Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”


Luke 23: 44 – 46



Introduction

Perhaps it is no surprise that I love Easter Sunday.  As a Christian, I love Easter, because this is our most important Holy Day…Easter is more important than Mothers’ Day, more important than Thanksgiving Day, and more important than Christmas Day.  As a pastor, I love Easter, because I have the privilege and responsibility to preach about the single greatest event in human history…The Resurrection of Jesus.
As Christians, we confess that Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is a real, literal and historical event.  In one important sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion Resurrection is an act of faith…Because we have never seen anything like that before..  In another sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is like belief in any other historical event.  We can read and trust the historical documents.
Some people like to say that the books of the New Testament are religious writings and therefore cannot be trusted as historical documents.  However, these books are actually MORE reliable than any other form of ancient history.  (1) The New Testament was written by eyewitnesses.  (2) It was written within one generation of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection—the earliest book written around 50 AD and the last book written around 95 AD.  (3) The history recorded in the New Testament was not contradicted by any other contemporary historical accounts—in many cases, secular history actually verifies the historical facts recorded in the New Testament.[1]
Consider these words from Tacitus, the most respected ancient Roman historian:

Christus, from whom the name (Christian) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

Tacitus was a Roman and was not a Christian.  He wrote a history of the Roman Empire.  He was not fulfilling some kind of Christian / religious agenda.  This passage acknowledged that there was a man named Christ who was executed by Pontius Pilate, and this executed Christ is the namesake of the religious movement known as Christianity.

Another example is the political correspondence between Pliny, the Younger and Trajan, the Roman Emperor:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
-Pliny the Younger, Letter to the Emperor Trajan, 112 AD (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pliny1.asp)

Pliny was a governor over one of the districts within the Roman Empire.  During his reign, Christianity was considered an illicit religion / superstition.  Pliny arrested a group of Christians and told them they were facing execution unless they renounced their faith and worshipped the Roman gods.  In his letter to the Emperor, we discover that (as early as 112 AD) Christians worshipped Jesus as God and committed themselves to a countercultural form of morality.

A third example comes from Josephus, the Jewish historian:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the Messiah.  And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease.  He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him.  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
-Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, Chapter III, Paragraph 3), 93 AD (http://www.josephus.org/testimonium.htm)

This is the most controversial non-Christian reference to Jesus.  If Josephus truly believed what he wrote here, he would no longer be a Jew—he would be a Christian!  Also, many people today deny the authenticity of this quote.  However, recent scholarship has discovered a secondary source with a very similar quotation.  This leads to the interpretation that Josephus is not expressing his views about Jesus.  He is quoting another source.  Even though these words do not reflect Josephus’ personal beliefs about Jesus, they do reflect an existing First Century understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, who was crucified and rose again on the third day as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose again by Sunday morning.  Jesus hung on the cross for six hours from 9:00 AM until 3:00 PM.  During these six hours, Jesus spoke seven times: (1) Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing; (2) Today you will be with me in Paradise; (3) Woman, this is your son, and this is your mother; (4) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?; (5) I am thirsty; (6) It is finished; (7) Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.


Luke 23: 44 – 46…  44 It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour,45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.     

Death on a Roman cross was the most painful and the most humiliating way to die in the ancient world.  The physical pain of the cross was so bad, there were no words to describe it.  The Romans had to invent a new word.  It was not brutal.  It was not gruesome.  It was excruciating—ex is the Latin word for “from” or “out of” and crus is the Latin word for “cross.”  Excruciating pain is pain from the cross.
Of course, physical pain is only part of what Jesus experienced on the cross.  Jesus was abandoned by most of his family and disciples.  Jesus was mocked and ridiculed by his tormentors.  This mockery was an intentional part of a Roman crucifixion.
The Romans made sure that the person who died on a cross died without any dignity.  Crucifixion was reserved for the worst kind of criminals…usually men who were revolutionaries, trying to rebel against or even to overthrow the Roman government.  That is what Jesus was accused of doing.  When he preached about the Kingdom of God and claimed to be the divine Son of Man, the Romans felt threatened…Jesus was trying to establish a rival Kingdom.
If Jesus was gathering followers around him and promising a rival Kingdom, then the last thing the Romans wanted to do was to make Jesus a martyr.  They did not want Jesus to die as a hero…To die with dignity…To die as a respected religious / political leader.
And the Romans knew how to do this.  They had done this thousands of times before.  They had crucified thousands revolutionaries and rebels and Jewish men who claimed to be the Messiah.  They had stolen their dignity and stolen their lives.  Yet, this is not the case with Jesus…No one could take away Jesus’ dignity…No one could take away Jesus’ life…


John 10: 14 – 18… 14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." 

As long as Jesus was on the cross, his life was in the hands of the Roman soldiers.  Ironically, they did not have the power to take Jesus’ life from him.  Instead, Jesus was in control of his own life.  Jesus reclaimed his own life from the Roman soldiers and placed his life in God’s hands.
This is an important part of the Christian message.  Jesus died on the cross to offer us forgiveness of sin.  Jesus died as a willing and voluntary sacrifice.  Jesus was not murdered by the Romans (or the Jews).  Jesus’ life was not taken away from him.  Jesus did not die a tragic death.  Instead, Jesus gave his life willingly and voluntarily.  Jesus gave his life as an expression of God’s love for sinners.
Jesus’ death on the cross expressed God’s love, because God (in Christ) provided the way for us to be saved—for our sins to be forgiven and for the division between God and humanity to be torn away.  That was what Luke was describing when he told us that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross.
The curtain was a visual symbol and reminder that human beings are separated from God.  The curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple complex.  Only the high priest could enter behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies—and he could only do this one day a year on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifices for all the sins of all the people of Israel.
The Romans did not take Jesus’ life from him.  Jesus willingly gave his life to forgive your sins and to make relationship with God possible...An expression of God’s love.


Jesus’ last words on the cross—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”—tell us something important about the way Jesus died.  But, they also set an example for the way Christian people are supposed to live.


Luke 9: 23 – 25…  23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 

Jesus willingly gave his life for you.  Will you give your life for Jesus?  Will you commit your life into God’s hands?
There are two words we can use to describe what it means to give your life to Jesus. 
On one hand, this is “discipleship.”  We give our lives to Jesus to follow Jesus as the Lord / King of our lives.  When Jesus is my Lord / King, my life is not my own.
On the other hand, this is “stewardship.”  Ultimately, life is a gift from God.  I did not create myself.  I did not choose to be born / to live / to exist.  God gave me this life.  My life is my most precious possession, but it doesn’t really belong to me.  We give our lives to Jesus, because it belongs to him anyway!
Ironically, most of us spend our lives wrestling with God.  We wrestle and struggle against God, hoping to get our lives OUT of God’s hands.  We think we can save ourselves / establish a good life for ourselves / find our own security.
The only true salvation…The only good life…The only ultimate security…is found by giving our lives away in faith…Wholly trusting our lives into God’s hands.  Whoever loses his / her life will save it…What good is it for someone to gain the whole world and forfeit his / her own soul.


Conclusion

I think it is important to note that Jesus died just like he lived.  Jesus was able to trust his death into God’s hands, because Jesus trusted his life into God’s hands.  He died faithfully, because he lived faithfully.
We can compare Jesus’ last words on the cross to other famous last words:
Circus entertainer P.T. Barnum asked on his deathbed, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”  He lived chasing a dollar and died the same way.
On his deathbed, hotel founder Conrad Hilton was asked for words of wisdom.  He replied, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”  He died the same way he lived.
In 1776, Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for spying and stealing military secrets.  His famous last words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He died the same way he lived.

Will Jesus’ words on the cross be the defining words of your life?  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Jesus, I give my life to you.
These are the last words of a faithful life and the first words of a life of discipleship.



[1] For more examples of what ancient, non-Christian sources said about Jesus of Nazareth, see http://lovegod.denisonforum.org/heart/377-did-jesus-exist

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"I am thirsty."

“I am thirsty.”


John 19: 28 – 29


Introduction

Over these past few weeks, we have been reading the last seven sayings of Jesus from the cross.  So far, Jesus’ words from the cross have been very selfless.  Instead of focusing on his own needs and his own pain, Jesus focused on others. 
The first words Jesus spoke from the cross can be described as a prayer…a prayer for forgiveness.  Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The second words Jesus spoke from the cross can be described as an answer to a prayer.  The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into the Kingdom of God.  Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus’ third words were instructions for John, the Apostle to take care of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
The fourth words sound like a selfish cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But, when we read them alongside Psalm 22, we recognize that Jesus is quoting an Old Testament passage that prophesies about the suffering of the Messiah and the triumph of the Messiah…
The fifth words Jesus spoke from the cross are very self-focused.  Jesus speaks about his own physical need…AND, one of the people standing nearby responds by meeting Jesus’ physical need…


John 19: 28 – 29…28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 

These words from the cross show us the human side of Jesus.  As Christians, we believe that Jesus is both human and divine.  AND, it is important that we affirm both aspects of Jesus’ character…Jesus is 100% human and 100% divine…
It is important to say that Jesus is 100% divine, because this affirms the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross and his Resurrection are acts of God.  God stepped into human history and provided the only way human sin can be forgiven and the only way the relationship between God and humanity could be reconciled.
It is important to say that Jesus is 100% human, because this affirms the fact that Jesus has experienced everything a human being can possibly experience.  Jesus felt the physical pain of the cross and the emotional pain of being despised and rejected.  And, Jesus experienced the spiritual pain of temptation to sin but remained without sin.
So, when Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” Jesus was actually thirsty.
There are a couple of very creative interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Gnostics of the First and Second Centuries said that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  Instead, it only SEEMED like Jesus died on the cross.  Another theory—which has become very popular among Muslim interpreters—says that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  Instead, Jesus was able to switch places with Judas Iscariot.  In an ironic twist, Jesus did not actually suffer and die on the cross: Judas—the one who betrayed Jesus—suffered and died on the cross.  (Of course, this also explains what they believe happened on Easter Sunday.  They think Judas’ body remained in the grave, while Jesus walked around making people think he had been Resurrected.)
These two creative interpretations of Jesus’ death and Resurrection have one thing in common.  They are NOT Christian views.  The Christian view is that Jesus literally, physically and actually died on the cross and that Jesus literally, physically and actually rose from the grave.  Jesus did not appear to die—Jesus actually died.  Jesus did not trick Judas and switch places with Judas—Jesus actually died.
According to historians (and some modern day doctors who study the crucifixion of Jesus), a person who died by crucifixion usually died with one of three possible causes of death.  Suffocation—the weight of the body pulling against arms nailed to the crossbar made it difficult to breathe.  Loss of blood—in Jesus’ case, Jesus was bleeding from the nails, the crown of thorns as well as the beating he experienced before the cross.  Dehydration—hanging on the cross in the middle of the day, exposed to the elements, with no food or drink.  Therefore, we can probably take Jesus’ words—I am thirsty—as an indication that he was getting close to death.  By indicating he was close to death, Jesus is reminding us of his humanity.
Of course, Jesus was no ordinary human being.  Jesus was and is the Son of God.


Son of God


There are three occasions in the life of Jesus where the New Testament emphasizes that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Old Testament, Son of God usually referred to a divine being.  In the New Testament, this is a title for Jesus.  If the early Christians who wrote the New Testament and professed Jesus as the Son of God were shaped by their understanding of the Old Testament, then it is easy to see they actually believed Jesus was divine.  Jesus is God Incarnate—God in the Flesh.
One of the places where we read that Jesus is the Son of God was Jesus’ baptism.  When Jesus came out of the Jordan River, the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased.”  Another occasion was on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain and showed them his glory.  Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus.  And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  The other occasion was the miraculous birth of Jesus.
According to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born to Mary at a time when she was still a virgin.  Jesus did not have a normal birth like you and I did.  Jesus was not conceived by a husband and wife.  Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit.  God himself is Jesus’ Father.
Jesus is the Unique Son of God.  His miraculous birth demonstrates that Jesus came from Heaven.  Throughout his life, Jesus maintained a close and intimate relationship with God.  Jesus lived his life as God’s loyal Son.  Jesus imitated his Father in everything he did and said.  Jesus did nothing on his own initiative.  He modeled God’s character and was always faithful and obedient to God as his Father.
This leads us to what is perhaps the most important thing we can say about Jesus.  Jesus was God Incarnate or God in the Flesh.  Jesus was and is both divine and human.  We see his divinity in the fact that all of creation was under Jesus’ control.  He could heal the sick.  He could even control the wind and the storms.  We see Jesus’ humanity in the fact that he experienced everything it means to be human.  The Bible tells us that Jesus was hungry and ate food.  Jesus was thirsty and asked for a drink (on the cross).  Jesus was tired and took a nap in a boat.  Jesus was sad and grieved at the grave of a friend.  Jesus was angry when he overturned the tables in the Temple.  Jesus was even tempted by Satan when he fasted in the desert for forty days.
The proper theological view of Jesus is to say that Jesus was and is both fully divine and fully human.  If Jesus is ONLY human, then God has not come down to save us from our sins.  If Jesus is ONLY divine, then God has not entered our world.  If Jesus is BOTH divine and human, then God has entered the world of sin and evil…God has set an example for how we ought to live our lives…And God has provided the way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to have an eternal relationship with the living God.
At the beginning of Jesus’ life, the story of the Virgin Birth tells us that Jesus is divine and human.  At the end of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ words from the cross—“I am thirsty”—tell us that Jesus is divine and human…But why thirst?  There are a lot of things Jesus could have said from the cross to demonstrate his humanity.  Jesus could have described his pain…or drawn attention to the blood flowing from his hands and feet…or said “I am hungry; I am sad; or I am tired.” 
I believe it is remarkable that Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”  Remarkable, because in my recollection of the Gospels, there were two other times when Jesus said he was thirsty.


The Woman at the Well


John 4: 1 – 14…1 The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. 
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 
10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." 
11 "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" 
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  

There is a lot going on in this story.  Jesus was trying to travel from the Southern part of Israel (Judea) to the Northern part (Galilee).  Most Jewish people went the long way when making this trip, because the shorter route / the direct route went through the region known as Samaria—the home of the Samaritans.  Jesus traveled through Samaria and struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman.
This interesting little story gives us some insight into Jesus’ understanding of racial and gender issues.  Jesus crossed over racial and gender boundaries and shared the Good News of salvation with someone who had two strikes against her.  She was a Samaritan and a woman.  This woman would have been overlooked by the Jewish religious leaders.  But there is something even more important than racial and gender issues in this story… Jesus tells us the true meaning of his mission.  Jesus was born of a Virgin.  Jesus lived a sinless life.  Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons.  Why did Jesus do all this?  To provide us with the Living Water. 
A person can live without food, but no one can live without water.  Water is the source of life.  (When NASA sends robots and rovers to other planets to search for signs of life, they begin their search by searching for water.  If there is no water, then there can be no life as we know it on earth.)
Just as water is the source of our physical lives, Jesus is the source of our life with God.   Without Jesus, there can be no forgiveness of sin…Without forgiveness of sin, there can be no relationship with God…Without relationship with God, there can be no eternal life in Heaven…  God became a man and lived among us so that we might have forgiveness of sin, relationship with God and eternal life in Heaven.


The Least of These


Matthew 25: 31 – 46…31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 
41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 
44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 
45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." 

Jesus told this parable of the sheep and the goats to his disciples right before he sent them out on what we might call the Gentile mission.  Previously, Jesus had sent his disciples to the nation of Israel.  Now, Jesus is preparing them to go out and preach to the Gentiles…There was one important thing lacking…The mission to the Gentiles could not begin until after the crucifixion and Resurrection…Ultimately, this mission to the Gentiles is what we commonly refer to as the Great Commission…All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples of all nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you, and surely I am with you always even to the end of the age…
This mission to the Gentiles is a preaching mission…but it is much more than that.  It is also a mission to serve the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the prisoner.
When Christian people serve the physical needs of the world around us, we actually do three things.  First, we obey the teachings of Jesus…Second, we imitate the example Jesus set for us…Third, we make Jesus real to people who have never heard of Jesus before…In other words, we make Jesus Incarnate—in the flesh…
The Incarnation is more than a one-time event in history.  The Incarnation happens every day, when the world sees Jesus in the way we live our lives.


Conclusion


One of the most popular religious affiliations in the United States of America is the group of people who call themselves, “Spiritual but not Religious.”  Of course, Spiritual but not Religious means different things to different people.  For some people it is a rejection of every organized religion.  For other people it is a mixture of every organized religion.
“Spiritual but not Religious” is more popular in the United States than in other countries…and I believe this is for good reason.  “Spiritual but not Religious” fits the American mindset better than any other nation / culture / philosophy.  In the United States of America, people prefer spirituality over religion.
Spirituality is private; Religion is public.  Spirituality is individualistic; Religion is social / corporate—in Religion, you have to learn how to forgive and get along with other people.  Spirituality is personal (to the point of being relativistic and even customizable / what works for me might not work for you); Religion has been handed down for thousands of years / hundreds of generations…
If you are coming to church in order to be more spiritual, I have some bad news for you.  The church is not a very spiritual place…Because Christianity is not spiritual.  This is the way God intended.  Christianity is not spiritual, because Christianity is Incarnational. 
God doesn’t want you to be more spiritual.  God wants you to be Incarnational!  God doesn’t want our church to be more spiritual.  God wants us to be Incarnational!

Christianity has ALWAYS had a body.  Jesus has a body, and that body literally, physically and actually died on the cross.  As Christians, you and I have a body—and it matters what we do with our bodies.  And the church IS a body—the Body of Christ.  We are called to make Jesus real for people who have never heard of Jesus and never met Jesus.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark 15: 33 – 39


Introduction

Have you seen our church 's television commercials on Suddenlink Cable and KTRE?  So far, we have produced three commercials.  
The first commercial with “This Little Light of Mine” basically shows our church people going through our Sunday morning routines—Sunday School, worship and lots of smiles.  





The second commercial focuses on Wednesday nights and shows what happens on Wednesday nights—supper, choirs, Bible studies and lots of smiles.  







The third commercial is an invitation to Easter Sunday worship.







In the next couple of weeks, we are going to get you some printed invitations to give away to your friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, etc…  I want you to invite them to come to church with you on Easter Sunday.  In East Texas, most people will be planning on coming to church on Easter Sunday.  Even people who are not members of a church will try to find a church to attend on Easter.  The way I look at it…if they are looking for a place to go to church, it might as well be First Baptist Church!
We are going to get those invitations to you soon, because Easter Sunday is only three weeks away (that is four Sundays counting today—March 30, April 6, April 13, and April 20).
As we approach Easter Sunday, I have been preaching on Jesus’ words from the cross.  According to the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—Jesus spoke seven times while he was on the cross.  So far, we have read the first three of Jesus’ sayings from the cross.    “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing;” “Today you will be with me in Paradise;” “Woman, this is your son, and this is your mother;” and our Scripture this morning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”


Mark 15: 33 – 39… 33 At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ""Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? ""--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 
35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." 
36 One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said. 
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 
38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

I had lunch on Monday with a representative from one of our ministry partners.  This man traveled from Dallas and was trying to connect with several East Texas churches.  He wanted to come by the church and see our church before we went to lunch.  When he came in my office, I was studying for this sermon.  He asked a question: “How long do you typically study for your sermons?”  I answered that this was not a typical sermon and would not be a typical week of study.  This is a hard sermon about a hard Scripture.
Just think about the words we just read together…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  These are hard words to hear.  It would be hard to hear anyone speak these words.  But this is not just anyone speaking…These words were spoken by Jesus of Nazareth…Jesus the Christ…Jesus the Only Begotten Son of God.
This is one of those places where the Bible is brutally honest.  When we read the Bible, we are reading the true story of how God worked out his salvation plan in the world through the Nation of Israel and the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the ways we know this is a true story is the fact that the Bible never glosses over the difficult facts and details of the story.  Our heroes of faith don’t always look like heroes in the Bible.  And, we hear words from the mouth of Jesus the Son of God that don’t sound very Godlike.
One of the first rules of reading and interpreting the Bible is the rule of context.  We should not read a Bible verse or a biblical story out of context.  So, to help us interpret Jesus’ words from the cross, let’s read his words in context.  Specifically, I think we need to pay attention to three contexts: Theological Context, Narrative Context and Scriptural Context.

Theological Context

The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels.  This is one of the reasons why I chose to do my doctoral work on the Gospel of Mark!  There are only 16 chapters in Mark; the book can be read in one sitting (approximately one hour); and the story moves quickly.  One of Mark’s favorite expressions is, “And immediately…”  This is how Mark connects stories and events together.  For example, Jesus fed the five thousand and immediately Jesus made the disciples get in the boat to go to the other side of the Lake (Mark 6: 45). 
In other words, Jesus was constantly on the move in the Gospel of Mark.  And, since Jesus was constantly on the move, Mark didn’t spend a lot of time writing about unnecessary details.  AND, Mark certainly didn’t spend any time interpreting the events he recorded in his Gospel.  Mark told the story of Jesus and asked his readers to interpret and apply the story.
Therefore, we cannot look to the Gospel of Mark for any theological interpretation of the life, crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.  One of the best places to look for theological reflection and interpretation of the Gospel is the writings of the Apostle Paul.  One of Paul’s interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion is found in 2 Corinthians 5: 21…


2 Corinthians 5: 21…  21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul does not specifically mention Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God…”  But, this verse does help us to understand what Jesus was saying.
Paul’s words about Jesus are shocking…Jesus (who was sinless) actually became sin on the cross! 
Some of our English translations try to take the sting out of Paul’s word by saying that Jesus became “a sin offering.”  And that is a theologically true statement about the death of Jesus on the cross.  Jesus died as an offering for our sins…to atone for our sins…to wash away our sins…to take away our sins…so that we might be forgiven.  This is a theologically true statement, but it is NOT what Paul said about Jesus and his death on the cross.
Paul said that Jesus became sin.  In other words, all the sins of the world (past, present and future) were placed on Jesus.  And all the wrath and judgment those sins deserve were also placed on Jesus.  While Jesus was hanging on the cross, Jesus experienced the excruciating physical pain of crucifixion and he experienced the excruciating spiritual pain of wrath and judgment.
Theologically we can say that Jesus defeated death by experiencing death and coming back from the grave.  We can also say Jesus defeated sin by experiencing the full wrath of God’s judgment on the cross.  The One who had no sin actually became sin in order to take God’s judgment on himself…So that you and I do not have to experience God’s judgment!


Narrative Context

We also need to place Jesus’ words from the cross in the context of Mark’s narrative.  Specifically, Mark tells us two remarkable things that happened after Jesus cried out “my God, my God…”


Mark 15: 38 – 39…  38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" 

I believe Mark tells us about the curtain of the Jerusalem Temple to make a theological point about the crucifixion of Jesus.  Again, Mark does not waste any words in his Gospel, so it is no surprise that he does not interpret the significance for us.  Mark simply presents the facts of the story and allows us to interpret and apply for ourselves. 
I think we need to pay special attention to Mark’s detail that the curtain was torn “from top to bottom.”  According to Josephus, there was a curtain in the Jerusalem Temple separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple.  That curtain was 80 feet tall.  No one could reach the top of that curtain without some kind of assistance.  If the curtain was torn “from top to bottom,” then we can safely say that Mark saw this as an act of God.  When Jesus died on the cross, God tore the curtain.
What is the significance of the torn curtain?  According to Jewish Theology, the Holy of Holies was the place where the presence of God dwelt.  No one was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies on a regular basis.  In fact, only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and he was only allowed to enter one time a year—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
When God tore down the curtain dividing the Holy of Holies, God tore down the dividing wall between God and humanity.  Because Jesus died on the cross, humanity now has direct access to God.  There is no need for a priest.  There is no need to wait until the Day of Atonement.  Jesus gives us access to God.
There is a second interpretation that I have never actually thought of before this week.  According to Jewish theology, the presence of God was confined to the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple.  It’s as if that 80 foot curtain was holding God back from the rest of the world.  When God tore the curtain, the presence of God was set loose on the world!
On one hand, this demonstrates that God can be experienced anywhere and everywhere.  We do not need a Temple or a priest to experience God.  Jesus makes God available and accessible to all.
On the other hand, this demonstrates that the presence of God has left the Jerusalem Temple!  Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  But, Jesus is not the one who has been forsaken / abandoned by the presence of God. God has left the Jewish Temple.  God has forsaken the Jewish way of religion and access to God.
One of the ways we know Mark wants us to see the presence of God leaving the Jewish Temple is the fact that the first person to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God is the Roman Centurion.  Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, the presence of God has left the Temple, and Gentile sinners can be saved.


Scriptural Context

A third way to interpret Jesus words is to look at how they fit into the rest of Scripture.  In this case, I think it is obvious that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22.


Psalm 22: 1 – 2 …  1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. 

When Jesus quoted the first line of Psalm 22, he was basically using that first line as a title.  When the Bible was first written—including the Psalms—there were no chapters and verses.  In fact, the Psalms existed as independent writings without chapters and verses until they were eventually organized into the Book of Psalms as we know it today.  To make reference to a specific Psalm, Jesus could not say “Psalm 22” as we do.  It didn’t have a number!  Instead, Jesus would say, “The Psalm that begins with ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
If we read Psalm 22 while thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus, we will discover two remarkable things.  First, notice how the words of the Psalmist were fulfilled in the crucifixion of Jesus.  Second, notice how Psalm 22 begins with a cry of abandonment but ends in a shout of victory over enemies and praise to God, who never leaves us or forsakes us.


Psalm 22: 7 – 8 …  7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: 8"He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." 

These words are almost exactly the same as the words spoken by the thief on the cross and the crowds gathered at the foot of the cross (Luke 23: 35 – 39).


Psalm 22: 14 – 18 …  14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. 17 I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. 

We can compare these words to what we read about the crucifixion in the Gospel of John.  John describes the way the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ clothes and that Jesus cried out in thirst.  And, all of the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced when the Romans nailed him to the cross.


Psalm 22: 22 – 24 …  22 I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 

Psalm 22 begins with a confession of abandonment…Gives a prophecy of the way Jesus would be crucified…Then it ends with a triumphant note / victory…
Some people say we are not supposed to read the entire Psalm.  We are only to focus on the words Jesus quoted from the cross.  We are not supposed to think of the triumph and the victory at the end of the Psalm.  We are only supposed to think of the abandonment at the beginning of the Psalm.
I disagree for two reasons.  The fact that the middle section of Psalm 22 is obviously a reference to / prophecy about the crucifixion tells me we are supposed to read the entire Psalm.  I think Jesus wanted us to understand his crucifixion in the context of Psalm 22.  It begins with abandonment but ends in victory. 
Second, a person who died by crucifixion usually died by asphyxiation.  The weight of their body cut off their ability to breathe.  Jesus didn’t have enough breath to quote the entire Psalm.  He quoted the first line of the Psalm to remind us of the entire Psalm.


Conclusion

Jesus’ words on the cross demonstrate the importance of reading, knowing and memorizing Scripture.  The Scriptures encourage us to be brutally honest with God.  When all of Jesus physical / human resources were depleted, he turned to the Word of God.  Where will you turn?

What sounded like a cry of abandonment was actually a confession of God’s sustaining presence.  When we feel abandoned, God is still there.  In fact, the cross of Christ teaches us that God is present in suffering.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Woman, Here Is Your Son. Here Is Your Mother.

“Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.”


John 19: 25 – 27.


Introduction

We are all familiar with the expression: “He is so heavenly-minded, he is no earthly good.”  The expression refers to the person who is so religious and so focused on Heaven that he has lost sight of the everyday and the practical.  This is the person who encounters a hungry person and offers them the Gospel of Christ and a four-step plan to have eternal life.  Perhaps that hungry person does need to hear the Gospel and become a Christian.  But, he also needs a sandwich.
When we encounter Jesus in the New Testament, we encounter the Son of God who continued to remind his followers that he must always do his Father’s will.  Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God—the Just and Righteous reign of God in the lives of Christian men and women.  Jesus taught us that he was going to his Father’s House to prepare a place for us and would return to take us to be with Jesus.  It is certainly true to say Jesus was very heavenly-minded.  But, we cannot say Jesus was “no earthly good.”
In the life of Jesus we see a wonderful blend of heavenly-mindedness and earthly good.  Jesus preached about the coming Kingdom of God and broke the earthly reign of Satan by healing the sick and casting out demons.  Jesus told us about eternal life and fed people who might starve to death.  In fact, we see this same blend of heavenly-mindedness and earthly good in the words Jesus spoke on the cross.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus willingly died on the cross to offer us forgiveness of sin.  Forgiveness of sin is what makes eternal life possible for anyone who has faith in Jesus.  We believe that Jesus—who had no sin—became sin on the cross.  Therefore, we believe the cross of Christ was a spiritual battleground.  Jesus experienced excruciating physical pain on the cross as well as excruciating spiritual pain—after all Jesus was defeating sin, death and Satan on the cross.
Despite this spiritual battle taking place on the cross, Jesus was not so heavenly-minded that he was no earthly good.  Actually, Jesus paid attention to the people gathered around the cross and took note of specific human needs.  First, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”  Second, Jesus responded to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And, third, Jesus noticed his own mother and responded to her needs.


John 19: 25 – 27…25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," 27 and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be Jesus’ mother?  All of Jesus’ life, Mary had known something the rest of the world had not yet learned.  Mary had received word from the Angel Gabriel that her child was the Son of God.  Of course, Mary didn’t need an angel to tell her this child was special.  After all, Mary knew where babies came from and also knew that nothing like that had ever happened.
I think it is fair to say that Mary was the first person to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Promised Messiah.  Mary was there to witness Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth.  Mary was aware of Jesus’ growing reputation as a miracle worker and one who taught with authority.  And, now Mary is there to witness Jesus’ suffering and death.  Mary was the only person who was with Jesus at both the beginning and the end—present for both his birth and his death.
But, we need to be careful when we talk about Mary.  On one hand, Mary is an incredible example of faith and obedience.  The angel called, and Mary responded with obedience.  On the other hand, Mary is an example of an ordinary person.  The Bible never says anything about Mary that might lead us to worship Mary or to hold her up as someone different from us.  Instead, I believe the Bible describes Mary as ordinary and holds her up as an example for any of us to follow.
A case in point is the brief little story we read this morning.  The traditional Catholic reading of this Scripture focuses on two people gathered at the foot of the cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, son of Zebedee and the disciple Jesus loved.  In the Catholic interpretation, John is the representative disciple.  He represents not only the original twelve disciples of Jesus, but also represents every Christian who follows—including you and me today.  Therefore, when Jesus said, “Woman, your son…son, your mother…” Jesus was placing John under the motherly authority of Mary.  Since John is representative of all Christians, Jesus was actually placing all Christians and future generations of the church under the motherly authority of Mary.
But is that truly what Jesus did when he addressed Mary and John?  Did Jesus place John under the authority of Mary?  Or, was there something else at work here?
I believe Jesus said what he said to Mary and John in order to fulfill the Ten Commandments!  According to the Fifth Commandment, God commands us to “Honor our father and our mother.”  As long as we are children who live under the care and protection of our parents, this verse instructs us to obey and respect our parents.  However, the Jews did not believe this commandment expired when a child turned 18 and graduated from high school.  In fact, they believed an adult child was to continue honoring his parents by providing for them as they entered into old age. 
The responsibility to care for aging parents was the responsibility of the first born son.  Since we know that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, we can safely say that Jesus was her firstborn son.  Therefore, Jesus had the responsibility to care for his mother as she entered into old age. 
Jesus was not placing John under the motherly authority of Mary—and Jesus was certainly NOT placing all future generations of Christians under the motherly authority of Mary.  Jesus was actually fulfilling his responsibility as the firstborn son.  He was providing for Mary right here and now.  Mary already believed that Jesus was the Son of God and the Promised Messiah.  Therefore, her future in Heaven was secure.  But, Jesus wasn’t worried about her future in Heaven.  Jesus was worried about her future on earth.  She needed someone to take care of her physical needs right here and now.
Practically speaking, Jesus’ words from the cross to Mary and John teach us two very important truths about the Christian faith.
First, Christians ought to follow the Fifth Commandment to honor our fathers and our mothers.  If you are a child living at home, then you are still under the authority of your parents.  Children are to obey parents and respect.  If you have moved out of your parents’ home, it is still important to honor your parents.  Make sure that your parents are taken care of and that they are able to live with dignity and respect.
Second, Christianity ought to be concerned with both the spiritual and the physical needs of the world around us.  In life, Jesus addressed both spiritual needs and physical needs.  He preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God while also taking care of the poor, healing the sick and feeding the hungry.  In death, Jesus never lost sight of physical needs.  At a time when Jesus could have focused only on the spiritual battle raging around him, Jesus took note of his own mother and her physical needs.

Of course, there is a very interesting question that comes up when we read Jesus’ words to Mary and John.  Jesus was the firstborn son who had the responsibility to provide for his mother.  Since Jesus was about to die on the cross, Jesus needed to find a way to provide for her after his death.  Under normal circumstances, the second born son would take over the responsibility for his deceased brother.  According to the Gospels, Jesus had four brothers: Joseph, James, Simon and Judas (Jude).  John was not one of Jesus’ brothers.  Why did Jesus entrust Mary into John’s care and not to Joseph, James, Simon or Jude?
I believe there are two good answers to this question.  Both of these are good answers, but the second answer is much better than the first…
First, Jesus entrusted Mary into John’s care, because John was present.  Crucifixion was the most humiliating and shameful way to die in the ancient world.  It was shameful for both the convicted criminal and for his family.  Mary was willing to face the shame and stand at the foot of the cross to support and comfort her son.  Joseph, James, Simon and Jude were not!  They hid in shame.  Jesus’ death on the cross was an embarrassment to the family.
Yet, John was there at the cross.  Because John was present, Jesus could use John…
There’s a lesson in this for us.  Jesus uses people who are present.  Jesus uses people who show up.  Jesus can use ANYONE WHO SHOWS UP.  What are some of the places where you and I need to show up?  Obviously, we need to show up at church.  But, there are others…The bedside of a friend who is sick or dying…Alongside a friend who is facing the most difficult challenge they have ever faced…The home of someone who is grieving…The life of a person who is questioning faith or searching for spiritual answers…Sometimes showing up is the hardest part…And Jesus can use ANYONE who shows up…

Second, Jesus entrusted Mary into John’s care, because of something we read about in John 7…

John 7: 1 – 5…  1 After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. 2 But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him. 

Jesus asked John to take care of his mother, because John believed.  At this moment in time, Joseph, James, Simon and Jude did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God and the Promised Messiah.  Mary believed.  John believed.  Therefore, Jesus placed Mary in John’s care.
Think about what just happened!  Jesus took a man who believed and a woman who believed and put them together.  This man and woman were not related to each other biologically, but Jesus bound them together as mother and son.  Jesus created a new family.  Jesus created a family of faith.  Jesus created a church!
The church is a family.  Through faith in Jesus, we become adopted as sons and daughters of God.  Through faith in Jesus, we become brothers and sisters.  Through faith in Jesus, we experience a bond that is stronger than the biological bonds of family.  Jesus described this bond of faith in an encounter with his biological family in the Gospel of Mark. 


Mark 3: 31 – 35…  31 Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." 
33 "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. 
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."


Conclusion


Church is like family, because both church and family can both be described as “A Place of Grace.”
Grace is the way we enter the church.  And Grace is the way we enter the family.  Some people are born into their families.  Some people are adopted into their families. But, either way…birth or adoption…you entered your family by Grace.  You did not choose to be born into your family.  You did not choose to be adopted.  You entered by the Grace of God.  In both church and family, we are brought together by Grace. 
Grace is also the way we continue to live as a part of church and family.  We do not deserve to be loved and accepted at home or at church.  We are loved as an act of Grace.  In both church and family, we are held together by Grace.


On one of our family trips last year (either Branson, Missouri or Estes Park, Colorado), I saw a sign in a souvenir shop with the following description of home:  “Home is the place where no matter what you have done; they have to take you in.”
When I first read that, I thought…That didn’t end exactly the way I expected it to end…I expected it to say, “…no matter what you have done, they WANT to take you in…”
It might just be more accurate to say “…they HAVE to take you in…”  No matter what you have done, they HAVE to take you in at home…even if they don’t really want to take you in.  And church is like that as well.
At church, we are brought together by Grace and held together by Grace.  And, God puts us together so that we might meet the needs of others and have our needs met by others…Both spiritual needs and physical needs.