broiled Fish - Geoff Chapman - 12-05-2019 ...

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Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020

*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            “Why are you frightened,” Jesus asked his disciples.  They were behind closed doors, gathered on the Sunday evening after the crucifixion. Two disciples had just come from Emmaus to say Jesus, raised, had walked with them the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread.  Then he vanished.  So, they immediately made the hike all the way back the Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what had happened.

The rest of the disciples were trying to piece together what the two from Emmaus told them when Jesus simply appeared among them.  Of course they were afraid!  He was dead.  Now he’s standing here.  He continued, “A Ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38, 39).  The resurrected Jesus makes a specific point of telling them he is not a ghost.

The final line of ‘The Doxology,’ a song often sung in worship, is “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”  Yet in most of the theology conversations where the topic is the Trinity, I hear God referred to as, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’  “Holy Ghost” seems to be an old way of saying it.  We think of ghost stories, whether horror films or fun, silly stories, like Casper, and we are pretty sure God is not that.  God is something else.  So, we distinguish between ‘Holy Spirit’ and the folklore around ghosts, and most often today, we refer to the third person of the trinity as God the Holy Spirit.

There’s no such distinction in the Greek, the original language of the New Testament.  The same word – pnuema – is used for ghost and for spirit.  Jesus is emphasizing that he is here in person, in the flesh.  In verse 39, he uses the word ‘flesh’ – sarka in the Greek – to describe himself.  He invites them to touch him (v.39).  He eats fish while they watch. Resurrection is embodied.

I offer two reasons why this is so important.  First, anyone who tries to make the case that Jesus’ resurrection was a ‘spiritual’ but not a bodily event is committed to an unbiblical position.  Luke was written about 30-45 years after the death and resurrection.  But Paul wrote 1st Corinthians with a couple of decades of those events.  And he used sources that dated back to within just a few years after the resurrection.  Thus, the earliest testimony from the very first churches was that the resurrection is bodily.  One may have difficulty in accepting a bodily resurrection.  However, it is disingenuous to suggest the New Testament is talking about something else. 

The consistent New Testament witness is that Jesus’s body rose.  It was changed and in resurrection operates by physical properties we don’t have the ability to measure or account for.  New creation is beyond what our scientific logic can explain.  Nonetheless, as Christians, we believe in bodily resurrection, first for Jesus, then for us.

The second reason the establishment of the resurrection as an event that really happened in actual history is, we have to deal with it.  If it is true that Jesus rose from the grave, what does this mean for how we live?  We are in a time of overlap.  With the resurrection, the new creation has begun.  However, the world is still dying.  Death is still a thing that happens.  People still sin.  So while the age of degradation and destruction is ending, it has not ended yet.  We live within both realities, the age of death and the new age of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection.  What does it look like when we choose to live by the terms Jesus sets in the resurrection?

For a case study, I offer the story of Bud Welch and Bill McVeigh as told by criminal justice advocate Jeanne Bishop.[i]  I didn’t know either of these names until I read about them this week.  McVeigh is the father of the notorious Timothy McVeigh, the man who set off a homemade bomb in the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.  One hundred sixty-eight people were killed and another 680 were injured.  Prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attack on 9/11/2001, it was the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 

Welch’s daughter Julie was a language interpreter working at the Murray Federal Building.  She died when Timothy’s bomb exploded.  Bill McVeigh is the father of a mass murderer and Bud Welch is the father of one of his victims.  Bud Welch lives as if the resurrection happened and things are different because of it. 

As media scrambled to interview grief-stricken relatives of the victims, Welch saw it as an opportunity to campaign against the death penalty.  He lost a child.  He didn’t see the point in any more death, not even the killer’s death.  From there, he took his desire for grace further.  He went to great lengths to meet with Timothy McVeigh in prison.  That meeting never happened, and McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.  However, a nun helped connect Welch with McVeigh’s father Bill.

Bill had kept a low-profile after the tragedy.  He couldn’t understand why his son did this horrible thing, and he did not want the McVeigh name to bring any more pain to the families of the victims.  So, he avoided interviews and did his best to stay out of the media.   He does not attend memorial services on the anniversary of the event.   He said he would always love his son, but could not fathom that he did this thing.

Two fathers beset by grief, and grace brought them together.  Jeanne Bishop tells the full story in her book that is now out, entitled, Grace from the Rubble.  Bud Welch knows the resurrection of Jesus is real and by extending grace to Bill McVeigh, he creates space for both men to grieve and find hope.  Could you or I do it as he has?  Could we forgive the father of someone who killed our loved ones? 

I hope I never have to find out. The tragedy is immense.  But I am thankful for the story and even more thankful for the story in Luke 24.  There we see that death does not have the final word.  The risen Lord Jesus stands with his disciples, explains the bodily nature of resurrection, and then demonstrates it by eating with them and inviting them to touch him.

In our current environment where we are forced to stay home by a disease that passes aggressively from person to person and is deadly for some, how do we go about living in the new age.  Jesus is alive and we have life in his name.  What difference does that make in COVID-19 America as we are two months into the spread of the disease and the quarantine it has forced upon us?

Jesus said, “Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.”  We cannot get within 6 feet of one another.  We go around with masks on so that we cannot even see one another’s smiles.  In this strange time, how do we embody the grace Bill Welch demonstrated after his daughter died?  How in our lives do we live as if the resurrection happened, we believe it happened, and it makes a difference?

Answers don’t always come easily.  One of the great commands of Jesus is that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and in the time of COVID-19, respecting social distancing is an expression of love.  Find ways to be with people while maintaining that 6-foot distance.  Don’t take offense if someone else’s fear leads them to act in ways that make interaction awkward.  Bring peace to your encounters with people whether it is in the limited public interactions we have or the interaction is in social media.

Social media is a setting where hilarious humor and uplifting joy is shared, but it is also a playground for outrage and conspiracy theories.  On Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms, be a voice peace.  The disciples were overwrought and Jesus bid them calm, as he took away their fear.  The resurrection is peace, light, hope, and welcome.  We can extend all these things.  You can reach out to someone with whom you have had an argument or falling-out.  Invite that person back into your life with a posture of humility and forgiveness. 

When the uncertainty and the cramped quartering of stay-at-home orders starts to get to you, turn to the resurrected Lord.  Ask the Holy Spirit to remind you that COVID-19 is a symptom of a world in the throes of death, but another world overlaps this one: the resurrection life in which there is no death. 

We are locked in a strange time.  But the grace from one man to another in the midst of a tragedy helps us see a brighter light.  The story of the risen Savior taking away his disciples’ fear takes away our fear.  And the reality that the resurrection means our lives have purpose drives us to see life and spread hope even in the face of frustration and suffering.  Live the resurrection life, renewed daily, and feel doubts and disbelief give way as joy settles on us.


Monday, April 13, 2020

Easter Sermon - 2020

Easter Services: April 1, 2018 » Lakeway UMC

Watch -[0]=68.ARDPFUur3oytOevIF-ND1V68f-OAep9sXVNYgJvhkzvcvMu0E_9dtS0TviEpoPxbLEvNogqPuMeim3e6kcQrY_68botyeJMeAr6Bed5qy-23azdOsS7XUaKspMzYFgTBZMUcxGcmluljvH4JK2MhJGt3xb4OoYPV6jrYmAQT4VmHi8UJNMSynSd0GBipUWDN_KGR8WvtDX7Nm7HM57AXcUQT4XyyNIQZSI2VqnqwaeJxahnA7gcIkKzZ3gWGrGk-rl5xe88uyKesfPc9zeeqCxFvh5LkPLjEa_YEf4Ux_EZggSxvz5XMy1oZQI0lICl4MvRhoTuqd2RC2sYq

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“Early Morning Run” (John 20:1-10)

Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC

Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            John chapter 20 begins, “Early on the first day of the week.” What do you early in the morning?  Hit the snooze button and roll over for 9 more minutes?  Take a shower to wash the sleep out of your eyes? How about going for a run to start the day?  That’s what Mary did, an early morning run; but it’s not what she had planned.

Other gospel writers report several of Jesus’ female disciples came to the tomb.  John zooms in on Mary Magdalene.  She was up early because she probably didn’t sleep.  She probably spent the entire Sabbath recoiling from the shock and grief of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It happened so fast, arrested Thursday; killed Friday; and now the movement was over. 

Mary was not thinking about a movement.  She loved him.  She couldn’t accept it.  She went to his tomb.  We need that.  God did not design us for death.  Death runs contrary to how we are made.  When a loved one dies, we need rituals; the funeral, the graveside service, and burial.  Only with these practices can we have closure, but Mary did not find any closure.  She found the stone rolled away from the entrance.

That’s when she started running, all the way back to where Simon and the beloved disciple were staying.  How often in ancient Israel did adult women run in public?  I imagine it was uncommon.

Today we run for any number of reasons.  People love running for fitness; a mile; five miles; and the real runners even do marathons.  We mix in all kinds of obstacles; there are mud runs and color runs and gladiator runs.  It’s all to get in shape.    

People also run in competition.  The fastest runners run not just to complete the race, but to win it.  The batter hits a ground ball the shortstop has to go deep in the hole to field.  That batter sprints down the line to beat the shortstop’s throw.  The running backs takes the ball and runs hard, plowing over tacklers.  Once he’s past them, then he turns on the speed so as to not get caught. 

We run to stay fit.  We run to win.  Some run to stay alive.  If you are being pursued by a tiger or an attacker, you run.  Some run for excitement.  Kids coming from home school on a Friday will sprint out of the school building, happy to be “free.”  Sometimes running is tied to a goal.  Candidates “run” for office, intending to be elected. 

Mary came to a tomb to grieve the death of her beloved teacher much as you or I might visit the cemetery to remember and say farewell to someone we love who has died.  Why did a stone rolled to the side revealing the entrance to Jesus’ tomb send Mary running?  What would you think if you went to the cemetery and found your mom’s headstone, but the ground was dug, no coffin?  His corpse was supposed to be in there.  But the stone sealing the tomb was moved.  Now she was traumatized by this: a dead body wasn’t where it was supposed to be.  With this new shock she ran for help. 

Peter and the beloved disciple set out immediately, back down the same road from which she had just come.  Like her, they are running.  Commentators remark, in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal son, that it was undignified for a landowner of high class to run in public.  But in Jesus’ tale the father didn’t care about improprieties.  Overcome with joy at getting his son back, he ran to embrace him.  A little like the impulse in school children on Friday afternoons, this father, propelled by excited happiness ignored social conventions of his day and ran to his son. 

That’s not what Peter was doing.  He did not know what had happened.  He and his companion only knew that grief and shame had coldcocked them both and now Mary’s report of a violated tomb raised the level of strangeness and threat.  They could be running into some real trouble, but they were beyond reason.  They had to know what happened, so they ran. 

The beloved disciple outpaced the fisherman, but stopped at the tomb’s entrance.  He looked in where he saw linen grave clothes but no body wrapped in them.  Huffing and puffing, Peter caught up, and barreled past him into the tomb.  They could see clearly; the body was gone.  They did not know what it meant.  They turned to walk, slowly, I bet, back to the house.

Mary then had her encounter with the risen Jesus.  She thought he was a gardener until He called her name.  When she heard her name, she was the first to understand.  No one, not the temple leaders, not the centurions, no one stole his dead body.  His body wasn’t dead.  She talked to him as he stood there alive.  She watched his lifeless body taken down after being ravaged and dying on the cross.  She saw him laid in the tomb.  Now, here he was, upright, alive, talking to her.   She knew it was real because she took hold of him.  The gospel doesn’t say she ran as she went back to tell the disciples what happened, but I bet she at least had a new spring in her step! 

Jesus was alive.  He had been dead, done and dusted.  Now, he was alive.  This is where our story leads.  Our own individual mistakes, and a world degrading and devolving inevitably leads to death, the very opposite of God’s intent for human beings.  From Adam and Eve to Cain and Able to the flood to the tower of Babel to a long, sad history of the chosen people rebelling against God to exile to the decadence of both Herod and Rome to the crucifixion to our day or wars, pornography, greed, sex-slavery, substance abuse, and self-centeredness, the world is unalterably destined for destruction. 

Yet, when we turn from death and our own fallen state, repent, and turn in faith to Jesus, something changes. He is alive.  On the cross, he took on himself our destruction.  Death seemed so inevitable, yet he defeated it.  The resurrection means, when we are in Christ, things are different because we are bound for life.  People need to know about this!

Why are 26-mile long races called ‘Marathons?’ In 490BC, after a long battle with the invading Persians, the Greeks won a desperately needed victory at Marathon.  The residents of Athens, 26 miles away, needed to know what happened.  So, a runner was dispatched and he made the long run for one reason: to tell the good news!  What he had to say was so important, so needed, so urgent, he ran to tell it.  Legend has it that upon reporting his news, he collapsed and died.

We possess news much happier and more important than “Greece defeated Persia.”  That message was only happy for the Greeks.  The Persians had to slog all the way home as losers.  Our news, “Jesus is alive,” is happy for everyone.  He has risen!  He has risen indeed!

People need to know it and we, his church, need to be running out of the worship gathering on Easter Sunday and every day to tell.  The Apostle Paul saw it this way.  In the decades after Easter and Jesus’ resurrection, Paul devoted his life to sharing the salvation we have in Christ and planting churches.  He is near his end when he writes 2 Timothy.  In 4:7 he says, looking back at his life of telling about Jesus, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  Jesus is alive.  Paul sensed the urgency.  This was good news people needed to hear.

It still is and we, today’s Christians, are the messengers.  We are driven to run as Paul did. Another New Testament book, Hebrews, written anonymously probably in the 60’s urges that we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1c).

Why so urgent?  Because people you and I know and love are dying in sin; the world is bound for destruction.  Why so urgent?  Because every single person’s course can be reversed and they can join in life, resurrected life, if they turn to Jesus.  Why do urgent?  Because it’s true.  Can you imagine the media firestorm that would hit if it could be shown that someone has truly risen from death, never to die again?  We know that has happened! 

Tradition teaches that the disciples spread out from Jerusalem all over the world, going out simply to tell people Jesus was alive.  Nearly all of them kept at it until they were killed for their testimony because the news is so big and so good, and it is exactly what the world needs to hear.  All those disciples who failed miserably in the hours leading up to the crucifixion became witnesses emboldened to bear their testimony about Jesus even to the death. Like Paul, they ran the race.

Now, it’s our time.  We don’t run for fear.  In Christ, there is no fear.  We don’t run to win.  That’s fine if you’re playing softball or in a footrace, but this is bigger.  We don’t run to stay fit.  You might work out to be good shape for the mission, but this mission can be carried out by people no matter what their physical condition is.  With my ankle surgery, I’m not running at all right now. 

But I am running out of here, and I hope we all here.  Christ has risen and in Him there is life.  Everyone needs to know.  We are the witnesses.  God is sending us to tell the news.  Jesus is alive! 


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Good Friday Worship Services - Seven Chapel Hill Churches (Worshiping from home)

Good Friday - Easter / Lent - Catholic Online

“God is still God, even when God Dies” (John 19:1-16, 28-30)

Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC

Good Friday, April 10, 2020

*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

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            I’ve been thinking a lot about how unsettling it is to not be in control.  I remember September 11, 2001.  I remember trying to come to grips with images of commercials airliners flying into buildings.  That morning, I needed to do something, but there was nothing I could do.  I just got a bicycle and rode around aimlessly.

            No control; none then, and it seems, there’s none now.  This coronavirus has grabbed hold of governments the world over and locked all of us in our homes.  How long?  We don’t know.  It’s so strange.  Different than 9/11, yes, but, in one sense, I feel as I did that morning.  I feel I am directed by circumstances.  What’s happening in the world determines what I will do next and I have little say in the matter.

            Did Jesus wrestle with feelings of powerlessness on that fateful day, Good Friday?  He was betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, interrogated more than once, flogged, forced to march to the site of his execution, and then nailed to the cross.  It’s hard to grasp him going through so many terrible things.  He who fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes; he whose word calmed stormy seas; he who restored the sight of a blind man; he who brought Lazarus back from the dead; how could this happen to him?

            We Christians say we believe Jesus is God.  We claim he is the second person of the Trinity in human flesh.  One of our core confessions is that he is fully man and fully God, a paradox to be sure, but one we stake our own lives upon it.  OK, but how can God be bound, as Jesus was in Gethsemane (John18:12)?  How can God be slapped like some second rate, soon-to-be-forgotten political rebel, as Jesus was when questioned by the high priest (19:22)?  Don’t we understand God to be all-knowing and all-powerful?  How, then, can he be paraded around, from Annas to Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha, moved by the whims of others with no say in the matter?  John 19:33, the soldiers saw that Jesus was dead.  Yes, the Romans were very good at pain and death and when they killed you, you were dead.  But how can God die?

            In hauntingly beautiful songs, the musical Jesus Christ Superstar poses penetrating questions about Jesus.  Watch the 1973 version with Carl Anderson in the role of Judas Iscariot, but be warned.  This musical does not follow the story of Jesus from a Christian perspective.  Instead the characters challenge Jesus with raw, honest questions. 

            Peter, watching as Jesus, in chains, is marched away, plaintively sings to him, “I think you’ve made your point now.  You’ve even gone a bit too far to get the message home.  Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt. So, could we start again please?”

            Then Judas, in the musical’s finale sings to Jesus as he hangs on the cross, “Did you mean to die like that, was it a mistake, or, did you know your message it would be a record-breaker?” We can be appalled at the irreverence throughout the musical, or we can acknowledge that Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, and the rest were probably as oblivious as the musical depicts them.  They didn’t know how they went from seeing miracles to the arrest to the cross.  Just a few days before, Palm Sunday, they rode the triumphant Jesus train into Jerusalem.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is the son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  How did it go off the rails so quickly?

            But, did it go off the rails?

            As early as John 12, religious leaders fretted that if people kept seeing Jesus as sent from God, rebellion would be provoked, and Rome would put it down with crushing force.  The religious leaders were the anxious ones, not Jesus.

            Then in John 13, Jesus predicts Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial (v.21, 38).  From the last supper to Gethsemane to the interrogations, Jesus is a step ahead of everyone, even when he’s in custody.  Does this story have a script?  Is Jesus the only one who saw it ahead of time? Who’s in control here?

            In the garden, the temple’s deputized toughs come to arrest Jesus.  With their torches, chains, swords, their steaming grunts, and muscles they stand to intimidate.  Jesus stands right up to them, and he, not they, does the talking.  “Whom are you looking for?”  They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I am he.”  When he says, this, the whole lot of them falls backward to the ground.

            The mob slowly picks up themselves, dust off, and dumbly stand there.  Jesus says again, “Whom are you looking for?”  With considerably less bravado, they respond, “Um, Jesus of Nazareth.”  He then says, “I told you, I am he.  So, if you are looking for me, let these men go” (John 18:4-8).  Again, who in this tragic story demonstrates poise?

            Rome was the political power of the day.  Religious leaders, temple authorities, the puppet King Herod all operated under the shadow Rome.  All had to appeal to the governor, Pontius Pilate.  So, Jesus was sent to him.

            Pilate is more confused than anyone else in the story.  Jesus tell Pilate his followers belong to the truth.  Bewildered Pilate asks, what is truth?  Pilate tries to get the crowd to appeal for Jesus’ release.  They demand his crucifixion.  It seems the holder of power, the mighty Roman, is more subject to the flow of events than the peasant from Nazareth before him in chains. 

            Pilate has Jesus flogged, a fate that, itself, brought some unfortunate prisoners to death.  Jesus survives. Pilate declares him innocent and tries to hand him back to the religious leaders.  They demand that he, their Roman governor, crucify him.  Pilate is afraid (19:8).  Powerbrokers always are, always afraid of how tenuous is their grip on the wheel.  Exasperated, he asks Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you” (v.10)? 

            Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (v.11a).  He doesn’t appear to be overwhelmed or out of control at all.  Improbable as it seems, Jesus appears to move this story along at the pace he has set.  All the actors move at his direction. 

            Even on the cross, Jesus arranges things.  He notices his female disciples nearby, including his own mother.  With them is also the man referred to as the beloved disciple.  He addresses them both directly, entrusting the care of his mother to this man.  Without any questions, both accept the arrangement.

            Then, Jesus knows the end has come.  No one else knows, but he does.  “I am thirsty” he says, invoking Psalm 69.  They soak a sponge in sour wine, stick it on a hyssop branch, and put it to his mouth.  The Psalm is fulfilled, and Jesus says, “It is finished,” and gives up his spirit. 

            Jesus, God in the flesh, is dead.  How could it happen? 

How could it not?  Sin brings death.  Death cuts us off from God.  All of us, every single one, sins.  The only way we can be with God is if our sins are covered.  Jesus willingly took our sins on himself when he allowed himself to be nailed to the cross.  He died for my sins and yours.  He gave himself up for us. 

            There’s more to the story, but this is as far we go tonight.  Jesus is dead on the cross.  He’s there on purpose.  It’s sad, but it’s also salvation.   We leave worship knowing God loves us enough to sacrifice himself for us.  He loves the world so much; he gave his only son.  If you believe in him, you will not perish.  You will have eternal life.