Q&A

Q&A

I’m spending this week at the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Youth Camp, in Fruitland Park, Florida, as the Senior High pastor.  I didn’t attend this camp as a camper.  But, I’ve been coming to this camp as an adult volunteer (primarily as the Senior High pastor) for one week each summer, almost annually, for the last 27 years.

Some years, the pastors lead a Q&A time with the campers, answering questions they have written down during their small group time.  This is my favorite time of the week!  Each year, I’m asked if I want to read over the questions ahead of time, which I always refuse.  I don’t want to present prepared responses.  I told the youth today that I wanted them to imagine meeting me at the local Starbucks, sipping iced frappuccinos together, and chatting about life and faith.

As always, the youth asked substantive, meaningful, challenging questions.  But, two themes emerged from the today’s questions that troubled me.  They were in essence…

  • Questions about being a “good” Christian.
  • Questions about going to heaven.

I suspect that there’s some overlap in these questions.

To be honest, I don’t think I even know what a “good” Christian is.  Yes, there are “good” things for Christians to do – Bible study, prayer, worship, service, etc.  But, I don’t think those things necessarily make someone a “good” Christian.  I can sincerely desire goodness – and I do.  But, I can honestly say that if there is anything good about me, Jesus gets the credit.

I think they were really asking, “What is expected of me?” and “What about when I’m not ‘good’?”

They also seemed to want to know the minimal requirements for getting into heaven.  And, what can keep you out.

The truth is, I hear lots of Christians talk this way.  And, I don’t really get it.

I shared with the campers that I think being a Christian is kind of like marriage.  I love my wife. I have a relationship with my wife that is really important to me.  I want to be a good husband for my wife.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I’m not.  I’m pretty sure I’m a better husband today than I was when we married 27 years ago.  But, I’m still not as “good” as my wife deserves.  Hopefully, in another 27 years, I’ll be better at being a “good” husband than I am now.  I really do hope so.

The point of the Christianity is NOT about a spiritual score card or the minimal requirements for getting into heaven.  The point of Christianity IS about a relationship with Jesus.  Everything about being a Christian is about entering into that relationship and growing in that relationship.

One question, today, was “How often should good Christians pray?”  My response was, “How often should I talk to my wife to be a good husband?”  If I ask my wife what the minimal requirements are for checking in and conversing with her, I’ve kind of missed the point of marriage.  Because she is my wife (and my best friend), I want to spend time with her.  I want to talk to her.  I want to listen to her.  I think that’s what prayer is supposed to be too.

Frankly, even as a full-time professional pastor, I’m not sure that I’m a very “good” Christian, if that means fulfilling certain Christian duties and obligations.  But, I do sincerely love Jesus and I do really enjoying spending time with him, which leads me to worship, and pray, and serve, etc.  And, I’m pretty confident that our relationship is eternal.

I hope that’s enough.  I’m pretty sure it is.

A Strange Saturday…

A Strange Saturday…

I woke up this morning, feeling relieved.  It has been a busy, hectic Holy Week.  My church had three different services – one on Maundy Thursday, and two on Good Friday – each requiring a different sermon.  Beyond the sermons, there were also numerous other details of the worship services to prepare.  And, of course, just because it is Holy Week doesn’t mean that there aren’t still all of the other pastoral tasks, duties and responsibilities of every other week of the year.

So, this morning, I did not set an alarm.  I slept in – a little.  I took my time, drinking my coffee, chatting with my wife, and easing into this Holy Saturday.

I felt relieved that a crazy week was over.

I finally got moving, later than I should have, and immediately felt anxiety about tomorrow – Easter Sunday.  I needed to go to church to make sure the sanctuary is ready.  I started fretting about details like my clothes, my vestments, and even what I will eat before the sunrise service.  And, there’s that little detail of a sermon that I haven’t had time to think about.

Relief and stress, intermingled.  Strange.

At church, we had an “Easterfest” for the young families with children, including Easter egg hunts and bounce houses.  It was great to see the fun and excitement.  But, also strange.  Is it ok to celebrate Easter while Jesus is still, symbolically, in the grave?

Liturgically, that’s what today represents.  This is Holy Saturday, the day Jesus lay in his tomb – dead.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Holy Saturday.  We know it was the Jewish Sabbath, so no work was allowed.  Matthew says that the religious leaders requested that Roman guards be placed at Jesus’ tomb, for fear of Jesus’ followers stealing his body and claiming that he had risen from the dead.

And, there was that – Jesus, dead, in his tomb.

We assume that Jesus’ followers were mostly in hiding that Saturday.  Surely, they were in the deepest mourning anyone can imagine.  But, I also wonder if there was some sense of relief that the ordeal of Thursday night and Friday were over.  I know that sounds terribly morbid.  But, watching him tortured and suffering, and destined to die, had to be worse than knowing at least his terrible trial was over.

And, because it was the Sabbath, there was no pressure to “DO” anything.  I wonder if they all just collapsed from the emotional exhaustion of all they had just been through.

Then again, I also wonder if they also were fearful, worried, stressed?  The Jewish and Roman guards might be hunting for them.  And, now, what were they supposed to do?  Go home?  Go back to their old lives?

I have to imagine the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday was a strange day.  Relief and stress, co-mingled.  Today feels strange to me, and I know how the story ends!

Now, I still need to write that sermon.

 

“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

Revelation 20 says that there are books in heaven that contain the records of everything that every human has ever said or done.  Imagine that.  A book that contains every sin you have ever committed.  Every evil thought.  Every unkind word.  Every selfishness.  Every disobedience.  Every unfaithfulness.  Every missed opportunity to serve and share in Jesus name.  Every prideful moment.  Every sin in our lives, recorded in detail.

How many books would it take it to record the sinfulness of a single life?  Your life?  My life?

How many books would it take to record the misdeeds of every human who has ever lived?

How many volumes would be required to record the endless list of human atrocities throughout the centuries?

Page upon page, chapter upon chapter, book upon book, stacks upon stacks upon stacks upon stacks – written records of my sins and yours, alongside the sins of humanity’s best and worse – all of the Hitlers and all of the Mother Theresas.  All have sinned.

“All have sinned and fall short of the God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23)

            “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”  (I John 1:8-10)

Scriptures say that Jesus was crucified on top of a skull-shaped hill called Golgotha.  Imagine Golgotha as a giant mountain, but instead of stones, it is was an enormous pile of the books recording the sins of the world – books stacked upon books stacked upon books – with a cross on the top, and crucified savior hanging there, dying for the sins of the world, recorded at his feet.

Imagine your book, containing the record of your sin, laying at the foot of the cross.

Colossians 2:13-14 says, “You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.”

            Of course, no one was thinking any of that the day Jesus died.  All they could see was a man dying…

  • To some, a heretic.
  • To some, a criminal.
  • To some, an enemy of the state.
  • To some, a pathetic joke.
  • To some, a friend, rabbi, and leader.
  • To some, lost hope.
  • To one, a son.

For centuries, God’s people had believed, and hoped, and prayed, and waited and waited and waited for God to send a Messiah, who would deliver them from all of their troubles.  Of course, they, like us, had mostly a worldly perspective.  This is where their problems were.  This is where they needed a savior – so, they thought – to deal with these material, worldly problems, here.

Many believed that Jesus was that man.  Some – the disciples, and others – had left home, and career, and family to follow him.  They trusted him.  They had put all of their hope in him.  They believed God was going to do something big through him.  God was, of course.  They just didn’t know what it was.  The scope of their hopes in this Jesus were just too small.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of their hopes and dreams seemed to be confirmed.  Jesus publically announced that he was the Messiah, the King of the Jews.  The crowds welcomed him as their new king.  Everything was coming together, just as they had hoped and believed it would.

Imagine their confusion in the upper room as Jesus talked about his death.  Imagine their dismay as Jesus was arrested.  Imagine their devastation as Jesus was condemned and crucified.  Imagine their fear as they hid in the shadows.  Imagine their grief when they heard Jesus was dead – not just grief for the death of their friend and leader.  Imagine the grief for the loss of all of their hopes and dreams – for themselves, and for their nation. Now, seemingly lost forever.

What would they do now?

If the Messiah could be defeated, now what?

Or, if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, who was he?

Jesus, of course had always been clear that his life would come to a violent, sacrificial end.  But, the disciples never seemed to understand…

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin John pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  Lambs, we know, are sacrificed.

            From the beginning Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.  Why didn’t they understand that Jesus was speaking literally?

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”   

The disciples never seemed to grasp any of it.  When Jesus died, it seems like it was the last thing they could have possibly expected.  They had no idea that he was accomplishing something far greater than anything they could image, hope, or dream.  This was bigger than a single moment in history, or a single nation.  Jesus was carrying upon his shoulders the weight of the sin and brokenness of the entire history of the world – every single act of hatred, selfishness, apathy, pride, prejudice, violence, greed, etc. – since Adam and Eve, to this very moment.

All they could see, on that first Good Friday was a defeated man – and the end of their hopes.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “If we care to know how deep the suffering of Christ goes – and how vast and even violent is the restoration process through Christ’s suffering – then we had better start with knowing the dark, cruel reality of the fallen world.  If we care to embrace hope despite what encompasses us, the impossibility of life and the inevitability of death, then we must embrace a vision that will endure beyond our failures…  The stench of death all around us will remind us that it is despite ourselves that grace and restoration can take place.” 

Undeniably, Jesus died a cruel death at the hands of evil people.  But, look closer.  There, at the cross, was the world’s greatest horrors – all of the wars, all of the acts of terror, all of the crimes, all of the famines, all of the disasters, all of the diseases, all of the genocides, all of the betrayals, all of the brokenness, all of the senseless and meaningless suffering and deaths, all of the greed and corruption, all of the loss of innocence, all of the victimization and subjugation and enslavement of peoples, all of prejudices and injustices, all of the displacement of innocent peoples, all of the addiction, all of the ruthless dictators and corrupt governments – ISIS, Heroshima and Nagasaki, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ponsey schemes, the porn industry, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Chernobyl, 9/11, organized crime, the Holocaust, the Crusades, Allepo – all of it.

There, at the base of the cross, imagine mounds of swords and spears no one has ever bothered to beat into plowshares; tanker trucks filled with toxic waste; stockpiles of banned chemical weapons; the cargo of druglords; the Mother of All Bombs; crates of last year’s fashions, that are “so last year”; truckloads of porn; tonnage of the chains and shackles of the enslaved; stacks and stacks of false testimonies; piles of cash wasted on frivolities that could have been used to help the poor.  Picture the mount of Golgotha surrounded by billboards displaying for the world your deepest and darkest secrets and fantasies.

And, all of your sin and brokenness.  And, all of mine.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Our own acts of terrorism toward God drove Jesus to the cross.  Jesus’ slain body absorbed our anger and defiance, but more important, it absorbed God’s just anger toward us.  In that moment, all that was fair and beautiful in Christ became the hideous stench of a dying beast.  Beauty was literally pulverized, destroyed, and the Eternal experienced the decay of death.”

As horrific as the scene must have been for those watching it, it was far worse than anyone could have imagined.  Jesus wasn’t only dying an unfair, excruciating form of death.  He was bearing horrors too great to imagine.  And…  And…  In his very own flesh a work of restoration for the very worst of humanity – including yours and mine – had begun.

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

            Romans 5:17-19 says, “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.  Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.”

Calvary was not just a place of crucifixion – it was the birth place of your transformation and mine.  Calvary is the fertile soil where God planted a seed of transformation.  Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  (John 12:24)

            Long before I knew what Good Friday meant, I worked, during my High School years, at a farm supply, feed and seed store.  According to the old Farmer’s Almanac, Good Friday is the best day to plant your Spring garden.  Holy Week was our busiest week of the year.  Long before I knew anything about Jesus and the cross, I knew that Good Friday is a day for planting seeds, and waiting for something new to be produced.

Yes, there is a record of your sin.  It laid there among the rubble of Calvary, keeping Jesus’ cross firmly in place.  But, it has been completely covered in the precious blood of Christ, as it flowed down from his cross, fertilizing the ground of the new creation.  Whatever you have done, and whatever has been done you; whatever you have broken, and whatever has been broken in you; whatever disasters you have caused, or have endured; all of your shortcomings; all of your selfishness; all of your sin; all of it; all of it was there on Calvary; and, all of it, every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every page, every chapter, and every book has been completely covered in the sacrificial blood of Jesus.

No matter how good, how special, how holy you think you are, before Jesus died on the cross, all of us would have been devastated to see the record of our sins.  But, now, when the books are opened, the record of your sin, and mine, has been completely erased – washed whiter than snow.  All that once was recorded in our books, has planted in the soil of Calvary, waiting to blossom into something new.

 

“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

Undeniably, the ordeal Jesus endured was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long night without sleep – full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged from the Temple to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; abuse and mockery at the hands of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds who shouted, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, that likely nearly killed him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; and then a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders that had already been flayed open by the soldier’s whip.  All of that before he was even nailed to the cross.

When they got to Golgotha, long nails were driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, affixing him to the cross, and then his cross was raised to vertical, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he would suffer unspeakable agony, as life was slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung upon his cross, his disciples had abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As we have heard, we know he thirst.

As darkness covered the land, we know that he may have wondered if even God had abandoned him.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to have been at peace and in control.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            Fred Craddock writes, “There is nothing here of anger or doubt or thrashing about in the throes of death.  Rather, Luke writes of serenity, acceptance, and trust.”

John Stott writes, “It is not men who finished their brutal deed; it is he who has accomplished what he came into the world to do.  He has procured salvation for us, and made available the chief covenant blessing, the forgiveness of sins.  At once the curtain of the temple, which for centuries had symbolized the alienation of sinners from God, was torn in two from top to bottom, in order to demonstrate that the sin-barrier had been thrown down by god, and the way into his presence was open.”

As Jesus died, it is abundantly clear that he was in control.  While he was clearly the casualty of terrible human cruelty, Jesus was no victim.  He was on the cross because he had chosen to give his life for us, sacrificially.  He was satisfied that he had accomplished what he came to do.

It would seem that Jesus had always known that his life would end this way.

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

            From the beginning, Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with the corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” 

            Even as he prayed the night before his death, in the Garden of Gethsemane -throwing himself to the ground, sweating drops of blood in distress, and pleading for God to “let this cup pass” – we see Jesus calmly leaving the Garden and handing himself over to the Temple guards, trusting that in God’s will to be done.

Again, John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

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

The Message version says, “Father, I place my life in your hands!”

            Isn’t that what we are called to do?  To place the totality of our lives in the hands of God, just as Jesus did?

            Scripture says that Jesus said these words “into your hands I commit my spirit,” in a “loud voice.”  They weren’t an embarrassed whisper, or a pathetic whimper.  They weren’t mumbled in weakness.  In his strongest voice, Jesus loudly projected, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; words spoken in strength and confidence in the one who was about to receive his Spirit.  Even has his physical strength came to its end, his strength of faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, he knew, HE KNEW he could trust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, in the faithful hands of his heavenly father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Over and over in the Old Testament, the phrase, “into your hands,” refers to when God put the destiny of foreign rulers and armies – enemies – into the hands of Israel’s leaders.  In other words, God gave them control over their enemy’s destinies and their lives.  But, in this case, placing his spirit in God’s hands was nothing to fear.

It would seem that as Jesus knew death was near, Psalm 31 came to mind…

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Jesus spoke those words, and then breathed his last breath.

There’s something profound in this statement.  “He breathed his last.”  The word for breath, in Greek, is the same word for “spirit.”  The word is “pneuma.”  Its Hebrew counterpart is “ruach.”  When God created the first human, from the dust of the ground, God breathed his breath, his ruach, his spirit, into the human to give it life.  The life within every human being, including Jesus, is the life-giving Spirit of God.

Let’s take that even further.  Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, by the same Holy Spirit.  At Jesus baptism, he was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Early in his ministry, at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

            Though we all have the gift of the spirit in us, Jesus uniquely knew what it means to be alive in the spirit.  For thirty-three years, he lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in complete trust in his heavenly Father.  And, now, now that his work was done, as his human life was ebbing, he knew that he could safely return his spirit to his Father.

And he breathed his last.

It occurred to me, this week, that most images of Jesus on the cross, show him with his head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the vast majority of the time that Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold his head up.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

            Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.